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Sharps, Hammers, & Hawks
A Little History

Through the course of human history, 
commonplace objects have been pressed 
into service as weapons. Axes, by virtue 
of their ubiquity, are no exception. Besides axes 
designed specifically for combat, there were many 
axes that doubled as tools and weapons (the francisca, 
the skeggox, and the tomahawk are good examples). 
Axes could be modified into deadly projectiles 
as well. 

Battle axes generally weigh far less than modern splitting
 axes or chopping axes, especially mauls, because they 
were designed to cut legs, arms, and flesh rather than 
wood; consequently, narrowish slicing blades are the norm. 
This facilitates fast, deep, and grievous wounds. Moreover, 
a lighter weapon is much quicker to bring to bear in combat 
and manipulate for repeated deadly strikes against an adversary.

The crescent-shaped heads of European battle axes of the Roman 
and post-Roman periods were usually made of wrought iron with 
a carbon steel edge or, as time elapsed across the many 
centuries of the medieval era, steel. The hardwood handles 
of military axes came to be reinforced with metal bands 
called langets, so that an enemy warrior could not cut the 
shaft. Some later specimens had all-metal handles.

Battle axes are particularly associated in Western popular
 imagination with the Vikings. Certainly, Scandinavian 
foot soldiers and maritime marauders employed them as a stock weapon 
during their heyday, which extended from the beginning of the eighth 
century to the end of the 11th century. They produced several varieties, 
including specialized throwing axes (the francisca) and "bearded" axes 
or "skeggox" (so named for their trailing lower blade edge which increased 
cleaving power and could be used to catch the edge of an opponent's shield and pull it down, leaving the shield-bearer vulnerable to a follow-up blow). Viking axes were wielded with one hand or two, depending on the length of the plain wooden haft. 

Prehistory and the ancient Mediterranean

Stone hand axes were in use in the Paleolithic period for hundreds of thousands of years. The first hafted stone axes appear to have been produced about 6000 BCE during the Mesolithic period. Technological development continued in the Neolithic period (for example, the Battle-axe people of Scandinavia, who treated their axes as high-status cultural objects). Narrow axe heads made of cast metals were subsequently manufactured by artisans in the Middle East and then Europe during the Copper Age and the Bronze Age.

More specifically, bronze battle-axe heads are attested in the archeological record from ancient China and the New Kingdom of ancient Egypt. Some of them were suited for practical use as infantry weapons while others were clearly intended to be brandished as symbols of status and authority, judging by the quality of their decoration.

In the eastern Mediterranean Basin during the Iron Age, the double-bladed labrys axe was prevalent, and a hafted, single-bitted axe made of bronze or later iron was used as a weapon of war by the heavy infantry of ancient Greece, especially when confronted with thickly-armored opponents. The sagaris—described as either single bitted or double bitted—became associated by the Greeks with the mythological Amazons. The Roman Army equipped itself with axes. Legionaries used them as laboring tools, as well as weapons of war. The Barbarian tribes that the Romans encountered north of the Alps also included iron war axes in their armories, alongside swords and spears.

The Middle Ages

Battle axes were common in Europe in the Migration Period and the subsequent Viking Age, and they famously figure on the 11th-century Bayeaux Tapestry, which depicts Norman mounted knights pitted against Anglo-Saxon infantrymen. They continued to be employed throughout the rest of the Middle Ages; although they dipped in popularity during the 12th, 13th and 14th centuries, they did not disappear: Robert I of Scotland used one to defeat Sir Henry de Bohun in single combat at the start of the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314, and they enjoyed a sustained revival in use among heavily armored equestrian combatants in the 15th century.

Most medieval European battle axes had a socketed head (meaning that the broader, butt-end of the blade contained an opening into which a wooden haft was inserted), and some included langets—long strips of metal affixed to the faces of the haft to prevent it from being damaged during combat. Occasionally the cheeks of the axehead bore engraved, etched, punched or inlaid decorative patterns. Late-period battle axes tended to be of all-metal construction. Such medieval pole arms as the halberd and the pole axe were long handled (40 to 60+ inch) variants of the basic battle-axe form.

Battle axes took the flanged mace's innovative design concept one step further. By concentrating the weight of a single, sharpened, crescent-shaped wedge on a small target area of metal plate, the battle axe was capable of slicing through an opponent's armor and cutting deeply into the exposed flesh beneath. A sharp, sometimes curved pick was often fitted to the rear of the battle axe's blade to provide the user with a secondary weapon of penetration. A stabbing spike could be added, too, as a finial. Similarly, the war hammer evolved in late-medieval times with the aim of punching its spiked head through helmets or breastplates and were capable of doing so to great effect, while the hammer side was capable of smashing skulls and heavy bones with little effort.

