Modern Special Operators are Using Hatchets in Combat — Here’s Why

August 27, 2019Luke Ryan
Coffee or Die Photo

From infrared lasers fixed to rifles and night vision devices mounted to helmets to the precision bombs they can rain down on their enemies within seconds of calling for them, the modern warrior has never been so effective (or deadly) thanks to the ever-evolving technology they have at their fingertips.

But many U.S. military special operators carry a weapon one might not expect to find on a 21st-century battlefield: the hatchet. 

These aren’t thick wooden planks with sharp rocks affixed to the top; they are lightweight, steel, matte-black blades crafted to perfection. Many double as a pry-bar, useful for getting into the secured trunks that populate Afghanistan or popping off locks without making too much noise.

Sgt. 1st Class Timothy S. Briggs throws a Tomahawk during the Day Stakes evants of the Best Ranger Competition, April 13, 2013 at Fort Benning, Georgia. Briggs is assigned to the Ranger Training Brigade, him and his partner, Sgt. 1st Class Raymond M. Santiago won the competition. Photo by Ashley Cross/U.S. Army.

Some argue that hatchets aren’t practical, while others defend their usage — and, of course, the image associated with it. “While I appreciate the history of the hatchet, I wouldn’t carry one for any practical purpose,” said Alex Green, a former U.S. Army Ranger who deployed four times with 3rd Ranger Battalion. “For jungle or dense vegetation, machetes are much more practical. For urban warfare, hoolie tools and bolt cutters are much more useful. In today’s world, I honestly don’t know why I would carry a hatchet.”

In contrast, Coffee or Die spoke to another Army Ranger from 3rd Ranger Battalion who had also served on four deployments to Afghanistan in the same time periods. “I carried a Benchmade hatchet on my back for my last two deployments,” Sergeant Wayne Capacillo said. “I lined a hydration pack with 100-mile-an-hour tape (duct tape) so it wouldn’t snag coming out, and I lined the sides of the opening with tape so I could slide it back in. I used it more than I thought — mainly breaking into gates, doors, and locks.”

Still, the hatchet may seem like an odd choice. There are a host of weapons out there, so why a small axe? Most operators are already carrying knives — some very hefty ones at that — and as Green pointed out, other prying tools are available to service members. What timeline of events has brought the hatchet, of all things, back onto the battlefield?

SEAL Team 6 reportedly uses tomahawks created by renowned North Carolina knife maker Daniel Winkler. Winkler also created the tomahawks used in the 1992 film “The Last of the Mohicans.” Pictured here are the WK Ranger Breaching Axe and WK Ranger Axe. Photo courtesy of Winkler Knives.

Most recently, U.S. Navy SEAL Team 6 has gained attention for carrying the hatchet into missions. Dom Raso specifically mentioned to the New York Times its use in hand-to-hand combat, in addition to breaching necessities. Some ST6 operators have reportedly used tomahawks made by the same creator of the on-set tomahawks used in “The Last of the Mohicans.” Like Capacillo, many members of the 75th Ranger Regiment have also been known to carry hatchets into combat, including models made by SOG, American Tomahawk Company, Smith & Wesson, Gerber, and other manufacturers.

Looking back to the Vietnam War, U.S. Special Forces (SF) had been negotiating with Peter LaGana, the founder of the American Tomahawk Company, in order to produce tomahawks for them. According to the Mountaineer Herald of Ebensburg, Pennsylvania, they specifically sought its effectiveness in “close-quarter combat.” Reports of its success in combat appear to be numerous.

Another article was written about the “chopper” — a tomahawk that was reportedly used by U.S. Marines in the jungle. They received “glowing reports of their multi-purpose usefulness,” and “[o]ne man reported killing four Cong in hand-to-hand combat with it after his rifle had been snatched away — another chops pole-sized trees with it for quick clearing of helicopter landing fields — another chops his way through walls of huts with booby-trapped doors.” It’s difficult to discern how much truth is behind these individual claims; however, the legend of the hatchet continued to grow.

