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Written By
Updated Nov 7, 2022 12:35 PM

Created in the 19th century by master knife maker Jim Bowie, the first bowie knives were built for hand-to-hand combat. Bowie made a buzz around his knife build in 1827 when he used the knife in the “Sandbar Fight,” and it’s become an American icon since. 

Of course, what over-40-year-old didn’t want a bowie knife of his own after watching Sylvestor Stallone use one in the October 1982 thriller, First Blood. The question, though, for many who spend time outdoors hunting, camping, fishing, etc., is: Do I need a bowie knife, and are they functional? The answer is: Yes. Why? Bowie knives are full-tang fixed-blade knives with lengths typically between 11 and 18 inches. The fixed blades are usually thick and sharp, and the handle has a circumference that allows the user to deploy torque to the blade. A bowie worth its salt will also have some weight, and it will come with a protective sheath.

Aside from their build, bowie knives serve multiple outdoor purposes. If you have a sturdy bowie on hand, you can scale and gut a fish, chop through wood, and skin an elk. I’ve used my bowie knife to carve pine tent poles, and put a rubber mallet on the butt cap of the handle to poke extra holes in a leather harness. Hours later, I used the same knife to gut a half-dozen salmon. A good bowie knife will serve multiple purposes. If you should ever find yourself in a self-defense situation, you can pull a Pual Hogan in Crocodile Dundee and say, “That’s not a knife; that’s a knife,” when you pull your bowie from its sheath. Whether it’s as a multipurpose hunting and fishing knife, or survival and self-defense, the best bowie knives can handle whatever you ask of them. 

Things To Consider Before Buying

Other than backcountry wanderers that scrutinize every ounce, I believe every outdoors person should have a bowie knife. However, not all bowie knives are created equal.

Don’t settle for a cheap bowie with a partial-tang blade. Bowie knives are built to be used and abused, and a partial tang bowie won’t hold up. Go full-tang. And be sure the grip boasts a decent diameter that feels great in hand. Smaller diameter handles reduce the amount of torque you can place on the blade, and when punching through wood, bone, leather, etc., torque is essential. 

Blade material should also be considered. There are many different types of steel used to craft bowie blades, and most bowie yielders want strong steel that will hold an edge and not crack or break under pressure. Damascus steel is becoming increasingly popular in the world of bowie knives. 

Length is something else to consider. There’s a reason bowie knives were developed to be fighting knives. A long blade and handle combo provides power and extends reach, and you want your bowie knife to have some length. Weight is equally as important as length. A flimsy bowie knife will be brittle and weak, and weak things break. Heavier bowie knives allow the user to transfer more energy into a piece of wood they’re chopping. However, you also don’t want a bowie that feels like a sledgehammer. Remember, this is a multi-purpose knife, and you will enjoy some maneuverability.

Usually, I don’t get too hung up on sheath design, but sheath design is critical for bowie knives. Unless the knife is in use, it should be in its sheath. Long, sharp blades can cause damage, and I’ve seen some terrible camp disasters from a left-on-the-table bowie. Most bowie knives will come with a leather or synthetic sheath, and I don’t have a preference as long as the sheath holds the blade tightly when in transport but allows for easy removal. 

Best Overall: Ka-Bar U.S. Marine Corps Bowie Knife

Best Overall

Why It Made the Cut: This top-end bowie knife has been around since World War II, and it’s still a must-have item for many bowie knife owners, me included. The length-to-weight ratio is ideal — you get maneuverability, strength, and dependability in this full-tang fixed-blade knife. 

Key Features

  • Leather handle material
  • 11.875 inches long
  • .165 blade thickness

Pros

  • 56-58 Rockwell Hardness
  • Durability
  • Maneuverability

Cons

  • Sheath
  • Handle gets slippery

A top-end bowie knife that’s been around since World War II, the Ka-Bar U.S. Marine Corps Bowie Knife is durable and versatile. The straight-edge knife is fitted with a 7-inch blade and branded with an overall length of 11.875 inches. The total weight is .7 pounds. The butt cap/guard is durable 12GA commercial-grade carbon steel, which I appreciate as I have hammered on this butt cap more than once with rocks, logs, and rubber mallets.

