The Volokh Conspiracy
Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent
This post describes and analyzes nineteenth century state statutes on Bowie knives. It is a companion to my post The legal history of bans on firearms and Bowie knives before 1900, which described case law.
As detailed in that article, the term "Bowie knife" because popular for knife marketing in America and Great Britain after Jim Bowie used a traditional knife at a famous "sandbar fight" on the lower Mississippi River in 1827. Statutes specifically regulating the "Bowie knife" began with Mississippi in 1837, and continued for the rest of the century.
Among the 220 state or territorial statutes with the words "Bowie knife" or "Bowie knives" only 5 were just about Bowie knives (along with their close relative, the Arkansas toothpick). Almost always, Bowie knives were regulated the same as other well-known knives that were well-suited for fighting against humans and animals–namely "dirks" or "daggers." That same regulatory category frequently also included "sword-canes." About 98% of statutes on "Bowie knives" treated them the same as other blade arms. Bowie knives did not set any precedent for a uniquely high level of control. They were regulated the same as a butcher's knife.
Bowie knives and many others were often regulated like handguns. Both types of arms are concealable, effective for defense, and easy to misuse for offense.
For Bowie knives, handguns, and other arms, a few states prohibited sales. The very large majority, however, respected the right to keep and bear arms, including Bowie knives. These states allowed open carry while some of them forbade concealed carry. In the 19th century, legislatures tended to prefer that people carry openly; today, legislatures tend to favor concealed carry. Based on history and precedent, legislatures may regulate the mode of carry, as the the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed in New York State Rifle and Pistol Association v. Bruen, 142 S. Ct. 2111 (2022).
Besides regulating the mode of carry, many states restricted sales to minors. They also enacted special laws against misuse of arms.
Of the 220 state or territorial statutes cited in this post, 114 come from just 5 states: Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Virginia, and North Carolina. This is partly because these were the only states whose personal property tax statutes specifically included "Bowie knife" in their lists of taxable arms, along with other knives, such as "dirks."
Bowie knife. This was marketing and newspaper term for old or new knives suitable for fighting, hunting, and utility. There was no common feature that distinguished a "Bowie knife" from older knives. For example, a "Bowie knife" could have a blade sharpened on only one edge, or on two edges. It could be straight or curved. It might or might not have a handguard. There was no particular length. The legal history of bans on firearms and Bowie knives before 1900.
Arkansas toothpick. A loose term for some Bowie knives popular in Arkansas. The legal history of bans on firearms and Bowie knives before 1900.
Dagger. A straight knife with two cutting edges and a handguard.
Dirk. Originally, a Scottish fighting knife with one cutting edge. Harold L. Peterson, Daggers & Fighting Knives of the Western World 60 (1968). According to a Nov. 19, 2022, email to me from Mark Zalesky, publisher of Knife Magazine, "Dirks in America were small stabbing weapons, usually small daggers but sometimes single edged." Many 19th century laws forbade concealed carry of "dirks" and/or "daggers." The statutory formula of "bowie knife + (dirk and/or dagger)" covered fixed-blade knives well-suited for defense or offense. The category does not include pocket knives.
Sword-cane. A sword concealed in a walking stick. Necessarily with a slender blade.
Slungshot. A slungshot is a rope looped on both ends, with a lead weight or other small, dense item at one end. It helps sailors accurately cast mooring lines and other ropes. A slungshot rope that is shortened to forearm length and spun rapidly is an effective blunt force weapon.
Colt. Similar to a slungshot. 1 Shorter Oxford English Dictionary 444 ("4. A short piece of weighted rope used as a weapon").
Knucks, knuckles. Linked rings or a bar, often made of metal, with finger holes. They make the fist a more potent weapon.
Revolver. A handgun in which the ammunition is held in a rotating cylinder.
Pistol. Often a generic term for handguns. Sometimes used to indicate non-revolvers, as in a law covering "pistols or revolvers."
I started with the Appendix to Clayton E. Cramer, Concealed Weapon Laws of Early Republic: Dueling, Southern Violence, and Moral Reform (1999), plus the Appendix to Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh's Fourth Circuit supplemental brief in Bianchi v. Frosh. The brief argues that 19th century laws about Bowie knives provide a historical analogy to justify the Maryland legislature's ban on many common modern rifles.
Then I searched the HeinOnline Sessions Law Library for occurrences of "bowie" within 5 words of "knife." After that, the same search, but with "knives." In some state databases, I searched for "bowie." Finally, I read the Declaration of Robert Spitzer, which is Exhibit E of the California Attorney General's Supplemental Brief in Response to the Court's Order of September, 26, 2022, Duncan v. Bonta, No. 17-cv-1017-BEN-JLB (S.D. Cal. Nov. 10, 2022). The case involves a challenge to a California statute to confiscate magazines over 10 rounds.
Reviewing the Spitzter Declaration led to finding three laws I had missed: an 1871 D.C. ordinance, an 1893 Rhode Island statute, and another enactment of a Montana anti-dueling statute. Spitzer also lists 16 municipal ordinances about Bowie knives in the 19th century, which are summarized below, after the state-by-state presentation.
Citations: Some session laws cites below exceed the information required by the Blue Book. I follow the convention of calling each separate enactment in annual session laws a "chapter." That is, "chap. 68" was the 68th law enacted by the state legislature that year. The official state session laws sometimes use other words, such as "Act 68" or "No. 68." Not all session laws provide a number for the bills enacted in a given session.
This post is part of a law review article I am writing, so it has not been cite-checked by journal editors; citations might have typos or similar errors. Nemo sine vitiis est (no one is without faults).
The first "Bowie knife" law was enacted by Mississippi on May 13, 1837. The statute punished three types of misuse of certain arms: "any rifle, shot gun, sword cane, pistol, dirk, dirk knife, bowie knife, or any other deadly weapon."
It was forbidden to use such arms in a fight in a city, town, or other public place. It became illegal to "exhibit the same in a rude, angry, and threatening manner, not in necessary self defence." Finally, if one of the arms were used in a duel and caused a death, the duelist would liable for the debts owed by the deceased. 1837 Miss. L. pp. 291-92. All these provisions were enacted by some other states.
Another Bowie knife law was also signed on May 13 by Governor Charles Lynch. The state legislature's incorporation of the town of Sharon empowered the local government to pass laws "whereby . . . the retailing and vending of ardent spirits, gambling, and every species of vice and immorality may be suppressed, together with the total inhibition of the odious and savage practice of wearing dirks, bowie knives, or pistols." 1837 Miss. L. p. 294. Similar language appeared in the incorporation of towns in 1839 and 1840. 1839 Miss. L. chap. 168, p. 385 (Emery); 1840 Miss. L. chap. 111, p. 181 (Hernando).
Starting in 1841, the state annual property tax included "one dollar on each and every Bowie Knife." 1841 Miss. Chap. 1, p. 52; 1844 Miss. chapter 1, p. 58. The tax was cut to fifty cents in 1850. 1850 Miss. chap. 1, p. 43. But then raised back to a dollar, and extended to each "Arkansas tooth-pick, sword cane, duelling or pocket pistol." 1854 Miss. Chap. 1, p. 50. In the next legislature, pocket pistols were removed from the tax. 1856-57 Miss. L. chap. 1, p. 36 ("each bowie knife, dirk knife, or sword cane").
When the Civil War came, the legislature prohibited "any Sheriff or Tax-Collector to collect from any tax payer the tax heretofore or hereafter assessed upon any bowie-knife, sword cane, or dirk-knife, and that hereafter the owner of any howie-knife, sword-cane or dirk-knife shall not be required to give in to the tax assessor either of the aforesaid articles as taxable property." 1861-62 Miss. L. chap. 125, p. 134 (Dec. 19, 1861). That was a change for before, when tax collectors were allowed to confiscate arms from people who could not pay the property tax.
After the Confederacy surrendered, the legislature was still controlled by Confederates, and an arms licensing law for the former slaves was enacted.
[N]o freeman, free negro or mulatto, not in the military service of the United States Government, and not licensed so to do by the board of police of his or her county, shall keep or carry fire-arms of any kind, or any ammunition, dirk or bowie knife, and on conviction thereof, in the county court, shall be punished by fine, not exceeding ten dollars, and pay the costs of such proceedings, and all such arms or ammunition shall be forfeited to the informer, and it shall be the duty of every civil and military officer to arrest any freedman, free negro or mulatto found with any such arms or ammunition, and cause him or her to be committed for trial in default of bail.
1865 Miss. L. chap. 23, pp. 165-66. As detailed in Justice Alito's opinion and Justice Thomas's concurrence McDonald v. Chicago, laws such as these prompted Congress to pass the Second Freedmen's Bureau Bill, the Civil Rights Act, and the Fourteenth Amendment, all with the express intent of protecting the Second Amendment rights of the freedmen. 561 U.S. 742 (2010).
