Story and Photos by Armando Basulto
Warriors since time immemorial, across cultures and nations, have placed almost mystical power in their weapons of war – especially in eras where combat was primarily done in the face-to-face range of hand-held killing tools.
Often these swords and blades of different types were decorated by warriors, for cultural significance or perceived supernatural powers. Viking raiders would etch runes on their bearded axes, samurai swords’ handles were embellished with ornaments (menuki) made by talented artisans and Native American warriors decorated their spears and tomahawks with symbols ranging from paint to eagle feathers, that personified attributes such as bravery or lethality.
This vibrant spirit of a functional, deadly weapon – imbued and animated by the personalized artistry of the user – is captured in the beautiful and unique DC9Art Tomahawk. To hold one in the hand is to feel the power of the artist coursing through the handle and begging for use on some historical, wooded battlefield.
The shape, feel, and look of the DC9Art Tomahawk is like a spiritual time-capsule, reminiscent of an often-romanticized period. It conjures images of the hearty pioneers who lived in the tough, virgin, and unexplored edges of the fledgling early-American continent.
From a strictly historical perspective, a tomahawk is really just another name for a small axe.
During the 18th century and even into the 19th, the terms axe and tomahawk were often used interchangeably. With the opening of the fur trade with Native Americans, iron implements were in high demand by all the various tribes. Small axes or hatchets were at a high premium and these trade axes took on the name tomahawk, from the Algonquin name for axe.
Early trade tomahawks looked more like a small modern camp axe than the embellished later models. But very soon, Native Americans and Colonial frontiersman realized their potential as a fighting tool. It was only a matter of time before – as was common in many tribes – tomahawks began to evolve into progressively more lethal cutting tools and were embellished into personalized works of art.
Bladesmith artist Dan Coppins has always been interested in tomahawks and in many ways, it was the beginning of his smithing journey.
“I started knife making in 2000 after going to a local knife show where I met RW Wilson (a bladesmith renowned for his tomahawks) who said he would teach me how to make knives, when he invited me over to his house,” recounts Coppins. “I saw a tomahawk on the wall and when I asked him about it, he told me it was in the movie Jeremiah Johnson, which was my favorite movie. I didn’t believe him at first but then he showed me all the documents to prove it!”
In fact, RW Wilson’s nickname is “Tomahawk” after so many years of making knives and becoming known for his fine tomahawk creations.
Dan Coppins is first and foremost an artist in multiple mediums and his work is recognizable in a variety of blades, for their creative and unique “rustic but modern” look. From the beginning, like all struggling artists, Coppins had to create and improvise with the materials he had on hand and did not always have the tools and steel available to more established bladesmiths.
“I wanted to make tomahawks but didn’t have all the tools, unless they were flatheads. I was a knife maker making knives under DC Knives, then under Blind Horse Knives, then Battle Horse Knives and now under DC9Art, so I can include all of my art.”
Coppins did not see his lack of resources as a hinderance but rather a source of inspiration and connection to creators and smiths of bygone eras.
“I like to make things from trash to show people that anyone can do things with no money. I started my knife company with only 18 bucks!”
This perspective of “working with what you’ve got” was not just a response to circumstances but a real aesthetic that Coppins infuses into his work.
“I have a love for things that are old or look old. I have always felt like I should have been born in the 1700 time period.”
As Coppins developed the DC9Art Tomahawk, he channeled his connection to these old masters, and it informed the creative process and the product.
“I have a strong love for the outdoors and native American culture so, the ‘hawks are a mix of old and new. The DC9Art Tomahawk looks like it could have been around in the 1700s but with a punisher skull on it.”
The final creation is a tomahawk easily pictured on the Early American Frontier.
“I can picture someone sitting around a campfire splitting tinder with one or a soldier being given one as a personalized gift.”
Generally speaking, most historical tomahawks from the 18th century looked a lot more like your modern hatchet than the war ‘hawk that most people recognize from movies or popular culture. However, as the clash of cultures between Native Americans and the encroaching frontiersman expanded, tomahawks were expected to do double duty as camp tools and fighting implements.
On the frontier, woodsmen were expected to create everything they would need for survival, while simultaneously being able to repel attacks; possibly using their tomahawk to “fight to their rifle,” like modern operators would use their pistol to get to their M4.
As folks like Daniel Boone and Simon Kenton moved to claim lands in newly acquired territories, they would stake their claim by a legal method referred to as “tomahawk improvements,” which could be building a shelter or even blazing a tree. This was a preliminary step to taking legal ownership of the land but the defense and security of that piece of earth is then up to the owner, who must deal with the Indians who were the original inhabitants.
The DC9Art Tomahawk can do both jobs admirably.
The DC9Art Tomahawk is light and short enough to be carried in the pack or on the belt but can still do basic camp tasks. The spiked head usually signifies a tomahawk meant for splitting skulls and not logs but the ingenious two-piece sheath system allows the user to use the cutting head while leaving the spike covered. The cutting head and spike each have their own beautifully crafted leather sheath that is secured with a leather thong.
