The scythe that 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 a claw. That’s what video game characters also use if they do— take Dante’s soul-sucking badass scythe from Dante’s Inferno video game. Except it looked so much cooler, it’s pretty much the same with Grim Reaper’s. The war scythe from our history is a bit different, though. Depending on who you ask, it is cooler or more lame than what we popularly know.

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

Started In Agriculture

Just like the other weapons that we know today, the scythe was originally a farming hand tool. Its origin was not known, but it became widely used in the 8th century in Europe to harvest and store hay used to support livestock during the winter season. Since then, it has been popularly used to mow grass and harvest crops. The appearance was slightly similar to the ones that we know today, although the difference was that the pole (called Snaith) were sometimes curved like the letter “S.” There were also one or two handles along its body so farmers could easily swing the blade down to cut the crops. The curved steel blade between 60 to 90 centimeters was attached at the lower end at 90 degrees.

A modern scythe of a pattern common in parts of Europe. (KkuCC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

From Farming To Fighting

How did these meek and peaceful farming equipment become rouge and turned into a weapon of war?

You see, scythes were the popular choice of peasants who could not afford more expensive weapons such as pikes, swords, and even guns. They used whatever weapons or make-shift weapons they could bring during peasant uprisings, like pitchforks and scythes. They reinforce these weapons by strengthening the joint between the blade and the shaft using bolts and additional metal pipes. They also started replacing their usual scythe blade with the blade from a hand-operated chaff cutter, which was curved outward.

Battle of Sedgemoor

Polish scythemen of the January Uprising. (National Library of Poland, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

In July 1685,  the last and decisive engagement between the Kingdom of England and rebels led by the Duke of Monmouth in the Monmouth Rebellion (also called Pitchfork Rebellion) was the Battle of Sedgemoor. James Scott, 1st Duke of Monmouth and his army of 5000-strong peasant unit armed with war scythes, wanted to overthrow James II and take over England.

Revolt of Horea, Cloșca and Crișan

In January 1784 in Romania, Emperor Joseph II ordered to increase the number of the border guards of Transylvania. People from the villages who were mostly unrepresented Romanian peasants flocked to enlist, as that would give them better life compared to the obligatory labor system to their landlords. The local authorities tried to slow down the process, but the people interpreted it as “the nobility didn’t want you to have a better chance at life, so we’re not enlisting you.” That, fueled by rumor, resulted in 10,000 peasants revolting against the nobles, running around the populated areas of  Alsó-Fehér County, Zaránd County, and Hunyad County with their scythes and massacring about 4,000 people who were mostly Hungarians.

War in The Vendée

Vendee rebel. (Julien Le Blant, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

During the French Revolution, a counter-revolution in the Vendée region of France was led by the Catholic and Royal Army. The uprising started when 150 of the 160 bishops of Vendee refused the oath of allegiance because National Constituent Assembly was slowly becoming anti-clerical. Nonjuring priests were then exiled or imprisoned while women on their way to Mass were beaten in the streets. Church properties were confiscated, and soon enough, they ordered the churches to close. Even graves were prohibited from having crosses on them. Because of this, rebels started rioting until it evolved into a full-blown uprising led by the priests. The rebel forces called the Catholic and Royal Army had formed a substantial and ill-equipped group, but they succeeded for some time with nothing but a few captured artillery pieces and crude weapons, scythe included.


The Marine using the scythe will drop the head on the far side of the area in question and slowly drag it until they hit a pressure plate or tug a wire/cord. (Spec Ops Magazine)

In Afghanistan, the foot patrol also utilized this weapon not to combat the rebels but to inspect potential IED threats buried in the ground. Once they spotted some wires sticking out from the dirt, they would whip out their trusty scythe to inspect it 12 feet away by tugging and dragging the device out. If it’s not IED, then they could go and continue on their merry way, but if it is, then they could call for a controlled detonation.