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Published Feb. 16, 2021

When I was a kid, I had to read a book called Hatchet by Gary Paulsen. The book follows the exploits of a young boy named Brian who, following a plane crash, manages to survive alone in the Canadian wilderness thanks in large part to his trusty hatchet and the bushcraft skills he develops along the way. It’s a great read for kids who love the outdoors that was inspired by the author’s life, which is somehow even more incredible than the book’s plot. 

Besides being a fantastic read that even my fellow crayon-eating Marines can easily digest, you should also take a lesson from the main character and think about the tools you have at your disposal. Even if you aren’t dropped into the wild unknown all by your lonesome, being able to fend for yourself can make life a lot easier (and more rewarding). And sometimes, that tool is little more than a hatchet designed to conquer the great outdoors.

In the spirit of young Brian and his tale of survival, we’ve put together a guide to help you select the perfect hatchet for your next outdoor adventure. It doesn’t matter if you need a hardcore tactical hatchet or something that Ron Swanson would be proud of, we’ve got you covered.

The Snow & Nealley Outdoorsman’s Belt Axe is about as iconic as an American hatchet can be. The company has building hatchets and axes in Smyrna, Maine since 1864 and it’s safe to say they’ve got it down to an art form. When you swing an Outdoorsman’s Belt Axe, you’re channeling the great pioneers who came before us.

This hatchet sticks to the proven recipe of 1080 steel that’s tough enough to handle years of hard use in the forest. It isn’t as corrosion-resistant as stainless steel, but edge retention is superior and sharpening a razor’s edge is perfectly realistic. The factory edge on Snow & Nealley heads is usable but favors durability over sharpness, and you may want to run a file over it to create your preferred edge before the first swing. The combination of a 1.25-pound head and a 15-inch handle results in a hatchet that’s light and portable but still delivers a serious punch. Hickory is famously strong, so all you’ll need to maintain this handle is your preferred wood oil and maybe some beeswax for extra grip.

If you do some internet sleuthing, you’ll find that there is no Snow & Nealley website; instead, the company is represented online by The Working Axes. Why is that? Snow & Nealley is a traditional Amish company that builds axes and hatchets by hand in rural Maine, where they’ve done so for generations. They’re good people who make an outstanding product and take pride in every pass of sandpaper. If that doesn’t make you want to start chopping, I don’t know what will.

Product Specs
  • Head: 1080 steel
  • Handle: Hickory
  • Weight: 2.3 pounds
  • Overall length: 15.8 inches
  • Sheath: Leather
PROS

Built from the good stuff

Comes with an old-school leather sheath

Made in the U.S.

Hits the sweet spot of price and quality

CONS

Some need sharpening before the first use

Be prepared for regular maintenance

Bare-bones in terms of features

We spend a lot of time (too much, perhaps?) contemplating the perfect bug out bags, survival kits, and emergency preparedness strategies. One thing that needs to be in all of those is a good hatchet, but sometimes space and weight limitations get in the way. When that happens, this Gerber Pack Hatchet is perfect. It can save you a bundle, too.

At 1.3 pounds and under 10 inches long, this mighty little hatchet is easy to add to your existing loadout. The compact size also makes it easy to make finer cuts when building shelters or tools in the woods. It may not have the same romantic vibes as a classic wooden hatchet, but the upside is that its stainless steel and rubber are impervious to water so you don’t have to worry about the elements. Keep the edge sharp, and you’ll be in business. The full-tang construction adds to overall strength so even if chopping force is limited by size you won’t have to baby this little hatchet.

This clearly isn’t our pick for cutting trees or splitting firewood. It’s designed to go where heavier hatchets would slow you down, and we love it for that reason. It’s also a hell of a bargain at just a little more than $30. Odds are that there’s a small, hatchet-shaped hole in your current go bag. Why don’t you go ahead and fill it?

