My book Bowie Knife Fights, Fighters, and Fighting Techniques is available from Paladin Press. This blog contains additional information about the bowie knife, as well as the fighting knives of other nations.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Death by Assegai, 1879

Death of the Prince impérial during the Anglo-Zulu War, by Paul Jamin.

Throughout the 19th century, British troops in Africa regularly met their ends on the blades of the assegais of Zulu warriors. In one of the most noteworthy incidents, the Prince Imperial, only son of Napoleon III, was stabbed to death while serving a tour with the British military.

Here is how is demise is described at Wikipedia:
The Prince took part in several reconnaissance missions, though his eagerness for action almost led him into an early ambush, when he exceeded orders in a party led by Colonel Redvers Buller. Despite this on the evening of May 31, 1879, Harrison agreed to allow Louis to scout in a forward party scheduled to leave in the morning, in the mistaken belief that the path ahead was free of Zulu skirmishers.

On the morning of June 1, the troop set out, earlier than intended, and without the full escort, largely owing to Louis's impatience. Led by Carey, the scouts rode deeper into Zululand. Without Harrison or Buller present to restrain him, the Prince took command from Carey, even though the latter had seniority. At noon the troop was halted at a temporarily deserted kraal while Louis and Carey made some sketches of the terrain, and used part of the thatch to make a fire. No lookout was posted. As they were preparing to leave, about 40 Zulus fired upon them and rushed toward them screaming. The Prince's horse dashed off before he could mount, the Prince clinging to a holster on the saddle - after about a hundred yards a strap broke, and the Prince fell beneath his horse and his right arm was trampled. He leapt up, drawing his revolver with his left hand, and started to run - but the Zulus could run faster.

The Prince was speared in the thigh but pulled the assegai from his wound. As he turned and fired on his pursuers, another assegai struck his left shoulder. The Prince tried to fight on, using the assegai he had pulled from his leg, but, weakened by his wounds, he sank to the ground and was overwhelmed; when recovered, his body had eighteen assegai wounds and stabbed through the right eye which had burst it, and penetrated his brain. Two of his escort had been killed and another was missing. Lt. Carey and the four men remaining came together about fifty yards from where the Prince made his final stand—but not a single shot did they fire at the Zulus. Carey led his men back to camp, where he was greeted warmly for the last time in his career: after a court of inquiry, a court martial, intervention by the Empress Eugenie and Queen Victoria, he was to return to his regiment a pariah, shunned by his fellow officers for not standing and fighting. Carey endured several years of social and regimental opprobrium before his death in Karachi, India, on February 22, 1883.

Louis Napoleon's death caused an international sensation, and in one slanderous account Queen Victoria was accused of deliberately arranging the whole thing. The Zulus later claimed that they would not have killed him if they had known who he was. Zabanga, his chief assailant, met his death in July at the Battle of Ulundi. Eugénie was later to make a pilgrimage to Sobuza's kraal, where her son died. The Prince, who had begged to be allowed to go to war (taking the sword carried by the first Napoleon at Austerlitz with him) and who had worried his commanders by his dash and daring, was described by Wolseley as "a plucky young man, and he died a soldier's death. What on earth could he have done better?"

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Assegai: Blade of the African Warrior

Different cultures are associated with particular bladed weapons: American frontiersmen with bowie knives, Gurkhas with kukris, Scots with dirks, Filipinos with bolos, etc. The bladed weapon most associated with the tribes of southern Africa would not be a knife or dagger, but an assegai, or spear. The assegai often served the purpose of a knife, being used not only in fighting but in dressing game, carving wooden implements, and even shaving the scalp.

The following article from The Uncivilized Races of Men in All Countries of the World (1882), by John George Wood, has a great wealth of detail on the making and use of the assegai, or assagai in an alternate spelling. Wood discusses the weapon in his chapter on the Kaffirs, as he refers to the Zulu. (NOTE: The term Kaffir was once considered neutral but is now regarded as a racial slur.)

At the end of the chapter is a discussion of the knob-kerrie, which I found too interesting to omit.
We will now see how the native makes his assagai.

With their simple tools the native smiths contrive to make their spear heads of such an excellent temper that they take a very sharp edge: so sharp, indeed, that the assagai is used, not only for cutting up meat and similar offices, but for shaving the head. Also, it is so pliable, that a good specimen can be bent nearly double and beaten straight again, without being heated.

When the Kaffir smith has finished the head of the assagai, it looks something like the blade of a table knife before it is inserted into the handle, and has a straight projecting peg, by which it is fastened into the wooden shaft. This peg, or tang as cutlers call it, is always notched, so as to make it retain its hold the better.

Now comes the next process. The spear maker has already by him a number of shafts. These are cut from a tree which is popularly called "assegai-wood," and on the average are nearly five feet in length. In diameter they are very small, seldom exceeding that of a man's little finger at the thick end, while the other end tapers to the diameter of an ordinary black-lead pencil. The assagai-tree is called scientifically Curtisia Jaginea, and is something 
like the mahogany. The shaft of the assagai 
is seldom, if' ever, sufficiently straight 
to permit the weapon to be used at once. 
It is straightened by means of heating it 
over the fire, and then scraping, beating, 
and bending it until the maker is pleased 
with the result. Even after the weapon 
has been made and in use, the shaft is 
very apt to warp, and in this case the 
Kaffir always rapidly straightens the assagai 
before he throws it. In spite of its 
brittle nature, it will endure a considerable 
amount of bending, provided that the curve 
be not too sharp, and that the operator 
does not jerk the shaft as he bends it. Indeed, 
if it were not for the elasticity of 
the shaft, the native would not be able to 
produce the peculiar quivering or vibrating 
movement, to which the weapon owes so 
much of its efficiency. 


By means of heating the "tang" of the 
head red hot, a hole is bored into the thick 
end of the shaft, and the tang passed into 
it. Were it left without further work, the 
spear would be incomplete, for the head 
would fall away from the shaft whenever 
the point was held downward. In order 
to fasten it in its place, the Kaffir always 
makes use of one material, namely, raw 
hide. He cuts a narrow strip or hide, 
sometimes retaining the hair, and binds 
it while still wet upon the spear. As it 
dries, the hide contracts, and forms a band 
nearly as strong as if made of iron. There 
is no particular art displayed in tying this 
band; we never see in that portion of an 
assagai the least trace of the elaborate and 
elegant patterns used by the New Zealanders in the manufacture of their weapons. 
The strip of hide is merely rolled round 
the spear and the loose end tucked beneath 
a fold. Yet the Kaffir is not without the 
power of producing such patterns, and will 
commonly weave very elaborate and elegant 
ornaments, from the hair of the elephant's 
tail and similar materials. These ornamental 
lashings are, however, always placed on 
the shaft of the weapon, and are never employed 
in fastening the head of the assagai 
in its place. 



In the illustration on page 103 is drawn 
a group of assagais, in order to show the 
chief varieties of this weapon. The whole 
of them have been drawn from specimens 
in my own possession. The word “assagai" 
is not a Kaffir term, but, like the 
popular name of the tribe, like the words 
kaross, kraal, &c., has been borrowed from 
another language. The Zulu word for the 
assagai is um-konto, a word which has a 
curious though accidental resemblance to 
the Latin contus.

The ordinary form or "throwing assagai" 
is shown at fig. 5. It is used as a missile, 
and not as a dagger. In some cases the 
throwing assagai is shaped in a more simple iron head being nothing but a sharpened spike of iron, without any pretensions of being formed into a blade. This weapon is five feet seven inches in total length, and the blade measures a foot in length from its junction with the shaft. Sometimes the blade is much longer and wider, as seen at fig. 4, which represents the ordinary "stabbing assagai." This weapon can be used as a missile, but is very seldom employed except as a manual weapon. Its long, straight blade is much used in the more peaceful vocations of daily life, and a Kaffir in time of peace seldom uses it for any worse purpose than slaughtering cattle, and cutting them up afterward. This is the assagai that is usually employed as a knife, and with which the ingenious native contrives to shave his head.

At fig. 7 is shown a very remarkable specimen of the barbed assagai. Intending to produce an extremely elegant weapon, the artificer has lavished much pains 'on his work. In the first place, he has forged a deeply barbed head, a form which is but rarely seen. He has then fastened it to the shaft in a rather singular way. Instead of cutting a strip of raw hide and binding it round the weapon, he has taken the tail of a calf, cut off a piece about four inches in length, drawn the skin from it so as to form a tube, and slipped this tube over the spear. As is the case with the hide lashing, the tube contracts as it dries, and forms a singularly effective mode of attaching the head to the shaft. The hair has been retained, and, in the maker's opinion, a very handsome weapon has been produced.

The assagai, in its original form, is essentially a missile, and is made expressly for that purpose, although it serves several others. And, insignificant as it looks when compared with the larger and more elaborate spears of other nations, there is no spear or lancet that can surpass it in efficacy.

