I have found over the years that there is a lot of information on the Internet about axes, yet very few of the people writing about them have any real experience in working with them. With the Zombie Apocalypse nearly upon us I feel it is high time to solve this issue.
I have spent the last four years of my life living and working in designated Wilderness areas in the Rocky Mountains where motorized equipment (chainsaws) are not allowed, falling trees, building log bridges, clearing trail, etc, all with crosscut saw and axe, and it would be fair to say that I’ve learned more than a little about axes since then, particularly given that they are something I’m very interested in in general anyhow. Of course I won’t have the time or gumption to share everything I know here about axes, it would take a full book to do so but I can give a good primer for folks who are new to the axe ( or ax depending on your spelling preference ).
First off it’s best to ask why you think you need an axe? Axes are specialty tools, one axe will not fit all your needs, though some are more versatile than others, there will always be sacrifices to be made. Do you need to split firewood, buck (that is chop through logs), fall trees, hew logs (flatten out surfaces for building), limb trees, split kindling or cut off the heads of thousands of the maurading undead?
Think about this seriously, it’s important when the axe meets your wallet.
Splitting Axes and Mauls
The first thing people ask when they learn about peak oil or come to believe some other sort of apocalypse is upon us is “Should I buy an axe?” then “What kind?” So try to think through what you think is the worst case scenario in the future you envision, chances are a chainsaw may suit you better. Really even an EMP attack won’t make a chainsaw not work and they use so little fuel even in a major scarcity you aught to be able to aquire enough to cut your firewood. You just might not be able to drive to the gas station to pick it up.
A splitting axe / maul and some splitting wedges on the other hand is probably the most likely tool that you’re going to need, the need to split firewood to heat your home, assuming firewood is available is a real possibility.
This also is the easiest axe to purchase. Every hardware store sells some cheap piece of crap with thick, obtuse edges that will accomplish this task. Look for a long handle 35 inches or so. It’s safer (goes into the dirt instead of your shins when you miss your mark and gives you more power for dealing with the notty stuff.
A neat trick for splitting firewood that I’ve seen is mounting an old tire on top of your splitting stump into which you place the logs to be split (yep you can fill it up not just split one at a time) and instead of the wood falling off onto the ground after each blow and needing to be reset, it stays in place on end in the tire and can be split over and over until you have it split to your specs. A bonus is that the axe handle hits the tire and stops the bit from going into your splitting stump and destroying it. Your stump will last for years this way instead of maybe for a cord or two depending on your firewood type.
Now of course I just said that any old piece of crap will split firewood, which is true, especially if you sharpen it and apply large amounts of force, but the best splitters start out thin at the cutting edge and quickly and smoothly taper to a thick obtuse angle. Check out the Gransfors Bruk splitting mauls / splitting axes if you want the best. I’ve used these, and found them to be superlative, though a bit pricey of a tool to solve a problem that a $35 hardware store maul will solve.
Also don’t forget your splitting wedges and make sure you have some sort of heavy sledge hammer (5lbs plus) to drive them with when you have to split rounds that are large in diameter, any axe or maul is likely to get stuck in big rounds if the type of wood you have doesn’t readily split from the outside of the log round working in.
Bucking and Falling Axes
Axes intended for bucking (chopping) and falling tend to be similar and are largely interchangeable in nature. I would, however, caution against using a axe with a head heavier than 4lbs for falling. It is an order of magnitude more physically challenging to swing an axe horizontally with good accuracy than to swing down with one and as such a lighter head will make your work much less punishing. I also recommend a longer handle as it is safer for falling work. Glancing blows when you’re working at waist level or above are ueber scary. I like a 2.5 to 3.5 pound axe head on a 35″ handle for falling trees.