Product Specs
  • Head: Stainless steel
  • Handle: Rubber grip over stainless steel full tang
  • Weight: 1.3 pounds
  • Overall length: 9.5 inches
  • Sheath: Nylon
PROS

Super compact and portable

Excellent performance in wet environments

Full-tang construction increases stiffness

Rubber grip absorbs shock

CONS

Not big enough for true bushcraft

Limited force can be generated with such a short handle

Nylon sheath feels a little cheap

This gear guide is full of hatchets that make us want to pull out the credit card. Some make us want to study the craft of chopping wood like Paul Bunyan himself. This Gansfors Bruk Wildlife Hatchet, on the other hand, makes us go weak at the knees.

Let’s clear one thing up right off the bat: yes, it’s breathtakingly expensive. At more than $220, it’s several times more expensive than most of the alternatives here. It’s a fine piece of equipment built for people who appreciate elite craftsmanship and are willing to not only pay for it, but pay to have it shipped from Sweden. All Gransfors Bruks heads are hand-forged out of recycled high-carbon steel by passionate artisans. Hickory handles are shaped and sanded by hand for a perfect fit. Even the wedge that holds the handle in the eye of the head is wooden to create a solid bond as the wood expands naturally. A leather sheathes completes the aesthetic to create a timeless hatchet you can be proud of.

Whether or not you choose to invest in the Wildlife Hatchet, the company’s website is worth a look. It offers detailed information on the history of the axe, styles of axes, materials used, proper care, and instructions on how to use your axe properly. Gransfors Bruks is also proud of its commitment to responsible manufacturing and respect for its workers. If you’re going to send someone hundreds of dollars to build you a hatchet, this is where to shop.

Product Specs
  • Head: Recycled high-carbon steel
  • Handle: Hickory
  • Weight: 1.3 pounds
  • Overall length: 13.8 inches
  • Sheath: Leather
PROS

A tool to pass on to the next generation

We love a wooden wedge

Recycled steel reduces the guilt of cutting timber

Pretty enough to hang on the wall

CONS

Price is far beyond the competition

Traditional tools are a labor of love

Small production runs can limit availability

Best Composite Hatchet

Hatchet manufacturers like Snow & Nealley and Gransfors Bruks may represent the history of axe-making, but Fiskars represents the future. The X7 hatchet is a modern take on an ancient tool that takes performance to another level with new technology and materials.

The X7’s high-carbon steel head is strong, sharp, and enhanced by a low-friction coating that helps it slide through wood with each cut. Fiskars’ FiberComp creates a durable handle that can stand up to years of impacts and exposure to rain, heat, and snow. Grippy rubber protects your hand and inspires confidence with every swing. Beyond the tangibles, Fiskars claims that this hatchet has “perfect balance and power-to-weight ratio.” That sounds hard to quantify, but we don’t doubt that it’s up to whatever challenge we could throw at it.

If warming a wooden handle in the sun to help a carefully applied layer of beeswax soak in doesn’t sound like your kind of fun, a composite handle is what you need. Every hatchet will need to be sharpened from time to time, but the X7 is as close to maintenance-free as it gets. This is a home run for anyone who wants to know that their hatchet is in the garage and ready for action whenever they need it.

Product Specs
  • Head: Hardened forged carbon steel
  • Handle: FiberComp composite
  • Weight: 1.4 pounds
  • Overall length: 16.5 inches
  • Sheath: Plastic
PROS

Cutting-edge materials and technology

Well-balanced and easy to swing

Very reliable and low-maintenance

Carrying handle built into the minimalist sheath

CONS

Kind of feels like an office appliance

Can’t be repaired in the field

Composite handle can get slippery

Best Tactical Hatchet

Kershaw is no stranger to tactical gear so it only made sense for them to deliver a badass tactical hatchet worth breaking out your favorite warpaint for. If you imagine a sordid rendezvous between the Fiskars X7 and the Gerber Pack Hatchet, this is what would appear a few months later (or however long a hatchet’s gestation period is — we’re not scientists).

