|Best Overall||Cold Steel Drop Forged Survivalist||SEE IT||
The Bowie with the best bang for your buck on this list, drop-forged from a thick billet of 52100 steel. Tough, balanced, and razor-sharp, this blade is designed to take a beating and keep kicking.
|Best Budget||SMKW Exclusive CRKT Minimalist Bowie||SEE IT||
Smoky Mountain Knife Works collaborates with CRKT to bring you this updated, exclusive version of its popular Minimalist neck knife. Whether you hang it from your neck, strap it to your belt, or slide it in your boot, you’ll forget it’s there thanks to its lightweight construction.
|Editor’s Choice||Cold Steel Recon Scout||SEE IT||
Razor-sharp, ludicrously strong, and made from CPM 3V steel, the Recon Scout is Cold Steel’s smaller version of its Trail Master Bowie. Thanks to the slightly scaled-down dimensions, it’s very well-balanced, and surprisingly lively in the hand.
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One of my earliest memories is that of my older sibling telling me the legend of the Bowie knife: how it was forged with secret techniques that made it flexible yet tough, and sharp enough that it could cut hair just by touching it; how James Bowie used it to defend himself from several other men on a sandbar, and how he eventually died defending the Alamo; and how the original secret techniques used to make the original Bowie are long-since lost to time.
There are few blades as ubiquitously American as the Bowie, despite its pop culture association with a particularly feisty Australian. It’s also one of the most mispronounced blades on the market; that’s right, if you haven’t been calling it a “boo-ee” knife, you’re very much incorrect. But don’t worry, that’s why we’re here, correcting misconceptions and myths while bringing you the best Bowies worth carrying.
- Best Overall: Cold Steel Drop Forged Survivalist
- Best Budget: SMKW Exclusive CRKT Minimalist Bowie
- Editor’s Choice: Cold Steel Recon Scout
- Best EDC: Cold Steel Bush Ranger
- Best Traditional: Condor Undertaker
- Best Tactical: Ontario Knife Company SP10 Marine Raider
Cold Steel’s drop-forged knives are characterized by being made from thick, monolithic slabs of tough 52100 steel, and the Survivalist is one of the largest knives in the series. The 52100 steel is commonly referred to as a “bearing steel,” and is a high-carbon steel alloy designed for high-pressure applications, which is why it’s still used for ball bearings. It’s also become extremely popular with knifemakers due to the addition of a small amount of chromium — not enough for it to qualify as stainless steel, but enough to greatly enhance the edge retention and toughness of the alloy, courtesy of the smaller, more refined carbide structure.
The older, gold-colored Survivalist models were known to commonly have the protective Teflon coating wear off under any sort of actual use, which defeated the purpose of coating the blade in the first place. Thankfully, the new version has been upgraded with a much more durable coating that held up very well in our testing. Cold Steel also made a few other improvements, most notably the addition of tough Grivory scales. Referred to by Cold Steel as Griv-Ex, Grivory is a type of fiber-reinforced nylon (or FRN). These Grivory scales have a stippled texture, and greatly enhance your grip, while pleasantly filling your hand. In addition to being impressively durable, Cold Steel made the hollows that the scales sit in a little deeper, resulting in a slight weight reduction, which is fantastic as it moves the center of balance to the right at the handguard.
Our only gripe with the Survivalist is actually more of an issue with Cold Steel’s fixed blades in general. The Secure-Ex sheath that comes with the majority of its fixed blades is very durable, due to being made from glass-reinforced nylon. It’s the reason that other manufacturers like Ka-bar commonly use glass-reinforced nylon for its sheaths. However, an unfortunate side-effect of using glass-reinforced nylon for sheaths is that, if you’re not careful to ride the spine of the blade against the sheath when drawing the knife, you risk the edge contacting the sheath. The internet is full of accounts of users who have found their knives prematurely dulled by the glass in these sheaths. In addition, the sheath is kind of bulky and feels cheap compared to Kydex. However, it is extremely durable and allows for a ton of mounting options if you don’t want to use the included belt loop.
- Blade length: 8 inches
- Blade material: 52100
- Blade finish: Teflon-coated
- Handle material: Stippled Grivory
- Blade shape: Straight clip point
- Sheath material: Secure-Ex
- Weight: 18.3 ounces
- The Cold Steel Drop Forged Survivalist is tough, affordable, and ready for anything. It’s a Bowie made to survive anything you throw at it.
