Note: any tool can be dangerous, and heavy tools with sharp edges can crush or cut. The USDA’s caution, though speaking of axes, is appropriate for anyone learning to use a hatchet or tomahawk:
Before you lift an ax to admire it or work with it, you need to recognize its potential danger. An ax is a sharp wedge, normally applied with enough force to cut something. Whether that “something” is a log, your foot, or the person standing too close to you depends on your skill and concentration…
Master your ax instead of fearing it. You master ax work by practicing it. Chopping is an art. It takes years to become an expert. You can learn only so much by reading manuals and looking at illustrations; the rest you can learn only by swinging. Take a cautious, rather than aggressive, approach to chopping your first logs. Placement, control, proper stance, and technique are far more important than power. Only when you have become fully proficient does power become a consideration.(Weisberger, 1999)
To this I would add a suggestion that wearing eye protection to safeguard eyes from flying splinters and thick protective boots would be wise before attempting to use a tomahawk on wood. If you are new to the outdoors, take a minute to read this article on personal protective equipment.
Tomahawk appears to have originally referred to types of war clubs used by North American Indians. These clubs could be entirely of wood or could include stone or other striking or cutting instruments. After trade with European settlers, the term began to include trade hatchets, and with time, the metal versions almost entirely replaced the clubs (Taylor 2001). By the American Revolution, the terms “hatchet” and “tomahawk” were used interchangeably in North America (O’Donnel 1973).
The modern US Army Rangers claim inspiration from Roger’s Rangers, an irregular unit formed during the French and Indian War. There are at least two versions of Roger’s Rules for Ranging to be found, (the one beginning “don’t forget nothing” is from Kenneth Robert’s novel Northwest Passage) but both versions mention having a “hatchet”, and using it to close with the enemy. In the last 11 years, many “tactical” tomahawks have been made by companies ranging from United Cutlery to Benchmade, with many others made by custom makers. There have been many claims of use of tomahawks in Iraq and Afghanistan where they supposedly function as breaching tools to allow quick entry into locked doors, with the implied option of using them on terrorists or insurgents.
Modern tomahawks by Justin Gingrich. Photo courtesy of Justin Gingrich.
One of the members of The High Road posted some pictures of a tomahawk he’d made, and I asked if he would be willing to make one for me. After I returned from my most recent deployment, we talked. Troy Christianson starts with a Vaughan hammer made of 4140 steel, and forges it into shape. Troy wanted to be sure he understood the blade shape I wanted, which was mostly flat on the top edge, with some curve to the bottom edge.
As a martial artist and a soldier, I wanted to take another look at the traditional tomahawk. War axes have been in use for literally thousands of years, and I wanted to test the practicality of the tomahawk as an outdoors tool that can be used defensively if necessary. The natural comparisons seemed to be against large knives that also would work well for camp use or emergency defense.
I explained to Troy that I wanted to test the tomahawk and write a review, and I asked Troy if he would be willing to take two or three pictures of the forging process for me. He far exceeded my request, generously providing the next 13 pictures. My friend RC and I took the pictures of the tools in action.
The beginning. All forging and heat-treat photos by Troy Christianson.
Hammer head heated and ready for pounding.
Drifting the eye to the handle.
Showing shape of the eye.
Ready to begin forging the blade.
In the forge.
After blade forging.
Ready for annealing.
Cooling after third normalization
The process produces a very attractive purple sheen on the steel.
After some frustration caused by the holiday season, I was finally able to pick up my tomahawk from the post office. The cutting face is about 4.5″ deep, and 3″ wide at the edge. The spike is 3.5″ long, and most of the metal surface reflects a very attractive purple sheen. There are some “character” marks remaining on the axe head surface. After talking it over with Troy, I got both a hickory handle and an eye-catching curly maple handle. Troy sells this combination for $225, including shipping and handling. With the hickory handle, the tomahawk weighed 26.7 oz.
Hickory and Maple Handles.
Troy Christianson tomahawk head.
I considered my mounting options. Tomahawk handles are wider at the top than the bottom so they can hold the tomahawk head in place against centrifugal force during swings.. Securing the head with paracord would not have been historically incorrect, but some modern users believe that holding the head stationary can transmit more shock to the handle if the tomahawk is thrown. I just tamped the head down with a hammer.
Hickory handle, tomahawk head, hammer.
Sliding the head onto the handle.
Setting the head.
I decided that a fair test for the tomahawk would be comparing it to the Ontario RTAK-II and the Shirley-Owens Camp Defender 2. The RTAK-II is a very large knife, at over 16″ over-all length. Its spine is .2″ thick, and it has very thick canvas micarta scales on its large handle. The RTAK-II was previously available in 1095 steel, and some of the 1095 versions are still being sold online though Ontario’s website now only lists the 5160 steel version. I prefer 5160 steel to 1095 for large knives, and so was very careful when searching online for an RTAK-II. I was able to find a 5160 RTAK-II for $89.29 on Amazon in October of 2012, which I thought was quite a bargain for a quality knife of this size. (As of early January, 2013, the Amazon price has risen to $105.97 with free shipping, which I think is still a good deal for a knife like this.) 5160 steel contains some chrome, but it is not a stainless steel. The RTAK-II’s steel is covered with green powder coat. The RTAK was designed by Randall’s Adventure and Training, which now sells their own line of knives under the ESEE name.
