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What is a Machete?

By Jason C. Chavis
Updated May 17, 2024
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A machete is a large blade designed for cutting. Generally speaking, it is usually between one to two feet (30.48 to 60.96 cm) long and a tenth of an inch thick (2.54 mm). Its primary use is to provide a cutting method for agricultural products, such as breaking open coconuts or cutting down sugar cane. The heavy-duty design and large size enable the user to obtain a significant amount of momentum when the machete blade is struck against an object. Other uses include cutting down vegetation to make paths through thick brush in rainforests, doubling as a clever for food preparation or as a weapon.

The machete is most common in tropical countries, due to its use in general tasks. It is found most readily in South America, the Caribbean, Africa, Southeast Asia and the islands of the Pacific. Culturally, it is highly recognizable throughout the world as both a useful tool and a threatening weapon brandished by military organizations and rebellious uprisings.

Throughout history, military machete utilization has become a primary symbol of many groups. For example, machetes were used by Cuban guerrillas defending Havana against Great Britain in battle in 1762. The Boricua Popular Army, a Puerto Rican Marxist group, uses the machete as a symbol of liberation, giving rise to the nickname Los Macheteros. Machete knives also became a primary symbol of the Interahamwe militias of the Rwandan Genocide.

There are a number of different designs for machetes throughout the world. Most of these are based on the same general principle, but vary in size and shape. The main African design, known as a tapanga, is roughly one and a half feet (45.72 cm) long with a broad posterior side. Southeast Asia and the Pacific islands use a type of machete knife known as a bolo, which features a larger tip than base.

According to Rudolph Chris Hassel, author of Shakespeare's Military Language: A Dictionary, the origins of the modern machete knife dates back to at least medieval times, with the falchion, a short sword developed during the 13th century. There are also a number of links to a previous design from ancient Greece known as a kopis. The term machete is believed to be derived from a tool used by the Spanish Army during the 18th century known as a fascine. The troops that used the tools called them by the name machete.

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