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9/13/12

Prepping on $40 a Week: Choppers!


When we chose our budget survival knife I mentioned that we'd be picking up several tools instead of trying to use a big, do it all Rambo knife. When you try to have one tool that does it all, you end up with compromised performance. A fixed blade knife can do a lot, but it can't do everything, and it can't do everything well. So, we'll be adding a bigger tool for serious cutting/chopping work to our budget survival kit.

Instead of recommending a specific tool, I'm going to run through several excellent choices that fall within our $40 price range. This tool choice is more dependent on your area of operations--where you live. Someone who lives in an urban center will have different needs then someone who lives in the middle of a forest, and someone who lives in the desert or swamp will again have different needs.

The Urban Survivor
If you're unfortunate enough to get stuck surviving in an urban environment, bushcrafting tools are only going to get you so far. You may find yourself dealing with wreckage, blocked doors or need to smash your way out of (or into) a building or vehicle.

Tomahawks have become very popular on the front lines of the war on terror for this very purpose. Our guys aren't typically using 'hawks for hand to hand, they're using them for breaching, smashing and prying. A high end tactical hawk will run around $500, but Cold Steel makes several serviceable hawks that cost around the $30 price point.


I have a Cold Steel Trail Hawk that I like quite a bit--expect to put in a bit of work refinishing it if you want it to look nice, but they're a great platform for customizing. The factory edge is so-so and the steel is not the best, but they're very handy tools to have around. I like the size on these hawks - -- 22" gives you some good length for swinging, and you can choke up very easily if needed.

For urban survival, I would choose the spike poll over the hammer--the spike is largely what makes a 'hawk so handy for breaching into stuff. Cold Steel makes the nice spiked hawk similar to the Trail Hawk, the Spike Hawk The Spike Hawk's spike is a great shape for doing the breaching/puncturing stuff - curved for ripping and prying, and tapered such that it will punch through materials with ease and withdraw without too much trouble. Using the spike for really destructive work will also preserve the edge on the hawk face, which will get destroyed once you start smashing through a car door, brick wall, etc.
Spike hawk. Image via ColdSteel.com
A 'hawk also makes a great weapon in a pinch, useful at a variety of ranges - choke up close to the head and you can box with it, a bit more length and you can swing it baseball bat style, etc.  The Spike Hawk's curved beard is also useful for combat purposes--sharpen it up a but, and it's very good for trapping/hooking and tearing.

If you want a hammer, I would get the Cold Steel Pipe Hawk over the Trail Hawk that I have - better blade shape, better hammer. 

You will need a sheath - eBay has a bunch if you don't want the crappy Cold Steel ones. 

General Woodlands
For forest/bushcrafty type uses, I like a saw and a small-ish axe. A decent saw and an axe will pretty much blow our budget, so you're probably going to need to pick one or the other. I'd personally pick an axe before a saw, but your mileage will vary.

Your multitool should have some kind of saw that we can use for a things like notching, which makes a saw a bit less of a necessity. For a small folding saw though, the consensus is the Bahco Laplander is the best of the best. If you want cheaper and bigger, pick up a bow saw blade like this one a couple screws/wingnuts - with these, a serviceable bow saw is not too difficult to make in the bush. You're out around $10 for saw blade and hardware.

For an axe, I like around 20-24" in length. Plenty packable while still being of useable size.

Why an axe and not just a tomahawk? While a hawk is good enough for light chopping, they just do not have the weight or geometry to do a good job doing more serious work with wood. Not a big deal for small stuff, but if you're up north, it's winter and you're splitting wood to survive, it's a bigger deal.

Gerber Camp Axe II - image via Gerber.com. A solid performer.
There are several good axes that will work here. We've had a Gerber Camp axe (made by Fiskars) for several years, and it's held up well to chopping duties on camping trips. Nothing to write home about, but it's worked well enough. They have a newer/upgraded generation out now that looks better - the Camp Axe II (the revenge of Camp Axe!).

 The nylon handle is supposedly indestructible, but it's not as good - in my opinion - as a solid wood handle for actual work. On the old generation, some had problems with wood slivers getting under the joint between the head and the handle, but the new version has a ridge where the handle/head meet that is said to resolve that.

Pretty good axe though for around our $40 price. The sheath that it comes with is pretty good as far as axe sheaths go, too. It's a little on the short side at 18" - really more of a long hatchet - but plenty useable with two hands and one.

