What Is a Bolo Knife?

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Many knives that we use today have their original relationship with the different military or imperial forces of the world. The bolo is one such knife that has gained popularity across the globe. Although originated in the Philippines, this knife has influenced the present military warfare, especially the American one.

The imperial forces from across the globe, regardless of whether they fought with cannons or fighter planes, were dreaded by the bolo knife. Ranging right from the Philippines’ Spanish colonial activities to the Mexican Revolution and including World War I and II, this fabled tool is known for its utility and deadliness.

So, what is this bolo knife? Well, it is a long, heavy knife of the Filipino origin, which originally was a farmer’s tool that was later turned into a rebel knife. This post aims to reveal different facts about this knife, ranging right from its history to its types and uses.

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Bolo Knife

Overview of the Bolo Knife

A bolo, in terms of looks, is like a machete. It is widely used in the Cuban sugar fields and Indonesian forests apart from its country of origin. Its major use is clearing vegetation, may it be on an agricultural field or at the time of trailblazing.

Due to its availability, the knife has become a preferable option for impromptu arsenal for the daily laborers. It is also commonly used during the training given for mastering Kali, a famous Filipino martial art.

A bolo is marked by an animal horn handle, a native hardwood, and a steel blade having a full tang and thickness more than the average blade. This blade widens as well as curves usually at or near the tip. Such a structure shifts the gravitational center as forward as possible due to which the knife gets the additional momentum for precise chopping or slashing.

The bolos usually have a flat top and a curved blade whose only one of the edges is sharpened. You are more likely to find a dull blade with a length of 18 inches.

The blade reaches inside a groove present in the handle made usually of dark wood. The handle’s upper porting is likely to be adorned using bamboo strips with the braided bottom as well as the top.

The typical ‘jungle bolos’ meant for combats and not for daily knife-oriented tasks are usually longer and less wide near or at the tip. Those used for the purpose of gardening are characterized by rounded tips.

Still used across the Pacific Rim and Asia, a bolo is known as sundáng in the Cebuano language, Itak in the Tagalog language, and talibong or binangon in the Hiligaynon language. All these languages are native to the Philippines.

Evolution of Bolo Knives: From Resourceful Tools to Military Weapons

According to the current history, the bolos have been made using any kind of high-carbon steel that was available as well as suitable for the blade. However, during the middle 20th century, when the fighting Filipino kingdoms started using the American jeeps and other automobiles, these knives were made using leaf springs.

These jeeps were left behind after World War II. The blades of these knives were hand-forged, could hold the edge well, and were durable.

Originally, a bolo knife was an all-purpose weapon meant for harvesting crops or clearing brush. However, it took no time for it to become a dreadful weapon of war when it came into the hands of revolutionaries.

The Filipino guerillas used these machete-like knives as improvised tools during the Philippine Revolution as well as in the Philippine-American and Spanish-American wars. Although being armed with the overflow of guns, these army men used bolo knives in a ghastly manner.

The original knife is long, broad-bladed, and looks ferocious using which the arm men performed deadly actions. One of the most horrifying feats of this knife is to separate the head from the body in just one blow. Thus, this feared all armed forces.

The fearsome blades were later used in World War II. During World War II and the attempt of Japan to occupy the Philippines, several guerrillas and secretive forces were fighting in coordination with the U.S. and Allied armies on the archipelago.

On the southern Filipino island of Mindanao, the traditionally more-autonomous regions of Moro hold the sites where strong resistance was shown to the Japanese. The people here today are mostly Muslims. The Moro-bolo battalion was among the several units fighting here and was composed of thousands of men.

These armies were easily recognizable by their bolo knives, a weapon that was a symbol of unity and cooperation against the Japanese invasion.

The U.S. military initially came across this knife at the time of the Spanish-American war in 1898, combating for gaining control over the Philippines. By 1904, the American army, especially the troops and the medical corps, was equipped with bolo knives.

During World War I, this knife became outrageous to Germans who went against the U.S. troops carrying these blades. Prior to the combatting using bolo knives, the U.S. armed forces fought against the Filipinos hauling them in the Philippine-American War (1899 to 1902).

After conquering the Spanish colonials, while the U.S intended to make their colony, the Filipinos inclined towards self-rule. When the new colonials struggled for the First Philippine Republic, Filipinos still supplied the knives to them.

The bolo knife was introduced by the Spanish in Mexico. This helped many fighters in carrying the knife once the Mexican Revolution commenced in 1910. The bolo knife was the close-range tool for Pancho Villa, one of the prominent leaders of this revolution.

The Mexican Revolution was initiated due to the poverty spreading widely amongst the Mexican farmers. As they could not afford to make quality tools, they made bolo knives using any scrap metal. It was relatively simple to make this knife by hammering the steel to form a sharp, round edge.

One of the popular cases indicating the use of a bolo knife in combat was of the American soldier in World War I whose name was Henry Johnson but was given the tag of the Black Death due to his heroic performance.

