The 5 Best Survival Axes

An axe is one of the best survival tools that any prepper can take with them during a disaster, especially if you live in a heavily wooded area. No tool is better for rapidly chopping down trees and then processing it into usable wood, be it for shelter or for fire.

Compared to using a knife and often times a saw an axe will be faster, more efficient and save you a ton of labor and that means you’ll save time.

axe featured

But axes are useful for more than just forays into the forest. Axes excel at getting you into or out of buildings, and are even useful for extricating someone from an immobilized vehicle.

Under really extreme circumstances, an axe also makes a ferocious close combat weapon as history has proven over the millennia.

No matter who you are, no matter where you live and no matter what your bug-out plan is the chances are that you would benefit from having a good survival axe as part of your kit.

In this article will show you five of the very best that you should consider adding to your loadout.

Benefits of a Survival Axe

Compared to using any survival knife, even with the benefits of a baton, you can process a lot more wood a lot faster with an axe, no matter if it is big or small.

You can also tackle some tasks that a knife, even the sturdiest, is just not that well-suited for, like chopping down a sizable tree.

When the time comes to limb, buck and then split the resulting sections of the tree, an axe is par excellence. Used gingerly, an ax also works well for notching limbs and even logs for making a shelter.

Now, using an axe at any kind of tempo for any length of time is definitely a good workout, but compared to struggling along with a knife and a comparatively cumbersome piece of wood as your baton, the ergonomics of an axe combine to make the work easy, especially if you are practiced with it.

For busting into or out of a building or even a vehicle an axe works like a charm; it’s heavy, durable steel edge sailing through light residential building materials, automobile body work and glass like a breeze.

Hardcore lumberjacks and traditional outdoorsmen may go pale at the idea of abusing an heirloom axe in such a way, but this is survival we are talking about, not a day spent logging or preparing to make camp.

And lastly if it comes down to a matter of self-defense at close range, an axe affords you considerable advantages over a knife in all but the tightest circumstances.

The reach of an axe will be cold comfort against human and animal foes alike, and axes have earned a brutal reputation in all kinds of conflicts throughout history, as they are more than capable of inflicting devastating, fight-stopping wounds with a single strike.

Disadvantages of Axes

The most obvious disadvantage of axes is they require room to be swung in order to generate serious power. For processing wood, a knife and a baton can be used in a smaller area.

Then, of course, there is the obvious matter of an ax being optimized mainly for only one operation, and that is chopping.

Yes, you can choke way up on your axe and grip it right below the head to use it for more controlled cutting, but this is awkward and never as convenient or as effective as using a knife for the same task.

The other drawback of an ax is that the typical edge is nowhere near as sharp as a knife’s.

This is, by design, as the brutal operation of an axe means that a very fine, razor sharp edge will easily be rolled or chipped when it strikes wood or something else.

A sharp ax will absolutely cut better, but skilled and experienced users go for a sweet spot between sharpness and longevity when putting an edge on their axes. The only time that a razor-sharp edge really comes in handy when using an axe is in combat.

Lastly, axes are heavy, or at least they are heavy compared to any knife, even a large one. Even the lightest axes will usually weigh about a pound and a half and most weigh significantly over two pounds.

axe next to fallen tree

When you should justify every single ounce that goes in your pack or that you carry as part of your kit, you need to help make sure you will get plenty of mileage out of an axe before including it.

Chances are you cannot conceal it, and that is something else that will need to be factored into the equation.

Axe Anatomy

Below is a list of the components that make up an axe. Understanding the relationship between them is essential for determining the performance characteristics of a given axe, and additionally will shed some light on how axes are grouped into various categories.

Handle – This is the part of the ax that you grip, and the part to which the head, that’s the business end, is mounted.

Handles can be made either from wood or modern composite and other synthetic materials and come in many subtle styles.

Certain styles are better for specialized axes, but generally everybody has a favorite style that they swear by.

Knob

The knob is the very bottom part of the handle, sometimes found with a small hole drilled through it for a lanyard or for hanging the axe from a pack or nail.

