Updated Aug 4, 2022 7:33 PM
For the sheer variety of tasks, it can handle, it’s hard to beat an axe. Hand axes and hatchets are among our most durable and utilitarian tools, handy for many chores around a homestead, camp, or campsite. Felling trees and splitting wood are the most obvious deployments, but for pounding stakes, suppressing fires, clearing brush, and even self-defense, axes can do it and more.
Within that universal utility of axes are specific designs, purpose-built heads, and handles configured for specific tasks. If you are primarily felling green trees or lopping limbs, you’ll want a felling ax or a double-bit axe. If you are tackling big rounds of dried firewood, a splitting axe or even splitting maul will make short work of your chore. And if you’re splitting kindling for a fireplace or wood stove, size down to a small axe or splitting hatchet.
Things to Consider When Selecting an Axe or Hatchet
There are many types of axes of various sizes, but the biggest consideration is whether you will primarily use it to split wood or cut wood. The latter includes felling, limbing, lopping, severing, and sundering.
The business part of an axe—its weighted head—will help determine what’s best for you. A tapered head with a sharp bit is designed for limbing and felling. A wedge-shaped head with heavier broad shoulders is intended for splitting. A narrow-headed felling axe makes a lousy splitting tool simply because the head is designed to slice deeply into the wood, but not necessarily to make it split. Likewise, the wedge-headed axe you want for splitting will simply not serve well as a cutting blade. The poll—that’s the surface on the back of the head—is designed for pounding or nudging, depending on how much force you provide.
Axe Handle Length
The handle design has almost as much variability as the head. A longer handle is generally used on felling axes to provide a longer, more forceful swing when tackling standing timber. The handles on felling axes also have a curve designed to maximize the velocity of the head to make a more powerful strike. But they’re also designed for comfort. A handle that is smooth during the cutting stroke but has a pronounced knob and grippy belly and throat—the contours on the lower half of the handle—will feel as good on the hundredth stroke as it does on the second.
Short, straight handles with pronounced knobs—that’s the rounded part at the very bottom of the handle—are useful for splitting kindling. They allow you to deliver powerful downward strokes but not have the ax fly out of your hand.
A relatively new category of tactical hatchets have balanced heads and short handles. They are easy to deploy in close quarters and have the added advantage of being made to throw.
Axe Handle Material
Synthetic handles are generally more durable than wood handles and require less maintenance like oiling or sanding. On the other hand, there are few things as functionally lovely as an axe made with straight-grain ash or hickory, and a new class of axes is as beautiful as they are functional.
You can buy a perfectly suitable hand axe for around $20, but quality purpose-built axes and hatchets often run closer to $75-$100. A new breed of heirloom-quality axes will cost in the $200-$300 range. Our roundup of best axes and hatchets ranged in price from $55 to $300.
Fiskars X27 Super Splitting Axe
Why It Made The Cut: The Fiskars X27 Super Splitting Axe is an all-around axe that excels at splitting. The weight and handle length can take some getting used to, but with the proper practice, this axe can provide a precise and powerful cut.
- Weight: 6 lbs
- Length: 36″
- Handle Material: Fiberglass Composite
- Long handle works well for tall users
- Sharp, durable blade
- Weight helps with force
- Relatively versatile
- Long handle and weight makes it difficult for short users to control
The Fiskars X27 Super Splitting Axe is a maximum efficiency tool that utilizes classic design features with some material innovation to improve durability. Although the length and weight can make it difficult for shorter or smaller uses to handle, those aspects optimize efficiency for splitting wood with one strike.
Unfortunately, the handle isn’t made from wood, but it is still relatively shock absorbing and has an excellent grip to help you keep control. With a beveled convex blade geometry designed to split even large logs, and a slick blade coating that promotes easy removal, this straight-handled workhorse of a wood splitting axe is designed to make quick work of splitting duties. The 36-inch handle, with hand-stopping knob, is built for taller operators who want to maximize the force of each swing. It’s very reasonably priced, too.
Why It Made The Cut: This exceptionally well-made felling axe features a 4-pound Dayton-style head and 35-inch hickory handle painted in 10 different traditional color combinations.
