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Tomahawk vs. Kukri  (Gurkha)

There are a number of threads and articles on the web discussing the various merits of traditional tomahawks  vs.  kukris in terms of their functionality as tools and fighting implements.   I decided to finally chime in, as I might be one of the few western folks who grew up using both a tomahawk and kukri on a regular basis.   I should also note that it was not my decision use both, I was provided with them at a young age (along with a lot of other tools), to do work.  Later, when I began working on a game preserve, I used both in the field extensively and went on to use them as a guide.  I still regularly carry them with hiking (more the tomahawk than the kukri), and as a Kali instructor, I introduce them into my classes if students have any interest.

I should, however, make my biases clear before continuing.  When it comes to tomahawks I much prefer lighter instead of heavier.  In other words, if one looks at the Cold Steel catalogue, by preferred tomahawk is the Trail Hawk.  In my experience there is a point of diminishing returns with tomahawks, and at some point a tomahawk transforms into a long handled hatchet or camp axe instead of the lightweight tool it is supposed to be.  In regard to this balancing act there is a wonderful quote from the book Crow Killer: The Saga of Liver Eating Johnson, where one of the main characters (Bear Claw, I believe), says something to the nature of, “I knew things had changed when I went to buy a hatchet and found that the only ones being sold were better for chopping wood than chopping people.”  In other words, society had become more sedentary, where heavy and purpose built tools replaced those that were designed for easy transport and multiple missions.

I have the exact opposite feelings about kukris.  I much prefer the larger, heavier bladed versions because they chop substantially better than the smaller ones.  Like the tomahawk a kukri is a multi-purpose tool.   Unlike a tomahawk, however, the weight of a kukri is distributed more evenly and the primary chopping action is closer to the center of the blade.  Because of this weight distribution kukris are easier to stop and redirect mid-chop.  This might not sound very important when you out clearing brush or kindling, but it is damn important when you’re using a kukri as a weapon.

The multi-tasking abilities of the kukri and tomahawk are often overlooked in most discussions of these tools.  Although some people may disagree, like most provincial weapons I firmly believe that both of these implements were originally designed as tools first and became weapons much later on.  As tools both the kukri and tomahawk fill an important niche; easily transported steel that is adept at lightweight chopping tasks.  That last part is important, as neither the kukri nor the tomahawk were designed to replace more specialized and heavier tools such as axes.  In other words, no mountain main walked into the forest carrying a tomahawk and expected to fashion an abode suitable for four season living. I’ve used both kukris and tomahawks to clear brush, gather kindling, dig holes, make blinds and stands, chop trees (yes, I’ve chopped down fairly large trees with this lightweight gear), and even butcher game.   Obviously, I’ve used these tools for tasks that they were never designed for, but they served well, if not perfectly, in a pinch … and that’s exactly what they were intended to do.

I can also say that for the vast majority of tasks that I have encountered in my life where a serious chopping tool was needed, I prefer a decent-sized kukri over the equivalent tomahawk.  When I say “decent-sized kukri” I’m talking about a kukri with a blade length of over 11 inches, and preferably around 13 inches.  Any longer and the weight becomes an issue as does ease of carry.  I long ago gave up on carrying a kukri on a belt as they simply move around too much for comfort and in most localities carrying around what amounts to a short sword on your belt is illegal.  Better to be discreet, when possible.   Unlike a lot of folks I don’t particularly care about the make of a kukri as long as the angle of the blade is close to the original, the steel is around a quarter inch think, and the edge isn’t too hard.  Remember, these are chopping tools first and need to be easily sharpened.  They’re subject to abuse that goes beyond what would apply to a knife and unless you’re a collector, spending loads of money on a rugged tool that will be heavily abused is money wasted.  I own several kukris and can say that my oldest one, which I paid $15 for, is by far my favorite for hard work.

For chopping thick wood or taking down small trees I find the kukri superior to any tomahawk that I’ve ever owned.  There is some technique that must be mastered with the kukri before users can take full advantage of the cutting power, not the least of which is learning the proper grip (the rings are on the handle for a reason), and beginners often make the mistake of chopping to far forward on the blade.  Kukris also have a much larger edge than tomahawk so you’re much less likely to get wasted hits or totally misplaced chaps than you are with a tomahawk.  It also goes without saying that for clearing brush in the manner that one would clear brush with a machete, the kukri is clearly superior.

