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Get a Handle on Close-Quarters Combat With a Tomahawk

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More Than Chopping

Safety Disclaimer

The concepts shown here are for illustrative purposes only. Seek professional training or instruction before attempting any techniques discussed or shown in this story.

If you've had the chance to pick up one of the latest tactical tomahawks, your reaction was probably something like, “Whoa, that's really cool…now how do I use it?” There's been a resurgence in the popularity of these weapons in recent years, and for good reason. Not many tools can match the tomahawk for sheer versatility of function — and effectiveness in close-quarters combat.

The basic design is nothing new, with variations a favorite among warriors of many cultures throughout history. Shortly after the introduction of metal tools to North America, Native Americans quickly adapted them to axe heads, previously fashioned with stone or deer antler. Thus was the development of what we now call the tomahawk, a staple tool of frontiersmen. My ancestors, the native Maori warriors of New Zealand, also went through a similar evolutionary process with their weapons after the arrival of metal-bearing Europeans. Axe heads were recognized for their potential and affixed to ornately carved handles, quickly becoming a favorite close-quarters weapon called patiti.

Today the word tomahawk is used loosely to refer to pretty much any one-handed tactical axe. But they may not necessarily replicate the dimensions of the original Native American and frontiersman designs, which commonly utilized a long, straight wooden shaft of about 2 feet with a long head and narrow cutting edge of roughly 4 inches. Many modern design changes can be attributed to advances in materials used in production today. Much like a good knife, a good tomahawk can be used as an everyday multitool, fulfilling various functions. But when the proverbial fecal matter hits the ventilator, the simple effectiveness of the tomahawk in close-quarters combat (CQC) is hard to match. Few weapons in the modern arsenal are capable of delivering lacerations, blunt trauma, and even puncturing wounds with the efficiency of a well-made tomahawk.



Reach is one of the advantages a tomahawk gives the wielder in a CQC scenario. This will vary with design, but most tomahawks range from 18 to 24 inches long. The length of the handle makes a difference in combat, as a longer handle provides more reach, allowing more standoff distance from an assailant — which in turn affords more reaction time. The potential to generate more centrifugal force with each swing is also maximized with a longer handle. However, the longer the handle, the more difficult to utilize the weapon at extremely close quarters, potentially providing an assailant opportunities to control your weapon in this situation.

The size of the axe head will also make a difference. The greater the mass, the greater the force that can be generated with each strike. But again, too much mass will slow the weapon down and make it difficult to wield and recover from committed swings. Native Americans seem to have found the perfect balance between handle length and axe head size to accommodate their fighting style, their build, and the environment in which they fought. You too will need to find a tomahawk that likewise takes these factors into consideration. Sometimes a shorter handle makes the tomahawk more practical with regards to where and when you can carry it, which again may end up being the overwhelming factor in the design you choose.

Like in shooting, position and mobility are vital to proper tomahawk use. Here Jared Wihongi demonstrates a “true lead” (first) versus a “false lead” (seccond), both of which can be used depending on your circumstances and your assailant(s).


While teaching combatives programs in various countries to various types of clientele, including covert operators, I see a lot of variation in the permissiveness of various environments worldwide. For civilian everyday carry (EDC), I'm a proponent of tools that can be used for common tasks, but that also double as defensive weapons. That way the likelihood will be greater that you'll keep carrying it on your person or in an accessible location — even when the novelty of the latest new toy wears off. The more you carry it, the more likely you'll have it with you when the time comes that you need it. Two great examples of this are tactical pens and tactical lights. It's also important to carry weapons that might not have multi-function roles, such as firearms, but people by nature tend to take the path of least resistance and will often stop carrying EDC weapons once it becomes inconvenient. If it fills several roles, then you have more reasons to carry it.

Many Uses

The tomahawk is a tool that certainly fits the multipurpose role. It might not be a practical EDC item for every situation, but in permissive environments there's no reason why you can't have one in your car, trailer, boat, bug-out bag, or on your tactical kit. And certainly you can have one in your house. Part of the resurgence in popularity of the tomahawk with military personnel, local patrol officers, and even SWAT teams is the fact that in addition to being a great backup weapon, it can be used as an entry breaching tool, an extraction tool, and a general purpose cutting and chopping tool.