After the war, handguns and knives were again subject to the state property tax. The Auditor of Public Accounts had to "furnish each clerk of the board of supervisors" with a list of taxable property owned by each person. This included "pistols, dirks, bowie-knives, sword-canes, watches, jewelry, and gold and silver plate."1871 Miss. L. chap. 33; 1871 Miss. L. pp. 819-20; 1876 Miss. L. chap. 104, pp. 131, 134; 1878 Miss. L. chap. 3, pp. 27, 29; 1880 Miss. L. chap. 6, p. 21; 1892 Miss. L. chap. 74, pp. 194, 198; 1894 Miss. L. chap. 32, p. 27; 1897 Miss. L. ch. 10, p. 10.
Concealed carry was outlawed for "any bowie knife, pistol, brass knuckles, slung shot or other deadly weapon of like kind or description." There was an exception for persons "threatened with, or having good and sufficient reason to apprehend an attack." Also excepted were travelers, but not "a tramp." Sales to minors or to intoxicated persons were outlawed. A father who permitted a son under 16 to carry concealed was criminally liable. Students at "any university, college, or school" could not carry concealed. 1878 Miss. L. chap. 46, p. 175-76.
The forbidden items for concealed carry were expanded in 1896: "any bowie knife, dirk knife, butcher knife, pistol, brass or metalic knuckles, sling shot, sword or other deadly weapon of like kind or description." 1896 Miss. L. chap. 104, pp. 109-10. Two years later, the legislature corrected the spelling of "metallic," and provided that the jury "may return a verdict that there shall be no imprisonment," in which case the judge would impose a fine. 1898 Miss. L. chap. 68, p. 86.
The legislature imposed a $100 per knife tax on the sale, or transfer, or import of any "Bowie-Knives or Arkansaw Tooth-picks," or "any knife or weapon that shall in form, shape or size, resemble" them. The $100 tax was equivalent to about $2,600 dollars today. (Fed. Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, Consumer Price Index 1800-; 2022=884.6. 1837 = 34.)
Additionally, if any person carrying one "shall cut or stab another with such knife, by reason of which he dies, it shall be adjudged murder, and the offender shall suffer the same as if the killing had been by malice aforethought." Acts Passed at the Called Session of the General Assembly of the State of Alabama, chap. 11, p. 7 (Tuscaloosa: Ferguson & Eaton, 1837) (June 30, 1837).
Then in 1839 Alabama outlawed concealed carry of "any species of fire arms, or any bowie knife, Arkansaw tooth-pick, or any other knife of the like kind, dirk, or any other deadly weapon." Acts Passed at the Annual Session of the General Assembly of the State of Alabama, chap. 77, pp. 67-68 (Tuscaloosa: Hale & Eaton, 1838 ) (Feb. 1, 1839).
According to the U.S. Supreme Court's analysis of the historical record, concealed carry bans are constitutionally unproblematic, as long as open carry is allowed. Or vice versa. The American legal tradition of the right to arms allows the legislature to regulate the mode of carry. New York State Rifle and Pistol Association v. Bruen, 142 S. Ct. 2111 (2022).
The exorbitant $100 transfer tax was replaced with something less abnormal. The annual state taxes on personal property included $2 on "every bowie knife or revolving pistol." 1851-52 Ala. chap. 1, p. 3. Even that amount was hefty for a poor person. As the defense counsel in a 1859 Texas case had pointed out, a person who could not afford a firearm could buy a common butcher knife (which fell within the expansive definition of "Bowie knife") for 50 cents. Cockrum v. State, 24 Tex. 394 (1859). As described next, the cost of manufacturing a high quality Bowie knife was a little less than $3, which approximately implies a retail price around $6. Whether a knife cost 50 cents or 6 dollars, an annual $2 tax likely had an effect in discouraging ownership, as the tax was so high in relation to the knife's value. In just a few years, the cumulative annual taxes on the knife would far exceed the knife's cost.
The legislature having aggressively taxed Bowie knives, there were not enough of them in Alabama when the Civil War began in 1861. The legislature belatedly recognized that the militia was underarmed. In military crisis, the legislature appropriated funds for the state armory at Mobile to manufacture Bowie knives:
Whereas there is a threatened invasion of our State by those endeavoring to subjugate us; and whereas there is a great scarcity of arms, and the public safety requires weapons to be placed in the hands of our military, therefore
. . . [S]ix thousand dollars . . . is hereby appropriated . . . to purchase one thousand Bowie-knife shaped pikes [similar to a spear], and one thousand Bowie knives for the use of the 48th regiment, Alabama militia.
The Governor was authorized to draw further on the treasury, as he saw appropriate, "to cause arms of a similar, with such improvements as he may direct, to be manufactured for any other regiment or battalion of militia, or other troops." 1861 Ala. L. chap. 22, pp. 214-15 (Nov. 27, 1861).
If the legislatures starting in 1837 had not suppressed the people's acquisition of militia-type knives, then the 1861 wartime legislature might not have been forced to divert scarce funds to manufacture Bowie knives for the militia. The men and youth of Alabama militia could have just armed themselves in the ordinary course of affairs, buying large knives for themselves for all legitimate uses.
The legislature had appropriated $6,000 to buy 2,000 Bowie knives. This works out to $3 manufacturing cost per knife, not counting the cost of the wooden shaft for the pikes, which was perhaps more expensive than the handle of a knife.
A little later, a wartime tax of 5% on net profits was imposed on many businesses, including "establishments for manufacturing or repairing shoes, harness, hats, carrigos [horse-drawn carriages], wagons, guns, pistols, pikes, bowie knives." 1862 Ala. chap. 1, p. 8.
An 1881 concealed carry ban applied to "a bowie knife, or any other knife, or instrument of like kind or description, or a pistol, or fire arms of any other kind or description, or any air gun." "[E]vidence, that the defendant has good reason to apprehend an attack may be admitted in the mitigation of the punishment, or in justification of the offense."
Throughout the 19th century, and all over the United States, grand and petit juries often refused to enforce concealed carry laws against defendants who had been acting peaceably. The statute attempted to address the problem: "grand juries . . . shall have no discretion as to finding indictments for a violation of this, act . . . if the evidence justifies it, it shall be their duty to find and present the indictment." To make the law extra-tough, "the fines under this act shall be collected in money only" (rather than allowing payment by surrender of produce, livestock, personal chattels, etc.). 1880-81 Ala. L. chap. 44, pp. 38-39.
The state property tax continued, with variations on the tax amount and what arms were subject to taxation. Shortly after the end of the Civil War, the unreconstructed white supremacist legislature enacted a harsh tax, designed to disarm poor people of any color. It was $2 on "all pistols or revolvers" possessed by "private persons not regular dealers holding them for sale." For "all bowie-knives, or knives of the like description," the tax was $3. If the tax were not paid, the county assessor could seize the arms. To recover the arms, the owner had to pay the tax plus a 50% penalty. After 10 days, the assessor could sell the arms at auction. 1865-66 Ala. chap. 1, p. 7 (Feb. 22, 1866); 1866-67 Ala. L. chap. 260, p. 263.
Later, the arms seizure provisions were removed, and the tax reduced to levels for other common household goods. "All dirks and bowie knives, sword canes, pistols, on their value, three-fourths of one percent; and fowling pieces and guns, on their value, at the rate of seventy-five cents on the one hundred dollars." 1874-75 Ala. chap. 1, p. 6.
State law provided that county assessors could require a person to disclose under oath the taxable property he owned, by answering questions such as "What is the value of your household and kitchen furniture, taxable library, jewelry, silverware, plate, pianos and other musical instruments, paintings, clocks, watches, gold chains, pistols, guns, dirks and bowie-knives . . ." The tax rate was 3/4 of 1% of the value. 1875-76 Ala. chap. 2, p. 46; 1876-77 Ala. L. chap. 2, p. 4.
The tax was cut in 1882 to 55 cents on the dollar for "silverware, ornaments and articles of taste, pianos and other musical instruments, paintings, clocks, gold Furniture, and silver watches, and gold safety chains; all wagons or other vehicles; all mechanical tools and farming implements; all dirks and bowie knives, swords, canes, pistols and guns; all cattle, horses, mules, studs, jacks and-jennets, and race horses; all hogs, sheep and goats." Ala. chap. 61, p. 71. Then it was raised to 60 cents on each 100 dollars of value, for inter alia, "all dirks and bowie knives, swords, canes, pistols and guns; all cattle, horses, mules, studs, jacks and jennets and race horses; all hogs, sheep and goats." 1884 Ala. L. chap. 1, p. 6.
Separately, the legislature imposed occupational taxes. At the time, state sales taxes were rare, and the occupational tax levels sometimes approximated the amount that a vendor might have collected in sales taxes. "For dealers in pistols, bowie knives and dirk knives, whether the principal stock in trade or not, twenty-five dollars." 1874 Ala. L. ch. 1, p. 41. See also 1875-76 Ala. chap. 1, p. 82 ($50); 1886 Ala. L. chap. 4, p. 36 (adding "pistol cartridges"); 1892 Ala. L. chap. 95, p. 183 ($300, "provided that any cartridges whether called rifle or pistol cartridges or by any other name that can be used in a pistol shall be deemed pistol cartridges within the meaning of this section"). Finally, in 1898, the license for pistol, bowie, and dirk sellers become $100. Separately, there was a $5 tax for wholesale dealers in pistol and rifle cartridges, raised to $10 for dealers in towns of 20,000 or more. The wholesale license also authorized retail sales. 1898 Ala. chap. 9036, p. 190.
