The tomahawk is most easily recognized as the preferred multi-tool and sidearm of the American frontier in 17th century. It has been showcased films like The Last of the Mohicans and The Patriot. Its common name comes from the Powhatan word tamahaac, which means “to cut off by tool.”
The original Powhatan weapons were crude stone axes. They were were quickly upgraded once metal axe heads were available for trade. (Native Americans had not yet mastered metallurgy.) The earliest American examples are those modeled after royal boarding axes, but the tomahawk design boasts a much longer and complex history.
Back In Time
Metal axes resembling what we recognize today as tomahawks probably originated during the Copper and Bronze Ages. A great example of a copper axe resembling a tomahawk was found with “Ötzi the Iceman.” Ötzi presumably lived around 3,300 B.C. and was found preserved as an ice mummy in the Otzal Alps between Austria and Italy.
As humanity moved forward into the Iron Age, the well-proven tomahawk design saw very little change. Instead, they were being made from improved raw materials. The tool was embraced by the Celtic and Germanic people of Europe. The typical Viking axe was not very different from the tomahawk. Several examples were found in England dating back to the Anglo-Saxon period. In ancient Hispania, these tools were referred to as franciscas (or francescas), after the Franks. It was their national weapon during the time of the Merovingians. It even saw use during the reign of Charlemagne.
Tomahawk in America
The tomahawk made its way to the Americas in the form of a naval boarding axe. It was embraced by colonists and natives alike on the American frontier. Unlike its heavier and more specialized cousin, the hatchet, the tomahawk was a better choice for those who needed to travel light. The straight handle could easily be fashioned out of any suitable wood found along the way. It was simple to replace should it break. The head was much lighter than a typical hatchet’s.
The ease of carry and high-utility value is likely what prompted Peter LaGana to found his American Tomahawk Company and start producing tomahawks for the American military. The so-called Vietnam Tomahawk had the traditional bit. It also had a spike on the opposite side, increasing its versatility and usefulness by now adding trench building and breaching to its already impressive list of uses. It was similar in appearance to the ancient Roman dolabra or pickaxe, which served the same functions for ancient legionnaires as the tomahawk did for frontier folk.
The tactical tomahawk remains a favorite among American military and police personnel. Along with being a powerful close-quarters weapon, it’s also a useful breaching and extraction tool. Despite some improvements in materials and manufacturing methods, the overall tomahawk design has changed little through the centuries.
So it stands to reason that fighting methods using this weapon haven’t changed much either, since we haven’t evolved or changed much since the last Ice Age. Historically, axes saw much more use on the battlefield up until the time of the Romans simply because most people couldn’t afford swords. Many of the so-called barbarians ultimately conquered by the Romans were not professional soldiers in the sense that the Romans were—many had other jobs, such as farming, and came together as warrior bands when needed, very much like Native Americans.
The first and most obvious advantage of the tomahawk is that it’s light enough to be wielded with one hand, so your other hand can hold another weapon or a shield. On ancient European battlefields, axes backed up by shields were an even match for adversaries carrying swords and shields. For the Native Americans, whose raids depended on speed and surprise, shields would have been a burden. Instead, they often paired their tomahawks with knives, or used them to back up their lances.
The Franks were known to carry swords, shields and axes. To them, the axe was a backup weapon. More often it was used as a projectile to damage their opponents’ shields and break up formations prior to making contact.
Regardless of whether the tomahawk was used alone or with another weapon, tomahawks created advantages. A tomahawk can cut very well, but its biggest advantage is its percussive ability. While massive trauma can be deadly, it can take a long time. Instead, a heavy blow to the head—even when the head is protected by a helmet—often knocked an enemy unconscious. At the very least, it might stun, allowing for deadlier follow-up blows afterward.
The heavier top end of the tomahawk also allows for effective parrying and blocking when a shield is not available. Another defensive option for someone wielding a tomahawk is to hold it by both ends, since it’s basically a stick with a metal blade at one end. This allows for very effective defensive and counter-offensive skills up close.
Another unique attribute of the tomahawk as a weapon is the 90-degree angle formed where the head meets the shaft, which creates an effective hook. It can be used to drag down an opponent’s weapon when blocking, creating openings for deadly follow-ups. It can also be used for hooking an opponent. The neck, shoulders and legs are good targets for this tactic. When two tomahawk-wielding opponents come up against each other, the moment the axe heads meet, the quicker-thinking opponent can bind the opponent’s tomahawk by violently twisting his own. This creates an opportunity for a quick follow-up attack, or can even disarm the opponent if he is caught off guard.
When these techniques are paired with other weapons, such as knives, the tomahawk’s utility grows exponentially. Think of trapping your opponent’s weapon with your tomahawk while simultaneously attacking him with your knife. The opposite can also be quite effective: Drawing his defensive response with your knife to create an opening with your tomahawk. In extreme cases, pairing weapons allows you to throw one and still be armed. If the attempt was successful, perhaps you can retrieve your tomahawk later.
Off The Battlefield
OK, these are battlefield techniques, but tomahawks were often the tool of choice for self-defense. They were most often carried on the waist, and techniques to quickly draw them and bring them to bear were a part of any self-respecting man of the period’s skillsets.
Another important advantage of the tomahawk pertinent to self-defense is that you can choke up on it, allowing its use in narrower spaces, whereas longer weapons would be cumbersome. Think of swinging a sword in a small room—not easy.
While tomahawks are powerful weapons, they’re also among the best multi-use tools in the field. They’re excellent for processing firewood and food, carving and starting a fire when scraped with a flint. In fact, they were so valuable back in the day that their owners often customized and adorned them in reverence.
Consider keeping one handy next time you’re adventuring in the woods—you won’t be disappointed. There are good reasons why we see tomahawks in use today, with woodsmen and reenactors to emergency service workers and the military. Try one and maybe you’ll fall in love with the tomahawk the way I have.
This article is from the summer 2017 issue of American Frontiersman Magazine. Grab your copy at OutdoorGroupStore.com.
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