Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Mini Axes and Survival

Getting to know an axe or any cutting tool for that matter is a lot like trying out a new pair of shoes. You’ve got to walk a few miles before you know for sure if they are any good. My tendency is to slog tools over varying obstacle courses before I feel comfortable assessing their attributes or failings. So after nearly five years of using a Gransfors Bruks mini axe and six years of working with a Fort Meigs belt axe purchased from Ragweed Forge I think I’ve acquired enough experience to offer some conclusions about their usefulness.

Gransfors Bruks axes have garnered a sort of cult status amongst some bushcrafters. But are they worth the prices they command these days? You’ll have to decide that one for yourself. When I bought my GB mini axe the cost was decidedly less than it is today. And while it’s a nifty implement I don’t think I’d fork over the cash some are willing to dish out in the present market.  Don’t get me wrong; GB axes are well made. But I recall an Introduction to Business course I took years ago as a freshman college student. The professor kept reminding us that for every item purchased, some other item or items had to be left behind. A little axe that costs nearly two-hundred dollars in today’s market means you have just used up a significant amount of money on one piece of equipment that might have been spread over a series of tools or other items that, when all is said and done, offer the same amount of efficiency as the high-priced item.  

Your money; your choice.  But whether you ultimately give any mini axe a thumbs-up or thumbs-down depends precisely on how you perceive the axe as it relates to your needs. If your idea is to go out and build cabins and ramparts then you’ll be mighty disappointed in the mini axe. On the other hand, if you intend to travel lightly and build a sparse, but adequate, shelter, and make a fire, construct a pot holder and perhaps a camp chair and cot and maybe even a few traps then low-and-behold the mini axe will get you there.  It will also allow you to gut and skin some food and even—particularly in the case of the GB mini axe—fillet a fish. In fact, you might find that an ultra-sharp mini axe serves you better in the long run than the quintessential Mora knife.

The Fort Meigs axe (sometimes referred to as a Kentucky Belt Axe) was much less expensive. It appears to be cast carbon steel. Both the Gransfors Bruks and the Fort Meigs readily draw sparks on my ferro-cerium rod. The Fort Meigs does not have the thin blade profile like the forged Gransfors Bruks. The GBs thin blade allows you to use it as a shaving and whittling tool. But because the Fort Meigs is more thickly convexed it gives some advantage when cutting small saplings or floor tillering a bowstave.

Now lest I walk off a rhetorical cliff, let me say for quasi-minimalist applications the use of either a 12-16 ounce mini axe (total weight) or a two pound small axe (1¼ pound head weight) depends as much on your physical prowess as it does on your bushcraft talents. But remember that even a pound difference in carry weight seems to increase exponentially for every mile you walk and every foot you climb.

In the above photo you see how the GB mini axe can be held to perform delicate cutting tasks like game preparation or woodcarving. This is due to its thin blade profile. A larger axe cannot be held as comfortably in this manner.

The above pictures show the grind and bevel angles of both the Gransfors Bruks mini axe and the Fort Meigs belt axe. You’ll note I never wedged the handle on the FM belt axe. It’s in there tight and has never presented any problems. Somewhere down the line I plan to fashion a new handle from mesquite wood.

There are a number of ways to contemplate the desired blade type in a survival scenario. A small parang (http://woodsroamer.blogspot.com/2011/06/survival-parang.html) will work as effectively.  

For that matter the little pocket adze (http://woodsroamer.blogspot.com/2011/02/pocket-adze.html) will do in a pinch. 

Then there is the mini axe. And, of course, there is the quintessential Scandi-grind knife that people, including yours truly, love so dearly.

I had to wrap some heavy trot line around the grips of my GB mini axe and the Fort Meigs axe in order to fit my hand. The Fort Meigs handle leaves a lot to be desired in my view because of its thin contour. This is mitigated by wrapping the handle and even after extensive use I’ve yet to snap the hickory.  The GB mini axe has a nice oval handle and thus seems to afford more physical stability. Remember, however, that I don’t use either axe to perform hard chopping or mimic the workings of a large felling axe. That’s not what they are intended to do and thus should not be thought of in that respect.

