Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Gear Review: The Gransfors Bruks Outdoor Axe

One of the amazing things about the world these days is that small artisan companies like Gransfors Bruks will put considerable effort into a unique handmade axe with an excruciatingly limited user base and an extraordinary high price. But in the big picture the Gransfors Bruks Outdoor Axe is an excellent compliment to the traditional bug out kit as well as all those kits we build for adventure and recreation.

By blurring the line between survival knife and hatchet, the speciality tool that Gransfors Bruks named the Outdoor Axe has further refined the most commonly used space in the cutting industry knowns as survival. The Gransfors Bruks Outdoor Axe is not for surgery or first aid, but will easily gut an animal from squirrel to elk. It will carve as well as any two-inch knife, and chop as well as any one pound blade. Maybe I exaggerate a little, but if you have nothing to compare it with then you already have the best option in your hand. Right?

Chew Your Food
As a chopper, the Gransfors Bruks Outdoor Axe takes small bites, but its low weight and long handle make for longer hacking sessions compared to heavier heads. So it is never a question about “if” but rather one of “when?” And for subtler tasks such as carving, slicing and shaving, the Gransfors Bruks Outdoor Axe melts into your hand when you choke up on the handle forming a wonderful Ulu-like knife with a great finger purchase.

The design of the Gransfors Bruks Outdoor Axe is often viewed as a contradiction which leads to both its higher price and its lower acceptance due, in my opinion, to a misunderstanding of how to use it effectively. As an Outdoor Axe, this tool is designed mostly for processing wood. And smaller sized wood at that. Felling trees is the job of the big boys, but when the tree is on  the ground, the Gransfors Bruks Outdoor Axe comes into play. Not that you couldn’t fell a tree with this axe, but that would be like skinning a dinosaur with a neck knife. Sure, you could do it, but you might starve to death in the process. Well, I guess that depends on the size of the dinosaur...or the tree.

The other aspect of concern is the precision necessary to wield this type of iron with the dexterity necessary for a razor-sharp fast-moving small head to efficiently do the violence it was hired to do. You cannot simply just whack away with reckless abandon lest the small head will quickly slice off course like a bad golf swing. Instead the bit must be placed like a scalpel with the belief and conviction that every ounce of effort will finds its way into the cut. In essence it is like every other professional-grade piece of outdoor equipment. It will perform to astounding heights when operated skillfully by a talented user. Oddly, performance downhill skis came to mind when I finally found the sweet spot of this axe. There was a narrow window in which the Gransfors Bruks Outdoor Axe will operate at its best. And when it does there’s no better feeling in the world. Well, maybe I exaggerate again, but like performance downhill skis slicing that perfect carve through the hardpack, this axe give back as much as you put into it and then some. But only if you use it on it’s terms. A side note here: you can tell a lot about someone’s skill by the tools they use. While good tools won’t spontaneously generate mastery, criticizing good tools does nothing but reinforce the limits of skill.

Ironwood Masterpiece
The Gransfors Bruks Outdoor Axe is a piece of art. The 14” hickory handle was milled with excellent (but not perfect) grain orientation and branch depth. The head was hand forged by a real Swede complete with the prominent initials of the axesmith lovingly smashed into the axe’s tiny cheek; the smith Tomas Andersson in this case. But the coup de grâce of this sculpture is the polished ~inch long metal collar protecting the handle just under the head. The steel collar is designed to take the hit instead of the small diameter hickory handle. With the shaft length two inches over a foot and a oval neck thickness of ⅞” by 1 5/16” inches, it is possible to swing the Gransfors Bruks Outdoor Axe fast enough and hard enough to generate the forces necessary inflict significantly chopping damage to the workpiece means it can also injury itself when things go sideways. Literally.

The palm-sized axe head also tucks neatly in a fist making it a fabulous and pleasant-to-use tool for precise small scale work. By wrapping one’s thumb and index finger around the cheek just south of the cutting edge, the Outdoor Axe can be wielded rapidly and with both gross and fine motor movements with less concern for the same motions with a large knife. The direction of the handle, whether towards or away from your body, can alter the balance of use adding another quality dimension over a standard blade. Rounding out the trailing end of the handle is a mild swell containing a lanyard hole.

A Helping Hand
It should be no surprise that this versatile axe is at home in bushcraft and in domestic survival chores because it was conceived and designed with the help of Lars Fält, a noted outdoorsman, survival teacher, author, and gentleman by anyone’s standards. Although Fält wears a the clothes of a mere mortal, he really is the Norse god of survival having put himself in more uncomfortable situations than a humvee full of SEALs. But back on topic, the Outdoor Axe, like any specialty-use tool, is only worth its 1.2 pound weight and $175 retail price if the user has or wants to gain the skills necessary to safely operate it, and has the jobs that a fellow such as the Gransfors Bruks Outdoor Axe is qualified.