The Kaffir, when going on a warlike or hunting expedition, or even when travelling to any distance, takes with him a bundle, or "sheaf," of assagais, at least five in number, and sometimes eight or nine. When he assails an enemy, he rushes forward, springing from side to side in order to disconcert the aim of his adversary, and hurling spear after spear with such rapidity that two or three are in the air at once, each having been thrown from a different direction. There is little difficulty in avoiding a single spear when thrown from the front; but when the point of one is close to the heart, and another is coming to the right side, and the enemy is just hurling another on the left, it is a matter of no small difficulty to escape one or other of them. If the assailed individual stands still, he is sure to be hit, for the Kaffir's aim is absolute certainty; while if he tries to escape a spear coming from the left, he will probably be hit by 
another coming from the right. 


Moreover, the mode in which the weapon 
is thrown serves to disconcert the enemy, 
and bewilder his gaze. Just before he 
throws the spear, the Kaffir makes it quiver 
in a very peculiar manner. He grasps it 
with the thumb and forefinger of the right 
hand, holding it just above the spot where 
it balances itself and with the head pointing 
up his arm. The other fingers are laid 
along the shaft, and are suddenly and firmly
 closed, so as to bring the balance spot of the 
spear against the root of the hand. This 
movement causes the spear to vibrate 
strongly and is rapidly repeated, until the weapon gives out a peculiar humming or shivering noise, impossible to be described. 
And equally impossible to be forgotten when 
once heard. It is as menacing a sound as 
the whirr of the rattlesnake, and is used by 
the Kaffirs when they wish to strike terror 
into their opponents. When thrown, the 
assagai does not lose this vibrating movement, 
but seems even to vibrate stronger 
than before, the head describing a large arc 
of a circle, of which the balance point forms 
the centre. This vibration puzzles the eye 
of the adversary, because it is almost impossible 
to tell the precise direction which the 
weapon is taking. Any one can calculate 
the flight of a rigid missile, such as a thick 
spear or arrow, but when the weapon is 
vibrating the eye is greatly bewildered. 


The whole look of an assagai in the air is very remarkable, and has never been properly 
represented. All illustrations have 
represented it as quite straight and stiff in 
its flight, whereas it looks just like a very 
slender serpent undulating itself gracefully 
through the air. It seems instinct with life,
 and appears rather to be seeking its own 
course than to be a simple weapon thrown 
by the hand of a man. As it flies along it 
continually gives out the peculiar shivering 
sound which has been mentioned, and this 
adds to the delusion of its aspect.


An illustration on page 111 represents a 
group of Kaffir warriors engaged in a skirmish. 
In the present instance they are 
exhibiting their prowess in a mock fight, 
the heads of the assagais being of wood instead of iron, and blunted, but still hard 
and sharp enough to give a very severe 
blow — experto crede. In the background 
are seen a number of soldiers standing 
behind their shields so as to exemplify the 
aptness of their title, the Matabele, or Disappearers. In the immediate foreground is 
a soldier in the full uniform of his regiment. 
He has just hurled one assagai, and, as 
may be seen by the manner in which his 
dress is flying, has leaped to his present 
position with another assagai ready in his 
hand. Two soldiers are plucking out of 
the ground the assagais thrown by their antagonists, 
covering themselves with their shields while so doing. All these soldiers belong to the same regiment, as may be seen by the headdress, which constitutes their distinctive uniform.

The skill displayed by the Kaffirs in the use of this weapon is really surprising. The rapidity with which the assagais are snatched from the sheaf, poised, quivered, and hurled is almost incredible. We are told that the great mastery of the old English archers over the powerful bows which they used, was not so much owing to the personal strength of the archer, as to the manner in which he was taught to "lay his body in his bow," and thus to manage with ease a weapon that much stronger men could not draw. In a similar manner, the skill of the Kaffir in hurling the assagai is attributable not to his bodily strength, but to the constant habit of using the weapon. As soon as a boy can fairly walk alone, he plays at spear throwing — throwing with sticks; and as he grows up, his father makes sham assagais for him, with wooden instead of iron heads. Two of these mock weapons are shown at fig 8 in the illustration on p. 103. They exactly resemble the ordinary assagai, except that their heads are of wood; and if one of them happened to hit a man, it would inflict rather an unpleasant wound.

When the Kaffir grasps his assagai, he and the weapon seem to become one being, the quivering spear seeming instinct with life imparted to it by its wielder. In hurling it, he assumes intuitively the most graceful of attitudes, reminding the observer of some of the ancient statues, and the weapon is thrown with such seeming ease that, as a sojourner among them told me, "the man looks as if he were made of oil." As he hurls the weapon, he presses on his foe, trying to drive him back, and at the same time to recover the spent missiles.

Sometimes, when he has not space to raise his arm, or when he wants to take his foe by surprise, he throws the assagai with a kind of underhand jerk, his arm hanging at full length. An assagai thus delivered cannot be thrown so far as by the ordinary method, but it can be propelled with considerable force, and frequently achieves the object for which it was intended. He never throws the last of the sheaf, but if he cannot succeed in picking up those that are already thrown, either by himself or his enemy, he dashes forward, and, as he closes with the foe, snaps the shaft of the assagai in the middle, throws away the tip, and uses the remaining portion as a dagger.

The wood of which the shaft is made, though very elastic, is very brittle, and a novice in the art is sure to break several of his spears before he learns to throw them properly. Unless they are rightly cast, as soon as the blade reaches the ground the shaft gives a kind of "whip " forward, and snaps short just above the blade. One of the great warrior chiefs 
made a singular use of this property. Just 
before going into action, he made his men cut the shafts of their assagais nearly across, 
just beyond the junction of the shaft and 
the head. The consequence of this ingenious
ruse became evident enough when the action commenced. If the weapon 
went true to its mark, it pierced the body of the foe just as effectually as if nothing 
had been done to it; while if it missed, and 
struck the ground or a shield, the shaft 
instantly snapped, and the weapon was 
thereby rendered useless to the foe.

Unknowingly, the barbaric chief copied 
the example that was set by a Roman general 
nearly two thousand years ago. When 
Marius made war against the Cimbri, his 
troops carried the short heavy javelin, 
called the pilum. This weapon had a thick handle, to the end of which the long blade 
was attached by two iron rivets, one in 
front of the other. Before going to battle, 
he ordered the soldiers to remove the rivet 
farthest from the point, and to supply its 
place with a slight wooden peg, just strong 
enough to hold the head in its proper position 
as long as no force was used. When 
the javelin was hurled, the enemy tried to 
receive it on their shields; and if they succeeded 
in doing so, they drew out the weapon 
and flung it back at the foe. But as 
soon as the action began, the Cimbri found themselves in a sore strait. No sooner had 
they caught the javelin in their shields, than 
the slight wooden peg snapped, and allowed 
the shaft to dangle from the blade. Not 
only was the weapon useless, but it became 
a serious incumbrance. It could not be 
pulled out of the shield, as it afforded no 
grasp, and the heavy shaft dragged on the 
ground so as to force the soldier to throw away his shield, and to fight without it. 


A very singular modification of the assagai 
was made by the terrible Tchaka, a 
chief who lived but for war, and was a man
of wonderful intellect, dauntless courage, 
singular organizing power, and utterly devoid 
of compassion. Retaining the assagai, 
he altered its shape, and made it a much 
shorter and heavier weapon, unfit for throwing, and only to be used in a hand-to-hand 
encounter. After arming his troops with 
this modified weapon, he entirely altered 
the mode of warfare. 


His soldiers were furnished with a very 
large shield and a single assagai. When 
they went into action, they ran in a compact 
body on the enemy, and as soon as the first shower of spears fell, they crouched beneath 
their shields, allowed the weapons to expend their force, and then sprang in for a hand-to-hand encounter. Their courage,
naturally great, was excited by promises of 
reward, and by the certainty that not to 
conquer was to die. If a soldier was detected
in running away, he was instantly killed by the chief, and the same punishment awaited any one who returned from battle without his spear and shield. Owing to these tactics, he raised the tribe of the Amazulu to be the most powerful in the country. He absorbed nearly sixty other tribes into his own, and extended his dominions nearly half across the continent of Africa.

He at last formed the bold conception of sweeping the whole South African coast with his armies, and extirpating the white inhabitants. But, while at the zenith of his power, he was treacherously killed by two of his brothers, Dingan and Umlangane. The two murderers fought for the kingdom on the following day, and Dingan ascended the throne over the bodies of both his brothers. The sanguinary mode of government which Tchaka had created was not likely to be ameliorated in such hands, and the name of Dingan was dreaded nearly as much as that of his brother. His successor and brother, Panda, continued to rule in the same manner, though without possessing the extraordinary genius of the mighty founder of his kingdom, and found himself obliged to form an alliance with the English, instead of venturing to make war upon them. Tchaka's invention of the single stabbing assagai answered very well as long as the Zulus only fought against other tribes of the same country. But, when they came to encounter the Dutch Boers, it was found that the stabbing assagai was almost useless against mounted enemies, and they were obliged to return to the original form of the weapon.

I'm repeating this image so the reader does not have to scroll up.

