Tuesday, April 5, 2011

The Development of the American Felling Axe

In this post I want to provide a brief overview of what is generally considered an American pattern axe as opposed to a European pattern. These days the area of production has nothing to do with whether an axe is a European or American patter. It is more of a distinction to be found in history.

European pattern axes were exemplified by axes from the 16th and 17th century, both in Europe and colonial America. These patterns featured a round or elliptical handle, and a correspondingly round or elliptical eye on the axe head. These axes had no poll, and the transition between the cheeks of the axe and the eye of the axe was very abrupt. In effect, you had a narrow blade, which ended at a circular hafting point. As a consequence, in order to keep the eye from contacting the wood being chopped, the bit of the axe was elongated. Here you can see a good example of this early axe design along with the manufacturing process.

Starting in the 18th century, developments occurred in axe design in America, which resulted in what has come to be called the American pattern felling axe. The first development was the introduction of a poll to the axe. At first the poll was just a squared off area at the back of the axe, which made it easier to use as a hammer, but eventually, more weight was added to the poll, improving the balance of the axe. The second development was the flattening out of the sides of the axe head. This flattening turned the eye from an elliptical one to a triangular one. It also provided for a smooth transition between the cheeks and the eye of the axe, creating a smooth, continuous surface on each side of the axe head. This improved the penetrating and particularly splitting ability of the axe.

There are other distinction when it comes to types of iron and steel used, and different techniques for making the axe head, but I will not go into them here because they do not alter the pattern of each axe.

These days, virtually all axes that are not made for historical recreation purposes are American style axes, even if made in Europe. For example, the pattern which we see in the Gransfors Bruks axes from Sweden are actually a Rockaway pattern, popularized by the William McKinnon Axe Factory of Rockaway in NJ.

Issues of the thickness of the bit, or specific head designs, have little to do with what defines an American pattern axe. During the golden ages of axe manufacturing, there were hundreds of axe designs in the US alone, all of them variation of the American pattern felling axe.


  1. I am reading your blog for a couple of months now and its a great read every time i visit you!

    Thanks and cheers from the Netherlands!

  2. I just found your blog. Thank you for all the informative articles. Concerning the development of axe, is there still utilitarian reason for patterns that little or no poll? I've see pictures of what's referred to as Russian pattern axes that are usually hatchet sized, with wide blade and very small or no poll. Is such head design better for carving?

  3. When it comes to carving hatchets, the poll is not as important because the hatchet is short and the distance of the swing is much smaller. Many carving hatchets are not balanced at all, but that does not make a difference, again because of the short swing. Similarly, broad axes have a completely different design from the felling axe developments I wrote about above.

    As far as I know, there is no advantage to a smaller poll, but considering that there isn't much harm of using a small poll when it comes to axes that do not require a wide swing, and that broad axes and carving axes need a long bit, the weight tends to get moved from the poll to the bit.

    The above developments had the greatest impact on chopping/felling and splitting axes. Broad axes and carving axes seem to have had a completely different development pattern.

    I personally think that the Russian pattern hatchets are influenced by traditional designs, and that is why you see the small poll, much like Hudson Bay axes.

  4. The oval handle adds control, as does the pole. That's always a plus.

  5. thank you for the explanation. I did a web search for carving axe and found this example of an obviously highly specialized tool. http://lumberjocks.com/chscholz/blog/9863
    I've also seen old Finnish axe with similar wedge shape head, very similar to modern Fiskars axe actually.
    I just got a Cold Steel Trail Boss (my first axe) and I haven't had the chance to used it yet. I read about the balance problem you mentioned in your review of Trail Boss. Now I wish I had done more research before the purchase. Do you think axes with small poll such as the Trail Boss or Hudson Bay are examples of design compromise which trade balance for portability?

  6. I just got an email, which I thought was a post, so I deleted it before responding. Now I can't figure out how to reply, so I'll do it here (trying to remember the question).

    I think that when it comes to the poll, many companies just don't pay enough attention to it. Also, sometimes tradition outweighs performance considerations.

    If you get something like a Trail Boss as your first axe, you will not be able to tell much of a difference because of the small poll. When you have been using axes for a while, it will start to show more. With the trail boss, the more immediate issue will be the thickness of the edge. It is not bad, but taking a file to it and thinning it out will greatly improve the performance.

  7. Thank you again. I asked the question about Trail Boss. I will thin up the edge and use it for a while. It the perfect size for me and feels good in hands.

  8. No problem. It is a good tool and will serve you well.