The Von Tempsky Bowie Knife
A modern-day Bowie knife. Image: Taranaki Stories Database
Major von Tempsky was famous for his use of the bowie-knife, modelled on the famous American blade named after Colonel Bowie. Invented by James Black, a blacksmith, gunsmith and cutler from Washington, Arkansas, it made a particularly effective fighting-knife.
About 30 were made to the Major's personal design by a cutler in Shortland Street. Auckland. They were crafted from wagon spring steel, one of the few sources of steel available to blacksmiths in 1863.
Von Tempsky taught his men to use the knife in one-on-one armed combat, fending off an opponent's attacking blows while holding a revolver in the other hand.
The big knives were also used to clear tracks through bush, dig defensive positions and cut fire wood.
In 1900, historian and writer James Cowan interviewed John Toovey, an old ex-soldier who farmed in the bush and still wore a sheath-knife on his belt. Like the farmer, the knife was a veteran, with a blade that had should have been about 25cms long, except the point had long ago broken off and the blade reground until it looked like a small bayonet.
'That's one of old Von's bowie-knives,' the old soldier said. 'He had a lot made at a blacksmith's in Auckland when the Forest Rangers were divided into two companies and he had command of one. I was in Captain Jackson's Company and he did not care for the knife; nevertheless, two or three of us wore it.
'You know, old Von was a terror with the bowie-knife. He had learned to use it in Mexico and Central America. Certainly, it came in handy in the bush, and as we had no bayonets it was comforting to know you had a sticker on your hip for a scrimmage.
'I've had that knife more than thirty years. See how it's worn down? I've used it for all sorts of jobs, hacking bush tracks, pig-sticking, butchering bullocks and sheep, cutting up my tobacco and often enough my loaf of bread. It'll last my day, my boy!'
First published 14 December 2004
Young, Rose, with Curnow, Heather, King, Michael, G.F. von Tempsky: Artist & Adventurer, (1982) Martinborough, Alistair Taylor
Cowan, James, The Adventures of Kimble Bent: A Story of Wild Life in the New Zealand Bush, (1911), London: Whitcombe and Tombs
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PLACES TO VISIT
Visit the memorial to von Tempsky at Ahipaipa Road, Okaiawa (see map below for location)