Big survival knives receive a lot of attention as all-around tools for outdoorsmen. I own several, and I love all of their capabilities. But more often on forays into remote areas, I opt for a smaller knife, coupled with a lightweight folding saw and a hatchet or tomahawk.
For one, I find a smaller knife handier for field-dressing game, preparing meals, repairing gear and fashioning snare triggers or whatever else I need. A saw and a hatchet or tomahawk are much more efficient at turning big wood into smaller wood without the risk of dulling or damaging my knife through chopping or batoning.
IS IT A HATCHET OR A TOMAHAWK?
The answer is a bewildering, “Yes,” because if you’re looking for exact definitions, there might not be one. Without getting into the history and development of chopping tools, here are some factors that might only serve to confuse the issue:
Some say that a hatchet features a wider, more wedge-like shape to its head and is heavier, making it more efficient as a tool for splitting wood. A tomahawk has evolved with a narrower profile, making it lighter and more responsive in recovering from a swing in order to be better suited as a weapon.
The trouble is that some hatchets, such as my Estwing Sportsman Axes, have heads almost as narrow as some of my tomahawks. The presence of a flat-sided poll, great for hammering, isn’t definitive of a hatchet either, because some tomahawks have a flat poll instead of a spike.
For those tools with wooden handles, the rule of thumb is that a hatchet’s head will have a more oblong eye and a handle that is attached with the haft coming in from the bottom and then fixed in place with a wedge. A tomahawk head, on the other hand, is said to have a more rounded eye, and the handle is fed through from the top. The force of the swing wedges the head into place at the wider end of the handle.
But again, this doesn’t always hold true. And what about hatchets and tomahawks of one-piece, all-metal designs or ones with fiberglass or plastic handles that fasten otherwise? In addition, neither can the length of the handle be a defining feature.
Regardless of how you define them, hatchets and tomahawks are very versatile for quartering downed game, building shelters, cutting or marking trails, chopping kindling, improvising other weapons and tools, or fashioning a travois for hauling game, gear or an injured companion. Holding a hatchet by the head, its edge pointed down, makes it effective for skinning large game.
The metal used in making a hatchet or tomahawk and the heat treatment process it undergoes can be quite different from those of a knife. That’s because with a knife, you’re more concerned with maintaining an extremely hard, sharp edge for cutting; with a tomahawk or hatchet, the idea is to make something that will withstand the shock of constant pounding and chopping.
As a result, tools made for chopping are typically made of slightly softer steel to absorb impacts. And while the edges are not usually as razor sharp, the carbon steel normally used in their construction is easy to sharpen. Better hatchets and tomahawks will be differentially heat treated. In other words, the edge will be made harder than the rest of the head. Try to choose a tool with a forged head rather than one that’s cast, which can have more imperfections.
Handles can be of traditional wood or, often these days, of fiberglass, glass-reinforced nylon or polypropylene. Some hatchets and tomahawks feature very strong, one-piece metal construction. These reduce the chances of the handle breaking and are often covered with rubber, G-10 or some other grip-enhancing material. The drawback is that they don’t absorb shock as well as other materials, and that shock can be transmitted to your hand.
Wooden handles can deteriorate over time, but these handles can usually be replaced or even improvised in the field. And, in the case of some tomahawks, the head can intentionally be removed so that you can use it as a stand-alone hand tool for cutting, scraping, slicing or skinning.
Over the years, I’ve developed certain favorites when it came to hatchets and tomahawks. As a police officer, I carried a SOG Tactical Tomahawk in my patrol bag in the event I needed a tool more robust than my EDC knife for breaching, cutting open secret compartments for contraband, extricating accident victims or on search details in wooded areas.
Believe it or not, the hatchet I’ve used the most was purchased not in a sporting goods store, but in the tool section of my local Sears. It is a Craftsman 1¼-pound Camp Axe with one-piece metal construction and an overmolded rubber grip. I liked it so much that I bought a second one. I’ve also gotten excellent use from a pair of Estwing Sportsman’s Axes. Although they are good choppers, their narrower profile makes them a bit less effective for splitting.
What do all of these have in common?
They were well made, yet affordable. I put them through hard use, but I never abused them or pushed them beyond their design limitations.
A SAW AND A HATCHET OR TOMAHAWK ARE MUCH MORE EFFICIENT AT TURNING BIG WOOD INTO SMALLER WOOD WITHOUT THE RISK OF DULLING OR DAMAGING MY KNIFE THROUGH CHOPPING OR BATONING.
KEEP THE EDGE SHARP
A sharp tool is a safer tool. I touch up the edges on my hatchets and tomahawks with a whetstone—usually a Lansky Dual Grit Puck Sharpener.