The Tomahawk, an American Tradition

A tomahawk (also referred to as a hawk) is a type of fighting axe from North America, traditionally resembling a hatchet with a straight shaft. The name came into the English language in the 17th century as an adaptation of the Powhatan (Virginian Algonquian) word.

Tomahawks were general purpose tools used by Native Americans and European colonials alike, and often employed as a hand-to-hand or a thrown weapon. The metal tomahawk heads were originally based on a Royal Navy boarding axe and used as a trade-item with Native Americans for food and other provisions.

The name comes from Powhatan tamahaac, derived from the Proto-Algonquian root *temah- 'to cut off by tool'. Algonquian cognates include Lenape təmahikan, Malecite-Passamaquoddy tomhikon, Abenaki demahigan, all of which mean 'axe'.

Pre-contact Native Americans lacked ironmaking technology, so tomahawks were not fitted with metal axe heads until they could be obtained from trade with Europeans. The tomahawk's original designs were fitted with heads of bladed or rounded obsidian, quartz, stone, or deer antler.

The modern tomahawk shaft is usually less than 2 ft (61 cm) in length, traditionally made of hickory, ash, or maple, with variants using metal and strong, but light man made materials. The heads weigh anywhere from 9–20 oz (260–570 g), with a cutting edge usually not much longer than four inches (10 cm) from toe to heel. The poll can feature a small hammer, spike or simply be rounded off, and they usually do not have lugs. These sometimes had a pipe-bowl carved into the poll, and a hole drilled down the center of the shaft for smoking tobacco through the tomahawk. There are also metal-headed versions of this unusual pipe. Pipe tomahawks are artifacts unique to North America: created by Europeans as trade objects but often exchanged as diplomatic gifts. They were symbols of the choice Europeans and Native Americans faced whenever they met: one end was the pipe of peace, the other an axe of war.

In colonial French territory, a very different tomahawk design, closer to the ancient European francisca, was in use by French settlers and indigenous peoples. In the late 18th century, the British Army issued tomahawks to their colonial regulars during the American Revolutionary War as a weapon and tool. The American colonists were using tomahawks as an effective close quarter combat weapon throughout the Revolutionary War, as well as in the previous French and Indian War. The tomahawk has been used both officially, and unofficially, by U.S. troops throughout our history since the Revolutionary War, including the Civil War, World War I, World War II, the Korean War, Viet Nam, and the former and current conflicts in the middle east. Some of our top line military vehicles come standard with a tomahawk installed inside, and many of our front line troops deployed today are carrying tomahawks purchased with their own money.

The Gladius, or Roman Short Sword, the Greek Kopis, 
and the modern Machete

The Roman Empire conquered the world with the 
Gladius, technology, and tactics. During the era of the 
Empire, it was the most widely used and copied 
sword in existence. The Greek Kopis was also a short 
sword with a blade of 18 to 20 inches, single edged, 
and concave on the part of the sword nearest the hilt, but 
swelling to convexity towards the tip. This shape, often termed 
"recurved", distributes the weight in such a way that the kopis was 
capable of delivering a blow with the momentum of an axe, 
whilst maintaining the long cutting edge of a sword and the 
capability to deliver a devastating thrust. Todays modern 
equivalents of both are arguably, the ubiquitous and highly 
effective machete in its many forms and incarnations. 

The steels we have today make the modern Machete every
bit as effective a fighting tool as the Roman Gladius and 
the Greek Kopis of old. Companies like Cold Steel have 
recreated these classic blade designs in durable high 
carbon steels that are both effective and affordable.

The short sword, with blades between 18” and 24” were, and are, some of the most devastating close quarter hand to hand combat weapons ever developed, and they are every bit as useful today as they were two thousand years ago. 

Similar historic tools and weapons

The modern machete is very similar to some forms of the medieval falchion, a short sword popular from the 13th century onwards. The cutting edge the falchion was curved, widening toward the point, and had a straight, unsharpened back edge.The machete differs from the falchion mainly in the lack of a guard and a simpler hilt, though some machetes do have a guard for greater protection of hands during work.

The kopis was an ancient Greek tool/weapon comparable to the machete. The makhaira was also similar, but was intended primarily to be a weapon rather than a tool.

The seax was a Germanic tool/weapon that was also similar in function, although different in shape.

The kukri is a Nepalese curved blade used for many purposes similar to the machete and is the official sidearm of the feared Gurkha Brigade.

The parang was a Malaysian knife that many machetes are based on.

The grosse messer was a medieval large knife, employed both as a tool and as a weapon.

