The axe is one of the most beloved tools in bushcraft, and until the arrival of the saw, did the majority of heavy wood working. Here I will consider the uses of some of the different sizes of axe available. There are consideration other than size, which I will discuss at a later time.
The most important thing to realize when selecting an axe, is that each axe is designed to perform a specific range of functions. When used within that range, the axe will work very efficiently, and perform the tasks quickly and without unnecessary energy expenditure. On the other hand, if an axe is used outside of that ideal range of functions, while the task will still get accomplished, the energy required will increase exponentially. For example, an axe with a handle of about 20 inches, and a head weight of about 1.5 lb will work very effectively to chop down a tree of up to 4 inches in diameter. Try to use the same axe to chop down an 8 inch diameter tree however, and you will see that the effort required maxes the task a nightmare.
The opinion I am presenting here is just that, an opinion. This has been my experience when it comes to axe use, and I know several others who share this view. It is by no way conclusive and should not be taken as the final word on the issue.
So let’s look at some ranges of axe size:
This is an axe intended to be used mostly with one hand. The handle is about 12 inches in length and the head weighs anywhere from 1-1.5 lb. While small, these hatchets can perform a wide range of tasks. They are ideal for carving and splitting small fire wood. I would not attempt to chop down anything thicker than 2 inches in diameter (think wrist size wood when it comes to chopping and splitting). While it is possible to fell larger trees, the energy required would make this tool inefficient for the task. Good choices in this category would be the Gransfors Bruks Wildlife Hatchet, the Hultafors Trekking Axe/Hatchet H-006-SV, the Wetterling Wildlife Axe, the Snow and Nealley Camper’s Belt Axe, the Fiskars Hatchet, the Graintex Hatchet, and the Husqvarna Hatchet.
The Small Axe
An axe in this range can be used with one or two hands. The handle is about 20 inches in length, and the head weighs anywhere from 1.5-2 lb. These are considered to be the most versatile bushraft axes by some people. They are a compromise, a jack of all trades, but expert at none. They can still be used with one hand for carving, but can also be used with two hands when splitting or chopping. This axe is ideal for trees of about 4 inches in diameter. Again, the axe can be pressed to bring down larger trees, but its use will become inefficient. Good choices in this category would be the Gransfors Bruks Small Forest Axe, the Hultafors Classic Forest Axe H-009-SV, the Wetterling Large Hunting Axe, The Council Tool Hudson Bay Axe, and the Snow and Nealley Penobscot Bay Kindling Axe.
The Boy's/Limbing Axe
This is a larger version of the small axe. The handle is about 25 to 28 inches in length, and the weight of the head is anywhere from 2-3 lb. These axes fall within my favorite axe size. I have found that I like working the most with axes that are about 26 inches in length. I have never paid much attention to the size tree I am chopping down with this size axe, so I can not give you a good estimation of the size of tree which I would consider optimal for chopping. I would guess somewhere in the 6 inch range. Good choices in this category would be the Gransfors Bruks Scandinavial Forest Axe, the Hultafors Felling Axe HY-0.9-SV, the Wetterling Swedish Forest Axe, the Snow and Nealley Hudson Bay Company Axe, the Husqvarna Traditional Axe, and the Cold Steel Trail Boss.
The Felling Axe
These are the axes you picture over the shoulder of a lumber jack. The handle is over 30 inches in length, usually 36 inches. The head can weight anywhere from 3-5 lb, or more. These axes are designed for bringing down large trees. Good choices in this category would be the Gransfors Bruks American Felling Axe, the Hultafors Felling Axe HY-1.5-SV, the Wetterling Felling Axe, the Barco Kelly Perfect Axe, the Council Tool Jersey and Dayton Full Size Axes and the Snow and Nealley “Our Best” Single Bit Axe.
Here I would include all other axes. Some examples are the Splitting Maul, designed with a very wide head angle to split wood efficiently, and the Carpenter’s Axe designed with a straight cutting edge for even cuts. Most of these axes are too specialized to be used as general bushcraft tools.
The main obstacle for the person interested in bushcraft will be balancing the ideal intended use of the axe with the weight that can be carried in a pack. For example, let’s say that you do not intend to cut anything over 4 or 5 inches in diameter, so you select one of the small axes to carry. You have now added 2 lb to your pack. Is that weight worth the ability to chop down a 4 inch diameter tree? Can you do the same thing with a folding saw which weighs 1/10th of the axe? How about a saw and a 5 inch knife? The answer will always require a balancing act.