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When it comes to bladed weapons, there are plenty of choices, each offering distinct advantages and uses. From concealed knives to hatchets, such melee weapons are only as effective as their wielder.

In this article, we discuss the viability of utilizing one versatile but uncommon bladed weapon as a self-defense implement: the one-handed axe known as the tomahawk.

History

The tomahawk was an extremely useful general-purpose tool used by Native American tribes. First created by the Algonquian Indians, it was also used as a weapon of war. The name “tomahawk” is found its way in to the English vocabulary and was an English bastardization of the Powhatan (Virginian Algonquian) Indian word “tamahaac”, whose root word was “temah”, which meant “to cut off by tool”. In the hands of a skilled Indian warrior, the tomahawk could serve as both effective hunting tool (when thrown at wild game) and as a close-quarters weapon.

European colonialists would also adopt the tomahawk for use as a tool and weapon; the British in particular made their own version of the tomahawk, and it featured a sturdy metal head based on boarding axes used by the Royal Navy. These early British tomahawks were popular among the Native Americans, and they would trade for them with food, fur and other items.

A Sioux tomahawk dated late 19th to early 20th century on display at the Brooklyn Museum. Note the round, hammer-like pipe bowl on the back of the tomahawk head
(En.Wikipedia.org/wiki/Tomahawk#/media/File:Tomahawk,_late_19th-early_20th_century,_26.802.jpg).

Upon casual inspection of the first native American-made tomahawks, you’d see that they were basically hatchets with longer, thinner shafts for handles and, on occasion, the back of the blade featured what appeared to be a hammer head. This wasn’t a hammer but actually a pipe bowl. Many Native Americans’ tomahawks actually doubled as tobacco pipes.

Since colonials first encountered Native Americans in the 17th century, the tomahawk became a widely-used tool among frontiersmen. The tomahawk, or “modernized” versions of it, even made its way into the kit of some soldiers in the Vietnam War, most notably the covert MACV-SOG (Military Assistance Command, Vietnam-Studies and Observations Group).

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Today the “Tactical Tomahawk” is now marketed by a variety of blade manufacturers such as SOG, American Tomahawk Company, Cold Steel, Gerber, CRKT, Benchmade and many others. These tactical tomahawks have since found their way to areas of operations in the Middle East and Afghanistan and will likely remain a part of U.S. soldiers’ kit in the decades to come, wherever they may be deployed.

A Vietnam War-era tactical tomahawk is a coveted collectible that can fetch hundreds of dollars at auction. This very design is the basis of many “modern” tactical tomahawks on the market today (CowanAuctions.com/lot/vietnam-tomahawk-from-the-estate-of-art-gerber-tell-city-indiana-3749829).

Tactical tomahawks like this one by SOG are now in the hands of a number of U.S. special ops teams. Apart from being used as a tool or close-quarters weapon, the tac ‘hawk can be a morale booster and recreational tool. Some U.S. Army bases conduct tomahawk-throwing contests, such as this competition at a forward base in Kandahar
(Upload.Wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/b/b7/U.S._Army_Spc._Kirk_Calabrese_with_Bravo_Company%2C_2nd_Battalion%2C_23rd_Infantry_Regiment_throws_a_tomahawk.jpg).

Learning the Moves

Since the tactical tomahawk has a shape that’s different from knives, it’s important to know how to wield it properly. There are at least four basic movements or strikes for the tactical tomahawk. The descriptions for each move are listed below, and you can refer to the embedded video below the list for further visual reference.

The Chop

This is the most obvious and most common way to handle and strike with a tomahawk. The handle or haft is held with a hammer grip at the end, maximizing both the length of the weapon and delivering the most power to the strike. While this is the simplest strike to execute, the chop should be used to deliver a lethal, finishing blow as this move usually results in the tomahawk’s head becoming embedded into your adversary.

“Chopping” at your opponent can become a high-risk move if you throw all your body weight into it and miss. To avoid missing your target, aim well and use the chop strike with full intent. With the chop, you bring the most force to bear on your strike and use most of the tomahawk’s blade or “beak”.

Talk about “burying the hatchet”. The “chop” entails gripping the tomahawk with a hammer-like grip at any point of the haft and embedding it into an opponent’s head or body. This is a high-risk, but potentially fatal blow so execute it with caution.
(KaliResearchAcademy.it/en/articoli/tomahawk-ascia-fighting/).

