Everyone knows about the Bowie knife, but what many don’t know is that one was used to showcase a new kind of handle with seriously sinister aesthetics. We’re talking, of course, about the ‘coffin handle’, whose beauty and practicality would lead the design to be copied and used even into the modern day.
So, what is a coffin handle knife? Well, it boils down to a practical design, typically consisting of a flat, wooden handle, robustly secured by 4 rivets on each side, and featuring 3 distinct angles that created an overall ‘coffin’ shape for the design. With its grave good looks and left-or-right-handed versatility, this design was definitely a keeper.
In today’s article, we’re going to explore this design in a little more detail, so that you’ll know a little about its composition, the history behind it, how they are made, and the overall pros and cons. There’s a reason that this design is still popular, so read on and we’ll tell you all about it!
What is a coffin handle knife?
When you hear the term ‘coffin handle’, you are enjoying one of the rare examples of a term that provides you with all you need to know, with the fat and flowery language neatly trimmed.
A coffin handle is exactly what it sounds like – it’s two flat pieces of wood, secured to reliable immobility by 4 rivets on each side, with the distinctive triple-angle of a funerary coffin at the base, and a squared, box-like length for the shaft.
Often there is a delicate contour to help ‘lock’ it in your hand and the elegant simplicity of the design (along with the grave symbolism it immediately invokes) serves as the perfect companion to a well-forged blade.
With such a wide grip, owners of a coffin handled knife have a lot of room for handling, and the simplistic shaping doesn’t limit the blade to being used with only your dominant hand. You could easily slip it from one hand to the other, handling it with relative ease, and this further added to the design’s popularity.
When you add in that the design itself means that the handle is not coming off (unless you toss it into a woodchipper, and even then, we’re betting it mostly sticks), the coffin handle was a surefire recipe for a way to hold your knife that wouldn’t loosen or otherwise betray you when you needed it.
Simple, elegant, and aptly named – it’s a handle shaped like a coffin, after all – it’s an antique design that’s so good that we simply had to keep it and you’ll find modern examples on knives all around the world!
History of Coffin handle knives
A blacksmith named James Black, who lived between the years of 1800 and 1872, set up a shop in the Arkansas territory in a town called Washington in the year 1830. The New Jersey native brought some serious skills to the table, as well, and he gets the credit for the first coffin handle knives which were used with the popular Bowie-style blades.
While we can’t say it for certain, many historians believe that Jim Bowie himself commissioned one or two knives from this master blacksmith, though we can say with certainty that his work travelled far and wide because of an archaeological discovery found in Texas.
In what was determined to be an early campsite used by the Mexican army, archaeologists found a blackened and rusted coffin blade Bowie knife. Dating the piece indicated that it was likely lost around the year 1836, when Black would have been 36 years old himself and well into his knifemaking prime.
These days, Blacks innovative coffin handled Bowies are considered prize pieces in museum collections scattered around the United States and the design that was considered the ultimate companion to the fierce Bowie blade continues to be a popular handle choice to this day.
How are coffin handles made?
Coffin handles are solidly made, and the process is not very complicated at all. Essentially, what you need is a prerequisite of 8 holes in the tang, consisting of a set of 4 holes evenly spaced on either side of it, along with the adhesive of your choice, and 2 slabs of wood sufficient to exceed the tang’s length.
The slabs are cut, sanded, and lovingly shaped into the infamous ‘coffin’ pattern, and before they are secured in place by driving in the riveting pins, the tang is coated with the adhesive of your choice, so that the resulting handle is fixed and virtually immovable.
The end result is a handle that is beautiful, practical, and is not going to budge when you find need to draw and use your knife. We should clarify at this point that coffin handles aren’t simply for bowies, but have been incorporated into other knife designs as well and you’ll even see variations on other knives.
With throwing knives, for instance, the coffin handle is an excellent choice, as it is firmly secured to the point that it won’t adversely affect the flight of the knife to its target. Furthermore, the triple-angle that gives it it’s distinct coffin shape, is not pointing outward at the base, but rather inwards towards the center of the blade.
With throwing blades, this for proper center and balance, and offers throwers a handle that is not only practical, but adds to the functionality. Remember: Weight is equal to mass times acceleration, so this handle increases the weight of the balanced knife so that it hits with a lot more ‘punch and pierce’.
In most cases, handles simply aren’t practical with throwing knives, and so that tang is simply widened to make it all of one piece, often with cloth wrapping to provide a better grip. With these knives, the coffin handle was definitely a game changed, as it offered a superior grip and delivery in an elegant, secure package.
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As coffin handle knives have been around since the early 1800s, there are obviously some advantages to go with the design. While you can certainly find ‘fancy’ handles that just there to look good, such designs tend to go away quickly in favor of the ones that actually improve and enhance the use of the blade.
