I find interesting that knife reviews often and immediately take on cutting chores at the upper limit of a blade’s pay grade. Many of the tasks assigned to the knives are really better served by another survival tool; the Hand Hatchet. And in particular, the Gränsfors Bruks Hand Hatchet. Of the rides in my growing stable of hand hatchets, the 1.3 pound/9.5 inch Gränsfors Bruks Hand Hatchet is not just my favorite, but by far my BFF for many reasons. While not all that much bigger than a full-sized bushcraft blade, the hand hatchet is like the stronger but dumber big brother to the survival knife.
Give me a Hand
Precision is not the hand hatchet’s main selling feature, but rather blunt force performance for bigger but still hand-sized woodwork. In fact a high quality and very sharp hand hatchet can easily step on the toes of the survival knife. And not just step on them, it can stomp on the knife’s toes to the point of forcing the debate from one needing both to that of being happy with either/or. However, the smaller the axe, the more skill needed to use it effectively and the more dangerous it is since the business end is closer to the user.
Also Read: Survival Choppers, Understanding Axes
Hand hatchets are smaller and/or shorter than conventional camp axes or traditional hatchets which run in the sub-axe length of an overall length less than elbow to fingertip. While the head of the hand hatchet might look familiar, it often ends there. Many hand hatchets are closer to knives than axes through their one-piece design with handgrip scales bolted, riveted, glued, or otherwise somehow stuck to the metal handle, and similar length cutting surfaces. The problem with many designs is that forging a properly tapered hatchet head is difficult if not impossible for many companies to do in-house. The result is that quality hand hatchets have an overall head thickness not much more than a knife blade. The result of this simplistic design is that it produces a low mass head relative to the handle, and absolutely no significant inertia wedging as the head slams into the workpiece. Instead the blade slides neatly into the wood like a screwdriver wedging its parallel sides tightly against the wood grain. And that is if you can generate enough speed to make the hatchet head cut more than just superficial wounding the branch. Otherwise a simple band aid will fix the cut in the cellulose.
A flat-sided hand hatchet, or that with no head taper beyond the very edge of traditional steel stock, easily sticks into softer woods requiring constant rocking to remove them. In fact, they perform much like nails where the wedge tip spreads the grain so the following mass can bury itself into the wood with maximum friction. Better chopping hand hatchets have slightly concave or convex heads that do not stick as easily in the grain, and actively throw wood chips away from the work site during the chopping. If you used one in the kitchen instead of a flat-sided slicing knife, your salad fixings would go flying all over the place rather than lazily falling over. The more convex, the more its wedge-shape splits wood. Unfortunately a hand hatchet has comparatively little energy transfer to the impact point so splitting is definitely not the hand hatchet’s forte’ so you might be better off erring on the flatter side then the convex side.
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Adding insult to the lack of injury to the wood is that many flat-sided hand hatchets are borne of lesser steel that has more in common with a refrigerator door or cheap hammer head than an outdoor knife. Quality axe and hatchet steels have very particular characteristics and tempering that keep it both sharp and sharpenable. The blade must hold up to harsh striking as well as gentle slicing. If lesser steel, the blade will easily chip, fold, or rapidly dull through attrition. None of which are acceptable when you have a survival job to do.
Sharp or SHARP!
As I mentioned before, the short handle and razor sharp blade requires more attention than other choppers. Being so small and noticeably sharper off the production line than lesser brands, swinging such a blade can get dangerous. The short handle but full sized head can cause more than normal torque on the head causing the swing follow through to head off in an unintended direction. Therefore proper axe swing technique is more than essential. But even then I still managed to break my skin twice during my first serious voyage with the Gränsfors Bruks hand hatchet. The first cut was absolute stupidity on my part when I was chopping branches clearing a trail through downfall. The horseflies were starting to irritate me more than usual and when one sunk its proboscis into my calf, I whipped my hand around to swat it and the low-mass tiny axe nicked my flesh. The worst part was I missed the damn fly. Well, no. The worst part was the blood trickling down my leg was attracting more flies than Bill Bass’s Body Farm in Tennessee. But forgetting the hatchet was in my hand should be ample evidence that the Hand Hatchet can disappear during use.
Also Read: 10 Non-Power Tools You Need For Survival
My second screw up was when I was shaving bark and mini-stabs off a pair of hiking sticks needed for a river crossing. Getting the sticks to near perfection was easy with the Gränsfors Bruks hand hatchet. The problem was that I wanted total perfection. I choked all the way up on the hatched head and started polishing the stick’s handle are to a mirror finish. It was just so much fun work the blade across the birch. As my work area on the stick grew smaller and smaller, the axe head became correspondingly larger and larger. Since the mass of the axe stayed the same, it was inevitable that I would loose control and slice my finger which is exactly what happened. Like trying to pull a sliver out with lineman’s pliers, there is a point of diminishing return when using a hand hatchet over a knife.
Get a Grip
Hand hatchet handles vary as much as their heads. Many smaller hatchets or those marketed to the survival crowd have prominent finger grooves. While the tactical-like depressions do help maintain grip and control especially when wet, the fixed finger positions significantly limit the number of comfortable holds and can make extended use rather painful. Without gloves, the more finger grooves, the more blisters or hot spots. Seriously, listen to the rants about the Gen4 Glocks with lightly defined finger posits in the grip. It’s not like anyone is carrying their Glock hours on end in a grip tight enough to keep it from flying free during a fast arm swing. Yet the fully mature finger guides in hand hatchets are like a gated community and unless your fingers fit and stay, you are not welcome there.
Using the Gränsfors Bruks hand hatchet for big work, regardless of the grip, is an absolute pleasure compared to a survival knife when gross movements and significant force is needed. I’m quick to grab a hand hatchet to make kindling, de-limb branches, chop small firewood, apply some heavy scraping, and sharpen sticks for tent pegs and cooking implements.
Playing the Field
The shortest of my hand hatchets is the Timberline Russ Kommer Bush Pilot Survival Hatchet. It also has the most pronounced and aggressive finger grooves in the handle. While the permanent finger placements feel fine upon initial inspection, after a few minutes of chopping your hands will be crying for mommy. The finger notches force a certain grip that is quite squared up with the blade. I find it unnatural and uncomfortable. But in its defense, the digit subdivisions installed on the handle will keep the hatchet more secure, especially with a weak or injured hand. But given the super-short handle length, you have bigger problems than just holding on to the chopping thing.
But What About The…
But the gorilla in the room is how the Gränsfors Bruks Hand Hatchet compares to the Gerber Back Paxe. Gerber’s contributions to this short-handled axe space includes several models. The one in my stable is Gerber’s combo axe/knife system. The small axe handle is hollow and contains an even smaller knife. Normally I wouldn’t consider the knife tangent a bonus, but since the handle was devoid of substance anyway, the knife can only be a positive. Gerber’s plastic handled axes and hatchets have an almost cult-like following. Many purists dismissed the plastic as an unforgivable act against traditional lumberjack hardware, but again and again, the plastic proved itself worthy in trial after trial.
A few of the initial differences between the Gränsfors Bruks Hand Hatchet and the Gerber Back Paxe include:
-The GF Hand Hatchet is a quarter inch longer in the handle.
-The Gerber head is a quarter inch thinner and has a quarter inch shorter bit face.
-The GF Hand Hatchet handle is curved Hickory while the Gerber’s is straight plastic.
-The GF’s handle is field-replaceable.
-The Gerber’s bit is a flat grind. The GF has something closer to a hollow grind.
-The warranty for the GF Hand Hatchet is 25 years. The Gerber’s is lifetime.
-The Gerber weighs 22.5 oz with knife. The GF Hand Hatchet weighs 21 oz. Both a little less than a Glock 19 without the magazine.
-The retail price of the GF Hand Hatchet is twice that of the Gerber. The street price is about three times.
-The GF Hand Hatchet embraces old world craftsmanship. The Gerber leans toward the tactical.
In a chopping comparison, the GF Hand Hatchet makes much nicer and deliberate slices into the wood and can hold a sharper edge and for longer. The chisel-shaped blade on the Gerber is more like a splitting wedge than a precision chopper. In fact, that is more what I would classify it as; a splitter. But with nine inch handles, the difference is minor in the big picture. Like a couple of Chihuahuas fighting, it might seem like a big deal at your ankles, but not from ten feet away.
