FROM HOME AND CAMPSITE SECURITY TO YARD WORK AND BUSHCRAFTING, MACHETE IS AS VERSATILE AS IT IS DEADLY
If you’re reading this article, there’s no doubt you love knives of all types. But I’m willing to bet there’s one valuable edged tool you’re neglecting despite the fact that it’s as strong as an ox, as deadly as a lightsaber, and almost as versatile as a Leatherman.
And that tool is the good ol’ machete. Nope. This is not an Indiana Jones joke or a commercial for another Danny Trejo movie.
The humble machete might be viewed by some as fit only for farmers, bushcrafters, and Hollywood antiheroes. But almost anyone can benefit from this big blade because it’s basically an axe, a shovel, a short sword, and a big survival knife all rolled into one. And there’s a good chance you have one of these hidden gems lying in your garage or backyard shed just accumulating dust and rust.
“With the blade length anywhere between 8 to 28 inches, this tool is a utilitarian short sword and can split skulls just as easily as it cracks coconuts.”
Well, it’s time to pull out that machete, because I’m gonna explain why it deserves not only more time in the field, but also why it should come off the bench and jump into the starting lineup of your personal defense tools.
While it’s difficult to pinpoint the exact birthplace and birthdate of this big blade, almost every culture on the planet has some version of this edged tool.
Why? Because it’s incredibly versatile and effective. Here are just some of the many modes of a machete:
Personal Protection: With the blade length anywhere between 8 to 28 inches, this tool is a utilitarian short sword and can split skulls just as easily as it cracks coconuts. Plus, many come to a sharp point, like the classic Latin-style machete, so it can make for a powerful thrusting weapon as well.
Bushcraft Brother: While the blade profile varies depending on the region, machetes generally make for a good complement to a smaller bushcraft blade … or even replace one completely. In some cultures in Asia and South America, a machete is used to clear brush, construct shelter, chop firewood, harvest vegetables, and even do detailed food prep.
Backyard Buddy: The same reasons that make a machete so effective in the backcountry also make it great for suburban yardwork. I’ve used a machete as an axe to chop down small trees, as a shovel to dig up annoying weeds, and even as a hedge trimmer to control overgrown bushes.
Backwoods Bodyguard: If you’re an outdoor adventurer who likes to hit the trail, the idea of facing off against a bear or a cougar while unarmed is frightening. While a bushcraft knife is certainly better than empty hands, a machete can give you greater reach, a longer cutting edge, and tremendous stabbing power.
Car Companion: For the previously mentioned purposes, the machete makes an ideal addition to any vehicle emergency kit. Leave it in the trunk of your car or stowed in your off-road rig along with your spare water, flashlight, and road flares. You’ll feel much better with one anytime you’re out camping or stranded in the middle of nowhere.
Much like supermodels, machetes come in all shapes and sizes—from the exotic Nepalese kukri of Gurkha fame to the more familiar clip-point Bowie machete created in the United States. Regardless of which one captures your eye, here are some things you need to consider before putting your heart (and cash) on the line:
Blade Profile: Each shape is crafted for a specific reason. For example, a cane machete usually looks like elongated cleaver with a blunt tip. This is to allow for full swings in tight spaces without decreasing chopping power. But this profile nullifies its ability to thrust. It’s best to figure out your primary reasons for using a machete then select accordingly.
Blade Steel: A lot of machetes are made from carbon steel, which is super tough and affordable. Plus, it holds an edge. Unfortunately, it rusts quickly if not maintained. Conversely, a stainless-steel blade fights off corrosion and is easy to sharpen. However, it’s softer, more expensive, and dulls more quickly.
When it comes to machetes, high-carbon steel is often the Goldilocks option. It’s durable like carbon steel but has some rust resistance. The catch is that it’s often just as expensive as stainless steel and can become brittle if subjected to high heat levels.
Handle: Avoid handles made of bone, horn, or wood (as they will eventually warp or crack over time or when exposed to heat or cold). Polymer grips are common on budget models—and those are fine if money is a concern—but try to find one that’s rubberized to increase traction.
