Monday, December 17, 2012

REVIEW: "Survivorman" Les Stroud Bushman Axe by Wetterlings- UPDATED


Earlier this year, "Survivorman" star Les Stroud teamed up with Wetterlings to create what he felt would be a perfectly proportioned, highly functional, yet lightweight wilderness axe. His philosophy was to create an axe that was versatile enough to be a strong chopper and splitter, yet light enough to be carried long distances without putting an undue burden on pack weight.

According to Les's website "The Bushman by Survivorman Les Stroud is unique as it is both an axe and a hammer. The wedge shaped head ensures extreme splitting power. The long, broad blade is good for felling or carving. The neck is a distinct hammer and good for driving pegs. A notch for your fingers makes it easy to be very detailed and get nice cuts when doing precision work. The handle is long enough to be a two-hand axe for wood splitting and felling."

As a Canadian outdoorsman and longtime axe-user, Les is one of a small circle of wilderness survival experts that I respect when it comes to axes, so I was curious to see how his new Bushman axe would measure up. We would like to say a special thanks to Matt Huff at Sport Hansa and Julia Kalthoff at Wetterlings for offering us the opportunity to be the first to review the Bushman Axe.

The SPECS:

Overall length: 22" (our sample measured 21.75")
Head weight: 1.6 pounds
Overall Weight (without sheath): 37.6 ounces
Overall Weight (with sheath): 39.4 ounces
Steel type: Hand forged Swedish high carbon steel (composition unknown)
Cutting Surface: 3 3/8th inches
Handle type: American Hickory
Country of Origin: Made in Sweden
Warranty: None
Retail Price: $149.00


FEATURES

The Bushman Axe features a hand forged, high carbon Swedish steel head which weighs in at 1.6 lbs. The handle is 22" long and made from American Hickory. 

The Bushman Axe sports a new, thinner Gransfors' style leather sheath, as do all 2012 Wetterlings axes. Overall the sheath seems sturdy enough, but the button is not as robust or secure as those on older Wetterlings' sheaths or current Gransfors' sheaths. On some of my other 2012 Wetterlings test axes, I've noticed that the button unsnaps inside my pack or car trunk a little too easily. If you're reading this Wetterlings, please return to the old style snap!


Head Profile

The Bushman axe has a rather interesting and unconventional head design. It's almost like a cross between a Cold Steel Trail Hawk and a Hudson Bay Axe.


This profile design is very wedge shaped and thick in front of the eye towards the cutting bit, similar to a dedicated splitting axe. Wetterlings has also stopped using metal wedges in their small axes recently. According to Julia Kalthoff, CEO of Wetterlings, she wanted Wetterlings axes to conform to vintage axe manuals, which state that properly hung axes don't need metal wedges to secure the haft to the head. This sentiment is also backed up by axe expert Bernie Weisgerber in his book "An Axe to Grind."


When compared to other popular axes in the same category, this thicker profile really stands out. In the first photo, the Bushman is shown in between Wetterlings' popular Large Hunting and Forester's Fine axes:


From left to right: Wetterlings 2012 Swedish Forest Axe, Les Stroud Bushman Axe, Gransfors Bruks Scandinavian Forest Axe


Another interesting change is the new circular Wetterlings logo stamped into the head:
(click to enlarge)

The hammer poll:


Handle Grain/Quality/Alignment

The handle is mostly straight with a slight curve in the grip area, and is slightly thicker than most Gransfors Bruks axe handles. 

Before receiving the Bushman axe, I thought from the preview photos that the handle would be the biggest negative, since I generally don't like straight handles on smaller axes. I was surprised to find that after using the Bushman, I was really impressed with the handle. It's comfortable and feels good whether chopping or choking up on it to do fine work.

The grain direction is excellent, and the tightness of the grain about average:


The alignment is excellent:


Comparison Photos

The Bushman Axe (right) next to a Wetterlings Large Hunting Axe (left):


Comparison with a Wetterlings 2.2lb 2012 Swedish Forest Axe, 1.4lb Forester's Fine Axe, and a 1.75lb Gransfors Bruks Scandinavian Forest Axe:

(click to enlarge)

Balance

The Bushman axe balances well along the handle, but the head is very unbalanced due to the small hammer poll. Since Les wanted to emphasize splitting, this is an obvious trade-off in order to make the cheeks thick enough to split well.


