During the opening of the North American frontier people living at the tip of the spear relied on their muzzleloading firearms for food and defense. Whether it was a rifle, musket, fowling piece (aka shotgun), or blunderbuss (aka really BIG shotgun), each arm required a few specialized tools in addition to its ammunition. Over time the owner of the gun built up a kit of various artifacts that were carried in a “possibles” bag slung over the shoulder.
Antique possibles bags and their contents have become collectibles in recent years, but that is another article in itself.
As I gained experience as a black powder shooter some odd items found their way into my possibles bag.
These objects had more to do with my comfort and convenience than they did with shooting, but one item that became part of my hunting kit is a tomahawk.
When I pick up my rifle, I grab my powder horn, possibles bag and the tomahawk comes along, too. With these items and a bit of knowledge, I can hunt, keep warm, and build a shelter to stay out of the weather.
My ‘hawk isn’t anything special.
It’s a “Blackhawk” model manufactured by M&W out of Canada.
Over the years it has been joined by a Cold Steel “Vietnam Tomahawk,” pictured above, which is a replica of a tomahawk designed by Peter LaGana, and originally sold by the American Tomahawk Company (ATC) from 1966 to 1970-something.
As hairy chested as the LaGana replica looks, it’s just not all that practical, so my old tomahawk is the one that I carry.
The word “tomahawk” is derivative of a Powhatan/Algonquin word “timahikan,” and refers to a light axe similar in profile to a camp hatchet and used primarily as a close combat weapon. They were primary weapons for Roger’s Rangers, the ancestor of the modern U.S. Army Rangers.
Before the European invasion of North America the native peoples’ metalworking skills were insufficient to produce weaponry, so the tomahawks were more club-like than axe-like in appearance. These early tomahawks were fitted with stone heads or had rounded heads formed from the taproot of small trees.
The round-headed clubs were often enhanced with a spike of wood, bone, or antler to deliver a penetrating blow in addition to the crushing impact of the head itself.
Fine examples of these ball-headed tomahawks appeared in the 1992 version of “Last of the Mohicans” carried by the Huron warriors in the massacre scene. The Pawnee character played by Wes Studi carried a spiked version in “Dances With Wolves”.
After the arrival of the Europeans, iron axe heads became popular trade items between the colonists and Native tribes. The design of these axe heads was based on the naval “boarding axe” in common use by almost all nations during the period. It consisted of a single cutting edge with a spike on the reverse similar to a miniaturized fire axe. As trade developed, tomahawk heads evolved into a wide variety of unusual shapes. Copper and brass were introduced as alternatives to the standard iron.
Weapons were a source of pride among the Indians, and the tomahawk was no exception. They were often decorated with brass tacks, feathers, and beaded pendants as shown in the photos. One of the more unusual styles of tomahawk are the “pipe” tomahawk.
Pipe tomahawks replace the spike with a small pipe bowl that is often mistaken for a hammer poll. The handles of these hawks were drilled out, so the weapon was a fully functional smoking pipe in addition to being a very effective close quarter weapon.
While not a true “tomahawk” in the common usage of the word, a new kind of war club emerged after the Indians encountered the European’s firearms. This new weapon resembled the buttstock of a musket without the barrel and firing mechanism, and is generally referred to as a “gunstock” or “riflestock” war club.
Russell Means carried a massive version of the gunstock club in his role as Chingachgook in the 1992 version of “Last of the Mohicans”. These clubs were often enhanced with blades mounted on the back of the “wrist” area of the gunstock.
Native American style tomahawks have become quite collectible; many are true works of art.
Originals dating from the Colonial period to 1900 can be extremely expensive. The beginning collector has the option of purchasing a modern tomahawk directly from artists in many of the Nations. The advantage of this is the collector can receive a truly personal weapon in the finest tradition of the classic American warrior.