Survival axes come in all sorts of variations, from shape and size to material and price-point. There’s so many little variations that cutting through the details is a little overwhelming. But not any more.
Today, we’re going to arm you with a few bits of info that will guide you in selecting not the perfect survival axe, but the perfect survival axe for you. And that difference matters.
You see, when choosing a survival axe, the first question you have to answer is what you intend to do with the thing. Are you planning to chop? Build a shelter? Skin a deer? Decorate your garage with the ultimate symbol of manliness? All of the above? Each of these activities requires a slightly different variation on the tool we’ve all come to know and love.
First, here’s a quick lesson in the parts of an axe. Knowing the proper terms is important, so we’re all speaking the same language here.
The shape of the axe head in profile is probably the least important factor, so let’s start there. As the blade is flattened, it allows for a more precise cut, but more of the blade makes contact with the target, resulting in a shallower cut. Exactly what you’d want in a carving axe, not so much in a limbing axe, where penetration is key.
When a blade has a more aggressive curve, a smaller amount of the cutting edge makes contact with the target, meaning a greater transfer of energy, resulting in a deeper cut. This is what most applications of a survival axe are after, so a solid curve is a desirable feature in an axe head.
Face Thickness: Concave or Convex
Next up is to see the axe head from a top view to understand the face (cheek) thickness. This is perhaps the single most important factor in survival axe selection. With a thicker face, the axe head is chiefly suited to splitting. You can see the most aggressive version of this design in a splitting maul. This will split a log in two with surprisingly little effort. However, you’ll never take down a tree (or even a good sized limb) with this design. It’s just too thick to bite into the wood effectively.
Sporting a narrow face thickness, a limbing axe is a prime example on the other end of the spectrum. Thin cheeks lead to deep penetration into the target wood. When I restored my grandpa’s axe, one of the things I did was reshape the blade to sport a shallower cheek dimension. I was amazed — literally amazed — at how much better it cut after just a slight thinning — maybe a few degrees, tops. It really is astounding.
This is the difference between an axe primarily meant for splitting, or one for chopping. Anything in the 35-40 degree range is best left for splitting logs. Once you cross into the 20-30 degree range, chopping deep into the wood becomes the axe’s specialty. I’m not saying there’s no place for a generalist blade among your collection, but it’s best to let specialists specialize. Use your blade for it’s intended purpose, not because the blade cares, but doing otherwise is just hard work.
The length of the cutting edge will affect how deeply your axe can cut. With a more compact blade height, more of the energy of the swing is transferred into the target wood, with less metal to create friction across the wood.
On a survival axe with, let’s say, a respectable beard, there’s more material creating drag, which means shallower, wider cuts.
Why, then, would anyone want a tall bladed survival axe? Because you’ll have a greater margin of error. You’ll be far less likely to miss your target. And that’s a serious consideration in a survival scenario.
Remember the image of the face thickness? We’re going to take that same idea, and drill down into greater detail as we explore sharpness. Sharpness is dictated not in the thickness of the face, but the thickness of the cutting edge. The thickness of the cutting edge is measured in degrees. Here’s a quick guide to help you understand how degrees of thickness of a cutting edge affect the cutting performance of any blade, be it an axe, survival knife, or scalpel.
10-15 degrees = razor
15-20 degrees = chopping
20-30 degrees = general middle ground
30-45 degrees = splitting maul
45+ degrees = baseball bat
Butt (or Poll)
I like to think of this as your axe’s secondary mode. Nobody buys an axe based on this alone, but it is an important aspect, and you really have three options.
1. Standard (or Hammer) Butt
This is exactly what it sounds like: a flat surface for pounding or smashing. This is my preferred axe butt design, as it turns the axe into more than just a cutting tool. Crack a coconut, splinter a rock, or open an oyster shell, all without risking damage to the valuable cutting edge. What the blade is to sharpness, the hammer butt is to smashitude. And I like that.
2. Spike or Tomahawk
This style is born out of war. The spiked back end of a tomahawk was designed to pierce an enemy’s body, even through bone or leather armor. While this has little application in a survival scenario, it’s still pretty darn cool, and worth mentioning.
3. A double bit
What’s better than a beastly axe blade? Two beastly axe blades, you silly bean. Rarely seen on a hatchet sized tool, a double bit axe head is an option, and a darn good one to boot. Keep one side thin for slicing, the other blunter for splitting and you no longer have to worry about what your axe was designed for. That piece of mind is a valuable thing in deed.
A heavy axe is a useful axe. But a heavy axe is not a handy axe. With the push in the bush to go lighter with each piece of gear, this is the one item that benefits from a bit of bulk.
As one goes up the weight spectrum of survival axes (which I would say top out around 2-2.5 lbs), the item becomes more burdensome to carry, and more tiring to swing. However, if you’ve ever tried to cut a tree with a pocket knife, you’d know having not enough weight is even more exhausting than having too heavy a tool.
