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Published Sep. 13, 2021

For the sheer variety of tasks it can handle, it’s hard to beat an axe. Literally. Hand axes and hatchets are among our most durable and utilitarian tools, handy for such a wide range of chores around a homestead, camp, or campsite. Felling trees and splitting wood are the most obvious deployments, but for pounding stakes, suppressing fires, clearing brush, and even self-defense, axes can do it and more.

Within that universal utility of axes are specific designs and purpose-built heads and handles that are configured for specific tasks. If you are primarily felling green trees or lopping limbs, you’ll want a felling ax or a double-bit axe. If you are tackling big rounds of dried firewood, a splitting axe or even splitting maul will make short work of your chore. And if you’re splitting kindling for a fireplace or wood stove, size down to a small axe or splitting hatchet.

Putting the Best Axes to the Test

We put five of the best axes with various configurations and builds through a battery of tasks to test their performance against the expectations of each class of axe and hatchets. 

Because we tested both splitting and felling axes, I evaluated them on the tasks for which each was designed. In the case of the splitting heads, I used them to split a dozen rounds of 20-inch diameter ash and cottonwood. I measured the depth of splits, counted the number of strikes required to fully cleave a round, evaluated how easily they pulled out of wood, and assessed handle ergonomics. For the felling axes, I chopped down 5 green ash trees about 6 inches in diameter, and evaluated the accuracy and cutting capability of each model. I then used these felling axes to limb the downed trees, evaluating them on retention of blade sharpness, ease of use with one and two hands, and handle ergonomics. Lastly, I pounded tent stakes with each of the axes that had hammering polls.

I literally warmed to the task. I grew up in a Missouri farmhouse that was solely heated by a wood stove that consumed many cords of oak, hickory, and elm every winter, and relied on a variety of axes and mauls to create fuel for that fire. I now live in relatively treeless eastern Montana, where our main source of wood-stove fuel is cottonwood. It burns fast and hot, but its lack of a coherent grain makes splitting difficult, so I’ve come to rely on a variety of axes and hatchets to not only limb trees but also split stubborn rounds for the stove. 

We camp underneath those same cottonwoods, and depend on a variety of hatchets and camping axes to pound tent stakes, clear brush, and serve as all-around utility tools. I’ll even use my hand axe to split the pelvis and sternum of elk and mule deer.

Four Things to Consider When Selecting an Axe or Hatchet

There are many types of axes in various sizes, but the biggest consideration is whether you will primarily use it to split wood or cut wood. The latter includes felling, limbing, lopping, severing, and sundering.

  1. The Axe Head: The business part of an axe—its weighted head—will help determine what’s best for you. A tapered head with a sharp bit is designed for limbing and felling. A wedge-shaped head with heavier broad shoulders is designed for splitting. A narrow-headed felling axe makes a lousy splitting tool, simply because the head is designed to slice deeply into wood, but not necessarily to make it split. Likewise, the wedge-headed axe you want for splitting will simply not serve well as a cutting blade. The poll—that’s the surface on the back of the head—is designed for pounding or nudging, depending on how much force you provide. 
  1. The Axe Handle Length: The handle design has almost as much variability as the head. A longer handle is generally used on felling axes in order to provide a longer, more forceful swing when tackling standing timber. The handles on felling axes also have a curve, which is designed to maximize the velocity of the head to make a more powerful strike. But they’re also designed for comfort. A handle that is smooth during the cutting stroke but has a pronounced knob and grippy belly and throat—those are the contours on the lower half of the handle—will feel as good on the hundredth stroke as it does on the second.

Short, straight handles with pronounced knobs—that’s the rounded part at the very bottom of the handle—are useful for splitting kindling. They allow you to deliver powerful downward strokes but not have the ax fly out of the hand.

A relatively new category of tactical hatchets have balanced heads and short handles. They are easy to deploy in close quarters and have the added advantage of being made to throw.

  1. The Axe Handle Material: Synthetic handles are generally more durable than wood handles, and also require less maintenance like oiling or sanding. On the other hand, there are few things as functionally lovely as an axe made with straight-grain ash or hickory, and a new class of axes are as beautiful as they are functional.

