David Rilley-Harris


June 2019

Machetes, Bush Knives, and Pangas, are the same form of edged weapon. They are large knives or wide bladed swords designed as heavy cutting and slicing tools or weapons. While they vary enormously in pattern, they are typically the length of short swords with wide, heavy, and curved blades. They often taper to a point at the spine edge (billhook) or at the top for piercing power.

Australian billhook machete

Machete is the most widely encompassing name for this kind of edged weapon or tool. In English they will sometimes be called a matchet, and in the English-speaking Caribbean they are often called a cutlass(as a tool, not a weapon).

Panga is a Swahili word meaning big knife. It is the name often used in Africa. Because pangas are often heavy with a billhook, a machete from outside of Africa, while shaped like the example pictured above, will sometimes be referred to as an African machete. The word panga has become associated with the use of machetes as weapons. This is a result of the violent use of machetes as punishment and torture implements during European colonisation of Africa. The terror of using a machete in such ways led to the tool becoming a popular weapon for terrorising targets. As a result of this, pangas have often been associated with African genocidal attacks. In 2013, an attempted genocide and attempted counter-genocide in the Central African Republic saw the Christian anti-Muslim based side name themselves the anti-machetes. They also used pangas.

A makeshift machete using plastic bags as a handle

The machete above could also be called a makeshift sword, but that would carry an assumption over why it was made and how it was used – swordis a word less associated with non-violent tools.

The machete is also sometimes called a jungle knife, and in the Brazilian military a combat machete is produced as a part of their jungle kit. Angola has a machete on their national flag to symbolise agricultural workers and to mimic the hammer in the Soviet flag. The cog wheel in the Angolan flag represents industrial workers and mimics the Soviet farmers’ sickle.

Angolan flag

Bush knife is usually the name used to describe a machete as a bush craft tool. The curved blade can slice through game, and the heavy blade can chop wood. As a bush craft tool, the slicing curve is usually applied for its effectiveness at cutting through bush to make a path.

Bush knives were provided to military personnel during the world wars to be used for bush craft, but the frightening effect of the machete was not lost on the soldiers. The British military developed a small machete as a combat weapon for their special forces. They called it a smatchet. It was used by the Commandos and the SOE (Special Operations Executive), it was also used by the USA OSS (Office of Strategic Services) which later became the CIA (Central Intelligence Agency) [below].

Britain and USA also produced a folding machete for the Second World War. It was first issued to USA air crews and was stored with their parachutes.

Folding WW2 Machete

African leaf-blade panga

The panga above has a handle designed for the weapon to be used as a spear if necessary, which it can also rightfully be named. However, the wide blade suggests that its most common use was as a tool. On the other hand, the purpose-built British combat smatchet had a similar blade design.

An American-made South African Union Defence Force WW2 machete

A Collins American-made WW1 period machete

A Kenyan Maasai panga

For their raw functionality, machetes have been in use for as long as swords have existed. They are almost always used as tools, not only for bush craft but as farming implements as well. As with many edged weapons, swords probably originated as farming implements which were used as weapons when necessary. Over time, the patterns of farming tools were altered to be more functional as weapons. Many edged weapons which look like machetes came to be known by their own various names throughout the world. As an example, the Maasai panga above is almost identical to a Maasai sword but the panga has a wider blade.

Article Verified by S R Mackenzie: Director