ESEE describes their very similar Junglas as “anti-narcotics knives”, and their webpage shows a man in camouflage hacking at what appear to be marijuana plants. It can reasonably be assumed from this that the Junglas and RTAK-II are meant to replace machetes in a slightly more compact, sturdy package. I believed the RTAK-II would be a good choice to compare with a tomahawk, since I think a knife of the RTAK-II’s size is the very largest knife one could practically carry while on foot for any long distance. My scale gave 23.6 oz as the RTAK-II’s weight.
Sam Owens and I designed the Camp Defender 1 and 2 about two years ago. I wanted to capture the chopping ability of kukris and bolos in a package compact enough to easily accompany hikers into the woods. My Camp Defender 2 is the first one made, so we found some needed minor improvements- such as slightly thicker handle scales on G10 versions- but it is my favorite knife, and I believed it would be a good blade to compare the tomahawk and RTAK-II with. It is noticeably shorter than the RTAK-II, with a blade length of just under 9″, and the blade steel is thicker, at about .25″. My Camp Defender 2 has GunKoted 5160 steel and G10 scales and with these options sells for $225 delivered. My scale gives the Camp Defender 2′s weight as 18.8 oz.
There are some difficulties in comparing performance of bladed instruments. Unless the cutting action is performed by a machine on identical targets it is impossible to be truly scientific. Even the same person will never exert the exact same amount of effort twice. Once you understand that, the importance of how the tool feels becomes more important than the amount of work accomplished in a given amount of time.
Left to right: Ontario RTAK-II, Shirley-Owens Camp Defender 2, Troy Christianson tomahawk
The Camp Defender was designed to maximize chopping potential, so it has a weight-forward balance point, with the balance point almost 1″ in front of the handle. The RTAK-II interestingly enough is balanced like a fighter, balancing where the handle and blade meet. The Troy Christianson tomahawk “wants” to swing towards the blade side, but the spike nicely counters the weight, making it balanced enough to shift directions quickly if needed.
I began by testing the edges on all three tools. The RTAK-II and tomahawk edges were as they were received, and the Camp Defender had been resharpened on a Spyderco Sharpmaker since its last use.
The RTAK-II was “dull shaving sharp”. It would shave hair with pressure.
The Camp Defender was shaving sharp.
The tomahawk would also cut hair, with a little more pressure than the RTAK.
I was wearing sturdy boots and eye protection, and did my initial testing in a section of park with several downed trees to work on.
My first test was lopping limbs off a downed tree. I would use each tool for 5 minutes, give myself a break, and then repeat the process. At the end, I would see how much I was able to accomplish with each one. I began with the Camp Defender.
Camp Defender 2 and downed tree.
The Camp Defender is not a very long knife at just under a 9″ blade, but it hits hard while still being light enough to swing. I was happy, though, when the 5 minutes were up!
Camp Defender at work
5 minutes with the Camp Defender.
When I finished with the Camp Defender, I had 4 branches lopped off. I then picked up the RTAK-II.
The RTAK-II feels fairly lively in the hand, except for the overly thick handle. When I began chopping the next limb on the tree, one of the things that makes comparisons like this unscientific popped up. The branch I was chopping was much more full of sap than the previous branches, making chopping it considerably harder than the previous 4 branches the Camp Defender had worked through. The different weight distribution of the RTAK-II also made me feel that swinging it was easier than the Camp Defender, but that it was not biting in as deeply.
RTAK-II at work.
Denser wood in these branches may account for fewer branches chopped by the RTAK-II.
After giving myself another break to rest and stretch my arms, I began chopping with the tomahawk. I could tell very quickly that the branch I was chopping was another very dense one. I accomplished about the same amount of work with the tomahawk as with the RTAK, but did have the advantage of being able to use both hands.
Troy Christianson tomahawk in action.
Thick and dense wood.
5 minutes of work with each tool.
Making fires in the woods requires tinder. I spent a few minutes scraping pine bark and the underlaying layer with each tool. If the woods are damp, the outer layer of bark will not be usable, so it is important to be able to shave the layer beneath that.
The Camp Defender’s very wide spine made it comfortable to hold while scraping bark, which it did well.The RTAK’s spine is much thinner than the Camp Defender’s, but the longer length gives leverage for control. Their ability on pine bark appeared to be the same.
The RTAK-II easily scraped pine bark.
