Given that we live in the Golden Age of Big Honking Knifecraft, that’s a pretty bold statement. But it would appear to be supported by history.
Modern metallurgy is, indeed, wonderful. The strongest, sharpest, most durable large knives ever to get pounded through a log are manufactured in this day and age.
Be that as it may, the inconvenience of not having a hatchet in the first place remains the primary rationale for learning how to use a knife as if it were a hatchet. Outdoor adventurers across millennia have prized belt axes. The axe is better designed for chopping and splitting wood, period. If you choke up on the handle, a truly sharp axe can also do a lot of the same cutting tasks a large knife can do.
Besides, when one possesses a superior firewood processing tool like an axe or hatchet, one can supplement it by carrying a smaller, lighter knife that is more ideally suited to tasks knives are generally best suited for.
The Fiskars X7 and the Gransfors Bruks Wildlife Hatchet are low-end, high-end examples of hatchets for the every day outdoorsman. And the low end isn’t as low as you might imagine.
In the case of both, expect to pay a weight penalty. The hickory haft and high carbon steel bearded head that comprise the Wildlife Hatchet weighs in at 23.4 ounces. The synthetic handle and scandi grind steel head of the Fiskars tips the scales at 22.6 ounces. A Becker BK9 survival knife, for comparison, weighs around 17 ounces.
It is not merely weight that gives hatchets the advantage as choppers; it is how that weight is marvelously leveraged. Learning how to master a hatchet or axe is not unlike learning how to swing a golf club. Optimal effect requires less exertion than you might think.
On the other hand, an awkward beginner’s golf swing rarely results in severed fingers or toes. Hatchets and axes are tools to be approached with respect, humility and patience. For this reason it is preferable to develop hatchet skills in a relaxed recreational setting. Racing against nightfall in the freezing cold with one’s life on the line is not the best time to become acquainted with these tools.
Advocates of big knives often cite the learning curve of hafted tools and claim that batoning big knives is inherently safer. But there are rules and techniques for using axes and hatchets as safely (Google up Ray Mears for a quick tutorial). You can also baton the poll of a carefully-positioned hatchet head as if it were a light splitting wedge, and your fingers aren’t even in the way.
The pricey Wildlife Hatchet has more going for it than an artisanal aura. It can be counted on to be sharper out of the box than most knives. You can shave with it. Really. With only a little judicious stoning, however, the Fiskars X7 can be sharp enough for fine peeling and slicing work, including feather sticks.
The Gransfors’ hickory handle can be damaged or even broken outright by too many overstrikes. Wrapping the upper handle with paracord can help protect it. In the worst case scenario, a broken haft on a traditional axe like the Wildlife Hatchet can always be replaced. A replacement might even be carved in the field, if things came to that.
The Fiskars’ hollow synthetic haft, which is molded around the steel head to secure it, is virtually unbreakable. The straight handle with the flared butt is ergonomic and very forgiving. In the unlikely event a Fiskars handle breaks, the company will replace the entire hatchet. But there is no apparent on-the-spot remedy should the handle fail in the field.
The good news is that breaking a Fiskars synthetic handle evidently takes quite some doing. It is a rarely-reported occurrence. For a beginner’s hatchet, it’s hard to go wrong with the Fiskar’s X7, which can be had for around $25 at Walmart and Sears. Unlike the considerably more expensive Wildlife Hatchet, you won’t be as worried about scuffing up or losing it.