A TOMAHAWK HAS MANY USES BEYOND BEING A FEARSOME WEAPON
Tomahawks were general purpose tools used by Native Americans and European colonials alike, and were often employed as a hand-to-hand or a thrown weapon.
Most people seem to associate a tomahawk with Native Americans from movies and photos. But don’t discount the value of a good tomahawk for use in the woods today.
“Algonquian and Iroquoian Indians, immediately upon acquiring the iron hatchet, seem to have named it ‘tomahawk’ after the aboriginal weapon which it replaced.
Ultimately, some white men borrowed the Indian word and used the term for their own hatchets.” (From Carl Russell’s “Firearms, Traps, & Tools of the Mountain Man”)
The term tomahawk and hatchet were often interchangeable during the frontier days. The tomahawk was introduced by the Europeans, mass produced, and heavily traded. This also gave it the name “trade axe”.
Most tomahawks weighed about 1-1 ½ pounds and had a 19-inch-long handle (approximately). The head was usually hand forged by a blacksmith with a piece of carbon steel inserted to form the sharpened bit. It was wrapped around a mandrel to form the tapered eye and didn’t have a hammer poll at the end.
Today, tomahawks can be had with a hammer poll or spike. A tomahawk has a straight hickory handle that slides in from the top of the ’hawk head and tapers from narrow to thicker at the top.
The tomahawk is a friction-fit tool and can’t slip off during use, much like the handle of a pickaxe. This characteristic allows the head to be removed for some tasks and easily replaced.
AXE VS. ’HAWK
In recent years, the axe has gained popularity with the likes of wilderness experts such as Mors Kochanski and Ray Mears.
Instead of using one tool that does a lot of jobs fairly bad or excels at one certain task, they use a trio consisting of a fixed blade for general cutting chores, a pocket knife/jack knife for fine carving, and either an axe or hatchet.
These days, a folding saw is implemented into the system along with a fixed blade and a chopper.
“…more outdoorsmen are rediscovering the usefulness of a well-made tomahawk as a valuable camp, woodcraft, and survival tool.”
There has been a trend online where people bash the tomahawk. They say they are useless in the woods or that they were designed only for fighting and throwing—not the outdoors.
These people proclaim that an axe is, “the way to go.” That being said, I’m sure most of these people either live on a homestead, heat their homes with wood burning stoves, car camp, or backyard bushcraft it. I rarely see posts online from people hiking great distances with a large axe.
No, people didn’t use tomahawks to build log cabins. They used full-sized axes and buck saws for that. However, when traveling on foot, hatchets and tomahawks were the choices of many mountain men of yesteryear when all they had with them was what they could carry.
In fact, outdoors writer/adventurer, George Sears “Nessmuk” carried his famed double-bit hatchet that measured about 12 inches long and weighed about a pound.
Outdoors writer Horace Kephart raved about his “little trick” being a very small, light 8-ounce head tomahawk with a 2.25-inch bit and a hickory handle.
Kephart wrote, “It is all that is needed to put up a satisfactory shelter wherever there is hemlock or balsam, or bark that will peel, while for other service I use it oftener than I do my jackknife.”
FOR WILDERNESS TRAVELS
I selected a tomahawk in my trio as my main chopping and wood-processing tool for a few reasons. Since I don’t car camp in established camps, nor do I travel in the woods by horseback or canoe, I hoof it on foot.
For this reason, my gear must be light for my kind of wilderness travels. Also, I don’t build log cabins, nor do I need to fell large trees for harvesting firewood.
The wildernesses I frequent in the Southwest, Northern forests, Eastern woodlands, and the Southeast forests all have the same thing in common: lots of available dead wood. This eliminates the need to chop trees down at all.
USING A TOMAHAWK
Back up your work regardless of the task, be it chopping or splitting wood. This will give you the best energy transfer and ensure your bit doesn’t get buried into the ground or worse, bone!
A tomahawk, with its lightweight head and long handle, uses speed and momentum rather than weight—much like a machete. This makes the tomahawk easier to tote around and control when swinging it.
CHOP A LOG
Chopping a small log that is on the ground in a horizontal position should be done from a kneeling or sitting position. The forearm and tomahawk handle should both be kept parallel at the moment of impact and thereafter.
This is known as the parallel plane. If the hand and forearm(s) are kept above the point of impact, it causes the bit to continue in the path back toward us. The longer the handle, the safer the tool is to use.
Chop a log in a “V” shape cut, alternating sides, and at an angle—not straight on at a 90-degree angle. Make the width of the “V” cut approximately the same thickness as the diameter of the log. If at all possible, roll the log over after chopping about halfway through; most of the time, if the log hasn’t been limbed, it won’t be possible to roll it over.
Another option for chopping through a log is to make four chops in a row moving in one direction and then repeat four more chops in the opposite direction. This method can help keep the diameter of the cut the same as the diameter of the log.
This technique was mentioned in the book “Camp-Lore and Woodcraft” by D.C. Beard from the early 1900s. There are other techniques for chopping halfway through on one side of a log and then switching your position and chopping the log from the opposite side while standing, but this is meant for larger-diameter wood and longer-handled axes.
