Why the hatchet? Why the tomahawk? Well, there are differences between the two that go beyond mere looks or intent.
These days the hatchet is considered a tool and the ‘hawk is considered a weapon. Mostly because the hatchet is, at first blush, a better tool since it chops so well and the ‘hawk is a much better weapon since it’s so much faster in the hand, and because the ‘hawk is sometimes sharpened on the beard and at the top of the bit, and often has spikes or blades or hammers on the polls—all weapony features.
But back in the early days of America, there wasn’t as much of a delineation of tasks between the two designs. The hatchet was a tool that could be pressed into service as a weapon if need be, and the ‘hawk was the same. So what, then, is the difference?
Well, the biggest differences between the hatchet and ‘hawk are the handles’ shapes and how they are attached to the head.
On a hatchet, the handle is usually shaped to be hand-filling and comfortable to use for extended periods, and is curved to provide leverage for added power to the chop. The handle is “hung” like an axe, meaning that the handle is inserted up into the head from the bottom and then secured from the top with wedges. This is a time consuming task that requires other tools to get the job done. Files, rasps, saws, mallets, and vices are needed to rehang an axe or hatchet with ease. While it isn’t a problem for a guy with a work shop to hang a hatchet, it is much harder for a guy sitting around a campfire to replace the handle he just broke while chopping firewood in the middle of nowhere.
Here is where the tomahawk really comes into its own as a frontier tool. The handle, though not as comfortable as a hatchet’s, is simple. It is straight and tapered; narrow at the bottom and thicker than the ‘hawk’s eye at the top. It is inserted into the hawk from the top. Rather than being secured with wedges like a hatchet, the handle is simply secured by the thickness of the handle at the top and tapped down against a stump or something to seat it. The user can further secure the handle with rawhide strips, paracord, a leather sleeve, etc., but it isn’t necessary. In fact, securing the handle more permanently actually limits the versatility of the hawk. Cold Steel uses a screw to secure their hawk heads. I always remove them.
One of the charms of the ‘hawk is that you can easily take the head off and remove it in the field. Why would you want to do that? Well, if you break the handle in the middle of nowhere (usually by throwing it at something), you can easily make a replacement with the nearest convenient stick. You can actually use the hawk head to help you make a new handle. A ‘hawk's head can be used like a ulu knife or a scraper, and it’ll only take ten or fifteen minutes to make a new handle from whatever wood is available. I have to imagine that this is the main reason the tomahawk was preferred by the frontiersman over the hatchet. It was simple and easy to maintain when you don’t have access to a lot of tools.
The hatchet is primarily a tool. It is usually heavier than a ‘hawk (though I own a hatchet that is much lighter than any of my ‘hawks), and processes wood much easier. If the handle is short enough, you can also carve with the hatchet and make useful things like bowls and ladles with it. Also, it makes a great companion to the knife for processing game. It isn’t a great fighting tool, though, and would have made a sub-par backup for the rifle in the old days.
The tomahawk, on the other hand, was not as good at chopping, didn’t have as good a handle, and was a rougher tool. Yet it was a perfect fit for the frontiersman, the Long Hunter, and the Indian for several reasons.
It was lighter. This is important when you are running around with an axe in your belt all day long. The frontiersman had to carry a bunch of gear on their person and they needed a lightweight axe for a multitude of uses. The ‘hawk is usually very light and easy to carry.
The ‘hawk is a better weapon. Since it is lighter, it chops and slashes faster and maneuvers much better than the hatchet. Directional changes, trapping, hooking, passing—all are possible with a ‘hawk, and much harder to pull off with a hatchet. This was important in a day when you had only a single shot rifle and probably didn’t carry a pistol for backup. I read a quote once from a frontiersman who said that all he really needed in the wild was his rifle, his Bowie, and his tommyhawk to protect himself, and was quite satisfied with the arrangement.
Also, another little trick with a tomahawk that I’ve seen was a guy taking the head off his ‘hawk and securing the flat of the blade to the handle with paracord to make a field-expedient adze. I haven’t tried it yet, but I need to one day. Yet another use for the little axe.
And you can still process wood and game with the 'hawk. Not as well as with the hatchet, but what is better, the 'hawk on your belt, or the hatchet you left in camp because it was too heavy to carry?
So at the end of the day, the hatchet is a better for processing wood, and the ‘hawk is more versatile. Take your pick. I like having both. The right tool for the right job.
This has turned into a much longer diatribe than I intended. I am quite the windbag, I suppose. Hope I didn’t bore you guys too much.