Tomahawk fighting techniques

Updated February 21, 2017

Developed as a hunter-gatherer and agricultural tool, the hatchet also became a deadly weapon, one used primarily among Native American tribes up until the late 17th century. Tomahawk fighting occupies a small niche of the martial arts world and some enthusiasts might mistakenly think it is a less graceful or complex system than sword or knife fighting. But there is plenty to learn before you can consider yourself proficient with a tomahawk.


Choose your tomahawk. Though there are a number of varieties available for purchase on the Internet, including the more recent sleek "military-grade" styles, the basic structure and function of any tomahawk is the same. If buying from a local weaponry or surplus store, be sure to check the balance of the tomahawk to ensure that both points of the weapon meet at an even spot for proper weight distribution in the handle. For the mastery of indigenous Native American techniques, you will need to purchase two tomahawks. You might also want to purchase a wooden or foam practice tomahawk to reduce the risk of injuring yourself while you learn the basic techniques.

Basic Techniques

Train yourself in the basic cuts, blocks and stances of tomahawk fighting. Do not use any force, and go slowly, until you are confident of your abilities. Practice basic strikes as they progress from overhand to outside to close-range strikes. Blocks are traditionally designed to defend the same target areas you will be focusing on with your strikes. To help this process, visualise someone of your height and build standing before you as you practice. Once you are comfortable with the initial overhand and side cuts, begin focusing your attention on the edge of your blade. This will train you to keep your blade unwavering as you follow through with your strikes.

Ranged Combat

Begin experimenting with posture and stance. Start off standing with your feet shoulder-width apart; bring the foot corresponding to your strong hand back about two steps. This is the basic posture for tomahawk fighting, and it can be used in melee, or close-combat, fighting or when throwing the weapon.

While in this stance practice throwing your tomahawk at targets ten feet away. To do this, you will want to position a target of foam, cardboard or cut wood (such as tree trunk) to minimise the bounce of your weapon off a hard surface. Use only your strong hand for now as you throw, and gradually build the distance between you and your target until you are comfortable with your throwing abilities at a distance of fifteen feet.

Dual-Wield Techniques

Test your progress. Once you are capable of accurately throwing the tomahawk, as well as safely initiating a series of strikes and blocks, add a second axe. Continue to practice basic strikes, blocks and stances, while practicing stepping forward, backward and off to the side at a 45-degree angle as you fight. Be patient as you progress: though it may feel slow, familiarising your body with the presence and weight of your weapons is an essential foundation for a tomahawk fighter.

Melee and Sparring

Find a partner to begin sparring practice. This involves clear communication in regards to what your partner's action will be, whether an offensive motion or defensive block. For this purpose it is recommended that you use a foam practice axe, or at the very least, dull the edge of both hatchets. Keep in mind that even without the sharpened edge, a tomahawk is a deadly weapon and should never be used against another person with force. While sparring with your partner, work on your tomahawk's ability to "capture" and redirect your opponent's sparring weapon while your other hand goes in for an attack. Include other weapons such as tonfas, or foam or wooden swords, and bo staffs to better develop your tomahawk fighting technique against non-axe combatants.

Advanced Techniques

Study the tomahawk's strengths in redirecting your opponent's weapon. In other words, when your partner strikes at you with a sword, practice using your weak-hand tomahawk to "hook" the blade down and out of the way while your strong-hand axe strikes for the ribs. When fighting another tomahawk-wielder, aim for the shaft of your opponent's tomahawk in order to quickly disarm him, leaving your opponent vulnerable to a lunge with your free hand. As with any fighting art, the possibilities of refinement are endless, and a tomahawk fighter is truly limited only in the scope of his or her imagination.

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About the Author

Based in the Appalachian Mountains, Brian Connolly is a certified nutritionist and has been writing professionally since 2000. He is a licensed yoga and martial arts instructor whose work regularly appears in “Metabolism,” “Verve” and publications throughout the East Coast. Connolly holds advanced degrees from the University of North Carolina, Asheville and the University of Virginia.