Hand Axe Vs Hatchet: Is There A Difference?

Hatchet in Firewood

Many people believe hand axes and hatchets are different names for the same tool. In reality, they are distinctly separate tools that are each used for varying workloads. They also have their own advantages and disadvantages relating to their appearance and purpose.

The primary differences between hand axes and hatchets are in their purpose and appearance. Hand axes are larger and heavier than hatchets. As such, they are also meant for intermediate chopping jobs, such as splitting firewood.

Looking at the similarities between hand axes and hatchets, it’s easy to see how and why people often mix these two tools up. But once you dive into the differences between these tools, you’ll never again mistake one for the other.

Similarities Between Hand Axes And Hatchets

There are many similarities between hand axes and hatchets, leading many people to think of them as interchangeable tools. The two primary similarities that lead to this confusion are:

  • Purpose – Both a hand axe and a hatchet are tools primarily used for cutting wood.
  • Appearance – Both tools are traditionally made of a steel head with a sharp edge (called a ‘bit’) attached to a wood or composite handle.

But even though hand axes and hatchets look alike and perform the same basic functions, they are two distinct tools.

As such, it’s useful to understand the differences between hand axes and hatchets. Keep reading to learn more about what they are and when they should be used.

Learning the basic anatomy of an axe will help you in understanding the terminology on this page.

Differences Between Hand Axes And Hatchets

In an interesting twist, the main differences between hand axes and hatchets are the same areas wherein their similarities lie: purpose and appearance.

Hand axes are better for intermediate chopping jobs, while hatchets are best used for light chopping.

You can also easily tell the difference between a hand axe and a hatchet if you look at specific elements of their appearance:

  • Size – A hand axe will still be reminiscent of a regular axe; it will be hefty and nearly as long as an axe. But a hatchet will comfortably fit in one hand and will be small, closer in size to a hammer. If you can easily slip the tool on a belt holster, it’s a hatchet.
  • Shaft Design – Hand axe shafts aren’t typically angled, but instead meet the head at nearly a 90-degree angle. Conversely, hatchet shafts tend to curve forward, placing the head almost flush with the lower handle’s forward-most point.
  • Head Shape – Heads on hand axes are usually larger and only slightly taper from the bit to the opposite end of the head. Conversely, hatchets generally have more narrow heads with a small body and large bit, creating a more drastic taper.

Unless you have two tools to compare side-by-side, your best bet to tell the difference between a hand axe and a hatchet is to look at their size (i.e., shaft length).

Hand Axes

Hult's Bruk Carpenter's Axe
A great example of a hand axe can be seen here with Hult’s Bruk’s “Carpenter’s Axe”. Photo credit: Hult’s Bruk

Hand axes are a smaller variant of the regular axe, but are still larger than hatchets. In essence, they  are the ‘middle ground.’

Also known as camping axes, hand axes are roughly two-thirds of the size of a regular axe, but twice the size of a hatchet.

This means they have less striking power but more versatility in terms of cutting angles and leverage than a regular axe. But in turn, the longer shaft means that hand axes are less versatile than hatchets.

Hand axes are often used for activities such as:

  • Felling small trees
  • Splitting firewood
  • Hewing small lumber

There are different types of hand axes depending on the intended use. The width, angle, and bit sharpness may vary depending on the type you need. For example, a hand axe used for forestry would look different than one used primarily for carpentry.

Variety among hand axes is less common than variety among regular axes, however. This is due to the specific activities involved, which often are better suited by a regular axe’s size.

But, as their name suggests, they are still the most popular axe among campers. They are perfect for turning small trees into firewood and taking care of any odd jobs that pop up in the campsite.

When choosing a hand axe, pay specific attention to the shaft thickness. The should of the handle should not be thicker than the axe head. Handles that are thicker than the head ultimately weaken the axe and are more easily damaged.

It’s also wise to test the heft and weight of the axe to make sure it’s lightweight and well-balanced. Hand axes should ideally be about 2 Ibs (0.9 kg).

Hatchets

Hult's Bruk Hatchet
Hult’s Bruk makes some of the the finest tools money can buy. This is a great example of a hatchet. Photo credit: Hult’s Bruk

Hatchets are typically smaller in size, length, and girth than hand axes. Because of this, they are ideal for small-scale wooding chopping projects. Activities that the hatchet is most suited for include:

  • Splitting pieces of firewood
  • Chopping small branches off trees
  • Felling saplings and very small trees
  • Cutting back small to medium bushes

Though their smaller size limits the hatchet to light work, it makes up for it with several other benefits. These include:

  • Easier to use, handle, carry, and store
  • More maneuverable and versatile
  • Require less force and energy

If you have work to do in your backyard, a hatchet is probably your go-to tool. Their versatility and size make them more common than full-size axes or even hand axes.

Typically, hatchets have a hammer head on the opposite side of the bit. Whereas the bit is solely for cutting and chopping purposes, the hammer head is used for striking purposes.

In the market for hatchet? Check out my guide on the best hatchets for the money.

Modern hatchets may also differ slightly from their traditional counterparts in terms of appearance.

For example, some hatchets are now made from a single piece of steel with rubber or another material for grip on the handle. You’re unlikely to ever see this design on a hand axe, since metal handles may bend or break as a result of leverage from the longer handles.

There are also double-bit hatchets now, with sharp edges on both sides of the head instead of just one.

When looking for a hatchet, make sure to look at the blade shape. This is just as important as the thickness and weight of an axe, and is even more important in a hatchet because of its diminutive size.

The shape of a blade determines how much of the blade will actually strike the wood and how deep the blade will go (surface area verses penetration, essentially). Flatter blades will provide more contact, while more curved blades will provide more penetration.

Unless you’re only going to use your hatchet for one specific purpose, it’s best to go with a blade that has a little bit of a curve rather than a flat edge blade or a sharply curved blade. This will give you more versatility.

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