A machete (//; Spanish pronunciation: [maˈtʃete]) is a broad blade used either as an agricultural implement similar to an axe, or in combat like a long-bladed knife. The blade is typically 30 to 45 centimetres (12 to 18 in) long and usually under 3 millimetres (0.12 in) thick. In the Spanish language, the word is possibly a diminutive form of the word macho, which was used to refer to sledgehammers., alternatively, its origin may be machaera, the name given by the Romans to the falcata. It is the origin of the English language equivalent term matchet, though it is less commonly used. In the English-speaking Caribbean, such as Jamaica, Barbados, Guyana, and Grenada and in Trinidad and Tobago, the term cutlass is used for these agricultural tools.
In various tropical and subtropical countries, the machete is frequently used to cut through rainforest undergrowth and for agricultural purposes (e.g. cutting sugar cane). Besides this, in Latin America a common use is for such household tasks as cutting large foodstuffs into pieces—much as a cleaver is used—or to perform crude cutting tasks, such as making simple wooden handles for other tools. It is common to see people using machetes for other jobs, such as splitting open coconuts, yard work, removing small branches and plants, chopping animals' food, and clearing bushes.
Machetes are often considered tools and used by adults. However, many hunter–gatherer societies and cultures surviving through subsistence agriculture begin teaching babies to use sharp tools, including machetes, before their first birthdays.
As a weapon
Because the machete is common in many tropical countries, it is often the weapon of choice for uprisings. For example, the Boricua Popular Army are unofficially called macheteros because of the machete-wielding laborers of sugar cane fields of past Puerto Rico.
Many of the killings in the 1994 Rwandan genocide were performed with machetes, and they were the primary weapon used by the Interahamwe militias there. Machetes were also a distinctive tool and weapon of the Haitian Tonton Macoute.
In 1762, the British captured Havana in a lengthy siege during the Seven Years' War. Volunteer militiamen led by Pepe Antonio, a Guanabacoa councilman, were issued with machetes during the unsuccessful defense of the city. The machete was also the most iconic weapon during the independence wars in that country (1868–1898), although it saw limited battlefield use. Carlos Manuel de Céspedes, owner of the sugar refinery La Demajagua near Manzanillo, freed his slaves on 10 October 1868. He proceeded to lead them, armed with machetes, in revolt against the Spanish government. The first cavalry charge using machetes as the primary weapon was carried out on 4 November 1868 by Máximo Gómez, a sergeant born in the Dominican Republic, who later became the general in chief of the Cuban Army.
Some countries have a name for the blow of a machete; the Spanish machetazo is sometimes used in English. In the British Virgin Islands, Grenada, Jamaica, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Barbados, Saint Lucia, and Trinidad and Tobago, the word planass means to hit someone with the flat of the blade of a machete or cutlass. To strike with the sharpened edge is to "chop". Throughout the Caribbean, the term 'cutlass' refers to a laborers' cutting tool.
The Brazilian Army's Instruction Center on Jungle Warfare developed a machete with a blade 10 inches (25 cm) in length and a very pronounced clip point. This machete is issued with a 5-inch Bowie knife and a sharpening stone in the scabbard; collectively called a "jungle kit" (Conjunto de Selva in Portuguese); it is manufactured by Indústria de Material Bélico do Brasil (IMBEL).
The panga or tapanga is a variant used in East and Southern Africa. This name may be of Swahili etymology; not to be confused with the Panga fish. The panga blade broadens on the backside and has a length of 16 to 18 inches (41 to 46 cm). The upper inclined portion of the blade may be sharpened.
This tool has been used as a weapon: during the Mau Mau Uprising; in the Rwandan Genocide; in South Africa particularly in the 1980s and early 1990s when the former province of Natal was wracked by conflict between the African National Congress and the Zulu-nationalist Inkatha Freedom Party.
In the Philippines, the bolo is a very similar tool, but with the blade swelling just before the tip to make the knife even more efficient for chopping. Variations include the longer and more pointed iták intended for combat; this was used during the Philippine Revolution against the Spanish colonial authorities, later becoming a signature weapon of guerrillas in the Philippine–American War. Filipinos still use the bolo for everyday tasks, such as clearing vegetation and chopping various large foodstuffs. These are also commonly found in most Filipino kitchens, with some sets displayed on the walls and other sets for less practical use. The bolo is also used in training in eskrima, the indigenous martial art of the Philippines.
Other similar tools include the parang and the golok (from Malaysia and Indonesia); however, these tend to have shorter, thicker blades with a primary grind, and are more effective on woody vegetation. The Nepalese kukri is a curved blade that is often used for similar tasks.
In Thailand, more variations exist, such as the e-nep, or nep, which translates as "leaf" (มีดเหน็บ). It may resemble some forms of Muslim blades like the jambiya, or the Nepali khukuri, having aspects of both with the up-swept tip and protruding belly. Another design found in Thailand is the e-toh, which is prominent in Southern China, Laos, and other northern parts of South East Asia. Generally, e-tohs must have forward weighted tips, and are used around the home for splitting stove wood or chopping bone. The Chinese dao, with its triangular tip, is found in Thailand as the hua-tad (หัวแตด), which translates roughly as "head chopper". The most common blade in Thailand is called the pra, (พร้า) it can describe long straight designs, or billhook designs. The primary purpose of a pra is farm work and clearing vegetation.