It usually has a flare or swell to it that will help keep the axe in the hand when gripping it near the very bottom of the handle.

Throat

The part of the handle just above the knob is called the throat. It can be completely straight or slightly concave depending on the style of handle, and on the purpose of the axe. This is typically where the axe is gripped.

Belly

The belly of the handle begins about two-thirds of the way up, and is often slightly convex.

Shoulder

The shoulder of the handle is a pronounced lip or swell directly below the head where it is mounted.

Head

The head is the working, steel part of the axe. The configuration of the head is what gives an axe its character and specialization.

Bit

The bit of the axe is what is often called the edge but, in actuality, the bit is the beveled forward section of the head to which an edge is applied.

The bit is more important than you might think since its geometry will help determine the axe’s performance as it bites into the wood when swung.

Edge

The edge is the narrow, fine bevel that is applied to the bit and is what actually gives an axe its sharpness, just like a knife. Unlike a knife, axes are typically not sharpened to extreme keenness, since their edges must hold up to considerably more abuse and impact than your average knife.

Toe

The toe is the uppermost part of the edge.

Heel

The heel is the lowermost part of the edge. This part of the axe is often confused with the beard, but the two are not synonymous!

Beard

A sometimes confusing concept, the beard of an axe head is simply the underside directly behind the bit.

The configuration of the beard, deep or long, shallow or short, does much to contribute to an axe head’s character and cutting performance. Deeper beards give the heel of an axe head a pronounced “spike” look.

Cheeks

The broad, flat or gently swelling sides of the axe head.

Eye

The hollow center of an axe head through which the handle passes. Some modern axes, typically those making use of composite or other synthetic handles, will lack an eye because the handle is attached to the head through some other means.

Poll

The poll of the axe head is the part opposite the bit and edge. This is the “back” of the axe head, and may feature a flattened surface designed for pounding or even a proper hammerhead. Some have a sharpened spike designed for piercing.

Choosing a Survival Axe

Not all axes are created equal. In fact, very few of them are.

Considering how much an axe can do for you, as well as the potential for mishap and injury if you screw up using it, you should carefully consider which axe you want to add to your survival kit.

You’ve got more than a few factors to consider and they are all important. Read over the issues below before you pull the trigger on one.

Weight and Length

Weight is now, as always, a concern for preppers, especially those who were considering bugging out on foot.

Every pound, every ounce must be considered in the context of everything else you have to carry and the likelihood you’ll need to use it to ensure you have a successful outcome in a survival situation.

Axes are certainly not exempt from that, and considering how heavy a full-size axe can be, most preppers opt for a smaller, compact axe, typically called a camp axe, or even a hatchet.

The length of the axe is also a factor. A longer axe is cumbersome to carry, and you can forget about concealing it unless you’re wearing a full-length duster or trench coat.

Longer axes of course generate more power in use, meaning you’ll need less swings, and you won’t have to swing as hard, to do the same amount of work.

Shorter axes are far more convenient to carry, and store, but lack the power and handling of a longer handled axe.

Not for nothing, longer axes are always safer since an overswing or miss is much less likely to result in the head contacting your foot or shin.

More accidents occur with hatchets and tomahawks since missing the target means the follow-through is likely to contact you, and not the ground.

Handle Material

This is the eternal debate in the axe world: what should the handle be made of? Traditional wood or modern synthetics? Each school has its proponents and its haters. Woods are traditional, renewable and replaceable.

Fans of wood handles swear by their all-around characteristics, including durability, shock absorption and ability to replace or even improvise an axe handle in the field in a pinch.

Fans of synthetic handles point to their greater overall strength, much lighter weight and resistance to rot, mildew and breaking.

A well-designed synthetic handle will reduce shock to a far greater degree than a wood handle, but poorly designed synthetic handles or ones made from suboptimal materials seem to impart a nasty snap into the user’s hand upon impact.

The biggest drawback to synthetic handles is that they typically cannot be replaced at all in the field because the design of the axe head will often omit the eye.

Both are definitely viable, so you should do your research on a particular axe that has caught your attention.

