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A tomahawk (also referred to as a hawk) is a type of axe from North America, traditionally resembling a hatchet with a straight shaft. The name came into the English language in the 17th century as an adaptation of the Powhatan (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. 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.
The name comes from Powhatan tamahaac, derived from the Proto-Algonquian root *temah- 'to cut off by tool'. Algonquian cognates include Lenape təmahikan, Malecite-Passamaquoddy tomhikon, Abenaki demahigan, all of which mean 'axe'.
Pre-contact Native Americans lacked ironmaking technology, so tomahawks were not fitted with metal axe heads until they could be obtained from trade with Europeans. The tomahawk's original designs were fitted with heads of bladed or rounded stone or deer antler.
The modern tomahawk shaft is usually less than 2 ft (61 cm) in length, traditionally made of hickory, ash, or maple. The heads weigh anywhere from 9–20 oz (260–570 g), with a cutting edge usually not much longer than four inches (10 cm) from toe to heel. The poll can feature a small hammer, spike or simply be rounded off, and they usually do not have lugs. These sometimes 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 were symbols of the choice Europeans and Native Americans 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 European 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 tomahawks designed by Peter LaGana included wood handles, a hatchet-like bit and a leather sheath and were used by select US forces during the Vietnam War and are referred to as Vietnam Tomahawks. These modern tomahawks have gained popularity with their re-emergence by American Tomahawk Company in the beginning of 2001 and a collaboration with custom knife-maker Ernest Emerson of Emerson Knives, Inc. A similar wood handle Vietnam Tomahawk is also produced today by Cold Steel. The tomahawk was later redesigned featuring synthetic shafts by American Tomahawk Company and named VTACs ("Vietnam Tactical Tomahawks") 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. Original Vietnam Tomahawks are rare and expensive.
Tomahawks are also useful in camping and bushcraft scenarios. They are mostly used as an alternative to a hatchet, as they are generally lighter and slimmer than hatchets. They often contain other tools in addition to the axe head, such as spikes or hammers.
Many of 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.
The tomahawk competitions themselves have their own regulations concerning the type and style of tomahawk used for throwing. Requirements such as a minimum handle length and a maximum blade edge (usually 4") are the most common tomahawk throwing competition rules.
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 Grafenwöhr (Germany), 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.
There are not many systems worldwide which teach fighting skills with the Axe or a Tomahawk to civilians. Since the axe is becoming more popular again in movies and video games (e.g.: Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter; Bullet to the Head; Assassin's Creed 3) the interest in Tomahawk and axe training within the Martial Arts has grown. Tomahawk Fighting Concept is focusing on the Tomahawk or Axe as training weapon. Principles, skills and applications are created and adapted for the special characteristics of the Tomahawk.
Current tomahawk manufacturers include: