history of the tomahawk

History and Origins of the Tomahawk

It’s simple to assume that the origins of the tomahawk lie with Native Americans, but stone axes, many of which resemble tomahawks much more than they do modern axes, have been used as far back as 35,000 years ago.

The first of these were simple hand axes that people would have created from stones that could be knapped, ground, or pecked to shape. Knapping is the process of fracturing particular stones such as flint, chert, jasper, and obsidian, which fracture in a conchoidal fashion and can be shaped predictably. You can grind a softer stone such as shale to shape, but axes and tools made of these materials are far less resistant to impact and do not produce the same sort of razor-sharp edges as knapped tools can.

Pecking is a method of shaping harder stone such as the greenstone axes and adzes of the Mauri people, where a small pointed chisel stone can be used to repeatedly peck at and eventually shape a piece of stone. Once roughly shaped, these can then be polished to a sharp edge.

A Stone Age hand axe by José-Manuel Benito Álvarez (España)

The earliest axes would have been made from fractured rocks to create a sharp edge and rough chopping tools. As stone-age technology advanced, beautifully knapped ax blades appeared that would have been gripped in hand and used for chopping and cutting, almost like an oversized knife. These wouldn’t have had any helve or handle and would have just been held in hand. Later came ax blades with handles. These Stone Age tools were often known as celts. Rather than the handle being secured to the cutting head through an eye, Stone Age hafted axes or celts had the head secured into a hole in the handle.

Stone Celt Heads

Since the wooden parts of these tools haven’t survived, some assumptions are made about the appearance of these tools and exactly how they would have been made. However, what is beyond dispute is that the relatively long, narrow heads are quite similar to a traditional tomahawk.

Native American Tomahawks

So while we can trace the rough shape of modern tomahawks back to Stone Age tools, it is the Native Americans that made the tools famous and gave us the roots of the word tomahawk. It comes from the Powhatan word ‘tamahaac’. It was the Powhatan tribe that was first contacted by settlers at Jamestown, Virginia.

The influence of the modern word tomahawk can also be seen in words from other tribal languages, including; Lenape ‘təmahikan’, Malecite-Passamaquoddy ‘tomhikon’, and Abenaki ‘demahigan’, all these words mean ax, and the similarity with the modern word is clear.

Before contact by European settlers, though, Native Americans had no metal-making technology, and their tomahawks would have featured blades of stone, bone, or antler. When they were contacted by Europeans, though, and were made aware of the superior performance of metal tools compared to their traditional materials, metal knives and axes soon became valuable trade goods, and the tomahawk we recognize today was born.

Originally patterned after the British Royal Navy’s boarding axes, early metal tomahawk heads became popular and originally featured a straight or slightly curved cutting head with a chisel-shaped spike on the poll. Over time multiple variations on this theme emerged, and the design evolved to the classic style tomahawk familiar to fans of western movies today.

Tomahawks Used by Special Forces

Just as explorers found that they needed to adopt traditional first nation skills, so did those fighting on the frontiers, such as the famed Rogers Rangers. The modern Army Ranger is recognized as one of the earliest ‘Special Forces’.

Rogers Rangers with Tomahawks
Figure 6; Rogers Rangers in their green uniforms carrying tomahawks; Army Artist Team XXII

Rogers Rangers was formed in 1755, the latest in a long line of New England ranger companies that had been active since the 1670s. Rogers Rangers and its precursor Gorham’s Rangers, established 1744, were both active throughout the French and Indian Wars and were both originally established by William Shirley, a British Administrator and Governor of Massachusetts, who in the face of mounting tensions between the British, French, and Indians in the region established several volunteer militia companies including these and other ranger companies.

Of all of them and their predecessors, Rogers Rangers were the most famous, and Rogers himself first codified what has become known as the ‘rules of ranging.’ These rules have stood the test of time and adapted to modern-day warfare and are still issued to and followed by ranger recruits today.

The first of these 28 rules or standing orders state that;

All Rangers are to be subject to the rules and articles of war; to appear at roll-call every evening, on their own parade, equipped, each with a Firelock, sixty rounds of powder and ball, and a hatchet, at which time an officer from each company is to inspect the same, to see they are in order, so as to be ready on any emergency to march at a minute’s warning; and before they are dismissed, the necessary guards are to be draughted, and scouts for the next day appointed.

