Tomahawks are iconic of the conflicts between Native American’s and settlers on the North American frontiers. But while it might be interesting to see these artefacts in museums and in movies there are also plenty of modern day uses of tomahawks and their history isn’t quite what you might expect.
Choosing your Tomahawk
You can read about the history of your tomahawk and what it can be used for at the bottom of this article. You can select from some of the very best on the market which will suit your needs best. These products come from a range of manufacturers all known for their quality tools and outdoor or tactical equipment, some follow a more traditional pattern and might be less attractive to someone looking for a tool for tactical or combat work but there will be something here for everyone.
These fantastic tomahawks from Cold Steel are drop forged from 1055 Carbon steel. Drop forging is a popular method of manufacture for axes and tomahawks and involves pressing the head into shape using dies and air hammers. The steel is eventually, through the use of progressively smaller dies, kneaded and compressed into a completely homogeneous single mass with a very fine grain structure and no gas pockets or imperfections making for a very strong high quality tomahawk. These products from cold steel are deferentially heat treated with the blade edge and face of the hammer poll hardened fully while the eye and the rest of the head are softer to avoid breaking and chipping or cracking under stress. This is the reason though that you shouldn’t strike the poll of the tomahawk to use it as a wedge, this kind of abuse can deform the softer eye of the tomahawk.
The 22 inch hickory handle provides plenty of chopping power and will be robust enough for any backwoods job you might require of it. The cutting edge itself is 2 and a quarter inches and an overall weight of just 1.34 lbs means that you will hardly feel this in you pack. You may need to find an aftermarket sheath or case for it or make one yourself as it doesn’t come with any kind of mask for the blade which is essential if you are going to safely carry it on your person or in your pack.
As cold steel are so well known for their marketing videos you can have a look here to get an idea of just how versatile and robust this tool, as well as some of their other tomahawks and axes;
Available at: Amazon
Columbia River Knife and Tool produced this in tomahawk in partnership with Ryan Johnson of RMJ Tactical in Chattanooga, Tennessee and it is modeled closely after the classic trade tomahawks used for trade and barter on the frontier during the 18th century. Carried by Native Americans and frontiersmen alike similar tools would have been used by the Rogers Rangers and other soldiers as well. Just like the offering from Cold Steel this product from CRKT is made from 1055 carbon steel but doesn’t feature any sort of hammer on the poll. This isn’t necessarily a huge disadvantage as the flat of the head can be used for light hammering tasks and using your tomahawk it would be relatively straightforward to make a simple mallet.
The Tennessee hickory handle is comfortable in the hand and sealed with a lacquer coating that keeps the water out and adds to the tomahawks durability as well as improving its appearance. It doesn’t come with any kind of sheath although a fitted leather case is available to be purchased separately.
It comes with a Limited Lifetime Warranty just like all CRKT products which covers any defects in materials or workmanship. The warranty guarantees to replace or repair the product if it fails due to a fault in manufacturing or material and as long as you are the original purchaser the warranty will cover you for as long as you own the tool. If you do misuse or modify the tomahawk though the warranty won’t cover you.
Available at: Amazon
This offering by SOG is based closely on the original Vietnam Tomahawk and features a 15.75 inch nylon handle but is a sort of half-way house between a traditional tomahawk and a modern full tang tomahawk. A potential problem though is that this tomahawk doesn’t have a full tang so the head may become loose after lots of hard use and especially after the shock of repeated throwing, something that this sort of tactical tomahawk are reputed to be good for. SOG products are made to a high standard though so you can expect to get great results from this tool even if the design isn’t quite as robust as traditional or full tang tomahawks.
The head made from 420 stainless steel should be fairly resistant to rust as well as providing a good, high performance cutting edge for everything you need it for in the woods or for combat and rescue tasks. The 2.75 inch cutting blade edge and piercing spike on the back of the head are perfect for the breaching and rescue role and it features a chequered panel on the side of the head that can be used as a hammering surface. At 24 ounces its lightweight materials pay off and make it very portable.
Unlike the previous two products this does come with a sheath for ease of carry and safety. The warranty offered by SOG will also cover repairs or replacement as long as you properly maintain your tomahawk.
This isn’t just a tomahawk; as well as the cutting blade it features a hammer head and a pry bar, the 420 steel will resist rust and the premium cerakote adds an extra degree of rust protection without being cheap or tacky like some of the lower cost coatings. It also won’t flake or chip even under the most abusive use like cheaper coatings might.
The MOLLE compatible sheath allows you to easily mount the downrange on your webbing or pack for ease of access at a moment’s notice, it’s also possible to draw the downrange from it’s sheath while keeping the kydex blade protector attached so you can make use of the handle cutout for leverage when using the pry bar without exposing the blade and potentially injuring youself in the heat of the moment or if you slip. If we needed another clue than the name ‘downrange’ that MOLLE compatibility straight away tells us that this is a tool aimed at the military and the drab G10 handle and glare free cerakote will reduce the visibility of this tool for all your tactical needs.
The downrange certainly isn’t a traditional tomahawk and is designed specifically for tactical breaching and rescue tasks. It is capable of chopping through drywall, doors and other obstacles and the pry bar and hammer will defeat most locks, hinges and locks.
The 19.27 inch handle gives you plenty of leverage for the pry bar and when swinging the downrange and at 1.9 lbs it is still light weight and fast should it come to close quarters combat.
A classic looking tomahawk in the style of the classic trade hawk it features a hammer poll as well as a bearded cutting edge. Made by Condor a cutlers with a fine pedigree and long history of creating quality knives and tools at very affordable prices you will be getting a good product with this tomahawk. Although you need to be aware that sometimes the edge geometry on Condor products can be a bit inconsistent and has spoiled some otherwise very good knives of theirs that I have tested in the past but their axes and tomahawks are very good.
The bearded style of the blade adds weight to the swing while keeping the tool light weight and adding a bit of additional cutting edge, at 3 inches, when compared to some other models featured here which have cutting edges of around the 2.75 inch mark. These small cutting edges might be great for tactical tools as they make the tools better for piercing in a combat role or for smashing and chopping through obstacles, but for backwoods use, as this one is clearly designed for, the slightly longer cutting edge makes this better for cutting, splitting and other survival tasks. It features a strong 19 inch hickory handle and the blade is of 1060 carbon steel hardened to between 50 and 55 rockwell.
Available at: Amazon
Another tomahawk which features a head modelled after the classic Vietnam era tomahawk, a three inch cutting edge and stout spike make this a useful combat and rescue tool but the moulded handle may be a drawback for some. Additionally the shiny blue finish and blue plastic handle don’t make this all that discreet and may be a drawback. It does come with a sheath and may appeal to some as a camping or outdoors tool.
At 16.2 inches long it’s a little shorter than some of the other Tomahawks here, more in the region of your average claw hammer in size, it is made from a single piece of USA made 1055 steel and has a three inch cutting edge. The spring temper it has been hardened to should mean that this tool is next to impossible to break.
This is definitely a tomahawk designed with combat and tactical applications in mind, it is very compact and features subdued coloured coatings and handles and a vicious spike for breaching and prying as well as a knurled butt at the end of the full tang which could be used for hammering and crushing. It features a blade of D2 steel which might be considered a drawback by some as at higher rockwell hardnesses D2 can be prone to chipping but this is hardened to between 50 and 55 rockwell making it perfect for the applications it is clearly designed for. While the compact size of the tomahawk won’t allow you to swing it with the same power as some of the larger models featured here it will still be very functional and the MOLLE compatible kydex sheath will allow you to easily attach it to your personal kit wherever you need it most.
At almost $400 though this is an expensive piece of equipment even when you consider the quality of its components, materials and workmanship.
8. TOPS Hacket
A slightly strange looking tool and perhaps by some standards not truly a tomahawk but is does feature a tomahawk blade that can be interchanged with a straight harpoon or spear style blade. The Hacket features a tubular metal handle with a paracord wrap and interchangeable blade fittings including a tomahawk style axe blade with a knife blade positioned as if it were a spike or hammer on a more traditional tomahawk. As it’s such an unusual tools it’s worth having a closer look at how it works in this video from well-known YouTube gear review Mr Leonidas.
This tool lacks any hammer surface for striking and with its ability to be so easily dismantled I would worry about whether it is robust enough for rough prying and breaching. As a general outdoors tool though it has merit as a chopping, cutting and hunting tool not to mention its merits for last ditch self-defence or even hunting in a survival situation. TOPS do make some more classic styled tomahawks and axes such as the hammer hawk as well as other models but this one is so unusual and versatile that is worth a special mention.
The blades are of 1095 high carbon steel, as are most of TOPS blades and are of the very highest quality and workmanship. With TOPS you get a handmade product
Another design based on the Vietnam tomahawk but with a polypropylene handle, the head is secured to this by a partial tang which may mean it isn’t the strongest of tools but it certainly features a great quality head of 1055 steel as do all of the cold steel axes and tomahawks.
Designed to excel at throwing as well as for hand to hand combat and defence this tool could also be pressed to backwoods survival tasks. It features a 19 inch handle and the head is eight and three quarter inches from the tip of the spike to the cutting edge. The head features quite a heavy beard giving it quite a large cutting edge, of three and a half inches, compared to some other tomahawks.
While the partial tang doesn’t always inspire confidence cold steel products are built to such high tolerances and are tested so vigorously and thoroughly there is no need to worry about this tool being fragile. It will put up to all sorts of abuse and replacement handles can be had cheaply or even improvised if need be.
10. Kangee Hawk
Another collaboration between CRKT and designer Ryan Johnson of RMJ Tactical in Chattanooga, TN. Ryan has been honing his tactical tomahawk designs for 30 years or more and his products have a wide fan base and following especially among soldiers. This particular model is crafted from a single piece of SK5 high carbon steel and is 13.75 inches overall, making it one of the more compact products on this list.
It features a cutting edge that not only gives it utility as an axe but which runs across the top edge of the tomahawks head and can be used for working wood and other back woods tasks as well as giving you another sharp edge to use in combat situations and to help it stick at whatever angle it strikes the target if you throw it. Its full tang won’t be susceptible to any sort of wobble like some other products which only feature a partial tang.
It has full length handles, shaped perfectly to fit the hand, in fact they are somewhat similar to some of the very specialist ice axes for competition climbing which feature handles which maximise the efficiency of the axes. The handles are incredibly comfortable and secure and can be removed fully to allow the tool to be cleaned which is especially important if you are using it in the outdoors for long periods of time.
A MOLLE compatible Kydex sheath secures the head and keeps you and the rest of your kit safe from the cutting edges while you are carrying it or while it is stowed amongst your kit.
The Difference between Axe and Tomahawk
It’s very easy to assume that a tomahawk is just another style of axe but actually they are very different in their construction and also perform very different tasks, although each can be pressed to tasks that the other excels at.
First we need to clear up a few key differences between axes and tomahawks and get to grips with the terminology that relates to each.
The head of an axe is secured onto the helve with a wedge, the helve is driven into the eye of the head and the wedge driven into a slot sawn into the top of the helve. As this wedge is driven in the cut is wedged apart and the pressure of the handle on the inside of the eye holds the axe head securely in place. In contrast a traditional tomahawk head slots over the bottom of the handle, from the knob end if it were an axe, and slides to the top of the handle much like the head of a pickaxe. For this reason a tomahawk handle is straight and doesn’t have any of the ergonomic shape of an axe handle, it is slightly fatter at the top though so the head becomes wedged in place. This does mean that a traditional tomahawk can be easily dismantled for transport and handles are much easier to fabricate in the wilderness than an axe handle.
It should be noted that modern tactical style tomahawks often have synthetic handles with heads secured with screws or bolts to a head that has a tang running into the handle, in a similar way to a full tang knife, rather than in the traditional style.
As well as distinctly different methods of attaching head to handle the heads of an axe and tomahawk are distinctly different in other ways. Tomahawks tend to have heads with smaller cutting edges and while they do vary a lot in individual design will normally have relatively thin blades when measured from cheek to cheek across the width of the head. Compared to the thicker axe blades this makes tomahawks poor performers when it comes to splitting, just the same as a hatchet or forest axe is a poor splitter compared to a dedicated splitting maul as the thinner blade offers much less leverage and splitting power as it is forced into the grain of a piece of wood. This thinner head does make them lighter though and superior for some chopping tasks.
The poll of an axe can be a useful pounding or striking tool and very few axes feature anything other than a squared poll, some specialist hunting axes do have rounded polls for beating heavy hides off of animals but generally axe polls will be square. Tomahawks on the other hand have a range of polls; the simplest are just a rounded eye, others will have a pronounced hammer head, others a spike or even a pipe bowl for ceremonial or decorative purposes.