When used as a defensive weapon, the tomahawk in most places will fall into the lethal weapon category, much like a gun or knife. Thus, it will be difficult to justify using one when you're not in fear of death or serious bodily injury to yourself or another person you're trying to protect.

The reality of a combative encounter, as opposed to a combat-sports match, is there are a lot of unknowns and variables that must be accounted for. For example, the number of assailants, the size, gender, and physique of the assailant(s), as well as the lighting conditions, the environment, and the weapons you and/or the assailant might be armed with — and more. Therefore unless you train long and often to prepare for the many conceivable self-defense scenarios one could get caught in, my recommendation is to base your training on sound principles that can be readily adapted to any problem you might face, for combatives is truly a dynamic process of evaluating, deciding, and acting. In the Filipino martial art of Pekiti-Tirsa Kali, we call this the Transferable Methodology Principle, or the ability to apply techniques, tactics, and countermeasures with consistency across various weapon systems and types of attack. That being said, let's dive into the dynamics of the tomahawk and a few basic concepts.

Grip your tomahawk like you would a hammer, leaving an inch or two from the bottom so you can use the pommel. You can also choke up on the handle for better control of the edge.



How do you hold a tomahawk? Simple. Take a good firm hammer-grip like you would if you were hitting a nail or chopping wood with a hatchet. Try to leave an inch or two at the base for close-quarter pommel strikes.

In extremely close quarters where wide swings become more of a liability, you can choke up higher on the handle to give you more control of the head for offensive and defensive application. Don't go any further with grip changes, which are better suited for Hollywood set pieces rather than real-life street encounters. Changing hands or grips with any weapon while someone is trying to kill you is generally not a good idea, especially once physiological stress symptoms take effect in life-and-death situations, such as the loss of fine motor control.

Position and Mobility

Combatives are dynamic, and there's not typically a lot of time for posturing and stances that you often see in combat sports like boxing or mixed martial arts. Much like in football, you may assume a position before the action starts, but never return to that position once the contact begins. What's more important is mobility (i.e. footwork) and balance. Position your legs too wide, and you'll have limited mobility. Position your legs too narrow, and you'll have poor balance. Stick to the tactic of keeping one foot flat for stability, and one heel light for mobility, keeping a 60/40 weight distribution that changes based on direction of movement.

Tomahawk chop: Swinging downward 45 degrees diagonally can deliver one-hit-one-kill damage.

Tomahawk chop: Swinging downward 45 degrees diagonally can deliver one-hit-one-kill damage.

Tactically, and environment permitting, try to position yourself to an opponent's “outside line,” taking either a true-lead or false-lead position (see image). This means you'll need to quickly assess which side of your assailant's body is positioned forward, and move toward the outside of their forward arm and toward his back. This will put you in a position where your assailant will have difficulty assaulting you while simultaneously being vulnerable to your counterattacks. Only expect to get slight angles on your opponent and to keep moving, as he will also reposition himself based on your movement. Keep in mind, however, that while fighting on the outside line might be a preference, training “inside line” and “centerline” are also important as you cannot always dictate position.

Chopping with the Primary Edge (Bit)

The fundamental and most obvious ability of the tomahawk is to deliver powerful and decisive one-hit one-kill damage with the primary edge of the weapon. Depending on the weight of your tomahawk, practice delivering short non-telegraphed “broken” strikes that can not only create openings, but also create enough injury to a hand or forearm to make holding a weapon difficult for an assailant. For more powerful “fluid” strikes, recovery will be important as it's easy to leave openings for counterattacks if you miss your mark.

To minimize this, practice a downward angle close to 45 degrees, letting the weight of the weapon flow down then back up over the opposite shoulder. A follow-up backhand strike can then be delivered defensively or in a combination attack, but this strike should also be in a similar downward 45-degree motion. Try to practice these two strike angles in a fluid figure-eight motion — this fluidity will add power, speed, and controllability to your tomahawk swings. In close-quarters where you may employ a choked-up grip, cutting motions could also be used as you gain more control of the head of the tomahawk.

Thrusting with the Lead Point (Toe)

Taking out a bad guy's eyes or nose with a tomahawk is quite effective and very unexpected.

