The humble machete.


Carl Levitian
July 28, 2008, 08:30 AM
One of the most underrated cutting tools in the U.S. is the small machete. Not the big 18 to 22 inch bladed jobs, but the little 12 inchers.

I never really appreatiated them myself untill a co-worker inspired me by example. I was into my collection of custom knives, and I think I really did believe they were the best available. Then a guy named Americo came to work at watkins-Johnson.

Americo was from El Salvadore, and was hired on as a lather operator in our machine shop. Nice enough guy, kind of quiet, and a d--m good machinist. It's hard to work with a guy day in and day out, and not become friends. Before long, Americo was part of our lunch table, then came the after work fishing trip. There was a few of us, that after work would go either shooting, or fishing. A regional state park was not far away, minutes only by car, and we'd head out on a summer late afternoon for some pan fishing. It was then myself and a few other of us gringos became familiar with the small machete.

Americo had a 12 inch Tramontina, and we thought it a bit odd he'd take it fishing. We just had a pocket knife and a Rapala fillet knife. But we got an education. First, it was very effective in cutting away stickers from a prime spot on the bank. Maryland woods tend to be thick with lots of sticker bushes along the water. It also made quick work of cutting a forked stick to hold his rod, turn over logs to get bugs for bait, and clean fish. Yeah, I said clean fish.

Americo had this Little Oscar cooler, with a piece of cutting board epoxied on the flat lid. He's take a fresh cought fish, chop off head and tail, cut open using the little machete like a big bread knife and the fish was a bagel. Slice it right open and scoop out the guts. Had the fish cleaned in under a minute, and in the cooler on ice. Americo's only other knife was an old barlow type of knife that was pretty beat up. He'd use the pocket knife for some small things, but used the heck out of the machete. Had a nice leather sheath for it too.

It wasn't long before the rest of us, Gary, Wayne, Hoppy, and myself had bought 12 inch Tramontina machete's. Soon, we got used to the tool, and gained skill with it, and were totally amazed at how well it did for general outdoor cutting. It made alot of jobs easier than what we had been using. It cut like a hatchet, but could be used like a large butcher knife. Could even dig a cat hole when needed. No hatchet ever cut overhead branches out of the way like a sharp machete. It came to pass, that Gary, Wayne, Hoppy, and myself, all were carrying a 12 inch Tramontina.

I ended up being a real fan of low budjet blades that really work. After I sold off my knife collection, I ended up using cheapies but goodies like Opinels, Mercators, Douk-Douks, in addition to the more basic sak's like the Victorinox bantam and classic. My Randall 14 that had been my favorite sheath knife was replaced with a 12 inch Ontario machete. I discovered a weird joy in using stuff that I could replace for pocket money. I tried different 12 inch machete;s. They all worked great.

Then came the big motorcycle trip across the country. I was getting a little tired, or burned out on motorcycles. I had been riding almost 40 years, and for some reason, the bikes were not punching the button for me like they used to. I had a hunch I was going to quit them, but I didn't want to do it untill I had ridden from one end of this country to the other. I'd ridden all over alot of it, but never in one trip. Then the question of self defence on the road came up. And I would be camping out in some remote areas. My friends wanted to know if I was planning on carrying a gun.


There simply was no place to carry a gun and secure it on a Harley sportster. I knew I was going to be stopping at museums across the country, and with no carry permit, and no way to lock it up on the bike, it was going to be a no firearm ride. I had a pair of Willie and Max saddle bags, and a T-bag for the sissy bar. That was it. My frieds were not happy, but one decieded to take a hand.

He knew I did not want anything that could not be replaced at the next Gallyans or other sporting goods store. He also knew of my liking of Ontario 12 inch machete's. Being a knifesmith, Bill took a 12 inch Ontario, and reground the blade tip to a strait clip point, and put one of his convex edges on it. He made an awesome weapon out of it. Razor sharp with a sharp point.

I was going to be carrying my knarliest knobby blackthorn stick for personel security, and it went under the bungi cords around the T-bag on the back of the bike. I could get off the bike and pull the blackthorn from under the bungies easy. Since I really do use a cane as a result of an old service injury, that worked out well. But for when I was camped out in remote places, it was a comfort to have Bill's modified bowie machete laying next to me in my little nylon backpacking tent. By day, it was in its sheath down in the T-bag with the rest of my gear and clothing.

I never needed it for defence use, but it was a comfort to have. I still keep a small machete in my boat bag, for when the better half and I go out kayaking. Its a beat up looking old one, with sap stains on the blade. but very sharp. Kind of an innocent looking but dangerous type of thing. If questioned on it by a DNR person, I just say some of the places we land to nature watch with our binoculars have alot of stickers in the way.

Humble machete is a very underrated tool. Very versitile, usefull for a wide range of tasks. Friendly or other wise.

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July 28, 2008, 08:40 AM
Thanks for your very excellent article on the "humble machete." You have convinced me to get one.

July 28, 2008, 08:50 AM
On a tangent, I am impressed you made a coast-to-coast trip on a Sportster. I rode one for many years around town but only one long road trip from Pittsburgh to Toronto. After I arrived, it took a week for my butt to recover in time to make the return trip. My seat was a factory stock solo seat...maybe that was the problem.

Back on topic, the small machete sounds like a good idea...will have to get one.

July 28, 2008, 09:01 AM
I have read that many "survival experts" consider the 12" machete to be the best pick in a general purpose blade. I believe that any type of cutting tool that a culture has depended on to do everything for many years is probably a good choice. If one can only afford one knife, it would have to be able to do most anything. So, the machete, kukri, panga, golock, pukko all are very useful blades.

