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Tomahawks And Sharpened Shovels
by James Dunnigan
July 4, 2015

A recent book about U.S. Navy SEAL commando operations make mention of occasional use of tomahawks. The tomahawk was basically a small one handed hatchet popularized as a combat weapon by American Indians centuries ago. The indigenous people the first Europeans in North America met had a Stone Age culture and were quite eager to get iron tools. The Europeans had used one handed hatchets for several thousand years and used them in trade with the Indians, who quickly took to using them in combat. Handheld axes had been used in this way by Europeans for a long time but had fell out of favor as a weapon because more lethal alternatives became available. But the Indians called their handheld axes tomahawks and revived their popularity as a weapon. Before and since European soldiers have used handheld axes when on campaign for work around the camp and the Indians reminded the Europeans that these tools could, if used properly, be very effective weapons in close “hand to hand” combat. This was the case in the 20th century and particularly since 2001 in Afghanistan and Iraq. As a result commercial firms began designing (with the help of combat veterans) handheld axes optimized for camp and combat use. It was these weapons that SEALs were sometimes taking with them on raids. But the main reason for taking these on raids was not for close combat but for quickly getting into buildings. There are actually a lot of tools for this that the military had adopted since 2001.

For example in 2014 an American company that manufactures knives and similar tools for hunters, campers and military personnel introduced a very specialized knife called the Door Entry Tool. From a distance this looks like a pistol, but there is no trigger and the “barrel” is a sturdy knife that fits into a door jamb and when the “pistol grip” is turned most doors will open. This device is not unique but one of many that began to appear after American troops began dealing with Islamic terrorists in Iraq after 2004.

In Iraq American infantry used a wide variety of tools for breaking and entering during urban combat. The most popular items were the battle axe (similar to the one firefighters use), bolt cutters (the same one available commercially), plastic explosives (C4) and explosive tape (adhesive tape with a thick layer of C4 attached along the tape.) There were several commercially available tool kits for breaking and entering, costing from $80 to $500. The axes were good for quickly smashing through doors and gates, and the bolt cutters dealt with locks and fences. Getting slowed down by doors or fences can be fatal for the attackers, as it gives the enemy time to get a shot, or grenade, in while the attackers are out in the open.

Other available tools, like assault ladders, quickie saws (hand held gasoline powered round saw for cutting through concrete or metal) and battering rams, were too bulky to be quickly brought into action when needed, and thus were not often employed. Using equipment already available for, and successfully used by firefighters or police, does not always work. An armed enemy does not allow as much opportunity to bring bulky equipment forward, especially stuff that needs some set up. However, even the bulky stuff comes in handy for peacekeeping, where you often deal with small groups of hostile fighters who are acting not much different than some drug gangs do when cornered by the police.

The Iraq campaign saw lots of reservists called up and some of them were firemen or police who noted that troops carried out a lot of raids and there were often problems with getting through sturdy locked doors. Some reservists knew of special equipment police and fire departments used to break into buildings. The proper equipment was soon in the troops' hands, and many lives, both American and Iraqi, were saved. There had always been companies that designed and manufactured this equipment for firemen and police. Now they had a military market. Out of that came companies developing even more specialized and, usually more portable, gear for forced entry.

The SOCOM Tomahawks are mainly Door Entry Tools, but also tomahawks for the 21st century. Using such tools as weapons is nothing new. During the Korean War (1950-53), for example, American troops experienced two years of trench warfare. It was quickly found that a bayonet on the end of a rifle did not work well in hand-to-hand trench fighting. But some troops found that construction tools like axes and entrenching tools (a folding shovel all troops had) worked better. The entrenching tool worked best if you sharpened the edges of the shovel. Some troops got a second entrenching tool that was sharpened and kept handy for trench fighting rather than digging.

 


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