Ancient Weapons – The Indians’ Use of the Tomahawk

By Jack Pendergast
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Ancient Weapons – The Indians’ Use of the Tomahawk
 
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The tomahawk has become a popular weapon or perhaps a fad amongst the survival community. Not anywhere near as effective as a sidearm, the tomahawk nevertheless has an ancient and noble history as a melee weapon and was used by the American Indians.

Perhaps that’s where the tomahawk’s popularity comes from. There is a sort of romance in many people’s minds associated with the Old West and our nation’s westward expansion. American Indians were a part of this, and while often villainized by Hollywood, most Americans have a positive image of the noble Red Man and his culture.

Counting Coup

There was no room for a man who could not be counted on in battle.

American Indians, like many primitive people, were a warlike culture. Warfare secured a tribe’s territory as well as giving men, especially young men, a way of proving their valor. There was no room for a man who could not be counted on in battle. The most respected amongst them were those who had counted many “coup” in battle.

While the American Indians are thought of as a bloody people, this is not the case – at least not by comparison to many other ancient cultures. While fighting was a way of life to them, it was considered a greater honor or a greater coup to touch an enemy or his weapons rather than to kill or even wound him. Touching an enemy without being wounded in the process was a greater coup than touching them and being wounded. So, while killing was normal in their battles, it was not all about killing.

This form of warfare was all about demonstrating one’s bravery. As such, it was considered a greater act of bravery to touch an enemy’s person or weapons with your hand, your bow, or your coup stick (an ornamental stick used to record coup), than to wound or kill him. The fact that the warrior didn’t strike the enemy with the intent to wound, while the enemy was most likely trying to wound him, was a great act of bravery.

The weapons of these Indians were limited. The bow, one of the most used weapons throughout world history, was their main weapon of choice – especially for the Plains Indians, who needed a ranging weapon that could be used at a distance. In addition, they carried either a tomahawk or a spear depending on the tribe. Most also carried a knife, although that was not normally used in battle.

We must remember that before the coming of the white man, the American Indians had no metal products of any type. Their arrowheads, tomahawks, spear points, and knives were mostly made of stone, although bone and shell were used in some regions as well.

Stone Tomahawks

The stone tomahawk was a blunt impact weapon.

As they were made of stone, tomahawks did not have the sharp edge or point that we see today. The most common shape was roughly triangular, with a wide forward edge and a more pointed trailing one. It was more of a blunt impact weapon suited for counting coup than cutting or throwing. While it was possible to throw, that was rarely done as to throw the tomahawk would leave one unarmed.

Tomahawks were made by first shaping the head out of stone. Depending on the tribe and the type of stone they had available to them, this stone head could be nothing more than an appropriately sized river rock. Some went no farther than that. In places where soft rock was available, which could be shaped by rubbing it on harder stone, the triangular shape was more popular. Only rarely were tomahawk heads made out of obsidian or some other rock that could be chipped or “knapped” into shape.

The tomahawk head was attached to a stick, bone, or antler handle with rawhide, which was wrapped around the handle and head in a crossing pattern to make it secure. As the rawhide dried, it would shrink and make a very tight and strong bond between the head and the handle.

These blunt tomahawks were an ideal weapon for counting coup, as they would rarely cause any serious harm to those struck by them – although, occasionally a tomahawk would be used to break a bone or kill an enemy by breaking open their skull.

Metal Tomahawks

This antique metal tomahawk tool is an example of a more versatile design.

The tomahawks of today are little like the original Indian tomahawks. Rather, they more closely resemble trade tomahawks made in factories, which were then used to barter with the Indians for furs. This and other similar innovations brought about enormous changes in the culture of the American Indian. They were introduced to products other than what they could produce themselves and made dependent on those trade goods.

As metal tomahawks replaced stone ones, their use changed as well. Rather than being used to count coup by merely striking an enemy, the users of these metal tomahawks began using them to cause penetrating wounds – cutting open an enemy’s body with the sharp blade of the tomahawk. While some had the spike on the back side, which we recognize as being useful for throwing, most merely had a stub there, which was better suited for use as a hammer to strike and cause blunt-force injuries.

The Tomahawk in Battle

Hollywood has made the idea of throwing the tomahawk popular – not American Indians.

The tomahawk was the American Indian’s equivalent of a wide range of melee weapons used in Europe during the Middle Ages. Melee fighting is done at arm’s length, and any weapon is an extension of the arm – whether providing penetrating trauma or blunt-force trauma. Other than the spear and the coup stick, the tomahawk was the only melee weapon that was part of American Indian culture.

It is Hollywood that has made the idea of throwing the tomahawk popular – not the American Indian. It is clear that early stone tomahawks could not be used effectively in this way. The later metal ones could, but they really weren’t balanced for throwing. So, while you could easily hit an enemy, you couldn’t be sure what part of the tomahawk would hit them or what sort of damage would be caused to them in the process. Throwing away your melee weapon on that uncertainty wasn’t a good idea.

The Tomahawk for us Today

While there are many who like the tomahawk, I see it more as a novelty than anything else.

While there are many who like the tomahawk, I see it more as a novelty than anything else. It is not as effective as a hatchet for cutting wood, and it is not as effective as a pistol or even a bow for self-defense. While I would not hesitate to use a tomahawk to defend myself if I had nothing else that I could use, I would do so in the same way that I would use an ax, quarterstaff, or sword – of necessity rather than as a primary or even secondary weapon.