Tomahawks History and Use
The tomahawk is one of the most iconic weapons of the American frontier. Showcased both in old Westerns and modern films like The Patriot and Last of the Mohicans, the tomahawk is both a versatile utility tool and a symbol of war.
Although the concept is similar, modern tomahawks bear little resemblance to the stone weapons used by indigenous North Americans. Although this brutal weapon has its origins in Neolithic stone tools, the tomahawk has evolved into a sophisticated tactical weapon and useful survival tool.
Unlike its cousin, the hatchet, which is primarily used for domestic chores like chopping firewood and constructing shelter, the tomahawk is honed for destruction. Centuries of refining the tomahawk’s design make it perfect for tearing things apart, including brush, doors, buildings, and even people.
If you are a modern survivalist, prepper, or military member who tends to connect catastrophe with conflict, you should consider adding a tomahawk to your supply arsenal.
The Tomahawk Through History
Before Europeans first set foot on the North American continent, the indigenous people had been using war clubs made of stone for centuries. However, the axe did not gain popularity as a weapon until new settlers first introduced the natives to iron and steel.
The Origin of the Word "Tomahawk"
The word “tomahawk” has its roots in the Algonquian language. Historians believe the word is derived from the Powhatan term “tamahaac” which contains the Proto-Algonquian root “temah” which means “to cut off with a tool.”
Algonquin is a blanket term used to refer to a mixed group of indigenous people who spoke various dialects of the Algonquin language. Although most Algonquins occupied what is now Quebec, bands of these peoples stretched from eastern Virginia west to the Rocky Mountains and north to Canada’s Hudson Bay.
The Powhatan tribe, also known as Virginia Algonquins, spoke a specific dialect of Algonquian. There were approximately 14,000 to 21,000 Powhatan people in eastern Virginia when Jamestown was established in 1607. These were some of the first Native Americans to have contact with English settlers. They were also the first to be exposed to English axes made of steel and iron.
The Myth of the Stone Tomahawk
The term tomahawk was first recorded in Captain John Smith’s brief Indian vocabulary, which was written sometime between 1607 and 1609. In the writing, it appears as the word “tomahacks” and was apparently a native word used to refer to English axes, not indigenous stone weapons like popular culture would have us believe.
The popular image of the tomahawk as a crude chiseled stone attached to a wooden handle with rawhide strips was mostly created by Hollywood, not history. There is actually little evidence of stone axes of any kind in the archeological record. According to the Trade Axe And Tomahawk Collectors Association, “while flaked chert hoes did exist, these (stone) axe heads are straight from a modern flint knappers imagination.”
Crude stone tools were used by Native Americans, however, they were used for smoothing wood and hoeing crops. They may have also been used in warfare, but anything resembling a stone tomahawk seems to only exist in children’s toys, classic films, absurd “reproductions,” and poorly researched websites.
The Tomahawk's Grandfather: The Naval Boarding Axe
The Americas were first exposed to the concept of the tomahawk in the form of the European naval boarding axe. A practical tool, the naval boarding axe featured a spike on one end of the head and an axe-like blade on the other.
Sailors would use the spike end to clamber up the side of ships. The blade end was commonly used to cut ropes and netting and to smash doors and locks. The handle of the naval boarding axe had a flattened butt which was useful for prying open crates, planks, and doors. Of course, this multi-purpose tool was also used as a close-quarters weapon, used to crush body parts if necessary.
The Ideal Frontier Weapon
From this useful and deadly design, the tomahawk was formed. A true original of the American frontier, the tomahawk was embraced by many indigenous tribes, as well as European colonists. More practical than its heavier cousin, the hatchet, the lighter tomahawk was more practical for light travel through rough, untamed terrain.
The tomahawk was also relatively easy to repair when on-the-move. The tomahawk’s straight handle could be formed from any suitable wood, making replacement easy, whether on the trail, in the woods, or on the homestead.
The head of the tomahawk was lighter than a typical hatchet. This lightweight design made it less cumbersome on the frontier, although it was perfectly capable of handling any chores the hatchet would have covered.
What is the Purpose of a Tomahawk?
The Tomahawk at War
Although the word comes from the Algonquin language spoken by the Virginia Powhatan, the tomahawk was used by many different tribes spanning the “new” continent.
