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The Tomahawk in Combative Measures
and Law-Enforcement

by Steven J. Kaplan

It may be a safe assumption to make in saying that most people, upon hearing the word "tomahawk", would make an association to the Native American tradition. While this may be an accurate association, the roots of the tomahawk go back even further in history. In terms of its use by the U.S. military, we may trace it back to the Revolutionary War, when it was carried by troops, and it still used to this day. While not a uniformly issued weapon to all branches of service, members of various branches of Special Forces are the ones generally seen carrying and employing the weapon.

The tomahawk does in fact have many uses, but for the purposes of this article, we will focus on its use as a weapon in the combat arena. Generally speaking, the size of the tomahawk is 18" to 24", although there have been smaller and larger made. Its size gives it a distinct advantage over the combat knife. Other advantages are its penetrating ability -- it can punch through an enemy's Kevlar helmet, it can cut, hook, and grip an enemy, one strike from the tomahawk is generally a kill, it is extremely durable, the sharp tip of the edges can jab or stab, and it meets non-explosive entry needs. This is coupled with its ability to clear bush and chop wood when needed in the field. There are, however, a couple of disadvantages to the tomahawk as a weapon. Since it is a head-heavy weapon, once a stroke is launched, it cannot be stopped mid-stream or suddenly change direction. If the target is missed, it is difficult to maintain a grip on the handle. These seem to be the only real disadvantages to this formidable combat weapon.

As with any weapon, there are general and specific techniques for its use, both offensive and defensive. (Those familiar with the kama may see similarities in some of the techniques.) There are a variety of stances one may assume, weapon hand forward and weapon hand back. Footwork, often forgotten, is vitally important, with tai sabaki style movements seen in the evasions/blocks, and as setups for strikes and pulls. There are those who advocate the throwing of the tomahawk, and today, tomahawk throwing competitions may be seen all across the country. This can be dangerous for the thrower, since, as with the fighting knife, unless one is expert at throwing the weapon, or one has a backup weapon at hand (e.g., knife or bayonet), a weapon should (almost) never be thrown. It is simply a matter of winding up weaponless if the throw misses or is ineffective. While there is a very general rule that it is better to be on the offensive than the defensive with this weapon, throwing it does not fit into this category.

As to the tomahawk's use in law-enforcement, we find select units of S.W.A.T., the Drug Enforcement Agency, and the Department of Justice employing the tomahawk, but not in the combative manner of the military. It is used primarily for entry, terrain disruption, and vehicle stoppage. There have been reports that border patrol officers have had to use the tomahawk in a combat role, though as stated, this is not the intended use. To the best of my research findings, there is no official manual issued by any branch of law-enforcement or the military on the use of the tomahawk.

The final point to consider is where to receive proper instruction in the use of the tomahawk. In glancing at ads in the Yellow Pages, internet, and martial arts magazines, there are those claiming to teach the "combat tomahawk", or "ancient Native American killing techniques" of the tomahawk. Obviously, these ads should raise an eyebrow or two. Common sense dictates that any martial artist can purchase a tomahawk (average prices range from $30- to $350-) and adapt and apply it to the techniques of his/her system. This trend was seen when Kung Fu first hit American shores, as was the case with Ninjutsu, "combat/reality fighting", and cane techniques. There were new "masters" everywhere. Some even offer to teach tomahawk katas, something of interest since the tomahawk is not part of the Oriental martial arts. Even the tomahawk itself has suffered the same "evolutionary indignities" as its Oriental cousin, the kama, in that the handles are sometimes found lighted, there are holes in places (to allow one to hear the wind swish through), grips are different (and dangerous), and rather that the traditional wooden handles, a variety of synthetic materials are found. The actual design of some of the newer versions often resembles some of the weapons reminiscent of a B-grade 1950s science fiction movie.

With these cautions in mind, where does the serious martial arts practitioner find legitimate and proper instruction of this weapon, outside of the military or very few law-enforcement agencies? There are some in the Native American communities who teach the tomahawk's use, as has been passed down to them from their elders. They can generally be reached through their respective tribal councils. There is no guarantee they will teach "outsiders", but a ranking martial artist will have a better chance of receiving instruction than a non-trained individual who may be enamored by the weapon. It must be kept in mind that this is a deadly weapon which should have no practical combat use outside the military and/or law-enforcement.

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