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The machete vs hatchet debate is a highly contested one – survivalists and outdoor adventurers from all parts of the world have their own preference in this regard, and vouch for it quite forcefully. It is indeed true that both hatchets and machetes are impressive, essential tools, and both wouldn’t look out of place in any outdoor traveler’s gear – however, the features of each lend themselves to slightly different wilderness survival situations.
I’ve put together this comparison to detail the features of both tools, in the hopes that you’ll gain some insight into which will suit your particular needs better.
Machete and Hatchet Comparisons
Intended for light to moderate chopping / hacking
Intended for heavy chopping
Long, (relatively thin) blade provides chopping/hacking ability
Short, thick head provides chopping ability
Easy to use as improvised combat weapon
Difficult to use as improvised combat weapon
Swing may be hazardous for newbies
Swing safer for newbies
Suitable for tropical settings
Suitable for coniferous / alpine settings
The machete is a tool resembling a knife with an extra-long blade (10’’ plus), that is primarily designed to hack and chop its way through dense vegetation and, if needed, flesh and bone. There are many different types of machetes, each having evolved in a different part of the globe and having a somewhat unique application, but their general functionality is pretty much the same.
A hatchet is simply the name given to a small single-handed axe with a head design that has a sharp side to cut and split wood, and a hammerhead side on the other. Historically used as farm tools, hatchets have also found their way into combat from time to time, the most popular combat oriented hatchet being the Native American tomahawk.
- Blade: The machete has a long blade made from carbon steel or high carbon steel; it is thick when compared with other knives, but thin when compared with the head of an axe, and is suitable for cutting through tough plant life e.g. stalks, vines and large leaves.
- Handle: Machetes have short handles made from materials such as wood, plastic, ivory or Micarta®.
- Price: The price of machetes ranges from $20 to $200, and reliable models can be found even at the lowest price point.
- Weight: The machete’s long and relatively thin blade, combined with its short stock, make it a light-weight, easy to wield tool.
- Head: The head of the hatchet can be made from low or high carbon steels, depending upon the intended application.
- Haft: The haft refers to the elongated handle of the hatchet, which is normally around 18’’ in length to provide optimum one handed wielding. It was traditionally made from wood, but more recently, hatchets with artificial composite handles have also become common.
- Price: Hatchets can cost anywhere from $20 to $150, and just as in the case of machetes, workable pieces can be found quite cheap.
- Weight: The head is the part where the weight of the hatchet is concentrated – this forward weighted distribution makes the tool ideal for chopping up hardened, frozen wood, by delivering more powerful strokes.
The obvious limitation of the machete’s relatively light weight blade is that its stroke isn’t as powerful as that of a hatchet. This means that it won’t be effective at chopping hardwood. Note that this doesn’t apply to all machetes, there are some will be able to chop up tough wood eventually, just not as quickly or cleanly as a hatchet.
The short handle of the machete also makes it a hazard for rookie users, who can hurt themselves if they are over-enthusiastic about their swings.
The weight of the hatchet may yield more powerful strokes, but this is at the expense of each swing being considerably more tiring than that of a machete. This, coupled with the relatively small size of the hatchet’s head, makes it largely unsuitable for clearing dense foliage.
The same features make it a tougher weapon to use in melee combat; this isn’t to say that it is no good – indeed, hatchets are decent makeshift melee weapons, but only when there’s nothing else available – the weight will cause you to tire after a dozen or so swings, and, unless you’re a pro, your swings may also be a lot slower compared to a machete.
Hatchet throwing is also a good self-defense maneuver, but only for those who are familiar with the technique.
The best analogy to summarize the difference between machetes and hatchets is that of gears in a mountain bike: the hatchet is comparable to the lower gears that require more effort and yield more power per paddle, whereas the machete can be likened to the higher gears that require less effort but yield less power per paddle.
Just like the lower gears are suitable for uphill climbs, the hatchet excels at heavy duty chopping applications. And similar to how the higher gears are meant for cycling on level / slightly sloped ground, the machete is great for light-to-moderate vegetation clearing applications.
From the price-point perspective, neither has advantage over the other. Ultimately then, both tools are great for their own respective applications, but the machete is a bit more versatile, in that certain varieties can pull off heavy duty chopping (albeit requiring more time, and with a greater risk of getting damaged), and almost all can serve as more effective weapons for self-defense if needed.