State legislative revisions to municipal charters gave a municipality the power "to license dealers in pistols, bowie-knives and dirk-knives." 1878 Ala. L. chap. 314, p. 437 (Uniontown); 1884 Ala. L. chap. 314, p. 552 (Uniontown) (adding dealer in "brass knuckles"; "the sums charged for such licenses" may "not exceed the sums established by the revenue laws of the State . . ."); 1884-85 Ala. chap. 197, p. 323 (Tuscaloosa) ("to license and regulate pistols or Shooting galleries, the game of quoits, and all kind and description of games of chance played in a public place; . . . and dealers in pistols, bowie-knives and shotguns or fire arms, and knives of like kind or description") (unusually broad, not repeated for other charters); 1888 Ala. L. chap. 550, p. 965 (Faunsdale); 1890 Ala. chap. 357, p. 764 (Uniontown); 1890 Ala. L. chap. 573, p. 1317 (Decatur) (to license dealers in "pistols, or pistol cartridges, bowie knives, dirk knives, whether principal stock in trade or not, $100.00."); 1892 Ala. L. chap. 140, p. 292 (Demopolis) (same as Decatur); 1894 Ala. L. chap. 345, p. 616 (Columbia) (same); 1894-95 Ala. chap. 521, p. 1081 (Tuskaloosa) (to license and collect an annual tax on "gun shops or gun repair shops" and "dealers in pistols or pistol cartridges or bowie knives or dirk knives."); 1896 Ala. chap. 62, p. 71 (Uniontown) ("to license . . . dealers in pistols, bowie knives, dirk knives or brass knuckles"); 1898-99 Ala. chap. 549, p. 1046 (Fayette) (maximum dealer license fee shall not exceed "Pistols, pistol cartridges, bowie knives, dirk knives, whether principal stock in trade or not, $50.00"); 1898 Ala. chap. 566, p. 1102 (Uniontown) (same as previous Uniontown charter); 1898 Ala. 704, p. 1457 (Uniontown) (same).
As described in the companion post, The legal history of bans on firearms and Bowie knives before 1900, the legislature in 1837 declared:
that it shall not be lawful for any merchant or vender of wares or merchandize in this State, or any other person or persons whatever, to sell, or to offer to sell, or to keep or to have about their persons, or elsewhere any . . . Bowie or any other kinds of knives, manufactured and sold for the purpose of wearing or carrying the same as arms of offence or defence; pistols, dirks, sword-canes, spears, &c., shall also be contemplated in this act, save such pistols as are known and used as horseman's pistols.
Acts of the General Assembly of the State of Georgia Passed in Milledgeville at an Annual Session in November and December, 1837, pp. 90-91 (Milledgeville: P. L. Robinson, 1838) (Dec. 25, 1837).
The Georgia Supreme Court held all of the law to violate the Second Amendment, except a section outlawing concealed carry. Nunn v. State, 1 Ga. 243 (1846).
After the November 1860 election of Abraham Lincoln, with a secession crisis in progress, the Georgia legislature forbade "any person other than the owner" to give "any slave or free person of color, any gun, pistol, bowie knife, slung shot, sword cane, or other weapon used for purpose of offence or defence." The act was not be construed to prevent "owners or overseers from furnishing a slave with a gun for the purpose of killing birds, &c., about the plantation of such owner or overseer." 1860 Ga. L. chap. 64, pp. 56-57.
An 1870 statute forbade open or concealed carry of "any dirk, bowie-knife, pistol or revolver, or any kind of deadly weapon" at "any court of justice, or any general election ground or precinct, or any other public gathering," except for militia musters. 1870 Ga. L. chap. 285, p. 421; 1879 Ga. L. chap. 266, p. 64 (creating law enforcement officer exception).
The old 1837 statute against concealed carry was updated in 1882 to eliminate the exception for "horsemen's pistol." Thus, concealed carry remained illegal with "any pistol, dirk, sword in a cane, spear, Bowie-knife, or any other kind of knives manufactured and sold for the purpose of offense and defense." 1882-83 Ga. L. chap. 94, pp. 48-49. Any "kind of metal knucks" was added in 1898. 1898 Ga. L. chap. 103, p. 60.
Furnishing "any minor" with "any pistol, dirk, bowie knife or sword cane" was outlawed in 1876. 1876 Ga. L. chap. 128 (O. no. 63), p. 112.
A $25 occupational tax was enacted in 1882 for "all dealers in pistols, revolvers, dirk or Bowie knives." 1882-833 Ga. L. chap. 18, p. 37. The tax was later raised to $100, adding dealers of "pistol or revolver cartridges." 1884-85 Ga. L. chap. 52, p. 23; 1886 Ga. L. chap. 54, p. 17. Then the tax was reduced to $25. 1888 Ga. L. chap. 123, p. 22. But raised back to $100 in 1890. 1890 Ga. L. chap. 131, p. 38. In 1892, "metal knucks" were added, and the ammunition expanded to "shooting cartridges." 1892 Ga. L. chap. 133. p. 25. The tax was cut to $25 in 1894. 1894 Ga. L. chap. 151, p. 21; 1896 Ga. L. chap. 132, p. 25; 1898 Ga. L. p. 25 (changing ammunition to "shooting cartridges, pistol or rifle cartridges").
The state property tax statute required taxpayers to disclose all sorts of personal and business property, including by answering, "What is the value of your guns, pistols, bowie knives and such articles."1884 Ga. L. chap. 457, p. 30; 1886 Ga. L. chap. 101, pp. 26, 28; 1888 Ga. L. chap. 103, p. 261; 1889 Ga. L. chap. 640, p. 993. The same question was included in the municipal charter for the town of Jessup. 1888 Ga. L. chap. 103, p. 261. And in the new charter for Cedartown. 1889 Ga. L. chap. 640, p. 993.
South Carolina (1838).
The legislature received a "petition of sundry citizens of York, praying the passage of a law to prevent the wearing of Bowie Knives, and to exempt managers of elections from militia duty." A member "presented the presentment of the Grand Jury of Union District, in relation to carrying Bowie knives, and retailing spirituous liquors." The knife and liquor issues were referred to the Judiciary Committee. 1838 S.C. L. (Journal to the Proceedings), pp. 29, 31.
The legislature did not act any law with the words "bowie knife" in 1838, or in the 19th century.
Like Georgia, Tennessee enacted Bowie knife legislation just a few weeks after a nationally infamous crime. In December, two members of the Arkansas House of Representatives had fought with Bowie knives on the floor of House, and one had killed the other. See The legal history of bans on firearms and Bowie knives before 1900.
In January 1838, the Tennessee legislature statute forbade sale or transfer of "any Bowie knife or knives, or Arkansas tooth picks, or any knife or weapon that shall in form, shape or size resemble a Bowie knife or any Arkansas tooth pick."
Further, if a person "shall maliciously draw or attempt to draw" such a concealed knife "for the purpose of sticking, cutting, awing, or intimidating any other person," the person would be guilty of a felony. Whether the carrying was open or concealed, if a person in "sudden rencounter, shall cut or stab another person with such knife or weapon, whether death ensues or not, such person so stabbing or cutting shall be guilty of a felony." Civil officers who arrested and prosecuted a defendant under the act would receive a $50 per case bonus; the Attorney General would receive $20 for the same, to be paid by the defendant. Acts Passed at the First Session of the Twenty-Second General Assembly of the State of Tennessee: 1837-8, chap. 137, pp. 200-201 (Nashville: S. Nye & Co., 1838) (Jan. 21, 1838).
The concealed carry ban was upheld against a state constitution challenge. Aymette v. State, 21 Tenn. (2 Hum.) 154 (1840). The court said that the right to arms was an individual right to keep militia-type arms, and a Bowie knife would be of no use to a militia. The legal history of bans on firearms and Bowie knives before 1900.
The 1838 law against drawing a Bowie knife applied even against crime victims who had drawn in self-defense, such as when Richard Day drew a knife against a violent home invader. The state supreme court noted that laws against selling and carrying Bowie knives were "generally disregarded in our cities and towns." Day v. State, 37 Tenn. (5 Sneed.) 496 (1857). Likewise, a post-Reconstruction statute, described in The legal history of bans on firearms and Bowie knives before 1900, allowed carrying only of Army or Navy type pistols. When a person's "life had been threatened within the previous hour by a dangerous and violent man, who was in the wrong," the victim carried a concealed pistol that was not an Army or Navy type. The conviction was upheld, citing Day v. State. Coffee v. State, 72 Tenn. (4 Lea.) 245 (1880)
The legislature in 1856 forbade selling, loaning, or giving any minor "a pistol, bowie-knife, dirk, or Arkansas tooth-pick, or hunter's knife." The act "shall not be construed so as to prevent the sale, loan, or gift to any minor of a gun for hunting." 1855-56 Tenn. L. chap. 81, p. 92.