My favorite handle material is G10, a high-pressure fiberglass laminate that provides varying degrees of textured grippy-ness without shredding my palms like sandpaper. It’s also resistant to heat, moisture, chipping, and chemicals, so it’ll retain its shape for the long haul. Micarta is a close second.
Overall Weight: It should have some heft to generate momentum as you swing. If it’s too light, you’ll need to muscle each swing. But if it’s too heavy, you’ll fatigue quickly or, worse yet, lose control of it. Therefore, aim for a machete that feels balanced when it’s in your hand. Depending on blade length, that usually means it’ll weigh about a pound—give or take about 8 ounces.
Sheath: Make sure your desired model comes with a scabbard, as it’ll not only protect the steel from the elements but also prevent serious accidents. Generally, a good machete sheath will be made of one of three materials: thick leather, nylon (with a protective plastic insert), or high-impact polymer.
The machete shouldn’t wiggle once placed inside, and there should be at least one solid retention mechanism (usually a snap button) so the blade doesn’t accidentally fall out as you transport it.
With a long cutting edge and a sharp tip (on most models), the machete can make short work of jungle foliage and violent home invaders alike.
Here’s when martial artists—especially practitioners of Filipino martial arts (FMA)—get super elaborate with their blade techniques. But battling with a big blade doesn’t have to be complex. Even though I am an instructor of a FMA system called Kali, I like to simplify things as much as possible when it comes to combatives. Essentially, using a machete for defensive purposes can be broken down into three moves:
Forehand Swing: If you’re right-handed, the machete will start from above your right shoulder and slice 45 degrees diagonally until it goes past your left hip. (Make certain not to swing it into your left leg!) The path of your arm is not unlike that of a fastball pitch in baseball. This is your power shot because it comes from your dominant side using your strongest arm and core muscles.
Backhand Swing: If you’re right-handed, the machete starts above your left shoulder and slices 45 degrees diagonally until it clears your right hip. (Make certain not to swing it into your right leg!) This move will look similar to a backhand slice in tennis, but with more follow-through.
Some call this the “weaker” shot because it comes from your non-dominant side; but if you use it immediately after a forehand swing, you’ll generate enough momentum that it can be just as powerful as your first move.
Straight Thrust: As the name implies, this is a linear stab. It can start from wherever your machete might be at any given moment. But for training purposes, the machete will usually start on your dominant side, no higher than your armpit and no lower than your hip. Thrust forward in a straight line, and don’t overextend (keep a slight bend in your elbow).
Generally, you’re aiming for the torso, but the head is a good target in a life-and-death situation (though the noggin is a smaller target). Some masters teach thrusts to the limbs, but moving targets are harder to hit. After all, no violent thug is just going to stand there to let you turn him into bloody Swiss cheese.
“In some states and many countries, guns are heavily regulated. Fortunately, you can purchase and possess a machete in many parts of the world.”
Of course, there’s much more to bladed combatives than just three moves.
When you add in feints, footwork, hacking motions, combinations, and your free “live” hand, machete fighting can indeed get quite elaborate. However, at its core, the machete can be a deadly tool with just three motions.
Don’t think that you need to be Danny Trejo, Indiana Jones, or a FMA teacher to master a machete. This versatile edged tool has been serving people of all kinds all over the globe for centuries, and it’s not going anywhere any time soon. So, dust off that big blade in your garage, or pick one up for cheap, and let the humble machete be your edged-weapon workhorse.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Patrick Vuong is a lifelong knife knut, a veteran writer, and the co-founder of Tiga Tactics (a combatives training company). He’s a self-defense instructor of several systems and weapons, including basic handgun and the Filipino bladed art of Pekiti-Tirsia Kali. For more information, go to www.machete.training.
A FEARSOME THREESOME
While there are a ton of poorly made machetes on the market, there are also plenty of good ones. There’s no way to cram them all into these pages.
But here are three of my favorites:
CRKT Clever Girl Kukri: This sexy blade updates the iconic Nepalese kukri by lessening the curve and slightly shrinking both the weight (14 ounces) and overall length (13.25 inches), but without limiting chopping or piercing power.