Forged from a monolithic piece of steel
Improved corrosion-resistant coating
Excellent toughness and edge-retention
Designed by custom knifemaker Alan Folts, the CRKT Minimalist series has become extremely popular, thanks to being small, lightweight, and surprisingly ergonomic. They are also extremely budget-friendly, which unfortunately means that they’re typically made from cheaper budget steels like 8Cr13MoV, or 5Cr15MoV if you purchase one of the older models. Thankfully, they’ve collaborated with Smoky Mountain Knife Works to bring you this exclusive Bowie.
It started off by upgrading to tough D2 tool steel, which is known for having great edge retention and is a noted improvement over the soft 5Cr15MoV used on the standard Bowie model. The deeply grooved, three-finger grip has been upgraded to premium micarta handle scales, which not only look amazing, but also slightly improve the grip in wet environments. We personally found them to be pretty comfortable, with the lanyard extension giving you a place for your pinky finger to sit, but should you desire a larger grip, Flytanium makes a variety of upgrade scales in different materials. While it would’ve been nice for CRKT to have given this blade a corrosion-resistant coating, as long as you keep the blade clean, dry, and oiled, you shouldn’t have any issues with rust forming.
- Blade length: 2.13 inches
- Blade material: D2
- Blade finish: Bead-blasted
- Handle material: Micarta
- Blade shape: Clip point
- Sheath material: Zytel
- Weight: 1.6 ounces
- Weight w/sheath: 2.2 ounces
- The CRKT Minimalist lineup is known for being lightweight, inexpensive, and ergonomic, making this upgraded, exclusive model the least expensive bowie on our list.
Upgraded to D2 steel
Small, three-finger grip
D2 is more prone to corrosion
No blade coating
Cold Steel has one of the largest lineups of production Bowie knives on the market, including both historical and modern designs. The Recon Scout is a lovely mixture of the two, featuring a modern Kray-Ex handle slightly reminiscent of a traditional coffin-style handle. Whereas historical Bowies of this design would typically have a brass crossguard, Cold Steel went with a guard made from 300-series stainless steel, which is not only tougher than brass, but also extremely corrosion-resistant.
The Recon Scout is the smaller brother of the popular Trail Master Bowie and features a similarly broad belly, straight clip point, and a slightly concave false edge. This swedge was actually sharpened on the model we tested, making it an excellent contender for making quick snap cuts. It’s worth noting that many users have found that current Recon Scouts don’t come with it sharpened, likely due to many locales restricting double-edged blades. And honestly, given how many times we’ve almost absent-mindedly cut ourselves on the sharpened swedge, this is probably for the best.
The current version comes in a premium, American-made CPM 3V steel, which is the perfect steel for a Bowie in our opinion. It’s one of a few steels that we frequently refer to as beater steel, due to its impressive toughness and solid edge retention. It’s not stainless steel but does offer better corrosion resistance than less-advanced alloys like 1075, 1085, and 1095. While you’ll want to maintain it by keeping it clean, dry, and lightly oiled, there are few steels out there as well suited to chopping and batoning, while still having the edge retention to skin a deer.
- Blade length: 7.5 inches
- Blade material: CPM 3V
- Blade finish: Satin
- Handle material: Kray-Ex
- Blade shape: Straight clip point
- Sheath material: Secure-Ex
- Weight: 9.5 ounces
- Textured, grippy handles, premium American steel made through Crucible Particle Metallurgy (CPM) processes, and a modern take on a classic design make this our personal favorite.
Tough, American-made premium steel
Traditional design with modern materials
Textured Kray-Ex handle provides excellent grip
Strictly speaking, Bowies are fixed blades by definition. However, the Cold Steel Bush Ranger is one of the closest things you’ll find to a Bowie in a folder. The clip point blade is made from American-made CPM S35VN steel, and has the belly and pointy tip you’d expect from a Bowie — but that’s not what makes this the closest kin to a Bowie that you’ll find in a pocket knife.
Rather, it’s a result of Andrew Demko’s indomitable Tri-Ad lock, which has proven time and time again to be just as strong as any fixed blade on the market. I’ve only seen a select few Cold Steel Tri-Ad folders fail, and in every single case, it was the handle or blade that broke first — the lock was perfectly unperturbed by the trauma the knife had gone through. That’s exactly how fixed blades fail; either the handle gets damaged, or the blade straight up breaks.
