Tomahawk vs. Hatchet vs. Axe – Can You Spot the Difference?

If you love camping in the woods or just roughing it out in the wild, then the chances are that you have used a hatchet, an axe or a tomahawk at one time or the other. But the fact of the matter is that these tools, although are used interchangeably for almost the same purposes, are different.

The most confusing among these tools are the axe and hatchet, and that is because they literally look the same, though one is larger than the other.

But notwithstanding their similar appearance, these tools are different and can only perform best when they are used to carry out the tasks they were initially designed for.

Therefore, in the next few paragraphs, this article will discuss the difference between a tomahawk, a hatchet, and an axe. Without wasting too much time, let’s dive in:

Here’s a tomahawk, a hatchet and an axe side by side, from a commercial point of view, to better understand the similarities but also the differences between them:



Brief history

A tomahawk is a native North American single-handed tool which traditionally resembles a hatchet, but with a straight shaft. The name ‘tomahawk’ was incorporated into the English Language as far back as the 17th century and was a variation of the Virginian Algonquian word.

They are part of the general-purpose tools that was employed by European and Native American colonials in the same way as either a thrown or hand-to-hand weapon.

The heads of metal tomahawks were created on Royal Navy boarding axes. It was used as an item for trading in exchange for food, provisions, etc. with the Native Americans.

Tomahawks were invented by the Algonquians in the early days of America long before the Europeans visited the American continent. Before then, the natives used stones and then attach them to wooden handles and secured using strips or bands of rawhide.

They were invented to be used as weapons but were eventually used for everyday tasks such as cutting, chopping, and hunting.

tomahawkBut the arrival of the Europeans on the continent changed it forever. The Europeans saw the potential usefulness of the tomahawk and were impressed with the ingenuity of the Native Americans.

They went ahead to introduce the metal blade to take the place of the stone used in fashioning the tomahawk. The introduction of the metal blade was a turning point that enhanced the effectiveness of the small tool.

This was because metal did not break as easily as stone did and the fact that the former could be fashioned or crafted for additional uses made it a clear winner. The use of stones for creating tomahawks was quickly discarded, and metal was significantly employed.

The Native Americans went ahead to create what is known as a tomahawk’s poll which consisted of a spike or a pipe, and a hammer.

This version of the tomahawk became known as pipe tomahawks which comprise a hollowed-out shaft and a bowl on the poll. The American and European artisans created this version for diplomatic gifts and trade for the tribes.

What sets a tomahawk apart from a hatchet is its size along with other visual cues such as the shaft which is not more than 24 inches long and its cutting edge not less than 4 inches. On the butt of the blade or the pole, a tool such as a spike or a hammer protrudes, though there are exceptions to this.


Three elements distinguish a tomahawk from an axe or hatchet:

  • They have a relatively round eye which is nothing like a hatchet or axe which have almost triangular and narrow eyes. This is a design characteristic that has been retained from the early designs of old since it is far easier to put a handle on a round eye than a narrow eye.
  • The second element that distinguishes a tomahawk from an axe is that the former can be hafted from the bottom while the latter can only be hafted from the top. Inserting the head of a tomahawk is only possible if done on the handle from the bottom. It is then secured by a wider portion of wood at the top of the handle. Momentum and friction keep the head of the tomahawk in place. The head of an axe, on the other hand, is inserted into the handle from the top and a wooden wedge is used to hold it in place.
  • The third element that differentiates a tomahawk from a hatchet or axe is that tomahawks have more extended handles in line with the weight of the tomahawk’s head. Many tomahawks, however, come with hatchet handles today.



A hatchet – a name derived from the Old French language and a pint-sized form of axe – is a single-handed or one-handed tool that comes with a sharp blade on top a relatively short handle and used for splitting and cutting wood. The other side of the blade features a hammerhead and is designed for striking purposes.

The blade side is used for splitting or chopping small pieces of wood, firewood or for cutting off small branches while the hammerhead side is used to driving stakes into the ground or for hammering nails into wood.

