I've known about machetes all my life, but my first real introduction to them came in the late 1980s down in Honduras. Watching the local laborers using them to clear brush, chop down small woody plants or cut sugar cane was fascinating. In Honduras and in other Central American countries at the time if you could swing a machete you could earn a wage. It was a common sight while driving through the villages early in the morning to see the men of the family - fathers and sons - standing along the road holding a machete, a small lunch in a string bag and a jug of water, waiting for the day labor trucks from the local farms or ranches to swing by and pick them up. In the United States mechanization would take care of much of this work, but in Honduras the economy was absolutely dependent on manual labor for these tasks.
Later while stationed in Panama I got more exposure to the uses of the machete. Unlike southern Honduras, which is semi-arid, Panama is full-on rainforest and keeping the jungle at bay is a full time battle. This was one of the few times in my life I was able to afford the services of a gardener, and he did virtually all the clearing and trimming tasks with a machete. At various times I watched him use it to trim hedges, edge the lawn, cut bamboo, open coconuts for the kids, cut rope, cut banana stalks from the trees, cut back sawgrass and kill a poisonous snake. It was his do-everything tool, and he always made sure it was at-hand. Victor (the gardener's name) was a virtuoso with the blade and I learned a lot by watching him work. His machete was an old USGI model someone had given him years before. The broken handle was wrapped in electrical tape and it had been resharpened so much that it had lost much of its original blade profile, but it still worked perfectly fine in Victor's hands.
When we bought our house near Atlanta in 2000 the yard was badly overgrown. The homeowners had neglected the yard for the better part of a decade and it needed immediate attention. The biggest chore was to simply cut back the overgrown brush and woody vines and take down the dozens of small saplings that had sprouted up. I knew right away I had the right tool for the job - a USGI machete manufactured by Ontatrio.
|The USGI M1942 pattern machete and sheath|
Now, there are dozens and dozens of machete blade styles. There are machetes designed specifically for cutting sugar cane (large and heavy for cutting through the woody stalks), for cutting light brush (long, curved and relatively light weight for more efficient slashing) and even machetes designed for gardening chores like harvesting fruits and vegetables (short, lightweight blades for close-in work). While in Central America I'd buy any new or unique blade style I came across. The small local hardware stores usually had a good selection of blades on offer for just a few dollars each so it was easy and cheap to accumulate a good collection.
|Getting the blades out and ready for some yard work!|
However, my machete of choice has always been the USGI M1942-pattern blade. This blade was first adopted by the US military during WWII and is based on a commercial Collins pattern. During the war the M1942 machete saw wide use across the world, most notably in the South Pacific and the China-Burma-India theater where it hacked thousands of miles of trails in otherwise tractless jungle. It developed a reputation as an excellent and absolutely essential tool for jungle warfare. Decades later it came back into widespread use in Vietnam where it was again used to hack jungle trails, clear fields of fire, cut and shape bamboo stakes, butcher pigs, dig fire pits and, when necessary, be used as a weapon in close-quarters combat.
For the last 30 years or so the Ontario Knife Company has been the sole supplier of M1942 machetes to the US military, and they are still produced to the original Collins pattern with an 18" blade and a black plastic handle. The M1942 model is made of blade stock that is a bit thicker than that used by most commercial machete manufacturers. This makes the USGI machete a bit heavier and the blade a bit stiffer than other machetes of similar size, and I feel this is what makes it such a great all-around tool. It is long and thin enough to swing effectively to clear brush, but has enough blade weight and stiffness to be easily driven through tough woody vines, saplings and bamboo. It is a first rate land clearing tool.
My M1942 machetes (I own several) are working tools, not collector pieces. They get used hard and, frequently, get put away wet. In fact, one spent the winter outside embedded in an old tree stump. I didn't find it until spring. They look like hell - rusted, nicked and generally abused.
|Some battle scars on the edge of one of my machetes|
Machetes are made of relatively soft steel, and this is on purpose. A machete is an impact tool - something that strikes hard objects with force (like tree stumps or saplings) and the edge needs to give and not chip or break. It also needs to be easy to resharpen in the field using common tools. Because the steel is relatively soft (around the mid-50's on the Rockwell hardness scale) the edge will nick or roll when it hits something too hard. This is expected, and with a few passes from a bastard file or a few licks on a carborundum stone they are back in action. My machetes bear the scars of meet-ups with rocks, tough wood and even the occasional smack on a concrete step. They survive to do battle another day.
If you are a home or property owner, or someone who often finds himself in the woods doing tasks like clearing areas for campsites, deer stands or blinds you need a machete.