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If you're hiking, camping, spending time in the woods, or generally trying to hone your survival skills, there are a few essential tools for the job. Some people believe that a survival knife is enough to survive the outdoors. However, a good bushcraft axe is a far more complete and versatile tool.
Mastering the skills to survive in the wild takes time. One of the first steps on the journey toward self-sustainability is having the right tools for the job. Survival knives are portable and compact, but a bushcraft axe isn't something you can compromise on.
A bushcraft axe is an essential tool for cutting down wood for a fire, cleaning grounds for camp, and clearing paths. However, these versatile tools come in many shapes and sizes.
While many people use the terms interchangeably, there are three main options when you're looking for a bushcraft axe. You can roughly categorize them as:
While these tools have a fundamental similarity, they are designed for different purposes. Each bushcraft axe has its pros and cons.
So, let's do an axe vs. tomahawk vs. hatchet comparison, define what tasks each tool is intended for, and help you figure out which is the best bushcraft axe for you.
The differences between the axes, tomahawks, and hatchets
An axe is a multi-purpose tool or weapon. It is made from two different parts: the head and the handle (also called a haft.)
Some of the primary uses of an axe are:
- Cutting wood
- Splitting logs for hire
- Stripping bark from trees
- Field dressing animals
Axes come with long handles. They are designed to be used with two hands. Additionally, they require a long backswing for generating enough kinetic force to cut down trees.
Axes are a very versatile bushcraft tool. As well as chopping down wood, they are an excellent tool for field-dressing larger animals.
An axe is the best tool to use when you need to apply a lot of force. So, if you're clearing away growth for a camp, building a shelter, or clearing obstacles, you'll want an ax.
In terms of portability, axes offer some tremendous advantages. Axe handles come in a decent range of sizes, with some as short as 19 to 22-inches. A bushcraft ax of this size is perfect for strapping to a backpack. For hiking or trips to the wilderness that involves covering a lot of grown, axes of this size are far less cumbersome.
One of the disadvantages of axes is that they require a lot of space to work. Hatchets are a better option if you're working in a confined space because of their shorter handles. However, the shape and thickness of axe heads will cut logs far more efficiently than a hatchet.
The tomahawk is visually similar to a hatchet but with a straight shaft. It's a single-handed, general-purpose tool that can be used as a hand-to-hand or thrown weapon.
At first, Tomahawks were used as weapons; however, as the years went by, they were adopted by American Natives as the tool of choice for everyday tasks, like hunting, chopping, and cutting.
Tomahawks were initially made from a sharpened stone that was attached to wood. However, European settlers improved the design by substituting the stone for metal.
The characteristics that make a tomahawk different from hatchets are its size and some other visual differences. The shaft is no more than 24-inches long, with a cutting edge of a minimum of 4-inches. Typically, the pole or butt of the blade will also have an additional protruding tool, like a spike or a hammer. However, that is not a uniform feature.
Three main elements set a tomahawk apart from a hatchet or an axe are:
- Tomahawks have a round eye. Hatchets and axes have narrow, triangular eyes. This feature is a hangover from old tomahawk designs, which was popular because it was easier to fit a handle on a rounded eye when compared to a more narrow eye.
- Tomahawks can be hafted from the bottom, while an ax can only be hafted from the top. In short, a tomahawk head is inserted from the bottom of the handle and secured in place by a wider portion of wood at the top of the handle. This friction is what keeps the head in place. However, an ax head is inserted from the top and secured by a wooden wedge.
- Another difference between tomahawks and hatchets is that tomahawks can have longer handles depending on the weight of the head. However, many tomahawks come with hatchet handles these days.
A hatchet is a single or one-handed tool. It takes its name from the old French word "hachette," which roughly translates as a small axe.
Typically, a hatchet has a sharp blade on a relatively short handle. They are used for splitting and cutting wood. One distinguishing feature of a hatchet is that the opposite side to the blade has a hammerhead, which gives the tool some versatility as it can be used for striking.
Hatchets are a great bushcraft axe for several reasons. They are very effective in tight or confined spaces. The blade is a great option for splitting and chopping smaller pieces of wood. Additionally, they can effectively chop firewood and cut off small branches.
The hammerhead offers other utilities for campers and survivalists. You can use it to drive stakes into the ground or hammer nails. Additionally, you can use it to drive tent pins and even break up small rocks.
Hatchets are great all-rounder tools that can be used to construct wooden frames, chop and clean animals, and clear trails or overgrowth.
If you want a quick visual way to tell the difference between a hatchet and an axe, just look at the metal head and find the hammerhead.
Hatchets are compact and reasonably versatile, but they lack the striking power of a two-handed axe. However, that's not to say that a hatchet doesn't have power. The short handle requires much less backswing than an axe, which makes it great for working in tight areas.
Hatchets were created for a few purposes. Perhaps the primary purpose is for cutting wood to start and keep a fire going. Despite their compact size, a hatchet can chop large pieces of wood, alongside their ability to cut kindling and sapling.
Secondly, hatchets were intended as an improvement on the utility knife. As such, it's good for various slicing and chopping tasks. In fact, they can be used for cutting bone and cartilage when hunting.
Finally, hatchets are also a decent self-defense option. While they might not have the range of a longer axe, they require less swinging room, so they could be a handy tool if you find yourself cornered by an animal.
