How to Throw a Tomahawk Like a Mountain Man

by Brett & Kate McKay on August 3, 2011 · 31 comments

in Manly Skills, Tactical Skills

It was the ambition of the boys to be able to throw a tomahawk with the skill and accuracy of our pioneer forebears, and the ability soon acquired by the boys in throwing hatchets at targets was really remarkable. They would come up to within thirty feet of an old board fence with a whoop and a yell, then “click! click! click!” would go the hatchets, each and every one sticking fast in the board, either in a true vertical or horizontal line as it pleased them. Ever since those glorious days of my boyhood in Kentucky it has seemed to me that throwing the tomahawk should be one of the regular feats at all American athletic meets. -Daniel Beard, 1909

You’ve probably seen it in countless movies. A mountain man or Indian takes a man down by hurling a tomahawk through the air and sticking it into his enemy’s back. If you’re going to strike a man down, I can’t think of a more badass way to do it than with a tomahawk.

But contrary to popular belief, Native Americans and mountain men rarely threw their tomahawks, or ‘hawks, during battle. A tomahawk was one of their best hand-to-hand weapons, good for both offensive and defensive moves.  Throwing a tomahawk to kill an enemy, while certainly very cool looking, put considerable distance between the thrower and his very best weapon. Even if a mountain man or Indian warrior killed his target, he was pretty much defenseless while he scurried to retrieve his hawk from his victim’s body.

Instead of throwing their tomahawks in the heat of battle, mountain men and Indians hurled their hawks mainly for fun. A few times a year, mountain men would come into town to gather supplies and trade pelts they had collected during the previous hunting season. They’d often set up a huge camp outside the town and take part in various contests such as tomahawk throwing. Some Native American tribes held similar contests of skill for their men to take part in. Indians would also come to the frontiersmen’s camps to engage in trading and throw some tomahawks with the buckskin-clad white man.

Like the mountain men of old, you too can take up tomahawk throwing to pass the time on a warm summer’s day. It’s a great activity to do with kids because it’s so stinkin’ easy.

Today we’ll talk about how to throw a tomahawk, but we’ll begin with a little history on this unique weapon and tool, for those who are curious.

A Brief History of the Tomahawk

Osage Warrior with Tomahawk Pipe

Tomahawks originated in North America amongst 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.

Tactical tomahawk made by the American Tomahawk Co.

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.

A note on nomenclature: While the differences between a hatchet and tomahawk are debated, they’re essentially the same thing. In colonial times, tomahawks referred to hatchets used primarily for war.

How to Throw A Tomahawk

To learn how to throw a tomahawk like a regular Daniel Boone, I went over to Meadowlake Ranch, a working dude ranch in Sand Springs, Oklahoma to talk to ranch owner Tom Warren about the ins and outs of tomahawk throwing. Here’s how you do it.

What You Need

Tomahawk. You can try to perfect your throwing skills with a small hatchet you have lying around, but I recommend buying a set specially made for throwing. They’re weighted to make throwing easier, so the learning curve isn’t as steep as you’d have with a regular ol’ hatchet. You can fork over quite a bit of money for nice, hand-forged throwing ‘hawks, but to get started I would go with something cheaper.

Target. You need something that your ‘hawk will stick in when you throw it. Tom recommends getting a large circular tree stump and cutting a slice at least 4 inches thick. After you cut your round, you need to season it so your tomahawk sticks nice and good. To season your target, just lay one side of the stump face down on the ground. Leave it there for a few months. When the target is seasoned, mount it on a tripod stand made of tree limbs or metal.

Target getting seasoned for future use

Target getting seasoned for future use.

Safety First

When hurling edged objects, you always want safety to be a top priority, so follow these rules:

Rule #1: Don’t throw a tomahawk if there’s someone standing in front, behind, or beside your target.

Rule #2: Keep the blade dull. You don’t need a razor sharp edge to make your tomahawk stick in the target. So, as an added safety measure to you and those around you, keep the blade dull enough that it won’t easily cut through skin.

How to Grip a Tomahawk

Shake hands with the 'hawk and say: "Nice to meet you, Mr. Tomahawk."

Grip a tomahawk like you would a hammer. Tom describes it as “shaking hands with the ‘hawk.”

Make sure the head of the hawk isn’t rotated either left or right. You want it perfectly straight so that it flies through the air without wobbling side to side.