The Deschutes starts with a 3Cr13 stainless steel foundation that runs from the bleeding edge all the way to the end of the handle thanks to its full-tang construction. Knife aficionados will know that this adds a huge amount of strength that comes in handy for bushcraft tasks. The glass-filled nylon handle is weatherproof and gets a cushioned rubber grip to insulate your hand from vibration when chopping wood. At 1.6 pounds, this hatchet is up to the task of cutting wood for a shelter, defensive position, or even throwing without weighing your pack down.

Few deployed environments allow for the kind of preventative maintenance that traditional hatchets require. Good luck getting wood oil, beeswax, a file, and a set of whetstones in your assault pack. The Kershaw Deschutes is perfect for deployments that involve building something out of nothing. It’s also a little less tacti-cool than a full-on tomahawk, which may be good or bad, depending on how much attention you want to draw from your SNCOs.

Product Specs
  • Head: 3Cr13 stainless steel
  • Handle: Glass-filled nylon with rubber grip
  • Weight: 1.6 pounds
  • Overall length: 14 inches
  • Sheath: Molded composite
PROS

Full-tang, FDE, tactical goodness

Stainless steel and composite grip are all-weather approved

Light enough to carry all day

Hard sheath adds protection

CONS

Doesn’t generate as much force as a traditional hatchet

Narrow head isn’t great for splitting wood

Improved corrosion resistance at the expense of edge retention

Best Hatchet that Thinks it’s a Tomahawk

If you want to go all Benjamin Martin on your hapless enemies, the 5.11 Tactical CFA Peacemaker is a great way to relive the good old days of terrorizing redcoats for the children’s viewing pleasure. Truth be told, it’s more of a hatchet than a tomahawk–but that doesn’t make us like it any less.

Like the other two tactical hatchets on this list, the CFA Peacemaker relies on full-tang construction for durability. The SCM 435 steel is very thick and should be more than enough for whatever you have in mind. The broad, curved cutting edge makes quick work of wood, while the pick on the opposite side is good for puncturing or digging into frozen ground. The fiberglass-reinforced nylon handle isn’t as ergonomic as a thick, wooden handle, but it does the job. If you wear gloves (as you would in most combat environments), it’ll be just fine.

If you like the CFA Peacemaker, you’re probably cross-shopping it with the Kershaw Deschutes. The two hatchets are very similar and cater to the same crowd. This one is slightly more combat-biased than woodcutting-biased. The pick is a nice bonus. Beyond that, pick whichever one you like the looks of because they’re both solid tactical hatchets.

Product Specs
  • Head: SCM 435 steel
  • Handle: Fiberglass-reinforced nylon scales over steel full tang
  • Weight: 1.8 pounds
  • Overall length: 14 inches
  • Sheath: Molded nylon
PROS

Skeletonized to keep the full-tang design nice and light

Handle is shaped to provide excellent grip

Electro-coat finish protects against rust and corrosion

Pick is great for piercing or digging

CONS

Tomahawk label is a little misleading

A great tool that gives off strong “that guy” vibes

Versatile, but not the best for bushcraft

Best Tool Hatchet

Some of you aren’t planning a trip into the wilderness or prepping for an upcoming deployment; that’s perfectly fine. Estwing has you covered with the Sportsman’s Axe. This steel-bodied hatchet has been a favorite for decades because it’s durable, effective, and familiar to anyone who’s ever swung a hammer.

The slim, metal belly of this hatchet (the portion between the head and the handle) stands out from the crowd because it’s metal rather than wood or some kind of synthetic material. This one-piece construction makes it extremely strong, llike a full-tang hatchet before full-tang hatchets were cool. We also love the stacked leather handle. It’s unlike anything else on this list and is reminiscent of the beloved Ka-Bar (the real one, not the one that got appropriated by the Space Force). Best of all, you can have all this goodness for less than $40. If you have a little more to spend, upgrade to the blacked-out special edition hatchet.

This is the kind of hatchet that’s been hanging in garages and sheds since before any of us were born. Estwing still makes all its hatchets in Rockford, Illinois. The Sportsman’s Axe is a hatchet that’s instantly recognizable and sure to be a hit.