The main features of hatchets are that they are compact and light. They generally have a shorter handle length than axes. However, some axes have a handle length as short as a hatchet; however, they are distinct because they don't have the hammer and blade combination that is typical of the ax head.
Finally, hatchet handles come in a wide variety of materials, such as steel, fiberglass, and wood. Typically, wood is preferred because of its power to absorb impact.
Pros and cons of axes, tomahawks, and hatchets
Now that you understand the difference between each bushcraft axe and what they are used for, it's time to evaluate their respective pros and cons.
Axe pros and cons
- Great for chopping down trees
- Lots of power
- Efficient at cutting logs due to head shape
- Cumbersome to carry
- Poor choice for confined spaces
Tomahawk pros and cons
- Features a secondary tool like a hammer
- Easier to repair or replace the handle
- Lightweight and portable
- Lacks heavy duty power
Hatchet pros and cons
- Lightweight and portable
- Good for working in confined spaces
- Short handle allows for power and control
- Hammerhead on other side of the blade
- Lacks heavy duty power
- Not the best choice for hunting
What to Look for in a Good Bushcraft Axe?
What is Meant by Best in Bushcraft?
Best can be a subjective term. Axes, tomahawks, and hatchets can be used for a variety of purposes, and not all of these functions will be necessary for each person.
However, the best bushcraft axes all have specific things in common. We'll look at some of these desirable characteristics and pick a bushcraft axe covering all these bases.
The different types of bushcraft axes all specialize in particular jobs. However, it's impractical to carry all three around with you. Ideally, you want to select a bushcraft axe that is versatile enough for several different tasks.
While you'll definitely want an axe to be good at chopping, it's only one function to consider. You'll also want the tool to be capable of shaving, splitting, and scraping wood.
Another factor to consider here is the poll shape. Bushcraft axes, like tomahawks, come with a secondary tool, like a hammer or a pick. A secondary tool can compensate for a slightly larger or heavier tool because it means you've one less item to carry around.
Bushcraft axe makers use a variety of different steels for their products. Typically, bushcraft axes are made with Carbon Steel or two more common varieties of Stainless Steel, 400 series or AUS. Each of these steels has characteristics that make them good for axes.
Carbon Steel: Carbon steel is harder than stainless steel. It's easy to sharpen and hard to corrode. While all steel has carbon in it, carbon steel's higher carbon makeup means it will maintain its edge better.
Carbon content is the most crucial element for hardening metal. A high carbon rating can ensure that your blade lasts a long time. Overall, carbon steel axes are durable and long-lasting. The material is hard and tough, which makes them excellent for heavy-duty work.
Stainless Steel: Stainless steel is a popular material for bushcraft axes. It's easy to maintain, and it's able to stand up to the outdoors without rusting.
The most popular type of Stainless steel used in axes and hatchets is 420. This steel has a low carbon content (0.03% to 0.04%). As a result, it's softer than carbon and has lower edge retention.
Aside from the type of steel, there are other qualities to consider, such as:
- Strength - how well the steel fares with exertion and force
- Toughness - how well the steel absorbs shock
- Sharpness - how sharp the blade is when the first purchase
- Edge retention - how well the blade maintains an edge without sharpening
- Drop forged - A drop forged bushcraft axe is a heat-treated metal that is hammered into a cast. This process creates high-quality axes with enhanced strength and durability.
- Resistance to wear and tear - Softer steels, like stainless steel, are more sensitive to certain types of wear and tear. However, they are excellent at handling the elements and are remarkably resistant to corrosion.
A chisel blade profile with secondary relief is the best choice for a bushcraft axe. Chisel grind blades are excellent for cutting, splitting, and shaving wood. They also excel in food preparation.
But make sure to choose a profile with second relief to make cutting and splitting wood a more efficient process.
Repairability in the field:
If you are regularly using a bushcraft axe for its intended purpose, the handles will break down from use here and there.
While wood handles are probably the easiest to break or splinter, they are also the easiest to replace. Synthetic and metal handles are stronger, but they have their downsides: synthetics are difficult to repair/replace, while metal handles are heavier and absorb less shock.
Value is an important consideration in general. However, it’s essential when you are trying to decide on the best bushcraft axe for you.
When you are actually out and about using items, they can easily get damaged, broken, or lost. A good bushcraft axe that is used regularly will be put through its paces, which means lots of wear and tear.
So make sure that when you buy a bushcraft axe, you'll be able to replace it if it gets lost or stolen, etc.
When it comes to deciding the best bushcraft axe, you need to consider a lot of factors, like versatility, steel, and value.
Based on these characteristics, the best bushcraft axe is a solid hand-crafted or drop forged tomahawk axe because:
- It's a versatile tool that can be used for chopping and splitting wood and field-dressing animals. Additionally, it has a secondary tool on the other side of the blade, which gives it more flexibility than axes or hatchets.
- A drop forged or hand-made carbon blade will stand up to more wear and tear because it's tougher, stronger, and has better edge retention.
- A tomahawk can be easily repaired in the field because they are halved from the bottom,
- Despite their build quality, a hand-made or drop forged tomahawk represents excellent value for money. They are hard-wearing, durable, long-lasting, and affordable.