An axe is probably one of the most basic, yet most useful, tools that a person can have along in the outdoors. Whether it’s for gathering firewood, building a shelter, or clearing downed trees off of back roads, it’s one of those tools that when you need it, you really need it! Finding a size that will let you do serious work while not weighing you down too much on the trail, or taking up too much room in the truck cab, is always a lesson in compromises.
With that said, it seems that the 24″ Hudson Bay style axes seem to be one of the best fits for this type of work. Mating a light head with handle long enough to take a good two handed swing lets you put some power behind your cuts while still keeping the size and weight down to a manageable range. Finding that size axe can sometimes be a little tough, or at least a little pricey, but Cold Steel has a model that fills the niche precisely and is easy on the wallet too. Let’s take a look at the Trail Boss and see what it has to offer.
Cold Steel markets the Trail Boss under their American Tomahawk line. Despite the name, the axes are actually imported from China and it’s clearly stamped on the axe head. Lest that dissuade you, though, rest assured that everything is still built to the usual Cold Steel specifications and standards. The axe head itself is 6 1/2 inches long and features a 4 1/2 inch primary cutting edge. The black painted head is drop forged 1055 high carbon steel and its affixed solidly to the head and secured further by a wooden wedge. A circular steel wedge is in turn driven through the wooden wedge. Suffice it say, the head is very solidly mounted. It’s fitted to a straight grained hickory handle which brings the Trail Boss to 23 inches in overall length. Cold Steel lists the weight around 2 1/2 pounds. It isn’t gear for an ultra light backpacker, but neither is especially cumbersome. If you’re traveling in temperature where an axe is a necessity, or heading out for camping trips closer to the car, the Trail Boss will strap to a pack frame easily enough. It’s certainly compact enough to mount on an ATV, slide behind the seat of a pickup truck, or drop in the trunk of a car.
Now, if you look at Mors Kochanski’s classic book, Bushcraft, and flip to the chapter on axecraft you’ll see just what Mors describes as a “Bush Axe”. He describes the bush axe as a short, light axe that is a compromise between portability and what it will be asked to do. In regard to length, Mors suggest that if the axe handle fits snugly into your armpit while holding the head in your hand, then the length will be comfortable to use for general bush work. The Trail Boss is perfect for me in this regard, so we’re right on size wise. He suggested a weight of 1.5 Kilograms which is about 3.3 pounds for us Americans. The Trail Boss with handle comes in at 44 ounces on my U.S. Postal scale, or 2.75 pounds. Pretty close to what he’s looking for. We shave a bit of weight for carrying but might be missing a little mass for cutting. Close enough that I call it good though! Mors discusses the best grains for the axe handle and a pure straight grain is what he considers best. My Trail Boss has a bit of an angled grain to it and falls into what Mors considers the “fair” category. Not bad, but not best either. Generally you’re only going to see the best grains in higher end axes or if you get the chance to paw through a pile of less expensive axes and pick out the best one. The cross section and knob of the Trail Boss seem to fit right in with the shape he prefers for comfort in use, and the axe bit lines up nicely with the knob when sighting down the handle.
The hang, as measured by resting the bit and knob on a flat surface, is right around 1/2 inch, which squeaks into the range that Mors likes to see. Now, when it comes to the axe head he prefers a more convex head. The Trail Boss deviates from his ideal bush axe in this regard in that its head is more concave like a speed grind, or limbing axe. Still, moving on to the other axe head features we find a large, strong eye, and a good heat treat that seems to balance toughness and edge retention well. The 1055 drop forged steel seems like a good choice for this type of axe. It takes and seems to hold an edge well, and is easy to touch up (especially on a slack belt grinder!), but doesn’t chip out during use. In testing the throw of the axe, it seems to be a little heavy towards the bit, which Mors says may make it more awkward to use. So, overall we’ve got the right size and pretty darn close to the right weight, and then a mix of plusses and minuses when it comes to being the perfect bush axe. I think what we end up with may not be Mors optimal bush axe, but the Trail Boss still looks like it’ll be a good bush axe.