The Bush Ranger is based on an older Cold Steel fixed blade of the same name, which was known for having an extremely comfortable handle. Similarly, this folder has an ergonomic handle CNC-machined out of FDE-colored G10. This makes it not only extremely comfortable, but also durable and lightweight. Cold Steel finished the blade off with a 90-degree spine, allowing you to easily throw sparks with a Ferro rod whenever you need a fire.
- Blade length: 3.5 inches
- Blade material: CPM S35VN
- Blade finish: Satin
- Handle material: Brown G10
- Blade shape: Clip point
- Pivot type: Phosphor-bronze and Teflon washers
- Lock type: Tri-Ad lock
- Weight: 5.4 ounces
- With a blade length of 3.5 inches, this folding knife from Cold Steel is legal in most states and cities, making it an excellent choice for EDC.
Stiff pocket clip
Premium S35VN for excellent edge retention and corrosion resistance
Ergonomic, textured G10 scales
Tough Tri-Ad lock
Stiff pocket clip
Tri-Ad lock can be difficult for weaker hands to disengage
While most Bowies that are up to snuff nowadays are made from more modern materials such as micarta or G10 handles, premium steels, and Kydex sheaths, the Undertaker is something different. Made by Condor Knife & Tool in El Salvador, designed by Joe Flowers, and unabashedly made from classic materials, this blade is an absolute beauty.
Forged from tough 1075 carbon steel, the Undertaker is the largest knife on our list, with a blade length of just over 10 inches, and an overall length of 15.5 inches. The blade’s spine is five-millimeters thick, hollow-ground, and hand-finished, enabling it to take a hair-splitting edge. While the traditional walnut coffin-style handle isn’t the most ergonomic, it’s far from uncomfortable and is perfectly complemented by the thick, handmade leather sheath that comes with it.
- Blade length: 10.125 inches
- Blade material: 1075
- Blade finish: Polished
- Handle material: Walnut
- Blade shape: Clip point
- Sheath material: Leather
- Weight: 1.5 pounds
- Condor Tool & Knife is well-known for making quality, durable blades, and this traditional coffin-style handle Bowie stays true to its roots by using traditional materials.
Tough 1075 steel is easily resharpened
Handcrafted, welted leather sheath
HIstorically accurate full-tang design
Carbon steel is more prone to corrosion
Wood and leather are more susceptible to temperature/moisture damage
With military contracts going back decades, the Ontario Knife Company is no stranger to tactical blades, so it came out with its Spec Plus lineup. Designed for hard use in the most trying environments, the SP10 is an American-made Bowie crafted from tough 1075 carbon steel. The blade is 6.4 millimeters thick, with a deep belly for powerful slicing cuts.
While normally you’d need to keep a carbon steel blade clean, dry, and lightly oiled to hold oxidation and rust at bay, Ontario preemptively powder-coated the entire knife. The full tang is encased in ergonomic Kraton handles, which completely eliminate any potential hotspots, in addition to being extremely durable and shock-absorbent. Lastly, Ontario included a MOLLE-compatible nylon sheath, allowing you to mount it conveniently on either your belt, pack, or flak. Whether for batoning firewood or hacking through the zombie apocalypse, the SP10 has your back.
- Blade length: 9.8 inches
- Blade material: 1075
- Blade finish: Epoxy powder-coated
- Handle material: Kraton
- Blade shape: Clip point
- Sheath material: Nylon
- Weight: 2.05 pounds
- This tough Bowie has one of the thickest blades on this list, and its durable, ergonomic Kraton handle ensures you’ll keep a firm grip in any environment.
Made in the USA
Comfortable, durable Kraton handle
Things to consider before buying a Bowie knife
What makes a Bowie is a set of characteristics, which Arkansas historian Russell T. Johnson said best: “It must be long enough to use as a sword, sharp enough to use as a razor, wide enough to use as a paddle, and heavy enough to use as a hatchet.”
Types of Bowies
While the Bowie knife is well-known and easily recognized, it’s not as easily defined. In general, however, most modern Bowies are larger fixed-blade knives, typically with a blade length of six to 20 inches. In many ways, larger Bowies are merely America’s version of the short sword. Despite both historical and modern-day exceptions, most are clip-point or trailing point blades with deep bellies and needle-like tips, making them extremely good at both penetration and slicing deep. That needlepoint can be excellent for utility and bushcraft tasks, like boring a hole in a piece of wood to allow the use of a bow drill to start a fire. The downside, of course, is that the thin tip tends to be more fragile than other popular blade shapes like the drop point or Americanized tanto.
