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America’s First “Assault Weapon”: The “Bowie Knife”?

Monday, December 18, 2023

America’s First “Assault Weapon”: The “Bowie Knife”?

The title of this article may seem curious, but there is a point to it.  Consider the fact that “assault weapon” is an intentionally nebulous, malleable term created and promoted by anti-gun extremists with the stated intent of creating confusion.  A “weapon” can actually be anything that is simply used to inflict damage or bodily harm.  It can be specifically designed to be used as a weapon, but could it be the actual use of the item, not the design, that makes the ultimate determination as to whether it is, indeed, a “weapon”?

This may be a philosophical debate, but is an antique rifle hung above a fireplace—one never intended to be taken down, loaded, and fired—still a “weapon” because of its design, or has it now become a decoration because of its actual ornamental use?

To take an even deeper philosophical dive, is a chair’s existence in the universe somehow magically altered from furniture to “weapon” the moment someone picks it up to strike someone else?  Perhaps this is a loose variation on the quantum mechanics thought experiment of Schrödinger’s cat.

The chair is both furniture and weapon, and the rifle is both weapon and decoration, until someone “opens the box” to decide the application, thus determining how the items will actually exist in the world.

The ultimate truth is that something is only a weapon if it is used, or intended to be used, as one.  So an “assault weapon” can, technically, be any item used to “assault” someone.

But proponents of banning the possession of firearms by law-abiding US citizens have strived for decades to inculcate in the American psyche the notion that an “assault weapon” is a specific type of firearm; usually a semi-automatic rifle that incorporates a detachable magazine.

Today, the anti-gun industrial complex wants the image of an AR-15 to pop into your mind when it screams about banning “assault weapons,” but that wasn’t always the case.  In the early days of the use of the term—in the mid-1980s—it was often semi-automatic versions of the AK-47, MAC-10, or Uzi that were depicted with the sobriquet “assault weapon.”

The term is so malleable and undefinable by design, however, that extremists have also used it to describe countless handguns and shotguns, and the ability to utilize a detachable magazine is not always considered a prerequisite for inclusion as an “assault weapon.”  Indeed, even those who promote banning “assault weapons” are often so confused by their own term that they frequently either misidentify firearms, or simply cannot, or refuse to, offer a definition of the term.

In other words, those who wish to ban “assault weapons” will ultimately determine what is an “assault weapon,” the list of items banned will likely be far more inclusive than exclusive, and said list will also likely be subject to never-ending expansion.

In fact, the most recent version of a proposed federal ban on “assault weapons” would appear to ban ALL semi-automatic firearms, then “exempts” some semi-autos from the ban, and would require the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) to maintain a list of guns that would be legal under the new paradigm.

So, what does any of this have to do with the “Bowie knife”?  More than you might think.

Much like an “assault weapon,” a “Bowie knife” is fairly hard to define—at least, originally, when the term was created ~1830s.  The original “Bowie knife”—the one supposedly carried by frontiersman Jim Bowie that was initially “popularized” through accounts of his use of it at the Sandbar Fight in 1827—likely did not resemble what most today consider a Bowie knife.  And while today’s versions often vary in appearance, most are relatively large knives, carried in a sheath, and frequently include a crossguard and a clip-point.

Also much like an “assault weapon,” there’s nothing innovative or unique to a “Bowie knife”—either originally or currently—that makes it remarkably different from other knives.  It has a blade and a handle, just like most other knives, and is a design that is millennia old.  It is on the larger end of the spectrum of knives, but the same can be said for countless other knife designs that predate the “Bowie knife” by centuries, if not also millennia.

Similarly, “assault weapons” utilize the same technology for operating—including as related to storing, loading, discharging, and cycling ammunition—as has existed for well over a century.  In fact, the semi-automatic operation utilized by “assault weapons” was invented in the 19th century, mere decades after the “Bowie knife” came to be.  These firearms generally fire ammunition that is not only no more powerful than what most hunters use for harvesting deer, but is often much less powerful, ballistically speaking.

And just like with “assault weapons,” around the time the term “Bowie knife” was being more frequently used to describe certain styles of blades, laws that sought to regulate them began popping up around the country.  Again, the knife was not innovative or truly unique in any way, but because people attached a certain mystique to the name (just like with “assault weapons”), and the knife itself began growing in popularity (again, just like with “assault weapons”), it drew the attention of lawmakers determined to impose regulations on arms.

Second Amendment scholar and attorney David Kopel wrote two articles last year that expose the eerie similarities between how these knives were treated in the mid-to-late 19th century and semi-automatic firearms today, although that does not appear to have been the goal of his work.  One discusses some of the ways firearms and “Bowie knives” were regulated in America prior to 1900, and another looks at statutes between 1837 and 1899 that were specific to regulating “Bowie knives.”