The Japanese SK5 carbon steel blade holds up to serious abuse while the G10 scales provide a virtual non-slip grip. Plus, it comes with a stellar glass-reinforced nylon sheath that can be attached to a belt or drop-leg rig. This is an ideal choice if you’re looking for a short machete. Just keep in mind that it does retail for a C-note. So, be prepared to hunt for deals.
Outdoor Edge Brush Demon: This has the weight (1.1 pounds) and length (20 inches) of a typical machete, but not the looks. Inspired by the ancient Greek Kopis short sword, the Brush Demon hacks with ease, thrusts with authority, and offers a comfy grip thanks to the rubberized TPR handle. And it comes with a decent nylon scabbard.
Despite the 13.5-inch blade being made from Chinese 65Mn carbon spring steel, it continues to cut dutifully year after year so long as I clean it after every use. The Brush Demon balances size and performance with unique aesthetics at a reasonable price.
(The MSRP is $69.95, but look for better deals online.)
TOPS Knives Yacare 10.0: At 15.5 inches overall, this tool is a shorter mid-sized machete, but a monster in the field. Based on the Latin-style recipe with a dash of Filipino barong sprinkled in, the 1095 high-carbon steel blade is perfectly shaped for a variety of tasks—chopping, hacking, slicing, and stabbing. Plus, it comes with a good ballistic nylon sheath.
Whether you’re looking for a “big” little blade or a “little” big blade, the American-made Yacare is so finely crafted that it can fill that role for decades. But you certainly get what you pay for, and you’ll have to pay a pretty penny for this one (MSRP: $270).
THE MACHETE’S STRENGTHS AND WEAKNESSES
No edged tool is perfect. The machete is no exception, but it definitely has more advantages than disadvantages. For those living in urban settings, let’s tackle the first supposed con right off the bat.
Home Defense Hero: You might scoff and say, “Machete for home defense? Ha! That’s what my gun is for.” True. It’s hard to beat a firearm when it comes to sheer speed and stopping power. But a bullet could easily pierce thin drywall and enter an adjoining room where your loved ones are. And if you live in an apartment, the projectile could even go through several dwellings, putting your neighbors at risk, too. You don’t have that problem with a machete.
Close-Quarters Combat: Others might ask, “But I do live in an apartment—how am I going to have the room to swing a machete around?” First, remember that most machetes are usually about two feet or shorter; they’re not two-handed Claymore longswords.
Second, nowadays manufacturers have grown wise to this fact and are producing more machetes that are about a foot long—providing the perfect balance between compactness and chopping power for defense in tight spaces.
Financially Friendly: Aside from the overpenetration issue of flying lead, guns aren’t for everyone due to cost. Even a shotgun will set you back a couple hundred dollars—and three times that amount if you want one with tricked-out tactical accessories.
Fortunately, a machete costs just a fraction of that price. In fact, you could get one for about $40 at any sporting goods store. Sometimes, you can even snatch one up for less than $20 if you’re not picky about the brand.
Tough as Nails: Another benefit of using a machete is its incredible strength. They’re usually made from carbon steel with a hardness of RC 56-58—translation: You can beat it like a rented mule and it’ll never fold, chip, or bend.
On the flipside, carbon steel is not stainless. So even if it has some sort of powdercoating, you’ll need to clean it after every use and maintain it, lest you want corrosion to creep in.
Legal Matters: Another reason why a machete might work better than a firearm for some folks is because of legalities. In some states and many countries, guns are heavily regulated. Fortunately, you can purchase and possess a machete in many parts of the world. But there is one caveat (see below).
Attention-Getter: Unlike a folding knife, a machete is not a concealable weapon. You’ll definitely attract wide-eyed stares (and possibly a police cruiser or two) if you’re walking down the sidewalk with one in your hand. You’ll be no less conspicuous if it’s sheathed and attached to your hip or backpack. For that reason, it’s best to keep your machete at home or in your vehicle if you’re in a city setting.
Physically Demanding: Unlike using pepper spray or a stun gun, using this big blade requires you to be in relatively decent shape and injury free. You need a firm grip, a strong core, solid leg muscles, and a healthy shoulder joint to swing a machete around effectively.
Columbia River Knife & Tool
Keen Edge Knives
Native Clan Training Blades
A version of this article first appeared in the May/June 2022 print issue of Knives Illustrated.