In October 1861, after Tennessee had seceded from the Union, all the laws against importing, selling, or carrying "pistols, Bowie knives, or other weapons" were suspended for the duration of the war. 1861 Tenn. L. chap. 23, pp. 16-17.
In 1869, the legislature forbade carrying any "pistol, dirk, bowie-knife, Arkansas tooth-pick," any weapon resembling a bowie knife or Arkansas toothpick, "or other deadly or dangerous weapon" while "attending any election" or at "any fair, race course, or public assembly of the people." 1869-70 Tenn. L. chap. 22, pp. 23-24.
A few weeks after the Arkansas legislative crime, Virginia made it illegal to "habitually or generally" carry concealed "any pistol, dirk, bowie knife, or any other weapon of the like kind." If a habitual concealed carrier were prosecuted for murder or felony, and the weapon had been removed from concealment within a half hour of the infliction of the wound, the court had to formally note the fact. Even if the defendant were acquitted or discharged, he could be prosecuted within a year for the unlawful carry. Or alternatively, in the original prosecution, a jury that acquitted for the alleged violent felony still had to consider whether the defendant was a habitual carrier, drew within the half-hour period, and if so, convict the defendant of the concealed carry misdemeanor. Acts of the General Assembly of Virginia, Passed at the Session of 1838, chap. 101, pp. 76-77 (Richmond: Thomas Ritchie, 1838) (Feb. 3, 1838).
The law was simplified in 1847 to simply provide a fine for habitual concealed carry by "[a]ny free person," with "one moiety of the recovery to the person who shall voluntarily cause a prosecution for the same." 1847 Va. L. p. 110; 1870 Va. L. chap. 349, p. 510.
An 1881 statute forbade concealed carry, even if not habitual, of "any pistol, dirk, bowie-knife, razor, slung-shot, or any weapon of the like kind."1881 Va. L. chap. 219, p. 233; 1883-84 Va. L. chap. 144, p. 180 (1884); 1896 Va. L. chap. 745, p. 826 (allowing "the hustings judge of any husting court" to issue one-year concealed carry permits).
Whether or not concealed, carrying "any gun pistol, bowie-knife, dagger, or other dangerous weapon to a place of public worship" during a religious meeting was forbidden in 1869. So was carrying "any weapon on Sunday, at any place other than his own premises, except for good and sufficient cause." 1875 Va. L. chap. 124, p. 102; 1877 Va. L. chap. 7, p. 305.
After the Civil War, the state property tax law included in the list of taxable items of personal property: "The aggregate value of all rifles, muskets, and other fire-arms, bowie-knives, dirks, and all weapons of a similar kind." There was an exception for arms issued by the state "to members of volunteer companies." 1874 Va. L. chap. 239, pp. 282-83; 1875 Va. L. chap. 162, p. 164; 1881 Va. L. chap. 119, p. 499; 1883 Va. L. chap. 450, p. 563; 1889 Va. L. chap. 19, p. 19; 1889 Va. L. chap. 244, p. 200; 1893 Va. L. chap. 797, p. 931.
The legislature in 1890 forbade selling "to minors under sixteen years of age" any "cigarettes or tobacco in any form, or pistols, dirks, or bowie knives." 1889-90 Va. L. chap. 152, p. 118; 1893-94 Va. L. chap. 366, pp. 425-26.
Two months after the Arkansas homicide, the Florida legislature supplemented an 1835 statute against concealed carry in general. The new statute provided that any person who wants to "vend dirks, pocket pistols, sword canes, or bowie knives" must pay an annual $200 tax. Any individual who wants to carry one openly must pay a $10 tax. The county treasurer must give the individual a receipt showing that the open carry tax has been paid. 1838 Fla. Laws ch. 24, p. 36 (Feb. 10, 1838).
After the Civil War, a new Black Code forbade "any negro, mulatto, or other person of color, to own, use or keep in his possession or under his control, any Bowie-knife, dirk, sword, fire-arms or ammunition of any kind, unless he first obtain a license to do so from the Judge of Probate of the county." The applicant needed "the recommendation of two respectable citizens of the county, certifying to the peaceful and orderly character of the applicant." A person who informed about a violation could keep the arms. Violators of the statute "shall be sentenced to stand in the pillory for one hour, or be whipped, not exceeding thirty-nine stripes, or both, at the discretion of the jury." 1865 Fla. L. chap 1466, p. 25.
There were no published Florida statutory compilations from 1840 until 1881. By then, the 1838 tax law ($200 annually for vendors; $10 for open carry), had been replaced with a $50 occupational license tax for vendors. 1 Digest of the Laws of the State of Florida, from the Year One Thousand Eight Hundred and Twenty-Two, to the Eleventh Day of March, One Thousand Eight Hundred and Eighty-One Inclusive 873 (James F. McClellan, comp.) (1881) (Fla. chap. 174, § 24, item 14). The merchant license tax was raised to $100 in 1889 for vendors of "pistols, bowie knives, or dirk knives." Additionally, The "merchant, store-keeper, or dealer" could not sell the items "to minors."1889 Fla. chap. 3847, p. 6 (2d reg. sess.); 1891 Fla. L. chap. 4010, p. 9 (3d regular sess.). The tax was cut to $10 in 1893, but extended to cover sellers of "pistols, Springfield rifles [the standard U.S. Army rifle], repeating rifles, bowie knives or dirk knives." 1893 Fla. L. chap. 4115, p. 18 (4th regular sess.); 1895 Fla. L. chap 4322, p. 13 (5th regular sess.).
North Carolina (1846).
An 1846 statute forbade "any slave" to receive "any sword, dirk, bowie-knife, gun, musket, or fire-arms of any description whatsoever, or any other deadly weapons of offence, or any lead, leaden balls, shot, powder, gun cotton, gun flints, gun caps, or other material used for shooting." There were exceptions if "a slave" with "written permission" from a "manager" were picking up items for the manager, or if the items were "to be carried in the presence of such manager." 1846 N.C. L. chap. 42.
The state property tax laws covered Bowie knives and other arms. The arms were tax-exempt if the owner did not use or carry them:
on all pistols (except such as shall be used exclusively for mustering, and also those kept in shops and stores for sale) one dollar each; on all bowie knives, one dollar each; and dirks and sword canes, fifty cents each; (except such as shall be kept in shops and stores for Sale) Provided, however, that only such pistols, bowie knives, dirks, and sword canes, as are used, worn or carried about the person of the owner . .
1850 N.C. L. chap. 121, p. 243. See also 1856-57 N.C. L. chap. 34, p. 34 (raising the tax on dirks and sword canes to 65 cents); 1866 N.C. L. chap. 21, § 11, pp. 33-34 (one dollar on "every dirk bowie-knife, pistol, sword-cane, dirk-cane and rifle cane (except for arms used for mustering and police duty) used or worn about the person of any one during the year"; tax did not "apply to arms used or worn previous to the ratification of this act").
The Black Code continued to treat Bowie knives like firearms, in the arms licensing law for free people of color. "If any free negro shall wear or carry about his person, or keep in his house, any shot-gun, musket, rifle, pistol, sword, dagger, or bowie-knife," he shall be guilty of a misdemeanor, unless he had been issued a one-year license from the court of pleas and quarter-sessions. 1856 N.C. L. chap. 107, § 66, p. 577. When the Civil War drew near, the legislature repealed the licensing law, and forbade "any free negro" to "wear or carry about his person or keep in his house any shot gun, musket, rifle, pistol, sword, sword cane, dagger, bowie knife, powder or shot." 1860-61 N.C. L. chap. 34. p. 68 (Feb. 23, 1861).
An 1877 private act banned concealed carry in Alleghany County, under terms similar to what would be enacted statewide in 1879. 1877 N.C. L. ch. 54, pp. 162-63. The statewide statute outlawed concealed carry of "any pistol, bowie knife, dirk, dagger, slungshot, loaded cane, brass, iron or metallic knuckles or other deadly weapon of like like kind," "except when upon his own premises." 1879 N.C. L. chap. 127, p. 231.
An 1893 statute made it illegal to "in any way dispose of to a minor any pistol or pistol cartridge, brass knucks, bowie-knife, dirk, loaded cane, or sling-shot." 1893 N.C. L. chap. 514, pp. 468-69. A loaded cane had a hollowed section filled with lead. It was a powerful impact weapon.