This tomahawk’s blade shape lets you “choke up” on the handle for more control, but the wedge-shaped blade has a hard time biting deeply into bark. It could only scrape the top layer of pine bark from the tree.
The tomahawk grind only let it scrape the top layer of pine bark.
My next testing was opening a can. Cans are one of the easiest ways to preserve food for long periods of time, and opening a can while preserving the contents could be important as a survival skill, or just helpful to avoid traveling miles from a camp site to get food or a can opener. I have never used a knife to open a can before, but found it surprisingly easy. In all cases, the can was laid on its side, and secured between the feet while the blade was inserted just beneath the lid of the can. The can was then cut open until the lid was far enough up to pour out the contents.
All tools easily opened cans.
In a true survival situation, every calorie is important. In such a situation, the spike on the back of this tomahawk could be used to easily punch holes in the tops of food cans to drain the juice before opening.
Tomahawk spike can be used to punch drain-holes.
I wanted to try another chopping test. This time, seasoned wood was used. No single log of the desired diameter was long enough to safely chop into 3 pieces, so two logs that appeared to have been part of the same long branch were used. I asked Sam to do the chopping, to see if his experience with each tool was different than mine.
The Camp Defender was first. Sam grumbled as he discovered he was chopping into a knot in the log, but still made the first cut through in 1 minute, 50 seconds.
The Camp Defender chopped through in 1m50s
When Sam began using the RTAK, he grumbled worse than when he found he was chopping into a knot. He said the RTAK blade was “springy”. Working through the log with the RTAK took 2 minutes, 19 seconds.
The RTAK blade doesn’t chop into hardwood well.
The tomahawk took 2 minutes, 10 seconds to chop the last section. Sam’s comment was that the traditional tomahawk handle did not offer as secure a grip as modern knife handles. This led to more movement in the hand, and less precise strikes.
Troy Christianson tomahawk at work.
All of these tools had shown they could be used to do hard work, but could they do delicate work if needed? I believe that it’s best to have at least one small task knife as well as a large blade whenever camping, but could someone get by without a smaller knife? I tried slicing tomatoes with the RTAK first.
The RTAK easily sliced tomatoes.
I was surprised to find that the RTAK, while still not ideal due to being, well, huge, sliced very well. Controlling a knife this size takes more concentration than using a much lighter, shorter knife, but the RTAK could make very clean, thin slices. I tried the Camp Defender next.
The Camp Defender’s blade shape is not ideal for slicing delicate food.
The Camp Defender was sharper than the RTAK, so it effortlessly cut into the tomato. Here the blade shape of the Camp Defender worked against it. While working with the Camp Defender is easier than the RTAK due to its lighter weight and shorter blade, the thicker spine made making uniform cuts in the tomato difficult. I then tried the tomahawk.
Don’t use a tomahawk on tomatoes.
The tomahawk could almost slice the tomato. The problem that the Camp Defender had was exaggerated with the tomahawk. Instead of slices, it tended to cut wedges. It clearly could be used in a survival situation to slice a sturdier food like deer meat, though the cuts probably would not be pretty.
After chopping wood and slicing cans, I was interested to see the effect on the edge and finish of each tool. The Camp Defender’s black GunKote finish is a little more worn. It’s still sharp and there are no nicks on the edge.
The RTAK’s powder coat shows a good bit of wear now. I expected this, but I am surprised at the degree. More importantly, several small nicks are visible on the edge.
Several small nicks are now visible on the RTAK-II’s edge.
Troy Christianson’s tomahawk can be seen to have been used by the fine scratches, if it’s examined closely. I believe the purple sheen may be a little less visible near the edge of the blade. There are no nicks on the blade.
Based on the handling of this tomahawk for the last few weeks, I do not believe a tomahawk or hatchet has any real advantage at a campsite over a large knife designed for outdoor use, but also suffers no disadvantage over most large knives, either.. For potential owners looking for a traditional American weapon that can actually be put to use in camp or the backyard, a tomahawk may be an enjoyable choice.
Troy Christianson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sam Owens can be reached at email@example.com
Readers looking for actual axes may find the USDA’s An Ax to Grind: A Practical Ax Manual useful reading.
1. Bernie Weisberger, An Ax to Grind: A Practical Ax Manual, (United States Department of Agriculture Forest Service, 1999) http://www.fs.fed.us/t-d/pubs/pdfpubs/pdf99232823/pdf99232823Pdpi300.pdf (accessed December 18, 2012), 33.
2. Conlin Taylor, Native American Weapons, (London: University of Oklahoma Press, 2001), 16-30.
3. James O’Donnel, Southern Indians in the American Revolution, (Knoxville, TN: University of Tennessee Press, 1973) http://www.newfoundpress.utk.edu/pubs/odonnell/ (accessed December 18, 2012), 23.
Shannon, T. J. (2005). Queequeg’s Tomahawk: A Cultural Biography, 1750-1900. Ethnohistory, 52(3), 589-633.