Tools of the Trade #1: The Machete

Since the dawn of man, we have been at a disadvantage. We have no fangs and no claws. We cannot fly (save for Adrian Pasdar) or see in the dark. We don’t have catlike speed or agility, and we have nowhere near the physical strength of even our closest primate cousins. Our skin is soft and our bones are brittle. Thankfully, our brains are big, and it is thanks to our brains that we first managed to use tools to make our lives a little easier and even the odds with our wild animal brethren.

Most likely, the first of those tools were weapons. It is a simple fact that a weapon is a tool. In many cases, what you call a tool can also be a weapon. A tool is an object that we utilize to perform a task. A weapon is an also an object that we utilize to perform a task – tasks that require the killing of another animal, whether for defense, conquest, or to eat.

The first weapon was probably a rock or a club, and the the second was undoubtedly the knife. Spears and arrows couldn’t be sharpened without them, nor could furs be stripped or meat cut. Even a sharp-edged piece of flint, by definition, was a knife, and the knife has remained our go-to weapon ever since.

When the materials became available to make knives longer and heavier without compromising their integrity, the sword was born, and became the most recognized and symbolic weapon in the human arsenal. 

The machete is the quiet, country-born cousin of the knife and sword. It is largely employed in agricultural tasks, though it has also been a favored weapon in South American countries for ages. The machete is a descendant of the short sword, but is designed to be cheaply and easily made in large quantities.  It is durable and easily repaired or replaced. This is what makes it an ideal weapon for the majority of you to acquire and practice using.

The machete is larger and more powerful than the knife, having both cutting and chopping capability, as well as greater range, but is much, much lighter than the typical short sword (let alone a full-sized sword). This is what makes it an ideal weapon for the post apocalypse. Machetes are designed to be flexible as well, meaning that while they are very difficult if not impossible to break, they require more frequent sharpening. You can purchase a quality machete for about $20, whereas you’d pay at least $350 for a forged, combat-ready sword. That’s right, take that Highlander replica katana that you bought at that flea market off your wall and go outside and swing it at a tree as hard as you can. Bring a tissue, so you can wipe away your tears when it snaps in half. Do not fret long, though, because you can make some excellent knives out of the brittle leftover steel!

Machetes are also so light that you can swing them around all day long (and I have on many occasions) without completely destroying your arms. Try swinging a full-sized sword around as hard as you can and you’ll be giving up and going back inside in about fifteen minutes. [Before you ask, I have two handmade, forged katanas: one made by Badger Blades (which I highly recommend if you want a combat-ready blade) and one folded steel katana made in Japan, which is probably the single nicest weapon I own.] Together, they cost nearly a grand, but if I could only leave the house with a single blade in hand for the rest of my life, I’d leave with my rusty Honduran machete.

This is in no way a comprehensive treatise on machetes (don’t tempt me…that Postman review was whittled down from eight thousand words!), but merely a short show-and-tell of the machetes I currently own, or have owned, and what makes them special.

First, the aforementioned Honduran machete. For those that don’t know, Honduras is a machete culture, and it’s not uncommon to see people walking down the street with this “tool” in hand, or strapped in a decorative belt scabbard.  This tall, dark, Latin bebida de agua was brought back from Honduras by my father in the 80s. It’s the longest machete I’ve ever owned at 32 inches, and almost too long for the single-handed grip it offers. Because it is so thin (1/16th of an inch) and light, however, it is easily managed in a stout hand. I’ve literally cleared miles of brush and forest with this blade; its lightly rusted sheen is more a badge of honor and achievement than a sign of neglect. I have no doubt that this gaucho could bite clean through a tibia if swung with a little oomph…to say nothing of various meaty bits. I always carry a medium grit file for field sharpening and wear a batting or golf style glove for grip and blister control. I sharpened the back edge about six inches down to improve the stabbing point, though the flexibility would make it a poor penetrator.

Next up is the first machete I ever owned. I bought this camp style machete for fifty cents at a garage sale when I was about ten years old, and you can probably get the same one off the shelf at Wal-mart for five bucks.

