Gearing Up: Chop Chop

Simple, efficient, and trustworthy, a good axe is the original outdoorsman's companion.

Field & Stream Online Editors

When I was a kid in the 1950s, I got to hang around in Maine in the summers, and there I met a grizzled old-time logger who once told me, "Sonny, you'd sooner grab a man's ---- than his axe."

There was good reason for such an attitude. In the United States, axes were once more common than toothbrushes. Just about everyone, male and female, knew how to use one, and they were very, very important to their owners.

We will never again be a nation of axemen (the dirty, smelly chain saw has seen to that), but the axe is far from dead. Unlike chain saws, axes start up every time you use them and require no gas or oil. Sharpening an axe is a breeze compared to sharpening a saw chain. Swinging an axe is an unbeatable form of exercise. Joe Louis, the great heavyweight boxer, chopped down trees with an axe before chopping down people with his fists. Finally, as machines gradually take over the outdoor sports, there are fewer and fewer ways in which we can be artists. Fly casting is one; wingshooting is another. Swinging an axe with grace and precision is a third.

Forget the junk axes found in hardware stores. They're meant only for splitting wood and enduring neglect. What you want is an axe that can cut. It'll have a head made of high-carbon steel carefully forged and tempered to make it both hard and tough. A good axe blade will be sharp enough to shave the hair off your arm. The handle should fit your grip, and the axe should swing easily and accurately. The following four companies still make the type of fine axes that once were commonplace in America.

1. Iltis
This German maker registered its Oxhead trademark in 1781. Its axes are imported by Traditional Woodworker and include some interesting designs, such as a felling axe with a very wide, very thin-ground head. This one is the Universal Forest axe, a full-size model that is still highly compact. Iltis axes are not cheap, but I gather that Traditional Woodworker has trouble keeping up with demand. $60; 800-509-0081; www.traditionalwoodworker.com

**2. Gr¿¿nsfors-Bruks **
This Swedish company makes wonderful axes. They are not cheap, and you may have to wait for yours. The Hudson's Bay, or three-quarters pattern-the Scandinavian Forest axe-is the ideal size for hunters and campers because it's light and compact. $75; 800-433-2863; www.gransfors.com

3. Snow & Nealley
Located in Bangor, Maine, this small operation (only three people turn out all its axes) has been around since 1864 and makes very good tools at reasonable prices. This is a double-bit (two-bladed) axe-once the consensus choice of professional woodsmen but rarely seen today. $69; 800-933-6642; www.snowandnealley.com

4. Council Tool
Company A relative newcomer, having been established in 1886, Council Tool makes a wide variety of excellent axes at amazingly low prices. This is a big single-bit called the Jersey Railsplitter. It is for serious hacking. $33; 910-646-3011; www.counciltool.com

Why You Need An Axe In Camp

  • It can cut a road-blocking tree into sections that you can drag out of the way.
  • It can easily split the rib cage of a big animal like an elk, or disjoint same. A small axe can also skin a deer with ease.
  • It can cut firewood into manageable lengths, then split it. And if it's as sharp as it should be, it can create a fuzz stick to start a fire.
  • It can pound tent pegs into the ground.
  • It can settle a camp argument in a twinkling, although there may be complications afterward.

I have never been in a wilderness camp that did not have at least one axe in it, and whenever I've asked true woodsmen what one tool they would choose if they had to survive with nothing else, the answer is always the same: the axe. -D.E.P.