Horace Kephart: Notes On Hatchets And Handles (additional text by Steve Watts)


“The first camp I ever made was built exactly after the ‘Nessmuk’ pattern, shanty-tent, camp-fire with butternut back-logs, and all.  My only implement besides knives, was a double-bitted hatchet just like his, of surgical instrument steel, only eighteen ounces.  I was alone.  I stayed in that camp five weeks in October and November; and I was snug and happy all the time.”

“Among my most valued possessions is a tiny Colclesser tomahawk, of 8-ounce head and 2 1/2 inch bit, which, with hickory handle and home-made sheath, weighs only three-quarters of a pound.  I seldom go anywhere in the woods (unless in marching order with a heavier axe) without this little trick.  It is all that is needed to put up a satisfactory shelter wherever there is hemlock or balsam, or bark that will peel, while for other service I use it oftener than I do my jackknife.”

Kephart was very fond of the tools created by Colclesser Brothers of Eldorado, PA.  The now-famous “Kephart knife” was manufactured and sold by them, and he was a great fan of their “Tomahawk” axe (see above).  I can imagine that his fascination with the American frontier drew him to both the form and the “tomahawk” name.  The axe is featured in the Colclesser ad found in Kephart’s papers after his death.  Note that it came with either a slightly curved or a straight handle.  It was offered “without handle or sheath,” “with handle” or “with handle and sheath.”  It seems that when contemplating his order, Kephart chose the second option.  In his own hand he has written “straight” as his handle shape of choice.  We know that he made his own sheath.  It’s possible that the “Nessmuk” hatchet he used in that “first camp” was a Colclesser as well (illustrated here in the same ad).  SMW, ’14

Kephart’s affinity for straight handles can be seen in reference to his other hatchets… and to axes in general (underline added for emphasis):

 “A woodsman should carry a hatchet, and he should be as critical in selecting it as in buying a gun.  The notion that a heavy hunting knife can do the work of a hatchet is a delusion.  When it comes to cleaving carcasses, chopping kindling, blazing thick-barked trees, driving tent pegs or trap stakes, and keeping up a bivouac fire, the knife never was made that will compare with a good tomahawk.  The common hatchets of the hardware stores are unfit for a woodsman’s use.  They have broad blades with beveled edge, and they are generally made of poor, brittle stuff.  A camper’s hatchet should have the edge and temper of a good axe.  It must be light enough to carry in or one’s knapsack, yet it should bite deep in timber.


The best hatchet I have used (and it has been with me in the mountains for seven or eight years) is one shown in Fig. 103, except that the handle is a straight one, 17-inch, that I made myself.  Its weight with leather sheath is 1lb. 10 oz.  With this keen little tool, I have cut many a cord of the hardest woods – hickory, oak, dogwood, beech, etc. — up to young trees eight or more inches thick, often laying in a winter night’s wood with it.”

“In making a new axe-helve, do not bother to make a crooked one like the store pattern.  Thousands of expert axe men use, from preference, straight handles in their axes.”

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5 Responses to Horace Kephart: Notes On Hatchets And Handles (additional text by Steve Watts)

  1. woodtrekker2010@gmail.com'
    Ross Gilmore February 25, 2014 at 4:54 pm #

    I’m not sure we can infer from that text what type of handle he prefers. He certainly thinks one shouldn’t bother with making a more elaborate handle if it is being done in the woods, but I’m not sure we can extrapolate that he would have used straight handles on all of his axes, especially on a full size axe.

    In fact, I have seen very few categorical statements about which type of handle is better. E.H Kreps specifically stated in Woodcraft that the curved handle is better, and in The Ax Book, Cook stated that the straight handle is better. All other authors I have seen usually state their preference, but leave it at that.

    For what it’s worth, I think Cooks justification for why a straight handle is better than an S shaped one is some of the poorest application of physics ever done.

    As far as his hatchet, Kephart (from what I remember) prefaced that by saying that he brings the hatchet with him when he is away from camp, where he keeps a full size axe. He also speaks of replacing the hatchet with a full size axe in winter. I’m not sure what type of distinctions he is making between his different camps.

  2. steven@skillcult.com'
    Steven Edholm September 7, 2015 at 8:19 pm #

    I prefer straight handles on hatchets and have used mostly straight ones for a long time, to the point that using a curved one can feel kind of funny. I don’t own a single hatchet with a curved handle. I like the fact that I can slide up and down easily since I’m commonly changing hand positions for various tasks and just in handling. Any advantages to a curved handle would not outweigh that single factor for me, and I’m inclined to think that they are few if any anyway. I also like what would mostly be considered outsized handles. 17 inches seems long for a hatchet handle right? It is for most modern hatchets. I suspect that handle length often has more to do with aesthetics than function (ditto for curved handles) with pleasing proportions between the head size/shape and handle length taking precedence over function. Bottom line is that a long handle provides more leverage, and in my experience, that makes a real world difference. My mini hatchet looks a little funny with a long handle, but it is that much more functional. If I don’t want to, I don’t have to use the extra length and can adjust up and down the straight handle easily. As long as it is not too much of a burden to carry, a long handle is pretty nice on a hatchet if you don’t have an axe.

    • Christian Noble September 7, 2015 at 9:07 pm #

      Nice comment Steven. Like your blog too!

      • steven@skillcult.com'
        Steven Edholm September 7, 2015 at 9:11 pm #

        Thanks Christian, I just ran aground on your site somehow or other, and been checking out a few articles!

  3. sjhrankin@gmail.com'
    Steve April 20, 2016 at 8:33 pm #

    Great blog! I too prefer straight handles…although I don’t typically use a hatchet, but I am lucky that there are a few local suppliers here in NC that make straight handles for axes.

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