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A tomahawk is a type of axe native to North America, traditionally resembling a hatchet with a straight shaft. The name came into the English language in the 17th century as a transliteration of the Virginian Algonquian word. Tomahawks were general purpose tools used by Native Americans and European Colonials alike, and often employed as a hand-to-hand or a thrown weapon, much like the nzappa zap. It originally featured a stone head, but later iron or brass heads were used. The metal tomahawk heads were originally based on a Royal Navy ballistic and used as a trade-item with Native Americans for food and other provisions.
The tomahawk shaft is usually less than 2 ft (0.6 m) in length, traditionally made of hickory, ash, or maple. The heads are anywhere from 9–20 oz (255–567 g) in weight, with a cutting edge usually not much longer than four inches from toe to heel. The poll can feature a small hammer, spike or simply be rounded off, and they usually do not have lugs. Stone tomahawk heads were typically made of polished soapstone, and ornately carved examples were used in some Native American rituals. These usually had a pipe-bowl carved into the poll, and a hole drilled down the center of the shaft for smoking tobacco through the tomahawk. There are also metal-headed versions of this unusual pipe. Pipe tomahawks are artifacts unique to North America: created by Europeans as trade objects but often exchanged as diplomatic gifts. They are powerful symbols of the choice Europeans and Indians faced whenever they met: one end was the pipe of peace, the other an axe of war.
In Colonial French territory, a very different tomahawk design, closer to the ancient Francisca, was in use by French settlers and Indigenous Peoples. In the late 18th Century, the British army issued tomahawks to their Colonial Regulars during the American Revolutionary War as a weapon and tool.
Tomahawk throwing is a popular sport among American historical re-enactment groups, and new martial arts such as Okichitaw have begun to revive tomahawk fighting techniques used during the Colonial era. Tomahawks are also a category within competitive knife throwing. Today’s hand-forged tomahawks are being made by master craftsmen throughout the United States.
Modern-day Tomahawks have gained in popularity with the re-emergence of the “Vietnam Tomahawk” by American Tomahawk Company in the beginning of 2001, and a collaboration with Custom Knife-maker Ernest Emerson of Emerson Knives. Modern-day Tomahawks designed by the late Peter LaGana included wood handles, a hatchet-like bit and a leather sheath and were used by select U.S. forces during the Vietnam war and are referred to as “Vietnam Tomahawks”.
A similar wood handle “Vietnam Tomahawk” is also produced today by Cold Steel. The tomahawk was later redesigned featuring synthetic hafts by American Tomahawk Company and named “VTAC”‘s (“Vietnam Tactical Tomahawk”‘s) and are manufactured by Fehrman Knives. SOG Knives Inc. has also entered the field with its own version of the “Vietnam Tomahawk”, the Fusion Tactical Tomahawk. The original “Vietnam Tomahawks” are rare and expensive.
These modern tomahawks are made of drop forged, differentially heat treated, alloy steel. The differential heat treatment allows for the chopping portion and the spike to be harder than the middle section allowing for a shock resistant body with a durable temper.
Modern “Tactical Tomahawk” makers include:
The American Tomahawk Company’s “VTAC” (“Vietnam Tactical Tomahawk”) is in use by the US Army Stryker Brigade in Afghanistan, the 172nd SBCT Team based at Fort Wainwright, the 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division out of Fort Lewis, a Recon Platoon in the 2-183d CAV (116th IBCT)(OIF 2007-2008) and numerous other soldiers. The VTAC was issued a National Stock Number(4210-01-518-7244) and classified as a “Class 9 rescue kit” as a result of a program called the Rapid Fielding Initiative; it is also included within every Stryker vehicle as the “Modular Entry Tool set”. This design is enjoying something of a renaissance with US soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan as a tool and in use in hand-to-hand combat.
According to military After action Reports, apart from use as a CQB weapon, the tomahawk’s modern use includes non-explosive dynamic entry, obstacle removal, lock/hasp removal, opening crates, ventilating fuel drums, digging fighting positions, personal defense, and IED removal.