Product Specs
  • Head: Unspecified “solid American steel”
  • Handle: Leather grip over steel full tang
  • Weight: 1.9 pounds
  • Overall length: 14 inches
  • Sheath: Nylon
PROS

One-piece metal construction is extremely durable

Decades of proven success

Available in 12- or 14-inch lengths

Stacked leather handle is a thing of beauty

CONS

Narrow head isn’t great for splitting

Nylon sheath is a let-down compared to the leather handle

Leather handle requires extra care and maintenance

Best Splitting Hatchet

There are seven awesome hatchets on this list, but we wanted to include a good one-handed splitter just for good measure. This hoss from Hults Bruk will crack logs down the middle much faster than any of the hatchets here, and it’s the one we’d want to have alongside the fire pit in the summer.

Most of the hatchets on this list weigh in at less than two pounds. The head of this splitting axe weighs that much, and the whole thing tips the scales at a hefty 3.2 pounds. The wide head isn’t great for chopping or making precise cuts, but it can wedge its way into a log and split it into firewood much more effectively. It’s also noticeably larger, at 20 inches in length. That extra length allows you to generate more force and really get cracking. It’s certainly not on par with a full-sized maul, but it occupies a nice middle ground between that and a hatchet.

This isn’t going to be on your belt for any backwoods adventures and it wouldn’t be our choice for a go bag or emergency kit. No, it belongs right alongside your firepit so you can feed the fire long enough to grill up some steaks and keep your guests warm. Just make sure you practice your swing before inviting an audience.

Product Specs
  • Head: Premium Swedish steel
  • Handle: Hickory
  • Weight: 3.2 pounds
  • Overall length: 20 inches
  • Sheath: Leather
PROS

A dedicated, one-handed splitter

Perfect companion for your fire pit

Fantastic attention to detail

Impressive leather sheath included

CONS

This hatchet is for splitting only

Using it is a workout

Fairly expensive compared to some alternatives

Why you should trust us

Buying quality everyday items can save you money. Buying quality survival and adventure gear can save your life. That’s why we take pride in finding the best equipment out there, whether it’s a badass bushcraft knife, an optic for your AR, or something less tangible. Every hatchet on this list was chosen for a reason. Some are time-tested favorites that have been outdoor staples for centuries, while others incorporate cutting-edge materials and manufacturing techniques. Whichever you choose, you’ll be that much better off the next time you find yourself chopping firewood in the backyard or crafting a shelter miles from civilization.

What’s the difference between a hatchet and an axe?

The obvious difference between axes and hatchets is size. Axes are two-handed tools that can be used to cut down trees and split logs. Specialized axes also exist for woodworking. Hatchets look similar but are small enough to be used with only one hand. Unlike tomahawks, they aren’t necessarily designed with throwing in mind. You can still chop down small trees with a hatchet, it’ll just take more time and effort.

Another distinction most people don’t know is the difference in metals used to build axes and hatchets. Because hatchets are so similar to hammers, the steel of the head is traditionally hardened to handle strikes against metal nails and stakes. Axes aren’t intended for this kind of thing, so the steel that’s used to make them is often much softer and can be damaged by a nail head. Know Prepare Survive has a detailed breakdown of these differences if you’re hungry for more.

Types of hatchets

Building a hatchet is simple enough, but there’s still some variety in the market that you should understand before picking one to strap to the side of your pack. The differences boil down to the materials that are used and the advantages they offer. The hatchets on this list can be divided into three easily identified categories.

Traditional hatchets

Hatchets have been around for thousands of years; since the days of chipping a rock into a crude edge and wedging it into a split branch. These days, traditional hatchets still look about like the ones that were used ages ago. You can spot a traditional hatchet by its wooden handle and sharpened steel edge.

