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What is a Guillotine?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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The guillotine is a bladed device designed for carrying out executions by beheading. The structure of the device involves a tall, heavy frame from which a traditionally angled blade is suspended, with a movable collar at the bottom for the neck of the prisoner. In addition, most guillotines have a basket to receive the head so that it doesn't bounce or roll after being severed. During use, the condemned's neck is placed in the collar, which is closed so that the condemned is locked in place. The executioner releases a rope or lever that causes the blade to drop, severing the head of the condemned and causing a death that is very close to instantaneous.

The guillotine is famous for its use in France, and more specifically for the heavy wear it saw during the French Revolution and the Reign of Terror. Various forms of the guillotine have been in use since the 14th century, with Ireland and Scotland using a guillotine-like device called the Scottish Maiden, which used a straight rather than angled blade, and Italy and Switzerland employing similar tools in the 15th century. It was France, however, that refined the guillotine, introducing the classically angled blade and using the device almost exclusively for executions until 1977, when the guillotine claimed its last victim. Four years later, the death penalty was outlawed in France.

The guillotine was proposed by Doctor Joseph-Ignace Guillotin, a member of the Revolutionary National Assembly, in the early 1790s, because he felt that a mechanical device for execution would be more humane and efficient than previous methods. Prior to the introduction of the guillotine, members of the nobility were beheaded with swords or axes, which were sometimes blunt and required several blows to effect the execution. Peasants, on the other hand, were burned at the stake, broken on the wheel, or executed in some other inefficient, painful manner. The National Assembly also felt that the use of a uniform device for executions was more egalitarian, and the guillotine was adopted on 20 March 1792 and used almost exclusively until 1977. The only exception to execution by guillotine was for certain crimes against the security of the state, which were punished by firing squad.

Antoine Louis, a member of the Academy of Surgeons, is the man who first designed a functional guillotine, which was initially called a louison or louisette before the press adopted guillotine as the official moniker. Louis made several changes to a basic design that had been in existence for hundreds of years – he added the lunette, the two part circular collar used to hold the condemned's head in place, and the angled blade. His device was first used on 25 April 1792 to execute Nicolas Pelletier, a notorious highwayman.

Many famous members of the French nobility were executed by guillotine during the reign of terror, which lasted from June 1793 to July 1794, notably Marie Antoinette, Louis XVI, and Maximilien Robespierre. It is unclear how many people were executed by guillotine during the Reign of Terror – estimates vary widely from 15,000 to 40,000. Most of these executions were carried out in public, and public executions continued in France until 1939.

Historical Index is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Historical Index researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By anon265272 — On May 01, 2012

The blade of the guillotine is angled so that it "slices" rather than "chops", thus making it more efficient.

Not mentioned in the article: Germany, and especially Nazi Germany, also used a form of guillotine: this was shorter, mostly metal-framed and called a "fallbeil" (falling axe or drop-hatchet).

By anon138830 — On Jan 02, 2011

the blade is at a 45 degree angle.

By anon132114 — On Dec 05, 2010

so the blade doesn't bounce up.

By anon18395 — On Sep 22, 2008

why is the blade of the guillotine angled?

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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