Another win is the blade thickness and blade width duo. This 1.188-inch-thick blade holds an edge, and its thickness allows it to chop if needed. It works as well as a fish scaler as it does for camp chores, and the gapped leather handle gives the knife a great fit and feel in hand. The leather sheath, besides being branded with the USMC symbol, is average as sheaths go, but this bowie is a tremendous overall knife that any serious bowie knife lover should have.

Biggest and Baddest: Condor Undertaker Bowie Knife

Biggest and Badest

Why It Made the Cut: The 5-inch high carbon steel blade is what catches the eye with this knife, but the smaller features are not to be missed. A walnut blade with gold pin attachments and an excellent ability to hold an edge make this beast a good all-rounder. 

Key Features

  • 10.125-inch 1075 carbon steel blade
  • 15.5 inches long
  • 5.0 mm blade thickness

Pros

  • Brawny build
  • Joe Flowers design
  • Sharp

Cons

  • A little too heavy
  • Sub-par sheath

First, take a look at it. The Condor Undertaker boasts a classic bowie look and is typically priced between $120-$130 (though it’s under $100 at Amazon, right now). The guard is long and heavy, an excellent feature for a knife with this blade type, and I love the walnut handle with multiple gold pin attachments. This knife offers a lot of brawn, but I’ve had numerous hunters tell me they’ve skinned and gutted animals with it.

The blade is hand-sharpened, and the high carbon steel holds an excellent edge. The knife offers an intimidating look, and it doesn’t hurt to have it lying around camp in its welted leather sheath when some nosey camp neighbors come to look things over. The knife is heavy, which may rob some of its self-defense value, but if you’re a beast and have some arm strength, this may be the bowie you want if a pick-stickin’ match starts. 

Best Budget: Buck Knives 119 Special Knife

Best Budget

Why It Made the Cut: You can’t think of bowie knives and not think of Buck Knives. The knife comes with Buck’s Forever Warranty, and overall length, blade length, and weight work in harmony to make an excellent do-all bowie knife that will serve you well. You’ll be hard-pressed to spend a better $70.

Key Features

  • Heat-treating system
  • Black phenolic grip
  • 420HC stainless steel blade

Pros

  • Longevity
  • Made in the USA
  • Price

Cons

  • Handle can get slippery
  • Sheath is below average

This was my first-ever bowie, and I still use it. Designed by legendary knife maker Hoyt Buck, the 119 Special is an excellent bowie go-to. Buck notes on their website that its knives are not to be used as hammers, chisels, pry bars, screwdrivers, etc., but I’ve used this knife for all of those things. The blade holds a decent edge, the handle with finger cradles promotes a solid grip, and I love the butt cap. 

The knife has an overall length of 10.5 inches, and the blade has been heat-treated to ensure a more pronounced edge, ease of resharpening, and durability. Blade thickness is .175, and blade length is 6 inches. The sheath could be better, but the knife carries a Forever Warranty, and the phenolic handle features finger grips that help you get a good hold. The knife feels good in the hand and can be used for various purposes. 

Best with Damascus Blade: Bear & Son Cutlery Bowie

Best with Damascus Blade

Why It Made the Cut: Shy of 15 inches in total length, the knife is a true bowie, and the 9-inch Damascus blade married with the India Stag Bone handle makes it a stunner. The brass guard is beefy and prevents the hand from slipping down on the 58-60 Rockwell blade.  

Key Features

  • Indian Stag bone handle
  • High-definition Damascus blade
  • Quick-release leather sheath

Pros

  • Racy look
  • Ultra-sharp
  • Comfortable handle
  • Durable

Cons

  • Price

It’s pricey, but a hunting buddy I respect enormously told me, “This is the best hunting and camping knife I’ve ever used. It’s the perfect combination of brute and beauty, and the Damascus blade is as good as they come.” Bear & Son Cutlery has an excellent reputation, and this top-end bowie only strengthens its knife-crafting legacy.

The total length is 14 3/8-inches, and the high-definition Damascus steel blade measures 9 inches long. A brass guard has been added to separate the blade from the India Stag Bone handle, which adds to the knife’s beauty and boosts safety. The Quick Release leather sheath is a nice touch, and at 11.5 ounces, the knife has a great strength-to-weight ratio. 