2. The Cut

Similar to the chop, the cut offers a more precise, slashing move. The main difference of the “cut” from the “chop” is that you grip the tomahawk at any point along the length of the handle, but with your thumb extended and “pushing” the weapon. Gripping the tomahawk in this way allows for more accurate strikes, and you can perform several follow-up cuts if you’re fast enough. This strike also enables you to avoid burying the blade into your opponent. By using the cut strike, you’ll mostly be using the upper part of the blade or beak of the tomahawk. The aim of the cut is to quickly inflict several long, shallow strikes that should discourage or “soften up” your opponent.

The “cut” with a tomahawk is a more precise strike that’s intended to make several fast, shallow cuts into your opponent. You do this by placing your thumb just behind the haft, then slash away (PersonalDefenseWorld.com/2013/07/krudo-khatchet/).

 

3. The Thrust

Much like a punch, the thrust is intended to inflict devastating blunt-force trauma to your adversary and keep them at bay, though if you hit your opponent with the blade “accidentally” that only adds to the strike’s effectiveness.

To do the thrust, you literally thrust the top of the tomahawk straight toward your opponent’s chest, chin, face or any part of their body within reach. You can grip the tomahawk at any point on the handle, with a hammer grip. Be sure to use this strike with the blade facing away from you or your opponent might “catch” the tomahawk and push the blade into you if you miss. Use the thrust strike if your opponent comes in close and you need to create some distance to get away or to set up for a cut or chop.

The “thrust” is literally thrusting the blunt head of the beak into your opponent’s chest, chin, neck or other body part that’s most accessible. Be sure to perform this move with the beak facing away from you. Although this is meant to create some distance between you and your opponent, “accidentally” cutting them with the beak can be a bonus with this move
(PersonalDefenseWorld.com/2013/07/krudo-khatchet/).

 

4. The Rake

Not many people are familiar with the rake, and it can be a devastating surprise strike. This move is best used when you have the tomahawk still in its sheath (whether on your belt to one side or on a chest rig), and your opponent is too close for comfort.

To do the rake, you grip the tomahawk handle, at the point right under the blade, and deploy the tomahawk with a “raking” action at your opponent with the top of the edge side of the head leading the way. At such close quarters, you will likely catch them in their chest or face, inflicting a jagged, painful and possibly gaping wound. Such a move will force them to back off, creating enough distance for you to either get away or adjust your grip to do the chop or cut.

Doing the rake entails gripping the ‘hawk right under the blade or beak, then “raking” the beak into your adversary with an upward-thrusting motion. Most people won’t expect this move, and you can follow up with a quick downward rake (PersonalDefenseWorld.com/2013/07/krudo-khatchet/).

For a demonstration of these basic moves, you can view this instructional video:

Honing the Hatchet: Advanced Moves

There are other more complicated moves that entail a lot of speed, timing and practice. You can hone these techniques by sparring with a partner, and of course using training weapons. Some advanced techniques using the tactical tomahawk include:

The Hook

The tactical tomahawk’s “following edge” or space right under the blade or beak of the weapon, can be used to “hook” an opponent’s arm or wrist, deflecting their weapon hand. Once you’ve “hooked” their wrist, you can follow through by forcefully pushing downward or outward, digging into their wrist or arm. This can lead to lacerating and disarming followed by cuts or a chop. You can also “hook” your opponent’s leg if your tomahawk has a long enough haft and your speed and timing are excellent. Don’t risk performing this move if you haven’t the speed, timing or haven’t done any practice.

The Hammer

Should you manage to get in really close to your opponent and trap their weapon arm in your free hand, you can use the bottom of the haft as an impact tool and “hammer” them on the head.

The Butt Stab

Some tactical tomahawks feature a sharp spike or knife-like protrusion on the back or “butt” of the blade. You can effectively use this to stab your opponent should the opportunity arise. Be mindful to never give your opponent the chance to use the butt against you.

Many commercially-available tac ‘hawks like this one from SOG have a spike-like “butt” behind the beak or blade. This can be used to stab at your opponent as well, given the right situation
(Amazon.com/SOG-Tomahawk-Tactical-Axe-Sheath/dp/B000PICTYC).

The Tactical Tomahawk as Personal Defense Weapon

The tomahawk is a battle-proven weapon that definitely deserves investigation if you’re looking for a personal defense weapon apart from the usual knife. It was used by both sides when America fought for its independence, during the Vietnam War, and is still used today.

Taking note of its storied history and its usefulness outside of combat, is the tactical tomahawk a weapon worth considering? For practicality’s sake, the answer skews towards “yes”. But like any weapon, the tactical tomahawk has its fair share of benefits and disadvantages. Use the following rundown of each to help you decide whether the tactical tomahawk is worthy of a spot in your arsenal.