This kind of hatchet is a timeless tool that’s popular among people who want to keep traditional bushcraft and woodworking skills alive. We can’t deny that singing a wooden handle has a satisfying feel to it that composite handles just can’t replicate. You might expect these hatchets to be the most affordable, but many are the product of very skilled labor and come at a hefty price as a result.

Composite hatchets

As synthetic materials developed, it was only natural for them to find their way into hand tools like hatchets. Many modern hatchets use composite handles that are lighter and stronger than wood. They don’t have quite the same feel, but there are good reasons to opt for one.

Composite hatchets are more durable than traditional hatchets. Water, rot, and dry air are no match for them so you can expect to get years out of yours with minimal maintenance. Sure, you can’t really repair one in the field, but breaking a composite hatchet is so unlikely that we wouldn’t be worried about it. Better yet, they’re surprisingly affordable.

Tactical hatchets

This gear guide wouldn’t be complete without some kind of tactical element, and you can bet your overpriced combat boots that we found some solid hatchets to scratch that itch. This is a legitimate category of its own, but there is a lot of crossover with composite hatchets due to the fact that wood is comparatively heavy and susceptible to the elements.

Tactical hatchets usually take lightness to a new level with thinner handles and skeletonized heads. That makes them easier to carry and–in a pinch–chuck downrange. They usually come with some kind of sheath or mounting system that’s compatible with the MOLLE on your assault pack.

Key features of hatchets

Hatchets are simple tools. There’s just a head and a handle (and maybe a wedge in the case of a wooden handle). It’s not complicated, but we always recommend getting to know your gear before you put it to use.

Head

A hatchet’s head takes the brunt of abuse and does most of the work. Even without a handle, you could beat it into a log like a wedge to split firewood. Most hatchets use carbon steel because it’s affordable, tough, and effective. Some heads use an alloy like 420 stainless steel to improve corrosion resistance at the expense of edge retention. If you really want to get into the weeds, Axeing has a great breakdown of the types of steel used to make axes, hatchets, and tomahawks.

Another consideration is shape. Narrow heads are good for chopping or cutting; wide heads are good for splitting. Hatchets are usually skewed toward cutting, although traditional hatchets seem to run wider than tactical hatchets by nature of their thick, wooden handles. If you want to learn more about the history and uses of various head shapes, Timber Gadgets is a helpful resource.

Handle

Historically, hatchets used a wooden handle. Wood is still relevant because it does a good job of insulating your hand from the shock of the head cutting into a log. It can also be replaced in the field easily enough in an emergency. On the downside, wood is vulnerable to damage from water, dry air, and insects. It requires maintenance to keep it in optimal condition.

Many modern hatchets use composite handles that are lighter and more durable than wood. Many people consider these to be less comfortable in the hand. Some even use separate materials for the shaft and the grip of the handle. If you plan on spending a lot of time in the elements, this can be a better option than wood.

Benefits of hatchets

Size

Hatchets have been in use since before recorded history and they’re still as useful as ever. Would we rather cut a tree down with an axe or chainsaw? Of course, but we don’t always want to carry a big axe or a chainsaw, fuel, and spare parts. Having something small and portable is a great asset, even if it’s just your backup plan. The common-sense rule is that the more wood you have to cut, the bigger your axe should be. Hatchets are built to cut enough wood to last all night rather than all winter.

The hatchets we picked for this gear guide are small enough to strap to the side of a hiking pack or wear on your belt. Modern variations use composite materials and minimalist designs that make them lighter than ever without compromising strength. Many can also be used as a hammer, and combining two tools into one is always a nice perk.

Utility

If you watch as many survival shows as we do, you know that hatchets are very versatile. With enough time and effort, they can cut down anything a felling axe can cut down. They can strip branches relatively efficiently. They may not be as efficient as a burly splitting maul, but you can split logs if you need to and even shape them to build a shelter or tool.

In a lot of ways, a hatchet is like an old truck or a trusty 30-30. There are better tools out there, but each can get you through just about anything if you know how to use it. If nothing else, a hatchet is a great excuse to get out of the house and practice a new bushcraft skill.

