Tuesday, July 24, 2012

REVIEW: The Puma Bowie Knife- For The Jeremiah Johnson In All Of Us......

"Jeremiah Johnson made his way into the mountains
Bettin' on forgettin' all the troubles that he knew
The trail was wide and narrow
The eagle or the sparrow
Showed the path he was to follow as it flew.
A mountain man's a lonely man
And he leaves a life behind
It ought to have been different, but you often times will find
That the story doesn't always go the way you had in mind.
Jeremiah's story was that kind. . .
Jeremiah's story was that kind...."
(Written by Tim McIntire)

The Puma Bowie....... somehow, I feel like a real mountain man when I carry this knife, like I just stepped back into the 1840s. I have owned several production bowies, but none of them gave me this inspired feeling. Why is it that the Puma makes me feel this way, while the others fall flat?

I think part of the reason has to do with the fact that Puma is one of the oldest knife companies in the world, founded all the way back in 1769. It might also be the genuine stag handles that adorn a solid billet of forged steel, entirely hand-crafted by German knifesmiths. Or, maybe it's the beautiful, yet highly functional, hand-made leather sheath that encases the classic Bowie blade shape.

According to Puma, some of their blades were carried by immigrants across the Atlantic to America during the time when much of the west was wild and untamed. Could it be that some of these immigrants took their Pumas to the Rocky Mountains to become mountain men, using them to skin elk, fight off Indians, or cut up meat for the dinner table? It's certainly possible.

The Knife

The Puma Bowie was originally introduced in 1958, and up until the early 1980s, was constructed of high carbon steel. After the early 80s, Puma began producing the Bowie in 440C Stainless. At one point, they also sold the Bowie in more 'manly' 8" and 10" blade sizes. I'm told that these are now rare collector's pieces which command quite a premium on the used knife market.

According to Puma, it takes 25 different hand production steps to complete a finished Bowie. To give you an idea of what they mean by "hand production," check out this video of workers in Puma's Solingen, Germany plant, crafting their famed White Hunter knife from start to finish:


  • Handmade by skilled craftsmen
  • Hollowground Bowie-style blade
  • Custom proofed Rockwell Hardness
  • Leather sheath
  • Lifetime limited warranty
  • Country of Origin: Solingen, Germany
  • Blade Length in / mm: 6.1/155
  • Blade Thickness in / mm: 0.16/4
  • Total Length- 11.4"/280mm
  • Weight 7 ounces (without sheath) /200 grams
  • Scales: Naturally dropped stag
  • Blade Steel: Hot Drop-Forged 440C Stainless
  • Rockwell Hardness: 57-60

The Bowie is constructed out of drop-forged 440C Stainless Steel. It features full tang construction, along with naturally-dropped stag handle scales that are hand-riveted into place. The handle itself has a lanyard hole drilled through it, which is reinforced with a brass liner.

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The hand guard is crafted from polished aluminum. The blade is marked "HANDMADE" and features Puma's trademark Rockwell testing mark on the side of the blade.

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440C is not the first steel you would think would be used in a classic mountain man knife. Mountain men would have used hand forged carbon steel blades back in the day. I would argue, however, that if they had the choice, they would have carried and used high-carbon stainless blades in a heartbeat. Modern high-carbon stainless steels like 440C, 154CM and Sandvik 12C27 possess most of the qualities and advantages of high-carbon steels, yet are much easier to maintain in the field.

The 440C used in the Bowie, which they refer to as "Puma Steel," is actually hot drop-forged, which really puts it in a different class than most knives.

The vast majority of production knives are milled or stamped from a single piece of rolled plate steel, popularly known as "bar stock removal". By drop-forging the billets used in the Bowie (and White Hunter model), Puma makes these knives inherently tougher than knives using bar stock removal. Despite persistent rumors on internet forums about forged steel no longer being superior to modern stamped or milled knife billets, this is simply not true.

According to Wikipedia, "Forging can produce a piece that is stronger than an equivalent cast or machined part. As the metal is shaped during the forging process, its internal grain deforms to follow the general shape of the part. As a result, the grain is continuous throughout the part, giving rise to a piece with improved strength characteristics."

There's a good reason why even cheap hardware store axes are still drop-forged, because it makes them stronger and more resistant to breaking, chipping and deformation.

The Sheath
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The Bowie comes with a beautiful hand-made chocolate-brown leather sheath that is both stitched and riveted together. It has a lanyard cord at the bottom of the sheath to secure it to your leg, as well as cord at the top of the belt loop that can be threaded through the lanyard hole in the knife for extra retention. The knife is held in place with a single leather retention strap with a heavy metal snap.

I’ve always felt that Puma made some of the most beautiful and functional production knife sheaths. The Bowie sheath really is a work of art, and the quality is outstanding. The retention strap snaps into place with a commanding “click!”, and the sheath is made of thick leather which is heavily reinforced at all the stress points.

