The less misguided part of my youth was spent in West Africa where I lived in a small village for almost 3 years. Everyone carried a machete every time they left the village to go into the bush. The machetes were made by the local black smith from the leaf springs of junk vehicles.
Machetes were made in two main styles; one for cutting grass and thin brush and the other for cutting heavy brush and for chopping wood. These machetes were used for more than just heavy work, they were also used for everything from peeling fruit, butchering animals, cleaning fish to personal protection.
The machete style used for cutting grass and thin brush had long narrow curved blades shaped somewhat like a katana sword or like a a thinner version of a typical Panga style machete. The wood cutting machete had a much heavier blade that could also look like a heavier version of a Panga machete.
I also saw heavy machetes with a very forward bending hook towards the end like a bill hook machete, similar to a kukri style. The wood cutting blades were weighted toward the tip much like an ax. Because the blades were weighted towards the end, the momentum of the swing would carry the blade deep into the wood. Both the light and heavy machetes types had blades that were 18-24 inches long.
I still remember being amazed the first time I saw the both types of machetes being used. The Africans could chop down trees as thick as my 21 year old thigh with 2 or 3 chops and could mow the grass with a machete as fast and almost as even as with a power lawn mower.
To mow the grass, they leaned on a stick so they could lean over and swing level with the ground. The stick also acted as a safety device to stop the blade before it hit their leg in case the blade carried too far. I could never “mow” the grass around the house, chop through the bush or cut down trees as well as my African friends, but I learned how to use and to appreciate a machete knife.
A Machete Saved My Life
I have never been in a situation where I actually had to depended on a knife for survival, but a machete may have saved my life on several occasions. It may not be politically correct to kill exotic reptiles and I want to go on the record saying that I have never killed a venomous snake unless it posed an immediate danger to me or someone else. But I’ll promise you this…
When a cobra stands up and fans it’s hood two feet away from your bare feet and legs, you will not stand there and ponder which amazing species of Naja you just encountered; “I wonder if this a black color morph of a Forest Cobra or is it a Black-necked Spitting Cobra?”
You will swing the machete first and think about species diversity and Elapid taxonomy later. We have that innate “vision-shifting” shock when seeing certain venomous snakes for a reason.
Cobras and other poisonous snakes like black and green mambas, Gabon vipers and others were very common and I had an impressive snake skin collection from close encounters, including several cobras, a 9 foot green mamba and a Gabon viper skin. During my time there, I killed three cobras inside my house and several more cobras and the green mamba in the yard.
The fear of these snakes was so prevalent (with justification), that I was the only person in the village to actually have grass growing in my yard. Everyone else constantly scraped all vegetation away down to the bare dirt. The chief threatened to fine me because the grass in my yard was too long and posed a threat by creating snake habitat. I hired some school kids to mow the grass more often.
I usually carried the thinner, grass cutting machete and if I were going to spend time in the African Bush again, I wouldn’t go anywhere without one. These long machetes are too long to be carried in a sheath. But they shouldn’t be in a sheath, they should be in your hand ready to use for chopping grass and brush out of the way and for exploring places you shouldn’t put your hands without exploring first. If a nasty snake suddenly pops up, all it takes is a quick flick of the wrist to protect yourself.
But there is a huge difference between the West African Bush and the shrub-steppe, juniper and high elevation forests of the Inter-mountain West where we live and play now. For this habitat, I wanted a machete with a short, heavy blade that I could carry in a sheath or throw in a backpack for a light weight wood chopping jobs. I’m not concerned anymore about a long thin blade to reach out and lop the heads off of cobras or to hack through the bush. We run across one or two rattle snakes a year, but I have never found the need to kill one.
Machete or Hatchet?
I have a hatchet that I have had for so many years that I don’t even remember where it came from. It always goes camping and hunting and usually lives in the truck, but rarely travels in the back pack. The hatchet is useless for clearing grass. A four-foot section of re-bar may do a poor job of clearing grass but it still works better than a hatchet. No, I don’t own a weed-eater and would never take one camping if I did and I hope no one ever camps near me with their weed-whacker. All my neighbors make sure I get to listen to enough lawn maintenance noise at home.
The hatchet does a fair job of cutting and shaping small limbs, but has never been as versatile, as easy to use or as safe to use as a good machete. How many times have you seen the small blade of a hatchet miss the mark. And to make matters worse, the harder the swing, the more likely the handle hits the target and not the blade. Yikes! Watch out fingers and watch out toes and heaven help anyone standing on the other side of the log! I’ve heard of scout troops that have banned hatchets. A machete is much safer because even a poorly aligned swing should bury the blade in the wood.
If not for a senseless war which caused me to loose contact with all my African friends, I would have and probably be importing machetes. I have recently made some contacts, so I may still get hold of some real machetes yet. In the mean time, while looking at survival knives, we also looked at several machetes. I wasn’t very impressed with what I saw, except for the Cutlas Machete made by KA-BAR, so we bought one.
KA-BAR Cutlass Machete Review
KA-BAR describes the Cutlass Machete as the perfect tool for clearing up a campsite and for cutting small limbs and branches. It is not the best grass clearing machete I ever used and it does not compare to a real African machete for chopping wood, but it still does as fair job of cutting wood, especially as good as any machete I have seen lately. I prefer to use it instead of the hatchet. For larger jobs, you might still want an ax, but you can easily cut down small trees with this machete.
The picture shows a 10 inch thick aspen log that I chopped through on both ends with the KA-BAR Cutlass Machete. I wanted a clean, unmarked aspen log with the bark still on it for a project and was also looking for an excuse to use the machete. It was sharp and ready to go right out of the box.
The machete is a good tool and I am constantly finding new uses for it. I used it this past week to chop up last years corn stalks for the compost pile. It worked better for that job than any other cutting/chopping tool I have.
The Black KA-BAR Cutlass Machete is 16.5 inches long, with an 11 inch blade. The blade is made of 1085 Carbon Steel that is 0.165 inches thick and rates 52-54 on the Rockwell C hardness scale. The black machete handle is made of the the same Kraton G® material as our KA-BAR Fighting/Survival Knife and includes a lanyard hole.
The machete blade has a bulging re-curve belly on the blade to provide extra weight at the sweet spot for chopping.When swinging the machete, you can feel that this extra weight provides momentum. Combined with the sharp hollow grind on the blade, you can feel the blade’s momentum cutting deep into the wood, as opposed to the feel of chopping wood with a large knife with an unweighted blade, where feel the blade jolt to a stop, but the momentum in your hand an arm wants to continue forward.
It was a surprise for me to learn that the Black KA-BAR Cutlass Machete was actually made in Taiwan since KA-BAR makes such a big deal about their knives that are made in the U.S.A. Regardless of where it was made, it is still a good, well made machete. At the KA-BAR website, they seem to apologize for the fact that some of their knives and machetes must be made in China and Taiwan to have competitive prices, but guarantees the Cutlass Machete to be the same quality as their “Made in the U.S.A” fighting knives. It is the best machete we found for quality and price.
The KA-BAR Cutlass Machete comes with a sheath made of leather on the leg side and Cordura on the outside. The machete sheath is nothing to brag about, but does the job. You will brag about the machete. And teamed up with my wife’s Full-size Black KA-BAR Fighting/Survival knife, I think we have survival knives covered.
How To Grip and Use A Machete
This video shows you how to properly hold the machete with a pinch grip and cut with the knife so you don’t get blisters, have less wrist strain and get the most power without over-exertion: