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 artifacts in museums and movies, there is also plenty of modern-day uses of tomahawks, and their history isn’t quite what you might expect.
Nowadays, when buying the best tactical tomahawk, you are spoilt for choice. You can select from some of the very best on the market which will suit your specific needs. These products come from a range of manufacturers, all known for their quality tools and outdoor or tactical equipment.
Best Budget Option
Estwing Tomahawk Axe is made from a single piece of steel. It is a Vietnam-era tomahawk, and while it doesn’t sport some of the more contemporary design features as a modern tomahawk, it is still great value for money.
Most Versatile Tomahawk
Gerber Gear Downrange Tomahawk isn’t just a tomahawk. It is at the same time a cutting blade. It features a hammerhead and a pry bar. It is not only one of the best-looking tomahawks on our list by a reputable brand but also one of the most versatile.
Tomahawk vs Axe – Know the Difference
It’s common to assume that a tomahawk is just another style of an axe. Still, they are very different in their construction and perform very different tasks, although we can press each to tasks at which the other excels. 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.
As well as distinctly different methods of attaching the 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 like a hatchet or forest axe is a poor splitter compared to a dedicated splitting maul.
A 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.
An ax poll 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 animals, but generally, axe polls will be square. On the other hand, Tomahawks have a range of polls; the simplest are just a rounded eye, others will have a pronounced hammerhead, others a spike or even a pipe bowl for ceremonial or decorative purposes.
So, what is a hatchet then?
Hatchet, is a word derived from the Old French language and literally means “a small axe with a short handle”, and that’s exactly what they are.
Editors Note: We constantly curate our content to keep it fresh and relevant. This list was updated on June 3rd, 2021 to reduce the length of the article and focus on the best tactical tomahawks only. Click here to see the full update history.
This offering by SOG is based closely on the original Vietnam Tomahawk and features a 12.1-inch nylon handle but is a sort of halfway house between a traditional tomahawk and a modern full tang tomahawk. The potential problem is that this tactical 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 is reputed to be good for.
SOG products are made to a high standard, so you can expect great results from this tool even if the design isn’t quite as robust as traditional or full tang tomahawks.
The head made from 2CR steel should be fairly resistant to rust and provide a good, high-performance cutting edge for everything you need it for in the woods or for combat and rescue tasks. The 3-inch cutting blade edge and piercing spike on the back of the head is 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 19.5 ounces, its lightweight materials pay off and make it very portable.
This does come with a sheath for ease of carrying and safety. The warranty offered by SOG will also cover repairs or replacement as long as you properly maintain your tomahawk.
Gerber Gear 30-000715N Downrange Tomahawk isn’t just a tomahawk; as well as the cutting blade, it features a hammerhead 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 its 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 yourself in the heat of the moment or if you slip.
If we needed another clue, then the name ‘downrange’ that MOLLE compatibility straight away tells us that this is a tool aimed at the military. 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 can chop 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 lightweight and fast should it come to close-quarters combat.
Another tactical tomahawk which features a head modeled after the classic Vietnam-era tomahawk, a three-inch cutting edge, and a stout spike make this a useful combat and rescue tool. Still, the molded handle may be a drawback for some. Additionally, the shiny blue finish and blue plastic handle don’t make this 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 colored 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, this is an expensive piece of equipment even when you consider the quality of its components, materials, and workmanship.
It is a slightly strange-looking tool and perhaps, by some standards, not truly a tactical tomahawk, but it 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.
This tool lacks any hammer surface for striking. With its ability to be so easily dismantled, I would worry about whether it is robust enough for rough prying and breaching. It has merit as a general outdoors tool for chopping, cutting, and hunting tool, not to mention its merits for last-ditch self-defense or even hunting in a survival situation. TOPS does make some more classic-styled tomahawks and axes, such as the Hammer Hawk and other models, but this one is so unusual and versatile that it is worth a special mention.
The blades are 1095 high carbon steel, as are most TOPS blades, and are of the highest quality and quality. 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 tool. Still, 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 and hand-to-hand combat and defense, you could also press this tool 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.
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 SK5 high carbon steel piece 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 backwoods 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 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 that maximize the efficiency of the axes. The handles are incredibly comfortable and secure and can be removed fully to allow the tool to be cleaned, especially if you are using it 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 carrying it or while it is stowed amongst your kit.
Tactical Tomahawk Buyers Guide
When you choose a tactical tomahawk, you will need to understand its features so you can pick one out that 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 ax.
Handle and Tang
Traditional tomahawks feature a simple straight wooden handle and a metal blade to fit 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, particularly for axes, tomahawks, and hammers, requiring great strength. American Hickory is shipped worldwide for use as ax handles and even replaced ash as the ax 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. 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 a 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 that extends from the head into the handle. Some tomahawks in this style will feature a plastic handle molded 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, there is no particular design that is automatically superior. Wooden handles are more comfortable to use in cold conditions, and traditional handles allow you to dismantle your tomahawk for transport easily or fit a new handle. Unlike a knife, you don’t have the same almost unlimited natural material options, including bone, antler, and wood for your tomahawk handle.
Bone is too brittle, and antler isn’t available in the right sort 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 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, which will take the impact of chopping. Using something like willow or sycamore will 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 breaks, they may be impossible to fix in the field. What they do offer is some increased strength, although very little when you realize 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 a tomahawk tempts you with a molded 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 go for a tomahawk with a molded handle, make sure it comes from a reputable manufacturer that 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 are somewhat different from 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 using such as bushcraft 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 though the edge will be very hard and won’t dull quickly, it will be more likely to chip under hard use.
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 as 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 others that 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 to 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 their tomahawk blades’ heat treatment and hardness, but not all. It’s worth finding out if you can, though.
There are many options for the grind of a knife blade but not so many for an ax 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. Instead, a utility edge is required, 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 ax 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, perhaps attached to webbing or strapped to the outside of a pack, consider a Kydex or molded 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 handy tool, especially for larger game.
Nylon sheath also often offers inferior retention and often has sloppy button or Velcro fastenings that won’t hold your tomahawk securely. 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 through, the less chopping power they have. There comes the point where power and utility are sacrificed for compactness. I would suggest that the very compact tomahawks offer no advantages over a large knife and are useless.
To give you the power required for backwoods survival tasks such as chopping and splitting wood or 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 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 through an obstacle with your tomahawk will 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. At the same time, 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 you can mitigate this 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 handy in preventing rust.
Using Your Tomahawk
The root of the old Pohatan word from which we derive the English word Tomahawk literally means “to cut off by the tool,” which is exactly what tomahawks are for: chopping and cutting 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 lightweight but robust tools are perfect for backwoods work, survival, woodcraft, and hunting and are a great addition to a bug out bag and survival kit as well as a useful piece of ‘go-to’ kit for all manner of outdoor activities. Their 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, is easy to overswing. 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, we can’t underestimate their utility as a backwoods tool or in filling a similar role as a fire ax for breaching doors, windows, and other obstacles, 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. You can pack just the head, and a handle can be fabricated with nothing more than the blade of the tomahawk.
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 that the relatively slim blade of a tomahawk swells outward only at the eye rather than a gradual bevel like in an ax, so its performance as a splitting wedge will be abysmal.
Just as you wouldn’t do anything to damage your survival knife if it were 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, you can use a tomahawk for most of the tasks you would use a hatchet 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 would 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 several reasons I might want a tomahawk, and there might not be a single one that meets all my criteria. Whatever you choose in the end, if it’s something from this list, you can rest assured it will do the job you need it to.
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.