Tomahawks originated in North America among the Iroquoian and Algonquian Indians who used them as tools, weapons, and ceremonial pieces. The word comes from a transliteration of the Algonquin word for “to strike down.” The first tomahawks were made with wooden shafts and heads of bone, rock, or wood. Europeans introduced the metal blade and traded the tomahawks with the Indians, who became very adept at using them in battle and came to greatly prize them. The poll of the tomahawk’s head–the side opposite the blade–consisted of a hammer, spike, or even a pipe. These pipe tomahawks, which were made with a bowl on the poll and a hollowed out shaft, were created by European and American artisans for trade and as diplomatic gifts for the Indian tribes; they symbolized two sides of a coin: war and peace. As multi-purpose tools, pipe tomahawks were considered extremely useful and desirable by the Indians.
The tomahawk was carried by American soldiers during the Revolutionary War (in fact, the Continental Congress required militiamen to carry either a tomahawk or a cutting sword), to chop wood, dress game, and yes, even to hew down a redcoat, ala Mel Gibson in The Patriot. Flintlock guns were unreliable and slow to reload, and the tomahawk made an excellent back-up weapon for hand-to-hand combat.
As guns advanced, the tomahawk fell into disuse, although it was still carried by some American soldiers during WWII and the Korean War. The tomahawk then enjoyed a bit of a revival during Vietnam. Between 1966 and 1970, Peter LaGana, a WWII veteran of Mohawk-descent, crafted and sold thousands of tactical tomahawks by direct mail to American troops serving in Vietnam. His updated tomahawk featured a sturdy, penetrating spike for the poll. In 2000, both LaGana’s company, the American Tomahawk Co., and his Tomahawk design were revived and other companies have followed suit in producing their own tomahawks based on the Vietnam model.
Today, surprisingly enough, the tomahawk continues to be carried by some military units in Iraq and Afghanistan. Although it can still be used for hand-to-hand combat (the Vietnam models are capable of penetrating a Kevlar helmet), the soldiers mostly use it as a handy multi-purpose tool capable of breaching doors, deflating tires, smashing windows, breaking locks, chopping through cinder blocks, and opening crates. And of course, it’s something that can be thrown for sport and amusement to pass the time.