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The Bowie Knife AKA Arkansas Toothpick


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#1 Bryan Bondurant

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Posted 06 May 2011 - 07:24 PM

A few years ago I wrote a short story concerning a knife I grew up with. I called the knife "The Arkansas Toothpick" which was not correct. The knife which I now have in my possession is in fact a military dagger that was made by my grandfather and taken to North Africa in WW2. That knife is now being considered to be displayed in a museum in Arkansas.

At that time I was introduced to the controversy surrounding the use of the term "Toothpick" when describing daggers. Up to that time I was completely ignorant to the fact that "Arkansas Toothpick" was nothing more than a alternate name for a Bowie Knife. Back then I ended up exchanging emails with the wife of Bowie Historian Dr. Batson. That exchange was enough to clear up any questions I had as far as history concerning the Bowie and the term Toothpick. Since that time having left Asia and came home to Arkansas where I have had better access to historical artifacts and historians I am more convinced than ever there is nothing to the "Dagger is a Toothpick" Hollywood version of Arkansas Knife History.

As far as I know this is also the position of the Arkansas Historical Museum which houses many Bowies and the American Bladesmith Society Hall Of Fame blade collection. The Bowie is the Arkansas Toothpick and the Arkansas Toothpick is the Bowie. I suppose I could submit a formal question to the museum staff on the matter but having had many conversations at the forge under the oak tree there in the courtyard concerning the matter not one ABS or AKA member has even tried to argue that a Toothpick is anything but a Bowie and why should they? The term "Dagger" has been in use for hundreds of years and perfectly describes the double edged design Hollywood improperly referred to as a "Toothpick" for the purpose of making movies with no concern about historical facts.

Why bother bringing this up? I just saw another beautiful dagger referred to as a toothpick. Why bother using correct terminology here? Most of us are not only serious about what we make but serious about history too. If the term Toothpick historically referred to the Bowie then we need to use the correct term to forge history, not confuse or in the worst case, rewrite it.

Edited by Bryan Bondurant, 06 May 2011 - 07:44 PM.


#2 EdgarFigaro

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Posted 06 May 2011 - 11:10 PM

Has me wondering how the term came into being cause my understanding was that it had to be a fairly thin blade and most bowie's are anything but thin. Or maybe narrow is a better term. Referring to width. Perhaps part is that toothpick seems to fit a dagger more just when you think about it.

the toothpick Gil Hibben did for the Expendables kinda fits my idea of one, as it's essentially a very narrow bowie, but the blade also closely resembles a dagger.

The Batson's know their stuff though, I was unaware it could apply to any bowie though. To me that just doesn't make sense as there is nothing that would bring the term tooth pick to mind from some of the typical bowies we see.
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#3 EdgarFigaro

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Posted 06 May 2011 - 11:14 PM

http://arkansasroads....com/bowie.html


James Black is often credited with the invention of the Arkansas Toothpick, although this connection is somewhat weaker and is possibly due to confusion between the Arkansas Toothpick and the Bowie Knife. Arkansas Toothpicks and Bowie Knives manufactured in England were both sold as Bowie Knives. Still, Black was renowned for making throwing knives and if he did not invent the Arkansas Toothpick, he certainly contributed to its development and doubtless manufactured hundreds of them.

The Arkansas Toothpick is essentially a long, heavy, balanced dagger, slung in a holster across the back, drawn over the shoulder and flung optimistically at a distant enemy. When I say long, I mean a blade of fifteen to twenty-three inches. The Bowie Knife was also enormous. It was said that a Bowie had to be sharp enough to use as a razor, heavy enough to use as a hatchet, long enough to use as a sword and broad enough to use as a paddle.
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#4 Doug Lester

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Posted 06 May 2011 - 11:18 PM

First of all just about every large knife made in America or for the American market has been called a bowie knife at one time or another. So many types of knives-and not even necessarily large ones-have been called bowie knives that the term referes to no type of knife. It's trite, meaningless. Most of them are just the product of someone's immagination.

No one really knows what The Bowie Knife looked like, the one used as the Nachez Sandbar Knife Fight. The most complete discription give of it at the time was that it was a large butcher knife. That really speeks against it being what is usually thought of as an Arkansas Toothpick, a knife with a large triagular blade. Also add to that one thing might be known by different names in different areas and different things may be known by the same name in others.