Grip

It sounds elementary, but it cannot be overstated how important is to make sure an axe feels good in your hands. What does that mean?

A properly designed axe handle, one that fits you well, will feel secure in your hands both while you were swinging it and when it makes impact.

Do you feel your hands skidding around or the axe twisting in your grip? That’s a problem.

Also important to consider is the handle’s propensity to start imparting blisters.

While some blisters are going to be unavoidable if you work long enough, if you should happen upon an axe with a handle that does not agree with you it will turn into a blister factory.

Handles with excessive texturing or one with ergonomics that do not play well with your hands will make it far more likely to create hot spots and, shortly after that, blisters.

There are some things you can do to improve a handle, especially a wooden one, to keep it from causing blisters.

Before you go all in on smoothing out a handle, though, consider what you plan on using your axe for.

An axe intended for personal combat is unlikely to be used for the same length of time as one that is chopping down trees to make a shelter or provide fuel for a fire.

So-called combat axes will often have very aggressive texturing on the handles in order to provide a secure grip in the extremes of a fight.

Handles like this should not be excluded without consideration, but you should understand their shortcomings if you plan to use your axe more as a tool that as a weapon.

Head Configuration

The configuration of the axe’s head will have the most influence on how it behaves in use. Even a cursory examination of a selection of axes will show considerable variation in head design. Some will be very narrow with short bits and hardly any taper.

Others will be wider, thicker with a gently curving edge and a symmetrical beard.

The poll too makes a difference: a poll that has a surface for hammering or a spike on the back will give you an entirely new tool capable of performing different tasks in one package, increasing the axes versatility.

The optimal axe head configuration for cutting wood is an entirely separate article unto itself, and you should look into it if you’re going full-blown woodland survivor.

Generally, such axes feature a conservative, symmetrical and “bell” shaped edge along with a modest taper designed to take big bites out of wood with every swing. Axes designed more for splitting will have a pronounced wedge shape.

Axes that are optimal for self-defense often have narrow, thin and extremely sharp edges with shallow beards or beards that have radically radiused corners; this design is  ideal for cleaving into human bodies while also allowing for easy retrieval.

Ultimately you will have to decide which axe is best for you, but you should not do so without an honest and careful assessment of the variables you are likely to face in your survival situation.

The Best of the Best Survival Axes

Below you will find my five choices for the best possible survival axes you can include as part of your disaster readiness kit, or as part of your BOB’s complement.

Each one provides its own advantages and disadvantages, and you will likely prefer one over the other depending on whether or not you are a rural or urban prepper.

But no matter which one you like, you can be assured of having a sturdy chopping tool that will go the distance with you when the sky starts falling.

Gransfors Bruks Small Forest Axe

Seen by many enthusiasts as the Cadillac of compact axes, the Gransfors Bruks Small Forest Axe is notable in a field of axes utilizing the latest materials and advanced geometry not for what it is, but for what it isn’t: this axe is made today much the same as it was hundreds of years ago.

Forged one at a time, finished by hand and mounted atop a traditional Scandinavian handle, the Small Forest Axe nonetheless sails through wood like a hot knife through butter, and it’s compact enough to fit in almost any BOB and accompany you on any adventure.

These are truly heirloom grade tools, with an overall length of 19 inches and weighing a hair over two pounds. For small and medium-sized trees, chopping sticks and branches or splitting firewood this axe is a sure winner.

Its fine carbon steel head will require regular maintenance, and the price tag is nothing to sneeze at, but if you want the very best of the old ways today this is the hands-down winner.

You can get the Gransfors Bruks Small Forest Axe here.

Fiskars 28” Chopping Axe

Standing in stark opposition to the Gransfors Bruks Small Forest Axe above, Fiskars, a company long known and respected for making exceptionally ergonomic and efficient cutting tools, has poured the best of modern materials, metallurgy and design into their full-size chopping axe.

Utilizing a uniquely ground axe head perched atop a molded polymer handle, at just over three and a half pounds this is a featherweight axe in the full-size felling category.

