Fixed Blade or Hatchet? If You Can Only Choose One

As you might have guessed, I’m a sucker for tools. I’m not a safe-queen kind of collector, but I do tend to add multiple versions of the same kind of tools. I’ve got more micro-9mms than I care to admit, even though I’m only carrying my Hellcat with any regularity. And the same can be said for my love of the hatchet.

Four hatchets I had in a recent wilderness survival class I taught. One of these designs is much more versatile than the others.
Four hatchets I had in a recent wilderness survival class I taught. One of these designs is much more versatile than the others. It all comes down to the handle.

I taught a Wilderness Survival course back in October and it allowed me the opportunity to put some new hatchets to the test. The hatchet, in its most basic sense, is a transitional tool: not quite an axe, not quite a fixed blade. And if weight isn’t an issue—like when I’m car camping—I’ll have a hatchet, a felling axe, and a splitting axe (in addition to a sheath knife or two).

This Fiskars has been with me for at least 5 years now, and going strong. I've yet to break a hatchet, though I have broken an axe in this series.
This Fiskars has been with me for at least five years now, and going strong. I’ve yet to break a hatchet, though I have broken an axe in this series. These are axes and hatchets and not to be struck on the poll.

But what if hatchet weight is an issue?

A well-made sheath knife is completely capable of taking on the tasks I’d normally relegate to a hatchet. Heavy, full-tang blades on sheath knives can chop (though not as well as a hatchet). They can baton (as well or better than some hatchets). And they’re easier to carry (but harder to maintain) than most hatchets.

Fiskars hatchets cut weight from the handle, but the head is heavier because the eye isn't hollow.
Fiskars hatchets cut weight from the handle, but the head is heavier because the eye isn’t hollow.

My answer to this question is an odd bit of math. If you have a crazy solid pocket knife that is suited for the woods then you can get by without a sheath knife and go straight for a good hatchet. If you don’t, you’ll need a sheath knife. And if that fixed blade is a bit on the anemic side, you’ll want a hatchet, too.

The head flares just before the plastic handle to keep wood from hitting the plastic while splitting.
The head flares just before the plastic handle to keep wood from hitting the plastic while splitting.

Hatchet weight equals performance.

Smaller, lighter hatchets are just fixed blade knives with oddly shaped handles. And if the handle is also short, then it might as well be a knife. These are super useful for skinning and making kindling, but you’ll struggle to get leverage for chopping through green wood and they lack the mass in their heads that make splitting larger kindling an easy task.

Heavy, bigger hatchets, though, weigh more. And that sucks.

This one is made by Paps custom axes & tomahawks. The hand-forged blade is damn-near perfect.
This hatchet is made by Paps custom axes & tomahawks. The hand-forged blade is damn-near perfect.

Handle Materials

For traditionalists, survivalists, and anyone who gets off-grid, wood reigns supreme. The reason here is simple: a wooden handle can be replaced, even in the field.

Plastic handles are super light and great for low-risk camping. But these types of hatchets can’t be used as hammers. Hit their poll and you can sheer off the plastic band that holds the head in place. Ask me how I know.

The paps has an oil finish on the handle. Likely linseed oil or lemon oil. This is 100% more functional than poly finishes, and much less likely to raise blisters.
The Paps has an oil finish on the handle. Likely linseed oil or lemon oil. This is 100% more functional than poly finishes and much less likely to raise blisters.

Steel-shafted hatchets are much less likely to pop, but they aren’t fool-proof. I’ve yet to break an Estwing, though. I’ve got a couple of hammers that I inherited from my father—early rubber-handled steel hammers that have taken and given out more than four decades of beatings with no issues. And should you damage one, it wouldn’t be hard to improvise a fix for the handle that would keep it useful.

This Estwing is a beast. Despite the all steel construction, it isn't much heavier than a typical hatchet because the head is thin.
This Estwing is a beast. Despite the all-steel construction, it isn’t much heavier than a typical hatchet because the head is thin.

Unless you break the steel. That’s a different story.

The Estwing hatchet has a stacked leather handle that has some varnish covering the washers.
The Estwing has a stacked leather hatchet handle that has some varnish covering the washers.

