The War Scythe: From Farm Tool to Battlefield Weapon

From an unassuming agricultural tool designed for reaping crops to a brutal battlefield weapon, the military scythe was both accessible and deadly. This is the astonishing story of the war scythe.

Military History
5 June 2024

History has seen dozens of different types of sickle blade, including the Japanese kama and kusarigama, the ‘chicken-claw’ sickle weapon from China, the ušatá sudlice, or Bohemian earspoon, from central Europe, and the makraka from north central Africa, but the battle or war scythe is perhaps the most famous, and brutal.

Originally designed as a farming tool, the war scythe was repurposed by resourceful fighters, particularly during periods of peasant uprisings and rebellions. Its evolution from a farm implement to a weapon of war highlights the ingenuity and adaptability of those who wielded it, reflecting a rich history of conflict and innovation.

This is the fascinating story of the military scythe.

What is a War Scythe?

Seventeenth century halbards (Credit: duncan1890 via Getty Images)

At its most simple, the war scythe was constructed from a long wooden shaft with a sickle blade of iron or steel fixed to the end. Known generally as a polearm – a term for a variety of close combat weapons with the main striking element at the end of an arm – it began as a rudimentary, improvised weapon, but became a crucial battlefield tool against advancing infantry as well as a defensive weapon to fend off cavalry attacks.

Some sources suggest that the military scythe was developed more or less independently of the agricultural tool, but it seems to be generally agreed that the battlefield weapon was an evolution of the benign farming implement. The main difference between the two was the position of the blade. In farming, the blade was at a right angle to the wooden shaft with the cutting edge on the concave (or inner) side which allowed for sideways sweeping motions to thresh crops. In the modified war scythe, the blade – on the convex, or outer side – was in line with the pole which allowed for forceful forward thrusting and chopping.

Other modifications included reinforcing the connection between the wood and the blade with metal rivets, and reshaping or refining the farm blades to make them lighter and sharper.

Naturally, these crude early sickle weapons had their limitations. They were often very heavy, and weren’t as reliable as purpose-built polearms like the halberd or, later, the fauchard. However, when conventional weapons were inaccessible or unaffordable, people could, in times of need, become very resourceful, adapting whatever tools they had available.

The History of the Battle Scythe

Chariot armed with scythes, Leonardo da Vinci (Credit: Print Collector via Getty Images)

Sickle blades like the war scythe were very much viewed as a weapon of the masses rather than the nobility, and their widespread use can be traced back to medieval Europe, particularly in regions where peasant uprisings and revolts were common. But the beginnings of the weapon go back much further.

Although it’s by no means certain, it’s likely that the origins of the scythe-like weapon as an instrument of war came from the ancient Persians. Fourth century BC chariots used by the armies of Artaxerxes II, King of Kings of the Achaemenid Empire, were described by Greek historian Xenophon as having projecting scythes fitted to their wheels. However, it took almost 1,800 years for the war scythe to become a common – and feared – sight on the battlefield.

The Scythe at War

Battle scythes used in the Peasants' Revolt (Credit: whitemay via Getty Images)

Among the first significant recorded incidents which saw the use of the war scythe as a weapon took place during the famous Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 in England. Also known as Wat Tyler’s Rebellion, this was an uprising fuelled by economic and social upheaval following the Black Death, and a backlash against an unstable leadership of the country, and high taxes imposed to fund the Hundred Years’ War against France.

With little access to purpose-built weaponry, the peasant rebels armed themselves with repurposed agricultural tools like scythes, sickles, and staves. And it was a similar story across Europe for centuries.

In the Hussite Wars, an early fifteenth century conflict between a Czech proto-Protestant Christian movement, and the might of the Holy Roman Emperor, the Papacy, and European royalty loyal to the Catholic Church, General Jan Žižka’s Hussites – mostly recruited from the peasant classes – used a modified battle scythe with side spikes.

Such sickle weapons were also used by Polish peasants in a series of conflicts between Sweden and the Poland-Lithuania Commonwealth known as The Deluge in the seventeenth century.

Similarly, during the Battle of Sedgemoor – the final, decisive battle of the Monmouth Rebellion in England in July 1685 – the five thousand-strong rebel army fielded by James Scott, 1st Duke of Monmouth, used the war scythe widely during the melee.

The Decline of the Battle Scythe

Different types of polearms (Credit: duncan1890 via Getty Images)

The war scythe remained a weapon of choice for several centuries, particularly among insurgent groups and militias. However, as firearms and more sophisticated weapons became prevalent in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the popularity of the war scythe began to wane.

By the nineteenth century, its use had largely diminished, relegated to a symbol of peasant uprisings, especially in Poland during the 1831 November Uprising, the January Uprising in 1863 and, it’s believed, as late as post-World War I in the Silesian Uprising which took place in 1921.

The War Scythe: A Legacy of Ingenuity

Old agricultural scythes (Credit: serikbaib via Getty Images)

Although its prominence on the battlefield has long since faded, the sickle blade remains a powerful reminder of the resourcefulness of those who transformed it from a humble farm tool into a weapon of war. As a piece of military history, the military scythe offers valuable insight into the ways ordinary people repurposed everyday tools to face extraordinary circumstances.


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