GET CLOSE AND PERSONAL WITH THE WOOD
Even with a 19-inch handle, it is possible to chop with a tomahawk using one hand by choking up a little. Some lighter tomahawks have a shortened handle length of 16 inches, which is light and easily carried as well as used.
One-handed chopping with a short handle means getting up close and personal with the wood, hovering over it and still keeping the parallel plane. A tomahawk is great for light-duty, one-handed chopping, such as putting a quick point on the end of a thick green branch for driving into the ground while making a cooking range, grill, or tarp stakes.
Chopping while using two hands with a 19-inch handle or more is the best way to control the bit and get more power out of a lighter tool. Accuracy counts much more than a hard, blundering chop. Practice is paramount for using a tomahawk accurately and safely.
Limbing a downed tree of its branches is best done while standing on the opposite side of the branches being cut, using the trunk as a protector log. Chop the branches close to the trunk of the small tree and in the direction of growth.
The disadvantage of a tomahawk is the lack of weight needed for splitting in the more conventional way as you would using an axe or hatchet, with the log placed vertically on a chopping block, and then split using weight and the wedge shape of the tool.
There are other ways to split wood, but they still require you to consider two things: wood selection and technique. Selecting wood for making shelter or fire is a matter of using your brain and not choosing wood any thicker than your wrist or bicep to split.
Besides, most of the wood used in a camp situation doesn’t need to be any thicker. When it comes to firewood, anything thicker can be use as larger fuel.
“…when traveling on foot, hatchets and tomahawks were the choices of many mountain men of yesteryear when all they had…was what they could carry.”
BATONING WITH A TOMAHAWK
Not everyone is accurate when swinging chopping tools. Batoning with a tomahawk allows the user to create precise, intentional splits in wood rather than being accurate with a potentially dangerous chop.
The weight of a tomahawk is better suited for batoning than a heavy axe, which can be fatiguing over time and cumbersome for one hand to hold the position while the other hammers away on the poll to split wood.
FINISH THE SPLIT
Another easy way to split wood with a tomahawk is by holding the handle and the wood parallel, placing the bit at the top end of the small log and raising the two up about a foot, and then bring them both down together on a chopping block. This will drive the bit in the wood and create a split.
Now, just pull the handle and wood apart in opposite directions to finish the split. This is the safest way to split small-diameter wood. Do not try to chop into the top of the log first; this is a common thing people try to do when first attempting this method. Just let the momentum and thin bit do the work.
Naturally, softer wood will be easier to split than harder, knotted-up wood, so it is advised that one be patient and practice.
Fine work with a tomahawk should be limited to smaller splits for kindling and making fuzz sticks for fire. To think otherwise is fooling yourself. Use a small knife for anything requiring real craftsmanship.
I’ve seen people choke up on an axe/hatchet/tomahawk handle near the head and try to carve this way. I always wondered, why?
DIFFERENT SKILL SET
The best way to make fuzz sticks for a fire is to chop into a log or stump with the heel/beard of the tomahawk about 1 ½ – 2 inches deep and hold the handle in place. Simply draw back finger-thick pieces of dry wood against the sharpened bit to make shavings.
Since this is a completely different skill set than we are accustomed to, it takes time to master it. It is, however, the easiest way to produce fine, thin wood shavings that can be used as tinder and kindling.
Cutting small-diameter trees and logs, splitting wood, making tarp/tent stakes, processing firewood, limbing downed trees, and making a quick survival shelter are just a handful of ways.
More and more outdoorsmen are rediscovering the usefulness of a well-made tomahawk as a valuable camp, woodcraft and survival tool.
“The notion that a heavy hunting knife can do the work of a hatchet is a delusion. When it comes to cleaving carcasses, chopping kindling, blazing thick-barked trees, driving tent pegs or tarp stakes, and keeping up a bivouac fire, the knife never was made that will compare with a good tomahawk.” (Horace Kephart, “Camping and Woodcraft”)
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KEEP SAFETY IN MIND WHEN USING YOUR TOMAHAWK
Aside from getting a superficial cut while checking the edge for sharpness or nicks, there usually are no minor injuries when it comes to an axe or tomahawk.
Most of the possible injuries from a heavy chopping tool are devastating. So, keep these safety measures in mind:
- Never leave a tomahawk lying around with the sharpened edge exposed for the world to stumble upon. Sticking a tomahawk up high in a tree is another invitation for injury. Most people keep a tomahawk (axe) buried in a chopping stump or log, which is acceptable. The safest place is to lean it up against a tree with the sharp bit facing away from camp traffic.
- Swinging a tomahawk while chopping and splitting wood is safer from a kneeling position. This will allow the tomahawk to strike a chopping block or ground instead of your lower body. A tomahawk usually has a handle length of 19 inches, making it a little safer to use than a hatchet.
- Lose the lanyard. I have never seen a tomahawk with a lanyard hole in it and for good reason. If the tomahawk slips out of your hand while swinging it, the last thing you want is for it to catch on a lanyard. This will lead to creating a pendulum effect and directing it back to bite you. It is better to re-profile your tomahawk edge than get a major gash in your foot or leg.
Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in the May/June 2021 print issue of Knives Illustrated.