As far as bucking with an axe goes, there is very little reason to base your choice of axe on this action as it is generally more efficient to use a crosscut saw to buck larger diameter logs, both in terms of energy spent and amount of wood wasted. Only if you work on a trail crew or are into competition axe racing would you likely need something geared towards axe bucking. That said a 3.5lb double bit axe with a 35″ handle works very well for this task. Keep one bit sharp and filed acutely for the bulk of the work and then when you are about to finish your chopping flip the axe around and use the other bit that you keep a more obtuse (and thus more rugged) edge on in case your final blow goes into the dirt or strikes a rock. You won’t damage your sharp acute edge this way.
Single bit versus double bits… While in many cases a single bit axe can outperform a double bit, the difference is marginal. A single bit has the benefit of being able to pound falling wedges (use plastic or even better magnesium wedges, but avoid steel as it can damage your axe), but you don’t have the benefit of having the second more obtuse cutting edge that you can use when working around rocks or other places where you might damage your axe.
Personally I find a 35″ 3.5lb double bit axe to be the most versatile axe out there and thus chose it for much of my backcountry work. The major drawback is that to get a good one you’re going to have to pay out the yin yang or find a vintage axe head at a garage sale and re-hang it with a good handle.
A good alternative would be the Iltis Ochsenkopf (or oxhead) 2.5lb falling axe with a 35″ handle. It is a European design so it may look a bit strange with it’s belled out bit, but I can assure you it is a fine tool, the only downside is that you may, as I have, find the handle to be uncomfortably thick, so you may end up re-hanging it or at least filing it down with a wood rasp to get a thinner more ergonomic grip. This company makes double bit axes as well, but they don’t really float my boat as the design is a bit to unconventional for my tastes.
A note on axe head weight. You may have seen some of the massive axes in the lumberjack competitions. These beasts are impressive tools indeed but super highly specialized for working for just a minute or two. The extremely strong lumberjack racers who only have to work for a minute, instead of all day will chose axes from 5 to 8 pounds in head weight. These heavy axes will wear even the most massive of lumberjacks out in short order so they really aren’t practical for actual WORK. Avoid them unless you’re looking to compete for show.
Limbing is one area where a competent and experienced axeman can still outperform most people running a chainsaw. Don’t believe me? Drop me a line if you’re in my neighborhood and we’ll race for cash.
When it comes to limbing, a falling or bucking axe performs well and if you are strong can even be preferable but for most people it will be to their advantage to acquire a more maneuveable 28 – 30″ axe with a head around 2.5lbs. Your aim will be better with the smaller axe. If you want something new, I would recommend the Gransfors Bruk Scandinavian Forest Axe for an excellent limbing axe , they are fine hand forged tools that take an exceedingly strong edge, hold it and don’t chip, otherwise shop for a vintage American head and re-hang it with the right length handle. Remember to stand on the opposite side of the log that you are limbing whenever possible for safety. A shorter axe is often more dangerous because a glancing blow is more likely to go into your leg than the dirt, but what you gain in controllability with the smaller axe often offsets the danger. It’s all about having the right tool for the job!
I’m not going to get into specialized axes here or I’d never finish writing this article and you’d never finish reading it. There are many, including axes for hewing, cutting sod, short handled light weight double bit cruiser axes etc. These all have a place but unless you’re seriously into primitive cabin building or have a highly specialized job like a tree climber / arborist, they should probably be avoided as they often require learning a specific technique for a specific task. Generally speaking you can perform most of these specialized tasks relatively well with a regular bucking or falling axe.
Axes for Killing Zombies
Ah, the Zombie Axe! This is what you’ve been waiting for. First off, Kudus for realizing that an axe is a superior zombie slaying device to the ubiquitous machete. Don’t get me wrong, I have great respect for machetes especially after having lived in the Jungles of South America, they are phenomonal tools under the correct circumstances, and a great hand-to-hand weapon against humans, however, when it comes to the maurading undead, you’re going to need more penetration than a machete offers, a machete’s strength is in its shearing action, especially when employing the pinch grip, whereas an axe’s strength lies in its force over area or pounds per square inch (PSI). An axe can sever a head or penetrate a skull. You just can’t do that as easily with a machete, particularly penetrating a skull.
