June 21, 2022
By Don Grover
There are a few tools that can make basic tasks in a survival situation easier. A knife and the ability to start a fire would be my first choices. Another basic tool I like to have on hand is an axe. Obviously, if your area of operations is a treeless desert an axe is going to be of limited value. For those of us living in wooded country, particularly cold country, an axe is a highly useful tool. However, to get the most out of it you’ll need the skill to use it both efficiently and safely.
The axe has been used as both a tool and weapon throughout recorded history. When the early settlers came to North America they used axes to build homes and wooden forts. They were also used to clear land for farming and harvesting wood for cooking and heating. Axes of various types were a popular trade item with the Native Americans. The great pine forest of Maine and Michigan fell at the hands of axe-wielding lumberjacks. In fact, the axe was a valuable tool of the logging industry right up to the early 1960s when it was quickly dethroned by the faster chainsaw.
These days few of us are reduced to clearing land or laying in a supply of firewood with an axe. I imagine attempting to swap an axe for a canoe load of beaver pelts would not go over big with your local trapper either. As a cutting tool, the advantage of the axe is simplicity and portability. Need a fire? The axe makes it easier to build a fire and keep it going. Fire is warmth and light. It is also the means to cook raw food, making it palatable and safe to eat. You can boil water on a fire making it safe to drink.
An axe is also a handy tool when it’s time to build an improvised shelter. I keep an axe in my Jeep. There is another behind the seat of the family pickup. I have used these to remove fallen trees on the logging roads I hunt and camp on. Should the need arise; the axe could be used as a defensive weapon. Sure, I would rather have a modern firearm, but it’s not hard to imagine a scenario where a lesser-armed antagonist would pass over an axe wielder in his victim selection process.
Accessories for the axe are few. You need an edge guard or sheath. This is important both to protect the cutting edge of the axe and to protect you and your gear from the cutting edge. To keep it sharp, it’s hard to beat the tool sharpener from ‘Lansky’ called ‘The Puck’. Safety glasses and gloves are always a good idea. The safe and effective use of the axe begins with keeping it sharp. Dull axes will deflect, or bounce out, rather than cut cleanly into the wood.
Secondly, work on accuracy. Wildly flailing about will tire you while accomplishing little. Let the axe do the work. Experience will teach where to cut and practice will improve your ability to strike accurately.
Third, keep all body parts and anything else you value out of the line of possible deflection. Making sure you have a clear swing is a big part of this. Branches or other obstacles encountered in your swing will send the axe off your intended target. When limbing a fallen tree, only cut branches on the off side of where you are standing. If you make a habit of this, any deflection of the head will be away from your tender bits. To cut limbs on the other side simply step over the trunk before swinging. If you need to fell a standing tree don’t be too proud to chop from your knees. This makes for a lower stump with more usable wood for you. It also makes it near impossible to stick yourself in the shin or foot with a deflection.
Resist any urge you might have to use the back of the axe, the ‘poll’ as a sledgehammer. The poll is there to balance the cutting edge and if you use it as a hammer you will eventually bend or break the ‘eye’ (that’s the part the handle goes through) ruining the axe permanently.
There are many different types of axes ranging from the ‘tomahawk’ to a full-size double-bitted felling axe. Throwing tomahawks at a target is an amusing pastime but I haven’t found much use for them beyond that. In fact, I don’t find a lot of use for any one-handed axe or ‘hatchet’ until space and weight are at an absolute premium. The American-pattern felling axe, whether double or single bit, was the expert’s choice in another place and time. For modern camp and survival chores though they are a bit much.
Frankly, if I need that much axe I am wishing I had made room for a chain saw. I want an axe big enough to get the job done without being so cumbersome that I left it home. For many years my axe of choice was a Snow and Nealley Hudson Bay Camping Axe. Mine weighs 2 lbs. 6 oz. with an overall length of 23 ¼ inches. I consider this weight/length combination a minimum standard for a serious tool. On the heavier side of the range, I propose an axe weighing no more than 3 pounds and measuring less than 28 inches in overall length.
There are a lot of fine old axes to be had at lawn sales, antique tool vendors and online auctions. Most are in need of a new handle and a good sharpening to be put back to work. Others are worn-out junk having been sharpened past the temper on the cutting edge. You will also want to avoid specimens with lot of damage on the poll from being used as a hammer. Quality axes, then and now, have maker’s marks stamped on the heads. Axe collectors have driven up the prices on some of the less common specimens, particularly in fine condition, but there are still deals to be found.
Fortunately, there are still companies offering quality axes. The Swedish makers have largely cornered the market with Council Tool being a North American holdout. While the majority of my personal axes are antiques, I wanted to see how the current offerings stacked up. So I rounded up three axes from as many makers based on price, weight and overall length. The first price point was not a specific dollar amount but more of a minimum cash outlay for a quality useful tool. The Council Tool Boy’s Axe proved to be a fine choice. Gränsfors Bruks represents my ‘money is no object, I want the best that can be had’ axe. Casting for the middle of the fiscal road, I selected Husqvarna’s Forest Axe. There are other brands and choices, but I found you won’t go wrong with any of these.
