Survival Tomahawks: Practical, tactical or both?

Native American warriors and soldiers in Vietnam spring to mind when we think of tomahawks. When using a tomahawk for military purposes like hand-to-hand combat and forced entry, it is termed a tactical weapon. When used in daily circumstances like chopping kindling, meat, digging and so forth then its use is practical. Your requirements will determine whether you buy a practical or more tactical weapon, although a number of them do double duty very efficiently.

Through the ages, the possession of an axe often meant the difference between life and death when people had to hunt, create temporary homes on the move and defend themselves from attacks by animals and other humans. The axe and tomahawk these days have evolved into different tools or weapons, the tomahawk being lighter and more versatile as well as having specific design features different to the axe.

In the field of battle, tomahawks have proven their versatility. The Vikings were known for their use of the battle-axe in war- mainly because an axe was much cheaper than the cost of forging a quality sword and of course they were useful around the farm for all sorts of jobs. If a Viking was attacked, he always had his axe with him. Lugging a sword around the farm just wasn’t practical and you can’t throw a sword!

Today preppers often use tomahawks for more practical purposes like wilderness survival rather than the tactical aspect of hand-to-hand combat. The compact and lightweight design makes the tomahawk one of the best camping hatchets to have in your backpack regardless of the situation. After all you always have to be prepared for TEOTWAWKI! With this in mind we have looked at various elements of tomahawk design.

Choosing a Tomahawk

Tomahawks come with all sorts of design detailing and in various materials. The trick is in finding the one best suited to your needs so that it becomes almost an extension of your hand. Ask people abut knives – they often have one knife that suits pretty much all their needs and all hell breaks loose it someone else uses it without permission and blunts it/loses it. The same rule applies to tomahawks!

Finding that magic ‘fit’ can take a long time. So before you go out and spend on a tomahawk perhaps try out a few first  – either ask friends nicely or try some at a quality store. It’s important to check out how it feels before committing. You want it to be a long and happy relationship.

Most times you are going to be using the tomahawk in a survival situation which would include pretty much everything from splitting kindling, chopping meat, digging, piercing metal or hacking loose iron sheeting blown off houses in a tornado/hurricane, getting through obstacles – either chopping through underbrush or doors, notching and about a hundred other things. To understand what is needed we’ll look at 8 tips for choosing a tomahawk but first lets look at the anatomy of the tomahawk.

The Anatomy of a Survival Tomahawk

1 End knob/swell knob
2 Handle/Haft
3 Poll/butt
4 Eye with tip
5 Blade
6 Cutting edge
7 Head
8 Lip/Lug – secures head to haft.

diagram of a tomahawk

Top 8 Points to Consider When Choosing One

 1  Weight

When taking a tomahawk on the trail the weight is important – while an axe or hatchet would probably do the heavy work far quicker you can’t go lugging something that heavy with you. So don’t plan on felling trees or splitting great logs for firewood with your tomahawk – maybe a few saplings if necessary to create a litter if someone is hurt, to create a shelter and for chopping kindling. Around 2 pounds should be the absolute limit for a tomahawk for the trail bag.

2  Sharpness

It’s a waste of money if you buy a tomahawk, remove it from its packaging and realize you need to sharpen it before you can actually use it properly. The steel should be the best quality you can afford to retain the sharpness – in survival situations things can happen quickly and there isn’t time to say, “Whoa there, just need to sharpen the blade.” Have a file with you on the trail to do the sharpening. Watch this video for advice on how to sharpen one:

3 Head material and shape

Best steels to look for when buying:

  • 4140: Carbon 40%. This steel is strong and holds the edge well. Ideal for a tomahawk to use on the trail and in camp.
  • 6150: Carbon 50%. Like the 4140 its holds an edge and is very strong. Useful in practical and tactical applications.

The better quality steel the better the blade – and one is aiming for a sharp blade. Besides sharpness the larger the blade the easier it is to hit something – the smaller the blade the more accurate you have to be- but with the larger blade the force is spread across the width so you won’t go as deep – the smaller blade allows for deeper cuts. This is a factor to be considered when using for practical/tactical purposes.

