Having an axe or hatchet in your pack while on a hunting trip means you have a tool that can handle a vast number of tasks, from preparing campfire wood, notching and hammering improvised stakes for snares, making fire starters (like feather sticks), and building makeshift shelters. This article addresses what features should be considered in selecting a hunting axe and reviews the best axes on the market.
When considering what axe is best suited for your needs while hunting, certain factors are paramount. These factors are:
- handle ergonomics
- Head Shape
First you need to ensure that the axe has an appropriately designed handle for grip (I used the term handle ergonomics above because the word grip also refers to the base of an axe handle; to avoid confusion, I will continue to use the term ergonomics), so you do not end up a victim of a repetitive stress injury after only a brief use.
Handle ergonomics is also a safety factor in that an unwieldy axe is one that could cause grievous harm if it comes into contact with a leg. The shape of an axe handle will determine whether its grip is right for your application. For high-impact tree felling work, a long, S-curve axe handle shape will allow for a safe extension on the throat (base) of the axe handle during chopping. The straight-handled design of a tactical tomahawk would be unsafe for bushcraft work because it lacks the curve and end knob that prevent the axe handle from slipping from one’s grasp.
Durability applies as to both the handle of the axe and the head of the axe. If the axe head dulls rapidly, and you have to sharpen it repeatedly in the field, it becomes less useful. Similarly, if the handle fails in the field, the axe is, for the most part, just dead weight.
Sharpness is a factor in two ways. A dull axe is a dangerous axe. A dull axe also means more work when trying to clear branches or cut firewood.
Balance factors into how well an axe can be handled for various tasks. For the most part, individual demands determine whether a long axe or a short axe is selected, and these needs determine what sort of balance is required on the axe. For those needing to fell trees, a longer axe handle (23 inches or more) is necessary, and balance shifts to the back of what should be a longer handle. For those needing to use an axe for smaller tasks requiring more finesse, a belt axe, hunter’s axe, or tomahawk – any option where the handle is between 23 inches and 15 inches – is more appropriate, with the balance shifting to the belly of the handle.
Similarly, individual demands determine the best head shape of an axe. For hunting, most consider a single bit (axe blade) axe with a hammer-like poll (also known as the butt) to be ideal. Dual-bit axes and axes with spikes opposite the bit are more suited for other purposes, but having the ability to hammer and use the poll for skinning.
The Best Hunting Axes on the Market
Let’s begin with an axe that’s compact and, in my opinion, a true “no nonsense” type of tool.
SOG Base Camp Axe
The SOG Base Camp Axe is a modern backcountry hatchet in both materials and design. While SOG makes many other axes and tomahawks (including the hollow-handled Backcountry Axe, which incorporates a handsaw insert), the Base Camp Axe (not to be confused with the similarly-named yet flimsy Camp Axe) is the most practical.
The smallest axe on this list, the Base Camp Axe measures 16 inches in length with a 3.4-inch blade. The Base Camp Axe maintains ergonomics by applying a parabolic curve to the belly and throat of the handle, which also assists in the axe’s balance. The handle incorporates a molded rubber grip that also assists ergonomics by reducing vibration.
SOG made the Base Camp durable by forging the hatchet from solid 1055 steel alloy. The axe head rates at RC 50–55 on the Rockwell Hardness Scale, which would be soft for a knife blade but is sufficiently sharp for a camping hatchet. The Base Camp’s head incorporates a hammer-shaped poll, useful for camp tasks and skinning (although not as ideal as the poll on the Gransfors Bruns Hunter’s Axe, described below).
The Base Camp comes with a molded nylon sheath (also referred to as an axe’s mask), which may be its single point of failure, as it is not nearly as durable as a well-made leather sheath. The sheath incorporates a belt loop attachment, which is a plus for those preferring to carry their axe at their waist. Retailing at approximately $35.00 at the time of this writing, the Base Camp is one of the more low-cost axes on this list.
Estwing Camper’s Axe (Long Handle)
The Estwing Camper’s Axe comes in two variants, a 16-inch short handle model, and a 26-inch long handle model. Of the two, the 26-inch Camper’s Axe is more practical, although those who are short on space in their packs may prefer the 16-inch model.
The head of the Camper’s Axe is made of carbon steel. The handle of the Camper’s Axe is made of a straight piece of hollow drop-forged steel covered with a rubber grip.
