We see the image of cowboys being a rough and tumble character that often carries a six-shooter and fixed blade knives, but do we ever ask why. This entertaining look at knives preferred by modern cowboys and do they differ from what the old west cowboys liked to carry.
The best length for a fixed blade knives will range between 3.5″ to 4.75″ depending on the blade length. With that being said, a Bowie knife simply isn’t practical at the length it spans.
Let me tell you the nuts and bolts about cowboy knife first…
The ethnic origin of cowboys and why knives were essential
Taking a look at any cowboy-themed movie and the image of a fixed blade knife always appears to be bigger than life. We often see large-scale bowie knives that are cumbersome and menacing akin to what Crocodile Dundee would consider a knife. It’s simply too comical for practical reasons as you will find out.
The real truth to the matter goes back to early American history and the European roots that reveal highly skilled cattle drivers.
As far back as 1725, the term “Vaquero” originated in Spain and describes the activity of managing cattle through riding on horseback. The roots and origins of this word likely derived from Arabic words that were documented in Latin as the word ‘Vacca’. This may have been derived from the Arabic word “Bakara or Bakhara” which translates to the word heifer, which we also use as a word for young female cattle.
Now, these Vaquero’s were an essential trade that moved cattle through New Mexico, Texas, and Mexico City. Their essential knife was a rather thin blade that had a sharp edge. It was used for preparing food and cutting meat from bones, cutting rope, and working leather. It was seldom ever used as a weapon.
- Post Civil War Era Cowboys
You might be interested to know that once the Civil War ended, both sides from the North and South were fed-up with what they experienced. Many veterans chose a cowboy lifestyle which was a booming business for those who didn’t want to return home. The knives they carried were the Confederate Bowie knife with scabbard or the Union soldier bowie knife.
Both sides used Bowie knives yet the Confederate side had more effective use of this weapon. It was large enough to be used as a hatchet and was great for chopping through wood and branches.
- Freed slaves
We often forget that many of the newly born cowboys who were previously slaves found a new life in the form of cowboys. with very little on their back, many who served in the Civil war fighting for the Confederates would still have their Bowie knife for protection. The D-Guard Bowie knife was the most common.
Many of these newly freed slaves found lucrative careers as black cowboys, cowboy trail cooks, rodeo entertainers, and fit perfectly into the ‘Cowboy Code’ that other cowboys all practiced.
- Ex-sailors from the Gulf of Mexico
Living life on the high seas was hard work for many who traveled the often dangerous trade routes within the Bermuda Triangle. But it might give you an idea where famous cowboy trail songs originated from since ex-sailors turned cowboys brought this tradition with them. Their favorite knife of the shipping trades often included the Cutlass which is a short saber.
It may have evolved further into the modern-day Machete and was more favorable in Mexican and South American territory as an agricultural tool. It can also be traced to ranching and cattle farming where large fields needing clearing for cattle.
Why fixed blade knives are popular for cowboys
Fixed blade knives are a common sight for most cowboys and are mainly used as multi-function tools. Since thunderstorms were common in the mid-west and on the cattle trail many cowboys would ditch their knives, and metal gear at the first sign of lightning in the area. A lightning strike while wearing anything metal could prove to be fatal for cowboys in the old west.
- Best length of knife blades
The optimal length for any fixed blade knives will range between 3.5″ to 4.75″ depending on the blade length. It also depends on the use it was meant for since most cowboys are going to need an all-around utility knife that’s good for a variety of tasks. With that being said, a Bowie knife simply isn’t practical at the length it spans.
- What these knives are used for?
As mentioned before, cowboy knives are used for practical usage that will be essential while riding for any length of time. Weight is also a big consideration, so a knife should be lightweight but easy to keep close to you for multiple tasks. Cooking, cutting, hunting, and general repair will all be essential, so a cowboy knife blade will often be thin and pointy rather than wide and cumbersome.
Where do modern cowboys carry their knives?
These days, cowboys are not the typical bunch who’ll spend their day riding the trails like they used to. There are many cowboys now that are more cosmetic than anything else. Then again, local ranchers will have a standard fixed blade used for cutting rope and other practical knife tasks. Modern cowboys who are also into hunting will carry them for protection or for preparing wild game.
- Knives on a belt
Due to many city laws, you don’t see too many people walking around with belt knives since the length of the blade needs to comply with city laws. Out in rural areas where laws are different, fixed blade knives will be more commonly found worn from the hip.
- Boot knives
A boot knife is typically seen as a self-protection defensive weapon. There are many styles to choose from and make it easier to conceal a sizable knife within your boot. Because of the lower gravity advantage, a boot knife is also essential for reducing the amount you carry with you while hunting or being outdoors. It’s often the last line of defense if you get into a hairy situation with dangerous individuals or wild animals.
As you can see, the evolution of what size fixed blade is good for cowboys will all differ based on history and the activity you use it for. As modern-day cowboys may not include the tools of the trade that came from historical roots and events, fixed blade knives still provide the universal function they were originally intended for.