Tomahawk (axe)

Native American Afraid of Hawk holding Tomahawk.
Native American Afraid of Hawk holding Tomahawk.

A Tomahawk is a type of axe native to North America, traditionally resembling a hatchet with a straight haft. The name came into the English language in the 17th century as a transliteration of the Virginian Algonquin word.

Tomahawks were general purpose tools used by Native Americans and European Colonials alike, and often employed as a hand-to-hand or thrown weapon. It originally featured a stone head, but later iron or brass heads were the rule. The metal tomahawk heads were originally based on a Royal Navy boarding axe and used as a trade-item with Native Americans for food and other provisions, but its design was probably derived by the British from Scandinavian designs going back to the time of the Vikings.

The tomahawk haft is usually less than two feet in length, traditionally made of hickory. The heads are anywhere from nine to twenty ounces 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 haft 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.

Modern-day Tomahawks designed by Peter LaGana featuring synthetic hafts and a hatchet-like bit were issued to US forces during the Vietnam war. This design is enjoying something of a renaissance with US soldiers in Iraq as a tool to force entry into buildings, one that can also be used in hand-to-hand fighting once inside.

Tomahawk throwing is a popular sport among American historical re-enactment groups, and some martial arts enthusiasts are attempting to revive tomahawk fighting techniques used during the Colonial era.

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