A knifemaker friend of mine who specializes in re-creating frontier-era weapons not long ago began making breeching axes for an American special ops group. The axes are actually tomahawk size, ground from S-7 impact-resisting steel. The head and the shaft are one piece, and the handle is completed by slabs, or scales, pinned and epoxied to either side of the shaft. These little axes would have been at home at Agincourt or Crecy; they are quite heavy for their size and are perfect for bashing in a door or cracking a skull. They also have a calming effect on indigenous personnel who are not intimidated by the sight of a gun.

The very first ones were made with handle scales of fiddleback maple and black walnut. When the knifemaker showed them to the purchasing officer, he said that he could offer higher-tech, more durable scales made of rubber (actually, the matting used in horse stalls, which makes an excellent knife handle), or micarta, or G-10. The answer he got was forget about the other stuff—we want wood.

In a world of steel and aluminum and titanium that is gray or black or camo, the wood provides a little touch of beauty. “Sometimes,” he was told, “we are in situations so bad that a little reminder of home makes the difference between sanity and insanity. The warmth of the wood is a reminder of who we are and where we come from. Plastic doesn’t do that.”

If you can lay your hand on something that stood for 100 years in the Smoky Mountains, it can help you keep your grip in more ways than one.