With these differences clearly understood its worth considering the history of the tomahawk and the original uses of these tools and weapons before we consider the best modern tomahawks on the market.
History and origins
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 very first of these were simple hand axes which would have been created from stones which 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 chonchoidal fashion and can therefore be shaped predictably. Softer stone such as shale can be ground 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.The very earliest axes would have been made form rocks which were fractured to create a sharp edge and used as rough chopping tools, later as stone age technology advanced beautifully knapped axe blades appeared that would have been gripped in the hand and used for chopping and cutting, almost like an oversized knife. Theses wouldn’t have had any kind of helve or handle and would have just been held in the hand. Later came axe 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. Since the wooden parts of these tools haven’t survived though some assumptions are made as to the appearance of these tools and exactly how they would have been made, what is beyond dispute though is that the relatively long narrow heads are quite similar to a traditional tomahawk.
Native American Tomahawks
So while the rough shape of modern tomahawks can be traced back to Stone Age tools it is the Native Americans that made the tools famous and also give us the roots of the word tomahawk. It comes from a Powhatan word ‘tamahaac’. It was the Powhatan tribe that was first contacted by settlers at Jamestown, Virginia.
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 axe 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 recognise 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 too did those fighting on the frontiers such as the famed Rogers Rangers, on whom the modern Army Ranger model themselves on and who are recognised as one of the earliest ‘Special Forces’.Rogers Rangers was formed in 1755, the latest in a long line of New England ranger companies that had been active since the 1670’s. 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 a 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 though and their predecessors it was Rogers Rangers that are the most famous and Rogers himself who first codified what have become known as the ‘rules of ranging’. These rules have stood the test of time and have been 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 states 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. It was these exploits that made the rangers so famous, particularly the St. Francis Raid when Rogers led the rangers deep into enemy territory by whale boat 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 as well as a valuable weapon for close quarters, hand to hand fighting.
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-defence.
Modern Combat Tomahawks
The popularity of tomahawks has never completely died out but is has waxed and waned depending on the specific needs of the time. From a combat perspective there was quite a time between the frontier period and the Vietnam War when tomahawks were not widely used in combat roles.
During the conflict in Vietnam though 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 cutting blade and a sturdy spike at the rear. Between 1966 and 1970 about 4000 of these tools were sold to soldiers before LaGana closed the company.
Footage of those Vietnam era tomahawks being demonstrated by designer Peter LaGana can be seen here;
Reports during the Vietnam War record that tomahawks were used in combat as a close quarter’s weapon, to clear helicopter landing areas and to smash through the walls of huts 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 and 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 knife maker Ernest Emerson and the second a modern interpretation of the Lewis and Clarke Spontoon Tomahawk designed with knife maker Shane Sibert.
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 armoured vehicles includes a VTAC as part of its “Modular Entry Tool set” since the Rapid Fielding Initiative, a programme designed to get useful kit into the hands of operational troops as wuickly 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 there are dozens of other companies producing 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 but also in the method of construction. Although some companies such as Cold Steel 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.
Before moving onto picking from the best tomahawks available on the market we’ll look at using tomahawks and the kind of features you need to look for when selecting one.
Features of Your Tomahawk
When you are choosing a tomahawk you will need to understand its features so you can pick one out which will be the best match for your intended use. They are really very simple tools and their features are straightforward. They share a lot of features with an axe.
Handle and Tang
Traditional tomahawks feature a simple straight wooden handle and metal blade with an eye that will fit over the handle. Tomahawks in this style are still produced and will normally feature hickory handles, hickory is an excellent choice for tool handles in general and particularly for axes, tomahawks and hammers which require great strength. American Hickory is shipped around the world for use as axe handles and even replaced ash as the axe handle of choice in Europe when it became available.
It is important to find a handle that won’t cause blisters or hot spots while in use, this is particularly important when selecting a tomahawk for backwoods use where you may be using it for extended periods to prepare your shelter, blaze a trail, prepare a fire or even butcher a large game animal. For combat, breaching and rescue which probably won’t require you to have the tool in hand for as long the need isn’t quite as pressing but it’s still important to consider a handle for it’s comfort. Perfectly smooth handles can help with this but slightly rough handles can make it easier to grip the handle and if you are used to working with your hands textured handles won’t cause you a problem.