If the reader will refer to the illustration which has already been mentioned, he will see two specimens of the short stabbing assagai with the large blade. A fine example of this weapon is seen at fig. 1. The reader will see that the blade is extremely wide and leaf shaped, and that the other end, or but of the spear, is decorated with a tuft of hairs taken from the tail of a cow. Another example is seen at fig. 3. The maker has bestowed great pains on this particular weapon. Just at the part where the spear balances, a piece of soft leather is formed into a sort of handle, and is finished off at either end with a ring made of the wire-like hair of the elephant's tail. Several wide rings of the same material decorate the shaft of the weapon, and all of them are like the well-known "Turk's-head" knot of the sailors. Fig. 6 shows another assagai, which has once had a barbed blade like that at fig. 7, but which has been so repeatedly ground that the original shape is scarcely perceptible. The spear which is drawn at fig. 13 is one of the ornamental wooden weapons which a Kaffir will use when etiquette forbids him to carry a real assagai. This particular spear is cut from one piece of wood, and is decorated according to Kaffir notions of beauty, by contrasts of black and 
white gained by charring the wood. The 
ornamental work on the shaft is thus blackened, 
and so is one side of the broad wooden 
blade. The spear shown at fig. 9 is used in 
elephant hunting, and will be described in a 
future chapter. 


To a Kaffir the assagai is a necessary 
of life. He never stirs without taking a
 weapon of some kind in his hand, and that 
weapon is generally the assagai. With it 
he kills his game, with it he cuts up the 
carcass, with it he strips off the hide, and 
with it he fashions the dresses worn by 
the women as well as the men. The ease 
and rapidity with which he performs these
 acts are really astonishing. When cutting 
up slaughtered cattle, he displays as much knowledge of the various cuts as the most experienced 
butcher, and certainly no butcher 
could operate more rapidly with his knife, 
saw, and cleaver, than does the Kaffir with 
his simple assagai. For every purpose 
wherein an European uses a knife, the 
Kaffir uses his assagai. With it he cuts the 
shafts for his weapons, and with its sharp 
blade he carves the wooden clubs, spoons, 
dishes, and pillows, and the various utensils 
required in his daily life. 


When hurling his assagai, whether at an 
animal which he is hunting or at a foe, or 
even when exhibiting his skill to a spectator, 
the Kaffir becomes strongly excited, 
and seems almost beside himself. The 
sweetest sound that can greet a Kaffir's 
ears is the sound of his weapon entering 
the object at which it was aimed, and in 
order to enjoy this strange gratification, he 
will stab a slain animal over and over again, 
forgetful in the excitement of the moment that every needless stab injures the hide 
which might be so useful to him. When 
the chief summons his army, and the warriors 
go through their extraordinary performances 
in his presence, they never fail 
to expatiate on the gratification which they 
shall derive from hearing their assagais 
strike into the bodies of their opponents. 


It is rather a curious fact that the true 
Kaffir never uses the bow and arrow. 
Though nearly surrounded by tribes which 
use this weapon, and though often suffering
in skirmishes from the poisoned arrows of the Bosjesmans, he rejects the bow in warfare, 
considering it to be a weapon inconsistent 
with the dignity of a warrior. He 
has but two weapons, the assagai and the 
club, and he wields the second as skilfully as 
the first. The clubs used by the Kaffir tribes 
are extremely variable in size, and rather so 
in form. Some of them are more than six 
feet in length, while some are only fourteen 
or fifteen inches. But they all agree in one 
point, namely, that they are straight, or, at 
all events, are intended to be so; and that one end is terminated by a knob. They are 
popularly known as "knob-kerries."

In order to show the extreme difference of size that is found among them, several specimens are figured in the illustration on page 103. Three specimens are seen at fig. 10. That on the right hand is used as a weapon, and is wielded in a very curious manner. Not only can it be employed as a weapon with which an opponent can be struck, but it is also used as a missile, sometimes being flung straight at the antagonist, and sometimes thrown on the ground in such a manner that its elasticity causes it to rebound and strike the enemy from below instead of from above. The Australian savages possess clubs of a similar shape, and also employ the ricochet. The other two kerries are not meant as weapons.

It is contrary to etiquette for a Kaffir to carry an assagai when he enters the hut of a superior, and he therefore exchanges the weapon for the innocent kerrie. And it is also contrary to etiquette to use the real assagai in dances. But, as in their dances the various operations of warfare and hunting are imitated, it is necessary for the performers to have something that will take the place of an assagai, and they accordingly provide themselves with knob-kerries about the same length as the weapons whose place they supply.

One very common form of the short knob-kerrie is shown at fig. 14. This weapon is only twenty inches in length, and can be conveniently carried in the belt. At close quarters it can be used as a club, but it is more frequently employed as a missile.

The Kaffir is so trained from infancy to hurl his weapons that he always prefers those which can be thrown. The force and precision with which the natives will fling these short kerries is really astonishing. If Europeans were to go after birds, and provide themselves with knobbed sticks instead of guns, they would bring home but very little game. Yet a Kaffir takes his knob-kerries as a matter of course, when he goes after the bustard, the quail, or other birds, and seldom returns without success.

The general plan is for two men to hunt in concert. They walk some fifty yards apart, and when they come to any spot which seems a likely place for game, they rest their kerries on their right shoulders, so as to lose no time in drawing back the hand when they wish to fling the weapon. As soon as a bird rises, they simultaneously hurl their kerries at it, one always aiming a little above the bird, and the other a little below. If, then, the bird catches sight of the upper club, and dives down to avoid it, the lower club takes effect, while, if it rises from the lower kerrie, it falls a victim to the upper. This plan is wonderfully efficacious, as I have proved by personal experience. One of my friends and myself determined to try whether we could kill game in the Kaffir fashion. So we cut some knobbed sticks, and started off in search of snipe. As soon 
as a snipe rose, we flung the stick at it, and 
naturally missed, as it was quite beyond the 
range of any missile propelled by hand. 
However, marking the spot where it alighted, 
we started it afresh, and by repeating 
this process, we got sufficiently near to bring 
it within the compass of our powers, and succeeded 
in knocking it down. 


Generally the short, thick, heavily knobbed kerrie belongs rather to the Hottentot and 
the Bosjesman than to the Zulu, who prefers 
the longer weapon, even as a missile. 
But it is evident that the former shape of 
the weapon is the original one, and that 
the Kaffir, who derived it from its original 
inventor, the Hottentot, has gradually 
lengthened the shaft and diminished the 
size of the head.

The material of which the kerrie is made 
is mostly wood, that of the acacia being 
frequently used for this purpose. The long 
knob-kerries of the Zulus are generally cut 
from the tree that is emphatically, though 
not euphoniously, named Stink-wood, on 
account of the unpleasant odor which it gives 
out while being worked. As soon as it is 
dry, this odor goes off, and not even the most sensitive nostril can be annoyed by it. The stink-wood is a species of laurel, and its scientific name is Luurus bullata. The most valuable, as well as the most durable knob-kerries are those which are cut out of rhinoceros horn, and a native can hardly be induced to part with a fine specimen for any bribe. In the first place, the very fact of possessing such an article shows that he must be a mighty hunter, and have slain a rhinoceros; and in the second place, its great efficacy, and the enormous amount of labor expended in carving out of the solid horn, endear it so much to him, that he will not part with it except for something which will tend to raise him in the eyes of his comrades. In England, a fine specimen of knob-kerrie, made from the horn of the white rhinoceros, has been known to fetch even ten pounds.

Thus much for the offensive weapons of the Zulu Kaffir. Toward the north as well as to the west of the Draakensberg Mountains, a peculiar battle-axe is used, which is evidently a modification of the barbed spear which has already been described ; but the true Zulu uses no weapon except the assagai and the kerrie.
I have additional articles on the use of the assagai, including the impressions of British troops who encountered it in battle, and I will share some of those in a future post.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Sword or Pistol for the US Cavalry?

The following article was published in the Cavalry Journal in 1903, when it was still possible to debate whether mounted troops would be better armed with a sword or a pistol. The debate continued until the First World War, when, after a few cavalry charges against massed machine-gun fire, the topic was dropped.
THE RETENTION OF THE SABER AS A CAVALRY WEAPON.

By Lt-Col James Parker, Thirteenth U. S. Cavalry.

Many articles have appeared within the last few years in the Cavalry Journal advocating the abolition of the saber as a cavalry weapon. Allow me to give in a few words some reasons why it should be retained.

1. The saber as employed in war is not the saber imagined by these gentlemen. There is as much difference between a sharp saber and a dull saber as between a razor and a club. The dull saber will not cut anything. Only its point can be used, and the natural instinct of every individual is to use the edge of a cutting weapon. A sharp saber, on the contrary, is a terrible weapon. Let some of these scoffers take the trouble to sharpen up a saber as sharp as a Japanese sword and go out in their kitchen and cut a piece of beef with it. They will find, whereas the dull saber will not make an impression, the sharp saber will make a wound eight inches long and four inches wide; that is, it will cut through a man's neck in one blow. As compared with this wound the wound made by a pistol will be insignificant.

2. The abolition of the saber will be the abolition of the charge in mass. With the charge as for skirmishers the pistol will be a better weapon. The enemy is not then obliged to meet you hand to hand, and the combat becomes a contest of maneuvering. Under these circumstances a weapon that will reach an enemy at a distance is necessary.

