Thursday, April 18, 2013

Battle of the Compact Bushcraft Axes!


Compact bushcraft axes have skyrocketed in popularity in recent years, driven in part by a celebrity endorsement from famed UK bushcrafter/TV personality Ray Mears, and by strong word of mouth through various internet forums and bloggers. This has helped compact bushcraft axes become top sellers for major axe companies.

Why have these axes become so popular? Simple -- portability and versatility. A compact bushcraft axe is small enough to be used as a one handed hatchet, and large enough to swing as a two-handed axe for more serious chopping and splitting tasks.

Using a Gransfors Bruks Small Forest Axe as a one-handed hatchet to shape wood

As popular as compact bushcraft axes are, not everyone is a fan. One of their biggest critics is bushcrafting legend Mors Kochanski, who feels that carrying an axe with anything less than a 23" to 25" handle and a 2 to 2.5 pound head is too light for serious bush work.

Also, in a review of the Wetterlings Large Hunting Axe many years ago on the Old Jimbo website, they found it "to be neither fish nor fowl. It is too heavy for a backpacking or carry axe that you will always have with you and not versatile enough as an all around using axe. It is somewhat clumsy as a two handed axe and does not cut as well as either of the larger axes. I found it fatiguing to use for any length of time."

In general, I agree with these sentiments, but I still think compact axes have certain advantages over larger axes.

Why Carry a Compact Bushcraft Axe?

Since many consumers have limited budgets and are forced to choose between buying either an axe or a hatchet, but not both, a compact bushcraft axe represents a good compromise, since it can function reasonably well in both roles.

A compact bushcraft axe is also easier to handle than a larger axe, which means it will have a faster learning curve.

Finally, a compact axe is generally the largest axe you can carry inside a daypack, for instance. This is important if you want to carry an axe discreetly in your pack as a wilderness survival tool, or build a campfire on a day hike, without getting bogged down carrying a larger, heavier axe.

All three of the axes in this write-up easily fit inside my diminutive Kelty Redtail 30 Daypack.

What exactly defines a compact bushcraft axe? There have been many discussions on axe forums, but the general consensus is that it is an axe or a large hatchet with a 1.4 to 1.6 lb head and an overall length of between 17" to 21".

We would like to say a special thanks to Ben's Backwoods for providing the Gransfors Bruks Small Forest Axe, and to Gerber Gear for sending us the Gerber Camp Axe II used in this article.

The Contenders

Gransfors Bruks Small Forest Axe


The SPECS:

Overall Length: 19.5"
Weight: 34.8 Ounces without sheath, 36.3 with sheath
Head weight: 1.5 pounds
Handle type: American Grade "A" Hickory
Steel- Hand Forged, Swedish Carbon Steel (composition considered a trade secret)
Country of origin: Made in the Sweden
Warranty: 20 Years
Company website
Price- $120.00, available from Ben's Backwoods

The Small Forest Axe, made by Gransfors Bruks in Sweden, is the compact axe by which all others are judged. It was popularized in the UK by bushcraft expert, author and TV personality Ray Mears in the 1990s and early 2000s. When bushcraft gained popularity in the States during the last decade, the Small Forest Axe became popular here as well.

Hand forged, and constructed using classic 19th Century American axe-making techniques, the quality, finish, and durability of these axes is now legendary. You can see a more detailed history of Gransfors Bruks and their approach to axe-making by checking out our review of the Gransfors Bruks Wildlife Hatchet here.

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Wetterlings Large Hunting Axe


The SPECS:

Overall Length: 19.5"
Weight: 34.3 Ounces without sheath, 36.6 with sheath
Head weight: 1.5 pounds
Handle type: High grade American Hickory
Steel- Hand Forged, Swedish Carbon Steel (composition considered a trade secret)
Country of origin: Made in the Sweden
Warranty: Lifetime
Company Website
Price- $89.99, available from Bailey's Online

The Wetterlings Large Hunting Axe can probably best be described as the Gransfors Bruks Small Forest Axe's practical, budget-minded, cousin. Constructed using the same, traditional axe-making techniques as the Small Forest Axe, the primary differences between the two are fit and finish.

Gransfors Bruks' axes are constructed with greater attention to quality control and more expensive features, such as higher grade, beeswax-coated hickory handles, and more consistently forged heads. Wetterlings forgoes these subtleties and instead, focuses on creating an axe that is rough around the edges, but high on function.

This slightly lower standard of fit and finish usually means that a Wetterlings can be had for roughly $20 to $50 cheaper than an equivalent Gransfors axe, yet, performs as well as its more expensive cousin. This has led many to refer to Wetterlings as a "working man's Gransfors axe."

This cost to performance ratio has created a rabid following for Wetterlings, even in some cases rivaling the popularity of Gransfors Bruks.