For a more traditional axe, I would look at the Cold Steel Trail Boss. I don't have any personal time with one, but they typically get good reviews and run under $35 shipped (no sheath though). Condor makes some nice looking axes for just over our budget, too. If anyone has first hand time with either of these, let us know your thoughts in the comments. Both will require some work out of the box, but should be solid performers.

Machete
Finally, the machete excels in jungle/tropical environments, and it can also do pretty well in some desert environments, too (long blade = better for hacking cactus). Machetes will also do decently in the woods, and of the various choices, I'd prefer to use a machete in a fight, if it came down to it.

 Cold Steel (again) has a pretty varied line of machetes, most under $20.
A Condor Golok. Might need to pick one of these up.

I have a Cold Steel Panga that I bought several years ago for under $20, and it's survived several camping trips and much abuse around the house. The grip is lousy - I trimmed off excess molding and slipped a piece of inner tube over it to add better grip, and I'd recommend a wrist lanyard if you're doing serious work. A sheath will need to be DIY'd or can be purchased separately. I made one out of cardboard and duct tape...not exactly apocalypse-proof, but it works. The edge will need some work out of box, too. For what I've paid and what I've put it through, though, I've been very happy with the machete's performance.

I'll dig it out and post some pictures...maybe time for a decent sheath, too.

Condor makes some very nice and well reviewed machetes for just over our budget. If you're in for a machete, I'd take a serious look at these...I might need to add one to my collection here in the near future.

Budget: Because we're laying out a variety of options, we'll figure on spending the entire $40 this week. If you've got leftover, roll that into the bank!

If you already have a chopper...
Get out and do some work with it, then perform some maintenance - sharpen the edge and oil it up! 

20 comments :

  1. Great post! Have a bocho and a Gransfors ax already, but maybe I need to look at one of those Condor machetes for a X-mas stocking stuffer.

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  2. "slipped a piece of inner tube over it to add better grip, and I'd recommend a wrist lanyard if you're doing serious work. A sheath will need to be DIY'd or can be purchased separately. I made one out of cardboard and duct tape...not exactly apocalypse-proof, but it works."

    this part made me lol. really. it sounds like me typing. i bought a Machete from a flea market in New Zealand when i was there in 2001, got it for $10 NZD ($4.50 American dollar) nothing to big just an 18" Brazilian machete, after the first use i too added an inner tube on the handle for the grip.
    when it came time to get it home i made a cardboard and duct tape sheath for it. i used it that way for about 7 years before i made a real one.
    if i had to choose one chopper it would be the machete. it may take a bit more effort to take down a 10" tree then a full axe but no more work then a hatchet. i also like the ring of well tempered steel as it cuts a tree. :)

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  3. Been following the $40 a week prepping.....great series! Have you looked at Fiskars? The 7857 is a great axe and well within budget.

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    1. Fiskars is who makes the Gerber axes - at least they used to be - and I think they still are. Same product, basically, but different branding and I think a different sheath.

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    2. True.....but the actual Fiskars axe is almost 8" longer and 1.5 lbs heavier....making it easier to swing IMHO. Plus, you save five bucks. Both are good choices, but for the money, I'll go with the 7857 X15 and put the $5 in the bank for next week.

      Keep up the great posts. You have a lot of fans out here!

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  4. Some great choices - thanks for the reviews. Of the machetes, the CS Bowie is worth mentioning - you can choke up and have a fine tip for more precise work. Most of the CS machetes have LOUSY sheaths though.

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  5. This is a big category with really diverse needs. Folks in areas with lots of brush like the American South would be well advised to start with a machete. In areas like the northern part of the US a hatchet or hawk would be a better starting point. These are what would probably get attached to a BOB or whatever.

    Both would do well having an axe around as part of a base camp type setup. Getting a second tool (machete/ hatchet or hawk and ax) would bust the $40 budget but it is the right answer.

    For honorable mention I will toss in the Estwing Sportsmens Axe http://www.amazon.com/Estwing-E24A-Sportsmans-Hatchet-Handle/dp/B0002JT0BO/ref=sr_1_cc_1?s=aps&ie=UTF8&qid=1347602328&sr=1-1-catcorr&keywords=estwing+sportsman+axe. Those things are bombproof and quite ergonomic.

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    1. The Estwing is quite good - almost made the list! A little on the small side, though.

      In the northern U.S. and similar parts of the world, a good saw and a axe will be the best combo for most. The colder it gets, the bigger the axe you'll want.

      I also did not mention the Ontario Military Machete - probably a bit better than the Cold Steel ones, I just don't have one in my collection. Machete and sheath should put you around $30 - $40. Dave Canterbury has one, speaks well of it and has a good video with some mods he's made to the sheath.