Handle quality is a pretty big deal with an axe, and given the wretched luck I’ve had sourcing replacement handles, I was wary on requesting samples directly from the manufacturers. I had concerns that they would cherry-pick axes with good handles to send for review. So I simply purchased samples for review. I found two of the axes on Amazon.com and the third at Woodcraft. I need not have worried as all three axes showed up with good serviceable handles with excellent grain orientation.
Council Tool is an American tool manufacturer with 128 years of experience. Based in North Carolina their axe line includes several different patterns as well as the Premium ‘Velvet Cut’ line. They offer both a Hudson Bay and the ‘Boy’s Axe’ that fit my weight and length criteria. I went with the Boy’s Axe and located one on Amazon.com for the whopping price of $65 shipped to my door.
Frankly, I was not expecting much. I was in for a pleasant surprise. This axe is easy on the eyes and the functional equal of the other more expensive axes. You will need to pony up a few extra bucks for a sheath but even with that, this Council Tool Boy’s Axe is a real value. It weighed in on my postal scale at 3 lbs. with an overall length of 27 ¼ inches.
Husqvarna is a global company needing little introduction. I don’t have experience with all of their products, but I can state that their professional-grade chain saws have served me well. The Husqvarna Forest Axe was located on Amazon.com and cost $129.99 with shipping. It weighed in at 2 lbs. 13 oz. and measures just over 26 inches overall. The Husky showed up with a sheath that I found both simple in design and elegant in execution.
Gränsfors Bruks manufactures what is arguably the finest axe available. Their business model does not involve manufacturing to a price point, but rather to craft the finest tool possible and price it accordingly. The Scandinavian Forest Axe fit my weight and length criteria. Out of stock all over the country in early February, ‘Woodcraft’ claimed the shortest backorder time. They shipped my Gränsfors in mid-March after docking my credit card for $245. My example weighed in at 2 lbs. 13 oz. and has an overall length of 25 3/8 inches. The axe arrived with a nice sheath and a nifty little booklet. This is my second Gränsfors and yes, they are pricey. A friend calls them a boutique axe. I prefer to think of them as functional works of art.
I’ve spent the last couple months seeking opportunities to test the axes around the homestead. I even put together a very unscientific test on a fallen poplar tree. The Gränsfors Bruks performed as expected. It’s a hand-forged work of art complete with pride of ownership. The Husqvarna has a fine balance and is quite lively in the hands. It features the same basic head design as the Gränsfors but at a discount. The Council Tool Boy’s Axe is made in the USA at less than half the price of the Husqvarna, and one quarter the price of the Gränsfors. The fit, finish and overall quality is impressive. Possibly due to it being the heaviest of the three, the Boy’s Axe performed noticeably better on the poplar tree than the Swedish axes. I would recommend any of these at their respective price points but the outstanding value of the Council Tool Boy’s Axe is hard to pass up.
The axe as a tool predates civilization. Indeed, I find a primal satisfaction in the safe and efficient operation of one. If this seems like a skill you would like make your own the first thing I suggest is more information. Secure a copy of the book I recommend in the sidebar. Select an axe for your own use. Learn the basics and add to your skills as your confidence builds. Take the first steps towards the nearly forgotten skills of the axeman. It’s worth the effort.
The Ax Book
- The Lore and Science of the Woodcutter
- By Dudley Cook
- Illustrated by S. Lawrence Whipple
- A guide to axmanship, wood and the hand tools of a woodsman
- Alan C. Hood & Company – Paperback – 134 pages – ISBN 0911469168
The title and subtitle pretty much says it all. Even if you have no current intention of acquiring the skill to safely and effectively run an axe, this book should find a home in your ‘Be Ready’ library. With 39 chapters and 59 excellent hand-drawn illustrations it covers the subject from start to finish. Chapters include information on axe types, techniques, safe use and possible hazards. The chapters on sharpening and handle replacement alone are worth the price of the book. The authors writing style and occasional antidotes make for an entertaining transfer of information. I highly recommend this book as your next step towards the skilled use of the axe. Available on Amazon for $22.95.
- Council Tool: Manufacturer of Axes and other tools based in North Carolina, counciltool.com
- Husqvarna: Manufacturer of pretty much anything, www.husqvarna.com
- Gränsfors Bruk: Sweden based manufacturer of very fine axes, www.gransforsbruk.com/en/
- Lanskey: Manufacturer of sharpening tools including ‘the puck’ for axes, lansky.com
- Woodcraft: Vendor for a variety of woodworking tools including the axes of Gränsfors Bruk, www.woodcraft.com
If you have any thoughts or comments on this article, we’d love to hear them. Email us at FirearmsNews@Outdoorsg.com.
About the Author:
Don Grover grew up roaming the forests of Maine the son of a Baptist Pastor. He earned his pay in his early years with an axe and chainsaw. An avid hunter, outdoorsman, competitive rifleman, off-roader and fabricator, he still calls rural Maine home.