Tomahawks are multipurpose tools for bushcraft, throwing, and simple splitting and chopping tasks. While the modern versions are sleek, futuristic-looking tools with far-reaching features, they weren’t always like that. This guide looks at the history of tomahawks and their uses over the centuries.

Who invented the tomahawk?

While precise dates are tricky to pinpoint for the invention of the tomahawk, it originated from the Algonquian Indians who lived in North America.

The original axe was a simple tool made by sharpening a stone using pecking and knapping techniques. Thin rawhide strips were then used to tie the rock to a straight wooden handle.

The word tomahawk derives from the Algonquian words “tamakakan”, “tomahak” or “tamahak”. This reference covered a range of tools like clubs, axes, hatchets, or similar implements used for striking or cutting.

Other historical Lenape terms related to tomahawk include:

  • Tamahickan [1648] an axe
  • Tomohickan [1684] ax
  • Tmahikan [1755] hatchet, axe
  • Tomehéékun [1824] (source)

How did Native Americans use the tomahawk?

Native Americans had a variety of uses for the tomahawk. It was used as a general-purpose tool, as a weapon, and for ceremonies.

  1. General purpose tool: tomahawks were light tools designed to swing with one hand. Its long handle provided immense power for delivering powerful blows. Their weight made them well-suited for cutting tasks. The Navajo and Cherokee peoples used them for chopping meat, clearing brush, and limbing branches for fires.
  2. Weaponry: the tomahawk was used for centuries as a melee weapon. Their weight and balance allowed fast swinging and effective hand-to-hand close combat. Although tomahawks were occasionally thrown at the enemy, this was a more common practice during animal hunting.
  3. Ceremonial tool: Native American ceremonies commonly included tomahawks as part of the process. They were instrumental in signing peace treaties and were buried ceremonially at the end of hostilities between rival factions. These pieces were traditionally elaborately decorated with feathers, carvings, and paintings.
  4. Smoking pipes: Smokerhawks or pipe tomahawks had a bowl and a hollowed-out shaft made for smoking. They were presented to visiting tribal chiefs as part of a ceremony.
A Native American in traditional dress with text highlighting the primary uses for a tomahawk
The tomahawk was much more than a weapon.

How did the Europeans influence the tomahawk?

Before the arrival of Europeans, tomahawk heads were constructed with stone. The blades were relatively blunt and lacked strength. There is some evidence of Inuit and Mohawk tribes using meteorite iron to fashion blades.

In 1492 Europeans began arriving on the shores of North America in significant numbers. They brought with them metal blades which local tribes quickly adopted. Over time, they also became popular with European settlers, trappers, and frontiersmen.

The poll (butt) of the tomahawk also became a valuable part of the tool. It would typically have a spike, hammer, or another functional feature. They became a sought-after asset with significant value.

The first English record of the tomahawk was in 1608. John Smith from Jamestown, VA, was a Captain and an author. He wrote about his men using a type of hatchet. 

How have tomahawks been used in warfare?

During the Revolutionary War in the late 18th century, military personnel were required to carry a sword or tomahawk. A melee weapon was an essential piece of equipment during this era, with slow-loading guns that often misfired.

During World War II and the Korean War, there was limited use of the tomahawk. Guns and other weaponry had improved, rendering hand-to-hand weapons less critical.

The tomahawk made a resurgence during the Vietnam War. They were invaluable in jungle warfare for chopping through hut walls to avoid booby traps. In rough terrain, they were handy for clearing an area for choppers to land. Of course, the tomahawk also made an effective close-range weapon.

After the attacks on 9/11, a Special Operations Task Force used tomahawks in the hunt for Bin Laden. In Afghanistan, they were valuable weapons for breaking through walls, fire making, and close combat fighting. The tomahawk continued to increase in popularity with the U.S. military for the next ten years.

The German-based 172nd Stryker Brigade Combat Team continues to use tomahawks. The VTAC model comes with each Stryker armored vehicle to help with extractions, rescues, and combat.

You can find out all the uses for a tomahawk here.

A teepee in the dessert made from small logs
Tomahawks helped with shelter building.

Commonly asked questions

What was the cultural significance of the tomahawk?

While tomahawks were originally a basic tool, they evolved into an essential part of Native American society. They were used to signify status and were an important diplomatic gift.

Did the tomahawk come from Scandinavia?

Native American tomahawks took inspiration from the Viking axes, which have similar designs. However, the Scandinavians used these axes as a throwing weapon; in America, they were multipurpose tools for hunting, bushcraft, ceremonies, and combat.

Did Native Americans throw tomahawks in battle?

While Native Americans used tomahawks in battle, it is unlikely they were thrown at enemies. Throwing axes in battle left the warrior in a vulnerable position, so swinging blows at close range was more likely.

What role did the tomahawk play in early American warfare?

Early American warfare saw the tomahawk wielded by Native American and European forces. The weapon was a compelling choice for close combat, but it also helped each army chop wood, create shelters, and more.

How has the tomahawk’s design evolved over time?

The original Native American tomahawk was made of wood and stone, but later versions featured metal blades and other modifications. The modern tomahawk is used for various purposes, including camping, hunting, and self-defense.

What controversies surround the use of the tomahawk?

Some Native American advocates argue that the tomahawk is a sacred object and should not be used as a prop or decoration. They also argue its use by non-Native Americans is an example of cultural theft and disrespect.

Summing up

The tomahawk is a hand-held axe that originated among the Native American tribes of North America, particularly the Algonquian people. It was used for a variety of purposes, including chopping wood, digging, skinning animals, and as a weapon in warfare.

Tomahawks hold significant cultural and spiritual importance for Native American tribes and have been used in tribal ceremonies and rituals. European colonizers who came to North America adopted the tomahawk for their own use, both as a tool and a weapon.

The design of the tomahawk has evolved over the decades to meet the changing needs of its users. The modern ‘hawk has multiple uses, including camping, hunting, and competitive throwing.

Tomahawks have been controversial in modern times, particularly regarding their use as a symbol of Native American culture.


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