The fascine knife is a somewhat similar tool/weapon used by European armies throughout the late 18th to early 20th centuries. In fact, the Spanish Army called its fascine knives machetes. Whereas infantry were usually issued short sabres as side arms, engineers and artillerymen often received fascine knives, as besides being side arms they also served as useful tools for the construction of fortifications and other utilitarian tasks. They differ from machetes in that they generally have far thicker, tapered blades optimized for chopping European vegetation (the thin, flat blade of the machete is better for soft plants found in tropical environments), sword-like hilts and guards, and sometimes a sawback-blade. Some later models could be fixed to rifles as bayonets as well.

Cultural variations

The panga or tapanga is a variant used in East and Southern Africa. This name may be of Swahili etymology; not to be confused with the Panga fish. The panga blade broadens on the backside and has a length of 16 to 18 inches (41 to 46 cm). The upper inclined portion of the blade may be sharpened.

This tool has been used as a weapon: during the Mau Mau Uprising; in the Rwandan Genocide; in South Africa particularly in the 1980s and early 1990s when the former province of Natal was wracked by conflict between the African National Congress and the Zulu-nationalist Inkatha Freedom Party.

In the Philippines, the bolo is a very similar tool, but with the blade swelling just before the tip to make the knife even more efficient for chopping. Variations include the longer and more pointed iták intended for combat, and it was also used during the Philippine Revolution against the Spanish colonial authorities, later becoming a signature weapon of guerrillas in the Philippine-American War; the longest variation, called a kampilan, was used by the ancient sultanates of Mindanao. Filipinos still use employ the bolo for everyday tasks such as clearing vegetation or chopping various large foodstuffs. These are also commonly found in most Filipino kitchens, with some sets displayed on the walls and other sets for less practical use. Bolo is also used in training in Eskrima- the indigenous martial art of the Philippines.

Other similar tools include the parang and the golok (from Malaysia and Indonesia); however, these tend to have shorter, thicker blades with a primary grind, and are more effective on woody vegetation. The Nepalese kukri is a curved blade which is often used for similar tasks. Some types of Chinese saber (dao) are similar.

In Thailand more variations exist, such as the E-nep, or Nep, which translates as "Leaf". It may resemble some forms of Muslim blades like the Jambiya, or the Pakistani/Nepali Khukuri, having aspects of both with the up-swept tip and protruding belly. Another design found in Thailand is the E-toh, which is prominent in Southern China, Laos, and other northern parts of South East Asia. Generally E-tohs must have forward weighted tips, and are used around the home for splitting stove wood or chopping bone. The Chinese Dao, with its triangular tip is found in Thailand as the Hua-Tad, which translates roughly as "Head Chopper." The most common blade in Thailand is called "Pra," it can describe long straight designs, or billhook designs. The primary purpose of a "Pra" is farm work and clearing vegetation. During the 2006 riots in Bangkok, Red-Shirt protestors carried "Sapatda," which resemble an over-sized bowie knife with sawback cuts in the spine.

In the various regions of Ecuador it is still used as an everyday tool in agricultural labors, such as clearing, chopping, cutting and felling. In the Pacific coast the machete has a long history of use and can be seen as part of the everyday dress of the rural male inhabitants, especially in the provinces of Manabi, Los Rios and Guayas. In its day the machete and the skills related to it were seen as a token of manliness, and it was carried, sword-like, in ornamented sheaths made out of leather or in sashes around the waist. Its use was not limited to agriculture: it also had a double role as a ready-to-hand weapon for self-defense or attack. Although modern laws in Ecuador now prohibit its use as a weapon, there are still cases of vicious fighting or intimidation related to it. Being a part of the male dress, it also has a part in the cultural expressions of the coastal rural regions of Ecuador, such as dances, horsetaming contests and skill exhibitions.

In the southern Brazilian state of Rio Grande do Sul, the machete is largely used by the native inhabitants. It is used to clear paths through the bush, and was used to fight against the Brazilian Empire in the Ragamuffin War. There, the machete is called "facão" or "facón" (literally "big knife"). 

In southern Mexico and Central America it is widely used to clear bush and often hundreds of macheteros are contracted to assist in clearing paths for the construction of new roads or structures. Many people in the rural regions own machetes to clear the constant overgrow of jungle bush. In the recent drug cartel wars of the region, many homicides and decapitations are suspected of being committed with machetes or similar tools.

The Taiga is a machete of Russian origin which combines the functions of machetes, axes, knives, saws, and shovels into one tool. It is easily distinguished by the large swell at the end of the blade to facilitate chopping. The taiga is used as both a tool and weapon by military air and special forces, including Spetsnaz.

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Four Basic Tomahawk Strikes