It is evident that those who would abolish the saber would get rid of the charge in mass. This is not always possible. When two regiments meet, when lines of 1,000 to 5,000 men are hurled at each other, there is an actual collision. It is not possible for the individual to separate as in the charge as foragers. There is a jam of men. The men are at arm's length. It is a melee. Under such circumstances the pistol is the worst of weapons. In this crowd of men a shot fired at an enemy is more than likely to hit a friend.

But say the opponents of the saber: "During the charge and while we are advancing on the enemy, we will with pistols overwhelm them with bullets, so that before the actual collision occurs they will have lost heavily and will retreat." I would ask these gentlemen if they have ever examined the record target practice of the United States army during the years when, prior to 1892, pistol practice firing to the front was in vogue? They will find there that the average percentage of hits for the whole army in firing to the front was about twenty per cent. The practice was as follows: Lines of men at slow canter advanced toward a line of targets, commencing the fire at eighty yards. They were allowed to fire until they passed the targets. The men passed between the targets and invariably reserved one last shot for the moment when the muzzle of the pistol came against the target. That last shot counted always. None of the other shots, as a rule, hit. As we fired five shots, and one shot hit, the percentage was twenty per cent.

But, further, in actual warfare this firing to the front during the charge would be inadmissible. It would be a waste of ammunition, because the horse proceeding at full speed, in terrific strides and jumps, is an impossible firing platform. It would be dangerous to our own men, and especially to our officers, for the reason that the charge in line, as it approaches the enemy, if not already in double rank, is likely to become so, and may as likely become a formation of three or four ranks, where the cowards and poor shots are in the rear. I should want nothing better than an enemy charging toward me in this formation, firing. It would not be my line which received the bullets. But I would not like to be the commanding officer of such a line, riding in front of it.

The truth is that the use of the pistol is incompatible with the charge. The charge is the act of a man wishing to close with his enemy. Shooting is the act of a man wishing to keep his enemy at a distance. If our friends will carry their argument to its logical conclusion, they would, perhaps, receive the charge at a halt. Men at a halt can shoot better. If they are cool enough, they should be able to wait until their charging enemy arrives within a few paces, and then fire a volley, which, if their premises are correct, ought to be sufficient to defeat the enemy.

Further, comparing the pistol with the saber, it may be said that the saber, if not dull, is always loaded. On the other hand, the five shots of our troopers of the charging line may be gone when they arrive. Consider their predicament, ' when, carried forward by their maddened horses, they plunge into the opposing ranks. Practically it is impossible to reload a pistol under such circumstances. The troopers will be practically unarmed, crowded in boot to boot with a mass of men armed with sharp knives, seeking to cut their throats.

The disadvantage of the pistol when fighting a cutting weapon is often shown in the cutting and shooting encounters of the South and West, knife against pistol, when the man armed with a knife, in a majority of instances, has the last say.

The use of projectile weapons on horseback is not a new thing. It has been tried again and again. The mounted archers of the old days carried a weapon, which, in the hands of an expert, was very nearly or quite as effective as the modern pistol, and yet it availed little against troops armed with the sword or lance and determined to close. The dragoons of the middle ages carried a pistol, and there were even many in those days who praised it, as do some of our cavalrymen, as being equivalent to a lance one hundred yards long. Some of the cavalry during the Civil War made use of a pistol which, for all practical purposes, was as efficient a weapon as the one we use to-day, and while it had its enthusiastic supporters, still its superiority over the saber, even the dull saber, was not so manifest as to lead to a demand for the general abolition of the saber. As a test of the question our Civil War was not complete. Too large a proportion of our cavalry were untrained.

In what respect have conditions, so far as mounted fighting is concerned, changed since 1866? In 1866 it was impossible, as it is now, to ride down infantry, but it was necessary, as it is now, to fight cavalry mounted. If war is to be in future a partisan affair; if grand charges, cavalry against cavalry, are no longer possible; if cavalry will no longer have to clear the way for the advancing infantry, beat down the opposing cavalry, penetrate through the network of defense so as to reach and discover the position of the enemy, then we need the saber no longer. But as long as cavalry in great bodies are liable to meet each other, then we need a weapon that can be used in hand-to-hand fighting in a melee. Such a weapon is the saber.

Let us not be so short sighted as to imagine that all the lessons of European wars go for nothing. Let us not be so densely convinced of our own superiority as to think that the decision of European experts, men who apply all their lives to the study of cavalry, that the pistol as a charging weapon is inferior to the saber, is of no consequence. Finally, let us not make a leap in the dark and deprive our cavalry of an arm which may on some battlefield save it from destruction. Let us retain the saber, and when war comes, keep it keen that it may not miss the opportunity that to a cavalryman comes seldom, but when it comes, is decisive.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Chilean Corvo

A 19th-century corvo.

The corvo is a curved-bladed fighting knife peculiar to Chile. There follow a number of references to it I came across in my research. Please excuse the benighted generalizations made about the Chilean people.

From Working North From Patagonia (1921) by Harry Alverson Franck:
There is a saying in Chile that the population is made up of futres, bomberos, and rotos. The first are well-dressed street-corner loafers; the bomberos are volunteer firemen, and the rotos form the ragged working class that makes up the bulk of the population. The latter, said never to be without the corvo, an ugly curved knife, with which they are quick to tripear, to bring to light the "tripe," of an adversary by an upward slash at his abdomen, are not merely conspicuous, but omnipresent.
In the Bulletin of the American Geographical Society of New York (1884) we read:
In relative justice to the Peruvian whites and half-castes, however, I ought to add that I do not think that they are any more cruel than the Chileans. Bull-rings and cockpits, to be sure, are prohibited in Chile, but by the enlightened will of the Government, not by the humane desire of the people. The first intense ambition of a Chilean boy in the common walks of life is to own a corvo, or curved knife, and it becomes his inseparable companion through manhood. The statistics of the losses in the battlefields of the present war tell the story. The proportion of the dead to the wounded in many of them has been more than two to one, by butchery after victory.
A modern corvo with a pronounced hook blade.

The following is from Chile and Her People of Today (1912), by Nevin Otto Winter:
The Chileno as a rule has a fiery temper. He loves a fight. It is not a fist fight that he will indulge in, but it must be a fight with revolvers, or, better yet, with knives. The knife is an indispensable equipment with the roto. It used to be said that as many lives were lost in a Chilean fair as in a decent battle. It is a sad fact that murders are extremely frequent, and scarcely a day passes in Santiago or Valparaiso without some fatal affray. Aguardiente may be placed at the bottom of most of these, just as rum is the primary cause of most of the murders in the United States. It inflames the naturally hot temper of the race and brings out all the passions of envy, hatred and jealousy. The death penalty is seldom inflicted, although sentence is frequently imposed. The prisoners are kept in confinement, and their sentence commuted from time to time. If the convicted one belongs to a family of prominence, he will eventually be released; if of poorer origin, he may be sent to some remote section of the country and set to work. Among the rotos there is a general contempt for death, which also adds to the prevalence of murders, and sometimes of brigandage in the mountains. A little judicious weeding out of some of these criminals would not be a bad thing for the country.

Drinking in Chile has become a curse. Monday is said by employers of labour to be a very unsatisfactory day, because so many of their employees have not yet recovered from the dissipation of the previous day. This is likewise true after some national holiday, such as the 18th of September, for which occasion five days are set aside, as this is the Chilean 4th of July. The better element of the Chileans have long realized that the drunkenness incident to these celebrations is a serious menace to the country, for, on the day following, the hospitals are oftentimes filled with wounded. There are always several deaths by violence, because every Chilean peon does not consider himself properly dressed until he has a knife placed in his belt where it can be easily reached.
From the Journal of the American Medical Association, Volume 75 (1920):
The uneducated native Chilean settles his disputes with the knife and inflicts ghastly wounds, which make the razor slashes of our nonvoting voters south of the Mason and Dixon line appear trivial in comparison. I was told by a Chilean surgeon that when the Roto takes out his knife, all South America squeals and runs. Any one seeing, some of the injuries he inflicts would certainly be inclined to lead in the running.
A military-style corvo.

