Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Cold Steel Trail Boss Review, Part 1

An axe is a very simple tool, but a good one is surprisingly hard to find. In the search for a good axe, many of us have either chosen to pay a high price for a high quality axe, or have managed to find an old example of the tool and have restored it to working order.

The Cold Steel Train Boss is an attempt to provide a good quality axe at a reasonable price, so we don’t have to struggle with the above options. Time will tell whether or not the attempt was successful.

The Tomahawk subdivision of Cold Steel-made in China.
Axe Head Weight: 2.5 lb
Axe Length: 23 inches
Axe Head Material: 1055 forged steel.
Handle Material: American Hickory.
Cost: Suggested retail is about $45.00, but it can be purchased virtually everywhere online, including Amazon for under $30.00.

Clearly the most attractive characteristic of the axe is its price. At $30.00 it is a quarter of the price of a comparable Gransfors Bruks Axe ($120.00) and a third the price of a Wetterling Axe ($90.00). Of course, when purchasing an axe which is that much cheaper than its competitors, quality becomes a big concern. To that end, I decided to test one and see if it is worth the purchase.

With respect to specifications, it is very similar to the Gransfors Bruks Scandinavian Forest Axe. In this review however, I will compare it to the Gransfors Bruks Small Forest Axe for two reasons. The first is that I do not own a Scandinavian Forest Axe. The second is that a person looking at the Trail Boss as a cheap alternative, will mostly likely be looking for an alternative to the Small Forest Axe, which has become the standard amongst many bushcrafters. Obviously, we have to keep in mind that there is a size difference between the two axes and judge performance accordingly.

Here you can see the Cold Steel Trail Boss and the Gransfors Bruks Small Forest Axe side by side.

The head of the axe is attached to the handle using a method very similar to that used by Wetterling. It consists of inserting a wooden wedge in the handle, and then inserting a metal cylinder. The top of the handle comes painted black to match the head, but for this picture I sanded off the paint so the attachment method is easier to see. In the picture the cutting edge does not look aligned with the rest of the head, but that is only because the camera is a bit off center. The edge of the axe is perfectly aligned.

The grind of the head is very similar to that of the Gransfors Bruks Small Forest Axe. The very edge of the Trail Boss however, has a thicker convex than that of the Small Forest Axe, which significantly decreases the chopping performance. Again, both axes have perfect edge alignment. The curve seen in the picture is a result of the camera, not the axes. The part of the axe head below the cutting edge is less concave on the Trail Boss than it is on the Small Forest Axe, making it slightely better at splitting (weight considerations aside).

The eye is larger and deeper on the Gransfors Bruks, which would most likely make for a more secure attachment of the head than in the Trail Boss.

The balance of the Trail Boss is not great. When held by the handle right near the head, the head and the handle are perfectly balanced. The head however is heavy toward the bit, meaning that when holding it in the same manner, the cutting edge will point almost completely down because it is heavier than the rest of the head. This makes the axe harder to control during a swing. The longer the axe, the more difference this will make. For true axe purists, this will be an issue. (In this picture you see the Trail Boss with the paint removed from the head)

Here you can see the comparison to the Small Forest Axe. Notice how with the Small Forest Axe the bit points down only slightely.

The grain of the handle is good. Ideally you want straight grain running through the whole handle. Here you can see that while not perfect, it is comparable to the Gransfors Bruks.

The steel seems to be of good quality. It retains an edge well and can be easily sharpened in the field. It is not prone to chipping. The Gransfors Bruks seems to be a bit harder, but I can not tell for certain. That being said, from my use, the hardness and toughness of the head is more than adequate for the task.

On a more subjective note, I personally prefer this size axe to the Small Forest Axe. I find that it works better with my height, and I am much better able to control the axe during a swing. Of course the added weight makes chopping and splitting tasks much easier. This is not specific to any particular brand of axe, only to its size.

The thicker edge however, did decrease the chopping ability of the Trail Boss. If you plan on using it as a serious chopper, I would spend about half an hour with a file, and thin out the edge. The cheeks are nice and thin, the only part that you should thin out is the last quarter of an inch from the cutting edge.

Carving is more cumbersome as this is a heavier and longer axe, but because of the balance, it is perfectly doable. There are many carving axes on the market with heads of similar weight. It would not however be my first choice for the task.

The axe arrived to me completely dull. I would strongly recommend sharpening it before any use. If you fail to sharpen it well, it will not be of much use to you. You do not have to reprofile the edge, although I would recomend it, but you should at least sharpen it with a good set of stones.

The sheath is of very low quality. It is just a rubber cover for the edge, and it will almost certainly fall off in your pack. Make sure to secure it before taking the axe out in the woods.

All of the above being considered, I would certainly recommend the Cold Steel Trail Boss. This axe significantly out performs its price tag. If funds are tight, and this is your first bushcraft axe, unless you develop the urge to collect tools which has afflicted many of us, this axe will serve you well.

To be fair, it is certainly not as good as a Gransfors Bruks, but it is a good tool none the less. There are so many small things that come together to make a great axe that some manufacturers like Gransfors Bruks get right, that it is hard to know if an axe is right for you unless you use it. My main worry with the Trail Boss would be if the edge turns out to be too soft, but so far, I have not been able to notice any deficiency.

As far as I know, this is the only bushcraft appropriate axe produced by the manufacturer under this product name. Cold Steel makes a like of tomahawks which may be of use.