Four of the latest in factory axes have your hack
Axes are handy for work done in the yard, camp or on the farm. A well-designed axe promotes fast, efficient wood splitting without wearing you out. Like knives, axes can be inexpensive, or you might want to spend some good money on one—the difference is in the materials used for the handle and head. However, do you really need to spend the money on a tool that you use only occasionally? If you are a frequent axe user then, yes, spend extra to get a better quality/better designed axe. The added refinements of more expensive axes makes long-term use and ownership a pleasure.
Gerber has had a successful series of axes and hatchets made in Finland that feature one-piece, hollow, molded handles for
lightweight, optimum strength. An example is the 23.5-inch model in its Freescale series. The forged steel head is mated permanently to a lightweight composite handle, so there is little worry the handle will come loose during use. The oblong profile handle is hollow, which shifts the balance of the axe to being head-heavy. It is very forward weighted and that is a good thing. Use gravity to your advantage as you employ the axe, allowing it to fall naturally as you guide it. A tactile gripping surface in a contrasting green graces the handle. The handle flares at the butt, allowing your bottom hand to hook into it, trapping the handle in your hand so it doesn’t go flying. The handle style reportedly is virtually indestructible during heavy use.
The forged head exhibits a nice, steep “V” profile to help bite hard and deep into wood. A primary edge bevel thins the edge some and makes resharpening easier. A black PTFE* coating provides additional corrosion resistance as well as a nonstick surface. A poll is designed as a hammer.
With a manufacturer’s suggested retail price (MSRP) of $59, the Freescape is the least expensive of the review axes, though don’t discount its performance based solely on price. Truth is, this axe is devastatingly effective. With each swing you can feel the forward-weighted balance power the Freescape through wood. The thickness and shape of the handle are just right, allowing a secure grip with both hands. Gerber includes a plastic caddy that seals the cutting edge and protects you and your belongings from being cut. The caddy has a large handle to carry the axe safely, as well for hanging on a pegboard in your garage or utility shed. For how it performs versus what you pay, it is an excellent value. If you’re a frequent axe user or just an occasional one, the Freescape will serve you very well.
COMPACT COMPLEMENT: RnD Compact Axe
A spike model, the RnD Compact Axe is the smallest in the Winkler Knives (WK) axe line, though that doesn’t mean it’s the least capable. The hatchet-like head is only 5.5 inches long. The 80CrV2
carbon steel head is ⅜ inch wide. The tang sports a distal taper toward the handle butt to improve balance and shift weight distribution toward the head. The spike is commonly found on tomahawks and does everything from prying to puncturing. WK also offers a front spike option integrated into the head’s main cutting edge. A black oxide finish helps resist corrosion.
The 80CrV2 offers extreme toughness and edge retention. It withstands an impressive amount of abuse yet remains easy to resharpen, even in the field. Daniel Winkler is a fan of 80CrV2 and uses it a lot for both his knives and axes.
The handle features two prominent grip positions. One is the traditional axe grip held close to the butt. A series of subtle finger grooves seats your fingers, and the butt has a bird’s-beak design that hooks the handle into your hand to prevent it from sliding from your grip. A secondary close-quarters grip is below the axe head at the handle’s humpbacked portion. This facilitates choking up for control in carving, whittling and using the cutting edge like a knife. The RnD feels very balanced and agile in the latter grip, one the other review axes don’t offer. The Winkler would be great at processing kindling and bushcraft chores that require more control with close-in cutting or whittling. Due to its length and weight, it would not be a primary use axe but maybe a complement to a larger model that does heavy splitting or felling chores.
The walnut handle looks luxurious but pay heed to where you lay it down in the woods. The walnut’s color blends in well with leaf ground cover and you might lose it easily. Thread a loop of brightly colored pink, red or yellow paracord through the lanyard hole to make the handle stand out. The RnD comes in three handle materials: black Micarta®, maple and walnut.
A molded form-fitting sheath of Boltaron encloses the head. A thick shock-cord-quick-release-retention device secures the sheath in place, yet releases easily and quickly. An interior felt lining facilitates the easy slipping on/off of the sheath, as well as muffling the sound. Two nylon webbing belt loops enable the RnD to ride comfortably at your side. MSRP is $815, the most expensive of the test group. WK is very well known for manufacturing excellence and attention to detail, and the RnD Compact is no exception. For a bigger axe in the same design, check out the full-size model.
HEAVYWEIGHT CHAMP: TOPS Knives High Impact
The TOPS Knives High Impact is a full-sized hatchet/small axe hybrid that packs a punch. At 20 inches overall and around 3.5 pounds, it is a formidable chopping tool that can be used with two hands as a traditional axe or one handed a la a hatchet.
