The survival knife may be the most talked about tool, but smart preppers know some tasks are better suited for a bushcraft axe or hatchet. First assess what kinds of tasks you will be doing most often and then decide the type of axe you need. The distinguishing factors between axes is primarily in handle length, and in the cutting ability of the blade.
An axe is made up of several major sections: the axe edge or blade, the head, and the handle. The blade is typically made of steel; handles are traditionally hickory wood but can be glass filled nylon or fiberglass. You can choose from multiple categories of axes including maul axes, felling axes, forest and carpentry axes, hatchets, and tomahawks.
What to Look for in an Axe Blade
Typically made of steel, the sharp edge of an axe is called the blade or bit and on each corner of the bit are the heel of head and toe of head. Either side of the blade is beveled with a slight arch called the ramp or cheek, and the opposing end of the blade is called the butt or poll.
Your choice of axe edge will depend on how you use your axe most often. A convex blade will crack wood but won’t sink down very deep when you swing and is best for splitting wood without jamming. Concave blades cut deeper and work well for felling trees or stripping branches from the trunk.
A good properly beveled and sharpened blade is a must have tool. It can also be dangerous so invest in a quality sheath to protect both the blade and you from damage. Blades can be sharpened with an axe file and stone set. Because of the hardness of the steel blade, it takes work to sharpen the blade once it is dull.
About Handle Characteristics
A haft or handle is traditionally made of wood, often hickory. New materials like fiberglass and glass filled nylon can absorb shock and make handles virtually indestructible. The handle can be 14 to 36 inches long and mounted to the head using a wood or metal wedge and eye, the oval hole, near the poll. Beneath the poll is the shoulder running down to the heel of haft. Under the head on the other side is the neck which runs down to the long outward curve, called the belly and down to the toe of haft.
The grain needs to be as vertical as possible from length of the handle straight from the neck to haft toe and from heel to the haft shoulder. Wood handles are typically crafted from hickory trees, so grain can be off some, not all trees are straight after all. Avoid any handle with a diagonal grain as it increases the likelihood the handle will split under repeated use.
One of the important criteria for a handle is the balance. It needs to be level from the handle toe to the head. Check balance by laying the axe across your hand with the neck to shoulder hanging off your thumb and finger. Neither the bit nor the poll should touch your hand. This will give you an axe that is a pleasure to use for whatever task is at hand.
Alignment and Weight of the Head
The cutting ability of your axe is affected by the alignment of the head. Believe it or not, axes manufactured the same way can vary in how the head and handle align. It’s best to inspect each axe in stock prior to purchasing any model. Grasp the head in your hand. The bit as you look down it, should align exactly along the handle toward the haft toe.
You also have to consider how much the axe head weighs. Lighter head axes are usually easier to transport and easier to use one-handed like a hatchet, if you hold it close to the head. The heavier an axe head, the more effective it will be in cutting. For bushcraft axes the lighter the better.
Select the Proper Size Axe
Grasp the axe head with blade forward in your hand, arm out and tuck the handle into your armpit. The toe of haft should settle easily in your armpit. For adult males, choosing an axe this way means it will have a longer handle but don’t hesitate to select a shorter handle if you determine that’s what you need. Taller people, over 6’4”, will find a handle closer to 36 inches in length easier to use.
There are in fact different types of axes. The main difference is in the length of the handle. The common length for most people to be comfortable is between 21-23”. Consider how to fit the tool into your BOB or rucksack, the material it’s made of, and the comfort of the grip in addition to how it will be used.
Handles range in length from longer maul, felling, and broad axes to the ¾ axe, forest, carpenter axes, to hatchets, and the short kid of the bunch, the tomahawks. Long handled axes are designed for two handed use (30-33” handles), mid-length handles can be used single handed or both when occasion calls for it, whereas shorter ones, called hatchets, are easier to use with one hand (14-16” handles).
For most types of activities, you will carry out such as cutting down occasional saplings, splitting and chopping wood, stripping limbs, a standard length axe from 19-23” will work just fine. For heavy logging, regular felling, or splitting bigger, heavier trees, you might want to look at the longer felling, maul, and broad axes.
- Felling Axes
These generally have a very sharp, thin edge with a gradually tapered head for cutting grain crosswise so every swing cuts deep. Not good for splitting wood as the blade can get stuck in the split and break coming back out. Heads are mid-weight at 2.5 to 4 pounds, most handles range from 28 to 36 inches. Models are often named after the region where they were created, such as Hudson Bay, Jersey, or Dayton axes.
American made with a 4 1/2” sharp on arrival cutting edge. The head is 4 pounds of heat treated tempered 5160 Alloy Steel. Holds its edge thanks to an Rc of 50-54 but will chip so take care around rocks. Its beautifully made 35-inch handle comes unfinished, but is smooth and feels great in the hand. Say goodbye to bounce back strikes and glancing blows and get used to zero wasted swing with this well-balanced axe. Worth the investment if you do a lot of logging or clearing.