While the word used in the orders is “hatchet,” it is clear from the period that this tool/weapon would have been a tomahawk. Not only was this a vital weapon for the Rangers, but as they were generally employed in irregular warfare and were often tasked with long-range reconnaissance missions and surgical strikes behind enemy lines requiring them to be away from support, resupply, and any assistance from their own forces for extended periods these would have been essential tools for survival and existence in the wilderness of New England and Canada.

These exploits made the rangers so famous, particularly the St. Francis Raid when Rogers led the rangers deep into enemy territory by whaleboat and on foot before escaping back to British Lines. Throughout the exploits of the rangers, the tomahawk would have been a vital tool of survival and a valuable weapon for close quarters, hand-to-hand fighting.

The Frontier

One of the most famous mountain men of all time; Jim Bridger

Since the adoption of the metal-bladed tomahawk, they would have seen constant use across the frontier by soldiers, Indians, pioneers, and of course, by the mountain men. For the mountain men, they would have been essential tools of backwoods living as well as a useful last-ditch weapon for self-defense.

Modern Tactical Tomahawks

The popularity of tomahawks has never completely died out, but it has waxed and waned depending on the specific needs of the time. From a combat perspective, there was quite a time between the frontier and the Vietnam War when tactical tomahawks were not widely used in combat roles.

During the conflict in Vietnam through a precedent was set for the use of tomahawks, and some were specifically made for use by combat and support personnel by The American Tomahawk Company. These Tomahawks were made and designed by World War II Marine veteran Peter LaGana and featured a stout wooden handle and a ‘spike hawk’ style head with a cutting blade and a sturdy spike at the rear. Between 1966 and 1970, they sold about 4000 of these tools to soldiers before LaGana closed the company.

Reports during the Vietnam War record that tomahawks were used in combat as a close quarter’s weapon to clear helicopter landing areas and smash through the huts’ walls where troops feared that the doors were booby-trapped.

In 2001 with the permission of LaGana, professional knife and tomahawk thrower Andy Prisco re-opened the American Tomahawk Company. They started producing an updated Vietnam tomahawk with the same style head but a modern synthetic handle. Since the re-establishment of the American Tomahawk Company, they now also offer two other tomahawks, the first designed in collaboration with knifemaker Ernest Emerson and the second a modern interpretation of the Lewis and Clarke Spontoon Tomahawk designed with knife maker Shane Sibert.

VTAC Tactical Tomahawk
VTAC Tomahawk

The Vietnam-style tomahawk known nowadays as the LaGana tactical tomahawk or ‘VTAC’ is not only available for the private individual to purchase but is also in use by the US Army; the 172nd Stryker Brigade Combat Team based at Grafenwoehr, Germany uses them. Each of the Brigades Stryker armored vehicles includes a VTAC as part of its “Modular Entry Toolset” since the Rapid Fielding Initiative, a program designed to get useful kit into the hands of operational troops as quickly as possibly found the design and function of the tool had merit for combat, rescue and extraction purposes.

Other units using the VTAC include the 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division based at Fort Lewis, a Recognisance Platoon in the 2-183d Cavalry, and is also used by numerous other soldiers who choose to purchase it privately. The VTAC tomahawk has been issued the National Stock Number 4210-01-518-7244 and is classified as a piece of rescue equipment with the typical military sounding designation of; “Class 9 rescue kit”.  

While the American Tomahawk Company has cornered the military market for tomahawks, dozens of other companies produce functional tomahawks for backwoods and tactical applications.

Modern tomahawks have also departed somewhat from the original designs both in terms of the materials used in their construction and the construction method. Although some companies such as Cold Steel, Flagrant Beard Tomahawks, and Columbia River Knife and Tool do still make traditional wooden handled tomahawks with heads shaped according to traditional patterns, many other manufacturers take advantage of modern materials and improved steel to create one piece tomahawks with a continuous tang extending from the handle, much like a full tang knife, this handle is then sandwiched between pieces of suitable handle material such as G10.

Geoff Guy

Geoff has a background as a professional game and deer manager. He has put his years of experience to good use and now lectures at Hartpury College, one of the UK’s leading providers of land-based education.

He specializes in training game and wildlife managers who will work in professional game management, conservation, and other outdoor professions. He's been teaching at colleges for eight years and, in that time, has worked at some of the most prestigious land-based colleges in Britain.

Join the discussion