Axe vs Hatchet: What’s the Difference Between Them?

difference between axe and hatchet
Axe (left) vs Hatchet (right)

Axes and hatchets are two of the most useful and versatile tools to have when times get tough. There are obvious benefits and drawbacks to both. In an emergency or survival situation, knowing what each tool can do and which one to use is essential.

An axe is larger and heavier than a hatchet. It can cut down trees and split wood into smaller pieces. It’s also bulky to carry and requires room for a proper swing. The hatchet is smaller, lighter, and more versatile. It’s easy to carry in a backpack or bug-out bag and use in tight spaces.

Read on to understand the pros and cons of axes vs hatchets. Determine which tool is best suited to your situation.

What Is an Axe?

According to Britannica.com, the first axe originated in the stone age around 30,000 bc. 

Today’s standard axe has a wedge-shaped head made from steel, atop a long wooden handle. Axes are most used for chopping and splitting firewood.

The poll is the backside of the axe. The bit or blade is the thin, sharp side used for cutting. The handle length increases the leverage and the striking power of the head. The heavier and broader the head, the larger the pieces of wood the axe will cut well.

Styles of Axes and Their Different Uses

There are many styles of axes. Here are 3 types that could be helpful in emergencies or survival situations.

Felling Axe: a felling axe is a heavy axe used for cutting across the grain of wood. They are best used for chopping down small to medium-sized trees. Its thinner blade can also strip limbs and bark from trees. The felling axe is lighter in weight with a curved handle for an easier grip.

Splitting Axe: a splitting axe is heavy and designed to split wood along the grain. This cuts the wood into smaller pieces by separating it along the wood fibers. Splitting axes have a tapered head and weigh 3-6 pounds. They are the lighter, smaller version of a splitting maul, and are easier to handle.

Forest Axe: the Gransfors Bruks forest axe has a shorter 19” handle. It’s a little larger than a hatchet but it’s smaller and lighter weight than an axe. Many outdoorsmen love this small axe because the longer handle provides more chopping power than a hatchet. And it’s lighter than other axes while still being able to fell larger trees.

What Are Axes Used For?

Primarily, axes are used for felling trees and splitting wood. But, an axe can also be a multifunctional tool when needed. Here are a few other things you can do with an axe:

  • Build a shelter: an axe can cut foliage and branches to help you build a temporary shelter.
  • Clear trees and chop firewood: this is where an axe can be a lifesaver. In the absence of a chainsaw, you could use an axe to clear trees across your driveway or road if you need help. It’s also handy for cutting small to medium-sized trees and splitting the logs into firewood.
  • Dig or break up hard ground: an axe is a great tool to loosen soil for tent stakes. It can also break up the hard ground for a flat shelter area.
  • Self-defense: an axe is an excellent source of self-defense. It can either cut or smash and the handle length ensures you have some working room between you and your threat.
  • Chop through ice/snow: an axe can help you remove a thick layer of ice and snow from a frozen water source. Remember to be careful when chopping into ice. If you should fall through the ice, cold water causes hypothermia very quickly.

Pros

There are many design variations between an axe and a hatchet. Which one is best depends on the situation and how you plan to use it. Let’s look at some pros and cons of the axe.

  • Long handle: a longer handle allows for more leverage and a more powerful strike.
  • Large, heavy head: the head of an axe weighs more than a hatchet. The heavier head delivers more striking force with each swing.
  • Two-handed use: using an axe with two hands provides more leverage and a more powerful strike.

Cons

  • Heavy: axes are heavier to carry and can also create more fatigue over time with continuous use.
  • Larger: axes are approximately 32-36 inches long, which is twice the length of a hatchet. This makes axes difficult to use in tight spaces, and bulkier to carry.

What Is a Hatchet?

hatchet

Hatchets are the smaller, lighter cousin of the axe. Sometimes they’re called hand axes because some have a short handle.

A hatchet is a small, lightweight axe (14”-18”) used to chop kindling and small pieces of firewood. It can also strip bark and small branches from trees. Some hatchets have a broad, flat area opposite the blade (called the poll) that can be used for hammering or striking.

Hatchets are not designed for felling large trees or splitting large pieces of wood.

Styles of Hatchets and Their Different Uses

Camping hatchet: referred to as a survival hatchet. They are easier to carry and can perform many small tasks. But, if you’re chopping logs, you’ll need a splitting hatchet or an axe. A good camping hatchet is the Estwing Sportsman.

Splitting hatchet: a thicker, heavier tool used for splitting firewood. They have a longer handle (around 19 inches) for use with two hands.

Tomahawk: a tomahawk has a thinner, lighter and more angled head with a shorter, straight handle (14”-24”). They are sharp, lightweight, multipurpose tools. Tomahawks come in single blade, double blade, and blade with spike versions. They aren’t the best choice for cutting firewood. Tomahawks are more of a tactical tool that can perform many functions in the wilderness. 

What Are Hatchets Used For?

A hatchet is a multifunctional tool that can perform many tasks better than an axe if needed during a natural disaster or emergency. 

In an emergency or even when you’re camping, a hatchet can be an excellent choice to:

  • Split kindling: starting a fire is easier with a hatchet. You can split smaller pieces of wood into kindling.
  • Create tinder: a hatchet is ideal for making tinder. Fires are much easier to start when using tinder (some make “feather sticks” for this). A hatchet can produce fine wood shavings and splinters that are easier to catch fire.
  • Chop down small trees: use a hatchet to cut down small trees and shave off branches and bark.
  • Build a shelter and drive tent stakes: a hatchet can easily cut the small trees and foliage needed to create a lean-to or shelter. It’s also heavy enough to pound tent stakes into the ground with its flat backside.
  • Cut through snow and ice: a hatchet allows you more control over where and how deep you’re chopping through the ice. It’s also less likely to injure you while you’re doing it.
  • Hunting/fishing: a hatchet can be useful if you need to field dress an animal for food. It can easily cut through bones and cartilage.
  • Self-defense: a hatchet may be easier to use for self-defense because it doesn’t require much room to swing.

Pros

  • Easier to carry: a hatchet is much lighter and less bulky to carry in a backpack or bugout bag than an axe.
  • Versatility: a hatchet can do everything you need except chopping large logs or felling trees.

Cons

  • Won’t chop larger pieces of wood: if you need enough wood for a campfire, a hatchet works great. But, if you’re trying to lay in a cord of wood for your fireplace when the power goes out, a hatchet will take much longer to do the job.

Other Considerations

Consider these characteristics when you’re picking out the best tool between an axe vs a hatchet. These are the most important traits to match with your needs.

Weight: if you’re new to using an axe or hatchet, a lighter weight option may be better. You can more easily develop the proper technique that’s needed. It also depends on your level of physical fitness. A heavier axe or a hatchet will wear you out much quicker and can cause injury.

Sharpness: Some hatchets are blunter than others so consider that if you don’t know how to sharpen one yet. You’ll want to have a mill file on hand to sharpen the blade when it gets dull. Also, consider the blade’s durability. It’s the most important part.

Handle length: longer handles allow you to put more force behind each swing. Shorter handles allow the greatest control of the swing.

Handle wood: The type of wood the handle is made from determines the strength and durability of the axe/hatchet handle. The best types of wood for axe handles are oak, ash, hickory, sugar maple, and birch.

Conclusion: Which Is Better?

It’s ideal to have both an axe and a hatchet since they are designed for different purposes. But, if you need to be in the woods or on the move, the hatchet is the better option to have with you. It’s more convenient because it’s versatile and it travels light.

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