Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Self defense using the tomahawk

Executive summary: This post outlines a very simple method of tomahawk use in self-defense. The method is one of continuous attack by means of moulinets. 

I have elsewhere suggested that the tomahawk or hatchet was more often used as a tool than a weapon on the American frontier. It was a frontier weapon simply because it was an ever present tool. There were better weapons available. The cuttoe, the smallsword, the hanger or even a properly fashioned wooden club was a superior weapon. Those were purpose-made for fighting and carried for reasons quite apart from day to day utility. A hatchet, though, was something every forest traveler found useful for routine tasks, to get kindling and cut up game for the cookpot, and so on.

I further opined that present-day attempts to make elaborate martial arts out of the tomahawk's use are neither historical nor practical. The weapon offers too few possibilities, too little variety in its practical uses, to make so much of a big deal over the matter. In its day, the tomahawk was most likely used, when used as a weapon, in a simple and straightforward manner, by people more accustomed to use it for mundane purposes. They would not be likely to employ it in a mode resembling video game ninja assassins.

That view was assailed by some people who appeared to have rather a romanticized notion of frontier life and events. My strongest support came from a martially minded American Indian--whose ancestral weapon it is.


No good parries belong to the tomahawk, just a few half-workable ones. You can attempt to beat-parry with the side of the ax head, that is, with the cheeks of the ax, or to intercept with the top surface of the head. You can attempt a hooking, pulling action by placing the heel of the blade over the opponent's weapon or his arm, or his neck, etc. That, though, entraps your own weapon at the same time.

There are some defenses that are patently unsound. I saw online something that claimed to be the "A-frame block" defense using the tomahawk, a set of parries supposed to be a sound defense to protect your head. It was instead a sure way to lose fingers. 

I think the healthiest approach is to use distance, timing and counter-attack as your defense, or find something to use in your off hand as a shield. Experiment with parries if you like, but I do not think you will be well satisfied. A hatchet is powerful on the offense--and that is the best that may be said.


The best plan of action that I have come up with is one of continuous attacks. In its simplest form: Make a cut at the opponent, and repeat the same attack over and over, in rapid sequence, by means of moulinets. If you find that is not working, try the same tactic in another line of attack. Raining blows on the opponent in this manner will keep him busy, and a whirling ax head does at least some service in closing the line to his counter-attack.

Timing is everything. The best outcome is that, before he injures you, you achieve a stop cut that takes him out of the fight. Attacks on his weapon hand, wrist and forearm are the most promising to that end.

The tomahawk is best used in horizontal blows to the inside line, and vertical blows in the outside line. (The outside is to the right-hander's right, and the inside is to his left. That is of course reversed for left-handers.) The reason is familiar from saber fencing and proven anew by every beginner at that art. Your weapon-bearing arm is very vulnerable to counter-attack when you make horizontal blows outward (left to right, for a right-hander). Likewise, vertical cuts you make on the inside line leave your arm more exposed than if you cut horizontally. 

Therefore the most suitable attacks with the tomahawk are inward horizontal cuts in carte and downward vertical cuts in tierce. The vertical downward blow is the better of the two. It is easily and rapidly repeated by means of moulinets (inside or outside moulinets). The horizontal blow also requires a moulinet for recovery and repetition, but a less convenient one. It is best if the moulinet turns clockwise for a right-hander (the reverse, counterclockwise, if left-handed). Turning it the other way feels clumsy. For a limbering drill, and for familiarization, try feeding a horizontal cut's recovery into a vertical downward blow, then recover from the downward tierce blow by steering the weapon into a horizontal carte blow, so on over and over.

The tactic of repetition of the same blow can thus be altered into assorted blows, to increase the confusion factor for your opponent. For example, you can fire off a sequence of tierce-tierce-carte-tierce-carte-carte--or any other sequence you like. As above, continuous attack is the key element of your defense.

For speed, your moulinets may be shortened; there is ordinarily no need for them to be full arm's-length rotations. For power, though, they should be more than mere flips of the wrist.

Some indirect corroboration of my ideas can be found in literature and reportage. Phrases like "repeated tomahawk blows" and "repeated (or multiple) hatchet blows" suggest that frequently, the blows were numerous. The rhyme about Lizzie Borden also suggests that multiple hatchet blows were an expected outcome in assaults with that weapon.


You may, if you like, explore the use of all the rest of the cuts of saber fencing, not just the two I consider most suitable for use with the tomahawk. You may moreover explore their combinations and permutations. In what may be an overabundance of caution, I limit myself to the two safest lines, supposing them to be enough to get by on. That may be excess caution because in our times, as in the frontier era, few real-world opponents would know enough to exploit the vulnerability of, say, your sideways-outward cut or some other risky move. Likely few people, long ago, had heard of the issue or thought of it. I doubt very much that academic fencing was a topic of much thought on the frontier.

The details of the method are best sorted out with practice and experiment. The tomahawk really is a simple weapon, made so by its inherent limitations. If you are looking for something to do fancy fencing with, hey, a sword is just the ticket for that. 

The hatchet's limitations are not inherently disastrous to its effective use. You have, at the least, two attacks, horizontal and vertical (with their natural variations such as slightly diagonal) and any number of feints. The shell game player, or three card monte operator, manages to be deceptive with no more to work with.

Do not try to extract more variety of use from the weapon than its nature permits, that's how to get the most out of it. 


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