- Three-Quarter Axes
These are great for light chopping work and for removing limbs. Can quickly turn medium size logs into kindling. Heads around 2 pounds. Typically used one handed but with 21 to 28-inch handles, these are long enough to use with two hands when the occasion calls for it.
Holds and keeps an edge like axes of yesteryear. 4” blade and 4 ½” cutting edge takes a big bite with every swing. 4 1/2” edge will need sharpened when it arrives. Careful use of a file to get a paper slicing edge which will hold much longer than a hair-shaving edge. Edge comes covered with rubber only, you will need a sheath.
European style 6 ½” head is 105 drop forged carbon steel and weighs in at 2 ½ pounds. Heat treated butt and cutting edge produces a durable, sharp edge and lets the remainder of the head absorb impact force. Black looking blade paint can be removed easily with paint stripper. Features a very stout straight-grained hickory handle. This 21 1/2” long handle is stout, straight-grained hickory and long enough for two handed grip if needed, but short enough for an amateur to swing one-handed. No lanyard hole.
Light enough to carry all day in hand or strapped to a pack frame. Heavy and tough enough for chores that would be torture for a hatchet or tomahawk. Can be easily mounted on an ATV or tucked behind a truck seat. Great for processing kindling, trail clearing, or even felling a full sized tree. True versatility and a pretty good axe for the money.
- Splitting Mauls
Utilizes a blunt, fat, heavy wedge-shaped head to rend logs along the grain. The 6 to 8-pound head delivers a more forceful strike, won’t get stuck or jam. The handle is longer, typically having less curve which enables the user to wrangle the maul further into the split after the first stroke. Its broad butt can double as a hammer with a wedge or second axe to execute the split.
The Fiskars X27 is definitely a superior splitter. It comes with a nice wedge and the weight is nice. The blade is unfortunately a lower quality steel which will need re-sharpened frequently. The flared handle end is great because it is less likely to slip out of your hand. The handle is not replaceable which isn’t really a problem since the material is very durable. Some may dislike the synthetic plastic feel.
Traditional American Splitting Maul
This 7-pound maul is superior steel with an edge that doesn’t need retouched as often. The hickory handle has better whip, is more flexible, and can be replaced if needed over time. If you’re looking for a vintage tool, with a handle that develops character over time, this is the maul you want.
- Splitting Axes
Designed to split wood fibers apart, not cut them. Fiberglass or wood handles available. Typically, lighter than a maul axe, especially fiberglass handled ones. The weight is its greatest asset allowing you to use it for hours with less fatigue. Blade is softer so you must place log on a block to split.
Hand-forged Swedish steel head weighs in at 3.50 pounds and is the result of blasted and clear lacquered ironwork. Holds a very sharp edge even after frequent sharpening. The curved 30-inch handle is American hickory and designed for splitting larger logs or processing firewood. Leather sheath, detailed user’s manual, and storage box are included.
The Gransfors Bruk Splitting Axe comes in small (model 441) or large (model 442). Both are forged with a thin, concave bit. Both axes have the steel collar under the head, grooves near the end to aid grip, and leather sheath. The small splitting axe is ideal for processing moderate sized firewood. The 23-inch handle is in the comfortable range for most people and the head is 3.5 pounds. Model 442, the larger axe has a head weighing in at 5 pounds and a longer 27.5-inch handle.
- The Broadaxe
Gets its name from the lower part of the blade which hangs further below the rest of head, (called a long beard) and its large bits. Blade bevel can be single-sided, like a chisel or on dual sides producing a more scalloped cut. Its controlled cut enables rounded log edges while still creating a flat top, perfect for creating beams. The side of the bevel indicates either a right or left handed axe.
Good for squaring planks and logs. Choice of bevel, double, or left or right side. Choose doubled beveled for visible deep cuts when squaring. The 19” handle based on traditional Swedish techniques. Forged professionally by blacksmiths, no need to smooth, stone, or grind to eliminate imperfections. Priced around $300, choose wisely, it’s definitely an investment.
- Forest Axes
The forest axe typically falls in between the carpenter axe size and a felling axe size. The 19-inch handle is long enough for two handed use if need be but short enough to handle more precise one handed tasks regularly. If held close to the head, it can be effective for controlled carving needs. The head is typically around 1 ½ to 2 lbs.
The Husqvarna 3 ¼” cutting edge arrives far from razor sharp, but once you sharpen to a keen edge, it’s fine. If you aren’t skilled with sharpening, practice on something else first. Steel appears to be same quality as the Wetterlings, definitely sturdier than the average axe. The extreme hardness of the blade can cause it to be brittle in winter weather so avoid using the blade when cold from being left out overnight.
Head is light but longer than most for a good bite on your wood. Hand forged head, 6 5/8” long mounted on what is actually a Wetterling manufactured handle, with Husqvarna markings. Do as any bush crafter would, sand and protect the handle with several coats of linseed oil. A high class axe comparable to the Gransfors Bruks at a decent price. It comes with a snug fitting leather sheath. Good for felling small hardwoods, prepping firewood, or limb removal if needed.