- Weight: 4 lbs
- Length: N/A
- Handle Material: straight-grain hickory
- American made
- Versatile design
- Beautiful design
- Durable materials
- The thin handle can make the large head feel a bit awkward to swing at times
The Best Made Painted American Felling Axe is pretty much the Platonic ideal for the category. The head is made of premium American alloy steel that will fell trees, buck trunks, and do light splitting with ease. The handle has a slight belly for ease of swinging. Note that the Best Made Axe will require care, mainly oiling both the handle and head to keep splinters and rust, respectively, from impairing its looks and operation. This is by far the most expensive axe we tested, but if you take care of it, it should perform solidly for several generations.
Best Tomahawk-Style Hand Axe: Woox Ax1
Why It Made The Cut: The Woox Ax1 is anchored by a tempered carbon steel head that was treated with Cerakote to give it class-leading weather resistance and cutting efficiency.
- Weight: 2 lbs
- Length: 15.75″
- Handle Material: hickory
- Ergonomic handle
- Weather resistant materials
- Reasonable weight for the size
A good example of a hand axe, the Woox Ax1 splits the difference between a full-size axe and a camp hatchet. Its 15-inch hickory handle provides enough thrust to split and cut with ease, and the 2-pound head has a slight wedge shape to assist splitting. There is a steel heel on the pommel for busting ice.The handle features a leather collar to protect the shoulder from nicks, and a high-quality leather sheath covers the tomahawk-style head. It’s relatively expensive, but the wide versatility of the Woox makes it a great all-around hand axe—good for camping, light splitting, and brush work. It’s also a great survival axe.
Best Wood Splitting Axe
Why It Made The Cut: The Fiskars IsoCore Maul is ideal for wood splitting and can be used for driving wedges or stakes, all for an affordable price.
- Weight: 10.4 lbs
- Length: 36″
- Handle Material: fiberglass core
- Shock control system
- Ergonomic handle
- Durable materials and design
- Great value for the price
- Might be heavy for some users
The Fiskars IsoCore Maul is a wood-splitting dream. The weight of the head, combined with the ergonomic handle design, makes it easy to control even when splitting the toughest logs. It utilizes a patented IsoCore Shock Control System to help minimize shock and vibration. This system is said to transfer 2x less shock than wooden handles.
As if the handle wasn’t good enough already, the soft-grip handle fits the natural shape of your hands to improve your hold and strengthen your grip. Equipped with forged, heat-treated steel that is treated with a rust-resistant coating, helping it holds up in all weather conditions.
The overall weight and length of the handle help drive the force of a swing, making splitting more efficient. However, these same benefits for some can make the axe more challenging to control if you are of small stature.
Best Survival Axe
Gransfors Bruks Wildlife Hatchet
Why It Made The Cut: The Gransfors Bruks Wildlife Hatchet is a classic and portable survival axe designed with care and careful craftmanship in Sweden.
- Weight: 1.3 lbs
- Length: 13.39″
- Handle Material: hickory
- Excellent steel quality
- Well-balanced design
- Inconsistent finish across products
The Gransfors Bruks Wildlife Hatchet is a small, durable hatchet. The size and weight are part of what makes this an excellent survival axe, but the most significant selling point is the overall performance paired with the product’s longevity. The hickory handle is easy to hold and has plenty of shock absorption for use as a hatchet. The only con about the handle is that the finish seems inconsistent across the products customers receive. A little bit of DIY sanding and finishing can quickly solve this problem, but it is disappointing with an axe at this price point.
It comes with a vegetable-tanned leather sheath to protect the head of the axe when not in use. The high-quality materials of the axe make this a tool that you can likely pass down for generations, even if you use it daily. Whether you are a survivalist, are just learning about bushcraft, or are a homesteader, this is a tool that rarely disappoints.
Best Camping Axe
SOG Camp Axe SOG Specialty Knives
Why It Made The Cut: Equal parts cutting tool and hammer, this little workhorse will limb trees, split kindling, hammer tent stakes, and cleave deer pelvises.
- Weight: 1 lbs
- Length: 11.5″
- Handle Material: Glass-Reinforced Nylon
- Lightweight and portable
- Chops and hammers
- Ideal force application
- Built for all-weather use
- Limited application
- Sheath isn’t very good quality
This is one of those tools that you give to your spouse as a gift. It has countless uses, but fits neatly under a car seat or in a toolbox. It’s specifically designed for light work around a campsite or backyard, but the straight nylon handle has enough length to give the stainless blade some velocity. The handle has a long grip area, allowing users to choke up to do fine work. The flat surfaces on the poll and eye of the blade make it a very effective hammer.
