Pennsylvania-born Horace Kephart (1862–1931), one of the greatest American bushcraft writers of the early 20th century and author of the classic The Book of Camping and Woodcraft first published in 1906, was a highly experienced outdoorsman and lone wanderer. Living much of his life alone in the wilderness, the former librarian formed very clear opinions on what worked best for him in setting up and maintaining a solo camp. Besides his distinctly non-Rambo-like Kephart-pattern belt knife, which is still made by several custom shops today, his second preference in an edged tool for many wood processing chores was a small hand axe, what most would call a hatchet nowadays.
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Kephart used the knife solely for miscellaneous cutting and found the small axe indispensable for chopping, notching, pegging, shaving, fire building, ridge poling and doing pretty much everything else regarding wood around his small, one-man mobile camp. Descriptions in Kephart’s own writings vary, but his small axe for trail carry was along the lines of a single-bit head, weighing about 12 ounces, with a foot-long wooden handle. What he routinely did with it would probably cause severe culture shock today among dedicated big-blade fanciers chopping and batoning their way along with a 14-inch survival knife.
There’s a lot to be said for a small hand axe, and one with the right size and head configuration can be easy to carry on a belt or in a pack without adding too much weight, and requires less effort and causes less hand fatigue than a big knife would in many wood-processing situations. With a properly set up edge, a hand axe can even slice and dice in the camp kitchen. (A dull axe, like a dull knife, is inefficient and will burn up way too much of your energy when trying to get work done.) There are several different types of axes, but the two most important selection criteria are upfront quality and functionality for your needs.
Wetterlings Model 10H
S.A. Wetterlings, located in Storvik, Sweden, has been forging high-quality axes since 1880. The company caters to serious users, offering several axe sizes to cover felling, cutting and splitting. The small Model 10H with a 2.75-inch, convex cutting edge, a 21-ounce over- all weight, and a 10.5-inch length may not be overly impressive in size, but it is in performance. With a well-balanced small axe, you let the weight of the head do the work and don’t have to muscle through it like you would when making up for lighter oversized knife blades. I prefer a forward curl at the bottom of the hickory handle, as the Model 10H has, to help resist slip- page and to facilitate what would be the equivalent of a snap cut in a knife.
The wrist thong hole is also a good feature for slippery or prolonged chopping sessions—dropping a sharp edge in the wrong place can change your nickname from Ol’ Leatherneck to Eight-Toed Charlie, and you’ll never hear the end of it. Not meant to look pretty, the Wetterlings will come with some forging scale and other surface imperfections, but get attention at the forward inch or so where it’s need- ed, and the squared poll can be very handy in hammering wood or plastic tent pegs. The best price I’ve seen for the Model 10H with an oiled leather protective carry sheath is $94.73 at amazon.com. That’s a good price for a lifetime of service.
Another Swedish firm with a reputa- tion for absolute quality, Gransfors Bruks came on the scene a little later,in 1902, but makes up for it with an extensive line of axes, log-building tools and fully functional replicas of older, classic designs down through the ages. Two that I like for trail use are the Hand Hatchet and Mini Belt Hatchet, both forged with hickory handles. At 23 ounces, the Hand Hatchet, with its 9.5-inch height and leather sheath, makes a near-ideal pack candidate for chopping and splitting. The little, 12-ounce Mini Belt Hatchet with a 10-inch shaft and 2-inch cutting edge is probably the closest thing to Kephart’s much-be- loved Colclesser tomahawk that’s currently available. Don’t, by the way, let the sizes on these mislead you—they are not toys. Both can out-chop any big blade I own, and both are great small-log splitters.
The little Mini is especially light on the belt and surprisingly handy on either wood or kitchen chores. To paraphrase an old advertising slogan, the quality goes in before the smith’s ini- tials are stamped on. (And they really are stamped on.) Opposite to the idea of replacing an axe with a big knife on the backpacking trail, the diminutive Mini Hatchet can also be used for several other jobs normally done by a knife. As Kephart wrote, “For other services I use it [his small Colclesser] oftener than I do my jackknife.” Both Gransfors Bruks hatchets also have a flattened poll for peg driving and other light hammering functions. With each axe you also get The Axe Book, a 36-page compendium of company philosophy and axe-related history, types and use. The Hand Hatchet goes for $109, and the Mini Belt Hatchet, for $160. The smaller axe costs more because it’s harder to forge.