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    2. hey Great Blog, I'd like to weigh in on this topic. Living up in the northern part of the country and having cut, stacked and burned wood for as long as I can remeber, I've probably handled every tool you mentioned and more. Currently for my camping trips I pack a hawk and a SVEN saw. The SVEN runs about thirty bucks and packs up nice and small.Super light and easily fits into most b.o.b.s -Check it out.

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    3. I just bought a 21" Sven...need to get some real world use with it, but like it initially! Certainly well made.

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  6. Funny you mentioned that you made your machete sheat out of cardboard and ducktape, just went the same way myself last week :) i also added a pice of leather straps to make i easier to carry/fasten to my backpack.

    I have the Ontario military machete and would recommend it to anyone. Its solid, flexible and got a nice thick solid blade.

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  7. Not sure if it is subverting the category, but for some environments you might consider a shovel with a working edge - works pretty well for light chopping, good for H2H and can dig with it - some places without much forest (think grassy plains) the ability to dig holes and cut turf blocks might outrank the ability to chop. Obviously there is the whole 'Spetznaz shovel' thing, but plenty of e-tools and a little work convert into choppers.

    Just a thought

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    1. When big "megamart" type places change cutlery brands, the old ones go on clearance. You can pick up a decent meat cleaver for about 10 bucks. Grind/file a "shovel-point edge" (not all that sharp) on the front edge, wrap the grip with paracord/whatever, maybe (the jury is still out on whether this is good or not) grind a "wedge" on the back, and you have a chopper that is handier than a hatchet, in most situations, and can still be used as a "just-ok" digging tool. YMMV.

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    2. Thats a great point Wyzyrd, a small meat cleaver makes a pretty decent hatchet. My brother keeps one in his pack for just this reason, an Old Hickory bought for a $1 at a flea market. Just be sure to take a file to sharpen it, its pretty soft metal.

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  8. The Pipe Hawk looks an awful lot like a Rig Builders Hatchet, you can find them at most hardware stores for around $20. I like them.

    I've used a lot of different axes over the years and have found that generic hardware store camp axes with "24 wood handles work just fine. I've found that the 24" handle makes it easier to attach to a pack than a hatchet.

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    1. Looks like Rig Builders Hatchet's are now more like $35. The price of everything keeps going up!

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  9. Nice thread Brother Wolf....
    I ran threw a local flea market on the way to realjob this morning and saw several hatchets with broken handles in the $3 range, $4 from Lowes or a dead tree limb gets you a new handle....Re-use America, the Tribe you save may be your own.....
    Also a visit to your neighborhood Blacksmith/Knifemaker might get you a deal in these trying times... and a useful friend, dirty people need love too...Just follow those metallic hammering/grinding/Banjo noises in the wee hours, they might be closer than you think...

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  10. I admit to being a fan of the Fiskars axe - I have one in my vehicle kit, and another one strapped to the back of my BOB. Has come in handy on a number of occasions, even though the plastic sheath is junk.

    A silly-sounding suggestion on machetes: Consider something like the Meyerco Sawback, with a handguard, a la pirate cutlass.
    Just a picture for reference, I don't have any stake in the maker or dealer:
    http://www.smkw.com/webapp/eCommerce/products/Meyerco/Meyerco%26%23153%3B+28%22+Machete+with+Sawback+Spine/M36111.html

    I broke 2 fingers, being stupid while trimming brush with a standard issue machete, about 25 years ago. Right hand dang-near useless for nearly a month. What is a slightly-more-profane-version of "oooops" in "normal" times, just might become a death sentence in a SHTF-scenario. A scuffed-up handguard beats a broken finger, ever time.

    A secondary benefit is that the point shape and sawback do turn it into a half-decent close-quarters sidearm. (Pirate cutlasses originated as "hacked" cane-cutters....)

    Just food for thought.

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  11. Been using the SOG Tactical Tomahawk for a year now. It goes outside the backpack or BOB when camping and has a million uses for building fires, pulling tent stakes, notching wood for making a trap, cutting vines and rope, retrieving sunglasses from a stream (ugh), making a walking stick, chopping bones, heads or feet off fresh game.

    Most importantly, my boys think I'm cool when I stick it in a tree.

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  12. That Condor Golok is a hunk of steel alright.
    It's about as thick as a pickup truck leaf spring.
    Too thick (my opinion) to act as a machete, but I find it to be easier to use than a hatchet for chopping duties.
    I think my money was well spent on this for what I use it for.

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