A tomahawk resembles a hatchet; it has a striking blade and long handle. Most cultures have had a version of a tomahawk. The British had their belt axes, the French wielded the francisca, and the Vikings were infamous for their skill in using axes in battles; in fact, one of the most common traditional styles of fighting tomahawks is still called a “Norse.”
Native Americans used tomahawks as striking and throwing weapons, as well as tools. The name came into the English language in the 17th century as a transliteration of the Powhatan (Virginian Algonquian) word. The first tomahawks had a stone head, such as polished soapstone, and a straight wooden shaft. The heads and handles were usually intricately carved and ornamented. Flint rock, deer horns, and animal jawbones were often used to create tomahawks. Early tomahawks could also be used for smoking tobacco; many times the opposite side of the blade would have a pipe bowl built into it. This dual purpose meant the tomahawk could be used as a smoke peace offering, or it could be used as a weapon if needed.
The tomahawk could be used by itself, or it could be used in conjunction with another weapon, such as a long bladed knife. This effective and deadly combination works for a variety of combat situations, against either single or multiple opponents.
A tomahawk may be used as either a weapon of offense or defense. Many tomahawk fighting techniques may be used in both these roles. A tomahawk can be used to rake, chop, punch, and slice, or to catch and pull or deflect blows.
The first European colonists started using the tomahawk, using it for defense while they reloaded their muskets, and it has been a weapon of choice of the American military for hundreds of years. In the late 18th Century, the British army issued tomahawks to their Colonial Regulars during the American Revolutionary War as a weapon and tool. In 1757, the tomahawk was mentioned in the 28 orders of Robert’s Rangers.
In the 1800s, long, heavy bladed Bowie knives begin to replace tomahawks in popularity as a backup weapon. During this time, Jim Bowie was living in New Orleans, which was noted for its duels. There were a large number of master swordsmen from many countries making a living in New Orleans teaching dueling. Bowie may have recognized the superiority of the large fighting knife over the tomahawk when he developed the Bowie style knife. By the time of the Civil War, one of the most popular items to give a departing soldier was a fighting knife, not a tomahawk. During WWII, allied soldiers used tomahawks in hand-to-hand combat in the pacific. During the latter half of the 20th century, military fighting forces relied mostly upon long-range weapons, such as large naval guns, bombs, and missiles, and upon staying inside armored vehicles for protection.
Nowadays, due to the War on Terror and more troops being on the ground in villages and around civilians, the military has moved from fighting using long-range weapons and armored vehicles back fighting more man-to-man fighting in close-quarters. Due to these changes, the tomahawk has once again become popularity as an effective weapon and useful battlefield tool. They are replacing knives as the last-ditch close-quarters battle weapon of choice by some of America’s most elite fighting forces.
While many tomahawks are sold as breaching tools, no other weapon of comparable size may generate as much force with a short stroke in an enclosed space. In close-quarters with others around you, you cannot shoot an attacker without endangering others. A knife requires skill, it is difficult to injure an attacker enough with a knife to stop an attack, and a knife wound is a slow kill. To eliminate an attacker quickly, there is nothing deadlier than swinging a tomahawk and driving its spike into the attacker’s head or body. In addition, if you want to get through a wooden door, break glass, or bust a door handle, the long-handled tomahawk does the job. On a fighting tomahawk, the upper and lower edges are also used to fight. The top tip is used for thrusting and stabbing and the bottom point may be used to rip an assailant.
One of the keys to a tomahawk’s durability is the way the handle connects to the head. Some tomahawks have a head that may be easily detached to make it easy to transport. In addition, one could simply carry the head and cut a handle when needed. However, for a fighting tomahawk, one wants a head that will not come off and a handle that will not break. Nylon handles attached to steel heads will bend back into shape after a hit, but the head could eventually separate. Full-tang designs are constructed so the head and shaft are made from a single piece of material so there is no chance of head separation. When it comes to the grade of the material used in tomahawk construction, you get what you pay for in terms of weight, durability, and edge retention. To get the best, expect to pay more.
Due to the resurgence of the popularity of the tomahawk, new martial art styles have been developed that use the tomahawk as their primary weapons. One such martial art is Okichitaw, which was developed by Canadian martial artist, George J. Lépine. Okichitaw is based upon the fighting techniques of the Assiniboine and Plains Cree Indians, intermingled with techniques derived from Judo, Taekwondo, Hapkido, and Taekeukdo.
The tomahawk is a part of basic Okichitaw training; however, the primary weapon is the distinctive Plains Cree Gunstock War Club, a weapon developed throughout North America during the European colonization. It was supposedly created from modified, disused muskets. When ammunition was not available or the musket failed to work, it reversed and used as a striking weapon.
Whether you are preparing for survival, warfare, or basic home defense, the tomahawk should be a part of your training arsenal.