If you have too much spin on your tomahawk when you release it, one thing you can do is place your thumb on top of the handle like so:

Moving your thumb on top of the handle slows down the spin.

This moves the axis point at which the tomahawk begins to spin up on the handle, causing it to spin later, thus slowing the total spin down.

Throwing the Tomahawk

Throwing a tomahawk and making it stick in your target is easy. I was able to make the ‘hawk stick successfully on my very first throw. It’s pretty much like throwing a baseball. The key to successfully throwing a tomahawk is the distance  between you and the target. Measure off about five normal steps from the target. That will give your tomahawk enough time to rotate twice so the head will stick in your target. Mark your spot once you’ve paced it off.

Look at where you want the tomahawk to hit on your target. When you're keyed in on your spot, swing your throwing arm down by your side.

When the head of the axe passes your leg, swing your arm back up.

When the axe blade passes your head, bring your arm forward again, like you were throwing a baseball.

Simply release your grip on the handle when your arm is straight. The hawk will go spinning out of your hand. Let your arm continue in its downward trajectory. This ensures proper follow-through.

Watch your 'hawk stick into your target.

That’s it. Easy right? Throwing a tomahawk is really quite satisfying and a great manly way to settle your mind.

Have Fun!

Once you get the hang of tomahawk throwing basics, you can start getting fancy with your throws. Work on precision or try two-handed throws.

Happy tomahawking!

________________________________________________________________

Special thanks to Tom for taking the time to show me how to throw a tomahawk. If you’re ever in Oklahoma, I definitely recommend planning a weekend at Meadowlake Ranch. It’s pretty much a playground for men–tomahawk throwing, long bow shooting, horse riding, fishing, hunting. You name it, you can probably do it at Tom’s ranch. 

{ 31 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Western August 3, 2011 at 12:44 pm

Great article. I’ve been throwing hawks for about 20 years and it is great fun.
One popular game among the boys at our Rendezvous camps is called “handles” where everybody takes turns throwing at the same target and trying to nick or cut the other guy’s handle. Handle hits mean you get to go last in the order, no-sticks go first. Last handle in one piece wins, but make sure you have an extra handle or two or your fun might end too soon.
One difference in my throwing is that my standard pace from the target is about 7 steps and the tomahawk only revolves once. To get two revolutions I have to go back 14 steps.

2 TreVor August 3, 2011 at 12:45 pm

Great post!

3 Emily August 3, 2011 at 1:08 pm

Interesting post. I had no previous knowledge of Tomahawks before reading this. Nice pictures too!

4 Brandon August 3, 2011 at 1:11 pm

This is great! Definitely going to try it before the end of summer!

5 Johnny R August 3, 2011 at 2:00 pm

LOL! I love the caption “Shake hands with the ‘hawk and say: “Nice to meet you, Mr. Tomahawk.”

That cracks me up. Love it!

6 OkieRover August 3, 2011 at 2:09 pm

I’ve included a picture of me using a tomahawk…properly. As the article says, it is an excellent hand-to-hand weapon. Its always a crowd favorite when I make a “kill” this way. The crowd always makes that satisfying “oooooh!” sound when I bury it in my opponent.
Fort Washita Rendezvous, 2009. Portraying a Cherokee from the period 1820s-1840s.

7 Tony August 3, 2011 at 2:47 pm

Tomahawks are fun. Like Western said, handles is popular and is a fun game to watch. The tomahawk is a useful tool even today and one rides in my truck at all times. The same principles for throwing a hawk are used for throwing a knife.

8 Crane August 3, 2011 at 7:05 pm

I was taught how to throw a tomahawk at a young age by my father. He taught me almost exactly like this, but he told me to have the head of the axe in reverse when I threw it. Since I was young, I’m not sure if this was for safety issues or because it gave more weighted leverage in the throw, but either way it worked quite well.

9 gambit293 August 3, 2011 at 9:55 pm

“get a large circular tree stump and cut a slice at least 4 inches thick. After you cut your round, . . just lay one side of the stump face down on the ground. Leave it there for a few months. When the target is seasoned, mount it on a tripod stand made of tree limbs or metal.”

Is that all? Sheesh, they don’t mess around on AOM. Amateurs need not apply.

“Don’t throw a tomahawk if there’s someone standing in front, behind, or beside your target.”

Just suck all the fun out of it, why don’t you.

“It’s pretty much like throwing a baseball.”

Is there an AOM article on how to throw a baseball? Yea, I know, I suck.

