Axes and Hatchets
Let’s start with the axe, perhaps the most important cutting tool. “On the ax more than on anything else depends the comfort and success of the northern forest traveler, whatever his calling. He may, to lighten his load, discard all of the articles in his outfit which are not absolutely essential, but never by any chance is the ax among those cast aside, because this tool is the most necessary and the most useful article used by the bushman. Not a day passes that the ax is not put to strenuous use, and on the trap line nearly every hour of the day finds the ax at work, smoothing the rough path of the traveler and providing for his comfort and welfare.” Elmer Harry Kreps, Woodcraft, 1919 p. 52
The first thing to consider would be what exactly constitutes a period correct axe or hatchet.
Starting in the 1750s, the axe went through some significant changes, giving us axes we recognize today. Starting with a tomahawk-like axe, with round eye and long bit, the axe progressed into the American Felling Axe which came do dominate the market ever since. In the picture below you see three axes. The first axe on the left is an example of a 1850s axe, the second is a 1890s W.C. Kelly Perfect axe, and the one of the right is a 1940s modern Plumb axe.
There are certainly differences in the axes starting from the 1850s and going through the 1940s. You can see a more in dept discussion about them here. The bottom line however is that most modern axe designs will fit perfectly well within this time period. You don’t have to look for anything out of the ordinary.
You can see an example of available axes on p.67 of the 1907 Abercrombie & Fitch Catalog. They are clearly a completely modern design.
Abercrombie & Fitch were not big axe distributors, nor did they manufacture their own axes. I believe the axes were actually made by Mann Edge Tool Co. Even so, this is an example showing that in 1907 the available axes were largely modern in design.
Similarly, a design shown by Elmer Harry Kreps on p.55 of his 1919 book Woodcraft shows a modern axe design.
Of course, the issue then comes up of exactly what type of axe to use: size, handle length and type, etc. As I mentioned above, the choice is a very personal one to each woodsman, and each of the authors on whom I’m relying his a different idea of what makes the perfect axe.
The one thing that all the authors have in common is that none of them recommend a full size axe for anything other than a large camp with transportation other than backpacking. There is no question that a full size axe gets the work finished faster, but carrying around such a tool on your back is more of a fashion statement than a practical use of your resources. “A full-sized axe should be carried, in cold weather, if means of transportation permit. Its head need not weigh over 3 or 3 pounds, but let the handle be of standard 36-inch length for a full- arm sweep. A single-bitt is best for campers, as the poll is useful for driving stakes, knocking off pine knots, to rive timber (striking with a mallet), and as an anvil (bitt stuck in a log or stump).” Horace Kephart, Camping and Woodcraft Vol I, 1918 (2nd edition, 1920) p.113
For backpacking purposes, the recommendations varied depending on the author, ranging from a small hatchet to a boy’s size axe.
For warm weather Kephart preferred a hatchet. You will sometimes see him refer to it as a tomahawk, but it’s not an actual tomahawk, its a hatchet. Tomahawks were not in general use around that time and would not have been carried by anyone other than for nostalgic reasons.
“A woodsman should carry a hatchet, and he should be as critical in selecting it as in buying a gun. The notion that a heavy hunting knife can do the work of a hatchet is a delusion. When it comes to cleaving carcasses, chopping kindling, blazing thick-barked trees, driving tent pegs or trap stakes, and keeping up a bivouac fire, the knife never was made that will compare with a good tomahawk. The common hatchets of the hardware stores are unfit for a woodsman's use. They have broad blades with beveled edge, and they are generally made of poor, brittle stuff. A camper's hatchet should have the edge and temper of a good axe. It must be light enough to carry in or on one's knap sack, yet it should bite deep in timber. The best hatchet I have used (and it has been with me in the mountains for seven or eight years) is one shown in Fig. 103, except that the handle is a straight one, 17-inch, that I made myself. Its weight, with leather sheath, is 1 lb. 10 oz.” Horace Kephart, Camping and Woodcraft Vol I, 1918 (2nd edition, 1920) p.165-166
I have omitted the the drawing Kephart provided in the book (you can of course look at it for yourself) because we know the model hatchet that he actually used. It was manufactured by Colchester Bros. of Eldorado, PA.
In the above picture, acquired from the West Carolina University Hunter Library Special Collection, you can also see a version of the Nessmuk double but pocket axe that he preferred.