Tomahawks do, however, have some distinct advantages over kukris.  While I personally don’t feel they can match a comparable kukri when it comes to simple chopping, they definitely have an advantage when it comes to clearing saplings and other flora that needs to be cut low to the ground.  Anyone who has ever had to clear land knows that cutting low is a tremendous hard on your back and a long handled tomahawk with all of the weight around the head makes this task easier.  Most tomahawks are also far superior to kukris when it comes to hammering, which is something that happens fairly often when making a camp.  Perhaps most importantly, tomahawks are much more people friendly than are kukris.  A tomahawk lashed to a backpack gathers no more attention than a plain hatchet, while a kukri gets too many stares and comments to be comfortable. 

From a fighting standpoint kukris and tomahawks are different.  Again, both of these implements started off as tools, not weapons, so their designs don’t represent the most effective forms possible.  They are also meant to be used with a single hand, so that means they would also likely be used in conjunction with another weapon.  We know, for instance, that the tomahawk was often in conjunction with camp or hunting knife wielded by the alive hand (the hand not holding the primary weapon).   This makes sense as it allowed someone using a long handled tomahawk to transition more easily between ranges, as well as allowing for hooking movements with the axe head.

There are also few problems with using a tomahawk as a weapon.  The first is lack of edge length.  Tomahawks have a small cutting edge and that edge is at the very end of the weapon.  It only goes in one direction and there is no stabbing point (although you can certainly jab someone with a tomahawk to good effect).  The lack of edge length and the fact that tomahawks have long handles means that the closer you are to your opponent, the farther up you have to choke on the handle and the less momentum you get when swinging.  Less momentum is both good and bad.  When used at long range recovery time with a tomahawk is very long in comparison to similar length weapons and you have to consciously work to redirect the energy of the blow in order to smoothly change angles.  By choking up on the handle you are more effective at short range and can change direction much, but you lose force, most of your ability to hook, and the added penetration depth that the axe head gives you.  By added penetration depth I mean that if you swing a tomahawk at a target and the blow is intercepted but the deflecting element hits the tomahawk handle instead of the head, the length of the head combined with the force of the blow is often enough to follow through and impact the target.   Again, a tomahawk is most definitely not the weapon of choice for close range fighting and basically becomes a small bludgeon or short, chisel pointed push dagger at close range.  That being said, you CAN use a tomahawk for close range fighting, and there are very few long weapons that you can say that for.  Again, tomahawks are multi-purpose tools…and weapons.

Kukris are a little bit different.  Most of them are not as long as tomahawk and they have long, sharpened edges.  One uses a kukri like they would any other long knife, and although the blade points on kukris hang lower than the grip, after a little practice with targeting they can still be used effectively for stabbing.  As for chopping / slicing, the kukri is superior in that it has far better weight distribution than most tomahawks.  This allows for a much faster recovery on hits and easier change of angles.  A number of kukris on the market are also short enough to be used at close range, although my favorite, which has a 13 inch blade, is a little too long for that.  In order to use it at close range you have to pinch the spine of the blade near the hump between your fingers on order to produce a shorter initial blade length.  This is far from an ideal method for fighting, but it is certainly better than being unarmed.  That being said, despite their shortcomings, kukris are surprisingly fast for their size and pack a tremendous amount of cutting power.  Where a tomahawk is good for hooking and immobilizing an opponent’s weapon a distance a kukri provides an excellent belly for substantial pull cut which is made considerably more effective by the downward angled tip and heavy forward weight.

If asked to choose between a tomahawk and kukri as wilderness tools and assuming there are no legal restrictions, I would choose a large kukri because of what I believe is an advantage in chopping power, which I hold to be more important than other factors.  However, given that laws in most states are ridiculous concerning edged weapons, I find myself carrying a tomahawk or hatchet much more often.  As for use as a weapon, it comes down to the range at which the weapon is to be used.  Tomahawks tend to have fairly long handles, which makes them superior at longer distances.  If given the choice between a tomahawk and kukri of comparable length, I would still lean toward the tomahawk because kukris of twenty inches and over are very heavy and difficult to wield.  Speed is paramount when fighting with edged and blunt weapons, but particularly with edged weapons as they don’t need the same amount of brute force to cause damage.  For close range work a kukri with a shorter blade makes a lot of sense because it can be used to chop in surprisingly tight spaces, produces significant pull and push cuts, and can be used to stab.  Again, this is more about choosing a weapon that fits the range (a few inches can make a huge differences), than it is picking a tool for all jobs. 

Given the fact that the chances of needing to use a kukri or tomahawk for self-defense is pretty unlikely, either one, especially if you have even a modicum of training, will serve you well.  From a practical standpoint, while I generally prefer a kukri, if you happen to be hiking or camping in public places or where large knives are illegal, I highly recommend a decent tomahawk or hatchet.  All of these tools are tradeoffs, and while I find a large kukri to be a superior chopper, tomahawks are perhaps the most useful and efficient survival and camping tool ever made.