For limbing trees, making a shelter or collecting kindling, the tomahawk is perfectly balanced, in part by the tapered handle, which transfers just the right amount of weight toward the axe-head while still providing a secure grip.
The generous cutting edge can also be used for fine work, by choking up on the handle. The steel holds a decent edge, even after some basic camp chores, but a little touching up with a file or stone will keep things sharp and lethal.
In the Frontiersman’s spirit of resourcefulness, every part of the DC9Art Tomahawk is made from repurposed materials.
Coppins explains. “The hawks are made from recycled saw blades from a slate mill in Vermont and New York, very good tool steel, 4140.”
The distinctive accents on the handle and haft are some of the highlights of the DC9Art Tomahawk. The wrappings of hardened rawhide leather create Dali-esque like shapes that resemble faces or ancient tribal markings. This is a unique and creative use of this medium.
Coppins explains, “I also try to make or do things that haven’t been done before, like the faces in the rawhide, which started quite by accident. I was messing around with a hole in the rawhide when I noticed that it was starting to wrinkle as it was drying.”
With some artistic manipulation, Coppins began to create; “…it looked like an eye, then I thought about faces. Next there were more and more experiments.”
The final product makes each DC9Art Tomahawk a unique creation. The intricate wrappings actually create easy indexing for your hand – on the otherwise smooth handle – when choking up and down the shaft.
Coppins will continue to create unique blades with out-of-the-box thinking and materials.
“Some of my other art pieces are made from discarded tin cans, chicken bones and such.”
The DC9Art Tomahawk looks like it would be right at home in the hand of either a hero or villain, in an action film, and would be as recognizable as a samurai’s katana or a Viking’s bearded axe.
In the field of new tactical tomahawks, the DC9Art stands out in the crowd and catches the eye; much like another tomahawk that once caught the eye of a young, aspiring bladesmith who recognized it from “Jerimiah Johnson.”
“I guess my imagination comes from my childhood, when I would make my own toys from nothing but pieces of wood; now, trying to get one in a movie… that would complete the circle.” K&G
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Blade Material: 4140 AlloyCutting Edge: 4 inchesOverall length: 19 inchesWeight: 1.3 poundsAxe Head: 9.5 inchesHandle: Stained OakSheath: Two-piece Leather CoverMSRP: $250.00
Battle Horse Knives(740) 995-9009www.BattleHorseKnives.com
Battle Horse Knives
The tomahawk has a colorful history, inexorably entwined with the development of the American nation and identity.
Anyone familiar with military history and American army units, knows that the motto of the US Army Rangers is “Rangers Lead the Way!” But many don’t know that the origin of that illustrious unit goes back to even before America became its own country.
The great-grand-daddy of our modern Rangers goes back to pre-Revolutionary War British units, that were created for unconventional warfare during England’s conflict with France – known to Americans as the French and Indian War. Rogers’ Rangers, who carried tomahawks as part of their accruement, was formed in 1755 from colonial backwoodsmen and tasked with conducting long-range reconnaissance and guerilla raids against the French and their Indian allies.
Major Robert Rogers handpicked these men for their experience in the woods and their knowledge of “Indian ways.” These Rangers’ area of operation was where conventional infantry or militia could not move. They operated far from support or backup, deep in hostile Indian territory while living off the land.
To help unit cohesion, and create a unified mission statement, Rogers created the “Rules of Ranging,” which were 28 axioms that became the first text on guerilla warfare tactics – ranging from how to set camp and sentries to how to maintain fire control. These Rogers’ Rules have been handed down through the centuries and are still used – in a much abridged and modified form – by modern Army Rangers today.
Of particular note is Rule 13 which states, “In general, when pushed upon by the enemy, reserve your fire till they approach very near, which will then put them into the greatest surprise and consternation, and give you an opportunity of rushing upon them with your hatchets (tomahawks) and cutlasses to the better advantage.”
Not only was close-quarter combat to be expected, but Rangers were ready to fight using adapted Indian tactics and tools. The tomahawk was just that perfect tool for closing in with the enemy and, even more than with the bayonet, intimidate the enemy with its lethal savagery.
The DC9Art Tomahawk would have fit the bill for Rogers’ Rules and met the job of “Indian style” fighting the Rangers were known and feared for.
Armando Rafael Basulto is an avid and life-long outdoorsman, writer, photographer and hunter. His work has been featured in a wide variety of outdoor and action-lifestyle publications – including American Frontiersman, American Survival Guide, Ballistic, Knives Illustrated, Tactical Life, Survivor’s Edge, RECOIL Carnivore, and many others. Over the years Mr. Basulto has developed working relationships with a diverse group of creative vendors and publishers in the outdoor industry. In addition, Mr. Basulto has co-authored a combatives manual for the US Special Operations community and has worked with a variety of European military units. Mr. Basulto holds undergraduate degrees from Montclair State University and NYU, as well as a Master’s degree from Fordham University.
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