10 Paul August 3, 2011 at 10:31 pm

I have been throwing tomahawks for 20 years as well (I am now 33). It is a skill that is relatively easy to master and is a great father/son game. When I was a kid we didn’t call it “handles” we called it “Hack The Hawk”.

Tomahawks are not too expensive and a lot of places still sell them. Definitely a must have for anyone look for a little bit of manly fun.

11 Brucifer August 4, 2011 at 11:41 am

Excellent article. Although, and knowing it is just a period illustration, I got a bit squicked by b&w drawing heading this article, of a boy throwing a tomahawk, while two spectators observed *downrange*, off to the side. Not safe!

12 RJ Price August 4, 2011 at 4:53 pm

Great article! If you live where they grow, palm tree slices make great targets. No seasoning required. If you’d like to learn how to fight with one, check out http://www.coldsteel.com/fightingtomahawk.html. There are videos on youtube as well.

13 Rick Ackerman ASM August 4, 2011 at 7:55 pm

It’s true, throwing hawks is satisfying and a great competition, our town’s 20 boy scouts in our town (aged 11-17) love to throw; hard to get them to quit. We also lash throwing knives to sticks and throw them too, as spears. Regarding the target, we found that cottonwood is best, or other soft woods work well. If the target gets too hard, we soak it in used motor oil, which also retards rotting. The best and safest target is by lashing a tripod (see Boy Scout book), screw a 2×4 across the back of the target, tie a strong rope on each end of the 2×4, lift up the target so the rope goes over the the tripod. Easy knock down for moving it, and safe and solid.

14 Carey August 4, 2011 at 9:00 pm

Amazon shows the “cheaper” alternative as “Currently Unavailable.We don’t know when or if this item will be back in stock.”

15 Peter August 5, 2011 at 8:44 pm

Do you believe that the tomahawks development was effected by the arrival of Leif Ericsson and parties following his arrival or that it developed completely from a form of adze with no outside influence?

16 Aaron August 5, 2011 at 9:23 pm

I really enjoyed reading this article. It brought back all the memories of me and my dad at Rendezvous camps, whiling away the hours with hawk and knife, doing the trail shoots, and having a grand old time.

As the first poster wrote, I also like to take 7 steps. I also like to take a step forward with my off-foot as I throw (left foot for a right handed-thrower). Rather than releasing like a baseball, I let the handle slide out of my hand as if it were a wet icicle. As a result, the hawk only rotates once.

You can throw the knife the same way, you just have to be somewhat closer to the target since the knife rotates a bit faster.

I would love to see more mountain man / Rendezvous posts!

17 Cody August 7, 2011 at 4:15 pm

Along with playing the game of handles, another good game is to play with a card as a target. Just pull out an old deck of cards and stick it to the backstop. If you hit the card you get 5 points and if you cut a piece off the card you get 10 points. Break up into teams or go head to head. The first one to 50 wins. It gets more challenging as the card gets smaller from being cut. If it gets too small, just throw another card up. There are 52 in a deck. :)

18 Brohammas August 11, 2011 at 1:52 pm

turning the hawk’s head backwards, so the blade points toward the thrower, results in the hawk sticking upside down, and also makes it more likely to stick with less revolutions (as the upper corner of the blade approaches the target before the handle).
8 paces with one step foward while throwing, was standard in my experience.
Also, be warned that crooked throws, or off rotations, often lead to dramatic and dangerous ricochet (sp?).

19 Matthew Arant August 11, 2011 at 10:29 pm

Dixie Gunworks (www.dixiegunworks.com) in Union City Tennessee is a great place for purchasing your own tomahawk and possibles bag. My family volunteered at the Homeplace 1850 in Land Between the Lakes, close to Paris Tn when I was younger. We were “allowed” to do what we normally did during the week, except at the Homeplace, it was in the “old fashioned way”. A mountain man named Hawk Boughton taught us to throw knives and tomahawks along with shooting blackpowder rifles. Great memories and fun, especially if I got to beat my brother!

20 Stymie94 August 16, 2011 at 2:42 pm

Cold Steel sells nice prices hawks with a little mods they work great you can google and find them after shippin for about $35

21 Critical J August 18, 2011 at 9:31 pm

As the only lad among daughters, my folks were far too over protective of only male heir investment – tomahawks, fixed blade knives, guns, etc. I had to learn it all solo. As such, one day I fully intend to take any future sons out to the woods at the right age and pass down one of my ‘hawks to each of them w/ the whole “This is a tomahawk, boy. It’s an exclusive part of your American heritage, so lets learn…” speech ready to go. Can’t wait!