Dr. Batson was undoubtedly a most knowledgeable man but there have also been other most knowledgeable men, and women, who would consider the two knives to be of of different morphologies. You have your opinion based on good evidence and others have their opinions based on equally good evidence and neither you nor they are any more right or wrong than the other. It's like Ewart Oakeshott showed an illustration of a single edged, long bladed, sword hilted weapon in The Archaeology of Weapons and labeled it as being a seax. Others, also students of anchient European weapons, would disagree and labed such a weapon as a single edged sword and not a seax. There is room for both deffinitions in the seax/sword question and there is in the Arkansas Toothpick/bowie question too.

I agree that knife-if it's the same one you're talking about- is a fantastic knife but I don't think any correction needs to made.

Doug

Looks like Ed and I were typing at the same time

Edited by Doug Lester, 06 May 2011 - 11:21 PM.

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#5 EdgarFigaro

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Posted 06 May 2011 - 11:30 PM

Yeah you can see some seax and easily see a bowie as well.
Now days we have a pretty good idea of the modern bowie, but the one he actually carried may have been nothing like these.

If it's the same one I'm thinking of, I'd say toothpick is a fitting title.

Hey i can call any style knife I want a bowie! BeauE...yeah lol

Edited by EdgarFigaro, 06 May 2011 - 11:31 PM.

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#6 Bryan Bondurant

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Posted 07 May 2011 - 01:44 AM

http://arkansasroads....com/bowie.html


James Black is often credited with the invention of the Arkansas Toothpick, although this connection is somewhat weaker and is possibly due to confusion between the Arkansas Toothpick and the Bowie Knife. Arkansas Toothpicks and Bowie Knives manufactured in England were both sold as Bowie Knives. Still, Black was renowned for making throwing knives and if he did not invent the Arkansas Toothpick, he certainly contributed to its development and doubtless manufactured hundreds of them.

The Arkansas Toothpick is essentially a long, heavy, balanced dagger, slung in a holster across the back, drawn over the shoulder and flung optimistically at a distant enemy. When I say long, I mean a blade of fifteen to twenty-three inches. The Bowie Knife was also enormous. It was said that a Bowie had to be sharp enough to use as a razor, heavy enough to use as a hatchet, long enough to use as a sword and broad enough to use as a paddle.


Edgar, This is the kind of total nonsense being presented as fact that is confusing people.

Readers, While on the surface it may seem to make sense that a double edged knife would make a smarter toothpick in reality it has nothing to do with the name as used. The name "Arkansas Toothpick" was an exaggeration having nothing to do with actual function and everything to do with bragging rights. If for matters of practicality one wishes to refer to any large blade as a "Toothpick" we can make that argument. The same with the name "Bowie" as we can call about any large knife a "Bowie" but that does not serve history well in my opinion.

If anyone does have historical arguments for the name Arkansas Toothpick to be used as a reference for a dagger exclusively, not a Bowie, I will be most interested to look into it.

#7 EdgarFigaro

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Posted 07 May 2011 - 09:44 PM

*nods* But I can see how the large dagger came to be known as the toothpick, it just makes more sense. Thus the name stuck even if it's not accurate.
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#8 EdgarFigaro

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Posted 07 May 2011 - 09:47 PM

I suppose in a way it's similar to damascus, which the majority of us are not making. We're doing pattern welded steel, but the modern use for Damascus has come to include pattern welded steel. Not really accurate, but people know what you're talking about when you say it.
Most don't immediately think of crucible steel as damascus, even thought that's the original one.

I wonder if the vikings had a term they used to refer to pattern welding.
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#9 EdgarFigaro

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Posted 07 May 2011 - 09:51 PM

Anyone have an email address for Mark Zalesky? I bet he could shed some light on the topic.
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#10 Alan Longmire

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Posted 08 May 2011 - 07:05 AM

Anyone have an email address for Mark Zalesky? I bet he could shed some light on the topic.


The best way to get hold of him is through the Knife World Books website.

The horse is so long gone out of the gate on this one that the barn rotted years ago, rendering it a futile exercise to try and shut the door... :lol:

#11 EdgarFigaro

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Posted 09 May 2011 - 01:09 AM

That's probably the truth!
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#12 Bryan Bondurant

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Posted 09 May 2011 - 10:15 AM

I disagree, most are completely unfamiliar with the argument much less have they taken a side in it. Anyone that is working with these type blade patterns is going to have the subject come up so its up to us all to have the best information available for our customers.