Concerning ergonomics, the Camper’s Axe is not as optimal as other axes on this list. The handle of the Camper’s Axe lacks any sort of ergonomic curves that would assist in the balance and accuracy of this axe. However, the rubberized grip of the axe does improve ergonomics by absorbing shock rather than transferring it to the user’s hands. Estwing makes a more ergonomic hatchet, the Sportsman’s Axe, however, it is a much shorter axe and uses a leather handle that will not withstand harsh weather conditions. Both factors weigh against the Sportsman’s Axe being used for serious backcountry hunting.
What the Estwing Camper’s Axe lacks in balance and ergonomics, it makes up for in durability. The high carbon steel may not be rust proof, but it will take a beating while still able to be sharpened in the field. Similarly, the drop-forged steel axe handle is virtually indestructible.
Like the SOG Base Camp Axe, the Camper’s Axe comes with a nylon sheath; this will not hold up as well as a leather sheath, which can be bought separately at any home repair store. At approximately $30 at the time of this writing, the Camper’s Axe is the lowest priced axe on this list.
Fiskars X15 Chopping Axe
The Fiskars X15 heads in a decidedly different direction than the other axes in this article. This 23.5-inch axe eschews a wood or metal handle for a “FiberComp” composite material handle more akin to the glass-reinforced nylon used in knives. By using a composite material for its axe, Fiskars ensured that it would be more lightweight and have more give than other axe handles.
Fiskars did not utilize traditional curving ergonomic shapes on the X15. As a result, those who select this axe will have to be more mindful of safety and balance. However, the materials used will address the shock absorption aspect of ergonomics.
Fiskars also used a coated carbon steel axe head that appears to stay sharper longer. Additionally, the coating assists in preventing the axe head from getting stuck in wood while chopping.
Despite being extremely light, the X15 is the best axe on this list when it comes to durability. While the hard plastic sheath cannot be used with the axe while hammering with the poll, it does an admirable job of protecting other equipment from the axe head.
The Gransfors Bruks
Hunter’s Axe, retailing at approximately $175 at the time of this writing, is unquestionably the most expensive axe in this article. However, with that price is a design that most resembles the original hunting axes used by 19th Century hunters in Scandinavia.
The Gransfors Bruks Hunter’s Axe is a 19-inch long, wood-handled axe with a rounded poll. While most single bit axe heads have a squared off poll that could be used for hammering, the rounded poll is intended to aid in skinning, so that a hide can be separated without being damaged (skinning with an axe is more traditional in Europe than in North America). If used for hammering, this poll would be tremendously unsafe, as it would bounce off obliquely from whatever it hit.
The handle of the Hunter’s Axe is made of hickory and utilizes a hatchet design that is modified to include grooves to aid gripping if the axe were covered in blood during skinning. If the Hunter’s Axe were being used for brush clearing or other wood-chopping, I believe the user would find the grooves to be uncomfortable after an extended period. Again, this being the one axe on this list that is intended to be used more like the Inuit ulu, for skinning, and not for bushcraft, the Hunter’s Axe was never designed for such purposes.
The bit design on the Hunter’s Axe is also unique. Narrower than traditional axe bits, with a deep groove at its base, the Hunter’s Axe is meant to be used with one hand directly beneath the bit, again mirroring how one uses a ulu. For those that need a hunting axe to perform traditional hunting tasks like butchering and skinning game, this is exceedingly useful. For those that need a general purpose light axe or hatchet for hunting trips, and do not intend to use the axe for field dressing game, then the Hunter’s Axe may not be the right choice.
The CRKT Woods Chogan
Technically, the CRKT Woods Chogan is a tomahawk, not an axe, and for that reason, it fits within the niche of being a lightweight tool for those that do not want extra pounds but need a chopping blade in their pack. Inspired by the traditional tomahawks of the Powhatan tribe, the Woods Chogan has a 19-inch hickory handle and a sweeping convex bit on one side and a hammer head on the other.
The hickory handle is a purely straight tomahawk-style handle, which means that users are sacrificing some of the ergonomic benefits of a curved handle and shaped grip, but the use of high-quality hickory means that the handle will absorb a lot of the shock of impact before it is transferred to the user’s hands.
The head of the Woods Chogan is made of 1055 steel alloy, which means it will take an edge well and maintain that edge for quite a while. One aspect of the Woods Chogan that I particularly like is that, while most axes can be used like a hammer, CRKT has replaced the traditional poll with an actual hammer. This is far more useful than the vicious looking spikes seen on many tactical tomahawks.
The Woods Chogan is not without flaws, unfortunately. First, it does not come with a sheath, although CRKT makes one that costs roughly half as much as the Woods Chogan. Also, the straight handle, combined with the varnish used on the handle, may be slippery, which could be a safety concern if the tomahawk was used for chopping or hammering in inclement weather.
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