Perfect for close quarters, hand-to-hand combat, the tomahawk could also be used as a short-distance throwing weapon, or as a domestic tool for menial household tasks like chopping wood or cutting meat or leather.
Although least practical as a cutting or chopping tool, each of these tomahawks made formidable hand weapons. Native Americans also held them in favor because of their graceful and artistic shapes.
As the weapon evolved, Native Americans adapted the tomahawk’s poll (the side opposite the blade) for utility purposes. The poll often consisted of a hammer, spike, or pipe, making the tomahawk more effective as a weapon and increasing its value as an everyday tool.
How Different Tribes Customized Their Tomahawk Designs
The tomahawks used by different tribes often looked quite different. The length of the handle could be as short as one foot to nearly three feet, depending on how the warriors used it. A tomahawk with a shorter handle might be used for throwing, while a style that featured a lengthier handle was used as a two-handed weapon.
Writer and historian, Phil Spangenberger explains some of these differences in his 2015 article for True West. For example, tribes that lived along the great bend of the Missouri River used a tomahawk with a large, thin blade and a short wood handle. In contrast, the spontoon tomahawk which was common from the Rocky Mountains to Wisconsin in the 1880s features a dagger-like blade and curled appendages reminiscent of a French fleur-de-lis.
What Does a Tomahawk Symbolize
Tomahawks were used by native peoples for more than just chores and warfare. Many tribes incorporated the tomahawk into their ceremonies and rituals. For example, the pipe tomahawk holds important spiritual significance.
Pipe tomahawks feature a two headed design, with one side resembling a sharpened war axe, and the other a peace pipe. These pipe tomahawks represent the tenuous relationship native people had with their new European neighbors, one constantly teetering between war and friendship.
According to the Library of Congress, Lewis and Clark carried fifty pipe tomahawks with them to use as gifts or items for trade. Because pipe tomahawks were used as gifts, many are more decorative than functional and feature beads, furs, and intricate carvings.
What the Tomahawk is Not
Although the general shape of the head is similar, the tomahawk differs greatly from both the common household hatchet and the European battle axe.
The main design difference between the tomahawk and the battle axe is the width of the blade. The battle axe commonly features a wide head with a curved, sharp edge with a spike on the opposite side. The common hatchet has a narrower head and features a flat surface opposite the blade.
Unlike the lightweight portable tomahawk, both the battle axe and the hatchet are relatively heavy for their size. The shorter handle of the tomahawk also increases both maneuverability and control.
How Long is a Tomahawk Handle?
Although the size and specific design of the tomahawk varies by tribe, geography, and intended purpose, there are some general guidelines that determine if a weapon can be classified as a tomahawk.
The average length of a tomahawk is two feet. The head is typically made of iron, although modern versions may be made of steel. The head is typically lightweight, usually maxing out at about a pound and a half. The cutting edge averages at about four inches.
The other end of the tomahawk may be empty, or it may include a hammer or other counterbalance to the head.
Do Special Forces use Tomahawks?
The Tomahawk in Vietnam
The tomahawk’s easy portability and functionality inspired Peter LaGana to form the American Tomahawk Company in 1966. The company originally manufactured tomahawks for the United States military to use in the Vietnam War. Although the company has changed hands, it continues to produce tomahawks for both the United States Army and civilian use.
LeGana’s Vietnam Tomahawk had the traditional axe blade head, but featured a spike on the opposite side, much like a naval boarding axe. The spike increased the usefulness of the tomahawk for soldiers, adding breaching and trench digging to its already impressive skill set.
While most reports of tomahawk use are anecdotal, there are plenty of tomahawk stories that made it back home. One man reported killing four enemies with his trusty LaGana tomahawk after his rifle had been seized. Another claimed to use his tomahawk to chop large trees when clearing landing fields for American helicopters.
The Tomahawk in the Middle East
Peter LaGana’s tactical tomahawk has served the US military in every major conflict since Vietnam. A tomahawk is included in each IAV (Interim Armored Vehicle) Stryker as part of a "tool kit." These 8-wheeled armored vehicles were used in the Iraq War, the War in Afghanistan, and the current military intervention against ISIL.
