Years ago while attending a school in the Lower Peninsula of Michigan I met a man who loved the woods as I did. He and his wife lived secluded at the edge of a forest and he had a small watch repair shop. I don’t remember his name but while I waited for him to fix my watch he asked me where I was from. I said, “South Texas” and when he heard that his questions came in a flurry. Seems he knew lots of stories about the Wild West and, of course, Texas was as wild—as he saw it—as one could get. It just so happened that South and West Texas are probably the most remote parts of Texas and that information peeked his curiosity even more. We swapped stories about our homes because I was just as curious about The Wolverine State as he was about the Lone Star State. I told him that what I loved most about his great state was how green it was especially compared to my part of Texas.
During the deer season he invited me to tag along when he hunted his corn field with a 12-gauge pump shotgun. Using a rifle in the Lower Peninsula was against the law back then and I imagine that hasn’t changed. On that hunt we saw several does but not the buck he was looking for. Afterward, we sat behind his house and talked about hunting and the woods and living close to nature. There were a couple of inches of snow on the ground and he brought out a coffee pot charged and ready to be fed a fire. Then he pulled out a small ax from a box and said, “Let’s get some wood.” He proceeded to grab several three-inch logs from the woodpile nearby and then went to splitting the little logs by tapping the ax poll with a wooden club as the blade rested on the end of each log. I was amazed how neatly the wood was severed into mini-boards about 1/3-inches wide. In Texas I’d seen my uncles do something along those lines with an ax but mesquite never split as nicely as the wood that man was cleaving. In the Texas Brushlands we make our fires by scrounging around for rotting mesquite branches and then snapping the branches on the ground with a forceful whack to the dirt. The branches fragment into nice-size pieces and what bark remains on the branches falls off and in one go we’ve got kindling and fuel.
When I got back to Texas I found a mesquite log that had been leaning against the side of a shed and after checking for scorpions and black widows I carried it to a shaded area and then using a 14-inch thin-bladed machete gave it a good solid hit, Michigan style, and just about ruined the machete in the process. Not to be bested I tried again and messed up the blade even more. The mesquite log was about five-inches in diameter and when mesquite has been out in the sun for a while it dries and gets almost rock-like. Now mesquite has a specific gravity of about 0.85 and that’s really hard wood. I don’t remember what species of wood we used in Michigan but it was substantially softer with perhaps an SG in the low 0.40s. It made good firewood though it didn’t smell anywhere near as nice as burning mesquite wood.
In the intervening years I’ve seen people in South Texas and other parts of the Southwest try to baton various hardwoods using small knives always with mixed results. I’m not sure that batoning is a viable tactic in these places especially if the wood is ultra-hard and your knife matters to you. But batoning wood with a knife has become a sort of “trial by fire” test in a lot of bushcraft circles. It’s akin to the military testing out a new pistol by submersing it in mud then sand then freezing water and then shooting out the magazine without a jam. But batoning with a knife is probably only viable if you’re using a soft wood like the species found in the Northern latitudes. In the Southwest where wood dries into stone it’s best to use an ax.
The other day I tried batoning a big chunk of dry mesquite with three of my heavier “woods roamer” knives. Two of the knives are made from 5160 leaf spring and one is made from a farrier’s rasp. All three choppers are robust and I found them superior to using an ax because I could pick and choose where to baton the blade spine in order to severe the log. A few minutes before we’d broken an ax handle when we tried batoning it on another mesquite log and the baton accidentally struck the handle. Of course, we had no problems with the big choppers.
I’ve been told the reason people are so gung-ho about batoning with a small knife is because it shows how one cutting tool can do it all. Well, maybe. But I doubt it. Besides, if I were in the North Country I think I might prefer a small ax and a couple of decent pocket knives to any typical bushcraft blade. Even a mini-ax might be preferable but then that’s just my opinion and I have a fondness for small axes. Besides, I’ve seen Scandinavian blades fold like wet coffee filters when struck against really hard wood like mesquite, Texas ebony, guayacan and brasil. But a small ax or a well-built chopper like the ones I’ve made for myself work beautifully. You might try making a chopper for yourself if you’re so inclined. Of course, I can always just pick up an armful of rotting mesquite branches (watching out for scorpions et al) and forget the ax or the chopper and the knife altogether. And that’s what I usually do.