Field Testing

Out of the box, the Bushman axe was very sharp, but just shy of shaving-sharp. A few swipes on a ceramic sharpening rod quickly brought it up to speed.

For the field test, I wanted to focus on the four main features Les Stroud extols in this axe- 1) Chopping ability 2) Splitting ability 3) Usefullness for fine work, and 4) Portability

I didn't perform an official test with the hammer poll, but used it off camera at my test location to pound wooden stakes into the ground, and it functioned as advertised.

Chopping

Prior to the test below, I used the Bushman off-camera several times to get a feel for it. My impression was that it was a rather vicious chopper for its size, so I decided to pit it against a slightly larger Gransfors Bruks Scandinavian Forest Axe. After pitting the two against each other, my suspicions were confirmed.  As you can see in the photos below, the Bushman chopped about 95% as well as the Gransfors.

(click to enlarge)


Splitting

To test the Bushman's splitting ability, I grabbed a healthy-sized Ponderosa Pine log that had been cut by fire crews during an older forest fire in the area, and split it in two. It was fire-hardened, so this was no easy feat.

(click to enlarge)

First swing:

Third swing:

Success! The Bushman splits almost as well as a real splitting axe.


The rest of the pieces were easily split with just one swing:


Fine carving

The Bushman axe proved to be an excellent fine carving axe. The edge profile made controlled cuts such as feathering easy, and the head and handle profile made the axe very comfortable and controllable while performing this task.
(click to enlarge)

Packability

The Bushman Axe was small enough to fit inside my Kelty Redtail 30 DaypackGiven its excellent field performance, this means access to a lot of "firepower" should the need arise out in the backcountry, even when traveling light.


CONCLUSION

The Les Stroud Bushman Axe represents what I believe to be a good compromise in a wilderness axe. What it gives up in absolute balance, it makes up for with excellent splitting ability. Purists may not like this "pickaxe" balance aspect, but I think it's a reasonable trade-off considering how well it splits. I don't think the average axe user will be bothered by the head/poll balance issue very much, since the haft balance is actually very good.

The Bushman axe also turned out to be an excellent chopper and fine carver, almost out of proportion for its size. The handle was surprisingly comfortable and secure in the hand, proving that Les knows a thing or two about what it takes to make a good backcountry axe handle.

Cons? Yes..... As mentioned in the features section above, the button snap on the newer style sheath is wimpy and needs to go. It unsnaps too easily if brushed up against other gear inside a pack or car trunk. The forging, as evidenced in the photos above, is still a bit sloppy and not up to Gransfors Bruks standards, important considering that this axe is actually more expensive than a Gransfors Bruks Scandinavian Forest Axe, which leads me to my third issue -- price. At $149.00 retail, the Bushman Axe is really pushing the bounds of affordability, especially considering that it doesn't come with a warranty like Gransfors' axes. For this price, it should come with a warranty, be shaving sharp out of the box, have a sturdier snap on the sheath, and better symmetry on the forging. 

Even with the issues mentioned, I still think the Bushman Axe is a first-rate wilderness tool that deserves strong consideration for inclusion in your axe collection. Not to mention the "cool factor" of owning an axe personally designed by the "Survivorman" himself.

The Bushman Axe is available at Sport Hansa USA

Dec 22nd, 2012 UPDATE: Wetterlings has informed us that they offer lifetime warranties on all their axes. Wetterlings has no written policy on their site or on the literature that comes with the axes, so if you have a problem, my best guess is to contact the Wetterlings dealer that sold the axe to you.

February 9th, 2013 UPDATE: Les Stroud Bushman Axe Issues\Conversation with Julia Kalthoff

April 22nd, 2013 UPDATE: After resharpening the rolled/dented edge on the Bushman Axe and chopping with it several times, it appears to have held up well. I plan to test a newer model to see if the issues have been fully resolved, but until then, recommend this axe with the reservation that it may need to re-sharpened or re-profiled, if an issue should develop.