4 Attachment of head to haft

Throwing tomahawks should have the head separate from the handle – most throwers prefer hickory handles and feel they should not be attached with setscrews as this can damage the wood. The head is attached to the haft by using a hammer or rock to make sure the handle fits snugly into the head sometimes with the help of a wooden wedge to keep it firmly in place. This is pretty much the simplest way of attaching a head.

Tomahawks can also be half tang or full tang – the tang is the part that fits into the handle. Some half tang tomahawks have the head attached with screws to the carbon fiber haft that require Allen keys to undo the screws should something go wrong with the handle – that means making sure you have the correct size Allen key in a bug out situation. Hmmm?  The all in one head and haft, aka full tang although less shock absorbent is pretty much ideal for wilderness trails because it is virtually unbreakable Usually there will be wood attached on either side to provide grip and for aesthetic purposes or the full tang can have a cushion grip.

5 Handle/Haft material

Hardwoods are traditionally used for handles but nowadays Fiberglass is popular as it has good shock absorption and is very durable. It is expensive and will eventually shatter – that’s just due to the nature of the material. Once that handle is gone you can perhaps replace with another carbon fiber handle but that means getting back to a store blah blah… All-in-one forged steel tomahawks (full tang) are virtually unbreakable but they have little shock absorption so will need a cushioned grip. Wood needs care and will probably break at some point but it’s a renewable resource – it takes time and care however to fashion a new handle. But wood is still the best looking handle and hickory is the most popular. Gränsfors Bruk of Sweden use hickory handles for their durability and flexibility.

The tomahawks where the head comes loose from the wooden handle are easy to store in a backpack/bug out bag and if a handle should get broken you can make another one out of wood you come across in your wilderness wanderings. Watch this short 2 minute video for one man’s opinion of the detachable head.

6 Handle/Haft Shape

Traditionally lumberjacks and wood workers who used axes all day long preferred a thinner and flatter profile to the handle. Better flex and shock absorption is provided by the thinner handles. Nowadays they are being made thicker perhaps because the wood is not as good a quality and grain is not being taken into account as it was in previous generations. The most force is encountered in the top third of the handle so in a wooden handle the grain should run straight along the handle shape, particularly near the top as that is where it needs to be strongest.

When it comes to the curve on the handle opinions very – some prefer straight saying it is more accurate, others preferring a curve. The best is to try out straight and curved and see which one you find more accurate and easiest to handle. If you want to see what worked well in the past just compare images for Viking battle axes and Native American tomahawks – the handles of both are pretty much straight. Towards the end of the handle the shaft widened very slightly to prevent it slipping out of the user’s hand, and most were bound with leather for better grip.

Regarding length, the longer the handle the better the reach and the grip can be either one-handed or two-handed with placement of the hands based what is to be achieved. The shorter handle is far easier to control and can be used more nimbly. For throwing tomahawks a straight handle is preferred.

7 Spikes or not

Tactical tomahawks often come with spikes that can be used in a combat situation, but a more practical use might be to have a flat tip so that it can be used for hammering. If used for breaching a spike is handy in penetrating metal, and you can open those cans of beans when camping!

8 Price

The more expensive may not necessarily be the best. Some relatively inexpensive tomahawks will do he same job as their fancy cousins at a fraction of the cost. For example the SOG F01T Tactical Tomahawk at around $36 is a very good all round tool.

Throwing Tomahawks

While some people may find throwing tomahawks a fun way to spend some down time, the majority don’t want to risk of not being able to retrieve their tomahawk in a combat or survival situation. What if the enemy picks it up and throws it back – and his aim was better than yours? If throwing tomahawks for fun is your aim then one has to look at buying a number of them. It also takes a lot practice and some basic safety precautions. Watch this video on tomahawk throwing to get started:

Breaching Tomahawks

The breaching tomahawk will be a bit heavier than the throwing tomahawk and will usually be full tang. This video show three different tomahawks in use in breaching situations and compares their performance:

Tactical Tomahawks

When it comes to using the tomahawk in combat situations no amount of words on a page can make up for practical experience. The best is to go for proper training on the tactical use of your tomahawk. The important thing is to be in tune with your tomahawk, its balance, it weight and what it can do, if you are planning on using it for self-defense.

Take a look at these videos for techniques to be used when starting out in matters of self-defense to those on more advanced techniques.