It can be employed for anything that requires a striking blow such as tent stakes, bust up rocks, etc. It can also be used for creating travois, clearing trails, chopping animals for cooking and many other purposes.

The easiest way to differentiate a hatchet from an axe is by taking a look at its metal head. The hammerhead opposite the blade is the remarkable feature that distinguishes it from a hand axe.

Therefore, one would still be correct to state that a hatchet has a blade or sharpened edge on one end of its metal head and a hammer on the opposite side. The latter usually has a broad and flattened area that does not look the same as that of a hatchet, though it is also a handy tool to have around the house.

hatchetThis relatively versatile and compact tool can be used with one hand, making it different from the axe which employs the use of two hands for maximum striking power.

The diminutive or compactness makes it usable in tight spaces – despite its short handle which implies that you will have a smaller amount of power at the edge – and only requires a lesser amount of backswing when compared to an axe.

They were created with a few purposes in mind. One of them is for providing users with wood to start a fire and keep it going. Although hatchets are small and look like an axe that is scaled down, it can be used for chopping large pieces of wood and for cutting saplings or kindling.

A hatchet is in reality, just a light-weight axe. Research has shown that the original intention for fabricating axes was to serve as a step-up from a utility knife for slicing, chopping, and slicing. They can be used for cutting through cartilage or bone when handling carcasses.

They can also be helpful if you suddenly come across a dangerous animal that has the potential of hurting you. It is rare for wild animals to happen upon a camping ground or trail, there are times when people have been cornered or fenced by wolves or grizzlies.

When such animals try to come at you and you are armed with a hatchet, then you can protect yourself from getting hurt.


Main features of a hatchet

The following are the core features of a hatchet:

  • How many hands needed? – One.
  • Size and weight – Small and light (making it easier to carry)
  • Handle length – Shorter than the handles of most axes (though there are some axes with handles that are as short as a hatchet’s. But they are axes, not hatchets).
  • Type of axe head – Hammer/blade
  • Materials used for crafting handles – Wood/ Fiberglass/Steel (Most people prefer going for hatchets with wooden handles because of its power to absorb vibration and impact).



It’is a tool or weapon that is used for a variety of purposes which include:

  • Splitting log
  • Cutting wood
  • Firefighting
  • Hunting

It consists of 2 main parts: the head and a haft or handle. The head, which is usually made of metal, has different parts. Each of these parts contributes to the way the head cuts and balances.

They come with long handles which means they were designed to be used with the two hands. It requires a long backswing for maximum impact, thus leaning on kinetic energy to supply more force that is needed for cutting.

axeThey are designed for splitting large pieces of wood and for felling trees. You can also make use of an axe to strip away barks from trees rapidly.

If you need to field-dress a large animal like the buffalo or elephant, this is the tool to employ for the job.

You can also choke up the handle and use it one-handed as a makeshift or crude hatchet when the need arises, though the balance will not be so great compared to using an original hatchet. It can also become very tiring if you use it this way for a long time.

It’s a tool to employ if you need to build a shelter, clear obstacles, make a bridge, or for any job that calls for a considerable amount of force.

You can also find various classes of axes, some with handles that are between 19 inches and 22 inches and ideal for strapping onto the outside of your backpack or survival kit.

These versions are best used during hiking since the normal-sized axe would be cumbersome to carry on your belt.

It cannot be used in a tight space, and this is where the hatchet trumps it. However, the wedge-shape and thickness of the axe head make it ideal for cutting logs more efficiently than the hatchet.

Although hatchets can also be used for cutting logs, it is much better to use them for hewing logs into small pieces or for splitting kindling or sapling into smaller sections.



To sum it up, there are vast differences between a tomahawk, a hatchet, and an axe. Typical features that unite these three tools are the metal heads and their wooden handles (though some handles are made using fiberglass, etc.).

They can also be used as weapons when the need arises. But aside from these attributes, these tools serve different purposes.

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