 This one is the same thickness as the Honduran (1/16 in.) but only 23 inches in length. The grip was cheaply molded plastic, and was not only slightly too small for my hand, but had a very uncomfortable shape. So, I used a cutting wheel and a grinder to remove the portion of the pommel that protruded outward, increasing the grip surface, and wrapped the handle in leather cord for a thicker and more comfortable grip. I put three coats of flat OD spray paint on it with some light dustings of flat black here and there for a camo effect. This machete isn’t really great at anything, nor is it terrible. It’s the white bread of machetes.

This wakizashi, while not technically a machete, is still a very light short blade at 25 inches, and thus shares the same advantages as a machete. This one is a Chinese made Tomahawk brand, and I believe you can get it for about $20 online. It’s my most recent project, and I’ve taken quite a liking to it. While brittle steel makes for poor swords, it makes for excellent short swords and knives, so long as it has a nice thick spine to support it, which this does at exactly double the thickness of the Honduran (1/8 in.). It came painted black right out of the box, but it had one of those horrible glittery braided-shoelace-over-plastic grips that every cheap pawnshop katana sported in the 80s and 90s (usually next to the glow-chucks and mirror-finished shuriken). I stripped it down to the bare steel and bolted on a bare wood handle. I sanded the handle to a good curve, and wrapped the entire thing in the same black leather cord that I used on the camp machete (I have a whole spool of the stuff, gimme a break).  The thick, tanto point makes for the best penetrator of the three. I would stab sparingly, however, given the lack of a tsuba (hand guard/hilt).

This is my pride and joy as far as my machete-esque short blades – my kukri. Click on my “about” page to see it in action.  While not the best I’ve ever handled, it’s the one I currently own – I think I paid about $25 on ebay for it.  As I said in my “Waterworld” review, the kukri is the most well designed machete in the world, as far as the signature shape, and a devastating cutting implement literally designed to hack the limbs from the human body.  The angle of the blade ensures that, during a chop, the blade slices along its target rather than focusing the entire strike into a single point on the edge.  this is much the same way the 45-degree angle in a guillotine blade works.

Kukris come in sizes ranging from large knives to full blown large machetes.  Used by the Gurkha tribe of Nepal, the blade is nearly as feared and respected as its creators.  Kukris are typically very thick and heavy for their size, making for a very compact but devastating close range chopper.  This kukri is 17 inches in length, but a whopping 1/4 inch thick of leaf spring steel.  It came with the traditional handle design, which is an ergonomical abomination, but an hour or so with an angle grinder cured it of its malady.  I also ground an edge four inches down the spine to, again, increase the ease of penetration (mmm).  I am, by no means, a master craftsman, but I’ve heard that ugly blades cut just as well as the pretty ones.  If I could change anything about this kukri, I would make it slightly lighter and slightly longer.

That’s where the Cold Steel Kukri comes in.  I bought both the kukri and the magnum kukri as christmas gifts for my brothers a couple years ago, but I made sure to buy them both long enough in advance to give myself ample playtime.

The kukri (above) is 18 inches long – only an inch longer than my kukri, but MUCH, MUCH lighter.  In fact, after playing with my kukri, this one feels like a toy.  Obviously, that gives it slightly less chopping power, but trust me…it’s still going to bite through anything you’ll need it to, and the increased maneuverability will more than make up for the loss of forward weight.  The only modification I did to this one was wrapping the handle in para-cord.  Still, is this bad boy too short for you?

Then try the magnum kukri (everybody wants to say they use a magnum), which comes in at 22 inches.  Unfortunately, the Cold Steel kukris don’t have as wicked a curve as traditional kukris, but the forward weight and concave belly are still advantages over standard machetes.  The best thing, though, is that either one can be had for under $25.

So, get up right now and go sell your wall-hanger katana or your bat’leth at the nearest pawn shop.  Ask for no less than $30.  Take that $30 and order yourself a good machete from a company like Cold Steel (when you check out, let them know in the “comments” portion that you were referred by  Take it out in the backyard and learn to use it: trim some trees, chop some logs, or have a friend throw fruit and vegetables at you and scream your battle cry as you slice them out of the air (Iron Chef Morimoto would approve).

Then, take comfort in the fact that you are slightly more prepared for the inevitable collapse of civilization than you were before.

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