4. The Price: You can buy a perfectly suitable hand axe for around $20, but quality purpose-built axes and hatchets often run closer to $75 and in the $100 territory. A new breed of heirloom-quality axes will cost in the $200-$300 range. Our roundup of best axes and hatchets ranged in price from $55 to $300.

Our Best Axe Recommendations

Best Felling Axe: Best Made Painted American Felling Axe

This exceptionally well-made felling axe features a 4-pound Dayton-style head and 35-inch hickory handle painted in 10 different traditional color combinations. duluthtrading

This felling axe is pretty much the Platonic ideal for the category. The head is made of premium American alloy steel that will fell trees, buck trunks, and do light splitting with ease. The handle has a slight belly for ease of swinging. Note that the Best Made Axe will require care, mainly oiling both the handle and head to keep splinters and rust, respectively, from impairing its looks and operation. This is by far the most expensive axe we tested, but if you take care of it, it should perform solidly for several generations.

Best Tomahawk-Style Hand Axe: Woox Ax1

The Woox is anchored by a tempered carbon steel head that was treated with Cerakote to give it class-leading weather resistance and cutting efficiency. smkw

A good example of a hand axe, the Woox Ax1 splits the difference between a full-size axe and a camp hatchet. Its 15-inch hickory handle provides enough thrust to split and cut with ease, and the 2-pound head has a slight wedge shape to assist splitting. There is a steel heel on the pommel for busting ice.The handle features a leather collar to protect the shoulder from nicks, and a high-quality leather sheath covers the tomahawk-style head. It’s relatively expensive, but the wide versatility of the Woox makes it a great all-around hand axe—good for camping, light splitting, and brush work. It’s also a great survival axe.

Best Full-Size Wood Splitting Axe: Fiskars X27

Shock-absorbing FiberComp handle is light, but at 36 inches long provides abundant power to splitting strokes. Fiskars

With a beveled convex blade geometry designed to split even large logs, and a slick blade coating that promotes easy removal, this straight-handled workhorse of a wood splitting axe is designed to make quick work of splitting duties. The 36-inch handle, with hand-stopping knob, is built for taller operators who want to maximize the force of each swing. It’s very reasonably priced, too.

Best Camp Axe: SOG Camp Axe

Equal parts cutting tool and hammer, this little workhorse will limb trees, split kindling, hammer tent stakes, and cleave deer pelvises. SOG Specialty Knives

This is one of those tools that you give to your spouse as a gift. It has countless uses, but fits neatly under a car seat or in a toolbox. It’s specifically designed for light work around a campsite or backyard, but the straight nylon handle has enough length to give the stainless blade some velocity. The handle has a long grip area, allowing users to choke up to do fine work. The flat surfaces on the poll and eye of the blade make it a very effective hammer.

Best Budget Axe: Outdoor Edge Wood Devil

An all-weather workhorse, this little hatchet features a no-slip rubberized handle, and a one-piece stainless steel construction with black-oxide coating to make it impervious to the weather. Outdoor Edge

Whether you’re clearing a campsite, pounding tent stakes, splitting light kindling for the fire, or need to do finer work like scraping a hide or cleaving frozen meat, this little tomahawk-style hatchet will outperform its size. The 4-inch cutting edge provides plenty of working surface.

FAQs

Q: What’s the difference between a chopping axe and a splitting axe?

Splitting axes typically have straight handles and wedge-shaped heads to help separate sections. Chopping axes—also called felling or limbing axes—usually have curved handles and more slender heads.

Q: What is the best survival axe?

The snarky answer is the nearest axe at hand. But a more thoughtful answer is one that can accomplish the greatest number of unexpected tasks, from fighting off a bear to chopping a hole in the ice for drinking water. Typically, the best axes are smaller for portability, have a hybrid head that can perform splitting and cutting duties equally well, and have a hammer on the poll for striking things as diverse as tent pegs and car windows to escape a wreck.

Q: What is the best axe on the market?

It’s hard to beat the Best Made Painted American Felling Axe. It swings beautifully and cuts wood marvelously.

A final word on choosing the best axe for you

Always match the axe to the expected jobs. If you’re going to be felling trees, go with an axe with a long slightly curved handle and a tapered head. Splitting wood requires a handle with a knob at the end to prevent your hand from slipping off, and a wedge-shaped head to help drive your sections apart. If you’re going to be doing both, choose an axe that has characteristics of both types.

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