As the legislature revised municipal charters, it specified what sorts of arms-related taxes the municipality could impose. There was much variation, and sometimes the legislature set maximums. In chronological order: Wilmington: to tax "every pistol gallery . . . on all pistols, dirks, bowie-knives or sword-canes, if worn about the person at any time during the year." 1860 N.C. L. chap. 180, pp. 219-20. Charlotte: $50 on "every pistol, bowie-knife, dirk, sword-cane, or other deadly weapons worn upon the person, except a pocket knife, without special permission of the board of aldermen." 1866 N.C. L. chap. 7, § 19, p. 63. Salisbury: "on all pistols, except when part of stock in trade, a tax not exceeding one dollar; on all dirks, bowie-knives and sword canes, if worn about the person at any time during the year, a tax not exceeding ten dollars." 1868 N.C. L. chap. 123, p. 202. Lincolnton: $5 for worn weapons. 1870 N.C. L. chap. 32, p. 73. Lumberton: Can tax "pistols, dirks, bowie knives or sword canes" as seen fit. 1873 N.C. L. chap. 7, p. 279; 1883 chap. 89, p. 791 (Lumberton recharter); Asheville: anyone "selling pistols, bowie knives, dirks, slung shot, brass knuckles or other like deadly weapons, in addition to all other taxes, a license tax not exceeding fifty dollars." 1883 N.C. L. chap. 111, p. 872. Waynesville: like Ashville, but $40. 1885 N.C. L. chap. 127, p. 1097. Reidsville: $25 "On every pistol, bowie-knife, dirk, sword-cane, or other deadly weapon, except carried by officers in the discharge of their duties." 1887 N.C. L. chap. 58, § 50, p. 885. Rockingham: to tax pistols, dirks, bowie knives, or sword canes. 1887 N.C. L. chap. 101, p. 988. Hickory: $50 on sellers; "sling-shots" replaces "slung shot." 1889 N.C. L. chap. 238, p. 956. Marion: $25 on every "pistol, bowie-knife, dirk, sword-cane or other deadly weapon, except carried by officers in discharge of their duties." 1889 N.C. L. chap. 183, § 27, p. 836. Mount Airy: $10 on open carry of "a pistol, bowie-knife, dirk, sword-cane or other deadly weapon, except guns, shot-guns, and rifles for shooting game." Wadesborough: "on all pistols, dirks, bowie-knives, or sword-canes." 1891 N.C. L. chap. 26, p. 705. Columbus: same. 1891 N.C. L. chap. 101, p. 902. Buncombe: same. 1891 N.C. L. 327, p. 1423. Asheville: $500 on vendors selling "pistols, bowie-knives, dirks, slung-shots, brass or metallic knuckles, or other deadly weapons of like character." 1895 N.C. L. chap. 352, p. 611. Morven: "on all pistols, dirks, bowie knives, or sword canes." 1897 N.C. L. chap. 71, pp. 115-16. Lilesville: same. 1897 N.C. L. chap. 130, p. 237. Mount Airy: $75 on "every vendor or dealer in pistols and other deadly weapons." 1897 N.C. L. ch. 90, p. 154. Salisbury: same $500 as Asheville. 1899 N.C. L. chap. 186, p. 503. Monroe: Same, but $100. 1899 N.C. L. chap. 352, p. 968. Manly: tax "on all pistols, dirks, bowie knives or sword canes." 1899 N.C. L. chap. 260, p. 766.
Washington territory (1854).
Similar to 1837 Mississippi, the Washington Territory provided a criminal penalty for, "Every person who shall, in a rude, angry, or threatening manner, in a crowd of two or more persons, exhibit any pistol, bowie knife, or other dangerous weapon . . ." 1854 Wash. L. chap. 2, p. 80; 1859 Wash. L. chap. 2, p. 109; 1862 Wash. L. chap. 2, p. 284; 1869 Wash. L. chap. 2, pp. 203-04; 1873 Wash. L. chap. 2, p. 168.
California adopted a more elaborate version of the 1837 Mississippi law that if a person killed another in a duel with "a rifle, shot-gun, pistol, bowie-knife, dirk, small-sword, back-sword or other dangerous weapon," the duelist would have to pay the decedent's debts. The duelist would also be liable to the decedent's family for liquidated damages. 1855 Cal. L. chap. 127, pp. 152-53.
The legislature banned concealed carry of "pistols, bowie knife, dirk, or any other dangerous weapon." 1855 La. L. chap. 120, p. 148; 1898 La. L. ch. 112, p. 159 (same).
During Reconstruction, when election violence was a major problem, the legislature forbade carry of "any gun, pistol, bowie knife or other dangerous weapon, concealed or unconcealed weapon" within a half-mile of a polling place when the polls were open, or within a half-mile of a voter registration site on registration days. 1870 La. L. chap. 100, p. 159; 1873 La. L. chap. 98, p. 27.
Giving a person "under age of twenty-one years" any "any pistol, dirk, bowie-knife or any other dangerous weapon, which may be carried concealed to any person" was forbidden. 1890 La. L. chap. 46, p. 39.
New Hampshire (1856).
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.
On May 19, 1856, U.S. Sen. Charles Sumner (R-Mass.) delivered one of the most famous speeches in the history of the Senate, "The Crime Against Kansas." Among the crimes he described, pro-slavery settlers in the Kansas Territory were trying to make Kansas a slave territory, by attacking and disarming anti-slavery settlers, in violation of the Second Amendment. Sumner turned his fire on South Carolina Democrat Andrew Butler:
Next comes the Remedy of Folly . .. from the senator from South Carolina, who . . . thus far stands alone in its support. . . . This proposition, nakedly expressed, is that the people of Kansas should be deprived of their arms.
. . .
Really, sir, has it come to this ? The rifle has ever been the companion of the pioneer, and, under God, his tutelary protector against the red man and the beast of the forest. Never was this efficient weapon more needed in just self-defence than now in Kansas, and at least one article in our National Constitution must be blotted out, before the complete right to it can in any way be impeached. And yet, such is the madness of the hour, that, in defiance of the solemn guaranty, embodied in the Amendments of the Constitution, that "the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed," the people of Kansas have been arraigned for keeping and bearing them, and the senator from South Carolina has had the face to say openly, on this floor, that they should be disarmed — of course, that the fanatics of Slavery, his allies and constituents, may meet no impediment. Sir, the senator is venerable . . . but neither his years, nor his position, past or present, can give respectability to the demand he has made, or save him from indignant condemnation, when, to compass the wretched purposes of a wretched cause, he thus proposes to trample on one of the plainest provisions of constitutional liberty.
That wasn't even close to the worst that Sumner said about Brooks in "The Crime Against Kansas." Most notably, he compared Butler to Don Quixote:
The senator from South Carolina has read many books of chivalry, and believes himself a chivalrous knight, with sentiments of honor and courage. Of course he has chosen a mistress to whom he has made his vows, and who, though ugly to others, is always lovely to him ; though polluted in the sight of the world, is chaste in his sight; — I mean the harlot Slavery.
Three days later, Butler's nephew, U.S. Rep. Preston Brooks (D-S.C.) snuck up behind Sumner while he working at his desk on the Senate floor and assaulted him with a cane. He nearly killed Sumner, who never fully recovered. The assault was widely applauded in the South. The attack symbolized a broader problem: In the slave states, the law and the mobs suppressed any criticism of slavery, lest it inspire slave revolt. Even in free states, even in free-thinking Boston, abolitionist speakers were attacked by mobs.
In response, the New Hampshire legislature on July 12 passed a resolution "in relation to the late acts of violence and bloodshed by the Slave Power in the Territory of Kansas, and at the National Capital." As one section of the resolution observed, it was becoming difficult for people to speak out against slavery unless they were armed for self-defense.
Resolved, That the recent unmanly and murderous assaults which have disgraced the national capital, are but the single outbursts of that fierce spirit of determined domination which has revealed itself so fully on a larger field, and which manifests itself at every point of contact between freedom and slavery, and which, if it shall not be promptly met and subdued, will render any free expression of opinion, any independence of personal action by prominent men of the free States in relation to the great national issue now pending, imprudent and perilous, unless it shall be understood that it is to be backed up by the bowie-knife and the revolver.
1856 N.H. chap. 1870, pp. 1781-82.
Despised as Bowie knives and revolvers were by some slave state legislatures, New Hampshire recognized that the First Amendment is backed up by the Second Amendment, as a last resort.
If a person used a "bowie knife" or "dagger" in manslaughter, the offense "shall nevertheless be deemed murder, and punished accordingly." A "bowie knife" or "dagger" were defined as "any knife intended to be worn upon the person, which is capable of inflicting death, and not commonly known as a pocket knife." Tex. Penal Code arts. 611-12 (enacted Aug. 28, 1856) in 1 A Digest of the General Statute Laws of the State of Texas: to Which Are Subjoined the Repealed Laws of the Republic and State of Texas (Williamson S. Oldham & George W. White, comp.) 458 (1859). See also art. 493 (doubling penalty for assault with intent to murder, if perpetrated with "a bowie knife, or dagger"); 1871 Tex. L. chap. 26, p. 20 (adding doubling if perpetrator "in disguise").
The Texas Supreme Court upheld the law in Cockrum v. State, 24 Tex. 394 (1859). Under the Second Amendment and the Texas Constitution right to arms and the Second Amendment. "The right to carry a bowie-knife for lawful defense is secured, and must be admitted." Id. at 402. However, extra punishment for a crime with a Bowie knife did not violate the right to arms. Discussed further in The legal history of bans on firearms and Bowie knives before 1900.
