Utility vs. Combat: Tomahawks and Trade Knive

A thoughtful question from Mitch Mitchell, an affiliate coach of American Frontier Rough and Tumble, prompted me to commit to paper some observations regarding two common tools/weapons of the frontier. First, the exchange that led to all this:

Question: "Am I on the right track or holding my danged knife wrong?"

My reply: "Bowie designs are manifold. My personal preference falls toward a flat-spine knife with a half-guard because a spine-side guard or broken spine jams up my thumb on a sincere stab in a saber grip. For me, anyway, a nice, straight, full-power stab with a hammer grip on the high line is impossible, and anyway it is a wrist killer."

Mitchell's question is a common one that can lead us one step closer to weapons wisdom. First, I will point out that discovering that certain tactics and grips are wrist killers is possible only when we invest time in hard training with hard targets. If we stick with mirror play, shadow play or tit-for-tat flow drills with a partner using mock weapons, we likely will never stumble on the realities that make certain tactics ill-advised. As they say, train real to find real.


Now, here's my take on the subject of blades and self-defense in American history:

First, trade-knife designs were myriad. Likewise, tomahawk designs were myriad. Beyond a knife being a knife and a 'hawk being a 'hawk, mass-produced, perfectly weighted commercial blades made specifically for combat were a rarity.

There were a variety of designs, weights, lengths, guards, etc., in circulation. To survive, one had to be skilled with a variety of tool/weapon interfaces. When modern afficionados fall into a this-is-my-carry-blade mindset, they miss the point of training with these historical items.

I say that because a knife was a tool first and foremost. Cutting rope, making fuzz sticks for starting campfires, skinning game and all the other actions one needed to undertake in order to survive on the frontier were of paramount importance. Having a knife that served only as a weapon was uncommon.

The same goes for the tomahawk, which we shouldn't forget was primarily a hatchet or camp ax. Knives and 'hawks are similar in that both were tools intended for daily use. In all likelihood, the bearers hoped never to need to wield them for martial matters.

Knives and 'hawks are similar in that both were tools intended for daily use. In all likelihood, the bearers hoped never to need to wield them for martial matters.

Today, we tend to invert the tool-choice pyramid. We often select blades for martial purposes that we envision. Often, we wouldn't dare dull their sheen on mundane matters.

I'm not pretending that I use all the blades in my collection for everyday cutting and chopping. With an eye on historical accuracy, I do own some pretty toys that I don't ding. However, I have a variety of fair-to-middling knives and 'hawks that I've acquired in antique shops, and all are mighty functional.

I enjoy using them as the tools they were intended to be and training with them to take full advantage of all their martial aspects. I experience growth whenever I'm forced to modify my technique to deal with different weights and lengths as I discover which tactics shake out as functional across all weapon interfaces and thus are of high utility. It's also beneficial to learn which tactics are specific to a single tool because they must be culled from my repertoire.

My final advice: Go with whatever blade feels right in your hand. When you find that a particular tactic or technique jams a digit, hurts your hand or simply makes you feel uncomfortable, get rid of said move. If you don't and you ever have to use your tool for real, you won't do it with conviction. Remember that it's perfectly OK to not know or use every trick in the book. It's never OK to keep things just so you can feel complete or check a move off a list.

Never lose sight of the fact that tomahawks were hatchets and knives were knives. They were designed for work, and fighting was just a blip on the radar. In modern times, it's easy to fixate on buying expensive items for fake fighting and lose sight of the daily utility they were intended for.

Mark Hatmaker's website is extremeselfprotection.com.

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Dustin Poirier has knocked out Conor McGregor in the second round at the UFC 257 Main Event. This spoils McGregor's long-awaited UFC return after his win over Donald "Cowboy" Cerrone last January. Poirier hinted after the match that he would be open to another bout against McGregor, as this fight brings their rivalry to a 1-1 record. The impressive wins of Poirier and Michael Chandler on Saturday night set the UFC's lightweight division up for a very exciting future.