Gerber Back Paxe II
Small, light and all-weather corrosion resistant, Gerber’s 16-ounce Back Paxe II features a gray-finished, forged stainless head and a black, hollow, 9.875-inch, glass-filled nylon Fibercomp handle. Made for Gerber by Fiskars, a Finland company, the little chopper comes with a sharp beveled edge but without a sheath to carry in a pack or on a belt—the only real shortcoming of the Paxe II. You can find either a local leatherman or search the internet to get a sheath made for the axe at a very reasonable cost. The Paxe II is comfortable in the hand, and as with other short-handled hand axes, you’ll probably find yourself using a wrist snap when you’re chopping with it. The shaft is mostly straight but does have that bottom-end curl that I like, along with a lanyard hole. If you’re creative, you can also figure out a way to carry spare small gear in that hollow space inside the handle, like tinder in a baggie. One cautionary note: In cold weather, the handle surface can be slippery, so use a glove or, the old standby, duct tape for more traction. For $42, canoers, kayakers and other damp outdoorists will get a near-ideal hatchet. (gerbergear.com; 855-544-0150)
Estwing Sportsman’s Axe
In 1923, Estwing started a successful operation forging hammers, axes, pry bars and other specialty tools for construction and for outdoor users, and its line of products today is very diverse. Estwing’s U.S.-made, leather- handled Sportsman’s Axe is available in two sizes, (12 and 14 inches, top to bottom), is forged as a one-piece design with an inseparable head and handle, and weighs 28 to 29.5 ounces with the embossed leather sheath.
The axe’s curved handle with var- nished leather washers won’t let skin freeze to it in super-cold temperatures. This axe is obviously built for larger chopping tasks, eliminating the weak spot in more traditional patterns where the wooden handle is attached to the head through its eye and held in place with a wooden expansion wedge that can loosen over time. The Estwing axe allows batoning a larger log without the risk of damaging a nonexistent eye, and a choice of two hand positions facilitates larger, broad chopping strokes or choking up half- way for finer work on smaller pieces of wood. Frankly, the Sportman’s Axe is a shade cosmetically challenged at both ends of the leather washer section (which you don’t want to leave out in the rain). But it is a strong design and hard worker with an un- breakable handle. I’ve seen prices of $32.99 and $44.98 for the 14- and 12- inch models respectively.
SOG Base Camp Axe
SOG Knives & Tools’ latest entry in the hand-axe arena is the Base Camp Axe. This 16-inch, 33-ounce chopper is the largest hand axe reviewed here and won’t quite fit in a cargo pants pocket like the Gransfors Bruks Mini Belt Hatchet will, but it’s still very pack-appropriate for group camps or longer excursions where heavier wood may need to be processed in volume. A forged, one-piece construction, the Base Camp’s recurved handle uses a molded and textured rubber gripping section for nonslip control in wet or dry conditions. SOG provides a wrist thong hole for added confidence toe-wise. Besides the strong build, this textured handle creates an increased safety level for lone trekkers far from medical help if a wet or tired hand can’t hang on quite as tight as it usually does. Suggested retail is $80. (sogknives.com; 888-405-6433)
Once you learn them, small hand axes make a lot of sense. There’s no denying the broad uses a short sword can be put to with varying degrees of success. But the older I get, the lazier I get, and that often translates into using a more efficient tool for a given chore. I’ve done my share of big blades, and they have their place, but I’m leaning steadily toward Keph- art’s conclusion that, for lightweight camps and lone woods-bumming applications, there just ain’t much that needs doing under the trees that can’t be done with a good 4-inch fixed blade, a jackknife and a sturdy little hand axe.
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