- Carpenter’s Axes
Intended as a single-handed axe, it’s larger than a hatchet with a 1.5- pound head and 10 to 14-inch handle. Longer beard allows gripping closer to the head for better control, it’s great for more delicate woodworking.
The edge of this little beauty is relatively long and straight for whittling and carving. Great for carving and crafting for making bow drill sets and long bows. The light 2.2-pound head is forged of top quality Swedish steel, 6 ¼” long and built for your hand to get near as possible to edge for great control. The 17 ½ to 19 ½” handle is of trusted hickory wood with a drilled lanyard hole and leather sheath.
Similar to a small Hudson Bay axe, it’s good for wood working tasks and carpentry projects. Can handle camp chores that require an axe but is also great for removing limbs with one chop, or chopping small to medium sized trees. Easy to sharpen with a file similar to any knife, it’s an asset to any survival kit.
The shorter handled axes, also called hatchets, are great for smaller jobs. They can still do the job for occasional chopping and splitting of wood but aren’t ideal for that on a daily basis. These are great for camping trips or backyard projects. If your BOB only has space for only an axe or a hatchet, in most cases you will want to go with a hatchet.
Made in the USA, the head and shaft are one piece of drop forged fine steel. Better suited for firewood than cabinetry, woodcrafters may be disappointed in the edge and bevel. The head is high quality, tapered, and thinner than most hatchets and easier to sharpen. The ergonomic handle is easier on the arm than a heavier wooden hatchet and has a nice leather grip.
This is probably the axe your grandfather kept on the farm. It’s lightweight and nicely balanced so great for around camp, for home remodel or small building projects. Avoid chopping anything larger than your wrist. Inspect the leather grip as it will suck up water once the finish starts to crack and may need a little modification, sanding, and several applications of oil to help it hold up to the elements.
Rugged stainless steel head with extremely sharp edge that holds well even under some abuse or heavy use. Nicks and notches are easily remedied with a file and sharpening tool. Blade length is 2.7”. The handle is shorter than your standard axe but stores a coarse handsaw that makes this a 2 in 1 tool.
Great for harvesting young saplings, carving, or to trim and selectively remove unwanted foliage growth. Comfortable defensive weapon if needed, good side for recreational use. Does okay splitting logs, comes with black nylon sheath. Priced at just under $60, it’s relatively inexpensive for the quality.
The Gransfors Bruk or GB is a name most will recognize as high quality. It arrives nicely sharpened and can quickly be brought to a hair shaving edge. The bottom tip of the edge is flat but doesn’t affect efficiency and it will disappear with use. The head is hand forged steel, the finish is a bit rough and uneven.
The wood handle is well balanced and fits comfortably in the hand. Treat with a little boiled linseed oil and keep in the leather sheath to protect it. Great for camping, cutting firewood, carving stakes or even home construction in conjunction with a chainsaw. It’s more expensive but is a lifetime investment.
- Tomahawk/Throwing Axe
Originally intended for use as a close range or melee range weapon, the tomahawk or throwing axe is typically the shortest of axes with a handle length around 12 inches. The heavier weight and 12-inch length affect spin rate, throwing distance, and give the throwing axe or tomahawk, a more severe impact, than a throwing knife. The tomahawk’s sharp blade means that it can also be used to cut down trees if need be.
Fast Hawk by SOG with one-foot handle and weighing in at 15 ounces total comes with a nylon sheath. Stainless steel head is black coated to minimize reflection. Intended for military, its comfort fit and polymer handle make it good for throwing in addition to self-defense. Top rated and priced $25-50.
Shiflett by Heartland-a lightweight at 12 ounces, with a full tang blade, its handle is just shy of 12 inches and it comes with a nylon sheath. It’s the least expensive of the short kids at around $15-20. It has a blade on both sides but its sole use is as a throwing axe. It’s extremely light and spins fast. Ideal for newbies who need to gain confidence by hitting a target easily.
The head weighs in at 12.5 ounces with a 2 ¼” edge drop forged from 1055 carbon steel and a blade or hawk length 6 ½” long. Differentially treated means hammer and edge is fully hardened but the balance is made to take in the impact of striking blows.
The 22” American hickory wood handle with a very beefy cross section, weighs in at about 10 ounces. It’s not a hatchet and cannot split as nearly as well as a fixed head hatchet. True throwing hawks do have a loose head. The Cold Steel Trail Hawk is inexpensive but will last for years with a little TLC before use. Some aggressive modifications are required to turn it into an ideal throwing or defensive weapon.
Overall, axe selection is very much a matter of personal preference. The best way to select your axe is to first determine what its primary function will be and then select the axe in that category that is most comfortable and within your budget. If you consider cutting and splitting capacity as well as handle fit, you’ll have a tool that will be a pleasure to use and rely on for axe related tasks in any situation.
Do you have a favorite that didn’t make our review list? Feel free to tell us about it in the comments below.
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