Lastly, there is this from Progressive Chile, by Robert E. Mansfield:
The Roto Chilenos not only constitute the laboring class in Chile, but the army, navy and police force are largely recruited from their ranks. As soldiers they possess a reckless bravery that will stop at nothing. With a cry of "viva Chile" they will charge an enemy, never to return, unless victory makes it possible. They are fearless to foolhardiness. They will rush fortifications under fire, scale walls or steep bluffs, swim rivers, and if all are killed the loss is not considered. One single-handed will not fight against odds, but in numbers and in hand-to-hand conflicts the bravery of the Chileno is not excelled by any nationality. They do not fight intelligently, but desperately. Their favorite weapon is a knife, and every Roto Chileno goes armed with a "corvo," a knife with a long, curved blade, tapering to a sharp point, and usually ornamented with a heavy metal handle. It is encased in a leather sheath, and is carried in the belt or boot of the possessor. It is an article of common utility, as well as a weapon of offense and defense. When angered, or threatened with danger, the Chilean produces a corvo as naturally as the American negro does a razor, and he is exceedingly skillful in its use. It is not an uncommon thing for one peon to disembowel another with one sweep of the corvo, usually leaving a triangular shaped wound, a mark of this weapon that is peculiar to the people. As an evidence of their partiality for the knife as a fighting weapon, it is related that in many instances during the war between Peru and Chile, in time of battle, the Chilean soldiers threw away their rifles and rushed upon the enemy with corvos, fighting in hand-to-hand conflict.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Knife Fight in California, 1849

The following scene is from "Trip to California in 1849," from The Overland Monthly, April 1889. I don't know how much credence to grant it--knife fights were a selling point for any travel report like this. We pick it up as the narrator leaves a fandango:
Leaving the dancers and the lively scenes about me, I was drawn, accidentally, towards a group of the commoner class at some distance away, and witnessed a duel between two peons. Stripped to the waist, barefooted, the pants drawn up and rolled above the knees, the left arm wound round with a poncho, the right hand grasping a sharp-bladed knife, the two men stood for a moment preparing for the fight. They were strong, muscular, and wiry, both young, and evidently in a drunken, quarrelsome state. They provoked each other with words. I could not understand, but no doubt they were insulting enough to answer the purpose. A circle of spectators formed around the combatants, but no attempt was made to interfere with them, with the exception that once or twice some maudlin, half drunken, crying women tried to make peace, but their presence seemed to add fuel to the flames.

All of a sudden, one struck his first blow, which was well warded off, and then both peons stood eyeing each other like wild animals ready for a bloody feast. One had the right arm partially raised in the attitude of striking, the knife blade flashing in the sun's rays. His opponent stood firmly on both feet, with his left arm covering his chest, his right hand hanging down at his side, the point of the knife from him, and pointing backwards; his knees were slightly bent, and with a startling, catlike jump, he sprang forward and took his foe by surprise. Before he could defend himself a deep gash was cut across the chest, just above the heart.

The fight now became active on both sides, and continued without cessation for several minutes; occasionally could be heard the clinking sound of the knives as the blades met or were slid from each other, and both men's bodies showed the severity of the fight. Numerous ugly wounds appeared, and the warm, crimson blood covered the dark, naked skin. Both showed exhaustion, and with one impulse hesitated, to obtain time to gather breath, panting with exertion. Once more they grasped their knives, this time more firmly, with their muscles strained and swelled; without a word being spoken by either, the eyes gleaming threateningly, it was seen by the spectators that a decisive moment had arrived, yet none dared to interfere to prevent further strife. Gradually they drew together, step by step, creepingly and with caution; there was no hesitation, but an evident desire to obtain advantage. Of a sudden, simultaneously, both men sprang towards each other to meet at close quarters; a thud was heard, followed by a second one; then one of the combatants turned slightly on his heel, made a convulsive spring off his feet, and fell flat upon the ground,— the knife blade had pierced his heart. For a moment his adversary stood rigidly erect; his eyes opened and closed; his face became a ghastly yellow; the tongue slightly protruded from the half open mouth, exposing a white set of teeth; he seemed bewildered and lost, suffering with pain, arid suddenly, as if realizing the cause as well as the location, he raised his hand to his throat, and grasped the knife handle of his foe. It had been sent with a firm upward blow through the hollow above the chest, cutting the windpipe, and came out at the back of the neck. His limbs began to tremble, the flesh to quiver, and doubling downwards in a heap, he fell on his side upon the turf. In a few moments more his death struggles were over. The spectators slowly dispersed, leaving the dead bodies on the duel ground, as unconcernedly as if nothing unusual had happened. The mounted police made an appearance some time after and had the bodies removed.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Col. Jack Chinn vs John Dowling

There was some interest in the article on Col. Jack Chinn I posted recently, so I thought I'd post this report of his fight with John Dowling, identified in the previous article as "Dowlan." It appeared in the Chicago Daily Tribune, October 6, 1888.
SENSATIONAL CUTTING AFFRAY

John M. Dowling of Kentucky Attacked by a Prominent Kentucky Turfman.


A sensational cutting affray took place on the Latonia race track this afternoon. Jack Chinn, a prominent Kentucky turfman, owner of the Leonatus Stock Farm at Harrodsburg, a former proprietor of Ban Fox, Jacobin, and other noted horses, stabbed John Dowling, the Chicago sporting man and owner of the place known as the Opera in that city. The cutting occurred just before the last race, in the pool shed. Chinn entered the place evidently in search of someone. He soon discovered Dowling and jumped at him with a knife, and struck him twice in quick succession. The first blow penetrated the arm, cutting an ugly gash near the shoulder, while the second thrust penetrated the clothing near the heart. After the first stab Dowling fell to the ground and Chinn struck at him twice more without doing any damage. The wounded man, who will, however, recover, was brought to this city after his wounds had received attention. Chinn was arrested and locked up in the Covington jail but released tonight on his own recognizance. The cause of the trouble today is an old feud dating back eight years ago, when Chinn and his partner Morgan ran a gambling establishment in St. Paul, Minn.

This afternoon a colored tout went to Chinn and said that Dowling was looking for him. Chinn at once replied, "I'll find him first."

He went to the pool shed and met Dowling with the tragic result indicated. After he had stabbed Dowling, Chinn attacked Tucker, a friend of Dowling, suspecting that Tucker might have a revolver in his possession. The infuriated Kentuckian was, however, prevented from doing any damage. Dowling's version of the affair was that he was attacked by Chinn without the slightest provocation. He declares that he has borne no grudge against him. He asserts most positively that he did not know Chinn was at Latonia or anywhere around. Dowling denies that he made any sneering remarks about Kentuckians, as charged by Chinn in his statement of the affair. Dowling says his adversary approached him without warning as he was looking through an opera glass at the horses. Leading horsemen think the end of the feud is not yet, and that before the trouble is settled either Chinn or Dowling will bite the dust.

Jack Chinn, J.M. Dowling, and R. Tucker, in consequence of their altercation on the Latonia Jockey Club grounds, have been suspended from the Latonia Jockey Club course.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Knife Owned by Cassius M. Clay

I recently heard from Meredith Willis of Richmond, Kentucky, who is on the family tree of Cassius M. Clay, probably the greatest bowie-knife fighter of American history, if not as famous as Jim Bowie. Willis collects Clay artifacts, and through a trade came into possession of one of his knives. Measuring 8.5-inches overall and made in or around 1870, its blade is marked "Franz Widmann & Sohn, Munchen" and its silver pommel is engraved "Cassius M. Clay, White Hall." It was authenticated by Katherine White, the curator from the White Hall Museum, and Phil Gray, a historic weapons expert. It is not a bowie knife as we would define that term today, but may be a knife Clay presented to a friend.



I thank Mr. Willis for sharing his story and the photos of his knife. Perhaps some day someone will send me a copy of Clay's elusive manual of bowie-knife fighting!

Friday, November 4, 2011

George Washington's Battle Sword

NB: Having come across a more thorough description of George Washington's battle sword than that I had posted previously, which relied on a New York Times article of July 28, 1932, I have rewritten this post.

General Washington's battle sword and scabbard.

George Washington's battle sword a hanger-type sword of forged steel with grooved blade. It had a grip of green dyed ivory with silver strip decoration. Its scabbard was leather with silver trim. It was 36.25" in over-all length. It was first worn by Washington while serving as a colonel in the expedition against Fort Duquesne in 1758, when he commanded 2,000 Virginia provincial troops. He retained it during the entire Revolution.
Upon Washington's death it was inherited by his nephew, Samuel T. Washington, an army captain. His son Samuel donated it to the United States government in 1843, along with a walking stick owned by Benjamin Franklin. Rep. George W. Summers, a Whig from Virginia made a speech to the House about the donation:
Mr. Samuel T. Washington, a citizen of Franklin county, in the Commonwealth of Virginia, and one of my constituents, has honored me with the commission of presenting in his name and on his behalf, to the Congress of the United States, and through that body to the people of the United States, two most interesting and valuable relies connected with the past history of our country, and with men whose achievments both in the field and in the Cabinet, best illustrate and adorn our annals. One is the sword worn by George Washington, first as a colonel in the Colonial service of Virginia, in Forbes' campaign against the French and Indians, and afterward during the whole period of the war of Independence as Commander-in-chief of the American army. It is a plain couteau or hanger, with a green hilt and silver guard. On the upper ward of the scabbard is engraven, 'I. Bailey, Fish Kill.' It is accompanied by a buckskin belt, which is secured by a silver buckle and clasp, whereon are engraven the letters ' G. W.' and the figures '1757.' These are all of the plainest workmanship, but substantial and in keeping with the man and with the times to which they belonged. The history of this sword is perfectly authentic, and leaves no shadow of doubt as to its identity. The last will and testament of General Washington bearing date on the 9th day of February, 1799, contains, among a great variety of bequests, the following clause.
"To each of my nephews, William Augustine Washington, George Lewis, George Steptoe Washington, Bushrod Washington and Samuel Washington, I give one of the swords or couteaux of which I may die possessed; and they are to chose in the order they are named. These swords are accompanied with an injunction not to unsheathe them for the purpose of shedding blood, except it be for self-defense, or in defense of their country and its rights, and, in the latter case, to keep them unsheathed, and prefer falling with them in their hands to the relinquishment thereof." [I LOVE that!]
In the distribution of the swords hereby devised among the five nephews therein enumerated, the one now presented fell to the share of Samuel Washington, the devisee last named in the clause of the will which I have just read.