Easy maintenance

If you’ve ever been lucky enough to visit a well-stocked workshop, you probably noticed a lot of old tools lying around. Hell, my dad is still using hand tools that belonged to my great-grandfather. That’s because tools as simple as a hatchet can last forever if you take care of them.

Sharpening a hatchet is as simple as running a file and whetstone across the head. Replacing the wooden handle on a traditional hatchet is also simple, easy, and cheap. As long as you keep exposure to water under control and maintain the edge, your hatchet can easily become a lifelong asset.

Pricing considerations for hatchets

This is usually the point in the gear guide where we insert words of caution against cheap products and call out a few exceptions to the rule. This time is different though, and we credit that to the fact that hatchets are incredibly simple and easy to produce.

Budget 

For less than $50, you can take your pick from a range of solid traditional and composite hatchets. Kick it old school with the Estwing Sportsman’s Axe or strap the compact Gerber Pack Hatchet to your tactical go bag. There are certainly valid reasons to spend more, but it’s not a prerequisite to getting a good piece of gear. 

Mid-range

By increasing your budget to between $50 and $100, you’ll get access to higher quality materials and craftsmanship. If you plan on carrying your hatchet outdoors rather than using it primarily in the garage and around the yard, spending a little extra on something more durable might be a worthwhile investment. Just remember that every hatchet will require some degree of maintenance.

Hatchets like the Snow & Nealley Outdoorsman’s Belt Axe and Kershaw Deschutes are two examples of traditional and modern hatchets that can withstand the elements and the test of time. They take two different approaches but are equally valuable when you need a rugged cutting tool.

Premium

There aren’t a lot of hatchets north of the $100 line, but the few that we picked for this gear guide are well-built, specialized equipment that can justify the hefty asking price. In this price range, look for premium materials and excellent build quality.

The Gransfors Bruk Wildlife hatchet is an example of an outstanding hand-built hatchet that can raise a campsite from the forest floor and look damn good doing it. The 5.11 Tactical CFA Peacemaker Tomahawk is tough enough to chop wood and light enough to throw. Both are great choices if you have the money. If cost were no issue, I’d honestly buy one of each.

How we chose our top picks

We’re always looking for quality gear that can stand up to years of use. With that established, we sought out hatchets that span from old-school classics to modern tools that incorporate the latest materials and designs. We ruled out axes, which are so much larger that they serve a very different purpose and could use a gear guide of their own. We also didn’t include tomahawks in the traditional sense; those with a narrow head and built for throwing. Some of the products here might be called axes or tomahawks in the description, but their short handles and broad cutting edges make them hatchets in our book.

FAQs on hatchets

You’ve got questions, Task & Purpose has answers.

Q: Are hatchets and tomahawks the same thing?

A: Hatchets and tomahawks are very similar, but tomahawks place more of an emphasis on throwing and lightweight design. Hatchets tend to be heavier and more focused on chopping wood than striking a target.

Q: How do I choose between a hatchet and an axe?

A: This is a pretty easy choice that comes down to space. If you’re able to keep an axe in your garage or vehicle, it will be much more efficient than a hatchet. If you’re traveling by foot or tight on space, a hatchet provides quite a bit of cutting power in a more portable package.

Q: How do I sharpen a hatchet?

A: We’re sure everyone has a preferred method, but sharpening a hatchet is very similar to sharpening a knife. Depending on how beat up the edge is, you might need to use a file before busting out the whetstone.

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Scott Murdock is a Task & Purpose commerce writer and Marine Corps veteran. He’s selflessly committed himself to experiencing the best gear, gadgets, stories, and alcoholic beverages in the service of you, the reader.

Task & Purpose and its partners may earn a commission if you purchase a product through one of our links. We independently evaluate gear by putting products in the hands of subject matter experts. The products we test may be purchased by Task & Purpose, our staff, or provided for review by a manufacturer. No matter the source, our testing procedures and our assessments remain free from third-party influence. Learn more about our product review process.

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