Serving as a tool and weapon, every culture in the world has its version of the ax. In the Philippines, no other ethnic group has given heavy emphasis on the use of the ax in combat than the headhunting highland tribes of Northern Luzon. While headhunting is no longer practiced by these tribes, the head ax is still ubiquitous in the mountainous part of northern Philippines often carried as part of traditional costume and as souvenir sold to tourists.
One of the earliest works, that documented the use of the head ax of the highland tribes of Northern Philippines was published in 1912, titled, “The Head Hunters of Northern Luzon From Ifugao to Kalinga: A Ride Through the Mountains of Northern Luzon With an Appendix on the Independence of the Philippines” by Cornelis De Witt Willcox.
Wilcox, throughout the book noted the omnipresence of the head ax in the northern highlands of the country. On his impression of the weapon, he wrote, “But the finest thing of all was the head-ax, a beautiful and cruel-looking weapon, the head having on one side an edge curving back toward the shaft, and on the other a point. To keep the weapon from slipping out of the hand, a stud is left in the hard wood shaft, about two-thirds of the way from the head, the shaft itself being protected by a steel sheathing half way down; the remainder being ornamented with decorative brass plates and strips, and the end shod in a ferrule of silver.
The top of the ax is not straight, but curved, both edge and point taking, as it were, their origin in this curve; the edge is formed by a double chamfer, the ax-blade being of uniform thickness. All together, this weapon is perhaps more original and characteristic than any other native to the Philippine Archipelago. With it goes the Kalinga shield of soft wood, made in one piece, with the usual three horns or projections at the top and two at the bottom. These projections, however, are cylindrical, and the outside ones are continued down the edge of the shield and so form ribs. In the ordinary Igorot shield the horns are flat, merely prolonging the surface of the shield, or else presenting only a very small relief. As usual, a lacing of bejuco across top and bottom protects the shield against a separation in the event of an unlucky stroke splitting it in two.”
Two types of Cordillera head axes (left), the R&D Sayoc/Winkler Fighting Tomahawk (right)
The movement dynamics of fighting with an ax is quite different from fighting with a straight stick or blade. The head-heavy balance of an ax limits the possibility of rapid multi-directional attack. Once launched, it is very difficult to redirect a strike because of the momentum generated by the weight concentrated at the end of the weapon. This could also lead to over commitment and slow recovery time exposing the user to fast counter attacks.
The head-heavy balance of an ax though offers one advantage in combat and that is it can generate tremendous force that could crash through defenses. Because of its heavy mass, single blow of an ax possesses enough stopping power to incapacitate even a large opponent. Another advantage of the short ax is it could also function in the projectile range as it can be hurled at an opponent.
All the angles of attack of the Filipino martial arts (FMA) could be used when fighting with a short ax. In addition, the ax head could be used for hooking and trapping your opponent’s weapon, hands or legs. The ax user could still fight with his weapon in trapping and grappling range by choking up on the shaft putting his hand just below the ax head. With this accomplished, he can now use the ax blade to slash, rip or punch.
The design of the Cordillera head ax makes it more dangerous for the user. Unlike its common counterparts with a flat poll, the Cordillera head ax has a wicked protrusion on its butt, which could severely injure the user at the slightest miscalculation. This protrusion has a gruesome purpose for the headhunting tribes of the olden days. After beheading his victim, the warrior would drive this protrusion into the ground, hold the shaft with his feet and clean the scalp by scraping it on the ax blade.
Influence on modern tactical blades
The influence of the design of Cordillera head ax has found its way in modern tactical blades specifically the R&D Sayoc/Winkler Fighting Tomahawk, produced for the U.S. Naval Special Warfare/Teams. A part of the article titled “An Effective Force Multiplier,” by Mike Haskew, published in Blade Magazine reads, “R&D Tomahawk combines elements of the best such weapons from around the world, including Southeast Asian headhunter axes and Nordic or European combat axes.” Responsible for the Filipino input was Rafael Kayanan, a master level instructor of Sayoc Kali and head of its tomahawk curriculum. A quote from Kayanan in the article reads, “This hawk is much lighter than many tactical hawks, coming in at approximately 1.5 pounds, at 13 inches in length, it can be carried along without being too cumbersome.
The full tang is milled to a taper and also allows the user to use the hawk as a blunt-force weapon.” A man of multifaceted talents, Kayanan first hugged the limelight as part of the team that choreographed the FMA fight scene of the movie “The Hunted,” starring Tommy Lee Jones and Benicio del Torro. He is also a renowned comic book artist and concept designer.