By: Kevin Estela
Big knives were once carried by real men in this country. Of course, this was when the United States was expanding its footprint towards the left coast and six-shooters, double barrel shotguns, and lever-actions helped tame the west—lever-actions, we remind you, without the ridiculous MLOK rails and tactical lights. Cowboy culture required daily carry of a fixed blade for everything from self-defense to true fieldcraft and the lure of that culture made its way to the highest office of the land during Theodore Roosevelt’s presidency. Teddy had knives for both show and for function and often posed with his fancier pieces like his famous buckskin photo. The “Rough Rider” even had a bowie knife with a silver handle from Tiffany & Co. that he was always quick to show off. Truth be told, many presidents carried, owned, and collected knives -Reagan owned a Randall fighting knife while Nixon, Ford and Clinton all owned Jimmy Lile’s Rambo knives while in the Oval Office.
Longing for the days of yesteryear, I wanted to revisit the big blade and test it in the wilderness. How big? Well, I wanted to measure the blade beyond single digits and hit double. I reached out to my friend Peter who owns Fallkniven, the manufacturer of some of the finest bushcraft and survival knives to come out of Sweden, and he was kind enough to send me one of his Modern Bowie knives that features a 10” blade. This big blade would accompany me throughout the duration of this evaluation to determine the extent of its utility.
The first thing you notice with a large bowie knife in hand is the sheer size. The blade is about 2.5 times the length of most belt knives. These knives are more like small machetes or short broad swords and have greater chopping ability than a compact blade. Despite the size, there are ways it can be used like a smaller knife. With a generous wrist lanyard, you can pass your hand and forearm through the lanyard loop and pinch the spine of the knife. This pinch grip allows you to use the belly of the blade like a smaller knife and the weight of the blade is supported by the paracord lanyard around your arm. The 10” blade can also be used like a draw knife with a forked stick holding the handle in one hand and hooking the spine of the blade in the other. With gloves, you can also carefully grab the spine of the blade and use it like a draw knife in this fashion too. A longer cutting edge, in theory, should slice longer without getting dull since there is more cutting edge to pull through what is being cut. Another benefit of having a big blade is knowing what parts are used for specific purposes. The sharpest part of your blade is likely the section just forward of the ricasso/guard. This can be used for fine carving if you choke up your grip. Just behind the belly of the blade is the sweet spot that is used for chopping with either a swift wrist snap or the swing of your arm. A bowie can do it all.
The only tool that chops like an ax is an ax. The bowie slices like a knife but with the right technique, it can chop. It isn’t an exact science but saplings and branches thinner than the width of the blade are easily taken down with a single chop. Using the bowie like a froe, it can baton through wood easily too. The 10” blade on the knife gives the user plenty of blade to impact with a wooden baton when the knife is stuck deep in a round of wood. Since the thickness of the blade serves as a wedge, the edge of the knife isn’t damaged in this technique as long as the edge doesn’t drive through to the dirt. With plenty of blade length on either side of the log you’re splitting, it is easy to keep the knife horizontal to the ground as you pound it through. This prevents accidental breakage. You can use your big blade with that baton to make a wide variety of camp tools and fixtures like pot holders and cooking spits.
There are times when having a long blade makes clearing vegetation easy. 10” of blade puts enough distance between your knuckles and what you’re swiping at to prevent injury. You can easily gather enough evergreen boughs for a shelter with a good long blade. You can also “sweep” the ground in front of you to create a firing lane if you’re shooting from the prone. If you have to clear a thicker branch or tree, you don’t need to put down one tool and grab another as the big knife will do it all. All around, the bowie is far more versatile than an ax.
It would be a disservice to only speak of the positive aspects of big knives like the bowie. There are some factors you cannot negotiate with such as the added weight from the additional steel and the added dimensions that could make carrying one less convenient than a small knife. Also, larger knives may have more material cost which likely is passed onto the buyer which might make a smaller blade and a cheaper chopping tool a better cutting duo than having a single tool. It is easy to impulse buy something that looks like the solution to your problems but you must consider the reality of the second and third order effects once you get it in your hands. You’ll have to carry that extra weight and length—but if you need it, you’ll be glad you have it. Big knives aren’t for everyone but for those who understand the capability of the tool and choose to carry one, they join the ranks of the adventurous souls who tamed the west and lived a life of rugged self-reliance in the wilderness of America.