Best Made in The USA: Buck Knives 120 General Knife – Heritage Series

Best Made in The USA

Why It Made the Cut: This knife is a classic, and with the word “General” in the name, you know it was designed to be a multi-purpose knife. With a D2 tool steel blade and a Cocobolo handle, this made in the USA bowie is tough to beat. 

Key Features

  • 7 3/8-inch clip point D2 steel blade
  • 12 inches long
  • Cocobolo wood handle

Pros

  • Sharp
  • Durable
  • Comfortable

Cons

  • 8.3 ounces 

This Buck showcases a crescent tip, making the blade thinner with a sharper point. I love this knife for skinning deer, scaling fish, and carving up meals in camp. This build promotes the use of the blade for fine-detail work such as scaling and skinning, but the D2 high carbon, high chromium tool steel blade is German-tank tough. And, it holds a significant edge while resisting corrosion.

The traditional cocobolo wood handle gives the knife a great look and the hand swell promotes a good in-the-hand feel. The blade is a clip-shape blade and features a thickness of .175 inches. The sheath could be better, but it serves its purpose, and the full-tang construction with integrated finger guard and a deep choil make this bowie hard to ignore. 

How I Made My Picks

No, I didn’t test every knife mentioned in the awards section. I did beat on several of them, which were noted in the “Why It Made the Cut” sections. Others were selected based on recommendations from other trusted outdoors people. 

If the knife can clean a fish, gut, and skin a deer and proved helpful around camp, it was labeled a solid bowie knife. Of course, lesser bowie knives with brittle blades, blades that won’t hold an edge, and models with slender, breakable handles were quickly sifted through and discarded. If the knife was given an award, there was a reason for it, and you can trust it as a solid knife that will serve the purposes indicated in the review. 

FAQs

Q: What are bowie knives used for?

Bowie knives are multi-purpose knives, and they can be used for everything from a knife fight to skinning a rabbit. Their multi-function nature makes these knives popular with the outdoor crowd.

Q: What is unique about a bowie knife? 

First, bowie knives look cool, but they serve many functions. Most unique, perhaps, is you can be using the knife to open a package of bacon one minute, and then the next, be whittling away at branches to create a deadfall trap system. I’ve used bowie knives to gut elk, scale crappie, and breast a dove. 

Q: What happened to the original bowie knife?

Rumors fly about this, but a bowie knife attributed to Jim Bowie’s big brother, Rezin Bowie, was donated to the Texas Ranger Hall of Fame Museum. Whether this is the exact bowie Jim used in the great Mississippi “Sandbar Fight” is unknown. The scabbard of the knife is engraved with a saying, “R.P. Bowie to Captain W. MY Lacey.”

Q: How long was the original bowie knife?

Western historians note the original Jim Bowie knife was likely 17 inches long. 

Q: How long should a bowie knife be?

This question will rial up most any knife guru. Some will say a bowie knife can be six inches long, but most put total knife length between 11 and 17 inches. 

Q: In what states are bowie knives illegal?

Knife laws are ever-changing, and some states even have knife laws that vary by county or district. Knife laws are also tricky in how they are worded, especially for bowie knives. A state like Arizona has knife laws that allow citizens to have any blade and carry that blade concealed. Then there are states like New York. New York knife laws state that it is illegal to own any knife adapted for use primarily as a weapon, but also note it’s legal to own a hunting knife. There is a gray area in some states, and I recommend visiting knifeup.com and reading up on the laws in your state. 

Final Thoughts on the Best Bowie Knives

Unless I’m headed into the backcountry with a pack on my back for an extended hunting or fishing trip, I have a bowie knife. There is a bowie knife in my truck, camper, kitchen, etc. I find so many uses for them, and most of these blades have been in my family for generations. A bowie knife makes a great family heirloom — five of mine have been passed to me — and they are simply a meat and potatoes knife. They don’t have a lot of flash and flare. Sure, they look cool, but at day’s end, bowie knives were built to serve various purposes, and the more you have a bowie knife close at hand, the more uses you’ll find for it.