April 15, 2003 -- U.S. forces are using two types of tomahawks in Iraq: one, a high-tech cruise missile — the other, a bit more like the weapon Mel Gibson used in the movie The Patriot.
Members of Air Force security groups, Army Rangers and special forces are some of the U.S. troops who have chosen to add tomahawks to their basic gear.
So why would a member of today's armed services want a relic of the American frontier? According to one modern tomahawk manufacturer, the reasons soldiers carried them in the Revolutionary War are still valid today — and it all comes down to science.
"The physics behind it make it an appropriate choice for any kind of battlefield conditions," said Ryan Johnson, owner of RMJ Forge.
"You take a knife, a knife has a certain amount of leverage that's given to you. The tomahawk can be used like a knife, but you also have that 18 inches of handle that gives you a huge amount of difference in power as far as the power of the cutting stroke. It's much more practical as a field tool because you can again use it like a knife or you can use it like an ax."
Tomahawks Also Used in Not-So-Distant History
The tomahawk was commonly carried by soldiers even prior to the Revolutionary War, but its use in modern times is not unprecedented.
According to Johnson, soldiers have used tomahawks in most of the major wars the United States has fought.
"In World War II, there were not only Native Americans using them, but also just your regular GI. A lot of these people were just carrying stuff from home, stuff that they used on the farm," Johnson said.
He added that an uncle who had served in the Korean War told him soldiers would take the standard hatchet that they were issued and grind the back down into a spike to make a "fighting hatchet."
World War II Marine veteran Peter LaGana was a pioneer in the modern military use of tomahawks. He created an updated tomahawk design and, from 1966 to 1970, sold about 4,000 of them to members of the armed forces serving in Vietnam before closing down his company.
While tomahawks have historically been made in a variety of patterns, LaGana chose a "spike hawk" design — which has the cutting blade common to hatchets, but a sturdy penetrating spike on the opposite side.
In November 2000, professional knife and tomahawk thrower Andy Prisco approached LaGana and got his approval to license his design and restart the defunct firm, the American Tomahawk Co. — which Prisco did in January 2001.
Prisco's revitalized firm sells several different tomahawk designs, mainly to sportsmen and collectors. But he said that among members of the military, the top-selling product is the Vietnam Tactical Tomahawk, which uses LaGana's original head design and an updated synthetic handle. LaGana died in 2002 after a battle with cancer.
Johnson, who had a childhood interest in historical weapons, says he began hand-forging tomahawks at age 12. It became a way of life for him, as he put himself through college selling hand-forged tomahawks and knives, and made it his full-time occupation once he graduated.
Originally, most of his customers were period re-enactors or people interested in early American history. He first made tomahawks specifically for members of the military in the spring of 2001.
The effort was sparked by a request from a friend in an Air Force security group who sent him an e-mail with a picture of an 18th-century spike tomahawk and asked if he could make an updated tactical version. Johnson's modern tomahawk is made from a single piece of steel, with synthetic scales on the grip.
It wasn't until after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks and the United States began fighting in Afghanistan that he started making them in quantity. In fact, it dramatically changed the way he does business — Johnson says his time is now almost exclusively devoted to producing the modern tomahawks for military customers, and he makes only a few historical tomahawks a month.
While these modern tomahawks do everything their frontier counterparts did, their makers say theirs are uniquely suited to challenges U.S. forces may face in urban combat.
The Web sites for both RMJ Forge and ATC mention a variety of capabilities of their products, including breaching doors, smashing locks or tearing out windows to enter buildings, chopping holes in cinder block walls — and even punching through a standard Kevlar helmet.
A Slow Road to Acceptance
Prisco's tomahawk has been advanced for consideration under the Soldier Enhancement Program, a congressionally mandated program that allows the evaluation and adoption by the military of commercial, off-the-shelf items.
Soldiers from a platoon of the 101st Air Assault Division at Fort Campbell, Ky., were used to evaluate ways to enhance soldiers' sawing, cutting and chopping capabilities. The military's current standard-issue item is the improved entrenching tool, a compact folding shovel that is often used for chopping, hammering, etc.
