Carter Rila's

Carter's Cutlery Commentaries

June 2005

Military Myths and Misconceptions # 3


3. The Little Machetes.

The Myth: " Horn-handled Collins "bowie knives" were issued only to Marine Raiders and plastic-handled ones were issued only to the Army Air Corps."

First comments on proper nomenclature. Though this implement is commonly called by collectors the Collins bowie knife, the official name for this item used by both Collins and the U.S. Army Air Corps and its successors, the U.S. Army Air Force, and U.S. Air Force is machete. The #18 and its #17 brother were familiarly known as "machete pequenos" in Latin America, i.e. Little machetes. A machete can be a knife, but not all knives can be machetes, therefore little machete is the most specific and appropriate term and I will use it henceforth. 

According to an article in Cavalier, little machetes were inspired by a bowie knife carried by a Yanqui ship's captain visiting in Venezuela. Demand grew and the little machete became a standard item in the Collins line.

The first service to purchase little machetes was the Army Air Corps in the late 1930s. At that time the Air Corps was pioneering air routes to South America and had extensive operations in Panama. The need for an emergency sustenance (survival) kit was apparent and one was developed. Included in the original kits were horn- handled no. 18s. These were furnished from then current stock. About 1936 Collins had ceased to import horn for handles and adopted the black plastic handles for machetes. However, a few horn-handled ones remained in stock.

The little machetes furnished in quantity in 1940, 1941, and 1942 to the Air Corps were newly manufactured, had plastic scales, and have different markings than did the earlier manufactured ones with horn handles. It has also been determined that subsequent to World War II Collins changed the composition of the brass from which the rivets were made. These post war rivets have a much more reddish shade then do those on the Collins wartime manufactured machetes.

Though Collins was only one of several makers in the prewar period the Air Corps was not satisfied with the 1939 pattern Jungle Emergency Kits which contained the little machetes and in 1942 adopted the B2 Jungle Emergency Kits to replace them. These kits contained the well known AAF folding machete. As was so in other instances I believe production of the little machetes continued subsequent to this adoption and into early 1942. The 1939 Jungle Kits remained in service well into the war, but by mid 1943 only the empty cases could be ordered from the Class 13 AAF Stock Catalog.

Both the little machete (Collins #18 pattern) and the AAF folding machete were known to the airmen of WW II as "jungle knives". The Jungle Emergency Sustenance Kit of 1939 was the only war issue to include the little machete. The folding machete was included in, first, the B2 Jungle E.S.K (back type), and second, the B4 Universal E.S.K. (seat type), of 1942 and 1943. The old Jungle Emergency Kit though in wide circulation, was in fact, limited standard in 1942, and in 1943, only the empty kits remained in the Air Force Supply Catalog 13. This meant that if a Theatre Command requisitioned the old kit, the contents had to be procured and the kits would be assembled (filled) in the theater. This is what was done in the Southwest Pacific Theatre, and accounts for all the variants of the little machetes (jungle knives) procured by the Fifth Air Force in Australia. The Fifth Air Force in the Southwest Pacific Area, already having many 1939 Jungle Kits simply procured items to fill them in Australia rather than sending back to the States for them. Many photos taken in the theatre in 1942 show that the little machetes were taken out of the kits and were proudly worn by the members of air crews.

Probably the most famous American force to carry and use the "Machete pequenos" was the famous Second Marine Raider Battalion. Organized in early 1942 for their task of raiding and inspired by the role of the British Commandos, both the USMC First and Second Raider Battalions and the USMC First and Second Parachute Battalions were issued with the well-known but badly made Marine Corps stilettos copied from the Sykes-Fairbairn knife used by the British Commandos. In their first action at Makin the Second Raiders did not have the little machetes according to the letter from the Raiders' Association reprinted by Cole in Book III. The letter states the little machetes, purchased with unit funds, were issued before the Second Raiders landed on Guadalcanal. The fierce appearing item described in the following article is obviously the machete pequeno.

Many items of equipment used by the raiders are unique. Every man carries a long, heavy two-edged knife and every man knows how to use it in close hand-to-hand combat or in slashing through jungle obstructions.....

Carlson's Raiders perfect their skill at jungle fighting in the tangled, dampish interiors of the Pacific islands. Japanese are sure to taste their steel technique many times before the Pacific War is over. 2

Some years ago, I met a veteran of the Second Raider Bn who let me copy some of his photos. He stated that when they retired from Guadalcanal the few little machetes that were left were withdrawn and replaced by the Kabars. But some few were carried on Bougainville later. Due to their poor scabbards it is likely that most of them were lost. So any that are claimed to be "Gung Ho" knives of the original USMC lot should be looked at with suspicion at least as none were known to be marked in any distinguishable way. Next, the Second Marine Raiders, subsequent to the Makin Raid in August 1942 purchased directly from Collins a quantity of No. 18s. Since these were taken from stock on hand among them were a few horn-handled machetes but the majority had the plastic handles identical to the Air Corps purchases.

Photos of Lt. Col. Evans F. Carlson taken at Espiritu Santo show him wearing a plastic handled little machete and a Marine Corps stiletto. An identical little machete is shown in the photograph in Cole leaning against Col Carlson's ditty box. The 21st Marines knife being held in the same photo by Lt. Col. Evans Carlson, Jr., though it is obviously inspired by the little machete, is not a Raider knife. The 21st was not a Raider unit. (see below)

To conclude and summarize the above, when the Second Raiders went to Guadalcanal they did have little machetes. However, before they were re-deployed to Bougainville the little machetes were to be withdrawn and replaced by Kabars. Thus any undocumented specimen of either handle type offered as a "Marine Raider bowie" is a misapprehension at best and an attempt at fraud at worst. Certainly to offer one with red brass rivets as World War II issue is an attempt at fraud.

Another knife of little machete inspiration was procured in New Zealand and issued to the members of the 21st Marine Regiment. This aluminum hilted knife was not a "Raider knife" because the 21st was not a Raider regiment. The 21st was combined with the "new" 4th Marines to make up the Sixth Marine Division. The "new" 4th Regiment was formed in 1944 to replace the "old" 4th Regiment lost in the Philippines. The new 4th was formed from the former Marine Raider Bns. Thus the association of the 21st with the Raiders. The war was now being won and there was no longer any need for the hit and run role of the Raiders. Too there was much high level opinion in the U.S.M.C. that any Marine unit properly equipped should be able to carry out the raiding role.

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