This gentleman, who died a few years since, in the county of Kanawha, and who was the father of Samuel T. Washington, the donor, I knew well. I have often seen this sword in his possession, and received from himself the following account of the manner in which it become his property in the division made among the devisees. He said that he knew it to have been the side-arm of General Washington during the Revolutionary War; not that used on occasions of parade and review, but the constant service sword of the great chief; that he has himself seen Gen. Washington wear this identical sword, he presumed for the last time, when, in 1794, he reviewed the Maryland and Virginia forces, then concentrated at Cumberland under the command of General Lee, and destined to co-operate with the Pennsylvania and New Jersey troops, then assembled at Bedford, in suppressing what has been called the ' Whisky Insurrection.' Gen. Washington was the President of the United States, and as such was commander-in-chief of the army. It is known that it was his intention to lead the army in person upon that occasion had he found it necessary, and he went to Bedford and Cumberland prepared for that event. The condition of things did not require it, and he returned to his civil duties at Philadelphia. Mr. Samuel Washington held the commission of a captain at that time himself, and served in that campaign, many of the incidents of which he has related to me. He was anxious to obtain this particular sword, and preferred it to all the others, among which was the ornamented and costly present from the great Frederick. At the time of the division among the nephews, without intimating what his preference was, he jocosely remarked, 'that inasmuch as he was the only one of them then present who had participated in military service they ought to permit him to take choice.' This suggestion was met in the same spirit in which it was made, and the selection being awarded him, he chose this, the plainest, and, intrinsically, the least valuable of any: simply because it was the 'Battle Sword.' I am also in possession of the most satisfactory evidence furnished by Colonel George C. Washington, of Georgetown, the nearest male relative now living of General Washington, as to the identity of this sword.

This information, as to its history, was derived from his father, William Augustine Washington, the devisee first named in the clause of the will which I have read; from his uncle, the late Judge Bushrod Washington, of the Supreme Court; and Major Lawrence Lewis, the acting executor of General Washington's will—all of whom concurred in the statement that the true service sword was that selected by Captain Samuel Washington. It remained in this gentleman's possession until his death, esteemed by him the most precious memento of his illustrious kinsman. It then became the property of his son, who, animated by that patriotism which so characterized the 'Father of his Country,' has consented that such a relic ought not to be appropriated by an individual citizen, and has instructed me, his representative, to offer it to the nation, to be preserved in its public depositaries as the common property of all, since its office has been to achieve and secure the common liberty of all.
Washington owned at least seven swords. Here is a description of another, from the San Francisco Chronicle (March 2, 1902):
Washington's German Sword

Among the many relics of George Washington which are exhibited at Mount Vernon, and are almost idolized by Americans as national historical antiquities, there appears under the sign of "Washington's Sword" an object which may well be in future of great interest to the German as well as the American people.

A thorough inspection of this sword shows and established the undeniable fact that one Theophilus Alter, from Solingen, Germany, during the time of the Revolutionary War in the English colonies, sent his son with this sword in conjunction sympathies from the German people to America, to deliver the same with his own hands to General George Washington. That the son acted according to instructions from from his father, the sword itself is evidence, and if the necessary researches could be made concerning the subsequent life of this messenger, the verdict would most likely read: Died, after bringing greetings and sympathy from Germany, on the battlefield of American liberty.

The sword is of the same shape as the one worn by General Blucher at the battle of Waterloo, and to judge by its saw-like edge, it gives the impression of having gone through many a battle and it delivers to future generations in a sentence, etched in the steel plate close to the hilt, and partially obscured by erosion: "Destroyer of despotism, protector of freedom, steadfast man, take from my son's hand this sword, I beg of you! Theophilus Alte, Solingen."
There is more information on Washington's swords here.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Knife Fighter: Colonel Jack Chinn

A short article on Chinn, with a portrait of him and his famous knife.

Colonel Jack Chinn was one of the most prominent knife men of the 19th century, and I name him the fourth greatest knife fighter in his profile in my book. There are several news articles describing knife scrapes he was involved in, but he often exaggerated his exploits with the cheerful indulgence of the press.

Below is a newspaper article about him from 1900:
COLONEL JACK CHINN AND HIS FAMOUS KNIFE

This Interesting Kentuckian Has a Philosophic Way of Life
Colonel Jack Chinn exhibited his famous knife yesterday.

There are some remarkable stories about that knife. The popular belief is that he carries it upon his back and attached by a patent contrivance to his collar. Colonel Chinn exploded this thrilling fairy tale by showing the true hiding place of his favorite weapon; that is, in the right of the rear pocket of his trousers. It is a harmless-looking object as he slips it from the rear pocket, simply an overgrown jackknife, securely closed. But he has a dexterous way of shifting it to the larger front pocket and opening it under that cover, then producing a wicked-looking instrument with thick, keen blade seven inches in length.

“That’s the way I always produce,” said the Colonel, smiling grimly at his “trusty steel.” “It is more effective that way. It’s a powerful argument. It has a great way of coaxing a man to do what you want him to.”

Colonel Chinn’s knife has done yeoman service. When its owner had an altercation with Jack Dowlan on the Latonia race track the blade started on a straight course to Dowlan’s heart.

“Yes, I intended to kill him,” said the Colonel. “He wore a steel shirt. That was what saved him. That steel made a nick in the knife. You can see it there.”

The nick was in evidence, scarcely more than a line upon the murderous, polished surface of the knife.

Colonel Chinn had sufficient provocation for this attack. He tells the story simply enough.

“Dowlan and I had some trouble about turf matters. He threatened that he would drive me off the race track. I was ready for him. When I hear that a man is looking for me I go and find him. That’s the way Dowlan and I came together. Once afterwards he drove behind me in Chicago and fired into the buggy from the back, then drove away so fast I couldn’t catch him. Friends of his came to me afterwards and said the fight was off; that he would leave me alone if I would him. I would have killed him if he hadn’t sent that message, but I am glad I didn’t, for the poor fellow died in an insane asylum a few years afterward, and I believe he was crazy at the time, for I had never done anything to make him turn on me like that.”

Colonel Jack Chinn has views of his own as to when he is justified in wielding the blade, which is variously characterized as a “bowie,” a “spring-back,” and the “Chinn knife.”

“I would never use it on a gentleman,” he said. “Gentlemen should never fight. They can settle their differences by a decent, gentlemanly kind of arbitration. But I would never let a scrub or a fighter back me down. I would be ashamed to go home to my wife and say that a man was looking for me, when I had this knife about me,” and again the Colonel looked at his blade, this time with the softness of a caress in his eyes.

There is another time when he thinks it would be justifiable to use the ugly blade.

“Under such circumstances as Colonel Phil Thompson’s meeting with Walter Davis it would be entirely so,” he says. “I will leave it to any Kentucky jury if I am not right. The sentiment in Kentucky is that if a man’s home has been dishonored he is less than a man if he does not avenge the dishonor by death. Read about the man who killed his wife’s employer at a picnic? The woman wanted to help her husband, who was an adoring man, and got a place as typewriter [sic]. Her employer was a devil and the husband punished his bestiality by death. The wife escaped, or he would have killed her. The jury was not out 20 minutes before it exonerated him. I witnessed Phil Thompson’s shooting of Walter Davis and helped to put the young man’s body back into the car. Walter Davis was my friend, so was his brother, ‘Crit” Davis, but I say that Colonel Thompson was right. His speech in his own defense in court was one of the prettiest things I ever heard. Senator Vorhees’ speech in his defense was magnificent. Everybody within reach of his voice was thrilled when he said: “Colonel Phil Thompson met the once-trusted friend who had despoiled his home. What did Colonel Thompson do? He fought. Why didn’t Walter Davis fight? They had met face to face, hand to hand, man to man. Why didn’t the betrayer of his friend’s trust and home fight? Why? Because a man named Shakespeare was right when he said, ‘Conscience doth make cowards of us all.’

“A man should fight if he is attacked by a scrub; he should fight if the honor of his home is at stake; he should fight if a woman or a weaker man are being ‘put upon.’ I have followed that rule always and have done a lot more fighting for other people than for myself.”

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

American Indians and Their Knives

The following excerpts are from Twenty Years Among Our Hostile Indians (1897) by James Lee Humfreville:
"With the advent of firearms, the tomahawk ceased to be an important war weapon. It was commonly carried, but generally used as a pipe, the back or bead being hollow and used for a bowl, and the handle, which had a hole through it, was used for a stem. The blade or axe was of iron or steel; this they procured from white traders. The tomahawk has passed into history as a bloody weapon, and at one time might have been entitled to its reputation as such, but of late years it was rarely used. If by chance an Indian met another in a hand-to-hand combat his weapon was the knife. Some of the duels with knives were of the bloodiest kind; they would stab and slash each other so terribly that both contestants died locked in each other's arms. When a fight of this kind occurred it was sure to end fatally for one or both. I once saw the bodies of two Indians who died in this manner, and counted eight stabs and twenty-one slashes on one body, and eight stabs and fourteen slashes on the other; the bodies were lying close to each other just as they had died.