The Pros

There are several reasons why you should have a tactical tomahawk as a personal defense tool.

  • Battle-proven. Native Americans, our pioneering forefathers and modern-day Special Forces teams swear by the effectiveness and handiness of the tactical tomahawk.
  • Large size. With a handle measuring 12 to 24 inches in length, the ‘hawk is not a blade you’ll end up losing.
  • Practicality and functionality. Apart from being a tool or weapon you can strike at opponents, it can be used to chop wood for making a fire or shelter, hammer tent stakes, quickly cut rope, pry crates, doors or windows open and other functions you wouldn’t normally have with “ordinary” blades.

The Gerber Downrange™ Tactical Tomahawk offers a number of different functions apart from its cutting capabilities; it has a pry bar on the bottom of the handle, and its hollowed-out blade creates a gripping surface to maximize the user’s prying power (GerberGear.com/Cutting-Tools/Axes/Downrange-Tomahawk_30-000792).

 

  • With enough practice, you can become skilled at throwing the ‘hawk and effectively kill small game animals.
  • Most tomahawks on the market are tough, reliable tools that don’t bend or break easily.
  • Greater reach. Unlike knives, tactical tomahawks often have longer handles and afford longer reach.
  • The tactical tomahawk has changed little from its 17th-century ancestors; it’s still easy to use.
  • The tactical tomahawk can lend itself to a variety of fighting techniques; it can slash, stab, pummel, trip and even be used to “control” opponents, as you’ll see in this short video:

  • Can be used in close quarters. If gripped right under the blade, the tactical tomahawk can be used effectively in close quarters and tight spaces.
  • Difficult to disarm. Due to its long handle, your tomahawk-wielding hand will be very difficult for your opponent to reach, especially if he’s using a knife.
  • Low cost. There are many tactical tomahawks that can go for as little as $40.
  • Very forgiving. Though there are a couple of martial arts that use tomahawks (such as the Filipino art of Kali and Native American Okichitaw), you don’t have to have a black belt in either of them to wield a tactical tomahawk.
  • Low learning curve. With some practice, you can become good enough to execute the basic moves or strikes.
  • A knife-wielder or unarmed adversary will think twice about facing a tomahawk-wielding opponent.

The Cons

The tactical tomahawk, like most other bladed weapons, isn’t a “be-all end-all” tool or self-defense weapon, no matter how many add-ons or improvements manufacturers have placed on them. Before you decide on a tac ‘hawk, you must consider its drawbacks:

  • Difficult to conceal. Unless you choose the smallest tactical tomahawk, you won’t be able to carry it concealed; even the smallest one may not fit in your pocket or even inside a bag. Due to its size and irregular shape, the tac ‘hawk doesn’t lend itself to carry options other than on a sheath attached to your belt or chest rig.
  • If you choose to learn more advanced techniques, you’ll have to put in the hours of practice and need to develop speed and perfect timing. Being reasonably good at throwing the tactical tomahawk also requires a lot of practice.
  • Limited techniques. There aren’t that many strikes or techniques you can perform with a tactical tomahawk. For those looking for a no-nonsense weapon this could be an advantage, but sticking to basic moves can make you an easier target for opponents who have greater proficiency with other weapons.
  • Some tactical tomahawks or custom ‘hawks can come at a hefty price, some are priced upwards of $200.
  • Limited effectiveness in close quarters. While the ‘hawk can be used up close, it’s really designed to be effective when you have some distance from your opponent.
  • Apart from being able to deliver powerful strikes, you have to be reasonably quick and have good timing to use this weapon effectively.
  • Even if you aim to use the blunt surfaces on your opponent, it’s more likely you’ll end up seriously cutting or even killing your opponent. This weapon isn’t for those unprepared for the potential consequences.

Final Notes

Like the push knife and other weapons we’ve discussed in American Survival Guide, the tactical tomahawk can be a self-defense tool worth considering, if you put in the time to learn how to deploy, handle and use it effectively. Remember that this is an extremely dangerous weapon and your intention to use it should go only as far as a means of self-defense; never use it aggressively unless placed in a real life-or-death situation.

Don’t be content with just knowing and performing the basic strikes, as other practitioners have likely studied how to counter them. Choose the tomahawk that has the optimum price, handle length, functionality and weight with which you’re most comfortable. Do your research, and spar with a partner to hone your skill, improve your timing and increase your speed. If you want to expand your tac ‘hawk bag of tricks, look for a martial arts dojo that offers training in this weapon.