'Modern Marvels' to air a segment on tomahawk producer
By: Mary Fortune
Sunday, March 2, 2008 'Modern Marvels' to air a segment on tomahawk producer

A father-son business forging handmade tomahawks from hunks of steel has bloomed into an enterprise that supplies the lightweight, wickedly sharp weapons to hundreds of troops serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“Word-of-mouth is our biggest advertisement,” said Ryan Johnson, a Soddy-Daisy bladesmith who has seen the number of tomahawks produced by his homegrown company grow nearly tenfold since 2000. “People see them being used and that’s where they’re sold.”

On May 9, the History channel television show “Modern Marvels” will air a segment on the locally produced tomahawks favored by troops serving in war zones, he said.

“The variety of people carrying our stuff has changed dramatically,” Mr. Johnson said. “You’ve got Navy SEALs, Marines on the ground, law enforcement and firefighters.”

The tomahawks are light and relatively small — about 14 to 18 inches long, depending on the model. But they are brutally powerful weapons capable of punching through Kevlar or chopping the hinges off a car door.

“This ax has cut up about three cars,” Mr. Johnson said, examining a battered tomahawk used during the recent filming of the “Modern Marvels” segment.

Steve Durgin, a producer for the show, saw the tomahawks in action during filming.

“We punched holes in a Kevlar helmet; we went out and laid to waste a couple of cars,” he said. “We put a sunroof in a car that didn’t originally have one.”

Working in a shop behind his parents’ house in Hixson, Mr. Thomas had forged historical reproductions of tomahawks for several years when, in 2000, a special operations soldier stationed in Kuwait asked him to craft a tactical weapon he could use in the field.

“He was the first person to really request a tactical tomahawk,” said Mr. Johnson, who earned an engineering degree from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga in 1998 and teaches in the engineering school there. “When I started out, I was literally hand making the things myself.”

But demand for the tactical tomahawks grew quickly as the wars in Afghanistan and then Iraq put thousands of American troops in harm’s way. Before they headed into Fallujah, Iraq, in 2004, a unit of 25 Marines ordered the tactical tomahawks to carry in house-to-house searches and urban combat, Mr. Johnson said. Now, about 80 percent of his customers are deployed troops, he said.

“They’re paying for these out of their own pockets,” he said. “They’re willing to invest in tools that keep them alive.”

Though he designed the tomahawks as weapons for “worst-case scenario, close-quarters combat,” Mr. Johnson said his customers tell him they are more likely to use them to break down doors and penetrate metal.

“A lot of these guys, it’s the last thing they think of as a weapon,” he said. “They see it as a multipurpose tool.”

The appeal of the tomahawks is rooted in their versatile nature and the ways that technology has allowed them to evolve, Mr. Durgin said.

“When you pick one up, there’s something visceral about it,” he said. “You heft it, and you want to sink it into something.”

When he was making the tactical tomahawks himself, they were always sold out, Mr. Johnson said. Demand grew to the point that it was time to “step up” if he wanted the business to grow, so he launched RMJ Tactical, which now employs three people.

“We don’t make the most axes, yet,” he said. “But we definitely are the most sought-after ax.”

Mr. Johnson still pounds out some historical tomahawks in the shop where the air is thick with the smells of fire and metal. But production of the tactical tomahawks is now handled largely by local manufacturer Dixie Industries, which drop-forged a batch of 500 of the weapons last week.

As the business has grown, Mr. Johnson has made a point of keeping the work local. From buying materials here to hiring a local manufacturer to forge the tomahawks, he likes to keep close tabs on the process. And he still handles all the finish work in the shop where the business began.

The quality of the tomahawks, which cost about $350 for civilians and $300 for members of the military, is paramount, Mr. Johnson said.

“We had no idea how many people would be using them,” he said.

Ryan Johnson, RMJ Tactical

Video near bottom