The New York Times also reported the infamous Seal Team 6 (credited with dispatching Osama Bin Laden) used tomahawks as part of their personal weaponry. Their ‘hawks were crafted by North Carolina bladesmith, Daniel Winkler, the same craftsman responsible for the weapons used in the filming of The Last of the Mohicans.
Seal Team 6’s Red Squadron even features crossed tomahawks below the face of a Native American warrior in their squadron logo.
The Modern Tomahawk On the Battlefield
The tomahawk has come a long way since the American Frontier. Today’s modern military tomahawks are made from lighter, heat-treated steel. The sturdy wooden handle is often replaced with unbreakable nylon or some other lightweight synthetic material. Many modern tactical tomahawks weigh little more than one pound.
However, the signature tomahawk design is still apparent on these modern weapons. Don’t expect these blades to shave the hair off your forearm. Just like the stone war clubs used by ancient warriors, these weapons are built for smashing, often crafted to keep an edge during breaching operations rather than slicing with delicate detail.
Modern tomahawks still feature the signature 90-degree angle formed where the head meets the shaft. This angle creates a type of hook that can be effectively used in hand-to-hand combat. Not only can you use the tomahawk to disarm an aggressor, but it can also be used to hook the neck, shoulders, or legs to unbalance him. And of course, there is the heavy smashing tactic the tomahawk is best known for.
When it comes to close-quarter combat, the tomahawk really shines. You can easily choke up on the handle, making it a perfect weapon in narrow spaces, where a longer weapon would be cumbersome and ineffective. Swinging an axe in a small room is hard, but wielding a short handled blade increases your mobility and frees both hands for both offense and defense.
Of course, the tomahawk is best suited for smashing through doors and walls, which is why they are commonly used by Special Forces during predawn door knocking ops.
The Modern Tomahawk Off the Battlefield
The tomahawk has been highly romanticized by popular culture. It is seeing a huge revival among survivalists, campers, and even sports enthusiasts.
Using the Modern Tomahawk as a Survival Tool
The tomahawk is inarguably an effective and powerful weapon. However, they are also one of the best multi-tools ever made by humankind.
Here are just a few ways a tomahawk can be used in the field:
The most obvious non-combat use for the tomahawk is cutting wood. There is no arguing that the head of a tomahawk just begs to be used for chopping and splitting, either to build a fire or a shelter.
The edge of the tomahawk’s blade is also useful for making wood shavings. Grip the tomahawk just below the head and use the edge to scrape shavings from a larger piece of wood. You can use those shavings as tinder to start a fire.
The cutting edge of the tomahawk is also great for cutting cordage or cloth.
You can use your tomahawk as a digging tool. Whether you need to gouge the ground for a trench, ditch, or outdoor privy.
Although the tomahawk’s cutting edge isn’t capable of the delicate cutting precision possible with a good knife, in a pinch, it can be a useful tool for skinning and processing game.
Although perhaps not the optimal weapon for dangerous game, you can use your tomahawk as a weapon against aggressive predators (both animal and human).
Hollywood is also responsible for the image of a Native American warrior or frontiersman hurling his tomahawk through the air and sticking it into his enemy’s back. However, frontier mountain men and Indian warriors rarely threw their ‘hawks in battle.
Pitching a tomahawk at an enemy would have been a major tactical mistake since it would put an uncomfortable distance between the thrower and one of his most effective weapons.
Although hurling a tomahawk would have been historically rare, competitive and recreational tomahawk and axe throwing is gaining ground in popular culture.
Throwing a tomahawk safely and accurately isn’t easy. After all, they aren’t exactly the most aerodynamic weapons. In the following video, The Art of Manliness shows us the basic technique for hurling a ‘hawk.
Summing It Up
The tomahawk is not only one of the most romanticized weapons in history, it is also one of the most effective. A favorite weapon of Native American warriors, frontiersman, and modern Navy Seals and Army soldiers, the tomahawk design has stood the test of time.
While tomahawks are powerful weapons, they are also some of the best multi-tools known to mankind. Their utility and portability make them a favorite tool of first responders, campers, and survivalists, especially those who like to prepare for the worst case scenario whenever they leave home.
Consider taking one with you next time you venture out into the woods. You may also want to consider keeping one handy around the house or in your vehicle, just in case. Whatever tasks you choose to tackle with your tomahawk, you are sure to fall in love with it.