That sick scythe you see as a weapon was originally some sort of lawn mower

The scythe we know in pop culture is often depicted as that of the Grim Reaper. A long pole with a single-edged knife curved forward like a hook or claw. It’s also what video game characters use when they do it – grab Dante’s soul-sucking badass scythe Dante’s Inferno video game. Aside from looking so much cooler, Grim Reaper is pretty much the same. However, the war scythe from our story is a bit different. Depending on who you ask, it’s either cooler or lamer than what we’re commonly familiar with.

Dante’s scythe in game Dante’s Inferno. © Visceral Games/Electronic Art

Started in agriculture

Like the other weapons we know today, the scythe was originally a handheld agricultural implement. Its origin was not known, but it was widely used in Europe in the 8th century to harvest and store hay used to feed livestock during the winter season. Since then, it has been popularly used for mowing grass and harvesting crops. The appearance slightly resembled what we know today, although the difference was that the rod (called the Snaith) was sometimes bent like the letter “S”. There was also a handle or two along its body so farmers could easily swing the blade down to cut the crops. The steel blade, curved between 60 and 90 centimeters, was attached at the lower end at 90 degrees.

A modern scythe with a pattern common to parts of Europe. (battery, CC BY-SA 3.0via Wikimedia Commons)

From farming to fighting

How did these gentle and peaceful agricultural implements become villains and a weapon of war?

You see, scythes were the popular choice of farmers who couldn’t afford more expensive weapons like pikes, swords, and even rifles. They used whatever weapons or makeshift weapons they could bring with them during peasant uprisings, such as pitchforks and scythes. They strengthen these weapons by reinforcing the connection between the blade and shaft with bolts and additional metal tubes. They also began to replace their usual scythe blade with the blade of a hand-held chopper, which was curved outward.

Battle of Sedgemoor

Polish scythes of the January Uprising. (Polish National LibraryPublic domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

In July 1685 the final and decisive engagement between the Kingdom of England and rebels led by the Duke of Monmouth in the Monmouth Rebellion (also known as the Pitchfork Rebellion) was the Battle of Sedgemoor. James Scott, 1st Duke of Monmouth, and his army of 5,000 peasant units armed with war scythes wanted to overthrow James II and take over England.

Uprising of Horea, Cloşca and Crişan

In January 1784, Emperor Joseph II in Romania ordered an increase in the number of Transylvanian border guards. People from the villages, mostly unrepresented Romanian peasants, flocked to enlist as it would give them a better life compared to the compulsory labor system for their landowners. Local authorities tried to slow down the process, but people interpreted it as “the nobility didn’t want you to have a better chance in life, so we won’t hire you”. This, fueled by rumours, led to 10,000 peasants rebelling against the nobles, running through the settled areas of Alsó-Fehér, Zaránd and Hunyad counties with their scythes, and massacring about 4,000 people, most of whom were Hungarians.

War in the Vendee

Vendee rebel. (Julien LeBlantPublic domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

During the French Revolution, a counter-revolution in France’s Vendée region was led by the Catholic and royal armies. The uprising began when 150 of the 160 Vendée bishops refused to take the oath of allegiance because the National Constituent Assembly was becoming anti-clerical. Non-violent priests were then exiled or imprisoned, while women were beaten in the streets on their way to mass. Church property was confiscated and soon they ordered the churches closed. Even graves were not allowed to bear crosses. Because of this, the rebels began rioting until it grew into a full-blown uprising led by the priests. The rebel forces, known as the Catholic and Royal Army, had formed a sizeable and ill-equipped group, but for some time they had only success with a few captured artillery pieces and primitive weapons, including scythes.


The Marine using the scythe drops the head to the other side of the area in question and slowly pulls it until it hits a pressure plate or pulls on a wire/string. (Spec Ops Magazine)

In Afghanistan, the foot patrol also used this weapon, not to fight the rebels but to inspect potential IED threats buried in the ground. Once they spotted some wires sticking out of the dirt, they pulled out their trusty scythe to inspect 12 feet away, pulling and pulling the device out. If it’s not an IED, they could continue on their merry way, but if it is, then they could call for a controlled detonation.

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