Wood, though. Wood is lovely and has character. You can fall in love with wood.

Maybe not with axe-handle wood. I’d recommend that you maintain a Jedi-like approach to attachments to wooden handles. And to hell with anything fancy or with complicated grain structure. Straight-grained hickory is perfect, almost always devoid of character, and easy to find.

The head is wedged in place. If I did break this handle, it would be easy to replace.
The head is wedged in place. If I did break this handle, it would be easy to replace.

And wood, unless you happen to break your hatchet handle in the middle of some imaginary desert devoid of trees, is easy to find in the wild. With a solid pocket knife, you can whittle a new handle—one that will at least get you by—without too much trouble.

Getting a broken handle out of an axe head can be difficult. Avoid the burn-it-out temptation, unless you are planning on re-tempering the head. That would require heating the entire head to a cherry red, then doing a controlled oil quench on the cutting edge. It is complicated, and the blade would still need to be tempered after the quench to ensure that the cutting edge retains enough rigidity without being too brittle.

The plastic handle on the Fiskars is hollow and wraps around the head (which doesn't have an eye). If it breaks in the wild, it becomes a wedge.
The plastic handle on the Fiskars hatchet is hollow and wraps around the head (which doesn’t have an eye). If it breaks in the wild, it becomes a wedge.

I’ve seen lots of folks burn out their axe heads and then re-handle them. The result is typically an annealed piece of steel that deforms badly when struck on the poll and a blade that won’t hold an edge.

The belt axe pattern is thin and light and meant to be carried tucked into a belt.
The belt axe pattern is thin and light and meant to be carried tucked into a belt. The old carbon steel of the rasp provides a perfect material for cutting tools, too.

Hatchet Blade Geometry

For advanced considerations, look to the thickness of the blade, the angle of its cutting/splitting bevels, and the curve in the cutting edge from the toe to the heel. Each has slightly different capabilities.

The Estwing's super-thin head keeps down the weight. For an all-around design, this axe does the trick.
The Estwing’s super-thin hatchet head keeps down the weight. For an all-around design, this axe does the trick.

A curved blade cuts cleanly and can be useful for fleshing out a hyde as the corners are less prone to dig in.

The historical Fort Meigs Belt Axe pattern made by Frank McKinney at Sentinel Forge is made from a farrier's rasp.
The historical Fort Meigs Belt Axe pattern made by Frank McKinney at Sentinel Forge is made from a farrier’s rasp. The blade angle makes splitting easy, which is a benefit for a smaller, lighter hatchet like this well-made historical reproduction.

A thin blade cuts weight and cuts well, but is more prone to stick when used for splitting.

The Pap's hatchet is razor sharp, great for cutting or splitting, but larger and heavier than I'd typically carry on me when in the woods.
The Pap’s hatchet is razor-sharp, great for cutting or splitting, but larger and heavier than I’d typically carry on me when in the woods. The blade shape allows for the hand to get up behind the bevel on the handle for better control for fine work.

A wide blade is harder to keep razor-sharp, but splits well.

The maker's mark for Paps custom axes & tomahawks.
The maker’s mark for Paps custom axes & tomahawks.

And, just like with any conversation about knives, we should look at the blade composition. It basically comes down to two choices: stainless or basic tool steels.

If given a choice, I avoid stainless. While some of the boutique (i.e. expensive) stainless alloys are fine choices, a good carbon steel is always going to be easier to resharpen and maintain in the field.

The end cap on the Estwing is riveted in place. This should keep things tight, but you should still pay attention to basic care and keep it from getting (or staying) wet.
The end cap on the Estwing is riveted in place. This should keep things tight, but you should still pay attention to basic care and keep it from getting (or staying) wet.
David Higginbotham is a writer and editor who specializes in everyday carry. David is a former backcountry guide in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and Boundary Waters Canoe Area who was a college professor for 20 years. He ultimately left behind the academy for a more practical profession in the firearms industry and was (among other editorial positions) the Managing Editor for a nascent Mag Life blog. In that Higginbotham helped establish The Maglife's tone and secure its early success. Though he went on to an even more practical firearms industry profession still, he continues to contribute articles and op-eds as time and life allow.

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