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"Stay 'unreasonable.'  If you don't like the solutions [available to you], come up with your own." 
Dan Webre

The Martialist does not constitute legal advice.  It is for ENTERTAINMENT PURPOSES ONLY.

Copyright 2003-2004 Phil Elmore, all rights reserved.

Intuitive Tomahawk

By Phil Elmore


The tomahawk is a remarkably effective close combat weapon.  A relatively recent surge in interest in the weapon owing to several factors, among them the prominence of the 'hawk in the Mel Gibson film The Patriot means that there are plenty of quality 'hawks on the market.

Less common though it does indeed exist is instruction in the use of the tool as a weapon of self-defense.  The beauty of the tomahawk, however, is that it can be a relatively intuitive weapon.  Most of us, at some point in our lives, have used a simple claw hammer.  There is a set of basic physical movements that can be used to wield the tomahawk that are little different than the mechanics of swinging a hammer.

Now, I can hear the 'hawk veterans out there grinding their teeth.  Yes, I'm aware of the fact that you can use the tomahawk differently, and yes, I'm aware that many of you don't consider the tomahawk anything like a hammer.  My aim, however, is to equip the average reader with an expedient means of using the tomahawk to inflict damage and nothing more.  I see no reason to complicate the issue with esoterica.  The 'hawk can be compared to a hammer and used intuitively on that basis, so why not start from there?  Those wishing to put the time into playing with the 'hawk over the long term will find methods that suit them.

Now, a bladed weapon like a 'hawk and a hammer will handle differently in application, most notably because one always feels compelled to "break" the wrist more when using an edged tool.  Getting a feel for this is why we practice.  Use these basics and go out there and train, 'hawking up the helpless target dummy of your choice.

Okay, on to the basics.  Whenever wielding a single weapon, the off hand should be used to protect the center.  In some of the photographs that follow, my off hand is not precisely over my centerline either because I was turning (and reorienting my hand) during the strike or simply keeping my hand out of my face for the sake of the shot.  Centerline awareness is a very important skill to develop in self-defense and should not be neglected during weapons training.   

When wielding the tomahawk or any other weapon in one hand, the off hand generally comes forward to protect the body when the weapon comes back.  Exceptions to this include situations in which extending your hand would get your fingers lopped off or give your opponent something with which to grab and hold you.  When the weapon is before your body, by contrast, it gives you some degree of protection but you cannot simply leave it hanging out there mindlessly or your opponent may try a disarm.  Locking your arm out in front of your body is a great way to render workable all those otherwise questionable disarms taught in some dojos today.

Concerns specific to the tomahawk involve the arcs through which its sharp and pointy ends must travel to inflict damage on an enemy, versus the portions of the 'hawk that are not harmful.  We'll call the latter the 'hawk's "non-strike zones."

Picture your hand and arm as an  extension of the tomahawk.  Where your arm pivots at your wrist, at you elbow, or at your shoulder   becomes the pivot point of the weapon, depending on how you swing it.  The more you use your shoulder over your elbow or wrist, the more committed your movements become.  The more committed you are, of course, the more critical the situation becomes, for greater is the reduction in your ability to recover from an error.

The arc of motion described by your joints translate to arcs along which the blade or the point of the tomahawk must travel to strike the enemy.  (The butt of the tomahawk can also be used for strikes, but depending on how light the handle is compared to the weight of the tomahawk head, these strikes won't have the power that is generated with strikes from the head.  Think of using the wooden end of a hammer instead of the hammer head to drive a nail.)

The area inside those arcs of motion a sphere encompassing your hand and the handle of the 'hawk defines the non-strike zone.  It is here that an opponent could jam or grab the weapon.  You must be mindful of this in wielding the tomahawk. Keeping your motions tight to avoid the danger of attacks to the non-strike zone.  This also diminishes the chance that you will telegraph your movements.

Take, for example, a simple overhead strike with the tomahawk.  No matter how tight you manage to keep your movement, your arm and elbow comprise a "stop zone."  A quick opponent could attempt to jam or trap your arm and elbow, trusting that the dangerous portions of your 'hawk cannot be brought to bear against such a counter.  Striking from side to side has the same inherent vulnerability, in that the elbow of the weapon arm (as well as the haft of the tomahawk) can be slapped and grabbed without harm.

The T-shape of the tomahawk makes it extremely useful for trapping, hooking, and grappling.  If you can grapple with the butt of a stick, as some Filipino Martial Arts practitioners do, you can perform the same locks and hooks with the butt of the 'hawk.  More usefully, you can use the head of the tomahawk to hook and claw as a cat does when it lashes out with its paw.

James Keating, in an article on Tomahawks in Knifeforums: The Magazine, commented on the usefulness of the point of the 'hawk.  This is a viciously effective piercing tool that delivers great penetration.  Just as ancient war hammers with pointed spikes were used to pierce armor, the point of the tomahawk can be driven through the target with all the momentum one can generate with the elbow and shoulder.

Basic striking with the tomahawk is, as you've already figured out, intuitive.  You can strike to the inside or backhand to the outside.  You can also strike down and hook up.  It is relatively easy to rotate the tomahawk in the hand (another movement specifically mentioned by Jim Keating in the article mentioned previously), but doing this under stress is inadvisable.  Take a strong grip on the tomahawk and use it as you've gripped it.

The mechanics of wielding the tomahawk as a weapon may be easy, but just how does one apply the 'hawk to personal defense?  Provided you are not in danger of being hauled off to jail for carrying one concealed, tomahawks while not the most concealable of personal weapons can be carried in packs, on your belt, or even under a coat in shoulder rigs (such as this excellent adjustable rig from Survival Sheath, below).  They are excellent camp tools, too, which means they can do double duty if you're worried about personal safety while far from "civilization."  As a close-quarters weapon for most of us, though, the 'hawk is best kept at home in some readily accessible location, where it can be used for self-defense against intruders.

Many weapons require quite a bit of training to be used effectively.  The tomahawk is deceptively simple, but it still requires education and practice to be used to its full potential.  Like any weapon, it's not a magic wand and it's not capable of doing good or evil unless it is held by a human being.

Give this intuitive tool the consideration it deserves.