In the various regions of Ecuador, it is still used as an everyday tool in agricultural labors, such as clearing, chopping, cutting and felling. In the Pacific coast region, the machete has a long history of use and can be seen as part of the everyday dress of the rural male inhabitants, especially in the provinces of Manabí, Los Ríos and Guayas. In its day, the machete and the skills related to it were seen as a token of manliness, and it was carried, sword-like, in ornamented sheaths made out of leather or in sashes around the waist. Its use was not limited to agriculture: it also had a double role as a ready-to-hand weapon for self-defense or attack. Although modern laws in Ecuador now prohibit its use as a weapon, there are still cases of vicious fighting or intimidation related to it. Being a part of the male dress, it also has a part in the cultural expressions of the coastal rural regions of Ecuador, such as dances, horse taming contests and skill exhibitions.
In the southern Brazilian state of Rio Grande do Sul, the machete made by Spanish is largely used. It is used to clear paths through the bush, and was used to fight against the Brazilian Empire in the Ragamuffin War. There, the machete is called facão or facón (literally "big knife"). Today, this region has a dance called the dança dos facões (machetes' dance) in which the dancers, who also always men, knock their machetes while dancing, simulating a battle. Maculelê, an Afro-Brazilian dance and martial art, can also be performed with facões. This practice began in the city of Santo Amaro, Bahia, in the northeastern part of the country.
In southern Mexico and Central America it is widely used to clear bush and often hundreds of macheteros are contracted to assist in clearing paths for the construction of new roads or structures. Many people in the rural regions own machetes to clear the constant overgrowth of jungle bush. In the recent drug cartel wars of the region, many homicides and decapitations are suspected of being committed with machetes or similar tools.
The taiga is a machete of Russian origin that combines the functions of machetes, axes, knives, saws, and shovels into one tool. It is easily distinguished by the large swell at the end of the blade to facilitate chopping. The taiga is used by military air and special forces, including the Spetsnaz.
Similar historical tools and weapons
The modern machete is very similar to some forms of the medieval falchion, a short sword popular from the 13th century onwards. The cutting edge of the falchion is curved, widening toward the point, and has a straight, unsharpened back edge. The machete differs from the falchion mainly in the lack of a guard and a simpler hilt, though some machetes do have a guard for greater hand protection during work.
The kukri is a Nepalese curved blade used for many purposes similar to the machete.
The dao is a traditional Chinese weapon resembling the machete. It is also known as "The General of All Weapons" and one of the traditional weapons of China. Dao is basically used for clearing and chopping tasks.
The fascine knife is a somewhat similar tool and weapon used by European armies throughout the late 18th to early 20th centuries. The Spanish Army called its fascine knives machetes. Whereas infantry were usually issued short sabres as side arms, engineers and artillerymen often received fascine knives, as besides being side arms they also served as useful tools for the construction of fortifications and other utilitarian tasks. They differ from machetes in that they generally have far thicker, tapered blades optimized for chopping European vegetation (the thin, flat blade of the machete is better for soft plants found in tropical environments), sword-like hilts and guards, and sometimes a sawback-blade. Some later models could be fixed to rifles as bayonets as well.
Both the materials used and the shape of the machete itself are important to make a good machete. In the past, the most famous manufacturer of machetes in Latin America and the Spanish-speaking Caribbean was Collins Company of Collinsville, Connecticut. The company was founded as Collins & Company in 1826 by Samuel W. Collins to make axes. Its first machetes were sold in 1845 and became so famous that all good machetes were called "un Collins". In the English-speaking Caribbean, Robert Mole & Sons of Birmingham, England, was long considered the manufacturer of agricultural cutlasses of the best quality. Some Robert Mole blades survive as souvenirs of travelers to Trinidad, Jamaica, and, less commonly, St. Lucia.
Since the 1950s, however, manufacturing shortcuts have resulted in a quality decline of machetes. Today, most modern factory-made machetes are of very simple construction, consisting of a blade and full-length tang punched from a single piece of flat steel plate of uniform thickness (and thus lack a primary grind), and a simple grip of two plates of wood or plastic bolted or riveted together around the tang. Finally, both sides are ground down to a rough edge so that the purchaser can sharpen the blade to their specific geometry using a file. These machetes are occasionally provided with a simple cord loop as a sort of lanyard, and a canvas scabbard—although in some regions where machetes are valuable, commonly used tools, the users may make decorative leather scabbards for them.
Toughness is important because of the twisting and impact forces that the relatively thin blade may encounter, while edge retention is secondary. Medium to high carbon spring steels, such as 1050 to 1095, are well suited to this application (with better machetes using the latter), and are relatively easy to sharpen. Most stainless steel machetes should be avoided, as many high-carbon stainless-steel machetes cannot stand up to repeated impacts, and will easily break if abused.
In comparison to most other knives, which are commonly heat treated to a very high degree of hardness, many machete blades are tempered to maximum toughness, often nearly spring tempered. This results in a tougher blade, more resistant to chipping and breaking, with an edge that is easier to sharpen but does not retain sharpness as well, due to its lower hardness.
A properly constructed machete will have a convex or flat primary bevel from the spine to the edge, which is formed by a secondary bevel. Better machetes will also have a slight distal taper.
The machete is also a performance weapon used in variations of the Brazilian martial dance called maculelê, often practiced by practitioners of capoeira. Machetes are a distinctive characteristic in the folkloric dances of the state of Nayarit. It is also seen in the state of Durango, in the folkloric dance called Danza de los Machetes which consists of blind-folded dancers juggling machetes and pitching them at increasing speeds between one another.
As a weapon, machetes are usually favored by criminals and gangsters for close-quarters combat.
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