Starting with a backbone of .38-inch-thick 1075 carbon steel, the High Impact’s main cutting edge is a little over 5 inches—plenty of cutting surface for large and small chopping jobs alike. The Black Traction Coating creates a layer of protection against corrosion and wear. The ergonomic handle is tan Micarta®, with a diagonal machined groove pattern for hand traction. Five pairs of large hex head screws fasten the Micarta scales, and there are two large brass-lined lanyard holes. The handle has a distinctive bulge that helps seat your grip, especially for one-hand use. The handle flares at the butt, creating a comfortable seat for your bottom hand when using two hands.
The first thing you notice is the High Impact’s weight. It’s impressive but will take some getting used to. Once acclimated with the heft, you will discover it is also an advantage for getting momentum in your swing. And when it hits, it lives up to its name. The High Impact takes out chunks of wood with each blow. TOPS has the heat treat on the carbon steel dialed in perfectly. The 1075 retains an edge really well but sharpens easily and quickly.
I tried both grip styles. With one hand, this is where the weight takes some getting used to. Due to the axe’s weight, one-handed use might be limited to short spells. Conversely, using two hands is where the power of this beast is unleashed. You can put power behind the swing and each blow is devastating. You can feel the axe head bite in with each blow. It’s a sure bite as well. The performance with one or both hands is equally impressive. Due to the weight, it’s a great candidate to store in your truck or ATV.
A nicely made leather holster fastens over the head, sealing the edge. Two button-snap straps secure it, though only the one at the end needs to be undone to slide the sheath off. Note the absence of a belt loop attachment to carry the axe. It’s just too heavy. Despite the weight being a factor, the High Impact packs a serious punch and is the heavyweight champ of the test bunch. MSRP: $360. TOPS makes the axe in its factory in Idaho Falls, Idaho.
TAC-AXE: The Halfbreed Blades LRA-01
The Halfbreed Blades LRA-01 (Large Rescue Axe) is overbuilt for when needed the most. Unlike the other review axes, it isn’t for carry in the woods. It is made for rescue si tuations, as in forceable entry by hacking, cutting and prying.
The head is Austrian-made K110 carbon steel (a D2 equivalent) and features a multi-faceted tanto spike for penetration of various materials, as well as prying/leveraging. The K110 has great toughness and is fairly easy to resharpen in the field. The 3-inch head offers an edge sized just right for most tasks. With an overall length of just over 12 inches, the LRA-01 is compact enough to stow in a vehicle or backpack, but long enough for a good swing. Available in black, flat dark earth or OD green Teflon coating, the LRA-01 has an ergonomic G-10 handle of matching color to the head easy and comfortable to hold, with or without gloves
Three palm swells in several areas of the handle seat your hand properly, allowing the axe to be used with full-on leverage or finesse like a whittling tool. A recessed section below the head provides a secure choke-up grip for close-in work. Pick up the tad-over-33-ounce LRA-01 and feel the heft. The head’s weight provides enough momentum to inflict serious damage.
The axe totes inside a Kydex sheath that encompasses the head and has a secondary retention strap. The strap sports a button snap closure for quick release. There is a choice of MOLLE attachment clips or a Tek-Lok-style belt adapter.
Performance wise, the LRA-01 sits nicely in between that of the RnD Compact and the larger High Impact and Freescape. Actually, the LRA-01 is a bit shorter than the RnD, but it’s thicker and heavier. Despite its size, it packs a punch. Its length makes one-handed use doable and balanced using either the axe or spike end. The axe isn’t as effective as the longer-handle ones for larger jobs, but for its size can hold its own. The shorter size makes the handle butt work well as an improvised hammer. The exposed tang extends beyond the G-10 and sports five large notches. Holding the axe firmly just below the head facilitates effective strikes on tent stakes, etc.
Primarily designed as a rescue axe, the LRA-01 does outdoor/survival duty well. It is very capable at taking down saplings, though this is where the short handle is a handicap. I found myself expending more energy swinging it to chop than I would the longer handle axes where length plays to an advantage with greater inertia to the swing. Still, you can easily make the LRA-01 work for you. Bottom line, it will do the job.
*PTFE is an acronym for polytetrafluoroethylene, a “superior non-stick fluoropolymer” coating that is very thin yet very durable.
- Always exercise extreme caution when using an axe;
- Wear appropriate clothing and shoes, and maintain proper footing;
- Be aware of your surroundings and ensure that other people, animals, things, etc., are not too close to your work area;
- Pay close attention at all times to where you swing the axe;
- Keep the head sharp so it can bite into wood as opposed to glancing off it and possibly inflicting injury on you or others.
- Finally, enter the words axe safety in your internet search engine for dozens of articles on the subject.—by Dexter Ewing
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