Modern one piece tomahawks may feature a blade with a tang; a tang is the metal portion of the tomahawk which extends from the head into the handle. Some tomahawks in this style will feature a plastic handle moulded onto the tang, others may have a handle formed of stacked leather disks which are then polished and sealed with wax or varnish. Others in a similar manner of construction as knife handles may have handle scales bolted to either side of the tang.
Some of these ‘full tang’ tomahawks include extra tools such as pry bars in the handle and are specifically designed for breaching tasks. Just as with a knife though there is no particular design which is automatically superior. Wooden handles are more comfortable to use in cold conditions and traditional handles allow you to easily dismantle your tomahawk for transport or to fit a new handle. Unlike with a knife though you don’t have the same almost unlimited options of natural material including bone, antler and wood for your tomahawk handle.
Bone is too brittle and antler isn’t available in the right sorts of shape or size to be used for tomahawk handles. Also while heavily figured wood is sought after for knife handles with only very few exceptions it isn’t suitable for a tomahawk or hatchet handle. The beauty of burl wood handles and is in the woods imperfections, twisted grain and bark inclusions, all of these though are inherent weaknesses mitigated in a knife handle by the small size of the piece and the fact that they are bolted securely to the steel tang. A tomahawk handle will be around two feet long, keeping a piece of highly figured wood in one piece at that size would be difficult if not impossible and it would be heavy and weak. Likewise twisted grain won’t be easy to fashion into a handle and be as effective a handle as one with a nice straight grain, the grain structure of a good handle adds to its strength. Hickory is the best option for a wooden handle but others do exist, ash is exceptional and maple is used as well, in fact a piece of fiddle back maple might provide a relatively decorative tomahawk handle but you still won’t have the options you do for knife handles. Remember this if you ever have to make a replacement handle for your tomahawk in the field, you need to look for something with straight grain and that will take the impact of chopping, using something like willow or sycamore will just mean another broken handle very quickly, learn to identify the best resources and make use of them.
Full tang tomahawks don’t offer this same flexibility or comfort as their more traditional wooden handled cousins and if the handle does break they may be impossible to fix in the field. What they do offer though is some increased strength, although very little when you realise just how strong a hickory handle is.
Above all, whether you have a tomahawk with a wooden handle or a modern full tang version the handle must be comfortable and strong, popular synthetic materials for the handles of modern tomahawks include polypropylene, glass reinforced nylon, micarta and even a cord wrap applied directly to the tang. Any of these would be suitable but do make sure if you are tempted by a tomahawk with a moulded plastic handle that it isn’t going to slip off after hard use, this can happen from time to time with the cheaper versions the bond between handle and tang can weaken and precisely at the wrong moment the head and tang can fly out of the handle, even if this dangerous catastrophic failure doesn’t occur a weak or loose handle does not inspire confident chopping and will be dangerous. If you are going to go for a tomahawk with a moulded handle make sure it comes from a reputable manufacturer who uses premium materials.
Just as with knives there can be some fierce debate about which blade steel is best but the requirements for a tomahawk is somewhat different to a knife. Because tomahawks are used for chopping a blade as hard as most knife blades around 60 on the Rockwell hardness scale is likely to chip and suffer severe damage.
The ‘hardness’ of a blade is measured on the Rockwell Scale, this scale measures the hardness of steel by applying first a small load and then a larger load using a 120° spheroconical diamond indenter. The difference in depth of these two indentations demonstrates the hardness of the steel. When testing knife steel the Rockwell hardness is denoted by the letters ‘HRC’.
Knives for outdoors use such as buschraft and survival will generally have a blade in the region of 55 to the low 60’s in terms of rockwell hardness but a tomahawk on the other hand should be more like 55 as the upper limit. Much harder than that and although the edge will be very hard and won’t dull quickly it will be more likely to chip under hard use, while it may be soft enough to roll and blunt, a characteristic that might be a disadvantage in a knife is advantageous in a tomahawk that can be sharpened easily with a file and stone when the edge is inevitably dulled by backwoods use or by breaching doors or walls. When a tool is pressed to such rough use it will inevitably be blunted and it’s easier to put a blunt too right than a chipped one.
