A Quick History of the Tomahawk in the United States

Tomahawk history
The Virginia father-and-son team of Mark and Dylan McCoun is very popular with the military community, forging 4140 chrome-molybdenum steel tomahawks, such as the one shown, with hickory handles and often leather carrying systems.

My love affair with tomahawks began when I was 9 years old. My father bought me the book Swords and Blades of the American Revolution by George Neumann. In it was a chapter on tomahawks—pipe tomahawks, spike tomahawks and trade hawks that were used by the frontiersmen fighting in the Revolutionary War. There was a rough romance about the shapes and materials that to this day intrigues me.

The parallels between the use of the tomahawk in the 18th century and that of the modern battlefield are numerous and worth our consideration. It turns out the reasons behind the tomahawk’s popularity in the woods of Colonial America are often the same reasons they are popular with U.S. troops fighting terrorism around the world.

Tomahawk Origins

The word tomahawk is a variation of the Algonquian word tomahac (also spelled in English multiple ways), which means “to strike.” It was a term that was used originally for any striking weapon, from wooden clubs to axes made of stone.

In 1608, Capt. John Smith of Jamestown, Virginia, author of many texts, was the first person to record the word in English, mentioning it was used to describe the hatchets carried by his men. Axes and clubs were symbols of power and status for native cultures as far back as the mound builders.

This, combined with the numerous advantages held by the metal tomahawk over its stone predecessors, made the European-fashioned metal tomahawks popular trade items with Native tribes. As trade increased, new forms evolved to meet the demands of the market, and tomahawks with pipes, spikes and hammers were traded by the thousands.

Carl Russell, author of Firearms, Traps & Tools of the Mountain Men, speculates that, as the classic trade ’hawk became the norm with Native tribes, newer, less pragmatic forms evolved to fill the warrior status niche.

A Tool for Any Job

Tactical tomahawks
D.J. Urbanovsky of American Kami crafts high-tech, high-end tomahawks such as the Maniaxe (bottom) and Chickenhawk (top).

The tomahawk was a true multi-purpose tool. With it one could dress game, chop wood and clear brush. Choking up on the handle, the user could use it much like a knife. The length of the handle gave the blade tremendous velocity and force as well, making it a formidable weapon. These attributes were not lost on the frontiersmen of the time who often adopted the tools and lifestyles of the Native tribes.

This adoption became even more apparent as the frontiersmen went to war. They employed the same guerrilla warfare tactics used by the Native tribes, and they carried the tomahawks so prized by them. One equipment list for volunteers into the American militias mentions “a sword or tomahawk” as a required item right along with a rifle, powder and lead.

Lewis & Clark & Tomahawks

The Corps of Discovery carried hundreds of tomahawks on their expedition. While most of these were items for trade, Capt. Meriwether Lewis and 2nd Lt. William Clark issued every one of their men a pipe tomahawk. On the return trip, Clark’s pipe tomahawk was stolen by a native and the men spent an entire day tracking him down to get it back.

While wintering with the Mandan tribe, explorer Pvt. John Shields forged tomahawks in trade for corn, keeping the group from starving during the harsh winter months. As they made their way to the Pacific Coast, they were surprised to find that the tomahawks forged for the Mandan had beaten them there through the extensive trade routes.

A 20th Century Comeback Continues into the 21st

Modern tomahawks
The RMJ Tactical “Kestrel” is based on an 18th-century design.

This rich history would be enough to secure the tomahawk’s place among the tools and weapons of American history, but the story does not stop there. After a long hiatus, the tomahawk made a comeback. My uncle related to me that during the Korean War, some soldiers were known to modify the issued hatchets into tomahawk-like shapes and sizes, grinding crude spikes out of the polls to be carried as weapons. There was also a tomahawk commercially available that was privately bought and carried by some U.S. troops during that time.

Peter LaGana, founder of the American Tomahawk Company, was famous for his tomahawk made popular during the Vietnam War. Also privately purchased by soldiers, it proved a valuable tool and weapon in the jungles of Southeast Asia.

Handmade tomahawks
The “Winkler II Combat Axe” comes in a choice of a recycled rubber or curly maple haft. The spike geometry of the Combat Axe shows serious attention to detail. (SharpByCoop image)

The true rebirth of the tomahawk, however, would be brought about by the Global War on Terrorism after the attacks on 9/11. Some members of the Special Operations community began carrying tomahawks as part of Col. John Mulholland’s Joint Special Operations Task Force, also known as Task Force Dagger, when only 300 Americans were in Afghanistan on the hunt for Bin Laden.

The number of soldiers carrying tomahawks increased throughout the next decade of war, but why? There are several reasons. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were anything but conventional wars. Instead, they were asymmetric wars that had more in common with the guerrilla fighting of frontier America. The tomahawk once again served as a valuable tool and weapon in this environment.

As one soldier put it, “When you carry something like a ’hawk, it sends the message ‘I’m willing to take it to this level. I’m not just hiding behind a gun.’”

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