Woodsmen and those skilled in bushcraft know that a reliable axe can get you far in survival situations and make routine chores a snap. Whether you need to split wood for a fire, breach a door or wall for rescue purposes or defend yourself from some bad dudes, an axe is the tool that can do it all. The kind of axe you need depends on your intended use as well as your personal preferences. At first glance, axes, hatchets and tomahawks look similar, so what sets them apart from one another?

Understanding Axes & Whiskey

Strolling through the axe department at your local outdoorsman’s store will tell you that the varieties of axes that are available are as diverse as how long whiskeys are aged in distilleries (in their own ways, both can mess you up good). Many casually substitute the names hatchet or tomahawk erroneously, much like those who call a bourbon a Scotch (blasphemy!). The differences between an axe, hatchet and tomahawk can be confusing and is loosely comparable to the differences between whiskey, bourbon and Scotch.

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Let’s begin with the understanding that all Bourbons and Scotches are whiskeys. Similarly, all hatchets and tomahawks are axes. Also, not all whiskeys are Scotches and not all axes are tomahawks. You still with us, or can you use a drink about now? In regards to the naming convention of whiskeys, what makes a whiskey a whiskey is that it is hooch distilled from fermented grain mash. What type of grain, what percentage of mixture, where it’s made and other details factor into whether this whiskey is ultimately called Bourbon, Scotch, Rye or another name. Just as there are many variations of whiskeys, there might be even more variations of axes. In its most basic modern interpretation, an axe is a hand tool with a forged head that has at least one side sharpened to a cutting edge.

Hatchets & Tomahawks

A hatchet is a one-handed tool with a sharp blade on one side and a hammerhead on the other. The blade side is commonly used for chopping or splitting wood while the hammer side is used for driving in nails, stakes or anything in need of a striking blow. The easiest way to spot a hatchet is to look for a hammerhead on the side opposite the axe blade. Note that if you spot a wide flattened area instead of a hammerhead on the backside, you’re looking at a hand axe, which is not technically a hatchet, but is just as useful. Hatchets are relatively compact, versatile tools that can create sparks to start a fire or complete tasks normally accomplished by smaller tools such as pocket knives.

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Tomahawks have a reputation for being deadly Native American battle weapons used for hand-to-hand combat as well as thrown projectiles. As well founded as that reputation is, tomahawks are also very useful as general-purpose tools and as a lighter weight alternative to the hatchet. Visual cues that set a tomahawk apart from other axes are their size, with shafts that are typically less than 24 inches long, and a cutting edge no longer than 4 inches. On the pole, or the butt of the blade, there is usually a protruding tool such as a hammer or spike. There are always exceptions to these rules, however.

We are now going through a tomahawk revival of sorts with the sport of competitive tomahawk throwing on the rise and renewed military and law enforcement interest in the tool. Regardless of what you call them, axes, hatchets or tomahawks, these tools are all adaptable to countless uses. Scroll through the gallery above for a look at a selection of axes that are useful in most survival situations.

For More Information

RMJ Tactical

CRKT Knives

TOPS Knives

Gerber Gear

United Cutlery




This article was originally published in BALLISTIC™ Summer 2015 magazine. Print Subscriptions are available here


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