We would be amiss if we didn’t give you a breakdown of what the coffin handle design brings to the table, so let’s take look first at those advantages to that you can have a better mental picture of why this design has been sticking around for so long.
Let’s face it – a knife handle shaped like a coffin really says it all. It gives a grace to show and to handle your beautiful blade that looks amazing, while symbolically broadcasting the knife’s ultimate purpose, and it doesn’t ‘showboat’ by taking away from the beauty of the blade.
Like it or not, aesthetics are important, because a knife is a blend of practically, efficiency, and grace, to the point that many of us have seen and even purchased blades that were housed in an unworthy handle, brought them home, and replaced the impractical eyesores when we got them there.
A handle needs to be practical above all else but there is absolutely no reason that it can’t look good too, and the coffin handle is a perfect example of form and function married in a manner that is just about perfect.
Left or right-handed grip/Versatility
Some knife handles meet the basic requirements of form and function, but lack versatility. Have you ever found what appears, at first glance, to be the perfect blade – but then realized you can’t switch hands quickly if you need to?
With a coffin handled knife, light contours will allow the grip to lock into place, but the simple symmetry of the design allows you to switch it between hands quickly and efficiently and you won’t need to rotate it in place to fit that opposite hand.
This is a very important thing if you even have to use the knife in a defense scenario.
With other handle designs, you’d need to back off and adjust for a brief period to get a proper lock and control over the knife and in a worst-case scenario, that could literally cost you your life. In the heyday of Bowie knifes people were using their blades every day and the coffin handle just made good, solid sense.
In whatever hand you chose to use it, that coffin handle would be a perfect fit and no extra handling would be required to use it to full and devastating effect.
When it comes to a handle that you can attach and not have to worry about for a long time, you’d be hard put to find one that does a better job than a coffin handle.
Not only it is securely riveted into place on both sides, but adhesive applied beforehand essentially cement it into place and it lasts long into the foreseeable future. One of the reasons that this design is still popular is that there’s never been a need to really innovate or change it – it works.
While you might decide to replace is from eventual chips or nicks that downgrade the appearance of the shiny hardwood handle, such a replacement is not something that you will need to think about for years.
This is a big deal for a lot of us who know that sometimes those ‘flashy’ handle options will function well but need to be replaced often in our lifetimes.
With the coffin handle, once affixed it’s going to do its job and look good doing it, and if you ever have to replace it then there’s likely going to be an amazing story behind it. These handles simply don’t budge and short of throwing your knife into an industrial woodchipper, you might not ever have to replace that handle.
Coffin handle knives: The Cons
No design is perfect, otherwise there’s only be one type of handle for every knife you see, and the coffin handle design is certainly no exception. In the interest of fairness, we’re going to list the caveats that come with a coffin handle so that you can weight them against the perks and see what you think.
Without further ado – let’s look at the ‘cons’ of the coffin!
While a coffin handle is intensely practical and easy on the eyes it’s not necessarily the most comfortable way to handle a knife for prolonged use. This is unavoidable and kind of a side-effect of having a handle so firmly secured and distinctly shaped.
The rectangular portion of the blade, firmly rooted to the tang, is going to ‘cut’ into the muscles of your hand – not in a way that actually cuts you – but as an angular focus of pressure into your hand muscles.
For quick use, this is not a problem, but if you’re using the blade all day on a camping outing then you’ll have a distinctive type of muscle soreness, at least until you adjust to frequent and prolonged usage.
Control is a mixed bag with the coffin handle design. On the one end, it’s a long and thinned design that allows you a lot of leeway in which hand you use and where you are holding the blade.
In that aspect, you get some great control, but with other handle types that are more customized for your grip you will likely have a little more. With practice, this is not necessarily a problem, but even with some clever contours to improve your grip, a coffin handle will not have as much control as a fully- customized grip.
In all fairness, though, as a ‘one size fits all’ for efficiency and control, it’s still a pretty fantastic design.
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Today we’ve answered the question ‘what is a coffin handle knife’ and as you can see, it’s exactly what it sounds like. Designed around the 1820’s-30’s, a coffin handle is simply two slabs of wood, glued and firmly riveted into place, with a distinct 3-angle design so that it resembles a funerary coffin.
While you’ll see it mostly on Bowies, as blacksmith James Black was said to have been commissioned by Jim Bowie himself, the utility and dashing good looks of this option have ensured that it’s incorporated into other blade styles all around the world.
It’s easy to see why – coffin handles are durable, immovable, and versatile, but let’s face it – they also clearly imply what might happen should you attempt to harm its owner.
It’s hard to find a message more plain and direct than a knife that you hold with a ‘coffin’!