An axe is probably the second most useful tool for survival or homesteading, with a good bushcraft knife being in first place! While a knife can be used for jobs that require a bit more finesse, an axe will do the jobs that require an aspect of brute force! But are there limitations to this useful wilderness tool, and how far can you take it? For example, will an axe cut through bone, and will different axe types perform better than others?
Axes come in different sizes, shapes, made from different steels and with different handle lengths, shapes, and materials. The dependable axe is designed for the more heavy-duty survival tasks that would generally be beyond the scope of a knife! With a good sharp axe, however, you will be surprised at the level of delicate work you can do both on the homestead and in a survival situation.
An axe will most definitely cut through bone, and different axes will perform this task better and more effectively than others. The cut will however not be clean and therefore an axe would not be suitable in all situations for this task.
Our discussion will cover the suitability of an axe to cut through bone, how various axe types perform in this task, and what other tools would be more suitable for this particular task.
How Does An Axe Work?
Unlike a sharp knife which relies on the sharpness of the blade to cut through objects, an axe is a brute force cutting instrument. While an axe also needs to be sharp, it uses mass, or the weight of the head of the axe to drive the sharp edge through the object being cut.
This cutting method required the axe to be swung at the object to be cut to build up momentum and add the kinetic force to the mass of the axe. This maximizes the cutting potential of the blade and if the blade is sharp, the cut will be clean and deep.
This devastating cutting principle of the axe has made it a successful implement in farming applications, homesteading, logging, and even as an effective weapon of war in bygone years!
The Effectiveness Of An Axe On Bone
The axe works well on a relatively flexible material such as wood, but how does it fare against a harder less flexible material like bone.
Bone is a hard material in comparison to wood, which is fibrous and can flex. The fibers of the wood are what the sharp edge of the blade cuts through to chop the wood. With a material as inflexible bone, the force of the axe has a shattering effect.
Of course how you use the axe and what bone you are trying to cut with the axe has relevance as to how successful you will be and the effect of the axe on the bone.
If you are dressing a deer carcass that you have hunted, for example, and you want to cut through a bone such as a leg bone, would an axe do the job?
Using an axe to cut through the leg bone of a deer will work, but the cut will not be clean. The bone will usually shatter leaving bone splinters and shards of bone in the surrounding meat which may pose problems when eating it.
Smaller bones such as rib bones, an axe will cut through quite easily and should leave a pretty clean straight cut with minimal splintering of the bone.
Another problem I have with cutting bones with an axe is that your hands are normally precariously close to the action. You have to hole the meat down that you are cutting, and a blow with an axe to get through the bone will require significant force.
An axe is also not a precision cutting instrument, so you don’t always land the blade where you are aiming, especially if you are swinging from high up!
Just remember, your fingers are also bone just like your target and if your aim is off, you could easily sever a finger, or worse!
What Can Be Used To Cut Bone?
We have established that while an axe can be used to cut bone, it is not always the best tool for this particular job. So what cutting implements will do a better job of cutting bone in these circumstances?
In my experience, a hacksaw is a tool that works really well for the application or cutting through larger bones. It gives a good clean cut through the bone due to the fine-toothed blade that is designed to cut through steel. Using this method also does not result in any sharp pieces of bone being embedded in the meat.
For smaller bones, I prefer to use a good cleaver style blade that has a decent weighty blade that will get through the bones with no problem, but it is still light enough to be accurate and less unwieldy than an axe.
Types Of Axes
When we cover the topic of an axe being able to cut through bone, we also need to be definitive about which type of axe you are intending to use for the task. All axes are not the same and have different characteristics according to their intended purpose.
A wood-chopping axe is different from a camping axe, which in turn is different from a hatchet and a tomahawk style axe.
A wood-chopping axe has a long handle and a large head that is heavy so that the momentum and the mass of the axe head can drive the blade deep into the wood. These axes are designed to be swung overhead and brought down with force.
A wood-chopping axe due to the technique required to wield it would not be suitable for the task of cutting through bone as it will not be accurate enough to produce a good cut.
A camping axe has a shorter handle and a lighter head and blade. It is designed for more lightweight work than chopping down trees and cutting logs into smaller chunks. The purpose of this type of axe is for splitting smaller pieces of wood into kindling and cutting small branches or thinner trees.
A camping axe is a much more accurate tool that a wood-chopping axe, so of the two types of axes, the camping axe would be more suited to the task of cutting through bone.
A camping axe can also be used for surprisingly delicate tasks, such as creating feather-sticks for fire-making. In my opinion, the camping axe is the most versatile of the different axe types and the one that I prefer to have as a multi-purpose tool in the axe category.
A hatchet and a tomahawk style axe are more accurate than both a wood-chopping axe and a camp axe. They are, however, probably too lightweight to get through bones of any significant size, such as the leg bone of a deer. They could be used for the smaller bones that you would normally use a cleaver for such as separating the rib bones from the sternum and spine of a hunted animal.
An axe is most definitely able to cut through bone, and if you have no other option then it can be used for this task. I prefer to use tools that are better suited to the purpose, as the risk of injury is less, and this needs to be a consideration when you are not close to medical attention.
If you are field dressing a carcass of an animal you have hunted, you are unlikely to need to cut through heavy bone, as field dressing normally requires separating the parts at the joints which can be done with a decent bushcraft knife. Ribs can even be cracked at the joints with pressure and the ligaments severed with a knife, or a hatchet or tomahawk style axe.
The only time you should need to cut through bone when dressing a carcass is when you are at home base where you should have access to more appropriate tools for the task at hand.