Key features of a Bowie knife
There are hundreds, if not thousands, of different types of steel alloys out there, and few are created equal. An unfortunate majority of Bowies are made from no-name steel. Whether this takes the form of cheap stainless steel in that Mossy Oak Bowie you found at a local store, fragile pattern-welded Damascus steel Bowies at a vendor that are astronomically overpriced, or shiny show-pieces that substitute a buffing wheel for actual quality materials and construction, there are plenty of examples of what to avoid.
In general, you’ll find that most quality Bowies are made from either high-carbon steel or premium steel that may be either high-carbon or stainless. Popular examples would include 1075, 1095, and SK5 high-carbon steel, as well as CPM 3V, S35VN, S30V, and 20CV for premium offerings. Regardless of the type of steel, you’ll want to maintain the blade by keeping it clean, dry, and lightly oiled. However, in the case of non-stainless steel alloys, this is double the case, due to the increased risk of rust.
Knife Informer and Blade HQ both have decent guides if you need more information, detailing the edge retention, toughness, and corrosion resistance of the more popular alloys currently on the market.
Historically, most knives considered Bowies were almost indistinguishable from short swords due to their length, frequently being between 12 and 20 inches in blade length, with plenty of them being even longer. Given that they were frequently carried to serve as a weapon, makeshift hatchet, and anything else that suited the user’s fancy at the time, this made sense.
Nowadays, however, you’re more likely to find them between six and 12 inches in length, though there are noted exceptions both longer and shorter. Naturally, a longer blade is going to be more difficult to comfortably carry, is more likely to be restricted in many states, and raises eyebrows, whereas a shorter blade is handier for EDC.
As always, there are many options available for handles, and it’s relatively easy to find a Bowie with your material and style preference. For materials, leather and wood were commonly used historically, with leather being primarily used in conjunction with a rat-tail tang, while wood was used with a partial, rat-tail, and full (in the case of the coffin-style handle) tang blades. Unfortunately, neither of these materials are nearly as durable as modern materials like G10 and micarta, but thankfully there are plenty of fantastic Bowie options that are made with modern materials. These are frequently textured to enhance your grip in harsh conditions and are often combined with full tangs to ensure maximum longevity.
FAQs about Bowie knives
Q: Is a Bowie knife illegal?
A: At one point in time, Bowies were illegal in several states, but only a handful today still have restrictions on Bowies. Most of those merely prohibit conceal-carrying a Bowie, or prohibit minors and felons from owning them. For more information on state knife laws, check out the legal guide on KnifeUp.
Q: How much does a Bowie cost?
A: Because Bowie knives require more materials, they tend to cost more than smaller knives. Most mid-tier Bowies can cost anywhere from $100 to $300. The price increases with better materials, quality control, warranty, etc. However, the sky’s the limit with custom knives made with exotic materials and handmade blades.
Q: What is a coffin-style handle?
A: A coffin-style handle is a vintage design that features a full-tang blade with two handle scales pinned to either side. The reason for its moniker is its side profile, which has the appearance of an old, wooden coffin. The handle gradually widens to the pommel, which has three sides that resemble the head of a coffin. While it’s not the most ergonomic handle by modern standards, it’s far from uncomfortable and has an undeniable aesthetic.
Our main goal in this article was to pick through all the cheap, no-name stainless steel blades, over-polished monstrosities, and overpriced Bowies that flood the market to bring you a balance of good materials, construction, and quality control, all at a reasonable price — and that’s exactly what the Cold Steel Survivalist brings to the table.
For this article, we relied on our own experiences and testing, as well as suggestions from various internet forums, including a few Facebook groups for knife enthusiasts. We relied on these sources because members typically provide better feedback than product review sections on most knife websites.
We chose these Bowies for their overall quality and performance. We looked for blades that were long-lasting, versatile, and useful. We looked at the materials used for the blade, handle, and sheath, as well as the manufacturer’s quality control record. Because of their improved rust resistance, blades made of high-quality stainless or semi-stainless steel were preferred.
Finally, we eliminated Bowies with uncoated high-carbon steel blades, wooden handles, leather, or similar materials due to their proclivity to be damaged by temperature and humidity changes — hardly the kind of thing you’d want in a blade you’d carry with you every day, regardless of the environment. Obviously, an exception was made for our choice of the best traditional Bowie, due to modern materials not being an option.
For more information on our methodology and product reviews, check out the Task & Purpose review guidelines.