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Gerber Camp Axe II


The SPECS:

Overall Length: 17.5"
Weight: 36.5 ounces without sheath, 39.0 ounces with sheath
Head weight: 1.6 pounds
Handle type: Glass-filled Nylon
Steel- Drop Forged, Medium Carbon Finnish Steel (composition considered a trade secret)
Country of origin: Made in Finland by Fiskars
Warranty: Lifetime
Company Website
Price- $35 to $45, available from Amazon.com

The Gerber Camp Axe II, or as I affectionately like to call it- the "Star Wars Axe," is the ultra-compact, synthetic-handled wonder axe of this group. I can seriously imagine Luke Skywalker climbing out of his X-Wing Fighter with one of these in hand, ready to chop up kindling on the Planet Dagobah to build a campfire. "Hey Yoda, campfire's ready! Bring some of that outrageously bad-tasting bat soup over here so we can heat it up!"

Don't let the synthetic handle fool you though. These "She blinded me with science!" axes are actually highly efficient choppers, splitters and fine carvers. The mad scientists at Fiskars certainly knew what they were doing when they designed these, as you'll see further down in the field review section.

For more information about Fiskars/Gerber X-Series axes, check out our reviews of the Fiskars X7 Hatchet and X15 Chopping Axe.

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Let the Battle Begin!


To judge the overall winner of these three competitors, I devised seven simple, yet reliable, tests that I've used many times to test axes in our previous reviews. These tests include: Chopping, Splitting, Limbing, Featherstick-making, Balance, Overall Comfort, and Quality.

TEST #1- CHOPPING 
(30 chops per axe on two separate logs)

WINNER- Wetterlings Large Hunting Axe
SECOND PLACE- Tied between the Gerber Camp Axe II and the Gransfors Bruks Small Forest Axe

All three of the axes chopped great for their size, but the Large Hunting Axe ended up taking the prize. It consistently outchopped the Camp Axe II and Small Forest Axe by about 10%.

The Camp Axe II and Small Forest Axe were so closely matched that they finished in a draw.

Chop Test #1 (from left to right- Wetterlings, Gerber, Gransfors Bruks)
(click to enlarge any photo)

Chop Test #2 (from left to right- Gransfors Bruks, Gerber, Wetterlings)

TEST #2 - SPLITTING

WINNER- Gerber Camp Axe II
SECOND PLACE- A draw between the Large Hunting Axe and Small Forest Axe

For the splitting test, I grabbed a few well seasoned Ponderosa Pine logs that had been bucked with a saw. Each axe was tested by splitting one of these logs into four quarters on top of a flat chopping block.

In spite of it's short handle, the Camp Axe II's wedge-shaped head clearly dominated this test, and was effective enough that it even made the log fly apart upon striking it! The Small Forest Axe and Large Hunting Axe, though not as effective as the Camp Axe, were still competent enough splitters to get the job done, albeit, with an extra swing or two. Neither the Large Hunting Axe or the Small Forest Axe felt like the better splitter, so they ended up in a draw.


Profile shot of the Gransfors Bruks Small Forest Axe (left), next to the Wetterlings Large Hunting Axe (middle), and the Gerber Camp Axe II (right). The Gerber's wedge-shaped head gave it a clear advantage in this test.


TEST #3 - LIMBING A TREE

WINNER- Wetterlings Large Hunting Axe
SECOND PLACE- Gransfors Bruks Small Forest Axe
THIRD PLACE- Gerber Camp Axe II

A dead, blown-down Douglas Fir Tree was used as the "victim" for the limbing test. The longer handles of the traditional Swedish axes had a distinct reach advantage over the shorter Camp Axe and so came out on top in this test. The Wetterlings just edged out the Gransfors Bruks due to it's slightly better chopping ability, which pushed it into first place.



TEST #4 - FEATHERSTICKS

WINNER- Wetterlings Large Hunting Axe
SECOND PLACE- Gerber Camp Axe II
THIRD PLACE- Gransfors Bruks Small Forest Axe

In my experience using/testing lots of axes, I've found that an axe's ability to make a good featherstick is usually a good indicator of its ability to do other fine work and shaping tasks.

Out of the three, the Wetterlings really shined in this test, being the easiest to use to push-cut the wood into nice feathered curls. The Camp Axe II turned in a solid second place performance, and was nearly as easy to use, turning out a well-made featherstick.

The Small Forest Axe made the finest curls, but was the hardest to featherstick with, since it made push-cutting more difficult than the other two axes. This affected its ability to make larger feathers as well. I found this surprising, since my experiences with the Gransfors Bruks Wildlife Hatchet and Scandinavian Forest Axe have been the complete opposite.


TEST #5 - BALANCE

WINNERS- Gransfors Bruks Small Forest Axe and Wetterlings Large Hunting Axe
SECOND PLACE- Gerber Camp Axe II

Both the Small Forest Axe and Large Hunting Axe balanced perfectly in the hand, so they shared the winning spot.

The Camp Axe II, in comparison with the Large Hunting Axe and Small Forest Axe, balanced poorly. Just after the photo below was snapped, the heavy-headed/light handled Gerber nose-dived out of my hand towards the ground. Had I not "Used the Force" and caught the handle in mid-flight, the Camp Axe would have hit the snow with a big "ker-plunk!"

