Tomahawks for Survival



September 7, 2016,
By John Hertig:

What is a "tomahawk"? Any fan of Westerns has a pretty good idea. It is essentially a hatchet or short ax, which is a tool which can be used as a weapon. The tomahawk, or "hawk", is a weapon which can be used as a tool. Both functions have applications for survival.

The tomahawk usually has a head which is smaller and lighter than that of a hatchet, and a longer, straight shaft. This can make the hawk lighter and easier to carry, at the cost of some durability. The sharpened blade is often more curved, allowing offensive use of the ends of that edge. The back of the head can be rounded (of limited use), flat (for hammering), a hammerhead (for hammering and combat use) or a spike (for puncturing and combat use). There is also the concept of the "pipe" hawk, where the back of the head is a bowl and a hole is bored through the shaft to allow one to smoke the hawk like a pipe; the infamous "peace pipe". It is an interesting dichotomy: "Peace" on the back and "war" on the front. I've seen at least one dual bladed "hawk", although I can't think of many advantages of this. It might be better for throwing, but I'd go for a hammerhead or spike as being more versatile and easier to carry.


Tomahawk or Hatchet?
For chopping wood, the hatchet might be a bit better. The straighter edge is easier to use, and they often have a more ergonomic handle. The thicker, heavier head gives a bit more bite, and more
Hatchet (bottom left) and Tomahawk (upper right)
durability. With care, the tomahawk can chop well, and the longer shaft can somewhat compensate for the lighter head. On the other hand, the hawk is significantly better for fighting. The curved edge provides more ways to inflict damage, the back of the head can be optimized for combat, the lighter weight makes it more nimble and the longer shaft gives you more range. Plus, the tomahawk is designed to be thrown, although throwing your hawk during a survival situation is usually not a good idea. You could lose your hawk, or if in a fight, disarm yourself and arm your opponent in one move.


Is There a Tomahawk Based Martial Art?
It would be handy if you could open the Yellow Pages (yes, I know I'm dating myself) and find a local Tomahawk school. This is probably not the case. As far as I know, there is no Tomahawk-specific style, although tomahawk throwing is a popular sport, often a part of "mountain man" competitions. Okichitaw is a martial art based on the fighting techniques of the Plains Cree First Nations, and although the main weapons taught are war club and knife, it does also include tomahawk as well as lance training. A bit easier to find might be the Philippine art of Escrima (also known as Kali or Arnis), which sometimes uses the tomahawk as an "improvised weapon".

If you have martial arts training, you can probably adapt it to the hawk. When training, make sure you do NOT use a "real" hawk, but a rubber, plastic or wooden training version, or at the very least, put a strong cover over any sharp edge or point.


Basic Tomahawk Grips
The standard tomahawk has a straight, flat-sided or oval shaft. The best grip for power and security is the "hammer" grip. The hawk can be held at the far end of the shaft for power, or right up at the head for precision, or anywhere in between. If more control is needed, the Filipino grip can be used. The reverse grip can also be used if desired, although this is non-standard.

Theoretically, you have two "sides" to your hawk head. Due to the flat sides or oval cross section of the shaft, it is fairly easy to "index" the shaft in your hand, so that the striking surface is in line with the path of motion. Furthermore, with practice, you can use your thumb to spin the shaft 180 degrees to quickly access either side of the hawk as needed.

To move the hawk from hand to hand, it is best to get a good grip with the new hand before releasing the previous hand. Thumb to little finger will leave the hawk in the same orientation in the new hand, although at a different position along the shaft. Thumb to Thumb or Little Finger to Little finger will reverse the grip. If you want to move the position along the shaft with one hand, you can use gravity to allow the shaft to slip through your hand to the new position, or in the case of moving to the butt end, push it against your leg.


Basic Tomahawk Strikes
Not including throwing, there are five standard tomahawk strikes. The first is the chop (or puncture or smash using the back of the head). This is very powerful and effective chop but is risky against an unimpaired opponent; as it leaves you open to counter attack. As a less powerful but safer version of this strike, you can hold the hawk at the head end, and "punch" with it. Another useful strike is the slice, where a downward movement with the forward tip of the edge can make shallow cuts. The third strike is movement in the reverse direction with the same part of the edge resulting in a "rip" effect. If you have a spike or other sharpened back end of the head, be careful you don't hit yourself with it using this strike. Thrusting with the end of the head (impact only) or the forward point of the edge (a slight stab) is the fourth strike. And finally, the back tip of the edge of the blade allows a "hook" strike or even a capture movement.

Wildly swinging should be avoided; it may appear impressive, but at the end of each stroke, you are wide open for counter attack. It is better to usually keep the head of the hawk between you and your opponent.


Where Can You Get a Tomahawk?
A quick look through Amazon shows that models are available from SOG, CRKT (Columbia River Knife and Tool), Cold Steel, Kershaw, United Cutlery, Camillus, Estwing (famous hammer maker) and other brands I've never heard of. And then there are specialists, such as American Tomahawk Company and RMJ Tactical. I tried a Cold Steel Trench Hawk; it has a length and head design I like, a very nice, non-wood shaft which can be easily be replaced (some people claim it does break), and there is a nice training version available with identical dimensions. Their War Hawk also looks good, but they don't seem to have a training version yet. A typical length for hawks seems to be about 22 inches, although shorter ones and probably longer ones are available.

Prices vary wildly. You can find them for $20 or so. Cold Steel prices are in the $40 to $80 range, and can usually be found cheaper on eBay or Amazon, up to nearly half off. Hawks from American Tomahawk or RMJ Tactical are over $100, sometimes $400 or even more.


Carrying a Tomahawk
The hawk has a sharp edge, and perhaps a sharp point. When not in use, these must be covered to prevent damage to you and your equipment. This can be a cover if the hawk is in your pack or lashed
to your equipment. Although safe and secure, it is not quick to access. If this is a primary defensive weapon, a readily available and easily opened sheath is superior. Some hawks come with or have available covers or sheaths, which may or may not be fast access. If the commercial sheath is not available or inadequate, custom made Kydex ones may be available, but they can cost as much as the hawk itself.


Conclusion
As a weapon, the tomahawk can be better than a knife, with the addition of some wood chopping capability, often along with hammering or puncturing functions. Of course, in many cases, a firearm can be the better choice for defense, but has much higher cost, a requirement for ammunition supply, a need for more secure storage, and the potential for legal problems or even confiscation. Thus, in my opinion, it is worth getting and learning to use a tomahawk, as a fallback option if nothing else.



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