When I was in sixth grade one of the exercises the teacher made us do was write a letter to a catalog company requesting something we wanted. It was just an exercise. The letters were not supposed to be sent off. However, being the conniving little rascal that I was in the 6th grade, I decided this was a great way to get something I had been wanting. I wrote my letter to Montgomery and Ward. The item that my larcenous little heart craved? A hatchet. A genuine Boy Scout hand ax. All these years later I still love hatchets, dont ask me why.
In Ruidoso, New Mexico a few years ago I stumbled across a mountain man shop. It had everything the well-accoutered mountain man could want, from bear traps to hats made from fox, skunk, coyote, and raccoon hides. But what I bought there was a "bleeding heart" tomahawk. That is a tomahawk that has a little heart cut out of the metal of the blade. I immediately fell in lust with it and justified its purchase by convincing myself that it was the perfect tool for splitting the pelvis of deer, a service it has performed for years now, among others. If you did not know it, a hand ax will perform this chore on white-tailed deer much better, with less collateral damage than one of those fancy little saws, and it will prevent your having to bash the back of your knife blade with a rock. Win-win.
The authors "bleeding heart" tomahawk and SOG hand ax. Photo: Steve LaMascus
One of the handiest items ever invented is the hand ax. If it is properly designed it can be used as a knife (if sharpened properly), meat cleaver, camp ax, hammer, and a hundred other things. This is the reason the old-timers, the real mountain men, carried tomahawks and hand axes. They didnt carry anything that was not necessary. Everything they carried, on their backs or on their pack animals, had a purpose that could not be fulfilled by something else. They could not afford extra weight, because their lives depended on their ability to choose carefully their supplies and tools. If they ran out, or if they needed a tool they did not have, their lives could be the cost.
Knives, guns, and tomahawks were the most important tools they carried, along with their traps, of course. Oddly, the one they used the least was the gun. Their knives were used for everything from shaving -- if they ever did shave -- to eating.
Fine China and silverware were notoriously absent in the kit of the mountain man. Instead he used a hunting knife (he called it a butcher knife, and it was nothing at all like the modern hunting knife), a tin or pewter plate, and a tin cup. He might have had a twin-pronged fork and a big spoon, then again he might have used his knife for everything. The hand ax or tomahawk he used for myriad camp chores, for cutting the stakes to anchor his traps, cutting the small, pliable branches he used as a mattress for his fur and blanket bed, and as a last ditch, teeth and fingernails weapon. I expect that more than one mountain man died with a butcher knife in one hand and a tomahawk in the other, and a few of them survived the same way.
I have kept a little ax around since that first one. Yes, I finally talked my mother and father into getting me a hatchet for Christmas, even though Montgomery and Ward failed to come through, curse their mercenary hearts.
Then, a few months ago I got an email from SOG Specialty Knives and Tools, describing some of their newest products. Most of them did not interest me, but one did. It was the little SOG Hand Ax. You see, I found out that while the "bleeding heart" tomahawk served the purpose admirably, it was a bit too heavy and bit too long of handle to be truly handy. It was made as a fighting tool as well as a hand ax, and was the perfect tool for the mountain man, but we modern hunters have little use for a tool meant for cleaving skulls. So, I wrote to the account executive in charge of the product and requested one SOG Hand Ax for testing and evaluation.
The hand ax is one of the "handiest" outdoorsmans tools ever invented. Photo: Steve LaMascus
In short order it arrived.
I have used the SOG Hand Ax now for the 2011/2012 deer season. It is a wonderful tool. It is sharp, and the thinness of the blade allows it to perform the chore of cutting through a deers pelvis much more easily that the tomahawks thicker blade. It is also lighter, and thus easier to carry. Worn on the belt it is easily forgotten, until it is needed. This is undoubtedly the best hand-ax and camp/ax that I have ever had, and that includes that first hand-ax with its classy, blue rubber handle. If this little hatchet wont get the job done, you need a full-fledged ax.
I know that most of you out there seldom, if ever, carry a hand-ax. I think that is a mistake. You will be amazed at the number of applications it will serve better than whatever you do carry. A hand ax, hatchet, or tomahawk has had a place on my belt for many years, and its usefulness far outweighs the few additional ounces I have to carry.