Few tools are as ubiquitous in the outdoors world as the hatchet. It functions as a tool for general camp use, butchering, bushcraft/survival, and even self-defense. In short, there are very few tools that offer the versatility and durability of a hatchet, especially in a compact format. I am going to clarify that when I say hatchet in this article I am referring to a small hand axe with a flat back.
Shopping for a good hatchet can be a little overwhelming. Options are endless, prices vary wildly, and it is more difficult to find certain models than when shopping for a knife. If you stop in at your local outdoors store you will find hundreds of different knives, but likely only a few different hatchets. I’m going to outline some of the features to look for in a good hatchet and present you with my three favorite models.
What A Good Hatchet Should Have
A hatchet should have several distinct features that make it a quality choice. First, it needs to be compact. You probably won’t be using a hatchet to fell a large tree. A good overall length is about 12-15 inches. The sweet spot seems to be right about 13 and a half inches. Hatchets of this size can be easily carried in a belt holster or tucked inside a pack. Unlike some of the newer “micro” hatchets, at just over a foot in length, the size still allows a decent mechanical advantage when being swung. Conversely, a 13-inch hatchet is small enough that it can be controlled well by hand for tasks such as carving, hewing, and fire starting.
Second, a good hatchet should be strong. It will likely be beaten up a bit more than a knife and needs to be able to absorb some shock and remain intact after repeated blows against hard materials. If the hatchet is all steel, it needs a full tang construction. A traditional hatchet will need a handle made of a strong wood like hickory. Synthetic handled axes are sort of the wild card for durability, but a good model should be as strong as a wood hatchet.
Finally, the most important part of a hatchet is going to be the head. It needs to be made of a tough tool steel that can stand up to chopping wood at various angles, yet must still be soft enough that it can be easily sharpened.
Three Hatchets To Consider
Estwing has been making hatchets and striking tools for almost one hundred years. If you asked someone to describe a hatchet, there is a good chance they are picturing an Estwing. Made in the USA, the sportsman’s axe comes in at 13.5 inches and weighs just under two pounds. Featuring a full tang construction and a leather-wrapped handle, it is made to use. At $35 it is the best bang for your buck when it comes to hatchets. It includes a black nylon sheath which isn’t much, but does shield the blade. As an added bonus, it can be found at most hardware and camp stores.
The Gransfors Bruks Wildlife hatchet is arguably one of the best production level hatchets available. It had better be, because at $180 you are going to pay for it. Hand-forged in Sweden, Gransfors Bruks has been crafting some of the finest axes for over a century. The head uses a proprietary steel made in Sweden by Ovako, the handle is dried hickory, and the head is attached the proper way with a well-fitting wedge. At 13.5 inches, the Wildlife hatchet is the perfect size, and at just 1.3 pounds it will not weigh you down, even on a backpacking trip. Includes a very nice sheath made of vegetable-tanned leather. If you want the absolute best hatchet available, the Bruks is for you. Picking it up, you will instantly recognize that this is the way a hatchet was meant to feel. It is balanced, capable, and tough. If the thought of spending $180 on a tool makes you a little queasy, then you probably won’t appreciate the level of craftsmanship that goes into making these.
Schrade – SCAXE2 $45
I wanted to include at least one modern styled survival hatchet made with synthetic materials. When I picked up the Schrade a couple years back, I wasn’t expecting much, but have been pleasantly surprised by this little hatchet. The blade is a stainless steel coated in some type of titanium alloy. It is a fairly soft metal which sharpens very easily to a razor’s edge. The handle is made out of glass fiber plastic with a rubber grip. It features an aggressive pommel on the back which is great for tent stakes. It is a bit top-heavy but can hit pretty hard when swung right. The synthetic handle does a good job of absorbing vibration. It also includes a long Ferro rod which stows away in the handle and works well when struck with the blade of the hatchet. The sheath is a weak point. Made of rigid plastic, it doesn’t close very well. While I haven’t beat this hatchet up as much as my Estwing or Gransfors Bruks, it works well for light use. At 11.8 inches it is pretty compact but is the heaviest hatchet on my list at an even 2 pounds. This probably counts it out for ultralight backpacking. For the price of $45, and featuring a limited lifetime warranty, it’s worth picking up, but don’t expect greatness.
I am very partial to the Gransfors Bruks hatchet. To me, it represents everything a good hatchet should be: lightweight, compact, balanced, and well made. It’s the kind of tool that conjures up notions of heading into the backcountry with just a water filter and this hatchet and surviving for months. While not for everybody at the asking price, it is one of those rare well-made items which still manages to feature function over form. It looks like a museum piece but is designed to be used hard and then sharpened over and over.
If you are looking for something that won’t bring you to tears when you accidentally leave it near a river bottom while bear hunting in the Upper Peninsula (don’t ask), then the Estwing Sportsman’s axe is an excellent choice for the money.