But just because it is lightweight doesn’t mean it can’t hack it, or rather chop it, compared to its brethren. The unique grind of the edge is optimized for deep penetration.

The light weight means you can swing it faster, and speed equals power. Combined, the two traits means that this axe will be taking bigger bites out of wood with each swing, speeding up the job at hand, and keeping you from getting fatigued.

The polymer handle is also statistically stronger than wood, and that means this tool will stay intact, in your hands and doing its job even in the event of an over swing.

Get the Fiskars 375581-1001 Chopping Axe, 28-Inch here.

Estwing Camper’s Axe

Estwing is a company that is justifiably famous for making some of the most hardcore of hardcore construction tools.

Their hammers and sporting hatchets are some of the toughest in the world. Drop forged in America from the highest grade steels, they are tools that are designed to go to hell and back. Their 26 inch Camper’s Axe lives up to the worthy reputation set by its predecessors.

This banger of a tool is made from one solid piece of drop forged steel; no parts to come loose, no head to fly off, just one deliciously solid chunk of metal. The thin and quickly tapering head is somewhat unique among axes, beloved by some, and detested by others.

Some users say the thin head allows more precision when working on chopping tasks while also affording you better utility for other work. Other people say it is just not optimized for fast and efficient splitting.

Regardless of how you might feel about that, you can depend on this axe to stand up to very literally anything you can put it through, and the excellent rubber handle prevents much of the impact shock from reaching your hands.

You can get Estwing Camper’s Axe here.

CRKT Woods Kangee

For performance, sublime simplicity and excellent value the CRKT Woods Kangee cannot be beaten.

Note that this chopper is more properly a tomahawk, not an axe, but it is so massive, so heavy and so adept at all kinds of chopping tasks you would be a fool not to consider it on a technicality.

The Woods Kangee is a solid, forged 1095 steel head with a shortly-bearded edge on one side and a vicious tripartite spike on the other. This makes it a chopping and piercing multi-tool without peer. It can chop, pierce, dig, scrape and even hammer with equal aplomb.

The traditional straight Tennessee hickory wood handle may seem like a throwback, even quaint, but this is one wood that has serious and bonafide survival chops, pardon the pun.

Among the strongest woods available, Tennessee hickory is very hard to split to say nothing of break, and the dead-nuts simple handle design means it is an easier affair to improvise a handle in the event that you do lose or break this one.

The axe head slips onto the narrower bottom and slides all the way up to the wider top, and centrifugal force while swinging and perhaps a wrap of rawhide or two, keeping the head securely in place even during the most violent tasks. A high-quality option at an excellent price.

Get CRKT Woods Kangee here.

Gerber Downrange Tomahawk

I know it says tomahawk right in the name, but trust me when I say that the Gerber Downrange is in a category all its own.

If you are a prepper that has to justify every piece of gear you carry by its ability to perform multiple tasks, then do I have the tool for you.

Aside from being a viciously powerful Chopper, the Downrange has a hammer poll for pounding, a wedge for prying, a nail puller and an integrated handle for carrying or using it as a lever.

An excellent included sheath with multiple options for carry on- or off-body means you’ll always have this wicked tool close at hand.

Made from a solid piece of Cerakoted 420HC steel you’ll have a whale of a time trying to bend or break this doomsday axe. Your grip is assured by stem-to-stern G10 scales with very aggressive grooving and texturing on them.

There’s even a finger choil provided directly underneath the head for precision control when you have to choke up for more delicate cutting or scraping tasks.

My only complaint about this thoroughly modern and well designed tool is that the handle can cause hot spots during extended use. Make sure you wear your gloves!

You can get the Gerber Downrange Tomahawk here.

Conclusion

A high-quality axe is the perfect companion for preppers who might have to bug-out into unknown circumstances.

In urban environments or rural retreats, a virtually invincible chopping tool is just the thing to get you out of a bind, able to generate firewood, help you build a shelter and fend off rampaging men or beasts.

You can make use of one of mankind’s oldest tools in the most modern of survival scenarios.

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