While most campers and hikers consider the weight of most hatchets to be a major downside when considering the tool, when taking into consideration all the things it can do it becomes obvious the weight is well worth it. The humble hatchet gets passed over almost every time though. “Oh, it’s too heavy,” they say. “I’d never use the thing,” they say. Whether you call it a hatchet, a tomahawk, or a camp ax, the tool has been instrumental to the survival of the human race–and might even help you out of a sticky situation.
History of the Hatchet
Mankind has been making hatchets for nearly as long as we have been making told. While our ancestors needed to cut wood, they also needed a tool that could be used to defend themselves against enemies or predators, start fires in a pinch, as well as clean kills after a hunt. These tools were usually made with flint heads attached to a length of branch with a leather tong, and many examples of such hatchet heads still exist in museums today.
More recently, the hatchet has played a major part in American history. The first US Army Rangers carried hatchets for survival purposes, as well as finishing off enemies, with experienced soldiers able to accurately throw a hatchet at a distance of up to twenty yards. These versatile tools have been a part of Army Ranger history since their founding in 1676, and a good hatchet is still part of a Rangers kit.
Parts of the Hatchet
Let’s talk a bit about the anatomy of the hatchet and what it means. The main components of the hatchet are easy enough to remember, there’s the head, which is usually metal and does all the cutting, and the handle, which is where the user grasps the tool.
The head of a hatchet usually weighs anywhere from a pound to a pound and a half, and while most commonly made of steel, they can be made of anything from flint, to steel, to ceramics in the latest models. The part of the hatchet that does all the cutting is called the cutting edge. The area just behind the cutting edge, known as the bit, also plays a major part in the cutting action of the tool but is not typically considered. Typically, an ideal bit is ground at a very shallow angle compared to the rest of the head behind it.
Handles are usually about a foot long, and while they have historically been made of hickory or other hardwoods, other materials such as fiberglass, high-impact plastic, or even lightweight metals are used. If a wood handle is used, care is taken to make sure the grain of the wood runs in the same direction as the cutting edge, otherwise the handle may split, possibly injuring the user.
Types of Hatchets
In today’s modern times, the hatchet has evolved even further and there are several different types to choose from. These hatchets can have a variety of uses, from construction to hunting to the noble camp ax. Choosing one is as easy as knowing what you’re looking for.
A construction hatchet is the most common found, although perhaps “construction” is a misleading term since they are normally used to demolish. These will usually have a very thick wood or metal handle, though fiberglass isn’t unheard of, and will often have a hammer on the opposite side of the ax head, as well as a groove to help pull nails. For camping, these hatchets are usually too heavy, and they don’t seem to chop wood as well.
Hunting hatchets are usually intended to aid in the field-dressing of animals. Typically lighter in weight, their smaller heads and larger bit angles are better for splitting bone or cutting through flesh, and the handles may not always be up to snuff for chopping wood. These hatchets will usually double as a camp ax in a pinch, though, but you might run the risk of damaging the blade.
A camping hatchet will usually fall between these two categories, with a moderately stout handle of either wood, fiberglass, or another lightweight material. These hatchets are designed to walk the line between precision and power, able to be used for both delicate carving tasks as well as chopping firewood or building structures, though this is far from the only things this versatile tool can do.
Practical Camping Applications
While there are several different uses for our camp ax, first and foremost among them is chopping wood. The hatchet is excellent at this as long as it is used correctly. The easiest way to do this is to set the wood on the ground, preferably with a backstop in case the hatchet breaks through, this will prevent damage to the cutting edge.
Instead of swinging directly into the wood at a ninety-degree angle, try to come in at about forty-five degrees. Imagine a V in the wood with its bottom point on the opposite side of the log. As you chop, you will loosen chunks of wood which can then be removed with a flick of your blade. Once you have chopped through about half the log, flip it over and begin the same process on the other side.
Splitting wood is another easy task for hatchets, and is typically done by setting the wood on end, with the grain running up and down, and firmly but carefully embedding the hatchet in the top. Once that is done, the ax and wood are both lifted into the air and brought down with force. This will split off a chunk of wood, which can then be used to fuel a fire. When you’re using the hatchet to split larger logs, try to position the hatchet on the corner of the log and shave off a smaller piece at a time.
Carving is something a hatchet does well that nobody expects it to. By either lathing the cutting edge against the wood, or using short chopping motions well away from your fingers, you can remove wood much faster than with a knife.
If you’ve ever read the Gary Paulsen book ‘Hatchet’, you know what a useful tool a small ax can be in a survival situation. Depending on the make and model of your hatchet, you can use it to strike flint and start a fire, chop wood for a shelter, fashion weapons or traps for hunting, and if your hatchet is made of a shiny material, it can be used to signal passing aircraft in case you find yourself stranded. While some say a knife is the ultimate survival tool, the test of time has show the hatchet to be a more versatile accessory.
Safety & Maintenance
Hatchets are very low maintenance, requiring regular sharpening and an occasional rub-down with oil, if you’re using a wooden handle. Aside from that a good hatchet should last a while without any real upkeep. Check the handle for splits or weak spots every so often, and assure that the handle is securely attached. Inspect the cutting edge for chips and cracks, sometimes if found soon enough they can be ground out with a sharpening disc on a grinder.
Safety is always of the utmost importance when you are using any hand tool, especially a sharp one like a hatchet. Gloves and eye protection, while not always practical, are both highly recommended. Never put your hand near the area you intend to swing the hatchet. When using the hatchet, try to kneel on the ground so as not to accidentally chop your leg if you miss. Hatchets are useful for many things, but stopping arterial bleeding isn’t one of them.
Safe use and regular maintenance will ensure that you enjoy the use of you hatchet for many years. Whether you’re hiking through the jungles of South America on an archaeological expedition, or backpacking through the Adirondacks, a hatchet will serve to be supremely useful no matter your situation.
*Chopped wood photo by Flickr user davidjwbailey.