The billhook is a traditional cutting tool used mainly in European agriculture and forestry, but also common in other parts of the world where it was introduced by European settlers. It is used for cutting smaller woody material such as shrubs and branches.
The blade is usually made from a medium-carbon steel in varying weights and lengths, but typically 20-25 cm (8"-10") long. Blades are straight near the handle but have an increasingly strong curve towards the end. The blade is generally sharpened only on the inside of the curve, but double-edged billhooks, or "broom hooks", also have a straight secondary edge on the back.
The blade is fixed to a wooden handle, in Europe usually made from ash due to its strength and ability to deal with repeated impact. Handles are mostly 12-15 cm (6"-8") long and may be caulked or round. Longer handles may sometimes be used for heavier patterns, making the tool double-handed. The blade and handle are usually linked by a tang passing through the handle, but sometimes a socket that encloses the blade. Some styles of billhook may have scales of hardwood or horn fitted to the handle.
Some billhooks (for example the Kent pattern) have a single-bevelled blade, available in both right- and left-handed versions, others (such as the Machynlleth pattern) have dished blades (concave one side and convex the other), or a pronounced thickened nose (such as the Monmouth pattern). The reasons for many of these variations are now lost.
The use of a billhook is between that of a knife and an axe. It is often used for cutting woody plants such as saplings and small branches, for hedging and for snedding (stripping the side shoots from a branch). In France and Italy it is widely used for pruning grape vines. The billhook is the European equivalent of tools such as machetes, parangs, khukris, etc.
The billhook's use as a cutting tool goes back to the Bronze Age, and a few examples survive from this period—for example found in the sea around Greece. Iron examples from the later Iron Age have been found in pre-Roman settlements in several English counties as well as in France and Switzerland.
The tool has developed a large variety of names in different parts of Britain, including bill, hedging bill, hand bill, hook bill, billhook, brishing hook and broom hook. In American English a billhook may sometimes be referred to as a "fascine knife".
Made on a small scale in village smithies and in larger industrial sites (e.g. Fussells of Mells) the billhook is still relatively common throughout most of western Europe. During the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries the larger manufacturers offered up to 200 or so different regional styles and shapes of blade, sometimes in a range of different sizes from 6"-11" long in 1/2" steps. The French firm of Talabot boasted in their 1930 catalogue that they held over 3000 different patterns in their archives.
Billhooks are almost universally made from ordinary steel of a moderate carbon content. High-carbon steel is not often used since an extremely sharp and hard edge is not necessary, and a slightly lower carbon content makes the hook easier to sharpen in the field. Hygiene and cosmetic appearance are unimportant so more expensive stainless steel is not used.
Billhooks have a relatively thick blade (much thicker than a machete for example) since they are typically used for cutting thick and woody vegetation. The nose is sometimes also thickened to bring the sweet spot further forward and to optimise the chopping action. The edge of a billhook is not bevelled to a very narrow angle to avoid binding in green wood.
The hooked front of the blade makes it easier to catch small branches when stripping them off larger branches and also makes chopping against a rounded object (such as a tree trunk) more effective.
A billhook may vary in shape depending from which part of the UK it originates; there are eleven main types.
A variety of other hooks were also made by most edge-tool makers (including pea and bean hooks, gorse or furze hooks, trimming hooks, staff hooks, slashers, pruning hooks) that are closely related to the billhook, although they may differ in shape, width or thickness of blade, length of handle etc. Another very close relation is the meat cleaver—sizes and handle-fixing of these are often very similar to billhooks. In some other European countries the same name is used for both tools, and it can be difficult to identify if the tool is intended for cutting wood or animal bones.
Usage of billhooks also varies from country to country—in Sweden they were often used for cutting fodder for livestock (in the UK a gorse or furze hook would have been used); in France and Italy they were widely used for pruning vines (only recently has wine making come back to the UK), and miniature billhooks were used for harvesting the grapes during the 'vendange' in France; in Holland they were often used in a carpenter's workshop (in the UK use of a small hand axe was more common), and they were also found in the coopers' workshops in France (known as a cochoir, and used in the making of wooden barrel hoops). In the Balkans they were used for harvesting maize. They often appear on coats of arms of towns and villages (particularly in winemaking areas of Alsace, the Black Forest, Hungary and Switzerland) and have been found carved into boundary stones in parts of Germany and onto rock faces in Italy.
A non-military use as a weapon was a "pruning bill", described as the weapon used in the Pierre Rivière parricide case of 1835.