Contrary to what we may often see on TV, real survival isn’t scripted. It never will be. Staying alive in adverse conditions requires knowledge, skills and a plan; having the right tools certainly doesn’t hurt, also.

Topping the list of desirable SHTF gear is the venerable knife. Few tools are more closely associated with survival, and for good reason. Fixed blade or folder, this one piece of survival equipment has probably contributed to saving more lives than any other. From fire starting, to shelter building and defense, in the world of survival the knife is the original multi-tool. But depending on the task at hand, even the best knife can have practical limitations. And no matter how capable your knife — and some are very capable — there may be times when the situation requires something much more robust. Think heavy-duty chopping, hammering or smashing.

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Above: TOPS offers many survival-oriented knives, including the Fieldcraft fixed blade and MSF 4.0 folder we previously reviewed.

While you can certainly improvise and use your knife for all sorts of tasks, essentially you may be forcing it to do the work of a much larger and heavier tool, and hoping it will hold up to the abuse. Push the limits of your knife too far, however, and you risk damaging or even losing a vital piece of your survival kit just when you need it most. When the situation demands next level durability, strength and performance, you may want to take things up a notch. Enter the tomahawk.

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Today we'll review the TOPS Hammer Hawk Tomahawk, exploring the many features that set it apart from other tomahawks and make it a definite asset in just about any survival situation.


A tomahawk is commonly defined as a general purpose, single-handed, light axe used by, and often associated with, Native Americans. The earliest known designs consisted of a stone or deer antler head attached to a wooden handle using strips of rawhide, and are believed to be among some of the oldest tools made by humans.

A tomahawk produced by the Hudson' Bay Company in the 1830s. Source:

A tomahawk produced by the Hudson' Bay Company in the 1830s. Source:

When Europeans arrived in North America the metal blades they brought with them helped propel early tomahawk designs to a whole new level. These advancements ushered in huge improvements in efficiency, durability, and lethality. The updated tomahawks could be used for cutting, chopping, hunting, and for battle, but they also served as a key tool for everyday survival needs.

While the tomahawk’s compact size made it easy to carry and use in confined spaces, their effectiveness and power was unmatched by anything that had come before. The improved designs incorporated the best aspects of the originals, with modern materials and a broader range of multi-function features.

Modern Tomahawk Design

The design of many modern tomahawks usually consists of a steel head attached to a wood or composite handle. Some designs incorporate a single (full-tang) piece of steel with no traditional head-attachment points, and use wood or composite materials on the handle to provide a secure grip, as well as comfort and durability.

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Advances in metallurgy, design, materials, and fabrication methods have helped the tomahawk evolve and take its place in the 21st century as an important multipurpose tool that is still widely used by the military, law enforcement, and private citizens. It’s no secret that U.S. soldiers have used tomahawks in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. One news article even quotes former Navy SEAL team members confirming that some on the teams have used tomahawks on missions for breaching and hand-to-hand combat, among other things.

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The Hammer Hawk is a prime example of this evolution, and how computer aided design, modern materials and hand-finished details have all come together to create a superior tool that is just as relevant and useful today as it was in its earliest forms.

The 411 on the TOPS Hammer Hawk

The Hammer Hawk is made by TOPS, an American company based in Eastern Idaho that was founded in 1998 by several combat veterans who served in Vietnam. These guys are intimately familiar with what works in the field, and more importantly what doesn’t. (When your life depends on the gear you carry, you tend to be very particular.) So when they got together to start TOPS the mission was crystal clear – produce quality, overbuilt, functional tools that exceed expectations in real-world conditions.

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Leo Espinosa, who designed the Hammer Hawk, is also the President and lead designer for TOPS Knives. Leo is very passionate about the products that come out of the TOPS facility in Idaho, and the Hammer Hawk is just one example.

The Hammer Hawk features a full-tang design, incorporating a 3/8 inch thick piece of 1075 carbon steel. TOPS usually uses 1095 for most of its knives, but they decided to use 1075 for this tool, since 1075 is less brittle and can still be sharpened in the field. This steel features what TOPS calls an “Acid Rain” finish which looks great and allows the unique character of the metal to come through.

All TOPS knives and tomahawks, including the Hammer Hawk, are differentially heat treated by hand to increase hardness at the cutting edge while maintaining a more flexible spine/handle. This results in excellent durability under hard use. On the opposing side of the Hammer Hawk's edge is a heavy-duty hammer head, which offers a large surface area for blunt-force impact, and is also differentially heat-treated by hand.

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The handle is topped off with textured green canvas Micarta scales that are hand-fitted and hand-sanded/polished. The scales cover almost the entire length of the handle for comfort, safety and added confidence during swings. Their thick contours provide an excellent no-slip grip in all conditions, with or without gloves. At the bottom end of the handle are two lanyard holes suitable for lashings or lanyards.

Overall length is 14.5 inches – long enough to get a good swing, and short enough to permit choking up for added control of the razor sharp, 4.25 inch cutting edge. This size is ideally suited for getting into tighter spaces, and requires much less backswing to deliver effective strikes, when compared to a larger two-handed axe. The large cutting edge comes to a point on the bottom and is excellent for hacking through rope, twine, and other similar materials.

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The head is CNC-machined to help reduce the weight, but the guys at TOPS used the opportunity to mill in a detailed Native American spear design right into the head. The tomahawk weighs 36.3 ounces (2.27 pounds).

The two-piece brown leather sheath system allows a comfortable carry option and quick access. The sheath covers the entire head and uses a two-snap design that is not only attractive, but also highly functional. The belt-loop portion is also well designed and provides a generous amount of leather to hold the Hammer Hawk in place, while providing ease of movement. The sheath weighs 6 ounces, bringing total weight of the tomahawk and sheath to 42.3 ounces (2.64 pounds).

The Verdict

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The TOPS Hammer Hawk Tomahawk is a serious, full-tang monster that combines practical performance with style and superb workmanship.

We were very impressed with the strength and durability of the entire package, especially the extremely robust 0.38 (3/8) inch thick piece of 1075 carbon steel, and the very secure and comfortable, hand-fitted Micarta scales which cover the majority of the handle and facilitate multiple grip options.

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This hatchet-sized tomahawk can easily perform the work typically done with a much larger axe. It incorporates serious chopping and smashing power in one compact and multi-function tool that’s just as much at home at camp as in an evacuation bag. While it will absolutely chop and cut, it can also be used as an evacuation/breaking/breaching tool to take on doors, windows and many other obstacles with blunt force impact strikes using the hardened hammer on the back end. It's also helpful for more mundane tasks such as pounding in tent stakes.

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The Hammer Hawk has a suggested retail price of $350, and for an extra $20 you also get the TOPS Backup knife. With a bit of shopping around we were able to find a number of vendors offering prices around $250.

The Hammer Hawk is a high-quality, American-made tool that we feel confident would last a lifetime. A big thumbs up on this one. For more information on the Hammer Hawk, go to

About The Author

Richard is a practicing attorney, urban survival consultant, writer and firearms enthusiast. He’s the author of Surviving Doomsday: A Guide for Surviving an Urban Disaster, and The Quick Start Guide for Urban Preparedness.

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