Whether used as a practical tool, a weapon or an ornamented gift, the tomahawk is an icon of the North American frontier. Though thousands have tomahawk-chopped in sports stadiums, few truly understand the history of the weapon or why it is such an enduring symbol. Today, the tomahawk is enjoying a resurgence among a growing number of survivalists, practical outdoor enthusiasts, custom knife makers and historical re-enactors.

According to historian Charles L. Cutler, the term “tomahawk” comes from the Powhatan word tamahaac, derived from the Proto-Algonquian root temah meaning “to cut off by tool.” The term later evolved throughout other tribes to simply mean “axe.” The tomahawk has a unique history in that it was not until European settlers reached the New World that the “modern” tomahawk appeared. Pre-contact Native Americans had not developed iron forging technology and their axes typically consisted of a wooden shaft and sharpened stones. The introduction of forged iron allowed the adaptation of a thinner, lighter and more precise axe head. The tomahawk, unlike the longer axe, usually measures inside 2 feet in length, with a thin, light head and a cutting surface of around 4 inches. The side of the head opposite the blade (the poll) may have a spike, a flat hammer face or be without a device all together. The handle shafts were traditionally made from maple, hickory or ash.

In many circumstances in colonial North America, the tomahawk was a preferred gift between European settlers and Native Americans, or between respective tribes or European nationalities. The tomahawk, because it represented the culture and frontier nature of North America, was also a prized item for continental Europeans. A small number of ceremonial tomahawks took on a particularly symbolic importance, as a hole was drilled inside the shaft and connected to a tobacco bowl added to the poll of blade. These tomahawks served as pipes that, when used for smoking, represented peace, but, when turned blade-wise, meant war. The duality was not likely lost on the participants who inhaled from the tip of the handle but supported the pipe by holding the tomahawk’s blade.

As a weapon, the tomahawk saw action on both sides of the frontier wars. Native Americans quickly adopted them as lethal hand-to-hand combat tools, and the British issued tomahawks to their colonial troops in the late 18th century.

Evolving Design

Owing as much to its utility and simplicity as its mystique, the tomahawk continues to be revived and evolved in North America. Amongst mountain man rendezvous enthusiasts, a tomahawk is likely part of their basic kit. Tomahawk throwing competitions are also a regular part of such events, with rules governing the type and specifications for tomahawks thrown by participants.

In the past 20 years, weapons designers and custom knife makers have turned their attention to tomahawks as well, further evolving the design and materials to fit a specific task or mission. For practical purposes, many bushcraft enthusiasts prefer a tomahawk to a hatchet due to its lighter weight and slimmer design. In some variations, more “weaponized” versions of the tomahawk have appeared and pull double duty as breaching tools with a pry bar designed into the base of the handle. Others have become pure martial arts tools with handle and blade designs that reflect the techniques and fighting style of the designer. Across the material and design spectrums, prices vary greatly, but a basic tomahawk can be had for relatively little money.

Tomahawk fighting is not yet a unified discipline in the way other martial arts have evolving schools of instruction. Generally, pockets of martial artists have adopted tomahawks into their skill sets, resulting in a wide variety of approaches to the weapon. Ultimately, the tomahawk is a fairly intuitive weapon that in the hands of a beginner can function at least as a blunt instrument an attacker has to avoid. Simply seeing a tomahawk in the hands of a person in a defensive posture can be enough to thwart an attack. That factor alone makes the tomahawk formidable. Nothing says “you are at least going to take one on the way in” like a raised tomahawk. Most opportunistic attackers will find themselves lacking commitment in such a situation.

As a bushcraft tool, the tomahawk is a practical piece of wilderness kit. Slightly longer and lighter than a hatchet, it’s still capable of removing branches, small limbs and splitting logs. The tomahawk’s shaft can be used as a lever or paired with cordage to function as a handle for a winch. Like any simple tool, modern designers have found ways to improve the grip, edge and head design.

All-Around Tool

Daniel Winkler, the designer and maker of the iconic knives and tomahawks for the 1992 film The Last of the Mohicans, views the tomahawk in this way.

“A proper tomahawk has to be designed to be used and carried. It is critical that the overall weight and weight distribution are correct. The weight should be in the head, where it’s supposed to be. When I look at a tomahawk, I am looking for the weight and balance, and the comfort and position of the hand on the handle relative to its use. I also want it to have a realistic carry system,” noted Winkler. “For a modern tomahawk, that means being able to carry it on your person or attach it to a pack. Otherwise, it’s likely to get left at home. It needs to be accessed easily but carried securely. I also, of course, look at the fit and finish, as that’s always a reflection of the maker.”

When asked how tomahawk designs have changed, Winkler offered this insight. “Traditional tomahawks were made with wooden handles and steel or iron heads. This made them balance beautifully. The only drawback is a tomahawk is only as strong as it weakest point, which on a traditional design is always where the handle meets the head. More modern tomahawks have a full tang (a solid piece of metal running through the handle to the head). On our ‘hawks, we both skeletonize and taper the tangs. This puts the weight in the head without sacrificing strength and rigidity. We also use 80CRV2 steel, which I have found to be the best all-around steel for the sort of tasks one typically uses a tomahawk for.”

In a nod to its fighting tradition and practical, functional features, the Army has issued its Stryker Brigade of the 2nd Infantry Division the VTAC (Vietnam Tactical Tomahawk) designed by Peter LaGana as part of a “modular entry tool set” within every Stryker vehicle. Previously, the VTAC was carried by select soldiers in Vietnam and are now sought-after collector’s pieces.

Whatever the intended purpose, whether historical appreciation, gathering firewood or fending off an attacker, the tomahawk’s simplicity and multi-functionality will surely ensure its legacy and evolution. Today, as in times past, the tomahawk is a very personal tool that makes a statement about its holder.

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This article was originally published in the AMERICAN FRONTIERSMAN ™ 2015 issue #174. Subscription is available in print and digital editions here.

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