Outdoor Edge Wood Devil Outdoor Edge
Why It Made The Cut: An all-weather workhorse, this little hatchet features a no-slip rubberized handle, and a one-piece stainless steel construction with black-oxide coating to make it impervious to the weather.
- Weight: 2.7 lbs
- Length: 13″
- Handle Material: Red ABS and black rubberized TPR
- Compact and lightweight
- Great value for the price
- No slip handle
- Replacement and repair services
- Small and limited application
Whether you’re clearing a campsite, pounding tent stakes, splitting light kindling for the fire, or need to do finer work like scraping a hide or cleaving frozen meat, this little tomahawk-style hatchet will outperform its size. The 4-inch cutting edge provides plenty of working surface.
How We Made Our Picks
We put five of the best axes with various configurations and builds through a battery of tasks to test their performance against the expectations of each class of axe and hatchets.
Because we tested both splitting and felling axes, I evaluated them on the tasks for which each was designed. In the case of the splitting heads, I used them to split a dozen rounds of 20-inch diameter ash and cottonwood. I measured the depth of splits, counted the number of strikes required to fully cleave a round, evaluated how easily they pulled out of wood and assessed handle ergonomics. For the felling axes, I chopped down five green ash trees about 6 inches in diameter and evaluated each model’s accuracy and cutting capability. I then used these felling axes to limb the downed trees, evaluating them on retention of blade sharpness, ease of use with one and two hands, and handle ergonomics. Lastly, I pounded tent stakes with each ax that had hammering polls.
I warmed to the task. I grew up in a Missouri farmhouse solely heated by a wood stove that consumed many cords of oak, hickory, and elm every winter and relied on a variety of axes and mauls to create fuel for that fire. I now live in relatively treeless eastern Montana, where our primary source of wood-stove fuel is cottonwood. It burns fast and hot, but its lack of a coherent grain makes splitting difficult, so I’ve come to rely on a variety of axes and hatchets to not only limb trees but also split stubborn rounds for the stove.
We camp underneath those same cottonwoods, and depend on hatchets and camping axes to pound tent stakes, clear brush, and serve as all-around utility tools. I’ll even use my hand axe to split the pelvis and sternum of elk and mule deer.
Q: What’s the difference between a chopping axe and a splitting axe?
Splitting axes typically have straight handles and wedge-shaped heads to help separate sections. Chopping axes—also called felling or limbing axes—usually have curved handles and more slender heads.
Q: What is the best survival axe?
The snarky answer is the nearest axe at hand. But a more thoughtful answer is one that can accomplish the greatest number of unexpected tasks, from fighting off a bear to chopping a hole in the ice for drinking water. Typically, the best axes are smaller for portability, have a hybrid head that can perform splitting and cutting duties equally well, and have a hammer on the poll for striking things as diverse as tent pegs and car windows to escape a wreck.
Q: What is the best axe on the market?
It’s hard to beat the Best Made Painted American Felling Axe. It swings beautifully and cuts wood marvelously.
Q: Who makes the best axe handles?
While it is hard to say who makes the best axe handles, we do agree that the best handles are often made from materials like ash or hickory. Overall, wood handles are excellent for absorbing shock as you use the axe.
Q: What is the best way to sharpen an axe?
Your skill level and access to tools will determine the best way to sharpen your axe. A few of the most common ways to sharpen an axe include using a grinder, using a stone, or using a file. If you are unsure about sharpening your axe yourself, utilize a sharpening service (most are pretty affordable).
Q: What makes a good axe?
The most important part of an axe is the head. The head of the axe needs to have a sharpened cutting edge. The handle of the axe is also vital, but these can easily be replaced so when shopping for an axe, always invest in a high-quality head.
The best axe for you is the one that fits the intended use and your personal needs. If you’re going to be felling trees, go with an axe with a long, slightly curved handle and a tapered head. Splitting wood requires a handle with a knob at the end to prevent your hand from slipping off and a wedge-shaped head to help drive your sections apart. If you’re going to be doing both, choose an axe that has characteristics of both types.