Friday, May 27, 2011

Cold Steel Trail Hawk Review

The Cold Steel Trail Hawk is a tool that I have had for some time now, but have held off on doing a review because it has a wide following, including people who I respect as woodsmen, and I was trying really hard to see what they see in it. I am afraid I have failed in that task.

Manufacturer: Cold Steel
Axe Head Weight: 3/4 lb; 1.5 lb overall weight
Axe Length: 22 inches
Axe Head Material: 1055 carbon steel
Handle Material: Hickory
Cost: $25.00

To begin with, this is what these days is referred to as a tomahawk. There are some slight variations between modern axes and tomahawk, and the Trail Hawk embodies all of the characteristics of a modern hawk. You can see some of my thoughts on the differentiation between axes and tomahawks here.

As you can see from the specifications, the Trail Hawk has a handle similar in length to the Gransfors Bruks Small Forest Axe. The head however is about half the weight of that of the Small Forest Axe. In terms of comparison, for most of the pictures I used the Small Forest Axe to illustrate the features. For the testing however, I also compared the Trail Hawk to the Gransfors Bruks Wildlife Hatchet, which has the exact same overall weight of 1.5 lb. Here you can see the Cold Steel Trail Hawk next to the Gransfors Bruks Small Forest Axe.

The handle of the Trail Hawk had several disadvantages over a traditional axe handle. As you may know, the head of the Trail Hawk is not placed on the handle from the top, as it would be on an axe, but instead, it is threaded through the bottom of the handle, all the way to the top where it is held by a swelling of the handle. This necessitates that the handle takes the shape and size of the eye of the head. The result is a straight, very thin handle. I found it to be incredibly uncomfortable. Not only was it too thin to swing properly, especially with two hands, but it also has no swell on the foot of the handle for a secure grip. The grain on my Trail Hawk was nearly horizontal, but I have seen some other ones with good grain, so it seems to be a quality control issue. The head is placed on the handle as described above, and is held in place by a screw. The head was loose on mine, even with the screw in place.

The head of the Trail Hawk has some interesting features as well. In order to allow for the hanging process referred to above, the eye of the Trail hawk has to be fairly large and round. This creates a very inefficient design, as there is little chance that the eye will pass through any piece of wood when chopping or splitting. Traditional designs compensated for this problem by elongating the bit of the axe, so that it may penetrate the wood without the eye ever reaching the tree. The Trail Hawk does the same thing. The bit is very long. This creates another problem-the head has an absolutely horrible overall geometry. There is no transition to speak of between the cheeks and the eye. The bit is narrow the whole length of the cheeks, and binding is a significant problem.

This binding issue is partially alleviated by making the head very narrow. This does two things. First it minimizes the amount of metal that enters the wood in the hopes of reducing the binding, and second, the small cutting edge allows for the force to be concentrated, increasing the penetrating power of the tool. The down side of this design feature is that chopping becomes very inefficient because the contact area with the wood is so small.

The balance of the Trail Hawk is not particularly good, but it’s not the worst I have seen either. From the picture it looks pretty bad, but the feel of it from a balance stand point is okay.

In terms of performance, the Cold Steel Trail Hawk is far behind most other tools I have tested. After spending some time putting a good profile on the bit and sharpening it, I took it out for some comparison testing against the Small Forest Axe and the Wildlife Hatchet. For the test, I removed the screw that was holding the head in place, as that is characteristically what most users of the tool do. To hold the head I relied on friction.

The testing was as conclusive as I have seen in a while. As expected, the Small Forest Axe outperformed the Trail Hawk significantly when it came to chopping, splitting and carving. Interestingly however, the Wildlife Hatchet outperformed the Trail Hawk just as soundly in all of the categories. In the picture you can see the results in a log after the same number of swings with each tool.

The very poor head geometry explains a lot of the failures in performance with respect to chopping and splitting. In terms of carving, the deficiency comes from the small bit, which does not offer a lot of cutting surface. This, combined with a rather annoying feature which I will speak about shortly makes it very hard to use as a carving tool when compared to some other hatchets and axes.

The practical reason often given for carrying a tool like the Trail Hawk over a hatchet or axe of comparable weight is that it is more “versatile”. By that people usually mean that you can easily remove the head to use either as a small, very uncomfortable and inefficient knife, or to replace the handle if you ever break it somewhere deep in the woods and must do field repairs.

I find that the ease of removal of the head on the Trail Hawk is a direct result of the head being inadequately attached. For me, this is a tool with a loose head. Just because it is held from flying off during a swing, does not make it properly attached, much like a ducttaped loose axe head would be considered problematic.

The head continuously comes loose during use, whether it be chopping or carving, sliding up and down the handle. Any kind of precision is made very difficult. Even after spending a significant amount of time trying to create a good friction fit, after several swing the head would come loose again. Now of course, there are ways to secure the head. If the head is pressed onto the wood with sufficient force, similar to what you would see in the eye of an axe, it will probably hold. Some manufacturers have taken to epoxying the head in place, or we could put back the screw (the head would still be loose, but will not slide up and down). Of course if we do that however, we remove the “versatility” from the hawk.

In my opinion, carrying this tool in the bush rather than an axe or hatchet of comparable weight just because it may be easier to re-handle in the event you ever have to do that, is the same as using a butter knife to do your carving because you are less likely to cut yourself with it. While that is true, it kind of misses the point, as it fails to do the tasks ordinarily assigned to the tool. I use axes to do a lot of chopping, splitting and carving. If a tool fails to do those things well, it does me little good that I can more easily re-handle it. If you are interested in seeing what it takes to re-handle an axe in the woods, see here.

Overall, if you plan on throwing hawks, or need a possible weapon, then this may be a good choice for you. If on the other hand you need a tool for chopping, splitting or carving of wood, there are many better options out there for the same weight.


  1. Good observations, Ross. I've always thought along the same lines, though I don't have much experience with hawks. They don't seem at all suitable for the kind of work I do in the northern forest.

    I believe I'll stick with axes and hatchets. :)


  2. Ross, thanks for doing the review. I agree with you that axes are more efficient wood processing tools. I'm not sure a tomahawk is as useless as you make it sound. As always I appreciate your work on the blog.

  3. Of course it's not going to outchop the GB hatchets you snob. Your reviews are not objective. You should try doing one where you show us what tools can do instead of comparing to what we all know works.

  4. It's perfectly fair to compare the hawk to a GB if what you're testing is it's effectiveness as an axe. By comparing it to something that is known to work, he's providing a standard for judging the hawk's capabilities. Even better, the author has used GB axes for all the reviews I've read here, so I can not only have an idea of how the reviewed axes compare to a "good" axe, but how they might compare to one another. It's called a using a control and it's not being a snob so much as it is not being an idiot.

    Great review by the way.