For testing, I took the Trail Boss with me up to my in-laws camp in the middle of the Sproul State Forest in central Pennsylvania. I did a fair bit of woods bumming just roaming around the forest with the Trail Boss. I found its size and weight comfortable to carry and most of the time just kept it in hand and carried it just behind the axe head. Once I scouted out the area, I used it to take down, limb, and section a small tree to use for a variety of projects I was working on. On the small, green tree the Cold Steel axe certainly showed who was boss. It took down the tree in no time using a two handed swing. I switched to using the axe one handed when I started knocking limbs off and this is where the bush axe size shines. The 23 inch length makes it possible to go from two handed to one handed use easily, depending what the task at hand is. You can shift your hand midway up the haft for short chops, and choke up on the axe for more detailed work.
Back at camp, I split some dried cherry logs into manageable pieces for the camp fire. These weren’t humungous rounds, but pieces in the 4 to 7 inch diameter range. The Trail Boss did a pretty good job on these overall. On the occasions where the axe did get stuck a little I was able to use a baton on its poll to help finish the split. I later used the axe back at home to cut up some quick stakes and chop points on them for use in the garden. The Trail Boss made quick work of that and was easy enough to use in a role I’d generally use a smaller hatchet for. Overall, I felt that the axe handled well. It may not be the perfect bush axe, but I found that it carried easily and chopped and handled well for a factory axe. Once I took time to touch up the factory edge it performed even better.
After using the Trail Boss for a while, I started to get the urge to do some mods to it. Another nice thing about the modest price is that you don’t mind doing some experimenting that you might be hesitant to do with some other axes that will run you well over a C note. The first thing I did was strip off the black blade coating with Stypeeze paint remover. The finish was already starting to wear from use so I figured I’d help it along. A couple applications took off the coating and I was down to bare metal in no time. Even under the paint, the axe head looked pretty good. Sometimes companies use paint to hide roughly finished heads but that didn’t seem to be the case with the Cold Steel head. Once I had the paint off I put a forced patina on it using white vinegar. I degreased the head and wrapped it in a paper towel soaked in vinegar. The first time I let it sit for an hour or so and I ended up with an uneven patina. I also found that the unpainted portion of the blade does have some sort of clear coat on it and would not take a patina. Another round of Strypeeze and I had the whole head clean. I did a second round of the vinegar patina and let the axe sit overnight this time.
When I woke up I found a rust colored paper towel encasing the axe head. I quick rub down with an oily rag followed by a scrub down with steel wool left the axe head with a nice gray patina and a well aged look to it. If I did it again, I probably wouldn’t let it sit quite so long. The overnight soak left a light layer of pitting in some spots so it was probably a bit excessive. Nothing major, and I’m not worried about it, but I suspect a shorter soak of an hour or so would probably be better. Once I had the head patinated, I moved on to the handle. First I drilled a lanyard hole in the end, as recommended by Mors in the Bushcraft book. This gives you the option of adding a lanyard when working around ice or water, or for using one to help attach the axe to your gear. Next, I took a propane torch and made a series of charred rings the length of the handle. I just used a light pass with the torch to add some color, and the slightest bit of texture to the handle. The last thing I did was talk to the folks at JRE Industries and have them whip up a leather blade cover for me. The Trail Boss ships with a small rubber edge cover that I used at first. It works, but had a tendency to fall off. It’s really more for protecting the edge in shipping than long term use. The leather edge cover is a lot more efficient and looks good with my newly modded, vintage looking axe.
After a few months use, both around the house and around camp, I have to say I’m well pleased with the Cold Steel Trail Boss. I found the size to be very handy both to carry and to stow when you aren’t using it. I can definitely see why Mors Kochanski prefers this style for his bushcraft chores. It’s a practical and manageable tool. Cold Steel has the Trail Boss listed at a $44.99 MSRP which is pretty reasonable for what you get in my opinion. With a little shopping around though you can find it for around $27. At that price, it’s a downright steal! It may not be Mors’ perfect bush axe, but its a darn good one and at a price that any outdoorsman can afford.