Gerber Camp Axe II

Gransfors Bruks Small Forest Axe

Wetterlings Large Hunting Axe

TEST #6 - OVERALL COMFORT

WINNER- Gransfors Bruks Small Forest Axe
SECOND PLACE- Wetterlings Large Hunting Axe
THIRD PLACE- Gerber Camp Axe II

In terms of overall comfort, the Small Forest Axe was the clear winner in this test. In my opinion, Gransfors Bruks makes some of the best production axe handles out there, rivaled only by Council Tool's excellent Velvicut handles. The design of the Small Forest Axe handle makes it feel very secure and comfortable in the hand.

The Wetterlings' handle, while also very comfortable, feels just a bit too thick by comparison. 

The Gerber's handle, though comfortable, feels a bit cramped when using it two-handed compared to its longer, wooden-handled rivals. However, using it one-handed feels nearly as comfortable as using the Small Forest Axe, since the overall shape of the handle makes for a comfortable grip.

(Left to right: Wetterlings, Gransfors Bruks, Gerber)

TEST #7 - QUALITY

WINNER- Gransfors Bruks Small Forest Axe
SECOND PLACE- Wetterlings Large Hunting Axe
THIRD PLACE- Gerber Camp Axe II

As mentioned in the Small Forest Axe's summary, it is the compact axe by which all others are judged, and this is not by accident. Gransfors Bruks simply makes the highest quality production axes in the world. These axes have been field tested by thousands of wilderness enthusiasts since the early 1990s. Without a doubt it is an axe built so well that you can stake your life on it. True to Gransfors Bruks' well deserved reputation, the Small Forest Axe used in the test was of impeccable quality, making it the easy winner of this category.

The Wetterlings Large Hunting Axe used in this test has been my personal bushcraft axe for several years. I'd rate its overall quality at maybe 85% of the Gransfors. I did have an issue with the edge rolling about a year into ownership, but after re-sharpening, the issue didn't return, and the axe has been a faithful companion since. The steel takes a very sharp edge, and holds the edge nearly as well as the Gransfors Small Forest Axe. The sheath is of high quality and made of heavy, reinforced leather. Sadly, in their latest models Wetterlings replaced these heavy leather sheaths with newer sheaths that use weaker button snaps. Wetterlings informed me that they are currently in the process of fixing this issue.

The Gerber Camp Axe II (which is a Gerber-branded Fiskars X-Series Axe), is of excellent quality for such an affordable axe. Yes, the balance of a traditional wood-handled axe is lacking, but for the money, it's excellent at chopping, excels at splitting, and rivals the Gransfors Bruks Small Forest Axe in fine carving. The steel, once sharpened, takes a scalpel-like edge and holds it well.

The Gerber Camp Axe II in between fellow X-Series Axes, the Fiskars X7 and Fiskars X15


One issue that I've discovered with Fiskars axes is that they have to be sharpened BEFORE using them, or the edge will roll and dent when chopping initially. Why? Because there seems to be just a tiny bit of soft, extra metal leftover from the drop forging process that causes this issue, but once sharpened, the edges seem to hold up as well as my American, German and Swedish axes. 

Sheath comparison of the three axes (Left to right: Wetterlings, Gransfors Bruks, Gerber)

And the winner is.......

First Place- Wetterlings Large Hunting Axe


Winning or tying nearly every performance test, with excellent balance, and quality approaching the Gransfors Bruks, the Wetterlings Large Hunting Axe was the easy choice in this "Battle of the Compact Bushcraft Axes" competition. 

Yes, the handle is a little on the thick side, the quality is a notch down from a Gransfors Axe, and it doesn't split with the ferocity of the Gerber Camp Axe II. But it's negatives were relatively minor in comparison with it's awesome performance while performing various bushcraft chores. 

Second Place- Gransfors Bruks Small Forest Axe

Though it came in at second place, the Gransfors Bruks Small Forest Axe still comes out on top when it comes to quality and excellence in axe design.

In spite of its third place ranking in the Featherstick Test, it is still a superb compact bushcraft axe by any measure, and one that gets grabbed as often as my Wetterlings when I head off into the bush. What the Small Forest Axe gives up to the Wetterlings in pure chopping and feathersticking performance, it makes up for with all-day comfort, dead reliability, and probably the best overall steel quality of any production axe.

A few minutes spent with a file and sharpening stone would probably improve its push-cutting ability, making it a top choice for people who prefer the higher quality of a Gransfors' axe over a Wetterlings.




Third Place- Gerber Camp Axe II


Unfortunately, "The Force" just couldn't save the hi-tek, Star Wars-esque Gerber Camp Axe II from landing in the third spot. In spite of its excellent performance in the chopping, splitting and featherstick categories, it was ultimately hampered by poor balance, along with a shorter handle that's a bit cramped when using it two-handed, compared to its longer-handled rivals. Still, with a street price of roughly $40.00, it's hard to beat, especially considering its overall performance in the test.

CONCLUSION

The truth is, all three of these axes will perform well in the role of a compact bushcraft axe. Purists will, of course, prefer the balance and feel of a fine hickory axe handle over Gerber's synthetic handle. But bushcrafters on a budget, who can't afford the steep entry price of a Swedish axe, can still add the highly capable Camp Axe II to their bushcraft arsenal without breaking the bank. The choice, of course, will ultimately come down to your budget and personal preference.


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