Just as the hardness of your tomahawk blade isn’t going to the same of your knife you may want to consider steels which might not be considered premium knife blade steels but which are perfectly suitable for a tomahawk. Some of the supper hard steels such as S30V wouldn’t be suitable for a tomahawk as they would chip so easily but other which may be suitable include;
- 420 stainless steel
- 1055 carbon steel
- 1095 carbon steel
- SK5 carbon steel
Although visually you might not be able to tell anything about the heat treatment of your tomahawk by looking at it you do need to consider it carefully, too brittle and your vital piece of kit for survival, rescue or breaching will break and be useless too you. This is particularly important to bear in mind if you are using a full tang tomahawk and that is a lot more steel to break which will be impossible to fix in the field. Wooden handles are relatively easy to replace unlike the steel alternative.
Some blades have what is called a differential heat treat, where the edge of the blade is harder than the spine, this is sometimes a feature of axes and tomahawks making the edge harder than the eye, and a reason not to pound on the poll of either like it’s a wedge in case it deforms the eye. Some manufacturers will provide details of the heat treatment and hardness of their tomahawk blades but not all, it’s worth finding out if you can though.
There are many options when it comes to the grind of a knife blade but not so many for an axe or tomahawk, some may be slightly convex but most will have a simple v bevel at the edge and a continuous taper from the poll. While a knife might be ground to a certain shape to improve its performance for whittling, meat preparation or to improve the edge retention with a particularly robust grind such as the convex grind there is generally no such finesse with a tomahawk and instead a utility edge is what is required one that is easy to maintain and relatively robust to withstand rough treatment such as breaching and chopping.
A sheath is a part of the ‘package’ when you buy a knife or tomahawk and you should consider how you will carry it when you choose which tomahawk to purchase. The original Vietnam tomahawk had a high quality leather sheath and traditional style tomahawks will often come with a leather mask for the cutting edge similar to an axe which is perfectly adequate and allows the tool to be safely carried inside a pack. If you want to carry it in a more accessible position though, perhaps attached to webbing or strapped to the outside of a pack consider a kydex or moulded plastic sheath.
There is no chance of the blade, or spike if your tomahawk features one, piercing the sheath if it is housed in a robust kydex sheath, this is particularly important if you are carrying it on your person. Nylon sheaths aren’t always great and are sometimes just a low cost option for the manufacturer, they are also fairly unhygienic if you have been using your tomahawks for butchery or meat preparation, not a particularly common task for a tomahawk but they are a very useful tool, especially for larger game. Nylon sheath also often offer very poor retention and often have sloppy button or Velcro fastenings which won’t hold your tomahawk securely and unless they feature a liner they can be pierced by the cutting edge or spike.
Tomahawks vary in size, from very compact models to larger ones with handles of up to two feet in length, but they will only rarely be larger than this. The shorter they are though the less chopping power they have, there comes a point where power and utility is sacrificed for compactness and I would suggest that the very compact tomahawks offer no advantages over a large knife and are therefore useless.
To give you the power required for backwoods survival tasks such as chopping and splitting wood or for tactical and combat oriented tasks such as breaching doors you will want the power and leverage a two foot long handle will give you.
Some would argue that a tomahawk or axe needs to be as sharp as your knife but it’s difficult to maintain that level of razor sharp in a tool that receives such brutal treatment and it might not be realistic. A serviceable utility edge is more realistic and won’t blunt as quickly or take as long to maintain, a fine file or coarse diamond stone will be an ideal sharpening tool and for a tomahawk with a curved blade a stone ‘puk’ style sharpening stone will be useful.
Many tomahawks will feature some sort of coating on the blade, some as simple as a coating of black paint to other very high end offerings which will come fully ceracoated. From a tactical perspective these coatings are important to reduce glare and shine from a blade that might have to be used discreetly or covertly, consider the noise that smashing though an obstacle with your tomahawk is going to make, are tomahawks really covert weapons?
Do also be aware that very highly textured coatings might add a lot of friction when cutting some of these very rough coatings, especially if they come all the way to the blade edge can really hamper the ability of a blade to cut, while this is more a concern in a knife you should be aware of how it will affect the performance of your tomahawk too.
