The Bolomen of the Revolution

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An illustration by J. Alexander Mackay published in the book Bamboo Tales by Ira L. Reeves (1900) IMAGE FROM PROJECT GUTENBERG

Arma Blanca is the name of the clandestine regiment of Filipino bolomen active during the revolution against the Spaniards and the Americans. Arma Blanca is a Spanish singular term for a bladed weapon like a sword or a knife.

A fairly recent mention of Arma Blanca was made in Orlino Ochosa’s book Bandoleros: The Outlawed Guerillas of the Philippine-American War of 1903 to 1907 (New Day Publications, 1995), and it reads, “Manila’s Arma Blanca that phantom army of bolomen whom General Luna had so much depended upon in his bold attack of Manila at the start of the war with the Americans.”

An earlier reference to Arma Blanca can be found in The Philippines Past and Present, by Dean C. Worcester released in 1914. Worcester, who had served as Secretary of the Interior of the Philippine Islands from 1901 to 1913 and was a member of the Philippine Commission from 1900 to 1913, wrote, “The regiment of Armas Blancas had already been raised in Tondo and Binondo. It was in existence there in December, 1898, and may have been originally organized to act against Spain.”

The bolo being both a farm implement and a weapon was carried with impunity by Filipinos even in the presence of Spanish and American soldiers. Its blade is often designed heavily weighted towards the tip for ease of chopping hence when used in combat, it can easily severe a limb with a single stroke. The Philippine bolo boasts of a sturdy construction and minor dents on its blade could easily be fixed by a little hammering and filing.


In the absence of guns, the Philippine revolutionary forces greatly depended upon the bolo in inflicting casualty on the enemy. A part of Worcester’s book reads, “There is no reason for believing that this is a complete statement of sandatahan [Filipino armed groups] organized in Manila by the end of January, and yet this statement gives a force of at least 6,330 men. General Otis said that this force had been reported to him as being 10,000 men. It is probably true that only a small number of them had rifles; but armed with long knives and daggers they could have inflicted much damage in a sudden night attack in the narrow and badly lighted streets of Manila.”

Filipino bolomen even received precise instructions on how to use the blade in conducting raids to snatch the guns of their enemies. A part of Emilio Aguinaldo’s order to the sandatahan was included in Worcester’s book, and it reads, “At the moment of the attack the sandatahan should not attempt to secure rifles from their dead enemies, but shall pursue, slashing right and left with bolos until the Americans surrender, and after there remains no enemy who can injure them, they may take the rifles in one hand and the ammunition in the other.”

Emilio Aguinaldo (PHILIPPINE PHOTOGRAPHS DIGITAL ARCHIVE, SPECIAL COLLECTIONS LIBRARY, UNIVERSITY OF MICHIGAN)

Emilio Aguinaldo (PHILIPPINE PHOTOGRAPHS DIGITAL ARCHIVE, SPECIAL COLLECTIONS LIBRARY, UNIVERSITY OF MICHIGAN)

In the absence of swords and knives, Aguinaldo’s instructions presents an alternative, “In place of bolos or daggers, if they do not possess the same, the sandatahan can provide themselves with lances and arrows with long sharp heads, and these should be shot with great force in order that they may penetrate well into the bodies of the enemy, and these should be so made that in withdrawal from the body the head will remain in the flesh.”

The weapons and operational tactics of Filipino bolomen were recorded in the book Bamboo Tales by Ira L. Reeves. Published in 1900, the book contains the experiences of Reeves as a 1st lieutenant of the 4th Infantry Division of the United States Army in the Philippines. The following are his personal description of the bolomen: “The organized bands of Filipinos known as bolomen are so called because their principal weapon is the long, broad-bladed, vicious-looking knife called the bolo, with which they do their deadly work. They make many boasts of their prowess and skill in taking human life, and one of their proudest feats is to sever the head from the body with a single blow. Our men in the Philippines who are on detached duty, or who for any cause are away from their commands, are frequently attacked by these men.” On the regiment’s choice of weapons he added, “As a rule, bolomen do not carry rifles, although many carry revolvers when they can get them. Their work is to kill at short range. With the stealth of a cat they slip up on their victim, strike him a deadly blow, and then beat a quick retreat to their own lines.

Many of the insurgent officers and soldiers carry bolos, but the genuine bolomen are an organized body belonging to Aguinaldo’s army, who have as distinct a work to do as the different branches of our own service. Their work is solely to surprise the unsuspecting outpost, officer or soldier, to dispatch him and run away before the deed has been discovered.”

Most interesting portion of Reeves’ book is the one titled An Encounter with Bolomen: A True Narrative of a Personal Experience in the Philippines By a Lieutenant of Infantry, wherein he described his near fatal encounter with a boloman, the beginning part of the anecdote reads, “I saw his right hand quickly strike out from his shoulder, and the flash of a glistening blade. I threw up my left hand, and our wrists met in heavy collision; but his blow was stronger than my ward, for I felt a sharp sting in my face just below the left eye, and a moment later the warm blood trickled down my cheek. With my left hand I grabbed his wrist just below the thumb and gripped it like grim death, but he was not to be beaten thus. I felt the sinews of his wrist rise, and the grinding of the muscles, and then the same stinging sensation that I had felt in my face I now felt in my wrist. I could count the cuts as he made them—one, two, three—all on my left wrist and hand, and then the blood began to run down my forearm, as our hands were elevated.”

Based on the account, the American survived the boloman’s attack through sheer guts and through the aid of the ever-reliable firearm. The last part of the story reads, “With all my might I threw him from me. He fell among the bushes, and was lost in the blinding darkness. I drew my revolver from the scabbard, and fired in the direction in which I had thrown him. This shot was answered by a cry, which told me he had been hit. At this moment I heard the twigs breaking and the leaves rustling behind me. Like a flash I faced about and fired at the approaching figures—my assailant’s fellow bolomen. The effect of the shot was to cause a heavy rustling and the sound of many feet in rapid retreat.”

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  1. Pete Gabriel on

    This stories true as it the may be, was before the colt .45, the standard small arms issue for the US Military was the .38. The Filipinos armed with bolos and bamboo spears after getting shot by a 38 is still coming to inflect heavy if not fatal strike against the Americans. This was the reason why the 45 caliber was invented, it stops a man dead on his track. This has contributed very much to the ultimate demise of the Philippine insurrection. This should again remind us of the clear and present danger, the Chinese are invading our territories, I do not have any doubt that the brave Filipinos will put up a fight but it would be futile against an overwhelming force