For winter travel he recommended a larger axe. “The short axe may be of Hudson Bay or Damascus pattern. There should be a small mill file to keep it in order, besides the whetstone.” Horace Kephart, Camping and Woodcraft Vol II, 1918 (2nd edition, 1920) p.144 He lists the axe as weighing 1lb 12oz. I don’t know if that is the weight of the head, or the full axe.
Other woodsmen like E.H. Kreps recommend a larger axe for year round use. You have already seen the drawing he provided above. “For the northern forest and the western mountain district the ax that I would recommend would weigh only about two pounds, handle not included in the weight. Some of you may think this entirely too light, but the northern Indians use axes of only one and a half pounds, and find them heavy enough for practical purposes, while light to carry on the trail. To make a light ax effective, however, it must have a long handle. An ax like this should have a handle of from thirty to thirty-four inches over all, and with such a tool you will be surprised to see what heavy work can be done.” Elmer Harry Kreps, Woodcraft, 1919 p.56
Lastly, much has been said about about the shape of an axe handle in recent years. Unfortunately, in 1981, Dudley Cook published a book titled Keeping Warm With an Axe, which was later re-published as The Ax Book in 1999. While the book is generally excellent, it contains a discussion on the “best” shape for axe handles. Mr. Cook clearly prefers straight handles on his axes, and there is nothing wrong with that. Unfortunately however, he felt the need to justify his personal preference by presenting some extremely low quality geometry and physics as “proof” that a straight handle is more accurate and allows you to swing harder. While his theory is laughably poor, it did spark a following of internet axmen, who now have for years perpetuated the absurd statements made by Dudley Cook.
So, let me say this about the shape of axe handles: An S-shaped handle is no less accurate than a straight handle, and allows you to swing the axe with just as much power. In fact, the S-shaped handle gives you better feedback as to the angle of the bit. This deficiency of the straight handle can be compensated for by using an octagonal handle rather than a rounded one which will give you a better feel for how the handle is turning in your hands. Octagonal handles are not needed for S-shaped designs because there the curvature does the job.
Kephart appears to have preferred straight handles, or at least was fine with them. “In making a new axe-helve, do not bother to make a crooked one like the store pattern. Thousands of expert axemen use, from preference, straight handles in their axes — single-bitted axes at that. In making a new axe-helve, do not bother to make a crooked one like the store pattern. I have seen such handles full four feet long, to be used chiefly in logging-up big trees. Two feet eight inches is long enough for ordinary chopping.” Horace Kephart, Camping and Woodcraft Vol II, 1918 (2nd edition, 1920) p.188-189
Kreps preferred a S-shaped handle. “Did you ever wonder why an ax handle is curved in an S shape? It is made to fit the hands of the user without strain on the arms or wrists, and this curved shape enables him to hold the ax more solidly when striking a blow than could be done with a straight handle. The handle should be quite thick and "hand-fitting" near the end where it is grasped by the left hand (or right, according to whether the user is right or left handed), but the other part should be shaped so the hand can slide easily back and forth while chopping.” Elmer Harry Kreps, Woodcraft, 1919 p.57
The issue of straight handle vs. S-shaped handle is one of personal preference, and arguing that one is better than the other is the same as arguing that a Michigan pattern axe head is better than a Yankee patter axe head. It is something you should leave for internet woodsmen, as it does not concern people who actually spend any time in the woods. Both handle designs existed during the time period of 1880 through 1930, and both are equally effective.
So, to summarize, if you are interested in Classic Backpacking, any modern design axe, ranging in size from a hatchet to a boy’s size axe, with a straight or curved handle, will fit the bill. Smaller axes and hatchets have the benefit of being more portable, while larger axes get the job done faster and with less energy.
When it comes to knives, most of the American authors of the time period seem to have taken after the example set by Nessmuk.
“A word as to knife, or knives. These are of prime necessity, and should be of the best, both as to shape and temper. The "bowies" and "hunting knives" usually kept on sale, are thick, clumsy affairs, with a sort of ridge along the middle of the blade, murderous looking, but of little use; rather fitted to adorn a dime novel or the belt of "Billy the Kid," than the outfit of the hunter. The one shown in the cut is thin in the blade, and handy for skinning, cutting meat, or eating with. The strong double-bladed pocket knife is the best model I have yet found, and, in connection with the sheath knife, is all sufficient for camp use.” George Washington Sears, Woodcraft, 1892 p.13
The majority of the wood working seems to have been done with a folding pocket knife. The belt knife was usually a butchering type knife and was reserved for game and food processing and typically had a blade between 4 and 6 inches in length.