When an edge needs more attention, it’s time for the file. Clamp the hatchet to a bench, push the file against the edge from the bit toward the butt, and lift it off to return for the next stroke as you work down the edge. Turn it over, and sharpen the other side likewise. A burr or wire edge that might form can be removed with your stone. Don’t use a high-speed dry grinder, which could ruin the temper.
At this time, I’m putting a trio of choppers from Cold Steel to the test, and I like them a lot so far. The first is the Axe Gang Hatchet. It has a wooden handle and a substantial head with a 4-inch edge. It weighs a full 2 pounds and is configured perfectly for any chopping or splitting I need to do.
The second is Cold Steel’s Trail Hawk. This is a traditional, wooden-handled tomahawk with a 2.25-inch cutting edge and a hammerhead poll. This is a small, lightweight (23.6 ounces) tomahawk, but it features a 22-inch handle, which gives it great leverage. It has proven to be a great chopper and deep penetrator.
The third is Cold Steel’s War Hawk. I was a bit skeptical of its polypropylene handle at first. But after putting it to use, I became a believer.
The 19.3-inch handle is attached with bolts to a long ferrule extending down from the head. It’s very sturdy, and the 3-inch cutting edge is very effective. It also comes with a well-designed articulated sheath.
All three arrived sharp—not always the case with tools from other makers. I liked the fact that all three had rather long handles compared to the competition. Effectiveness wasn’t sacrificed in the name of portability. And, like my earlier favorites, they were all affordable. At real-world prices, you can have all three for less than $100.
Another tomahawk I’ve been putting to the test is a Browning Black Label Shock N’ Awesome Tomahawk. It features one- piece metal construction and G10 handle scales. At just 13 inches long, it’s smaller than most of my ’hawks and hatchets. You’re not going to build a log cabin with it, but it’s proving to be a useful tool.
Admittedly, if I were traveling through jungle terrain, I might choose a good machete over any of these. And I’m not about to give up my big knives. But in the big woods of North America I frequent, I’ll carry a ’hawk or hatchet.
The Defense Never Rests
A couple of hundred years ago, when single-shot muzzleloading rifles were high-tech, a tomahawk was more apt to be an important weapon and not just a tool. But in a long-term survival situation, when ammo might be hard to find, tomahawks could, once again, play a bigger role in your defense.
Although I wrestled my share of drunks during my days as a police officer, I’ll be the first to admit I’m not a martial arts expert, especially when it comes to the use of edged weapons. So, I consulted an expert to see what he had to say about tomahawks and hatchets for defensive use.
Lynn Thompson, founder and president of Cold Steel, is a lifelong outdoorsman, hunter and weapons expert. He is a master of several martial arts disciplines. I asked Thompson what features he looks for in a tomahawk as a defensive weapon?
“From a survivalist’s point of view, in a dire situation, when it’s life and death, pretty much anything is better than fingernails,” Thompson said. “But if we are talking about best-case scenario or time to prep, I’d look for a wide blade with a curved cutting edge, pronounced ‘horns’ for thrusting or hooking, and enough weight to hit hard, but light enough to still maneuver with some degree of speed.
“It should have a long enough handle to give you the reach you need to oppose a knife or even a machete, but not too long, or else it’ll become unwieldy and hard to recover.” But he’d prefer not to use the tomahawk alone.
“I’d also always try to pair a tomahawk with a fixed blade, but anything is a bonus. I always tell my students to fill that empty hand. It gives you a ‘plan B’ if you can’t recover that head-heavy ‘hawk fast enough and someone closes range. It gives you another object that can defend or attack. Remember, with a good tomahawk, you can improvise that other weapon or tool.”
“It’s a very versatile and adaptable weapon, but it does have some challenging aspects. It’s not an easy tool to master, but it is fun to train. There are so many ways to use a tomahawk. It can bludgeon, slap, hook, parry, push, gouge and stab. It’s a power, even against much larger weapons and opponents—if you know how to use it.”
“If nothing else, keep the ‘hawk moving. It’s a head-heavy weapon, tough to change angles or reverse direction. Keep it moving, and don’t over-commit. I always tell my students to use the ‘T’: The top of the spine of the ‘hawk can be used to push, catch, parry, block, strike, any number of things. It presents a larger surface area between you and your assailant.”
“A tomahawk will do unspeakable damage. In many cases, it can be one-hit, one-kill. That’s not something to take lightly. But if you are reading American Survival Guide, you already know that. It’s all about being prepared for the worst-case scenario. That’s what a survivalist does.”
Thompson has put together a set of DVDs, The Fighting Tomahawk, available through Cold Steel.
Cold Steel Inc.
Estwing Manufacturing Company
SOG Specialty Knives, Inc.
Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in the April 2017 print issue of American Survival Guide.