“Mi Machete y Mi Amor” — so went the refrain of a joyous Venezuelan countryman’s song praising the two most important things in his life. I heard it down there in cantinas and on the radio in 1940. Significantly, in that song a Venezuelan rural worker’s machete, the main tool with which he made a living and typically his only weapon, came ahead of his sweetheart, his second most important necessity.
The best machete in Venezuela was “un Collins”, as distinguished from the run of machetes of inferior design and poorer steel. Collins machetes were made in New England and sold in many tropical lands. The most obvious advantage of “un Collins” was the wave-like ripples on the sides of its blade; they served rather like the blood groove of a bayonet, to break the suction that makes it difficult to withdraw a smooth-sided bayo- net from a man’s body or a smooth-sided machete blade driven deep into a soft tree such as a banana.
I brought a Collins machete and an excellent jungle-proven lightweight machete sheath back home with me when I left my job as an exploration geologist in Venezuela about 14 months before Pearl Harbor and went on active duty in Texas. Later, I took them to Panama. At that time the Army’s brush knife was an improved copy of a short, heavy fighting bolo used by Moro tribesmen in the Philippines. Over there in the early 1900s American soldiers still were fighting small jungle wars. Occasionally a Moro ran amuck and split an American’s skull open with his bolo. Impressed, the Army within a few years had Springfield Arsenal making bolos of the model pictured in Fig. 6-1. That bolo has a large guard on its hilt and is sharpened like a two-edged sword for 3½ inches from its point. It can be used for stabbing, like the famous short sword of the Romans, as well as for slashing. The user of a bolo having a guard must continually hold its hilt firmly like a hatchet when cutting brush. For if he holds the hilt loosely at the start of an efficiently long brush-cutting stroke, the guard will hurt the back of his hand. Because of its shortness, weight, and guard, the Army’s bolo was an inefficient brush knife.
Fig. 6-1. US bolo Serial Number 22302, SA, 1912. Blade length 10¼ inches, weight 22.5 ounces. US bolo sheath made of wood covered with cotton duck and leather. Weight 8 ounces. US machete, World War II to present. Blade length 18 inches, weight 18.5 ounces. US machete sheath of cotton fabrics and brass, World War II model. Weight 5.5 ounces.
In contrast to the Army’s bolo, a good machete has a much longer yet lighter blade, no guard, and a more elongated knob at the end of its handle. See Fig. 6-1. A skilled macheteman holds the handle with two fingers and thumb during the start of a stroke, thus making possible a longer swing and a faster, deeper cutting blow. The long knob on the handle minimizes the chance of a machete’s slipping from the hand at the completion of a slashing blow when cutting small limbs or plants. The greater speed attained by a machete’s blade makes it a generally more effective jungle tool than the heavier, shorter bolo.
With intelligence funds provided by Lieutenant General Frank Andrews, about three months before Pearl Harbor I bought over 100 Collins 18-in. machetes and a few with 24-in. blades. The Panama Canal Zone’s tent and awning shop made copies of my excellent Venezuelan machete sheath. All of those machetes with sheaths were issued immediately to “my” first Jungle Platoon and to other reconnaissance units in the Caribbean Defense Command.
Shortly after the fall of Bataan and Corregidor, on my first trip from Panama to Washington I showed my 18-in. Collins machete and its brass-riveted cotton duck sheath to responsible generals. For years, some Army Quartermaster Corps officers and technicians at Natick Laboratory had recognized the superiority of machetes over bolos. In a remarkably short time the 18-in. machete and its jungle-proven type of sheath were adopted and were being produced by several different companies. See Fig. 6-1.
Unfortunately, the Army machete blades produced during World War II and in the Vietnam era, and still standard issue, all have sides that are quite smooth, without the suction-breaking ripples on the blade of the very best Collins machete. Early in World War II, however, there was urgent need to adopt and quickly produce many tens of thousands of machetes. The Army’s Natick Laboratory sensibly authorized the purchase even of some Collins machetes having slightly curved blades, and rot-prone leather sheaths weighing 10 ounces. Especially during a war, promptly getting enough of an improved item should take precedence over delayed production of the best possible item.
Some Army machetes have been criticized for the past 48 years for being made of steel that does not hold a sharp edge long enough. Apparently contractors did not always comply with the military specification for tempering, or used inferior steel. No doubt a modern, reasonably priced steel can be found which, if properly tempered, could be used to make a machete that would need to be sharpened less often. However, to avoid the possibility of adopting a blade more likely to chip or break under hard use, no change in steel specifications or blade design should be made without extensive jungle testing, including much trail cutting.