One of the points raised by Kopel makes yet another argument for how “Bowie knives” were America’s first “assault weapon.”  It wasn’t until a single, high-profile incident took place that laws restricting “Bowie knives” really started being enacted.

In 1837, a debate between two Arkansas State Representatives escalated to the point of both drawing “Bowie knives,” with the end result being one dead, and one seriously wounded.  Of course, this was long before the Internet, television, or radio, and even the telegraph was still in the process of being developed for widespread use at the time, so news spread slowly in those days.  Nonetheless, a fatal stabbing in the Arkansas State House likely garnered a bit of national attention, and undoubtedly helped spur on some of the “Bowie knife” laws that were passed following the event.

In the same year the Arkansas fight took place, but before the actual altercation, two states—Mississippi and Alabama—enacted the first “Bowie knife” restrictions.  After the fight, Georgia passed its own restrictions, some of which were eventually declared unconstitutional.  The next year saw four states enact their own restrictions, and by 1859, a total of 16 states and territories had enacted some form of a restriction on “Bowie knives.”

By 1899, with 46 states included in the Union, 32 had laws on their books that referenced “Bowie knives” or a variant of the term, according to Kopel.

So, if you thought emotionalism driving legislation was a problem unique to modern times—due largely to the explosion of social media and the 24/7 instant news reporting of any tragedy—that’s probably not the case.  In fact, now that we do have the Internet, social media, and seemingly unlimited news outlets (even if most of the media tend to support rabidly anti-gun views), there are probably more opportunities today to fend off legislation that is emotionally driven, as there are more opportunities for the public to hear logic-based views countering emotional arguments.

Looking back at the spread of anti-“Bowie knife” legislation in the 19th century, two things should be noted.  First, at least one law that banned the sale of them was deemed unconstitutional, and in violation of the Second Amendment, when challenged in court.  Another court found the carrying of “Bowie knives” to be a right protected under the Second Amendment.

These court decisions from the mid-19th century are just two of many that eviscerate the anti-gun myth that the more recent rulings out of the US Supreme Court in District of Columbia v. Heller (2008), McDonald v. City of Chicago (2010), and New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. Bruen (2022) somehow invented the idea that the Second Amendment protects an individual right both to arms, and to carrying those arms.

Another interesting aspect of the comparison between “Bowie knives” and “assault weapons” is the fact that most of the legislative animus towards each has been geographically flipped.  In the 19th century, it was Southern states that predominantly looked to restrict the vilified knives, while the northeast largely ignored such restrictions.

Kopel even noted an interesting contrast to how the South was treating “Bowie knives” out of New Hampshire:

Like all of the Northeast, New Hampshire in mid-century had no interest in Bowie knife laws. But Bowie knives did appear in a legislative resolution that considered Bowie knives and revolvers to be effective for legitimate defense.”

Today, of course, Southern states tend to reject restrictions on “assault weapons,” while many states in the Northeast have adopted bans and other unconstitutional restrictions on them.

Eventually, the hyper-emotional reaction to “Bowie knives” from the 19th century waned, and today, most states consider them little different than any other knife.  No state currently bans their sale, as some tried to do way back when, and no state currently tries to dissuade their possession with prohibitive taxes for purchase or possession, as was imposed in the past.  And no state bans their mere possession.  Bans on sales, exorbitant taxes, and bans on possession are all, of course, methods today’s anti-arms extremists use to try to restrict our right to own “assault weapons.”

So, whether or not you agree with the hypothesis that “Bowie knives” were America’s first “assault weapon,” there is at least one conclusion to this discussion with which anyone who supports the Second Amendment can likely agree.

Rather than capitulate to the anti-“assault weapon” hysteria of today, as so many apparently did during the anti-“Bowi knife” hysteria of the 19th century, NRA and our supporters must continue to fight against the irrational, emotional arguments of those who promote disarming law-abiding Americans.  We are not willing to be “those” who are described in the aphorism widely attributed to philosopher George Santayana:

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

We must remember what happened to America’s first “assault weapon,” and reject the emotional, illogical call to impose restrictions on our right to arms, as those in the 19th century should have done with the imposed restrictions on “Bowie knives.”  The similarities between the two campaigns separated by roughly a century-and-a-half should be recognized, and rather than wait for states that act irrationally to eventually come to their senses, as was the case with “Bowie knives,” we need to defeat these emotionally-driven, anti-freedom agendas, and make sure these particular errors of the mid-to-late 19th century are not repeated.

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Established in 1975, the Institute for Legislative Action (ILA) is the "lobbying" arm of the National Rifle Association of America. ILA is responsible for preserving the right of all law-abiding individuals in the legislative, political, and legal arenas, to purchase, possess and use firearms for legitimate purposes as guaranteed by the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.