Throughout history, many great tools have been born out of mankind’s need to survive. Few have had the impact and adaptability of the machete.
From the South American Amazon to the African Serengeti, the use of machetes is global. The long fixed blades make them ideal for cutting trails and clearing brush. They are also a top choice of sugarcane farmers. The simplicity of the design and its effectiveness led to the tool becoming an icon.
The billhook made cutting through vegetation and small trees easier. As time progressed, similar tools developed reached symbolic status, and became ritualized. Stemming from need and ease of use, machete-like tools began popping up all over the world.
Machetes have also found their way onto the battlefield. Guerrilla forces and military soldiers have carried them as both tools and weapons. In particular, the Macheteros, have centuries-old ties back to sugarcane farmers. Rebels in Cuba have also used machetes in many conflicts with opposing forces. In some countries, machetes have even replaced handguns as the standard sidearm.
The African country of Angola even included the image of a Machete on its flag. Inspired by the Soviet hammer and sickle, the red and black flag features a cog and machete. A cog to represent industrial workers and the machete for agriculture.
Types and Styles
Across the world, as the uses of machetes grew, so did the number of types and styles. Now there are over a dozen. From Latin to Bowie, parang to kukri, each name represents a different style, origin, and use. In the western world, the most common style is Latin.
Including the Latin, below is a list of some common styles.
Originating from Latin America, this is the most recognized version of the machete. Blade lengths range from 18 to 24 inches and are best used in light vegetation. Used for cutting and chopping. Also known as a bush machete.
The Philippines-based Bolo has a blade length between 20 and 24 inches and is a multi-use tool. Like the heavy machete, it has a thicker weighted blade.
This African multi-use machete has a blade length of 20 inches. Distinct curved design makes it great for cutting wood. This design is used in the Caribbean and has a relative named the Tapanga that also originated in Africa.
From disputed origins, the billhook is one of the oldest recognized styles. It is an agricultural tool with a blade length around 20 inches. There are models with inside and outside edges sharpened.
Knife-like in its appearance. Originating from America with a typical blade length around 12 inches. This machete is a mix between a bowie knife and a machete. Regarded as the best survival machete it gets its namesake from Jim Bowie.
Used for shaping wood, the golok has a curved blade and originated in South-East Asia. This machete is a symbol of masculinity to the people of Indonesia.
An Asian machete with a single edge design and a heavy leaf-shaped blade. The slicing ability and heaviness make them ideal for hunting and slaughtering livestock.
Born in South America and used to cut sugar cane. The forward weighted cane machete is also used to cut bamboo and heavy foliage. Cane machetes feature a hook on the backside of the tip like most other designs.
This curved blade chopper hails from Nepal. It has a curved blade ranging from 16 to 18 inches. Ideal for jobs suited for large fixed blade knives. Militaries around the world issue the Kukris as a survival tool.
Used for chopping and batoning, this Asian machete has a curved blade. The parang has a longer and more curved blade than the golok.
The materials used to construct machetes differ. There are three common metal types used to make machetes: stainless, Carbon, and High-Carbon Stainless.
There are pros, cons, and uses for each. Base the type and style you choose on your intended use. Each design and material has a specific use in mind and the correct choice is crucial to the success of your job.
An expensive option resistant to stains and requires less maintenance. Dulls much faster than carbon but it’s easy to resharpen.
Harder and less expensive than stainless. This type requires oil often to avoid rust. Carbon will keep a sharp edge longer than stainless.
The newest material used. Combines the best of both worlds. The rust resistance of stainless and the strength of carbon.
Handles Types and Construction
Like the styles of the blade, there are different types of handle. Each handle design has a specific point and purpose.
Designed to keep your hand from slipping across the blade. It is a heavy design and may not fit all hands.
Like the crossguard, the knuckle guard will not fit all hands and does tend to be heavier. The design protects the hand and knuckles and keeps your hand from sliding off the handle.
The quillon design will keep your hand from sliding across the blade. It will not protect your hand and knuckles like the crossguard and knuckle guard.
There are different materials used in handle construction as well. Handles made for their longevity and handles made for their resistance of bacteria. Handle made from expensive materials and ones made from cheaper materials.
By far the most expensive. Constructed from layers of plastic, linen or fiberglass. These grips are the most comfortable and longest lasting.
Inexpensive handles provide a good grip. Because of their rubber construction, they can become worn and torn.
Another expensive option. Resistant to bacteria but can become slippery during use.
Not as expensive as stainless or micarta, but more than plastic. Known for harboring bacteria. It requires the most maintenance.
By far the cheapest option. They are easy to maintain but will crack easier than others. It can become slippery during extended use.
Machete or Axe?
These two tools with similar uses but different applications.
One design is best suited for chopping whereas the other is best for hacking. Machetes are longer and thinner and axes are short with thicker blades.
Machetes are lighter and users will tire slower than those using heavier axes. The weight of each can be a pro or a con depending on the application. If you are chopping firewood a machete is useless in the same way a hatchet is when clearing light foliage.
If you can’t decide which one is best for you, you may not have to.
Recently, a few companies have developed a Machete-Axe. These unique hybrids combine the blade length of a machete with the heavy head of an axe. This strange but effective combo allows you to chop, split, and clear brush with one tool.
Innovation has been a driving factor in the history of machetes. This latest incarnation is no different.
Storing And Caring For Your Machete
Machetes are versatile tools, but they have one enemy and vulnerability, rust. Because of this, it is crucial that you store your machete in a dry location and when in storage keep it out of the sheath.
Whichever style of machete fits your purpose best, you must maintain it and care for it. Since carbon steel blades are prone to rust apply a light coat of oil after use. Stainless steel will hold up better against the elements but you should oil them from time to time.
Handle maintenance is simple, especially if you have a plastic handle. Wooden handles need periodic oiling and is achieved by using a light rub down of furnish polish.
Sharpening Your Machete
In most cases, using a field sharpener is enough to keep a sharp edge on a machete while you are working. After an extended period of use, or if your machete comes without an edge, you will need a heavier sharpener.
Like every other aspect of machetes, the angle of edge you choose will be completely based on your needs. A 20 to 25 degree works best for non-woody applications. For branches and mixed woody vegetation, 25 to 35 degrees is ideal.
Mill files, grinding wheels, and belt sanders are great sharpening tools for machetes. Each has pros and cons and specific methods of use. When using all three you must keep an eye on the blade temperature so it does not lose its temper. I recommend that you research the three tools and find the one you are most comfortable with.
Latin or Bolo? Panga or Bowie? Wooden handle or plastic? Carbon blade or stainless blade? It’s up to you, and there is no wrong answer. That has made machetes a staple of outdoor adventures and projects for centuries.
Regardless of where you are, what you need, or what you are doing, chances are there is a machete perfect for you.
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Editor’s Note: This post was originally published on February 24, 2020, and has been updated for quality and relevancy.