The Billhook War Scythe Sickle Tool Weapon I found this weekend

I found this large blade buried this weekend, which appeared at first to me to be a small-ish blacksmith made forged iron brush scythe blade. We have plenty of existing 19th century factory made scythe blades at the fort, and this looks nothing like those. It has a ribbed support structure with a fairly thin cutting edge – like a scythe. And it has a curve like a scythe.

The problem for a scythe blade is that it has a straight tang. A scythe tang would be at a 90 degree angle. So I suppose it could be a “sickle,” which is basically a one-handed scythe. I’m sure it’s some sort of brush cutting tool, or handheld farm took for cutting crops or brush. But it sure doesn’t look like anything I’ve seen before.

After an exhaustive search, I still can’t find anything just like it. The funny thing is, that the closest objects I’ve been able to find are early European military scythes, or hafted scythes. The War Scythe. Hey, you never know…. I may be writing a new chapter on American frontier warfare in the 18th century.

Drawing c 1688–9 by John Taylor from his ‘Historie of his life and travels in America and other parts of the universe’

A scythe was intended to cut hay, and was also used later to harvest crops such as barley and rye. In historical times it was an implement used by grown-up men and practically never by women. A scythe consists of a blade fastened at an angle to a long shaft, the snath. The scythe not only had a longer shaft than a sickle but also a longer blade. One technical problem was to balance the blade so the implement did not become too heavy in the front. The blades on the earliest scythes were rather short, and when they were eventually made longer the first solution to the problem was to make the angle between the blade and the snath wider (Myrdal 1999.)

A “perfect form” developed in the Middle Ages, however, the most important new element in which was the provision of one or two small handles on the snath. Some of the earliest pictures of such scythes show just one handle, but eventually two were used and this type is by far the dominant one worldwide nowadays. 

The perfect scythe – and other implement, by Janken Myrdal, Journal of Nordic Archaeological Science 15, pp. 5–17 (2005)

Scythes have been used in Britain since at least the first century ad,76 and, until the late nineteenth century, were the principal tools for mowing hay, barley, rye and oats, and from the eighteenth century, for wheat.77 Scythes are used two-handed, standing up, using a rhythmic swinging motion, the blade slicing through the crop near the ground: they should not be confused with sickles, also used for reaping but held in one hand while the other grasps the stems, and which have narrow crescent-shaped blades.

Scythes in their intended form can, at a pinch, be used as deadly weapons, as allegedly in the martyrdom of the unfortunate Saints Sidwell, Urith and Walstan by pagan reapers, and whose symbol is a scythe.78 At a more factual level, they are known to have been presented as weapons, if not necessarily wielded, in unplanned stand-offs between various authorities and rural labourers, not least by reapers actually at work: examples include those at Wolsingham (Co. Durham) in an incident related to enclosure in 1538,79 and one at Holme Fen (Cambridgeshire) in 1632, related to drainage.80 Such occasions cannot have been uncommon.

Unadapted scythes also appear in historic images of combat, such as that after Holbein of the German Peasants’ war (1524–5), Jacques Callot’s Les Misères et les Malheurs de la Guerre series of 163381 and even a contemporary depiction of Sedgemoor (fig 3), although the draughtsmen may not have realised that the blades were usually re-hafted;82 at least one sixteenth-century author, Paulus Hector Mair, even produced instructions for their use in duelling, although whether actually practised is doubtful.83 What may be an unadapted scythe is shown being used to cut a ship’s rigging in a fifteenth-century tapestry at Berne.84

‘A DESPERAT WEPON’: RE-HAFTED SCYTHES AT SEDGEMOOR, IN WARFARE AND AT THE TOWER OF LONDON, by Edward Impey, The Antiquaries Journal, Volume 99, September 2019.
The Royal Armouries scythe blades, (a) vii.960 and (b) vii.961, showing the top ends of their (more recent) hafts. Photographs: © Royal Armouries. From ‘A DESPERAT WEPON’: RE-HAFTED SCYTHES AT SEDGEMOOR, IN WARFARE AND AT THE TOWER OF LONDON, by Edward Impey, The Antiquaries Journal, Volume 99, September 2019.

Again, here’s the blade I found – just after it came out of the ground. Note the tang indicating a straight wooden haft. I just don’t think it could be a “scythe” with that tang. And it doesn’t appear to have been bent. It’s also pretty bulky to be a sickle.

However, a working scythe, with the blade fixed to the haft or ‘snath’ at an acute angle, while capable of making martyrs, is a very clumsy weapon. On the other hand, re-fixing the blade axially to (that is, in line with) a straight haft makes a weapon to be reckoned with. In several European languages the result was dignified by its own term, reflecting their widespread use; hence, for example, KriegsennseSturmsensefaux de guerrefalce di guerraboiova kosa (Ukrainian), boevaja kosa (Russian) and bojowe kosa (Polish) – the English equivalent, ‘war scythe’, appeared only in the twentieth century, reflecting its relatively sparing use in the Anglo-Saxon world, and the term is more familiar to war-gaming enthusiasts than historians…..

Scythe blades could also, incidentally, be used to make a form of sword by straightening the tang and fitting a hilt: an example, supposedly owned Thomas Müntzner, leader of the German peasants in 1525, is displayed in the Dresdner Rezidenzschloss; this is certainly a scythe blade with a straightened tang, although the eagle-headed brass hilt is seventeenth or eighteenth century and the object’s real history before the late nineteenth century is unknown.87 The ‘Saxon’s sword’ at the Tower, described and illustrated in the 1780s and 1790s, may be another (fig 4).88

‘A DESPERAT WEPON’: RE-HAFTED SCYTHES AT SEDGEMOOR, IN WARFARE AND AT THE TOWER OF LONDON, by Edward Impey, The Antiquaries Journal, Volume 99, September 2019.
DCF 1.0

Hey, maybe it’s a scythe sword? By the way, European history makes American history pale in comparison when it comes to blood and barbarity. After all, any civilization which has a War Scythe is probably a pretty rough place to live.

DCF 1.0

Anybody seen anything like it? Am I missing something obvious here? Part of the fun of metal detecting is figuring out what in the heck you’ve found. Again, I’m sure it’s brush-related, but I’m also a historical optimist. It could have been used for building 18th century fortifications, as was often done in the Rev War era, using bundles of sticks…..

2 thoughts on “The Billhook War Scythe Sickle Tool Weapon I found this weekend

  1. Could it be an old hay knife, used to remove hay from a stook? On the lead find, might it be scrap lead that had been gathers for remelt?

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