In the chaotic years after the Civil War, the legislature prohibited carrying "any gun, pistol, bowie-knife or other dangerous weapon, concealed or unconcealed," within a half mile of a polling place while the polls are open. 1870 Tex. L. chap. 73, p. 139; 1873 Tex. L. chap. 19, pp. 29-30; 1876 Tex. L. chap. 166, p. 311.
Then came the most repressive anti-carry law enacted by an American state until then. It did not apply to long guns. It did apply to "any pistol, dirk, dagger, slung-shot, sword-cane, spear, brass-knuckles, bowie-knife, or any other kind of knife manufactured or sold for the purposes of offense or defense." Both open and concealed carry were forbidden. The exceptions were "immediate and pressing" self-defense, or in a person's home or business, or travelers with arms in their baggage. Another section of the bill banned all firearms, plus the arms previously listed, from many places, including churches, all public assemblies, and even "a ball room, social party, or social gathering." The Act did not apply in any county proclaimed by the Governor "as a frontier county, and liable to incursions of hostile Indians." 1871 Tex. L. chap. 34, pp. 25-26; 1887 Tex. L chap. 9, p. 7 (amending); 1889 Tex. L. chap. 37, p. 33; 1897 Tex. L. chap. 25, p. 24.
In 1889, written consent of a parent, guardian, "or someone standing in lieu thereof" was required to give or sell to a minor a pistol, "bowie knife or any other knife manufactured or sold for the purpose of offense of defense," and various other weapons. The statute did not apply to long guns. 1887 Tex. L. chap. 155, pp. 221-22.
New Mexico (1858).
The territory's first Bowie knife law outlawed giving "to any slave any sword, dirk, bowie-knife, gun, pistol or other fire arms, or any other kind of deadly weapon of offence, or any ammunition of any kind suitable for fire arms." 1856 N.M. L. chap. 26, p. 68. Slavery in New Mexico was usually in the form of peonage. The Comanche and Ute Indians, among others, brought captives from other tribes to the territory and sold them to buyers of all races. See Andrés Reséndez, The Other Slavery: The Uncovered Story of Indian Enslavement in America (2016).
Concealed and open carry were prohibited in 1859. The scope was expansive:
any class of pistols whatever, bowie knife (cuchillo de cinto), Arkansas toothpick, Spanish dagger, slung-shot, or any other deadly weapon, of whatever class or description they may be, no matter by what name they may be known or called,
1859 N.M. L. pp. 94-96; 1864-65 N.M. L. chap. 61, pp. 407-08 (miscited in the Spitzer declaration as 1853). Territorial statues were published bilingually. The arms list in Spanish: "ninguna pistola de cualesquiera clase que sea, ni bowie knife (cachillo de cinto) Arkansas toothpick, daga española, huracana, ó cualesquiera otra arma mortifera de cualesquiera clase ó descripcion."
New Mexico was part of a pattern: legislative enthusiasm for Bowie knife laws was greatest in slave states. After slavery was abolished by the 13th Amendment in December 1865, the most oppressive Bowie knife controls and gun controls were enacted in areas where slavery had been abolished by federal action, rather than by choice of the legislature before the Civil War.
An 1887 statute forbade almost all carry of Bowie knives and other arms. It applied to defined "deadly weapons":
all kinds and classes of pistols, whether the same be a revolver, repeater, derringer, or any kind or class of pistol or gun; any and all kinds of daggers, bowie knives, poniards [small, thin daggers], butcher knives, dirk knives, and all such weapons with which dangerous cuts can be given, or with which dangerous thrusts can be inflicted, including sword canes, and any kind of sharp pointed canes: as also slung shots, bludgeons or any other deadly weapons with which dangerous wounds can be inflicted . . .
A person carrying a deadly weapon was not allowed to "insult or assault another." Nor to unlawfully "draw, flourish, or discharge" a firearm, "except in the lawful defense of himself, his family or his property."
The law forbade carrying "either concealed or otherwise, on or about the settlements of this territory." The statute defined a "settlement" as anyplace within 300 yards of any inhabited house. The exceptions to the the carry ban were:
except it be in his or her residence, or on his or her landed estate, and in the lawful defense of his or her person, family, or property, the same being then and there threatened with danger
Travelers could ride armed through a settlement. If they stopped, they had to disarm within 15 minutes, and not resume until eve of departure. Hotels, boarding houses, saloons, and similar establishments had to post bilingual copies of the Act.
Law enforcement officers "may carry weapons . . . when the same may be necessary, but it shall be for the court or the jury to decide whether such carrying of weapons was necessary or not, and for an improper carrying or using deadly weapons by an officer, he shall be punished as other persons are punished. . ." 1886-87 N.M. L. chap. 30, pp. 55-58.
Without limiting open carry, the legislature prohibited concealed carry of "a pistol, bowie knife, dirk, or any other dangerous weapon." The jury must acquit if it is proven that the defendant was "engaged in pursuit of any lawful business, calling, or employment, and the circumstances in which he was placed at the time aforesaid were such as to justify a prudent man in carrying the weapon or weapons aforesaid for the defense of his person, property, or family…" 1859 Ohio L. pp. 56-57.
"If any person, other than the parent or guardian, shall sell, give, or loan, any pistol, dirk, bowie-knife, brass-knucks, slung-shot, colt [similar to a slungshot], cane-gun, or other deadly weapon which is carried concealed, to any minor, or slave, or free negro, he shall be fined fifty dollars." 1859 Ky. L. chap. 33, p. 245.
In 1891, an occupational license tax was enacted: "To sell pistols," $25. "To sell bowie-knives, dirks, brass-knucks or slung-shots," $50. 1885 Ky. L. chap. 1233, p. 154; 1891 Ky. L. chap. 103, p. 346 (Nov. 11, 1892); 1891-92 Ky. L. chap. 217, p. 1001 (June 9, 1893).
Except for travelers, no concealed carry of "any dirk, pistol, bowie-knife, dagger, sword in cane, or any other dangerous or deadly weapon." Open carry of such weapons was unlawful, if "with the intent or avowed purpose of injuring his fellow man." 1859 Ind. L. chap. 78, p. 129; 1881 Ind. L. chap. 37, p. 191.
It was forbidden in 1875 to give any person "under the age of twenty-one years, any pistol, dirk, or bowie-knife, slung-shot, knucks, or other deadly weapon that can be worn, or carried, concealed upon or about the person." Or to give such person pistol ammunition. 1875 Ind. L. chap. 40, p. 59.
If a person fought a duel with "a rifle, shot-gun, pistol, bowie-knife, dirk, small-sword, back-sword, or other dangerous weapon," and killed his opponent or anyone else, the killing was murder in the first degree. 1861 Nev. L. p. 61.
Idaho territory (1863).
Like Nevada. 1863 Ida. L. chap. 3, p. 441; 1864 Ida. L. chap. 3, pp. 303-04.
Montana territory (1864).
No concealed carry "within any city, town, or village" of "any pistol, bowie-knife, dagger, or other deadly weapon." 1864-65 Mont. L. p. 335. Duelists who kill using "a rifle, shot-gun, pistol, bowie-knife, dirk, small sword, back-sword, or other dangerous weapon" are guilty of murder. 1879 Mont. Laws p. 359; 1887 Mont. L. p. 505.
Colorado territory (1867).
No concealed carry "within any city, town or village" of "any pistol, bowie-knife, dagger or other deadly weapon." 1867 Colo. L. chap. 22, p. 229; 1876 Colo. L. chap. 24, p. 304; 1881 Colo. L. p. 74 (post-statehood); 1885 Colo. L. p. 170; 1891 Colo. L. p. 129 ("any pistol, revolver, derringer, bowie-knife, razor, dagger, sling-shot or other deadly weapon").
Arizona territory (1867).
Split from the New Mexico Territory in 1863, the new Arizona Territory did not copy New Mexico's 1859 comprehensive carry ban. Instead, the laws targeted misuse. Anyone "who shall in the presence of two or more persons, draw or exhibit" any "dirk, dirk knife, bowie knife, pistol, gun, or other deadly weapon," "in a rude, angry or threatening manner, not in necessary self defence" was guilty of a crime. So was anyone "who shall in any manner unlawfully use the same in any fight or quarrel." 1867 Ariz. L. p. 21; 1875 Ariz L. p. 101.
Carrying "maliciously or with design therewith, to intimidate or injure his fellow-man," was specifically forbidden for everyone "in the Counties of Apache and Graham, over the age of ten years." The arms were "any dirk, dirk-knife, bowie-knife, pistol, rifle, shot-gun, or fire-arms of any kind." 1883 Ariz. L. chap. 19, pp. 21-22.
