Imperial forces around the world, whether they came to the battle with muskets and cannons or machine guns and fighter planes, have come to fear the bolo knife. From the Spanish colonial occupation of the Philippines to the Mexican Revolution – not to mention the battlefields of World War I and II – the bolo knife has become legendary for its utility and lethality.
In the Philippines alone, where it has its origins, there are many names and variations of the bolo knife for a wide range of uses—almost a different bolo for any different situation and person. To get a handle on the history and importance of this tool and weapon, here are five must-know facts about the bolo knife.
The Bolo knife comes from the Philippines
The bolo knife (also called iták in Tagalog, sundáng in Cebuano, and binangon in Hiligaynon, to cover a few of the more prevalent languages/dialects of the Philippines) has long been a tool used for clearing jungle brush and for various agricultural purposes. To this day, bolo knives are forged in villages across the archipelago.
Though it has spread to other countries and continents, the bolo knife is still a symbol of the Filipino people. On some of the islands in the Philippines, people walk around with their bolo knives as a symbol of pride or even just employment, signifying that they work with it in the fields or jungles. The island nation of Palau, to the east of the Philippines, call Filipinos Chad Ra Oles, which translates to “people of the knife.”
Bolo knives are crafty and resourceful creations
In recent history, bolo knives have been made out of whatever high-carbon steel could be found that was suitable for the blade and either indigenous hardwood or animal horn for the handle. The blade usually curves and widens towards the end. The tang extends to the bottom of the handle.
Since the empires fighting over the Philippines started bringing in Jeeps and other vehicles, bolo knives have often been made out of leaf springs. Many in the 1950s and ’60s were made from the leaf springs of U.S. Army Jeeps still left over from World War II. These hand-forged blades are very durable and can hold quite the edge.
Bolos (as well as other knives) are a key element of Filipino Martial Arts (FMA)
FMA, also called Arnis, Eskrima, and Kali, are the native martial arts forms of the Philippines and comes in many different styles. The origins of FMA go deep into history, to kingdoms and tribes long before the written record, and it has grown to influence fighting styles around the word. Not born out of a warrior or noble class, but rather from that of the common people, FMA focuses a lot of attention on forms with items such as knives, sticks, other blades, and many improvised weapons.
FMA and especially knife skills are living arts in the Philippines and have proven a challenge to conquering forces from Spain, the U.S., and Japan.