Ever heard of buyers remorse? You have a knife laying out on your table a guy walks up to and loves. You sell him a Arkansas Toothpick which is a big honking dagger, very well made. Said buyer then goes on to have much interest in the subject and gains access to relevant information then comes to the conclusion that a Toothpick is a Bowie and Bowie is a Toothpick. If the original knife had been presented as a dagger all is well. However if it was sold as a "Toothpick" what light will that put on the maker and or seller?

I'm not suggesting anyone go off on a witch hunt but its up to us to be knowledgeable and professional on these matters. Anyone that is making and selling a "Toothpick" because they believe a dagger is a toothpick should be as well educated in the arguments for doing so as they should be in the arguments for proper heat treating of steel to make a high quality knife. Anything less does not serve your customers, your reputation, or history.

While Hollywood is a great market for knives and swords they are not in any way to be counted on to maintain historical accuracy when it comes to weapons. The bigger the gun, the broader the sword, the better it looks on camera for the big fight scene.

#13 Alan Longmire

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Posted 09 May 2011 - 11:51 AM

I feel your pain, Bryan, fear not. :lol:

What I meant with that folksy statement was that while we can educate as many people as we come in contact with, the misinformation has been out there long enough that it always will be. Those who study will find the truth, the rest won't care, although they may argue about it.

By all means, spread the word! B) There will always be a ready supply of folks who believe that toothpick refers ONLY to a dagger; that 12th-century swords weighed 30 pounds; that you can cut through a .50 BMG barrel in one swipe with a properly tempered katana; and that George Washington chopped down a cherry tree and told his father. ;)

You can educate some people, but unfortunately it's illegal to kill the morons. :lol:

#14 Doug Lester

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Posted 09 May 2011 - 01:02 PM

The main problem with your agruement is that word usage changes. At the time of the American Civil War if you spoke of laying anti-shipping mines people would snicker behind their hands when they saw you. A mine was just that, a shaft dug in the dirt. So an anti-shipping mine would be a shaft dug in the water. A double action revolver was once considered to be a gun that would both cock and release the hammer with a pull of the trigger. Now it refers to a revolver that can be fired that way or from a pre-cocked hammer.

You are also dealing with a coloquialism here. Yes, there is undoubtedly evidence that the term Arkansas Toothpick was applied to the bowie knife. It is also quite possible that it could have been applied to both the bowie knife and a large dagger, especially the ones with triangular blades. The two terms have also been used to describe two different styles of knives. That is why I like to stick with morphological descriptions than type names as much as possible.

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#15 Robert Suter

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Posted 09 May 2011 - 01:43 PM

edit:

Edited by Robert Suter, 22 May 2011 - 06:40 PM.

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#16 Doug Lester

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Posted 09 May 2011 - 01:55 PM

Yes, but I still miss the annual moron hunt. It was a great excuse to get the neighbors together at the castle. :P

Doug
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#17 Robert Suter

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Posted 09 May 2011 - 02:03 PM

edit:

Edited by Robert Suter, 22 May 2011 - 06:40 PM.

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#18 Al Massey

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Posted 20 May 2011 - 08:47 PM

Some of us just consider the Bowie a 19th century scramaseax.

#19 Doug Lester

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Posted 20 May 2011 - 11:58 PM

Al, there was a discussion on another thread, maybe on another site. I was supposed that if a knifesmith back in England in the early-mid 19th century was told to make a blade "just like James Bowies" and having no idea what it looked like, other than it was large, he might go to what was known from his culture. That would be broken back seax with a concave clip. He just took that form, gave the clip a false edge and the cutler put a guard and a butt cap on it. It was labeled a bowie knife, just like the one that James Bowie used, and shipped of to America to be sold to a gullable public. A bowie knife could well be more English than American.

Doug
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#20 Ken Burbank

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Posted 21 May 2011 - 10:19 AM

" Arkansas Toothpick " Is this maybe just our American sarcasm showing itself , like alley sweeper , room broom , or equaliser ?
Maybe we should be a little grateful that we don't have the answers , it leaves us room to do our own interpretations . Otherwise we would have to make them all the same . :blink:
I have a book by George Cameron Stone on antique arms and armour , in it you can find many generic Bowie blade shapes , as well as many dagger shapes , from centuries before europeans ever saw this continent . ( hawks too )I think the two names are just new emblems on an old car . Hammer down !
Ken Burbank




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