A major reason for applying a coating to a blade is to protect it from rust, carbon steels in particular are susceptible to rust and this can be mitigated to some degree with an appropriate coating. Stainless steel blades suffer less from rust, although they aren’t immune to it, and carbon steel blades if properly maintained can be kept free of rust with the proper care so while coatings aren’t essential they are very useful for preventing rust.
Using Your Tomahawks
The root of the old Pohatan word from which we derive the English word Tomahawk literally means “to cut off by tool” and that is exactly what tomahawks are for; chopping and cutting, both in the backwoods and wilderness sense but also from a combative perspective. With the addition of different polls such as hammers and spikes additional functionality is made available.
These light weight but robust tools are perfect for backwoods work; survival, woodcraft and hunting and are a great addition to bug out bags and survival kits as well as a useful piece of ‘go-to’ kit for all manner of outdoor activities. Their light weight, far lighter than an axe or hatchet makes them a much better weapon than axes or hatchets of a similar size, they are not so heavy at the head and can therefore be used faster and a powerful swing takes next to no time to recover from unlike with an axe which, because of its head heavy balance are easy to over swing and the momentum the heavy head carries makes it difficult to recover from in time to strike or parry again. While there is clearly a combat rationale for tomahawks their utility as a backwoods tool or in filling a similar role as a fire axe for breaching doors, windows and other obstacles can’t be underestimated and they are for this reason classed as rescue equipment by the US military.
The lightweight heads of traditional tomahawks with wooden handles, not so modern one piece tomahawks with tangs, can be easily removed from a handle and packed neatly into a bug-out-bag or even in a minimalist survival kit just the head can be packed and a handle fabricated with nothing more than the blade of the tomahawk.
Don’t Do This At Home
The ability to easily remove the head of a tomahawk is often cited as an advantage as it allows the head to be removed and used as a wedge, DO NOT be tempted to do this. This kind of rough treatment could easily deform the eye of the tomahawk and make it impossible to fit back onto its handle or even cause it to crack. Remember too that the relatively slim blade of a tomahawk swells outward only at the eye rather than a gradual bevel like in an axe so its performance as a splitting wedge will be very poor. Just as you wouldn’t do anything to damage your survival knife if it was your only tool, don’t do anything with your tomahawk that might break it if you could easily achieve the same result by some other means. Instead of using the head as a wedge carve a simple wooden wedge and use that instead.
From a backwoods and survival perspective a tomahawk can be used for most of the tasks a hatchet would be used for, they are smaller than full sized axes generally featuring a cutting edge of no more than four inches and a handle of no more than two feet. This does mean they are not really tools for felling large trees and the narrow blade means that they aren’t as useful for splitting wood as an axe wood be. They excel at light chopping duties and combat.
Now that we have looked at a whole range of tomahawks which would I choose? Well that’s not as simple a question as you might at first think, firstly there are a number of reasons I might want a tomahawk and there might not be a single one which meets all my criteria.
For a backwoods tomahawk for survival or bushcraft I would want something with a wooden handle, partly because the aesthetics of it suit the old fashioned, traditional ethos of bushcraft but also from a purely practical perspective. Wooden handles are easy to replace from the woods and the heads can easily be removed for storage and transportation. Modern full or partial tang tools can’t be as easily repaired in the event of a breakage and for long term survival you should be considering how easy it is, or if it possible at all, to repair the gear you take with you into the woods so in the event of it being damaged you will know how to fix it.
Any of the traditional wooden handled tomahawks here would excel in this role and I can highly recommend any of them. CRKT have sometimes disappointed me with their knives as they are tempered too soft, but whether or not their heat treat is the same for all products or for some other reason the hardness of the tomahawk just seems perfect; not so brittle it will chip and soft enough that it can easily be sharpened after a hard day in the wood’s.
From a combat perspective while the traditional style tomahawks certainly served many Native Americans and Rogers Rangers well modern materials and the added functionality of pry bars and other features have made the tomahawk a true breaching tool. Something like the Gerber downrange would be my pick as it adds so much functionality to the tool with the pry bar and hammer as well as being available close at hand with its MOLLE mounted sheath. The versatility of the tool as well as its full size makes this one of the most versatile of the tactical tomahawks here, the smaller ones just won’t have the power that the larger Gerber and Vietnam style hawks have thanks to their longer handles.
Whatever you choose in the end though if it’s something from this list you can rest assured it will do the job you need it to.