"All Indians, both men and women, carried a knife in a sheath attached to the belt, and were dexterous in its use. The knife was their inseparable companion, and was used for slaughtering animals, scalping enemies, and for general purposes. Knives were kept as sharp as possible, the handle being often elaborately ornamented in true Indian style. In early days on the plains it was difficult for them to secure a sufficient supply of knives, but that difficulty ceased after white traders established trading posts throughout the Indian country. . . . .

"The manner of taking a scalp in battle was to cut with a knife, around the braid of the scalp lock, a circle two or three inches in diameter, and then with a jerk tear it from the skull. Occasionally, especially if not pressed by danger, and there was plenty of time, be would cut around the entire scalp, tearing it from the head. Such a scalp was often divided into numerous small locks, which were used in ornamenting his war shirt or other personal belongings. Half a dozen or more scalp locks often represented but a single victim. A few people who have been scalped by the savages, after they were supposed to be dead, have recovered, but were great sufferers ever after from headaches, earaches, nervous prostration, and constant colds. The cranium being without its natural protection, subjected the victim to great inconvenience with every climatic change.

"The majority of Indians had a peculiar custom in relation to claiming the scalp. The one who first struck an enemy after he was down, and supposed to be dead, could claim the scalp, although the person killing him had made every effort to strike the prostrate body and demand the trophy. This custom I attribute to the warrior's desire to be the first to strike the enemy, so that he could claim to be in advance of all others in the battle, and therefore the foremost brave.

"Scalps when taken in this way were the personal property of the individual who struck the dead body first; they were kept and exhibited by him and his family as a token of bravery. They would take a twig off a bush and make a hoop five or six inches in diameter; then thongs of rawhide were put through the scalp around the edges and fastened to the inside of the hoop, thus stretching the scalp tight, when it was left to dry.

"When a scalp dance took place, these scalps, stretched in their tiny hoops, and frequently ornamented with fur and other articles, were fastened to long poles, which the women carried in an upright position. Scalp dances were always held on the return of a victorious war party, especially if, in addition to scalps, it had secured a large amount of booty in the way of horses and mules.

"When one Indian scalped another who had a feather in his scalp lock, this feather was fastened to the scalp, and dangled from the pole on which the trophy was carried. Such a scalp was the special admiration of the dancers, for the presence of the feather was supposed to be evidence of the superior bravery of the slain, and the still greater bravery of the captor. Nearly every brave was the possessor of a number of these ghastly trophies, and he exhibited them conspicuously on all ceremonial occasions. They were his badges of distinction, as well as the evidence of his claims to greatness with his people. . . .


"Throwing the knife at an object was a sport at which the majority of Indians were particularly expert. Taking the knife in the palm of the hand with the handle toward the end of the fingers, and standing at from ten to thirty feet from the target, they would, by a dexterous movement of the forearm, throw the knife at an object often not larger than a saucer, and with such precision that the point of the knife struck within this small circle at almost every throw. I have seen them stand at a distance of twenty-five feet from the target and hit it twenty-five or thirty times consecutively."

Monday, October 3, 2011

An Aborted Bowie-Knife Duel

The following article appeared in the Atlanta Constitution, July 7, 1889:
“With a Bowie Knife”
Colonel B.T. Hatcher and Colonel G. Gunby Jordan
Mr. Murphy, in a card addressed to “Whom it may concern,” says: The above note written by Mr. G. Gunby Jordan, I delivered to Mr. B. T. Hatcher. I was referred by him to Mr. Rolin Jefferson with the statement that Mr. Jefferson was authorized to act for him. I saw Mr. Jefferson, who said he would agree to the use of nothing but bowie knives with ten inch blades to be used in a ten feet ring, and gave as his reason for his choice that Mr. Hatcher was partially deaf and could not hear the commands, to which I replied that this could be no objection, as there could be no firing until both principals should say they were ready, in answer to the signal, “Are you ready?” by the second who would have the privilege of giving the commands. Besides, fighting with bowie knives was unprecedented and barbarous and unjust to my principal, who was no match physically with Mr. Hatcher. I did offer, however, to allow the use of any firearms made, shotguns, rifles or pistols, to see that both principals heard the commands. This he promptly and positively declined, knowing the proposition to fight in the only way Mr. Jefferson would agree, towit: with bowie knives to be entirely unrecognized.
By the 1880s, serious duels were rare in the South, because, in the event of the death of one of the parties, legal repercussions were hard to avoid. The duel reported here may have been one of many duels that were threatened with no intention of seeing them through. I do like the idea that knives were requested as Mr. Hatcher was afraid he wouldn't hear the command to fire if pistols were the weapons.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

First Anniversary

I just noticed that this site is a year old as of yesterday. I started it to disseminate a lot of the extra and/or redundant research material I accumulated while putting together my book, and figured I'd keep it going for a few months and then leave it. While I have run low on material and no longer post regularly, I will continue to put up items as I come across them in my files or in the news.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Isaiah Rynders: New York Pol and Bowie-Knife Man

 This image came up for Isaiah Rynders--however, it may be another man by the same name. I can find no authenticated portraits.

A profile of Captain Isaiah Rynders (1804-1885) at Wikipedia opens with this capsule description: "An American businessman, sportsman, underworld figure and political organizer for Tammany Hall. Founder of the Empire Club, a powerful political organization in New York during the mid-19th century, his 'sluggers' committed voter intimidation and election fraud on behalf of Tammany Hall throughout the 1840s and 1850s."

A page-one article in the New York Times on January 14, 1885, claims that a facility with the bowie knife was among the skills Rynders brought to politics:
In 1832, Capt. Rynders had his first difficulty of a serious nature. It happened at Natchez, Miss. He became involved in a quarrel with a fellow sporting man over a game of cards. Hot words passé between the two, and blows would have resulted but for the fact that in chivalric Mississippi little differences of his kind were settled in a more expeditious and decisive manner. Capt. Rynders and his opponent met beneath the hill of Natchez, each armed with a bowie knife, and the fight in which one or both must die began. Capt. Ryders proved the more expert of the two in the use of his weapon and he left his opponent dead on the field. He then fled, for although chivalry applauded the duel in those days, the laws of Mississippi prohibited it.

He continued to turn his “sporting” accomplishments to good account, and finally opened a public house at No. 27 Park-row, in the Spring of 1844, which served as a gathering place for the Democratic leaders, and later as the headquarters of his “Empire Club.” The formation of this club had been one of his pet schemes since the defeat of Van Buren, and he proceeded to organize it before the campaign of 1844 began. The Democratic Convention assembled that year in Baltimore, and Capt. Rynders, the President, and John S, Austin, the Vice-President, with a number of the first members of the Empire Club, went to that city to use their peculiar influence in the convention. In the barroom of Barnum's Hotel a crowd of politicians started an argument with Capt. Rynders in regard to the merits of Van Buren as a candidate. The Captain tok exception to some of the criticisms passed on his friend, hot words followed, and very soon Capt. Rynders's bowie knife and revolver flashed in the gaslight. Austin was by his side in an instant, with a knife in one hand and a pistol in the other. A desperate fight ensued, in which several ugly wounds were given, but nobody was killed. The odds were three to one against Rynders and Austin, but they cleared the barroom in a remarkably short time, and gave to the country an evidence of the mettle of the two leading officers of the “Empire Club.”
The History of Tammany Hall, by Gustavus Myers, further polishes the image:
[The Empire Club's chief] was Captain Isaiah Rynders, and its membership was made up of a choice variety of picked worthies who could argue a mooted point to a finish with knuckles. Rynders had a most varied career before entering New York politics. A gambler in New Orleans, he mixed in some bowie and pistol fights there in which he was cut severely on the head and elsewhere, and his hat was perforated by a bullet. On a Mississippi steamboat he drove O'Rourke, a pugilist, out of the saloon with a red-hot poker, after O'Rourke had lost at faro and had attempted to kill the winner.
Ten years after his death, McClure's Magazine gave an unflattering account of Rynder's valor--in this tale the hero is Mike Walsh, the founder of the "Subterranean Club," implacable foe of the Rynders' Empire Club. (No hint as to who supposedly transcribed the dialog between the two men when they were alone in the room.)
Mr. Parke Godwin, then one of the editors of the "Evening Post," had been very outspoken in his newspaper writings and also in public speech, in denunciation of the political methods in common practice. Thereby Mr. Godwin had aroused the hatred of Isaiah Rynders and his associates. His denunciation of Tammany in particular, and its methods, had greatly angered the whole organization, but he had incurred the especial hostility of Rynders, and one day word was brought to him that Rynders and his associates were threatening to kill him, and he should have a care.