Photo courtesy of Reddit.

The hatchet was also used in iconography: a group of SF MACV-SOG soldiers during this time were designated the “Hatchet Force,” and their patch included a parachute, a bolt of lightning, and what appears to be a battle axe.

Reports of hatchet and tomahawk use in the American military go back to before World War I. However, there is one definitive place that ties the SOF community to their apparent love for the handy devices.

The Ranger Regiment, as we know it, was activated in 1974, but Rangers trace their roots and name all the way back to the colonial era. Among these early Rangers was a man named Robert Rogers, an officer in the pre-revolution British military. While his revolutionary days are complicated, he is better known for his time in command during the French and Indian War. The famed Rogers’ Rangers became a force to be reckoned with at the time. 

Have your musket clean as a whistle, hatchet scoured, sixty rounds powder and ball, and be ready to march at a minute’s warning.

He wrote the “Rules of Ranging” to guide his Rangers in that war. The document, which modern Rangers study to this day, mentions the hatchet twice.

All Rangers are to be subject to the rules and articles of war; to appear at roll-call every evening, on their own parade, equipped, each with a Firelock, sixty rounds of powder and ball, and a hatchet …”

“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 and cutlasses to the better advantage.”

Robert Rogers. Photo courtesy of Library of Congress.

These rules were simplified into the “Standing Orders” in a novel about Robert Rogers by Kenneth Roberts. Despite their origins in a mixture of fiction and history, this shorter version has taken its place alongside Abram’s Charter and the Ranger Creed as a guiding document in the 75th Ranger Regiment. 

The Standing Orders are as follows:

  1. Don’t forget nothing.

  2. Have your musket clean as a whistle, hatchet scoured, sixty rounds powder and ball, and be ready to march at a minute’s warning.

  3. When you’re on the march, act the way you would if you was sneaking up on a deer. See the enemy first.

  4. Tell the truth about what you see and what you do. There is an army depending on us for correct information. You can lie all you please when you tell other folks about the Rangers, but don’t never lie to a Ranger or officer.

  5. Don’t never take a chance you don’t have to.

  6. When we’re on the march we march single file, far enough apart so one shot can’t go through two men.

  7. If we strike swamps, or soft ground, we spread out abreast, so it’s hard to track us.

  8. When we march, we keep moving till dark, so as to give the enemy the least possible chance at us.

  9. When we camp, half the party stays awake while the other half sleeps.

  10. If we take prisoners, we keep ’em separate till we have had time to examine them, so they can’t cook up a story between ’em.

  11. Don’t ever march home the same way. Take a different route so you won’t be ambushed.

  12. No matter whether we travel in big parties or little ones, each party has to keep a scout 20 yards ahead, 20 yards on each flank, and 20 yards in the rear so the main body can’t be surprised and wiped out.

  13. Every night you’ll be told where to meet if surrounded by a superior force.

  14. Don’t sit down to eat without posting sentries.

  15. Don’t sleep beyond dawn. Dawn’s when the French and Indians attack.

  16. Don’t cross a river by a regular ford.

  17. If somebody’s trailing you, make a circle, come back onto your own tracks, and ambush the folks that aim to ambush you.

  18. Don’t stand up when the enemy’s coming against you. Kneel down, lie down, hide behind a tree.

  19. Let the enemy come till he’s almost close enough to touch, then let him have it and jump out and finish him up with your hatchet.

Or perhaps today’s operators simply think it’s cool to look like Mel Gibson from “The Patriot.” Would they be wrong?

Luke Ryan
Luke Ryan

Luke Ryan is the author of two books of war poetry: The Gun and the Scythe and A Moment of Violence. Luke grew up overseas in Pakistan and Thailand, the son of aid workers. Later, he served as an Army Ranger and conducted four deployments to Afghanistan, leaving as a team leader. He has published over 600 written works on a variety of platforms, including the New York Times.

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