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Black Belt Magazine is proud to announce the NEW Member Profiles feature for the Hall of Fame. At the time of this article, the online records account for every inductee from the inaugural year of 1968 all the way through 1990 (upwards of 200 martial artists). The page will be updated continuously and will include every inductee through 2020 in the near future. For now, you can enjoy images and facts about the legendary members for each induction they received before 1991. Take advantage of this never-before-seen opportunity to learn about many of the martial artists who contributed to the lifestyle, culture, and community that every martial artist experiences today.

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A Closer Look at Mongolia's Naadam Festival

Mongolia's "three sports of men" — archery, horseracing and wrestling — were the featured attractions at the first Naadam festival convened by Genghis Kahn himself in 1206.

Fast-forward to the 21st century: The festivals, held nationwide in mid-July each year, still celebrate the formation of the Mongolian Empire and its achievement of independence from China's Qing Dynasty.

The highlight of modern incarnations of Naadam is the wrestling, and many boys who grow up on the steppes dream of one day being crowned a champion.

The wrestling competitions are single-elimination tournaments. Wrestlers wear trunks and an open-chest shirt with a rope tied around the abdomen, all of which opponents are allowed to grab. The most common colors seen are red, which symbolizes power, and blue, which represents the Mongolian sky.

The author (left) grapples with a Mongolian wrestler.

The grapplers also wear heavy traditional boots and a Mongolian hat. The four sides of the hat represent the four provinces of old Mongolia. The top knot is for the five regions of the Buddhist government. The silver badge attached to each hat bears the animal ranking of the wrestler.

In competition, the wrestlers have to win six matches to be crowned champion. There are no weight classes, which is perhaps why the top grapplers generally weigh 260 pounds or more. The goal is to make the opponent touch the ground with anything other than the soles of his feet.

Because of the coronavirus, the most recent Naadam competition in the capital city of Ulaanbaatar took place without an audience. Spectators had to watch on television or online.

At the competitions in the provinces, however, the action was live, and residents of nearby towns showed up to watch.

In a secondary subdivision called Temenzogt, located about seven hours' drive from Ulaanbaatar, I was fortunate to have a chance to wrestle in a Naadam event.

Author Antonio Graceffo (right) and his opponent.

After quickly sizing up my huge opponent, a former champion, I braced myself for a pushing and pulling battle of upper-body strength. I was surprised when he chose to use his heavy boots and massive thighs to kick my legs out from under me.

And with that, my Naadam experience came to an abrupt end. I was grateful, however, for the efforts of all my Mongolian friends who made it possible for me to fulfill my dream of wrestling in Naadam.

I learned a lot about Mongolia, the culture and the ground, so much so that I've decided to stay here another year and really dedicate myself to learning Mongolian wrestling.

Maybe at next year's Nadaam, I'll be able to last 20 seconds.

Antonio Graceffo writes Black Belt's Destinations column. Read more of his work here. His book Warrior Odyssey is available here.

Photos Courtesy of Antonio Graceffo

To read more about Mongolian wrestling, check out "Wrestling With the Descendants of Genghis Khan: Black Belt's Asia Correspondent Travels to Mongolia to Grapple!" in our February/March 2021 issue. Go here to order your copy from the Black Belt Store!

In a competition bereft of many of its top wrestlers, Daieisho was a surprise winner of the New Year Grand Sumo Tournament Sunday in Tokyo. With the area under a state of emergency due to the coronavirus pandemic and a post-war record 19 wrestlers withdrawing from the event, Daieisho pulled off the upset victory coming from the maegashira level, the lowest of five ranks in sumo's top division, to win the title.

It was Daieisho's first championship as he finished the event with a 13-2 record. Displaying a powerful pushing and thrusting style, he also garnered the prize for outstanding performance during the tournament as well as the prize for best technique.

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