15 comments:

  1. Hi Weekend, thanks for the comment. Yeah, splitting is really important, so having an axe that's portable but can also chop and split equally is actually pretty rare. 

    As for the warranty, Julia Kalthoff (Wetterlings' CEO) emailed me to let me know that they are backing up all of their axes with a lifetime warranty. Since there is no written warranty policy, I'm not sure how you would obtain warranty service, but at least they are attempting to back up their products.

    -Jason

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  2.  Well then! In that case, I'd buy it. :)

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  3. Nice overview and review. So many products seem gimmicky these days, and to me, this axe does NOT seem to be one of them.

    I do at least as much splitting with my camp axes as I do chopping, if not more, so splitting is pretty important to me. Often, axes of this size are not the best splitters, so it's good to see that they focused on this aspect of use and gave the head a nice, thick wedge shape. From looking at it, it didn't seem to me that the thickness would impede chopping performance, which you confirmed with your chopping tests. I also have to say I do like the straight handle and the overall look of this tool.

    Other than the price and lack of warranty, it looks like a real winner!

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  4. It does look like an interesting axe, but the price will be a real obstacle.

    Thanks for the review.

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  5. Superior review as always.  A little disappointing about the warranty issue.  Hopefully they will rethink that decision.

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  6. Thanks Brandon. The X15's head is a bit larger, but the Bushman does compare closely to the smaller Gerber Camp Axe II, also made by Fiskars. Regarding the hammer poll, we weren't provided with this information, but we're supposed to be getting an answer soon. Will update the review as soon we find out.

    -Jason

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  7. That's certainly an interesting design.  The wedge shape almost reminds me of the Fiskers axes.  How would you think this compares to the x15 that impressed you?  Is the hammer poll hardened or just polished?  I agree with you if they want to be on Gransfors playing field they need a no hassle warranty with these new prices.  Good review as usual Jason.  Very thorough and hit the marks us axe guys like to see covered.

    -OutdoorEnvy

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  8. Jan 6, 2013
    I have many years of axe usage, consequently a number of 'bushcraft' style axes. I also make and collect knives. I am a fan of Wetterling axes and have developed a preference for them over Gransfors Bruks (although I have Hultfors Bruks that I like).
    The design of the Bushman Axe I llke and have hoped to see for a long time. Unfortunately I was using it alongside my old Wetterlings Hunting axe making a comparative video and I was disappointed to see the Bushman was badly burred after cutting Douglas Fir for 5 minutes, the Wetterling Hunter was perfect. Too early to say whether this is a hardness issue, or maybe the cutting edge was too fine out of the box (it was quite sharp). I will keep you posted.

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  9. Spiritriver, thanks for letting us know about this. Check back here in the next few days as we will be posting an update and a revised recommendation for this axe.

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  10. With regard to the 'burring issue' that I reported. I removed the burring and created a slight convex edge. I went back to cutting the same wood in the same manner and after 5 minutes observed that the edge looked in good shape. Time will tell if this is a real solution.
    The Bushman Axe performs very well when paring and squaring off round poles and stakes having a flat, wedged cheek. I suspect that this will become less effective the more convex the edge is made, so a compromise might need to be made. Yes, the axe splits better than most bushcraft axes, with the exception of the Roselli (very convex edge on a short thick wedge). Axes can be sharp, but they are not knives (slicing is not their primary task).
    The length and weight seem OK to me, I need to use it more to comment on the 'straight' haft.I think I will become a big fan of the Bushman Axe the more I use it. Thanks Les Stroud and Wetterlings!

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  11. Thanks for added information. I am headed to the Outdoor Retailer Show in Salt Lake City this week but will be posting a full update to this review when I get back, along with a link to a post about a conversation I had with Julia Kalthoff at SHOT Show recently. I really appreciate your input Spirit.

    Regards,Jason

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  12. Great review. I personally wouldn't ever buy something like (I'm into restoring vintage axes) this but you did a thorough covering all things new axe buyers should be looking at.

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