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Carving, hands down, goes to the Gränsfors Bruks Hand Hatchet. The narrow blade is much more knife-like so it smoothly and precisely scrapes and grinds the wood at angles much shallower than the Gerber’s chisel tip. But even more importantly is that the weight of axe head is mostly behind the leading edge of the handle. The Gerber, on the other hand, has more weight in front of the handle edge. What this means is that while the heads might be of similar mass, the GF Hand Hatchet rotates much more easily due to the reduced weight further from the rotational axis point compared to the gerber. Mostly this difference translates into less fatigue through less effort to keep the GF Hand Hatchet slicing though wrist and finger movements. But unlike the previous dog fight, this small difference makes a big difference.
The care and feeding of the Gerber is much simpler than the GF Hand Hatchet. Wood requires attention, and while both steels will rust, the glass-reinforced plastic handle of the Gerber will resist the elements until cold or ultraviolet light demolishes the bonds between the oil-based molecules. The Hickory handle on the GF Hand Hatchet might last a year or a century, but likely somewhere in between. Before this turns into a review of the Gerber axe (that will come later) I’ll get back on topic.
Most hand hatchets have a bit (blade) cover that doubles as a belt attachment. Like a knife sheath, the bit covers vary widely from major coverage and heavy duty attachment to not much more than a blade bikini with a belt loop. Frankly, I am not much of a fan of wearing my hand hatchet on my waist. I reserve my belt-space for those items either essential to survival (think pistol), or too big for a pocket but used quite often (think fixed blade knife). When I want to carry my hatchet on my belt, I carry it in my belt. Forced through a gap between me and my belt, the tool stays put and handy without having to be separated from its sheath when moved from storage to action.
The Gränsfors Bruks hand hatchet is small only in handle length. The craftsman at Gränsfors Bruks took the head off their wildly successful Wildlife Hatchet and mounted it on a hickory handle four inches shorter. And given that the Wildlife Hatchet was already on the short side for handaxes, those four inches were like dog inches and translate to the loss of almost a third of the handle length.
Other small Gränsfors Bruks designs include a miniature Small Hatchet that would be at home in the kitchen well as the domestic campsite. And the Outdoor Axe that combines a full-length but smaller diameter hatchet handle with a tiny head. So to recap, arguably the finest axe maker in the world forges axes with a big head on a short handle, a small head on long handle, and small head on a short handle. Since leverage, and thus cutting power, is a function of both head mass times swing speed, all of the above have merit and all of the above have significant limits. Oh, and all of the above have a price tag in the three digits. And in the interest of full disclosure, I am also enamored with the Gransfors Bruks Outdoor Axe that has a smallish head on a longish handle. Please see the review of that $175 right angle hickory handled blade.
Bite the Bullet$
The thing I find most odd about quality hand hatchets is that even a Gucci one like the Gränsfors Bruks is not much over a hundred dollars, yet people drop a hundred dollars for a survival or bushcraft knife all day long in the big box sporting goods stores and then turn around and complain about the price of a high quality hatchet. Further, and this is important, the Gränsfors Bruks business strategy is not to make a fancier product, but to make the consumer more intelligent about the product. The other side of the coin has the twenty dollar hatchets dumbing down the masses and hiding the value of knowledge. Every Gränsfors Bruks hatchet comes with a heavily illustrated 36 page booklet informing the reader about the history and manufacture of quality axes. Half the book is devoted to technique, sharpening and maintenance, and even throwing the axes. Want your own copy, here it is (click here) And for those interested in something more general and substantial, here is a wonderful tome brought to you by the U.S. Forest Service. Your tax dollars at work! (click here)
The Final Swing
Whether you spring for the Gränsfors Bruks hand hatchet or not, right-angled blades of this size generally weigh somewhere between one and one-and-a-half pounds. Or the weight equivalent of between 15 and 22 ounces of water. So for the heft-cost of a large can of beer, you can add an essential piece of equipment to your kit that will not only extend the life of your knife, but take your bushwork further and in more directions than your knife alone. And it doesn’t stop there. The hand hatchet will speed up game processing, shelter building, woodcraft, and firecraft. In fact, if you haven’t used a hand hatchet before, you likely don’t realize just how big a hole you have in your outdoor toolbox.
All Photos by Doc Montana