There are a few guidelines to take into consideration when buying a survival axe because the choice is as personal as choosing a pair of shoes! It is not practical to say “oh I want my axe to do everything”. Maybe that is not what you need if you are only going to use your axe for making firewood.
Eighty percent of your choice in buying an axe is deciding what you intend to use it for. There are three broad categories – specific use, fire creation and utility use.
This can be as simple as splitting firewood or include clearing or creating trails. You might want to create ladles or cups (see below). Even specific use can have quite a variation!
The bulk of the shaping of the ladle and kuksa cup was done using the small “hatchet” pictured below.
If this is the first time you are buying an axe you will probably fall into one of the next two categories.
If you are buying the axe to primarily process firewood, think of a forest in the winter. There could be a lot of dead standing frozen trees and you need to cut them down and remove all the branches (referred to as “bucking up”). Or you might need to cut them into sections and then split them – all to create a stock of good firewood to get you through the day and the night. If that is your scenario that establishes your category very clearly!
The third category is utility. Think multi-purpose tool that you will use to get a variety of jobs done. You should be able to chop down a tree, split logs, buck logs but also be able to carve with it, drive in tent pegs (with the back), process game – all with the same tool!
Once you have made that initial, crucial assessment there are three components to an axe that will change according to your original three categories – weight, length and shape.
Axes can vary anywhere from a half pound head all the way up to six or seven pounds. The main thing that you need to realize when it comes to weight – the heavier the axe the more penetration into the cutting surface.
To illustrate this, imagine taking a five-pound piece of metal and throwing it down at the ground. It will probably indent the ground significantly. However, take a one-pound piece of metal and throw it with the same amount of force and it will not drive into the ground as much. You would have to put more force behind it in order to make it equal what that five-pound weight did.
The same principle applies to an axe. When it comes to weight, it depends on how big a piece of wood you will be cutting. The rule of thumb is – the bigger the piece of wood, typically the heavier the axe; the smaller the piece of wood, the lighter the axe.
Which brings us back to the purpose-driven decisions talked about earlier.
Imagine cutting down nothing but big lumber to build a cabin with twelve to twenty-inch logs. You would want a big heavy axe to be able to do that because you will get more force with that and it will cut deeper into the wood of the trees and allow those trees to come down more easily.
If creating a point on a 1-inch stick there is no reason to use five pounds of axe weight. Even a half pound axe would probably do it or a one- or two-pound axe.
This does not refer to the silhouette of the axe but refers instead to the cross section of the head. The piece of metal that creates the blade is referred to as the ‘bit’.
An axe can either have an acute angled bit or it can have a very thick bit (meaning wide based – see the lower axe head in the picture above).
If you take an axe that is narrow and drive it into a piece of wood it will not ‘push’ the wood apart as much. It might not even split or could just get jammed in the wood. However that type of bit would be perfect for felling, shaping, shaving the outside of a log or carving. If you attempted to use the thicker bit to carve, the sides would engage and limit the cut.
If you use the ‘broad base’ axe bit and drive it into a log it will ‘push’ the wood apart. The sharp section gets in and starts the cut and the rest of the bit acts like a wedge and pushes the wood apart. So, if you are splitting firewood that would be an effective use of energy. However this bit shape tends to be limited to splitting.
All of which explains why it is so important to understand bit shape when considering the purpose that we are carrying the axe.
If you are carrying an axe primarily for utility and you know you will just be splitting some small sticks and also creating some points for cooking implements (including shaving off bark), you would want to use that thinner bit (more like a knife blade.)
However, if you are going to be in the woods chopping down trees and splitting wood then of course you will want the thicker bit.
How much force you generate depends on how long the handle is. The longer the handle length and heavier the head the more force you can generate with that axe. There is also a ratio of weight to handle length – if your axe has a relatively large head for the handle length – it becomes unbalanced and harder to use.
So, if we are considering our three main categories again – with the fire making you are chopping a lot compared to utility carving where we do not need a lot of force. You also do not need a lot of force when driving in a tent peg or when splitting small lumber
Where you do need a lot of force is when you are chopping down a tree or splitting firewood. Should it be a really long handle (being 36 inches) or should it be a short handle (being 19 inches)? Most people will probably find themselves favoring a range of about 12 to 23 inches. Given that – how do we make a good decision within that range?
Think about your purpose again. Is it more utility? Fire creation? (Let us leave specialty out of this particular section). If it is fire creation, what size of wood are you going to be cutting and processing? This will directly impact the choice of weight of the head and length of the handle.
For utility use and easy transport 12 to 19 inches is going to be ideal.
If you are in that fire-making category -19 up to 23 inches is going to be good (Unless you are a hardcore fire maker when you might get close to 30 inches).
The further on the utility side you go for all those little camp chores with minimal chopping and cutting, the more you are going to reduce the head size and handle length.
If you find yourself somewhere in the middle of those options – consider something around a two and a half pound head with about an 18- or 19-inch handle which will fit most people.
If carrying your equipment on your back, you might carry the hatchet or the next size up with a 21 or 23 inch handle. The hatchet can be used for all sorts of activities like shaping and small cutting. It would not be as good at felling but you could carry a folding saw.
Which brings us to another point – your axe needs to fit your height and strength!
Think about those three categories one more time. Narrow down your choices and then buy a good quality tool. A final suggestion – don’t put it on your backpack and not use it! Once you have learned how to use an axe you will love it for life!