Currently, the survival industry is experiencing an unprecedented boom.  As a result, many manufacturers are now producing so-called “tactical” tomahawks for consumers whose notion of survival is informed largely by The Walking Dead

Most of these products are cheap novelties, fit only for recreation or decoration.  In this article, we’ll examine what constitutes a tactical tomahawk or hatchet, which attributes of these very unique tools are most desirable, and analyze noteworthy hatchets and tomahawks on available today’s market and recommend a few of our favorites.

In fact, below, please take a moment to use our interactive guide to compare some of the most popular tomahawks and hatchets against one another. 

PhotoModelPrice

Gransfors Bruks Axe$$$

Gerber Clearpath Machete$$
CRKT Kangee Tomahawk$$$
SOG Tactical Tomahawk$

Ka-Bar Kukri$$$

Expat Libertariat Machete$$$

Idea Traits for a Tactical Hatchet

It has often been said, but bears repeating: there is no one tool that is ideal for all situations.  A tomahawk designed for counter-insurgency missions in Afghanistan will have different design priorities than one designed for crash survival in Alaska. 

There are some broad categories that will apply to all tomahawks and hatchets, and then there are some decisions that must be made based on your expected use of the tool.

● Length.  Most users will prefer a haft for their axe which is between 12 and 26 inches in length.  A shorter hatchet may seem preferable in terms of weight management, but it is far more difficult to use safely and the lack of leverage will make chopping inefficient. 

Conversely, if the haft is longer than 26,” the axe is moving more into the range of a full-size axe and can no longer truly be called a hatchet or tomahawk.  While a longer haft makes for stronger blows, it is also more cumbersome to carry and may be difficult to use in tight quarters or a combat situation.  Most users will find an axe between 16 and 22 inches to be ideal.  This is the right size to be used comfortably in one hand, but can also be wielded in two for added power.

● Head size.  Many tactical tomahawks have extremely small heads, sometimes with a width of 2 inches or less.  The advantage of a smaller head is that the force of the blow is distributed over a smaller surface area, resulting in greater penetration of the target.  However, the smaller the head, the more difficult it becomes to land the strike, and the more precision is required.  Battle-axes and polearms of the Medieval era often had very small striking surfaces, almost more like a spike or beak. 

However, this greatly limits the weapon’s utility as a survival tool.  Moreover, these weapons require far more practice to use effectively – practice time that is almost certainly better spent at the firing range or gym.  The head should be no narrower than 3”.  Even 3” requires some expertise when using as a hatchet, lest the wielder accidentally strike themselves.  Remember that technique is of the utmost importance.  No axe should ever be used by an untrained woodsman.

● Steel.  It is of the utmost importance that the axe steel be of good quality, if it is to be used in a survival, rescue or combat capacity.  Carbon steel is preferable, as it holds an edge very well and is durable.  However, many manufacturers produce axes made of specialized alloys which are also quite acceptable. The steel must be of sufficient hardness to withstand high-impact blows, yet not brittle.  1055c or higher is ideal. 

● Edge. Edge should be whetted and sharpened.  A convex bevel is preferable for a combat weapon, whereas a rescue or survival tool should be tailored to the expected environment.  A flat bevel is preferable for boreal environments (better for chopping coniferous wood), whereas a convex is preferable for hardwood (better for splitting, more durable).  If the environment is unknown, a slight convex bevel at a 30 degree angle is best. This can be easily achieved on most axes using a mill bastard file and a sharpening puck.

● Haft material.  Traditionally, axes have handles made of wood (often ash or hickory).  Nowadays, most tactical axes have handles that are either composed of the same steel as the head in an all-in-one construction, or else made of fiber glass or other polymers.  Fiber glass and other polymers are light and durable, but not indestructible.  The all-steel construction is by far the strongest construction, but also the heaviest. 

These should be considered for a combat weapon or breaching tool.  Wood may seem to be an inferior choice, but actually offers several advantages.  Properly-treated wood is extremely ergonomic in use.  In addition, if the handle breaks, it is just a matter of time to construct another (as opposed to an axe with a fiber glass handle, which may become unusable if broken).  On many wood-handled tomahawks, the head can easily be removed to be used as a makeshift knife (eg, for skinning), and the haft length can easily be changed to change it from a chopping tool to a combat weapon.