Really, depending on your level of fitness and what you foresee using the survival axe for, a heavy or light axe is a matter of personal preference. There’s right, there’s wrong, and there’s preference. Choose wisely.
So we’ve covered the basics of axe head design. We’ll get into some of the finer points in a bit (I’m so punny), but first I want to tackle the handle. On second thought, let’s not tackle the handle, as that could lead to splinters. Instead, we’ll just talk about it. Yeah, that’s a much better idea.
In all seriousness, an axe head alone is a sad tool. Put it on a stick and you magically transform it into what I call das wondertool – perhaps the greatest tool man ever invented. By adding a bit of length, a simple cutting wedge is transformed into a third class lever, with all the glitz and glamour befitting of such an honor.
As a basic 3rd class lever, an axe handle is designed to multiply force. It’s handy, and does this job well enough. Increase the length of the handle and you increase the speed of the head, making a more efficient cutting device.
The longer the handle, the more mechanical advantage you gain. In fact, if you’re geeky enough, you can calculate how much a few extra inches gains you in your chopping power.
As with all things involving design, there are trade-offs. The longer the handle, the more cumbersome it becomes to carry. Also, when working in tight places, it can be more a hindrance than a help, limiting your swing angles and even hitting you in… you know… places.
A good rule of thumb for survival axes is anywhere between 10 and 20 inches. Personally, I prefer about a 12″ handle with an aggressive knob, and I just make up for the lack of mechanical advantage with what I like to call man advantage, ie I’m stubborn and just swing harder. Remember, there’s right, there’s wrong, and there’s preference.
Aside from turning a simple wedge into a third class lever, the handle has other responsibilities as well. Chiefly, it must efficiently transfer the energy of the swing to the axe head. Practically, this means jelly would make for a terrible axe handle, as it would absorb almost all of the energy (and make your hands all sticky and gross).
If your handle absorbs too much energy from the swing, you get an ineffective cut. Some handles accomplish this by being very rigid, like steel, which is great, except it will also transfer some of that energy into you arm, and that can hurt like a son of a bitch.
So the best survival axe material is one that is rigid enough to effectively transfer energy, but also has some degree of energy absorption or storage. There are typically three options for materials to choose from.
You really only see a steel handle in an axe that’s forged as a single piece of metal. These are durable as heck, you never have to worry about the head coming loose, and they are pretty as an Irish rainbow.
They do, however, vibrate like a railroad track, which is why you’ll always see some kind of rubber grip added to it. The metal transfers energy better than most substances, and the rubber grip keeps your joints from aching. That’s a win-win.
The epitome of man-made engineering, these handles come in any shape and color. Plastic and fiberglass make up the bulk of their material, as these can be very effective in absorbing and redistributing energy back into the axe head.
They’re lightweight, can even be made to float, and will never rust. The downside is you won’t be repairing them anytime… ever. If you do manage to crack a handle, there’s no compound that will repair it back to it’s original strength, and it’s not as simple as a wooden handle to replace. Which brings us to…
The classic material for axe handles, not only because of it’s availability, but because it’s beautiful and does the job with excellence.
Wood has a lot of unique acoustic properties which I won’t get into right now, but that plays a part, as acoustics (sound) is nothing more than vibrations, which is what handles are all about.
Hickory is the handle material of choice, and for good reason. With a hardness rating of 1820 lbf (using the Janka hardness test), it surpasses even white oak (a personal favorite of mine, though still a solid handle material choice) in durability.
One important advantage of a wooden handle on a survival axe over other handle materials is that it is the only option that could be switched out in the field with nothing but primitive tools. That’s a big selling point in my book. You’re not going to stumble onto an epoxy resin spring or welding rod tree in the bush. Sticks, however, them’s be available.
The last factor to consider about axe handles is the shape. It’s really just a shaft, but some people prefer a contoured shaft and others a straight handle. Why? Grip when using the axe’s second mode.
If you have a double-bit axe, you will have a straight handle. You’ll never get a good, straight cut with a contoured axe handle using the back blade. Same goes using it’s hammer or spiked end. A rule of thumb is the more you intend to use the butt of your axe, the straighter you want the handle.
I have used the butt of my axe, at the time with an aggressively curved handle, many times. It’s awkward, and that can equate to dangerous. When you don’t feel comfortable with a tool, that’s when it’s most likely to cause an injury. When on the trail, injuries are serious, especially ones involving a improperly cared for survival axe. So do yourself a favor. Go to a hardware store (or your buddy’s garage when he’s not looking) and pick up an aggressively curved axe. Flip it around and give it a few swings. You’ll be surprised how unsteady it feels in your hands.
With this info firmly in your brainey parts, you’re rightly equipped to find the survival axe that best suits your needs, be it at the local building center, garage sale, or that Brazilian-river super center place.
Best of luck to you, and don’t forget to have fun with it.