Taking out a bad guy's eyes or nose with a tomahawk is quite effective and very unexpected.

Utilizing economy of motion in combatives is always a good idea. The fastest path from A to B is a straight line, and not many people expect a thrusting attack coming from a tomahawk. Aim the lead point straight between your opponent's eyes. If you hit the nose, expect a small window of opportunity where you can deliver a more decisive blow before your assailant recovers. If you miss the nose, you still have high-value targets on either side that will give you the same advantage.

Hooking with the Following Edge (Heel)

A tomahawk's "following edge" can be used to hook limbs, disarm weapons, and set up takedowns.

A tomahawk's “following edge” can be used to hook limbs, disarm weapons, and set up takedowns.

One of the biggest advantages of this weapon is the ability to hook and control weapons, limbs, heads, or torsos with the tomahawk's heel (also known as the following edge) while inflicting damage with the following point. Use this technique to create openings for counterattacks, to disrupt your opponent's balance, and even to disarm them.

As Conrad Bui (left) attacks, Jared Wihongi parries the stab with his left hand while slicing Conrad's bicep with his tomahawk. Then Jared chops the back of his opponent's knee, having the option of following through with a takedown.


Stabbing with the Butt (Spike)

Depending on your position, countering with the 'hawk's butt-end could end a fight quickly.

Depending on your position, countering with the ‘hawk's butt-end could end a fight quickly.

If the dynamics of your environment or position are such that your full-force primary edge strike leaves you with your arm extended downward in a seemingly vulnerable position at extremely close quarters, rip your arm back to its starting position using the butt of the weapon offensively or counter-offensively. Depending on the type of tomahawk you have, there's a lot of potential to inflict heavy damage with this technique. Butt-end hooking tactics could also be employed as discussed with primary edge hooking.

As Conrad Bui (right) raises his knife, Jared Wihongi chambers his tomahawk on his left side to intercept and hook the attack out of the way. He then traps his opponent's arm and gets his point across.


Crushing with the Pommel

If the combative encounter evolves into extremely close quarters, or even into a clinch position, the pommel of the tomahawk can be used to deliver devastating crushing blows to your assailant's skull. Some tomahawks are even designed with this tactic in mind, with pointed pommels integrated into the handle.

Weapons Systems

With regards to weapons-based combatives, it's critically important to develop the principles of speed, power, timing, precision, footwork, and distance awareness among other combative attributes. These principles were hammered into me by my primary instructor, Grandmaster Leo Tortal Gaje Jr., and over the years I've come to understand the vital importance of these principles. In the end, these attributes will often decide how well you'll be able to apply your techniques and tactics, and these attributes take training to develop. Each of us is born with varying degrees of these warrior athletic attributes, and each of us is capable of enhancing these natural attributes through training. Techniques without these attributes will be hard to pull off in the real world, and they can be harnessed into competent fighting skills with sound techniques and training.

If possible, seek the guidance of a good instructor — there are a lot out there…and a lot of bad ones, too, so be careful. Much of it comes down to the experience, knowledge, and coaching skills of the instructor, and not always the system they teach. Those seeking skills in weapons-based arts often gravitate toward the Filipino martial arts. Either way you look at it, the tomahawk has been a favorite weapon and tool of warriors for centuries, and should be a staple part of your tactical kit also.

A tomahawk makes a pretty good hammer, too.

A tomahawk makes a pretty good hammer, too.

About the Author

Jared Wihongi is the founder and president of Survival Edge Tactical Systems Inc., a training and consulting company. He specializes in close-quarter combatives, fully integrating empty hands, contact weapons, and firearms in his programs. As one of a handful of tuhon-level (master) instructors of the Filipino martial art of Pekiti-Tirsia Kali, he conducts multiple seminars worldwide every year, serves as chairman of the Pekiti Tirsia Tactical Association, and is the spokesperson and tactical product consultant for Browning's Black Label tactical equipment line.

His 15 years of law enforcement experience as a patrol officer, SWAT team member, and firearms/defensive tactics instructor have heavily influenced his training and consulting programs. Plus, for the past decade, he's served as a contractor for U.S. special and covert operation units, teaching his Tri-Angle Combatives (TRICOM) and Sole Operator Survival (SOS) programs.

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