22 Mick August 23, 2011 at 5:37 am

Great article. We used to chuck axes around when I was a kid. Carried it on as I got older. The only difference was the axes got bigger. Tomahawks aren’t as easily available (or weren’t before internet shopping) in my country, so we just used your everyday camp axe or hatchet when I was a kid and moved on to heavier axes as we got older. Also chucked knives as well. We were all quite good and close to pinpoint accurate as well.
I want to get one of those Vietnam style tomahawks now. Curse this obsession for sharp things! :)

23 Kyle August 29, 2011 at 2:18 pm

I protest! The fine art of the tomahawk throwing has been sullied by this article! Having personally thrown tomahawks professionally for years I can say that the method presented here is a good way to lose a portion of your skull. More over the shoulder and NOT LIKE A BASEBALL, more like hammering a nail. And for the record the tomahawk came from France. The axe was known as a francisca, giving name to the Frankish tribes of western Europe. From there it was Franks to French, and French Imperialism took it across the Atlantic. Also, never use a hatchet in place a good tomahawk.

24 Tomahawks August 31, 2011 at 5:23 pm

Great article! I had no idea that some military units still use the tomahawk so that is very interesting and cool.

25 Sue March 8, 2013 at 5:21 pm

“Tomahawks” have been around since before settlement. Most were of stone and the stone head is called by archaeologists a “celt” and it is much different from the stone head of an indian adze, though bother were used for woodworking and such. There was another type of head called a spud but these seldom if ever show use wear., they look a bit like a spiked hawk. Some groups had access to copper by trade, and they made celts of copper. These copper celts were set in a handle carved to look like the open mouthed head of an ivory bill woodpecker, and these were present in the record before any Frenchman ever set foot in North America and were a product of what is called the southeastern ceremonial complex. The copper was set in the mouth of the bird. There should be photos online somewhere. Flintknapper Larry Kinsella has some info on his page on how to make and haft a Mississippian celt and he’s also made replicas of the copper version with the carved woodpecker handle.

26 James April 8, 2013 at 5:22 pm

I learned how to throw a tomahawk a few years back at a boy scout camp by a gentleman who would probably be very capable of providing articles of manliness on this site.

Just wanted to give a heads-up to those looking to buy tomahawks for throwing… I was told by the gentleman who taught me that a good tomahawk will have a slightly tapered handle so that the top of the handle (closer to the blade) will be wider than where you grip it. Technically speaking, the very top of the handle should be slightly wider than the hole in the blade where the handle passes through. The main reason for this is that as the handle slowly starts to loosen up over time, you can be assured that if it ever fails, the blade will not fly off the handle during a swing, making it significantly safer.
I guess a secondary effect of this is that it also shifts more of the hawk’s weight towards the blade, which can help with getting it to rotate fully in a shorter distance.

27 Mike M. August 12, 2013 at 3:27 pm

Oh, this brings back memories – I used to be pretty good with a tomahawk. Playing cards are both traditional and reasonably cheap targets.

Dixie is a good supplier, as is Track of the Wolf.

28 Bucky August 14, 2013 at 9:19 pm

I got interested in hawks after Last of the Mohicans. Started out lucky with a well balanced mail order hawk and used a rick of wood for targets. I have several now, mostly Cold Steel and an SOG tactical hawk. Cold Steel also makes great spears and throwing knives. Distance from the target is very personal. 7 paces is a two rotation throw for me, but one for my 6’3″ son. A railroad tie is cheap and works great for a vertical target. But you can’t stick it horizontally. I also like an underhanded throw, but you have to watch your leg:)

29 tomahawk August 30, 2013 at 6:50 pm

I wish i would have seen this when i first started throwing. i think im going to add a page like this to my website(check it out in my name:)

30 Cygni Stardust September 20, 2013 at 11:16 am

It just so happens that I have a hatchet that I found in the woods and fixed up. Someone had used it as a fire poking stick, so I sanded down the handle, went to work on the head with steel wool, varathaned the handle, then painted and refitted the head. It’s just lying around collecting dust, but I suppose it now has a use.

31 Joshua Jordan, KSC February 20, 2014 at 12:34 am

That was a cool, fun read. I’ve been considering this for some time: http://www.rmjtactical.com/shrike/ I like melee weapons.

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