Mini axes are ultra-portable, quick handling, survival tools that can be dropped in a coat pocket or bush jacket and used to slice a sapling for a trap spring-pole or to notch a tree to mark a location. And if need be they will easily whack a 2-inch pole to use in making a wickiup or lean-to.

Some will scoff at the notion that a mini axe is better as an all-around tool than a typical bushcraft knife. I respect their rebuttals. But if someone told me, “You can be dropped into the wilds with either a 4-inch blade knife or a mini axe but not both…which one will it be?” I would not hesitate. I’d snatch up the little axe and say, Thank you.”

One lazy afternoon I used my GB mini axe to help make a slingshot. (http://woodsroamer.blogspot.com/2011/03/slingshots-and-rattlesnakes.html)

One more note: There are a number of mini axes available on the market. They are mostly made by small firms and sell for under $40.  Do a web search and see what you can find.  I have tried only three makes of small axes. A few years ago I purchased a Vaughn mini axe. Sorry but I don’t have a photo available. After I sharpened the blade I gave it to my grandson who has also received one of my adzes, a crooked knife, and a couple of selfbows. He’s on his way to becoming a bona fide bushcrafter!

Gransfors Bruks mini axe: 2 9/16" face; 4 1/16" head; 10 7/16" handle. Weight averages around 12.0 ounces.

Fort Meigs belt axe: 2 3/16” face; 4 ¾” head; 11 ½” handle. Weight averages around 16 ounces.   


  1. Hi, I started doing the "stuff" 60 years ago with my grandpop;s Barlow. Then wit a belt knife/hatchet, from S&H green stamps
    What caught my eye was your comment about "1 oz per mile" A while back.
    it was "1 oz = 1 lb per mile." How true!
    with axes/hatchets , I've had a bit of experience.First was full size logging. Then downsize to voyageur, to hatchet . About 15 yrs ago I switched to a "Norlund ".Voyageur with a straight haft. alternated with hawks, and other stuff. Finally I;m down to the Meigs.. The other thing that caught my attention was the collection of stuff that woodsroamer gave his grandson. I still make self bows, arrows, etc with my hatchet, knife. If you can't do it with the simple stuff.... Nuff said! Keep up the "gud stuf!"

    1. In sixty years of being in the woods a man acquires a lot of knowledge about what works and what doesn't...especially for his own needs. You and I have both been around the block enough times to understand a few things about working tools and keeping things simple. Glad to hear from you and to know of others who see the value of small axes and selfbows and arrows.

  2. I love the mini. When I bought mine it was $75. I broke the beard off of the first one I owned chopping some very dry chestnut oak on a backpacking trip on North Fork Mountain. They replaced it.

    I like the smaller handle because I can hold it slightly loosely and give it sort of a slight snap before impact so as to give the chopping more force.

    I would love to see GB come out with a hatchet halfway between the mini and the wildlife, which I consider too heavy for backpacking.

    I don't have a Fort Meigs but I have a Fort Meigs Nessmuk which is sort of a for Meigs with a double bit. The more convex edge doesn't chop as deeply. The longer handle on mine gives it more force than the mini but the long thin style is a bit more dangerous than the mini IMO.

    Good review.

    1. I've thought the same thing about an axe halfway between the mini and the wildlife. Probably closer in weight to the mini but still not as small. It would have to be light enough for extended packing and climbing but still large enough for general camp chores and even selfbow building if need be in the woods. Weight is the critical factor. When up at around 9,000 feet every ounce counts. Thanks for your comment.

  3. Great write up!

    You guys should have a look at the GB Outdoor Axe. It is between the mini and Wildlife in terms of weight but with a relatively long straight tomahawk like handle. It's slightly thicker behind the edge than the mini and Wildlife which makes it a nice splitter to boot. I don't think I would have bought the mini nor the Wildlife if I had gotten the Outdoor sooner. Well maybe the mini, just because it's so darn cute.