So, the strength of the axe being recognized, what then is going to make an axe a good zombie slaying weapon. The answer is SPEED! A heavy axe is more than likely going to be too slow and too inaccurate when swung not only above the waist but above shoulder level. It’s really hard to swing an axe at that height, especially when you have to do so with accuracy over and over again. I know, I’ve had to do it to fall trees on steep slopes where my face cut was above shoulder level. It was exceedingly difficult. So the type of axe that benefits us the most here is going to be one with a light head and comparitively long handle.
I’ll take my 2.5lb Iltis ochsenkopf falling axe, but mind you, I AM a pro. A limbing axe might be OK too, but I would highly recommend that you look into a tomahawk. Long handle, light narrow bit = fast swinging high PSI weapon. A tomahawk is also highly portable and many include a hammer poll on one end which may even be a preferable weapon when you want to crack a skull but not risk getting the bit stuck in said undead cranium. Sure a tomahawk can’t sever a head in one blow, but it can easily sever the spine. Contrary to popular belief, Zombies can be paralyzed too, severing the spine is an excellent way to disable a ghoul. You can also take away it’s iPhone for an equally devastating blow. Imagine what you could do to an iPad with a tomahawk!!!
I recommend the Cold Steel Trailhawk as an economical weapon. However if you want the best edged weapon money can buy, I can recommend Custom Tool designer Mike Gapp’s custom Tomahawks Equinox Coronado . He can put together a long super tough composite handled custom profiled weapon that you will serve you exceedingly well should the hordes of undead rise and take to the streets.
If however, after all this the equinox coronado hawks are still a bit out of your price range and you still prefer a machete, or, and I shudder, a sword to an axe or hawk, I would encourage you to compromise with a Ditch Bank, a wicked brush clearing tool that sports much thicker steel than a machete and a longer two handed handle. Long enough to gain enough force to sever heads easily if the edge is well maintained. Ugly but effective, and still can do double duty in actual work.
Now a few technical notes to wrap it up:
Selecting a good wooden handle
When chosing an axe handle you want straight grain that runs parallel to the head of the axe. To see this you’re going to want to look in two places one, the end of the handle opposite the head and two in the eye of the axe head. If the grain runs in the right right direction (towards the cutting axe and not perpendicular to the cutting edge) then you are half way there. Next you’re going to want to make sure it is good hardwood. It should be ash or hickory, and the grain should be tight. Bigger spaces between the grain often indicate a handle that is less strong. It is probably best if the handle is NOT coated with a clear lacquer. If it is, that is OK, you’re just going to want to sand it off when you get it home and then rub the sanded handle down with linseed oil, try not to buy “boiled” linseed as that just means they’ve added some seriously harsh toxic chemicals to make it dry faster. You don’t need to be soaking that into your skin. As far as fiberglass or the yellow pastic handles go, one word, Don’t.
Uhg… Sharpening is almost another book unto itself, but you’re going to want to have a large mill bastard file for when you’ve chipped the hell out of your axe or if you want to customize the profile, and also a round axe stone for when the edge just needs touching up. This is going to take some practice so I highly recommend you find someone who is experienced in sharpening with a stone and file and get them to SHOW you. If they use a bench grinder immediately stop listening to them, you can do a lot of damage to an axe in very short order with a grinder including, in extreme cases, ruining the temper on the axe rendering it garbage. Don’t do it.
One final note, if you are a total bum and just want an all around axe that is going to survive your being exceedingly abusive to it, spare a fine tool like the Gransfors or Iltis axes from your abuse and get yourself an Estwing, it will serve you well and nobody is gonna cry if you do bad things to it.
Anyhow, I realize the limitations of this article but I hope I’ve given you a good starting point from which to learn more about the axe and make your first purchase if you still think you need one. There is much to learn. So don’t be shy, ask questions in the comments section below, If they’re reasonable, I’ll be happy to answer. But bear in mind I’m busy preparing for the onslought myself so be patient if it takes some time for me to get back to you.
Cheers! And on the field of Zombie Battle, let us show them our hearts and then show them theirs!!!