A popular design for a fixed blade knife was a common butcher's knife, as can be seen on p.146 of the 1907 Abercrombie & Fitch Catalog.
Such a design can currently be found in the Russell Green River Hunting Knives.
Another popular design was the “hunting” knife. I believe early versions were popularized by Marble’s. An example can be seen on p.146 of the 1907 Abercrombie & Fitch Catalog.
If we look outside of the Americas there is an additional style of knife available at the time, the puukko, and similar variations. The Lapin Puukko Vuolupuukko #31 you see below is a good, affordable example. Similar designs have been around since long before the period at which we are looking of 1880 through 1930. While they were not widely available in the United States, examples that were brought over by immigrants must have certainly been around at the time.
A slightly different design emerged from Sweden. In 1891 Frost-Erik Ersson started Frosts Knivfabrik, which was later purchased by KJ Eriksson AB in 1912, and later became what we now know as Mora of Sweden. Below you can see an early advertisement for what would be Mora knives in the 1920s.
Below is a modern Mora #1 knife. The design has seen some minor changes like an epoxied handle rather than a pinned one, but the design is largely the same.
Pocket knives were typically double blade, non-locking knives. Below is an image provided by Nessmuk. Similar designs can easily be found today.
"Many hunters do not carry sheath knives, saying (and it is quite true) that a common jackknife will skin anything from a squirrel to a bear. Still, I like a small, light sheath knife. It is always open and " get-at-able," ready not only for skinning game and cleaning fish, but for cutting sticks, slicing bread and bacon and peeling " spuds." It saves the pocket knife from wet and messy work, and preserves its edge for the fine jobs." Horace Kephart, Camping and Woodcraft Vol I, 1918 (2nd edition, 1920) p.167
In summary, any of the above designs would be appropriate to use during the Classic Backpacking period. The American model was to use a butchering style fixed blade knife, combined with a folding pocket knife. In Europe the puukko style knife was in use at the time. This by no means covers all types of knives that were available and used at the time, it’s only a sample of what can be used.
In all of the reading that I have done while doing research on this subject, which admittedly is not much, I have not found any references to using small saws for camp work. There are discussions of large cross cutting saws, both when it comes to their selections and to transporting them via pack train, but the use of small saws doesn’t seem to have been popular. For a while I thought that they just weren’t available at the time, but then I found a pretty good example on p.70 of the 1907 Abercrombie & Fitch Catalog.
It had a folding 8 inch blade, and in many ways resembles modern folding saws. Of course, it is hard to tell from the picture how usable the saw actually was. It might have been unreliable and easily damaged.
Either way, small portable saws don’t seem to have been in use by any of the authors I referenced earlier. They all preferred to rely on their hatchets and knives for wood processing. Maybe that’s because the saws available at the time were not of particularly good design or quality, or it could be that they were so used to using axes that a small saw seemed like a useless item to carry.
After going through the above options, I decided to go with a hatchet and a Scandinavian style fixed blade knife.
The hatchet is an older model Husqvarna. Since Husqvarna outsources their axe production to a number of different companies, I can not tell who the actual maker was, but in design it very closely resembles the Wetterlings Wilderness Hatchet. It has a head on approximately 1.25lb and a 12 inch handle.
The knife is a Mora #2. I’ve used it for years when backpacking, for everything from processing game to woodworking. In my opinion it is a much better design than the style knives used by the likes of Nessmuk and Kephart. It also eliminates the need for me to carry a separate folding, woodworking knife.
I do have a larger axe that I like to use. It’s an old Collins Homestead axe that I restored and re-hung. It has a 2.25lb head and a 26 inch handle. Just like with my hatchet, I made a leather cover for it.
It’s an excellent axe, but unfortunately I’ve had no reason to use it. It would be great for processing large amounts of wood, but I have been trying to restrict myself to what I would consider responsible practices. On most trips that limits me to fallen dead wood, which is often no more than three inches thick. For that I don’t need an axe this size. A hatchet does the job just fine, and it’s easier to carry. It doesn’t mean I would never use it on a trip, it’s just that so far I haven’t had the opportunity.
So, this is just some background on the issue of cutting tool in the context of Classic Backpacking, as well as my choices.