Which is better, an axe or a machete? Both tools provide the user the ability to increase their survivability and each has their place. The answer to this question depends on the details of your mission. The question becomes which is better when rather than which is better. Both tools have strengths and weaknesses given their design attributes. To better understand which is better when, investigate what makes them effective cutting tools.
A machete is generally a long (10” plus) thin-stock blade swung quickly to cut through vegetation. Machetes are the preferred cutting tool in jungles around the world as they work effectively to cut green foliage including vines, stalks and large leaves like banana and palm fronds. Machetes are effective chopping and cutting tools because they travel quickly to compensate for additional weight not found in the blade. The combination of long thin blade and fast movement compensates for mass and makes them ideal for draw cutting and snap cutting. Even though the machete is essentially a long knife, it can be used for a multitude of tasks such as skinning and draw knife use by varying where the blade is gripped.
Axes are also cutting tools but they are best suited for more dense materials and hardwoods. They are popular in the northern forests and when processing firewood. Axes generally have heavy cutting heads that put weight behind an edge that is anywhere between 2.5” to 6” on average. Since the heads are heavy, they are swung slower but they still achieve great chopping results thanks to their added mass. Axes work well to power through frozen wood in winter climates where thinner edges can break. Large axe heads are usually paired with long handles and the smallest variety of axe is the hatchet. In general, the longer the handle the more effective the tool and the safer the tool as the cutting edge is further away from the body when swung and there is less of a chance of accidental cutting.
It is interesting to note both machetes and axes, originally agricultural tools, have been pressed into combative use by numerous tribes and cultures around the world. When their designs have been optimized for this, these variations are known as tomahawks, bolos and barongs to name a few. Also, there are many hybrid knives and chopping tools which combine attributes of both axes and machetes but are not as effective performing as their dedicated inspirational relatives meant for a single task.
Regardless of where you are headed, jungle to desert to hardwood forest to arctic realize these tools are supplements to the blade you should always have attached to your person. In many cultures, axes and machetes are not worn attached to a belt but are hand carried instead. The chance of dropping, misplacing, leaving behind and losing your tool is there so have a back up belt knife and the skills to stretch that beyond it’s normal use (more on that in an upcoming article/video). Make your gear load out, your decision to carry axe or machete, mission specific and put the time in to learn how to use your tools properly.
About the Author
Kevin Estela is the Founder and Head Instructor of Estela Wilderness Education. He conducts private and semi-private wilderness and urban/suburban survival courses, tests and evaluates knives and equipment for various companies, is a Mountain Khakis Professional Ambassador, and is a life-long outdoors enthusiast with additional pastimes in canoeing/kayaking, fishing and cooking. Kevin's work has taken him from Los Angeles, CA to the United Kingdom and many points in between. Kevin is ranked in both Sayoc Kali and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and is a shooting enthusiast. Kevin is formerly the Lead Instructor for the Wilderness Learning Center. When not teaching outdoor skills, he is a full-time High School History Teacher and Track and Field Coach who lives in Connecticut.