● Purpose.  This is one of the most critical considerations.  Is this tool meant for utility, or is it meant for combat?  Every tool must be a compromise.  Think carefully about what situations you expect to find yourself in.  If you need to cut your way through a concrete wall, you will require a different axe than if you plan to build a pine cabin to keep yourself alive in the freezing cold. 

Below, please take a look at some of the best-selling knives available on Amazon:

BEST SELLERS
1) Mossy Oak
2) Ka-Bar USMC
3) Cold Steel Survivalist
5) Camp Lore PR-4
4) Cold Steel San Mai SRK

A few popular purposes for hatchets and tomahawks are:

Breaching (glass breaking, door/wall breaching)

Chopping (timber, ice, game etc)

Digging/scraping

Combat

Recreation (throwing, competition)

● Poll.  The poll refers to the rear of the axe-head.  Most hatchets will have either a hammer poll, or a spike poll.  If a tomahawk has a poll, it will usually be either a spike or a classic “bowl” poll.  The trend currently is for most tactical axes to feature a spike poll, but think carefully about whether this is actually suitable for your needs.  A spike poll aids greatly in penetrating materials like steel or kevlar, making it suitable for combat or for breaching.  However, it will also make the axe useless for tasks like splitting boards from a log, or hammering stakes in the ground. 

● Ergonomics & grip.  While this is a secondary concern, it should not be ignored.  Good ergonomics make a tool safer and more pleasant to use, and can be the difference between life and death in combat.  Many tactical tomahawks offer ruggedized grips and ergonomically-engineered hafts to aid the user.  However, even a simple straight wooden haft (such as those found on historical tomahawks) can easily be modified with woodcarving, grip tape, or paracord to make a suitable grip.

How to Use a Hatchet or Axe Correctly

Consider carefully what practical applications you plan for your hatchet or tomahawk.  As SOG Specialty Knife & Tool designer Chris Cabaugh stated in an interview with Indefinitely Wild that a hatchet is going to be most ideal for certain tasks, like chopping, splitting, shaving and much more. 

So, let’s go into some detail regarding this many important tasks:

● Chopping.  This is generally the first thing people think of, and it is often the most important.  Axes are designed to chop wood.  If the tactical axe is not suitable for this, it is not a true axe.  A good axe will be able to handle a variety of chopping tasks – in addition to processing and splitting timber, these might include chopping through ice and severing limbs from a game animal.  Of course, a combat axe also needs to be able to chop through people.  Effective chopping requires good steel, correct sharpening, and proper technique.

● Breaching.  Soldiers and rescue workers may need to breach through walls, vehicle hulls, glass, and other obstacles.  Any axe should be able to make short work of a wooden door, but punching through a steel vehicle panel may require a stout spike.  And while a spike may seem to be the ideal for quickly breaking through glass, a pipe bowl tomahawk is just as suitable and more versatile.


● Combat.  Combat places unique demands upon the axe.  It must be of the most solid construction possible.  This means that the haft must be of hardened material and firmly attached to the head.  The bit should have a strong flat or convex bevel that will be able to take abuse while remaining sharp.  A spike poll may be preferable for piercing armor, if the axe will be used primarily as a weapon.

● Throwing.  Throwing axes is mostly a form of recreation.  A good throwing axe has proper balance (weighted towards the middle of the head).  The bit should be curved, to help the axe stick in the target, and extremely sharp.

Recommendations

The right axe is largely a matter of preference, but you will certainly want to take quality and affordability into consideration. 

Here are 5 tactical axes that offer a good mixture of both.

1. Cold Steel Pipe Hawk

Cold Steel is a company known mostly for their swords and knives, but they also produce axes at extremely affordable prices.  Although they offer several tomahawks, the Pipe Hawk has the best handling attributes.  This tool falls into the “survival & rescue” category, rather than the “combat” category (although it would certainly do terrible damage to a person).  It is light and easily strapped onto a backpack. 

The head, though small, is perfectly serviceable for chopping, splitting and even falling trees.  The pipe bowl poll is excellent for pounding stakes or breaking glass.  Cold Steel has made a name for itself by producing pieces from good-to-excellent quality carbon steel at low prices, and this is no exception.  It is rugged and will stand up to abuse.  The 22” hickory handle might be slightly too long for some, but is easily chopped down to size or replaced entirely with a more ergonomic design. 