The knife fits well inside the sheath, and Puma’s extra cord at the top of the belt loop is a great trick for adding more blade retention.


Though built primarily for hunting, the Puma Bowie is perfectly capable of performing the role of a survival or bushcraft knife. No, it won't out-carve a Mora, but it can still make feather sticks, baton wood, strike a firesteel, or carve wood for traps/tent stakes with relative ease.

Making Feathersticks

What good is a mountain man knife if it can't carve out a few feathersticks to start a campfire? Though the Bowie's shallow V-grind doesn't carve as well as a good Scandi-grind knife, it still did a good job creating feathersticks during our tests.
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Carving a Tent Stake

Tent stake carved from a dead Aspen branch

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Batoning Wood 

The Bowie's 4mm wide/6.1" long blade proved to be excellent for batoning wood. No edge rolling or chipping occurred during these tests.

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Limbing a tree for shelter insulation/bedding

To test the Bowie's ability to limb a small tree for shelter/bedding material, I procurred a small Douglas Fir Christmas tree that was being thrown out. 

The forward weight of the Bowie's blade was a great asset when limbing the tree. It chopped through most of the branches with only 1-2 swings, as shown in the photos below.
Me starting off:

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Dave finishing:

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Slicing up a turkey

Since the Bowie is primarily a hunting knife, we decided to try it out on a fresh Christmas turkey to see how it would perform. As expected, the Bowie, was an excellent meat carver.

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Tip Strength Test

To test the strength of the Bowie's tip, I jammed it into a dead Ponderosa Pine log and twisted it around multiple times. As I would expect from a good drop-forged knife, the tip remained perfectly intact.

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Striking a Firesteel

When I received the Bowie, I was rather surprised to find that the back of the blade was fairly sharp, so I suspected it might be good for striking a firesteel. The first time I struck a Light My Fire Army-model Firesteel (graciously provided to us by Industrial Revolution), I was pretty blown away -- it created a massive shower of sparks, as shown in the second photo below:

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The initial result was impressive, but looks can be deceiving, so I decided to see if I could light some Ponderosa Pitchwood shavings with it. 

Scraping the pitchwood to make a pile of shavings:
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Striking the firesteel:

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Success! It only took a couple of strikes to ignite the pitchwood. Surprisingly, this performance rivals the performance of the Light My Fire FireKnife we reviewed a few months ago.

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Though not a classic bushcraft design, the Bowie certainly proved itself when performing bushcraft tasks such as batoning, striking a firesteel, or making feathersticks. No, you can't strike it on a piece of flint to spark a fire (due to its stainless construction), but that's a minor tradeoff for having greatly increased rust resistance.  

Where I'm located, it rains almost every day during the summer. This makes it a constant battle to keep rust off of my carbon-steel axes after spending time in the field. I consider it an asset to have a knife that doesn't require this same level of maintenance.

Aside from the Bowie's versatility and tough, drop-forged construction, one of its greatest assets is its mystique. Where else can you buy a production knife that has the heritage of Puma, coupled with its classic styling, along with a build process that makes it darn near indestructible? 

The only negative, and a slight one, is the larger guard, which is meant to protect the hands when skinning big game. Most bushcraft knives have minimal guards, so the feel of the Bowie will be slightly different until you get used to it. On the plus side, it helps to lock the knife securely in your hand. 

So if you're headed for the mountains and need a knife that can handle both hunting and bushcraft, yet is tough as your axe, check out Puma's Bowie knife. Jeremiah Johnson approved!

For more info, please visit http://pumaknifecompanyusa.com/Bowie-P2.aspx

A NOTE ABOUT THIS REVIEW: Writing this review was very special for me. You see, my dad, who died rather young, was a big fan of Puma knives, and if he were alive today, he'd be very excited that I was reviewing a Puma knife. My dad also turned me on to Jeremiah Johnson and the outdoors in general, so I'd like to dedicate this review to his memory (check out the Bio section for a photo of us together). I'd also like to thank Puma Knives USA for sending out the Bowie knife used in this review. It was a real honor.

This one's for you Dad.......

About the author
Jason Schwartz is the founder and senior editor of Rocky Mountain Bushcraft. He is a former Red Cross certified Wilderness & Remote First Aid Instructor, and has taught bushcraft and wilderness survival techniques to the Boy Scouts of America, interned with the US Forest Service, and studied wilderness survival, forestry and wildland firefighting at Colorado Mountain College in Leadville, Colorado. Jason has also written for magazines such as The New Pioneer and Backpacker, including writing the "Tinder Finder" portion of Backpacker's "Complete Guide to Fire," which won a 2015 National Magazine Award (NMA). Email him at rockymountainbushcraft @ hotmail.com (without spaces)