Carl Levitian
July 28, 2008, 10:10 AM
Vonderek, I had the two up touring seat, and it was very comfy. Plus every hour or so I took a 10 minute break to top off the fuel and walk around some. Wasn't bad at all. The solo seat that came with the bike got pitched right after I took the first long ride when the bike was still new in '95.

July 28, 2008, 10:35 AM
Good post. Thanks, Carl.


July 28, 2008, 03:24 PM
Very nice story - I love how thw guy was set up for fishing. Smart people see, smart people do. Sounds like a really handy tool.

July 28, 2008, 04:40 PM
I like machetes. For me it was finding ones that didn't give me blisters after 15 minutes of use. Yes, my hands are just about as smooth as a baby's butt. I have settled on the 12" Ontario and I try to wear a glove on that hand. Sharpening them is the key. If you can't sharpen one, you might as well leave it at home.

Good story Carl.

Eleven Mike
July 28, 2008, 05:30 PM
I believe that any type of cutting tool that a culture has depended on to do everything for many years is probably a good choice.

Don't most "machete cultures" (if I may coin such a term) use longer blades than 12"? Or no?

Pax Jordana
July 29, 2008, 12:32 AM
Sharpening them is the key. If you can't sharpen one, you might as well leave it at home.

I've seen that, when looking for the tramontina online. People are putting ceramic-rod finishes on their machetes. Is this not a hacking tool? Is edge terribly important on a tool that uses momentum to cut?

Someone activate the The Tourist Signal(tm)! :)

July 29, 2008, 01:12 AM
For years I could not put an edge on a machete that would last for more than 15-30 minutes of hacking stuff. Had trouble with axes as well. That has changed in the last year of so.

No, I don't particularly want a razor edge on a machete. Makes the edge too thin for cutting and certainly not good when you chop into the ground.

But the edge is extremely important as it reduces the amount of work you are doing and makes cutting with a machete safer and less fatiquing.

July 29, 2008, 01:15 AM
if your thinking about getting one i would look into COLD STEELS WEB SITE they have great machetes and other well made knives etc:D

July 29, 2008, 02:20 AM
A sharp machete beats a dull machete every time. They aren't particularly difficult to sharpen, either.

July 29, 2008, 02:22 AM
well, what beats a sharp machete?

July 29, 2008, 03:49 AM
Well, a rock if you're playing rock, paper, machete.

July 29, 2008, 05:50 AM
Nice post. The 12" Tramontina is for practical purposes; excellent. Dirt cheap to buy, this is my pick for the "best buy" of longer bladed tools.

July 29, 2008, 09:56 AM
A very nice and informative post Carl. Marshall suggested viewing this as we were discussing long-blade tools/weapons at ICCF.

I actually thought the 12-inch Tramontina would make a good kitchen knife as well. Have you tried it in that setting yet?

May I also ask where you gents buy the machetes?

Carl Levitian
July 29, 2008, 02:53 PM
kilo, try Smoky Mountain Knifeworks, they have both the Tramonitina and Ontario12 inchers. Yes, the 12 inch Tram make a very nice ham slicer.

Eleven mike- not nessesarily. Some years ago when our son was in Costa Rica for 6 months on buisness, he arranged for us to visit. While we were there, he also made arrainments for us to take a rain forest tour. It was extremly interesting from a nature standpoint, and all the guides carried a short 12 inch machete for his personel knife. Making camp eaxh night, they used the small ones for many things like a large knife. Durring the day, whoever was in the lead on a nature viewing hike, carried a 22 inch trail clearer, but the 12 inch was each man's personal knife. The last night in the rain forest, there was a pig roast, and the 12 inch machete's were used to both butcher the pig and carve it once it was roasted.

It was an up close view of how usefull a small machete was for general camping use.

Eleven Mike
July 29, 2008, 02:58 PM
Interesting, Carl. I guess I just always imagined they were using something longer than that.

July 30, 2008, 01:58 AM
Out of all the machetes I've had, my favorite has been my Becker Patrol Machete ( It's a 14" blade that really goes through things. Too bad it's discontinued.

July 30, 2008, 03:04 AM
Thanks Carl and the further commentary was enlightening as well sir.

July 30, 2008, 09:10 PM
Tramontina machetes are made from 1070 carbon steel, hardened to somewhere around Rc 48-52. These characteristics make them extremely durable, tempered more like springs than knives. Edge holding isn't stellar compared with modern knives, but serviceable.

Ontario machetes seem to he run at higher hardness, and as a result, it's not unheard of for them to suffer fracture where a softer machete may suffer deformation. But the Ontario is no slouch by any means. And the higher hardness may make it behave more like a knife for finer work.

January 27, 2009, 12:59 PM
Not sure if at ten inches it qualifies as a machete but I just acquired a Kershaw OutCast that has served as a machete chopper around my spread hacking through brush and chopping fallen limbs up with ease. I did not like the 40 degree factory axe like edge on it and am putting a 25 degree convex edge on it. The D2 steel has made that a brutal task but it holds its edge easily going from chopping to slicing anything I come across even onions without tears and roast beef. Would be a brutal weapon capable of cutting deep into bone and plunging deep into soft tissue. Great for butchering game though I would be reluctant to use it as a skinner. It will definitely be accompanying me on any road trips camping and hunting.

An aside it is not that hard to secure a gun in a T-bag or saddle bags cabled in a safe. Even secured and unloaded it is better than nothing, IMO. I've used a gun lock cable to secure my big knife to my bike pack.

January 27, 2009, 02:50 PM
What are the views on the Ontario 15" Black Wind Swords? My son asked for one to take to Afganistan. I got one for under $80. and I think the hard Kydex sheath is better than any others I've seen.

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