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The Big Boys of Cutting Tools: Axes, Mauls, and Hatchets

Friday, 18 January 2013 05:55 Written by  Mopea

In almost every Prepper, survival, and Bushcraft forum on the web, you’ll find folks talking about this great axe they found for their Bug Out Bag (BOB). And, in almost every single instance that person is actually referring to a hatchet. There seems to be a bit of confusion as to what the differences are between the three big boys of the cutting world. So let’s explore axes, mauls, and hatchets and identify their different purposes.

When preparing our survival plans, most initially plan to "Bug In”. In the Bug In scenario, you are not restricted by what can fit inside a Bug Out Bag (BOB), nor having a single tool that can accomplish several tasks. So, in the Bug In scenario you can have all three of the big boys. In contrast, if you had to roam the country side, size and weight would be a different concern, and you would likely chose one or the other.

The Siblings

Axes – A hand tool with one side of its head forged and sharpened to a cutting edge, used for felling trees, splitting timber, etc.

Mauls – A tool like a sledgehammer with one wedge-shaped end that is used to split wood.

Hatchets - A short-handled axe, often with a hammerhead to be used with one hand.


Axes, real axes, are great for felling trees since they are thinner, lighter, and sharper then mauls and are better for swinging sideways into trees. Their thin shape and sharp edge makes them excellent for cutting across the grain, which is what you need if you plan on felling a tree. This is why machetes are thin, long, and sharp.

A real axe will have a thin head, a very sharp cutting blade, and a relatively short handle (when compared to a maul).  Axes are designed for a single purpose; chopping against the grain of the wood. Yes, some people use them for splitting wood, but some people also think hanging a tennis ball off their pajamas will stop their snoring.

When looking at an axe, you might think the butt of the axe could be used for hammering since it has a flat face. But, you would be wrong. One of the quickest ways to destroy an axe is to use it as a sledge hammer. They are not designed for hammering, and by using it as a hammer you are actually weakening the entire head. This can cause the head to crack, and fly off when swinging the axe for its intended purpose.

If you have ever tried to split wood with an axe, you have undoubtedly been in the situation where you wind up your manly overhead swing, and drive that sharp edge deep into the wood only to have it become stuck in the un-split log.  You stood back looking at this new axe-in-log modern art you have created, like it’s the sword in the stone, and find it’s just as difficult to remove. Then after fifteen minutes of banging on it with other uncut logs you just toss the whole assembly into the fire out of frustration. What you actually needed to split wood was a maul.


Mauls, also known as splitting mauls, or splitting axes (I hate that term) are the polar opposite of axes. They are thick, relatively dull, have a hammer head on the butt, and have a long handle. They are designed for a single purpose, splitting logs. They don’t cut and should never be used for cutting; lest you want to end up using that trauma kit you have taken so much time prepping.

An average maul will have a head weight of about 8 pounds, and it’s that mass, combined with the dull blade which makes it ideal for splitting wood. A maul is not something you would want to pack in your BOB, but if you have a Bug Out Vehicle (BOV); it’s something you could, and should, pack in there.

My Dad introduced me to the maul at a young age, while splitting wood for our family's fireplace back in the 70s. It's thick and massive, and when you swing it over your head, in the typical wood splitting fashion, most logs don't stand a chance. That is one giant plus for owing a maul. But there are others as well.

A maul has a hammer on the butt of the head, which means it can be used for hammering a wedge into hard wood. It can be used as a sledge hammer, which is something an Axe cannot, and should not, be used for. Want to take down a door? An axe will do it, but you're going to have to chop your way through the door lumberjack style. But, what if the door is made of steel? Using a maul you can simply flip it around, and use the hammer head to take out the locks and hinges.

In my humble opinion, a Maul is a much more valuable tool then an Axe, and if your plans are to "Bug In" then you would be a fool not to own one.

Handles and Albert Einstein

You’ll notice I made a point of talking about handle length when describing axes and mauls.  Mauls and axes have different length handles for a couple of reasons.

The first is physics; the shorter handle of an axe both reduces the weight, and allows for a quicker recovery and reset when chopping against the grain. This allows you chop for longer periods of time without getting tired, and to get deeper cuts for each swing of the axe. The maul, on the other hand, has a longer handle because most of the time you will be swinging overhead with the objective of getting that massive head moving as fast as possible. The longer handle aids in that; I could toss in some physics equations related to angular momentum or centripetal force and such, but instead just know it works.

The second reason is handles are different sizes is due to safety and blade preservation. In the case of the maul it’s safety. The longer handle is designed so that after you have driven that massive head into the log at high speed, the head will then go into the ground, not your foot or shin. You might think, but wait, slamming my maul into the dirt and rocks is going to dull the blade, and you’d be right. But remember the maul is not a sharp cutting tool to begin with; it has to be dull to do its splitting job correctly. So the dirt and rocks are not going to harm it.

The axe on the other hand has a short handle for blade preservation. Not all axe swings are parallel to the ground. After you fell a tree, you’ll need to chop it into manageable logs. Now your chopping will be perpendicular to the ground, and that shorter handle will allow you chop at full speed without slamming your sharp edge into the dirt and rocks; because in the case of the axe you don’t want to dull that blade.


Hatchets are the “mini-me” of the axe world, and are what most "Bug Out" Preppers are talking about when they use the word “Axe”.

A hatchet is simply a small axe, a very small axe. Yes you can fell small trees with them, and yes you can split small logs with them. The operative term here is small. Just try to fell a tree 30 inches in diameter, and then using the same hatchet, chop it into logs, and split it for firewood, all in a reasonable time period. It's going to be hard-hard work.

Hatchets are very useful around the home and camp, and because of their small size they can be used in the cleaning and butchering of game and livestock, as well as the “beheading” of chickens and ducks. In addition, because of their small size they can be used effectively as fire steel. But in the end, they are really just small axes and not much good when it comes to splitting sizable wood.

Hatchets come in all shapes and sizes, but in general they are less than 24 inches in length, and have a very sharp cutting blade. Some of the newer ones have all sorts of strange shapes, trying to be all things to everyone, Although they may look “cool” one must remember the primary functions of the hatchet are for cutting small wood and helping to dispatch the odd chicken. A hatchet with an on board bottle opener is about as useful as “tits on a boar hog”.

Now am I saying hatchets don’t have a purpose? Nope, when hiking, and/or “Bugging Out”, they are a godsend and every Prepper should have one.

Products we Recommend

Axe - Wetterlings Chopping Axe, Estwing E45A Campers Axe

Maul - Gransfors Bruks Large Splitting Axe, Fiskars 7884 X27 Super Splitting Axe, Seymour SM-8FG

Hatchet - Wetterlings Large Hunter's Axe


So what should you include in your survival plan? The short answer is all of them. The long answer is all of them. Whether you plan to Bug In or Bug Out, all three of these tools should be in your stash.

Last modified on Friday, 18 January 2013 23:53
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