Reenacting the statute against drawing a gun in a threatening manner, the 1883 legislature added a proviso against persons "over the age of ten and under the age of seventeen years" carrying concealed or unconcealed "any dirk, dirk-knife, bowie-knife, slung-shot, brass-knuckles, or pistol" in any city, village, or town. 1883 Ariz. L. chap. 36, pp. 65-66. Concealed carry of those same arms in a city, village, or town was forbidden for everyone in 1887. 1887 Ariz. L. chap. 11, p. 726. And then everywhere in 1893, for "any pistol or other firearm, dirk, dagger, slung-shot, sword cane, spear, brass knuckles, or other knuckles of metal, bowie knife or any kind of knife or weapon except a pocket-knife not manufactured and used for the purpose of offense and defense." 1893 Ariz. chap. 2, p. 3.
In 1889 Arizona enacted an open carry ban in "any settlement town village or city," for any "firearm, dirk, dagger, slung shot, sword-cane, spear, brass knuckles, bowie knife, or any other kind of a knife manufactured and sold for the purposes of offense or defense." Arriving travelers could carry for the first half hour, or on the way out of town. Hotels had to post notices about the no carry rule. Carry was also forbidden at public events, and even at some private social gatherings. 1889 Ariz. chap. 13, pp. 30-31.
The legislature's revision of the municipal charter of Bloomington allowed the town "To regulate or prohibit" concealed carry of "any pistol, or colt, or slung-shot, or cross knuckles, or knuckles of brass, lead or other metal, or bowie-knife, dirk-knife, dirk or dagger or any other dangerous or deadly weapon." 1867 Ill. L. p. 650.
Only a "father, guardian or employer" or their agent could give a minor "any pistol, revolver, derringer, bowie knife, dirk or other deadly weapon of like character." 1881 Ill. L. p. 73.
No carrying of "a pistol, bowie-knife, dirk or other deadly weapon" by any "person who is not engaged in any legitimate business, any person under the influence of intoxicating drink, and any person who has ever borne arms against the government of the United States." 1868 Kan. L. p. 378.
No furnishing of "any pistol, revolver or toy pistol, by which cartridges or caps may be exploded, or any dirk, bowie-knife, brass knuckles, slung shot, or other dangerous weapons to any minor, or to any person of notoriously unsound mind" "Any minor who shall have in his possession any pistol, revolver or toy pistol, by which cartridges may be exploded, or any dirk, bowie-knife, brass knuckles, slung shot or other dangerous weapon, shall be deemed guilty of a misdemeanor." 1883 Kan. L. chap. 55, p. 159.
West Virginia (1868).
An 1868 statute copied Virginia's law against "habitually" carrying a concealed "pistol, dirk, bowie knife, or weapon of the like kind." Code of West Virginia Comprising Legislation to the Year 1870, chap. 148, p. 692. Justices of the Peace had a duty to enforce the statute W.V. Acts of 1872-73, chap. 226, p. 709, in Constitution and Schedule Adopted in Convention at Charleston, April 9th, 1872 (Charleston, W.V.: John W. Gentry, 1874).
Then in 1882, West Virginia adopted a law similar to the Texas carry ban of 1871. Without restricting carry of long guns, it broadly outlawed carrying pistols, Bowie knives, and numerous other arms. Among the exceptions were that the person had "good cause to believe he was in danger of death or great bodily harm." Additionally, there was a prohibition on selling or furnishing such arms to a person under 21. 1882 W.V. L. chap. 135, pp. 421-22.
Any person who was arrested in Baltimore, brought to the station house, and found to be carrying "any pistol, dirk, bowie knife," various other weapons, "or any other deadly weapon whatsoever" would be fined 3 to 10 dollars. 1870 Md. L. chap. 473, p. 892. Reenactments, changes in the fine amount: 1874 Md. L. chap. 178; 1884 Md. L. chap. 187; 1890 Md. L. chap. 534; 1898 Md. L. p. 533.
It became illegal in 1872 in Annapolis to carry concealed "any pistol, dirk-knife, bowie-knife, sling-shot, billy, razor, brass, iron, or other metal knuckles, or any other deadly weapon." 1872 Md. L. chap. 42, pp. 56-57.
A ban on carrying "with the intent of injuring any person," was enacted in 1886 for "any pistol, dirk-knife, bowie-knife, slung-shot, billy, sand-club, metal knuckles, razor or any other dangerous of deadly weapon of any kind whatsoever, (penknives excepted)." 1886 Md. L. chap. 375, p. 602.
District of Columbia (1871).
The Legislative Assembly of the District of Columbia prohibited concealed carry of "any deadly or dangerous weapons, such as daggers, air-guns, pistols, bowie-knives, dirk-knives, or dirks, razors, razor-blades, sword-canes, slung-shots, or brass or other metal knuckles." 1 The Compiled Statutes in Force in the District of Columbia, including the Acts of the Second Session of the Fiftieth Congress, 1887-89 (William Stone Albert & Benjamin G. Lovejoy, comps.) 178, § 119 (1894) (citing Leg. Assem., July 20, 1871). Hat tip to Prof. Spitzer for this.
In 1892, Congress enacted a similar statute for D.C., with additional provisions. It prohibited concealed carry of the same weapons as 1871, plus "blackjacks." A concealed carry permit valid up to one month could be issued by any Judge of Police Court, with "proof of the necessity," and a bond.
Open carry was lawful, except "with intent to unlawfully use." The statute was not to be construed to prevent anyone "from keeping or carrying about his place of business, dwelling house, or premises" the listed arms, or from taking them to and from a repair place.
Giving a deadly weapon to a minor was forbidden. Vendors had to be licensed by Commissioners of the District of Columbia. The license itself was "without fee," but the licensee could be required to post a bond. Sellers had to keep a written list of purchasers, which was subject to police inspection. Weekly sales reports to the police were required. 27 Stat. chap. 159, pp. 116-17 (July 13, 1892).
No concealed carry of weapons "such as a pistol, bowie-knife, dirk, or any other dangerous weapon." As in Ohio, there was a "prudent man" defense. 1873 Neb. L. p. 724; 1875 Neb. L. p. 3; 1899 Neb. L. chap. 94, p. 349.
A revised municipal charter for Lincoln made it unlawful in the city to carry "any concealed pistol, revolver, dirk, bowie knife, billy, sling-shot, metal knuckles, or other dangerous or deadly weapons of any kind." The city's police were authorized to arrest without a warrant a person found "in the act of carrying" concealed "and detain him." 1895 Neb. L. pp. 209-10.
Concealed carry was forbidden in many locations:
[A]ny church or place where people have assembled for religious worship, or into any school-room, or into any place where people may be assembled for educational, literary or social purposes, or to any election precinct on any election day, or into any court-room during the sitting of court, or into any other public assemblage of persons met for other than militia drill or meetings, called under the militia law of this state, having concealed about his person any kind of fire-arms, bowie-knife, dirk, dagger, slung-shot, or other deadly weapon…
1874 Mo. L. p. 43; 1875 Mo. L. pp. 50-51. This was similar to the 1873 Texas statute, but unlike Texas, it applied only to concealed carry.
Like states from 1837 Mississippi onward, Missouri forbade the exhibit of "any kind of firearms, bowie knife, dirk, dagger, slung shot or other deadly weapon, in a rude, angry or threatening manner, not in the necessary defence of his person, family or property." 1877 Mo. L. p. 240.
The exhibiting statute and the concealed carry statute were combined in 1885. The new law also forbade carrying the listed weapons when intoxicated or under the influence. Providing one of the arms to a minor "without the consent of the parent or guardian" was outlawed. 1885 Mo. L. p. 140.
Antebellum Arkansas had legislation against concealed carry, but not specifically about Bowie knives.
The 1874 election was the first in which former Arkansas Confederates were allowed to vote. They elected huge Democratic majorities and ended Reconstruction. In 1875, the new state legislature banned the open or concealed carry of "any pistol of any kind whatever, or any dirk, butcher or Bowie knife, or sword or spear in a cane, brass or metal knucks, or razor, as a weapon." 1874-75 Ark. L. pp. 156-57 (Feb. 16, 1875).
The next year, the state supreme court heard a case of a man who had been convicted of carrying a concealed pocket pistol. In Fife v. State, the Arkansas court quoted with approval a recent Tennessee case stating that the state constitution right to arms covered
Such, then, as are found to make up the usual arms of the citizen of the country, and the use of which will properly train and render him efficient in defense of his own liberties, as well as of the State. Under this head, with a knowledge of the habits of our people, and of the arms in the use of which a soldier should be trained, we hold that the rifle, of all descriptions, the shot gun, the musket and repeater, are such arms, and that, under the Constitution, the right to keep such arms cannot be infringed or forbidden by the Legislature.
The Arkansas court continued: "The learned judge might well have added to his list of war arms, the sword, though not such as are concealed in a cane." The pocket pistol not being a war arm, the defendant's conviction was upheld. Fife v. State, 31 Ark. 455 (1876). Needless to say, Fife's protection of "the rifle of all descriptions" makes Fife and the 1875 statute poor precedents for today's efforts to outlaw common rifles.
