Monday, July 21, 2014

Knife vs Hatchet-- Which is the King of Chopping?

Rocky Mountain Bushcraft pits a popular knife against a popular hatchet to decide an age old question-- which tool is the better chopper?

For years, arguments have raged on internet forums over which tool is a better chopper - hatchet or large survival knife? Public perception has been that large survival knives are superior to hatchets. This is due to a few questionable Youtube videos that have been floating around the internet for the past 10 years, which show hatchets being outmatched by large survival knives. Were the videos correct? Is a big knife really a better chopper than a hatchet? Find out as we pit one against another in a one-on-one chop-off to settle this question once and for all.......

The Contenders

For the test, we assembled two popular edged tools -- an Ontario RTAK II 10.5" survival knife, and an Estwing 12" Sportsman's Hatchet.

Ontario RTAK II Survival Knife

To represent large survival knives, I chose Ontario Knife Company's popular RTAK II Survival Knife. Sporting a behemoth 10.5" long carbon steel blade, the RTAK II is nearly as big as a machete, yet well balanced for its size.

Originally developed in the late 1990s by Jeff Randall of Randall's Adventure Training (RAT), the RTAK was designed to be a more efficient jungle survival tool than either a regular machete, or a shorter, thicker survival knife. The RTAK's 3/16" thick, full tang blade is light enough to swing to clear foliage, yet thick and strong enough to baton large pieces of wood.

To handle the harsh demands of wilderness environments, Ontario constructed the RTAK II from tough 5160 carbon steel, which has earned a great reputation for use in high-stress applications such as axes and larger survival blades. 5160 is also the steel of choice for Council Tool's popular Velvicut line (check out our Dec. 2011 review here). To prevent rust in damp conditions, Ontario coats the RTAK's 5160 blade with a mil-spec phosphate finish.

The RTAK's nearly indestructible canvas micarta handle scales provide an excellent match for the 5160 steel. They are highly comfortable and provide a slip-free grip even in wet conditions.

The sheath is constructed from heavy, durable nylon, and is reinforced with a plastic insert to prevent the blade from cutting through. The front of the sheath has an extra pocket which can be used to store a micro-survival kit, multi-tool, or your favorite folder. There is also a leg lanyard to keep it firmly attached to your thigh.

If you're a big blade fan, the RTAK II is an excellent choice for carrying on backcountry excursions, plus, it's 100% made in Ontario, New York, USA. For more info visit Ontario's site at

Estwing 12" Sportsman's Hatchet

Representing the hatchet side of the equation is Estwing's classic 12" Sportman's Hatchet. With a history going all the way back to 1923, the Estwing is a respected workhorse in American edged tools. This time-tested hatchet hangs in the garages of millions of homes, having chopped kindling for countless campfires, wood stoves, and fireplaces since before the Great Depression.

The Sportsman's Hatchet's strength lies in it's simplicity-- constructed from a drop-forged billet of medium carbon steel, the Estwing is literally built as tough as a nail. Normally, this one-piece steel construction would make for a very unbalanced hatchet. Not so with the Estwing. The Sportsman's Hatchet is well balanced, with even weight distribution between its head and leather stacked handle.

Leather-Stacked Handle

The Sportsman's Hatchet's leather-stacked handle is built as tough in its own right as is its billet of forged steel. To construct the handle, a powerful hydraulic press is used to compress a stack of leather rings together onto the raw steel handle. The rings are then held firmly in place by riveting a steel cap on the end:

The leather is then dipped in varnish for long term durability. The result is a handle that is comfortable, durable and able to absorb shock from the impact of chopping.

Edge Profile

The 12" Sportsman's Hatchet has an excellent factory edge profile. It is thin and convex, making it a top-notch chopper and fine carver. To give you a better idea, check out the Sportsman's edge profile next to a Gransfors Bruks Wildlife Hatchet, the gold standard in factory-produced hatchet edge profiles:

Size Comparison

The 12" Sportsman Hatchet, left, next to its bigger brother the Estwing 14" Sportsman's Hatchet, shown on the right:

Size comparison next to a Gransfors Bruks Wildlife Hatchet:

The Sportsman's Hatchet comes with a simple, yet functional leather belt sheath:

With a street price of under $40, indestructible drop-forged construction, excellent factory edge profile, good balance, comfortable handle, functional sheath, and surprisingly good fine carving and chopping ability, the 12" Sportsman's Hatchet is one of the best survival bangs for the buck on the market. For more info visit


The RTAK comes in with a 2.9 ounce weight advantage over the Estwing. Though the knife is slightly heavier, these two are still close enough in weight to make it a fair match.

Ontario RTAK II- 22.4 Ounces

Estwing Sportsman's Hatchet-19.5 ounces:

The Chop-Off!

The test was simple-- using a standard v-notch chopping technique, I chopped 10 times with each tool into a small, dead Lodgepole Pine tree. To ensure consistency, each was sharpened to hair-shaving sharpness before chopping. Both edges had their original, factory profiles, and no modifications of any kind were made.

and the winner is.......HATCHET!


Even with a 3 ounce weight advantage, the big knife still got trounced by the hatchet. A thicker-bladed survival knife would have certainly chopped better than the RTAK, but it would have had to be much heavier than the Estwing in order to match or outperform it.

Why did the hatchet trounce the big knife in such dramatic fashion? It's simply a matter of physics. Hatchets concentrate their weight in a small area, giving them a more powerful chopping blow than a knife. Knives distribute their weight over a broader, less focused area. Any hatchet with a sharp edge and proper edge profile will out chop a knife of equal weight due to this difference.

Does this mean that a hatchet is a superior survival tool in the woods? Not necessarily. Large survival knives have their own distinct advantages in the wilderness. Which tool you pick ultimately comes down to experience and personal preference. One thing is certain though, when it comes to pure chopping power, hatchets are clearly the undisputed "king."

About the author
Jason Schwartz is the founder and senior editor of Rocky Mountain Bushcraft, a blog that features articles, news stories, outdoor tips and product reviews written from a bushcraft and wilderness survival perspective. Schwartz is a former Red Cross certified Wilderness & Remote First Aid Instructor and has taught bushcraft and wilderness survival techniques to the Boy Scouts of America. He has also written for the The New Pioneer and Backpacker, including writing the "Tinder Finder" portion of Backpacker's "Complete Guide to Fire," which won a 2015 National Magazine Award (NMA). Email him at rockymountainbushcraft @ (without spaces)

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