A side note about Lars Fält: He has three suggestions for attaining the right survival attitude. I’ll let you look up the first two on your own, but the third deals with breaking big tasks into smaller ones or risk being overwhelmed by the enormity of the situation you now find yourself in. The transfer of this bit of survival wisdom to the Gransfors Bruks Outdoor Axe is that many think a big axe is the solution because it does big things. Big familiar things. However, even though a small axe does smaller tasks, those little day-to-day survival jobs keep time moving forward with the blood still pumping. You can only cut down so many trees before you have to do something besides burn them.

Size vs. Length
In the field, the Gransfors Bruks Outdoor Axe chops better than expected due to the long handle. It is worth using on trees up to six inches in diameter, but go back to the shed for a larger axe if your two hands cannot reach around the trunk. But again, that is not this tool’s forte. Instead, this axe shines when the workpiece is in the meat freezer, not walking around the ranch. A few quick strokes and the trunk is delimbed. A few more swings and the kindling and small firewood stacks up. The handle is even long enough to get a two-handed grip for those jobs that require forceful but precise chopping, or when isometric push-pull rotating strokes are needed to accelerate the axe head in a confined space.

But Wait! There’s More.
The shaving-sharp axe bits that Gransfors Bruks is known for was not forgotten here. When the knife-like edge is combined with a small head, the Outdoor Axe quickly morphs into a kitchen tool. It slices, dices, chops, and cuts. Whether tomatoes or meat, this axe fits right in to the culinary toolset. Just keep the wooden handle away from flame.

When working wood with the Outdoor Axe, one of the big things you will notice is accuracy with which you can precisely score the wood with little concern for a larger meatier head continuing on without your permission. When making small items like snare posts, tent pegs, marshmallow sticks, even just prettying up the campsite, you will quickly feel a level of power much more than a survival knife, and much more controlled that a full sized hatchet let alone an axe. And if you have responsible children around the campfire, this Outdoor Axe makes an excellent tool to both introduce and enhance axe skills. The small diameter handle fits in a kid’s hand like a full-sized hickory shaft does in an adult’s.

From a carry standpoint, the Gransfors Bruks Outdoor Axe is much like an old-world tomahawk. Not the tactical ones of today, but a forged (and I use that term loosely) head consisting of little more than a bit or blade followed by an attachment hole through which a study stick has been wedged. Although the Gransfors Bruks Outdoor Axe has a fairly flat poll (butt or hammerhead-looking face) this axe, like a traditional tomahawk, is designed to engage the world in only one direction. Using the poll like a hammer-unless designed as such like with splitting axes-will damage the head possibly to the point of breaking it along the thin edges to the left and right of the eye (handle hole). On the other hand, the smoothness of the poll’s edges would make this a decent skinning tool where the animal cape is pried away from the muscle by short punchy strokes once the axe’s poll is sliding around inside the critter.

Rounding out the Gransfors Bruks Outdoor Axe is the minimalist leather blade cover. While most Gransfors Bruks axes have this same type of sheath, one of its features really does work well with this axe. The single strap and snap design of the sheath also doubles as a belt carry option. By slipping the strap through your belt and snapping the in axe, you can comfortably wear and deploy the axe with similar effort to a sheath knife. And unlike many other blade bikinis, this one stays put having been sized perfectly for the head that will wear it. Other speciality axes with a survivalist pedigree have been know to wear an afterthought for a sheath such as the Wetterlings Bushman Axe designed by Les Stroud. A great axe, but the loose fit on the blade cover is a sacrilege for tools at this level.

Hype to Hip
The Gransfors Bruks Outdoor Axe is one of those controversial tools about which it is easy to form a quick opinion. Few people I’ve met remain neutral about it. Some, like me, love it. Others find the Outdoor Axe a perfect storm of misaligned features. Too big for this, too small for that. And way too expensive regardless. While I certainly understand and appreciate opposing opinions, I do have to admit that the wilderness is a much more interesting place to wander with this axe than without it. The family tree of modern gear is a filled with dead branches as well long lives with many offspring. But it is also filled with relationships that most folks thought would never survive. The Gransfors Bruks Outdoor Axe just might be one of those marriages between functions that goes from hype to hip in one generation. At least that’s where I’m placing my $175 dollar bet.

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