One afternoon, having left his office to go home, Mr. Godwin stopped, as was his custom, in Florence's restaurant for some oysters. As he stood at the oyster-stand, he saw in the remote part of the room Rynders and some of his men. He at once suspected that they proposed to assault him before he could leave the building. He realized that it would not do for him to run, however; so he began to eat his oysters, while deliberating upon his course in case he should be attacked. Suddenly he noticed that a man stood beside him, and looking up he saw "Mike" Walsh, who said to him: "Go on eating your oysters, Mr. Godwin, but do it as quickly as you can, and then go away. Rynders and his men have been waiting here for you and intend to kill you, but they won't attack you as long as I am by your side."

The advice was followed. After Mr. Godwin, having finished his oysters, had gone out, Rynders stepped up to Walsh and said: "What do you mean by interfering in this matter? It is none of your affair."

"Well, Godwin did me a good turn once, and I don't propose to see him stabbed in the back. You were going to do a sneaking thing; you were going to assassinate him, and any man who will do that is a coward.

"No man ever called me a coward, Mike Walsh, and you can't."

"But I do, and I will prove that you are a coward. If you are not one, come upstairs with me now. We will lock ourselves into a room; I will take a knife and you take one; and the man who is alive after we have got through, will unlock the door and go out."

Rynders accepted the challenge. They went to an upper room. Walsh locked the door, gave Rynders a large bowie-knife, took one himself, and said: "You stand in that corner, and I'll stand in this. Then we will walk toward the centre of the room, and we won't stop until one or the other of us is finished."

Each took his corner. Then Walsh turned and approached the centre of the room. But Rynders did not stir. "Why don't you come out?" said Walsh.

Rynders, turning in his corner, faced his antagonist, and said : "Mike, you and I have always been friends; what is the use of our fighting now? If we get at it, we shall both be killed, and there is no good in that."

Walsh for a moment said not a word; but his lip curled, and he looked upon Rynders with an expression of utter contempt. Then he said: "I told you you were a coward, and now I prove it. Never speak to me again."
I think we can safely take all three of these accounts as unsubstantiated political puffery, which is why I left Rynders out of my book. They serve as a useful reminder that 19th-century newspapers were at least as unscrupulous about confining themselves to the facts as are newspapers today.

Monday, September 19, 2011

184th Anniversary of Sandbar Fight

Happy 184th anniversary of the Sandbar Fight, everyone! I got so busy today I nearly forgot to fondle my bowie knives a little.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Review of Bowie Knife Fights, Fighters, and Fighting Techniques

Nice review of Bowie Knife Fights, Fighters, and Fighting Techniques at the White Shadow Dojo blog.

If you read his previous post, you'll find that the blogger, a martial arts teacher and bowie knife aficionado, almost didn't want to read my book because of the lurid cover art and title. That's a concern to me. It's a serious, well-researched book and I think anyone who reads it will recognize the seriousness of my efforts in putting it together. Perhaps I should have called it The Bowie Knife: History of an American Weapon, or something like that. I think the publisher was worried that once you call something "history" you turn off a large segment of your potential buyers.

As for the cover art, well, what can I say? Put me in front of a sheet of paper with a pen and my hand and I'm a wild man.

Illustration of one of bowie-knife fighter Sam Brown's notorious murders, from the book.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Cold Blooded Murder

On September 6, 1858, the Adams Sentinel reported the following bowie-knife crime:
Cold Blooded Murder.
A correspondent of the Mobile Mercury writing from Marion, Mass., gives an account  of a cold blooded murder, committed on the 11th ult: J. M. Steele keeps a livery stable, and Colonel Hudnall and others had been there engaged in a warm discussion. One by one they bad left after sunset, and Hudnall was the last. Steele charged him with stealing money out of his pocket. Hudnall told him that it was a lie, whereupon Steele attempted to strike him with a stick, which Hudnall succeeded in wresting from him. Steele then drew a Bowie knife and cut his throat. Steele walked through the crowd with his knife in his hand, defying the whole of them, and came up and stood over his victim as he was expiring, and heaped abuse upon him with horrid imprecations. He then mounted a horse and rode away unmolested There were but few persons about. Hudnall was sixty and inoffensive. Steele is young, and has been leading lately a reckless life. He stands indicted for sundry outrageous acts, and among them, assaults with intent to kill.
He has left behind him in his flight, a beautiful and amiable wife, with one child.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

World War I: Return of the Bowie Knife

The following excerpt is from Georges Blanchon's The New Warfare (1917):
We must look forward to a mighty development in operations of this kind when we attempt to force trenches that are strongly constructed, defended by unconquerable artillery, and when we cannot obtain mastery of the air. It may also happen that, if the supply of explosives gives out, the mine, rapidly enlarged and lengthened, will be a mere prelude to a direct attack with cold steel. The latter is still the ultima ratio of fighting. Artillery duels, mine explosions, the sweep of the machine-gun, the throwing of hand-grenades, are all when analysed only preparations. They all lead to a hand-to-hand fight. Consequently the bayonet has always played a role of supreme importance, deciding the fate of many a desperate encounter. Even the bayonet is too long for the narrow field of carnage of the trenches. The rifle hinders the grenadiers when hurling their petards, crawling between the lines and cutting barbed wire. They prefer to arm themselves with a long dagger, a regular "bowie-knife" fastened to the waist. But the best weapon for this kind of work is perhaps a short South African club, the knobkerrie, which has met with considerable success in the British Army. If the machine-rifle supplants our bayonet-holder, who knows but that a light spear, slung across the back, will effect a final separation between the two death-dealing weapons? Our fighting men only need a shield to be like the warriors in the Iliad.
  A World War I-issue mace, or knobkerrie.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Bowie-Knife Fighter: David "Buckskin" Evans

The following excerpt is from John Speer's Bloody Kansas: Life of Gen. James H. Lane (1896), a chronicle of the violent period when settlers fought over whether Kansas would enter the Union as a free or slave state. It tells the tale of David "Buckskin" Evans, an anti-slavery fighter of the rough-and-tumble school:
In the troubles of 1855, Messrs. Wemple and William Ross, brother-in-law and brother of Ex-Senator Ross, brought to Lawrence, from Shelby county, Missouri, a free colored man, with all his certificates of freedom regularly certified and sealed by the officers of the proper court, and a white Missourian named David Evans, as farm hands. Evans was a Free-State man of very marked characteristics.

The Pro-Slavery men expressed doubts about the freedom of Jonas, the negro and wanted to investigate "the nigger-thieves." Dave took it up, and armed to the teeth with bowie-knives and revolvers, drove them off.

Lane heard of him and his prowess, and hired him for fifteen dollars a month "just to stand around and accommodate ruffians spoiling for a fight." He was known as Buckskin, because he wore a buckskin suit, and he was ready for a fight either "fist and skull, or with the cold steel and malleable iron."

His first job of "fist and skull" was on Luke Corlew, a noted bully, whom he pounded terribly, tore his clothes from him, and ran him, half-naked, out of the town. They gave Buckskin a wide berth after that -- shied away from him; and for a long time, he was a terror to all of them.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Soldier Survives Knife in Skull

This is an old ABC News item, dating from December 2007, but still of interest:

 Sgt. Dan Powers
Soldier Survives Knife in Skull
ABC News
Oct. 31, 2007
Of all the injuries in the war in Iraq, the one Sgt. Dan Powers sustained was among the most unusual.

Powers, a member of the Army's 118th MP Company Airborne, was in eastern Baghdad investigating an explosion when suddenly an Iraqi walked up to him and stabbed him in the right side of his head. He didn't know what hit him.

"It felt like someone kind of clothesline tackled me and a thump on the side of the head, like a bang," he said.

An Iraqi teenager had inched up behind Powers on a Baghdad street and plunged a 9-inch knife deep into his skull, penetrating his brain.
 Knife with which Power was stabbed.
Powers, who did not realize he had been stabbed, reacted quickly by throwing his attacker to the ground. Sgt. Michael Riley then tackled the man and turned him over to Iraqi security forces.

"He had no idea what had really happened," said Spc. Ryan Webb, a company medic. "I did have to fight afew people off that came by and were like, 'Whoa,you've got a knife sticking out of your head.'"

Amazingly, Powers remained conscious and alert as he was rushed to a combat hospital, when he finally noticed the knife and realized the gravity of his injury.

"They kept telling me to go sit down, they didn't tell me how bad I was hurt yet," Powers said.


Video report on knife in head
Miraculous Survival

Just a few hours later, doctors in Iraq prepared to take the daring but necessary action of pulling the knife out of Powers' skull -- a move they knew might kill him, and almost did.

Powers lost 2 liters of blood -- about 40 percent of the total in his body.

Back home now at Ft. Bragg, Powers and his wife Trudy are counting their blessings.

"All along I knew he would live because I know him and I know how strong a guy he is," Trudy said.

Amazingly, Powers' memory, speech and coordination are all intact.

"I have a little bit of a loss of sensation on my face due to all of it and I can't raise my right eyebrow. So I am kind of like Mr. Spock," Powers joked.

And Powers is forever grateful for the care he received from the military.

"Those are the heroes to me. They're my heroes," he said. "I am just glad to have made it when so many didn't."
Thanks to the doctors' skill and Sgt. Dan Powers' determination to get back into the service, he made a complete recovery within two years and is once again a fully-qualified paratrooper with the 118th MP Company out of Ft. Bragg.