Two years later, a conviction for concealed carry of "a large army size pistol" was reversed. "[T]o prohibit the citizen from wearing or carrying a war arm . . . [was] an unwarranted restriction upon [the defendant's] constitutional right to keep and bear arms. . . . If cowardly and dishonorable men sometimes shoot unarmed men with army pistols or guns, the evil must be prevented by the penitentiary and gallows, and not by a general deprivation of a constitutional privilege." Wilson v. State, 33 Ark. 557 (1878).
The legislature responded in 1881 with a new statute against the sale or carry of "any dirk or bowie knife, or a sword, or a spear in a cane, brass or metal knucks, razor, or any pistol of any kind whatever, except such pistols as are used in the army or navy." 1881 Ark. Acts chap. 96, pp. 191-92.
As discussed in my companion post, The legal history of bans on firearms and Bowie knives before 1900, the 1881 Arkansas statute might arguably have been consistent with the state constitution, but it is contrary to modern Second Amendment doctrine.
Some municipal charters enacted or amended by the Wisconsin legislature included provisions authorizing localities to regulate or prohibit concealed carry "of any pistol or colt, or slung shot, or cross knuckles, or knuckles of lead, brass or other metal, or bowie knife, dirk knife, or dirk or dagger, or any other dangerous or deadly weapon." 1874 Wisc. L. chap. 4, p. 184 (Milwaukee); 1875 Wisc. L. chap. 262, p. 471 (Green Bay); 1876 Wisc. L. chap. 4, p. 218 (Platteville); 1876 Wisc. L. Chap. 313, p. 737 (Racine); 1877 Wisc. L. chap. 5, p. 367 (New London); 1878 Wisc. L. chap. 112, pp. 119-20 (Beaver Dam); 1882 Wisc. L. chap. 92, p. 309 (Lancaster); 1882 Wisc. L. chap. 169, p. 524 (Green Bay); 1883 Wisc. L. chap. 183, p. 713 (Oshkosh); 1883 Wisc. L. chap. 341, p. 990 (La Crosse); 1883 Wisc. L. chap. 351, p. 1034 (Nicolet); 1885 Wisc. L. chap. 37, p. 26 (Kaukana); 1885 Wisc. L. chap. 159, p. 753 (Shawano); 1885 Wisc. L. chap. 227, p. 1109 (Whitewater); 1887 Wisc. L. chap. 124, p. 336 (Sheboygan); 1887 Wisc. L. chap. 161, p. 684 (Clintonville); 1887 Wisc. L. chap. 162, p. 754 (La Crosse); 1887 Wisc. L. chap. 409, p. 1308 (Berlin); 1891 Wisc. L. chap. 123, p. 699 (Menasha); 1891 Wisc. L. chap. 23, p. 61 (Sparta); 1891 Wisc. L. chap. 40, p. 186 (Racine).
As in other states, it was unlawful to "exhibit any kind of fire arms, bowie knife, dirk, dagger, slung shot or other deadly weapon in a rude, angry or threatening manner not necessary to the defense of his person, family or property." 1882 Wyo. chap. 81, p. 174; 1884 Wyo. chap. 67, p. 114.
Oklahoma territory (1890).
Oklahoma had a confusing statute, although what matters for present purposes is that the law applied to "any pistol, revolver, bowie knife, dirk, dagger, slung-shot, sword cane, spear, metal knuckles, or any other kind of knife or instrument manufactured or sold for the purpose of defense." Section 1 forbade anyone to "carry concealed on or about his person, or saddle bags" the aforesaid arms, which do not include long guns. Section 2 made it illegal "to carry upon or about his person any pistol, revolver, bowie knife, dirk knife, loaded cane, billy, metal knuckles, or any other offensive or defensive weapon." Unlike section 1, section 2 applied to carry in general, not just concealed carry. Whereas the residual term of section 1 was anything "manufactured or sold for the purpose of defense," the section 2 residual was "any other offensive or defensive weapon." What the difference was is unclear. Section 3 banned sales of the aforesaid items to minors. The statute affirmed the legality of carrying long guns for certain purposes, such as hunting or repair. 1890 Okla. L. chap. 25, p. 495; 1893 Okla. L. chap. 25, p. 503.
There was no state legislation on Bowie knives in the 19th century, notwithstanding the California Attorney General's claim in a brief that "Iowa banned their possession, along with the possession of other 'dangerous or deadly weapon[s],' in 1887. See id., Ex. E at 24." Defendant's Supplemental Brief in Response to the Court's Order of September, 26, 2022, Duncan v. Bonta, at 41-42, Case No. 17-cv-1017-BEN-JLB (S.D. Cal. Nov. 10, 2022). The brief's cite is Declaration of Robert Spitzer, p. 24, electronic page no. 163 of 230, reproducing without comment an 1887 Council Bluffs municipal ordinance making it illegal to "carry under his clothes or concealed about his person, or found in his possession, any pistol or firearms" and many other weapons, including Bowie knives. The California Attorney General reads "or found in his possession" as a ban on possession in the home. In context, the more appropriate reading would be for concealed carrying that did not involve wearing the weapon, for example, carrying in a bag. If the Council Bluffs government really meant something as monumental as outlawing all firearms in the home, the ordinance would be a very oblique way of saying so.
A charter revision allowed the town of Saginaw to make and enforce laws against concealed carry of "any pistol, revolver, bowie knife, dirk, slung shot, billie, sand bag [a small bag with a handle; used as an impact weapon], false knuckles [same as metal knuckles, but could be made of something else], or other dangerous weapon." 1891 Mich. L. chap. 257, p. 409; 1897 Mich. L. chap. 465, p. 1030.
No possession "while a member of and in attendance upon any school," of "any firearms, dirk knife, bowie knife, dagger or other dangerous or deadly weapon." 1891 Vt. L. chap. 85, p. 95.
Rhode Island (1893).
No concealed carry of "any dirk, bowie knife, butcher knife, dagger, razor, sword in cane, air gun, billy [club], brass or metal knuckles, slung shot, pistol or fire arm of any description, or other weapon of like kind of description." 1893 R.I. L. chap. 1180, p. 231. Hat tip to Prof. Spitzer's Declaration for this; Hein Online has the session law book, but it returns a null search result for "bowie."
Local ordinances on Bowie knives
As described above, state legislative enactments of municipal charters sometimes authorized a municipality to regulate Bowie knives, usually by taxation of dealers or owners, or by prohibition of concealed carry. Additionally, there were Bowie knife laws that were simply enacted by municipalities, without any need for state action. Here is a list of such laws, taken from the Declaration of Robert Spitzer, above. The cities are in alphabetical order by state. The year is often the year of publication of municipal code, and not necessarily the date of enactment. All the ordinances covered Bowie knives and various other weapons.
Against concealed carry: Fresno, California (1896); Georgetown, Colorado (1877); Boise City, Idaho (1894); Danville, Illinois (1883); Sioux City, Iowa (1882); Leavenworth, Kansas (1863); Saint Paul, Minnesota (1871); Fairfield, Nebraska (1899); Jersey City, New Jersey (1871) (and no carrying of "any sword in a cane, or air-gun"); Memphis, Tennessee (1863);
No carrying: Nashville, Tennessee (1881); Provo City, Utah territory (1877)
Against hostile display: Independence, Kansas (1887).
Against carry with intent to do bodily harm: Syracuse, New York (1885).
Extra punishment if carried by someone who breached the peace or attempted to do so: Little Rock, Arkansas (1871); Denver, Colorado (1886).
No sales or loans to minors by a "junk-shop keeper or pawnbroker . . . without the written consent of the parent or guardian of such minor." Fresno, California (1896).
As of 1899, there were 46 States in the Union; of these, 32 had at some point enacted a statute containing the words "bowie knife" or variant. (This figure includes enactments by territories that had achieved statehood by 1899.) At the end of the 19th century, no state prohibited possession of Bowie knives. Two states, Tennessee and Arkansas, prohibited sales. The most extreme tax statutes, such as Alabama's $100 transfer tax from 1837, had been repealed.
Only a very few statutes had ever attempted to regulate the peaceable possession or carrying of Bowie knives more stringently than handguns or other fighting knives, such as dirks and daggers. Of those, only the 1838 Tennessee sales ban was still on the books by the end of the century. The overwhelming majority of state statutes that addressed Bowie knives treated them exactly the same as comparable knives; many treated such knives like handguns. As with handguns, the states were nearly unanimous in rejecting bans on adult possession or acquisition of Bowie knives. Likewise, only a few jurisdictions forbade the open carry of Bowie knives, and in those that did, open carry of handguns was also outlawed.The much more common approach was to legislate against concealed carry, criminal misuse, or sales to minors. In a few states, taxes on knives and handguns were sometimes different.
In the Supreme Court's Heller and Bruen decisions, the few laws that banned acquisition or open carry of handguns laws of the 19th century were treated as eccentricities that did not establish a national tradition. The history of Bowie knife laws is no stronger in terms of creating historical precedents for bans on owning, acquiring, or carrying common knives. It would be implausible to claim that the 19th century laws on Bowie knives or handguns can be stretched by analogy to justify 21st century bans on common firearms or magazines.