Basic tomahawk exercises and techniques:

Watch this for some basics on Tomahawk Defense Training Program Level-1 DVD Action Clips:

How to Use A Combat Tomahawk | RMJ Tactical | Kalihawk:

A few suggestions of tomahawks to keep close


Made in the USA. Durable –. Full tang. Preferred by survivalists, fishermen and hunters.

Length: 14 inches  Weight: 1.3lbs   Cost: $35


Head – high carbon steel made in China, hickory handle from USA Separate head and wooden handle. Light enough for a back pack.

Length: 24 inches   Weight: 1.75 lbs.   Cost: $64


This tomahawk is a good working tool and a reliable weapon based on the Vietnam Tomahawk. Broad 420 stainless steel head with fiberglass nylon handle. 16 inches long It’s ideal for harsher conditions or environments. The spike on the poll side is pretty vicious.

Length: 15.75 inches  Weight: 1.5lbs   Cost: $36


A tactical tomahawk designed to inflict damage. Useful in a combat situation due to its light weight and brutal spike.

Length: 10.5 inches Cost: $64  (No specific weight given in specs on this tomahawk by manufacturer)


The full tang head means you can use it for breaching, out on the trail and in combat if you have to. It’s the all in one product for survivalists but it’s heavier weight demands peak fitness if it is being operated for long periods.

Length: 15.9 inches   Weight:  2.69lbs  Cost: $60


Made in Sweden using the most sustainable methods possible this is a quality product that will last a lifetime. It comes with a 20-year warranty hence the heftier price tag. Favored by hunters and survivalists.

Length: 19.5 inches   Weight: 1,5 lbs.  Cost: $425


Ideal for hot zones – whether combat or mopping up after violent acts of nature. Full tang design where failure isn’t an option. Release in November.

Length 15.5 inches Weight: 1.43lbs  Cost $455 – only available on pre-order.

About Jeanie Beales

Jeanie Beales
Traveler, photographer, writer. I'm eternally curious, in love with the natural world. How people can survive in harmony with nature has fueled my food safety and survival gardening practices. Over the years on numerous trips to wild places and cities I've learned all sorts of survival hacks, but there is always someone out there who can teach you a new trick so I remain an eternal student and forever humble.


  1. Avatar

    tomahawks are a complete waste of time, money and effort. and this author does not know what he is saying…4140 does not contain 40% carbon…maybe 0.40% that’s 4/10 of 1%…and that’s a lot of carbon.
    but besides that, the chances of meeting all the conditions of needing one of these tools and also having the skill strength and luck to prevail in the use of one is astronomical at best…

    • Avatar

      I was issued one of these in RVN and also a knife ,both of which I wish I had kept. The hawk was more useful then the knife in my role and it was more deadly then the knife. It also opened ammo crates and choked up on the head made a good cutting tool. I kike and used the knife too but hawk was faster at some things. Even if the author is not versed in metallurgy his other points are good. My only dismay is the cost of them and try to find one made in USA.

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    I was issued one of these in RVN and it was more useful then the knife they gave me, good knife wish I had brought them home. He may be off on the metallurgy but on as of use from killing someone to opening ammo grates etc hawk is better. choke up on blade and make a good cutting tool. Cost is to high now for a good one. and hard to find made in USA.

  3. Avatar

    Many years ago, I called my friend, who is a retired 26 year Special Forces LT Col. I asked John what I should get my son in law , who was in the box, supporting SF and SEALS, with his group of JTACS. I had wanted to gift him a 1911, however John pointed out he was USAF, and their rules were the 9mm.

    John told me his guys were carrying tomahawks and that the enemy was scared to death of the hawks. John suggested the RMJ tactical. I purchased several, as I wanted the numbers to be in series. My SIL received his while in country. The others arrived here at home, where I gave them to my male family members.

    Each of us still have our RMJ, hawks, and charring the, to this day. I’m a retired police officer, and Deputy sheriff, with lots and lots of time in the woods, hunting cartel marijuana grows. I carried,my hawk on every garden. A very capable weapon, or tool.

    Fast forward.all the ladies in my family have BOBs, each has a hawk in their BOB kits. Those hawks are the SOG, versions. Buy with confidence. A great tool for every environment.

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