It’s a seminal moment when a man realises he needs an axe. After my knife the axe is my favourite camping tool. It’s an incredible advantage to have one on a trip, and should there ever be a zombie apocalypse you will be ready for it.
Why get an Axe?
When it comes to buying an axe you need to consider what you intend to use it for and pick the best tool for the job. The bigger the axe the more work it can do. The smaller the axe the more dangerous it can be because the axe blade is closer to you but obviously you can’t go hiking with a limbing axe or you’ll be knackered.
There are four main uses of an axe: cutting, splitting, shaping, and animal butchery following a hunt. Some axes are specialists and you will find ones that are perfect at felling a tree but won’t be much use for anything else, whilst a hunting axe will be good for removing a hide from an animal as well as splitting logs for a fire.
Convex Blades: Good for splitting logs. However if the blade is too convex it won’t penetrate as deeply into the wood which means you will need to work harder.
Concave Blades: Perfect for stripping away branches and will provide a deep cut. However if it is too concave it may penetrate very deeply into the wood and you could struggle to pull the axe out.
Round Edge Blade: cuts deeper than a flat edge and is the most versatile.
Flat Edge Blade: Will provide a neater finish than a rounded blade.
These are quite good value at around £50. The handle is 14″ (same as the Gransfors Bruk carving axe) but the head is around half the weight at about 1lb. Anyone can use this axe and it is easy to fit into a back pack. It is perfect for light carving work, such as spoons or tent pegs. When choosing an axe I suggest you use the heaviest axe you can carve with for about 20 minutes without getting too tired. If you can manage a heavier axe, the weight will do the work and you don’t have to swing as much. It’s worth remembering that a lighter, smaller, axe moves more quickly and lots of small cuts remove wood just as effectively a few large ones do.
The distinguishing feature of the Hunters Axe is the “flay poll”. The poll (side of the head opposite the blade) is forged thinner than normal and gently rounded and burnished to a flay poll. This helps when skinning an animal. The hunter will pull the hide with one hand and strike with the flay poll at the point where the hide is attached by membranes to the carcass. The flay poll is blunt, so it will not slice meat or hide, but will break the connective tissues between the hide and the carcass. Stroke by stroke the hide will come away.
The handle and blade are designed for chopping through wood as well as light bones such as the bridge of the pelvis, and for separating ribs from sternum.
The axe should of course be able to chop up small trees and branches to aid in hiding a carcass from scavengers. In Canada this technique was called “boughing in”, and was absolutely necessary to prevent scavenging birds from fouling the meat.
Small Forest Axe
If you can only buy one axe many people will suggest you choose something like this, the Gransfors Bruk small Forest Axe. Possibly the most popular all round bushcraft axe it’s blade is thin and the handle is long enough to allow powerful chopping although it feels ever so slightly awkward using it two handed. It has a concave axe bit allowing for deep strikes. You can use this type of axe to split small logs for a fire, helping to build shelters, spits, forest bows, and even carving etc. With a handle length in the region of 19 inches it should fit inside most back packs.
A limbing axe is a more professional axe for people who want to limb a felled tree in a traditional way. They have a longer handle than the axes mentioned above, usually in the region of 24-25 inches. This means it can easily be used two handed giving it extra strength and power.