In 1918, his rifle got blocked as he was defending himself from the German sappers. He, then, used his bolo along with other combat weapons and slew down four soldiers. With these weapons, he fought long enough until the assistance from reinforcements was gained.

Even though he had more than 20 injuries, he survived and was decades later bestowed with the Medal of Honor by President Barack Obama in 2015. The reason for his less recognition was that he was from the African American clan.

Bolo Knife Heritage: Symbol of the Filipino Culture

The bolo knife is an integral part of the Filipino culture. These crafty tools are given to military personnel as gifts. Just as the Moro people’s swords or the Kris daggers, these knives hold a significant meaning.

A bolo knife is an esteemed symbol for the Katipunan, a native revolutionary society, and the Tagalog war (the Philippine Revolution), particularly the first clash that marked the beginning of the revolution against the Spanish kingdom.

This first clash is known as the Cry of Pugad Lawin. Many monuments of the famous Filipino leader, Andres Bonifacio along with other prominent Katipuneros show the figurines holding the Katipunan flag in one hand and the bolo knife in the other.

After all, the Katipunan used the bolo knife as the primary tool at the time of the Philippine Revolution. Even today, these knives are forged in parishes across the archipelago.

Although the knife is popular in other nations and continents, it is still a symbol of the Filipinos. In fact, on a few Filipino islands, the inhabitants stroll around with their bolo knives conveying the message of these tools being their symbol of pride or simply employment.

The latter means that they will work using it in forests or on fields. Further, Palau as the island country to the east of the archipelago call the natives ‘Chad Ra Oles’, which means ‘people of the knife.’

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Other Interpretations of the Term, Bolo

The term, ‘to bolo’ is used by the military of the United States, which means ‘to fail a test or evaluation’. This interpretation originated from the joined military forces of the Philippine-American war including the guerrillas. These guerrillas and local troops had failed to show proficiency. They were given bolos and not firearms to avoid using limited ammunition.

Bolo in the Filipino Martial Arts (FMA)

Kali, Arnis, and Eskrima forming the FMA are the native forms of martial arts in the nation and have different forms. The roots of FMA are historically profound, as they extend to the tribes and empires existing long before the written evidence.

It has evolved significantly to impact fighting styles from all around the world. With no dependency on an imperial or a warrior clan, the origin of FMA comes from the common people.

It focuses on forms using items such as blades, knives, and improvised weapons. In fact, both the FMA and knife skills are the nation’s active art forms with a history of giving a challenge to the victorious forces from Japan, the U.S., and Spain.

Existing Uses of Bolo Knives

Also termed as the bolo machete, the knife is popular in Southeastern Asia as an agricultural tool. It is a special knife for harvesting narrow row crops, such as moong beans, soy, and rice due to the unique bulge contributing to more chopping power.

The knife is also used for splitting coconuts. It is widely seen in use in the countryside as a farming tool just as it was used at the time of the Spanish colonial rule as a manual substitute to carabao for plowing.

The compact, weighted knife is also widely used for chopping vegetation in the woods. You can also use it as a combat weapon just as a machete.


In its country of origin alone, there are a couple of its variations, each in use for different tasks. The variation is such that there is almost a distinct bolo for handling each specific situation and person.

At present, the term ‘bolo’ is believed to be an extended one to encompass other customary blades that are used as primary or secondary tools in the field of agriculture. Following are the different types of bolo knives:

  • Garab: Is a machete or a sickle known for its rice harvesting features.
  • Barong: Is a leaf-shaped knife or sword that the Suluk people (an ethnic group in Southeast Asia) use.
  • Batangas: Is a bolo that widens at the end. It is most widely used by the Tagalog people.
  • Kampilan or Talibong: Is a long, tapering tool that is commonly seen across the Philippines.
  • Bolo-Guna: Is a garden knife featuring a wide blade that is dull and very short and has a vertical blunt end. People use it for weeding lawns and digging roots.
  • Haras / Lampas (in Mindanao): This is a scythe that is mainly used for cutting tall grass.
  • Iták: Is a narrow sword used widely in the Tagalog areas for protecting oneself and combating. It is also called the tip bolo or the jungle bolo knife. It was widely used at the time of the Philippine-American war and the Philippine Revolution.
  • Sundang: Is the most common tool used for self-defense on the island of Visayas. Just as itak, this knife also known as the tip or jungle bolo. It was a preferable tool during the Philippine Revolution and the Philippine–American war.
  • Pirah/Pira: This is a wide-tipped blade that you will see commonly throughout the Mindanao and the Sulu archipelago.
  • Pinuti: Is a narrow blade conventionally used as a personal weapon for defending oneself from a threat.
  • Punyal / Gunong / Kutsilyo: Is derived from Kalis, a double-edged sword having a curvy section just as the Kris dagger. It is the choice as a side-weapon when in a fight or for slaying down pigs during slaughter.
  • Binangon: Is a type of sundang that is widely seen in the Negros island as well as in the western Visayas region of the Philippines.


A bolo knife is still known for its lethality and agricultural performance, especially while harvesting. It is much like a machete.