For under $30, this is a remarkable axe that will last a lifetime if properly cared for.  It is perfect for a camper, bushcrafter or survivalist.  However, a generalist tool like this one will always fall short in some areas when compared to a more specialized design.


2. Gerber Downrange Tomahawk

The Gerber Downrange is a tool admirable in its elegance.  For a soldier or rescue worker requiring a tool for quick breaching and demolition, it may be the finest ever designed.  It’s made from extremely hard carbon steel, and has a cut-away head design that helps reduce the weight from its solid one-piece steel construction. 

In addition to a sturdy axe bit and hammer poll, it also features a pry-bar at the butt of the handle which can be used in combination with the cut-away grip in the head.  The handle has 2 G-10 polymer grips mounted on it, which are the weakest part of the construction but can be removed or replaced as needed using a hex key.  It even comes included with a quick-release Kydex sheath which is MOLLE-compatible.  The only downside to this formidable tool is the price, which is generally around $200 from most retailers. 

This may be outside the range of the average beginner, but for a dedicated hobbyist or rescue worker, this is an extremely solid choice for an easily-carried primary breaching tool.


3. LaGana Tactical Tomahawk

No discussion of modern tactical axes would be complete with discussing the LaGana “VTAC” tomahawk, which was designed for use in the Vietnam War and has been in service ever since. As far as fighting tomahawks go, this venerable design has a lot going for it.  Constructed from sturdy steel and tested in the jungles of Southeast Asia, it places its priorities on simplicity and durability.  The solid steel construction will stand up to the rigors of war. 

The simple, almost primeval flat bevel on the bit is equally well-suited for hacking through plants or human limbs. On the poll, it mounts a brutal 45-degree spike, designed for punching through helmets and helicopter hulls.  The handle is a straight nylon rod with indexing grooves, which can easily be wrapped in grip tape or paracord.  At 14 inches total length, it is a shorter axe but of a desirable length for close-quarters fighting. 

It is easily stuck into a backpack for concealment, or worn attached to a combat harness. This tomahawk retails for around $150, which is a steep price point.  While this axe is suitable for breaching and survival, it is primarily designed for combat.  The buyer should consider how often he or she actually plans in engaging in combat using this weapon, and whether a spike poll is actually a design feature that will see much use.  However, for the consumer interested in acquiring a fine combat axe, the LaGana is a proven contender.  No price can be put on the safety of yourself or your loved ones.


4. SOG Tactical Tomahawk – Clam Pack

SOG Knives & Tools produces its own tomahawk based on the LaGana design, but at a slightly reduced weight and more affordable price.  However, this comes with drawbacks – the blade is stainless steel, rather than carbon steel.  It is less vulnerable to rust, but with proper care (or just black spray paint) the carbon steel is not very vulnerable to rust in the first place. 

The disadvantage of stainless steel lies in its softness, making it suitable for kitchen knives and recreational axes but less desirable in a combat weapon.  Nonetheless, the SOG Tactical is a solid design and does offer some advantages over the LaGana in terms of weight.  The handle is nylon reinforced with fiber glass, and the grooved handle makes for a very strong grip.  It would also be an excellent weapon for throwing.  For the enthusiast interested in exploring the options a combat tomahawk presents, this may be preferable to the LaGana.


5. Condor Tactical Rescue Tomahawk

Condor is an excellent toolmaker, producing high-quality carbon steel blades applicable in professional work.  Many of their designs are of ancient lineage, but the Tactical Rescue Tomahawk clearly shows the hallmarks of modern design philosophy.  This is an ideal tool for a SAR team member, ski or mountain rescuer, EMS worker, firefighter or medic.  Despite having a hollow haft, the tool is constructed from 1075 steel and will stand up to punishing use.

It is very heavy for a tomahawk, but the added weight increases the kinetic force on swings and enables a rescuer to punch through, for example, vehicle bodies to extract victims.  However, it does render it too unwieldy to be suitable as a combat weapon.  Furthermore, the design choices and weight make it impractical for wilderness survival.  The sturdy poll-spike features several serrations to aid in peeling back metal, or for grip in ice or rock climbing. In addition, the toe of the axe bit has a hook not unlike a giant bottle-opener, to crank open metal sheeting or aid in ripping material like drywall.


Overall, this is a beast of a tool that would be a worthwhile addition to the arsenal of a rescue worker.

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