In the award-winning novel Hatchet, written by Gary Paulson, we follow the protagonist, Brian, on his long-term survival journey after a tragic plane crash, leaving him the only survivor in the North American wilderness with nothing but a small hatchet, given to him just before his trip. The original novel sees Brian finally rescued after months of surviving in the wild, with subsequent novels adding different scenarios if rescue never came. While we can read this in relative comfort, knowing it’s a fiction novel, the stories of being stranded in the wilderness with the bare minimum are something that happens every year. In Hatchet, Brian’s survival was possible thanks to the one tool he was able to carry with him, and this is a story that has been told and retold throughout centuries of reliance on this specific tool.
The age-old adage tells us, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. This holds true for the necessity of a one-handed axe, a tool that can be seen in multiple cultures in great variety at many points in history. The word itself is derived from the old French word hachete, or axe. The main difference between a hatchet and axe will primarily be based on the length of the handle. Ideally an Axe will be wielded with two hands, and can feature much heavier heads to make jobs easier. A hatchet is meant to be lightweight and usable with one hand, so although you may see similar axe heads, the overall design is what differentiates an axe from a hatchet. Throughout history, from the Norse Viking Skeggox to the Native American Tomahawk, the One-Handed axe has been a vital tool for harvesting and crafting, and if push came to shove, as a deadly weapon. More than just a tool or a weapon, the hatchet became a symbol of war and peace for the Native Americans, and for the Scandinavian Vikings, a symbol of status and prestige, with the more ornate and intricate designs crafted into the axe heads. This should show that their reliance and familiarity with the tool transcended past just the physical uses into something meant to honor the importance of this tool for their everyday lives.
Centuries ago, humans crafted crude axes and hatchets with stone axe heads, eventually evolving to the superior metals that would eventually become the standard for tools such as this. What we can gather from this is that no matter where humans found themselves, there was a universal understanding within all developing cultures that a one-handed cutting tool, specialized in woodcutting, would become the quintessential tool of outdoors enthusiasts for centuries to come. Thanks to modern manufacturing practices, the availability of Hatchets has increased so significantly that the market is increasingly flooded with poor quality and ineffective renditions of the hatchet design. Specifically speaking about skeletonized tools, wrapped in bright colors and marketed with phrases like ‘zombie killer’, are not worth their weight. Having personally tested dozens of those items, I can guarantee that those tools won’t even kill a spruce tree, much less a zombie. The function of a hatchet comes from the design of the head, with completely flat heads being useless for anything except cutting. An axe head should be heavier, allowing you to transfer as much momentum to the weighted edge, allowing for easy cuts.
The quality of the hatchet you may need will vary greatly based on the frequency of use. For most casual campers, a simple hatchet picked up at the local outdoor store from a large brand name is sufficient for basic wood-splitting needs at an organized campsite. While you can certainly spend a premium for quality, hand-crafted hatchets, the level of quality is consistent with the price paid. Don’t get me wrong, the premium hatchets are absolutely beautiful to look at, and function consistently above the bar. However, unless you intend to be crafting shelters regularly, these may not be entirely necessary. After all, if you camp infrequently, an axe you can hand down to your grandchildren is more of a conversation piece than a functional one.
While a knife is a must have outdoor tool, a hatchet is a close second, if not an outright replacement. A good hatchet can do everything a bushcrafting knife could do, and more. Utilizing the flat butt on some hatchet heads, you have a very useful hammer. The edge can also be sharpened to your desire, using a knife-edge for precise cutting, or a more obtuse edge normally seen on axe heads for longevity when splitting and chopping. The width and taper of the wedge plays a huge role in the splitting capabilities, with narrow wedges making it more difficult for splitting, but have more cutting precision.
So take a look at your kit and base your hatchet purchase on what you already have, or plan to have in the near future. Some tools have multiple functions by design, and we have seen manufacturers attempt to push those limits with added features and changes to construction. What I can say is if you truly believe that will benefit your needs, then go for it. However, a good knife is just that, a knife. While a knife can do a litany of things, the best knife designs aren’t ones with hollow handles for survival tools, or with holes in the blade to use as a wrench. The same goes for a hatchet, the best design will be simply a hatchet. It is already a multipurpose tool on its own, and with proper knowledge on how to use it, the extra features advertised on the newer survival type items actually takes away from the functionality a tool like this should provide.
Remember, the more you add onto a tool, the higher the chances that something could break, or something else could go wrong, reducing the overall effectiveness of the tool. As there are bushcrafters out there using their Grandfather's axe, which they used to build their wilderness retreats. Humans have relied on the one-handed axe for centuries, and we continue to do so to this very day. As I said in the beginning, if the design isn't broken, there's no need to 'fix' it, and this will continue to hold true for one of the most iconic tools ever conceived in all of human history.