The soldiers tested the entrenching tool against other tools, including the tomahawk, in a series of tasks, including digging fighting positions (known in previous wars as foxholes).
"When the program requested documentation, I received numerous e-mails from soldiers in the field talking about they liked this item [the tomahawk]," said Rochelle Bautista, combat developer with the United States Army Infantry School. While the test was completed in November 2001, no final decision has yet been made.
One e-mail sent to Bautista's office came from a 22-year veteran with service in the Rangers and special forces. Because he is currently serving in-theater, military officials requested he not be named.
He said that in his experience, the best use for the government-issue entrenching tool is to "keep it in its carrier and buried in your rucksack. However, an issue tomahawk ... would be the single most innovative and smart thing the Army has done for the soldier in years in terms of such a piece of equipment.
"As a close-quarters combat weapon — especially given our current operations and the evolving and necessary tactics for Advanced Urban Warfare ... the tomahawk, THIS tomahawk, cannot be improved upon."
Not Everyone's Convinced
Not everyone is sold on the tomahawk's potential for widespread acceptance in the military.
Retired Army Maj. Gen. William Nash, an ABCNEWS military analyst, said the Army is not quick to add new items — and weight — to the list of gear that a soldier has to carry. Also, as a safety issue, commanders often have reservations about providing soldiers with untested items, or allowing them to carry one they purchased themselves.
"I've been in outfits where any private weapon — to include knives — were not permitted," Nash said. "But as the lethality of the weapon increases, the tolerance for its presence decreases. They become too unaccounted for."
Nash, who commanded the 1st Armored Division in Bosnia and was the commander of the 1st Brigade, 3rd Armored Division during Operation Desert Storm, offered a grim example. The first U.S. soldier to die in Bosnia was killed by a land mine. The soldier, who had no training in the handling of explosive ordnance, was experimenting with the mine using a Leatherman-style multitool.
"Now, if he hadn't had a Leatherman, he might have still screwed around with a mine. But it's that type of ad-hockery that commanders worry about," said Nash. "There's an ingrained discipline that comes with all of this that commanders don't want to lose."
As for testing a tomahawk against the entrenching tool, Nash remains skeptical.
"It's hard enough [to dig a fighting position] with an entrenching tool. The hatchet's a better hatchet than the entrenching tool is. But we didn't buy the entrenching tool for a hatchet. We bought it to dig holes."
Nash was not totally negative in his assessment. "Now ... at the same time, an innovative person comes up with something that may be useful, but it takes a long time for the Army to test it and get it in the field. That frustrates the soldier."
Does This Relic From the Past Have a Future?
Currently, service members are buying tomahawks individually or, in some cases, units are using operational funds to buy them for their group. But manufacturers would not be displeased if their products were adopted more widely in the armed services.
"This is not a standard-issue item per se — [but] are we moving that direction? Yes indeed, in my view we are," said ATC's Prisco. "The tomahawk's got a lot of versatility — soldiers don't have to carry seven or eight pieces of larger kit. They can carry a tomahawk and do the same thing."
RMJ Forge's Johnson said in his opinion, the tomahawk won't be a standard-issue item for all of the military, but "I think it will definitely be an issue item for a lot of the special forces eventually."
Prisco added that the appeal of tomahawks goes beyond the military. He said members of the Border Patrol and Department of Justice carry his products along the border, and members of the Drug Enforcement Administration use it when they conduct operations in forest environments.
"As far as firefighting and law enforcement, there are a lot of crossover applications of our products," Prisco said. One message on the forum of ATC's Web site written by a firefighter describes how he used his tomahawk to break a padlock off a gate, then hacked open a door to get access to a burning house.
Johnson said it was a conversation with a firefighter that gave him the idea for a modified tomahawk small enough for firefighters to carry, but big enough for them to cut or pry their way out of a dangerous situation.
"He said, 'I'd love to have one to carry on my personal gear. If you did this and this and this, that would eliminate three things that I'd have to carry — I could just have it all in this one tool.' So that's kinda the direction we've been going, to come up with a multipurpose tool."