The axe cannot be separated from our imaginations of Norse culture. As a tool, it is heavy, cumbersome, but versatile- requiring tremendous strength and stamina to use for any length of time. As a weapon, it is brutish, ignoble, and above all immensely destructive. The same tool, so familiar to the calloused hands of an ancient shipbuilder, could quite readily be called upon to serve on the medieval battlefield, with devastating results. The Norse were quite fond of their axes- it was a central pillar of their culture, the weapon that the simple farmer took afield when called to fight.
So it is not at all surprising that they were quite ingenious with the design and implementation of their axes. Enter the Cold Steel Viking Hand Axe.
This new-for-2015 offering from Cold Steel is a modern interpretation of what is known as a bearded axe– an axe bearing a pronounced, elongated cutting edge that extends some distance towards the haft of the axe. In addition to providing a greater cutting surface without adding much weight, the “beard” also allows the axe to be used much like a shepherd’s hook- a combatant could hook his enemy’s shield or ankle and make an opening for an attack. The beard complements the axe as a tool as well- you can choke up on the haft and apply pressure directly behind the cutting edge, which makes shaving wood infinitely easier.
I had actually been pining for such an axe for quite some time, but the offerings on the market from Hanwei and others appeared to be investment cast and not at all economical for what they were. This beefy blade boasts not only drop-forged construction, but, in keeping with the tradition of Cold Steel tomahawks, it also bears ahamon- a temper line, meaning that the 6 1/4″ cutting edge has been specially hardened, separate from the rest of the axe head. Forged high-carbon steel, differentially hardened, and only $35 with free shipping on Midway USA? This thing is a steal.
Or so I thought.
When the axe arrived, I was remarkably disappointed with it. I own several Cold Steel products, and all of them have been in dire need of some finishing work upon arrival, but this axe was the worst offender of all…
Unboxing and initial impressions:
The edge was dull, rough, burred, and heavily rolled. While discouraging, it was nothing I couldn’t fix with a stone and some sandpaper. The finish on the head was some kind of baked-on, sickly green affair, which I personally wasn’t fond of, and I’m not entirely sure why Cold Steel opted for this instead of their standard black shoe-polish finish. Regardless, into the vinegar bath it went.
Next, I took a look at the 30” hickory haft, fearing the worst. The grain was again misaligned, which seems to be a running theme with Cold Steel’s handles. The eye of the head was bottoming out on a large shelf near the top- not good. The head would actually fall right down the handle without the Allen head set-screw in place. After many hours of work with rasps and sandpaper, I had worked down the bulb at the end of the haft to more manageable proportions before I began fine-tuning the fit. I got it pretty snug, but ran out of wood before I could get it just right. I had to remove so much hickory that the hole (or, rather, the dimple at this point) for the set-screw is actually about half an inch below the axe head in its current configuration. Again, not good. This piece of hickory will likely become several knife handles, unfortunately.
Regardless of my frustrations with the handle, I rubbed some Danish oil into it and called it good for now.
Next, I moved onto the head. The vinegar bath did a pretty admirable job of stripping the factory finish, leaving a nice, grey patina. I decided to sharpen it before I prettied it up any further, just to avoid marring the final finish. I used a cheap double-sided Harbor Freight stone with water, and finished the job with 400-600-grit sandpaper. The cutting edge was harder than any knife, axe, or sword that I have ever seen in my life, so props to Cold Steel for their tempering job. I finally called it good when I had a thick, convex edge that could shave hair and slice tomatoes with ease. Next, I cold-blued the head with Birchwood-Casey cold blue. This particular piece of steel yielded a deep, dark finish that contrasted nicely with the highly polished edge. In some spots, it almost looks like forge scale. I think it looks pretty sharp (no pun intended).
So I took a rubber mallet, installed the haft as best I could, and set to work with the testing.
I didn’t have much around the house that needed chopping, but an old, worn-out cutting stand struck me as a worthy adversary. Striking downward into the grain, the axe predictably buried itself up to the handle. A few more strikes across the grain, as though I was chopping down a tree, cleft the 4″ square post in twain. As I expected, the axe loosened up during this operation, and I had to use my trusty mallet to bring it back into working order, which was annoying. Despite this inconvenience, this axe is heavy and hits hard, although it doesn’t really benefit from the unusual handle length, which I find to be too cumbersome to use with one hand and not quite long enough to comfortably use with both. Your mileage may vary. The standard 22″ handle would be a better fit, in my opinion, but I think it would really shine with a four footer if you intend to do heavy chopping with it. Nonetheless, it’s different than the standard Cold Steel lineup, which is refreshing in a way. After all, it’s easy to shorten to an ideal length.
The chopping excursion brought to light an interesting quirk inherent to this design- if you strike your target with the hanging “beard” portion of the blade, you run the risk of whacking the upper portion of the handle on whatever you’re splitting. So be careful and watch your overstrike, and make sure to hit with the part of the blade that’s backed up by the head.
Conclusion: Like other Cold Steel axes and ‘hawks, it’s a diamond in the rough. This one was very rough, due largely, I suspect, to growing pains with a brand-new design. Future generations of this product will likely be of higher quality, but simply put, Cold Steel ain’t Gransfors Bruks. You’ve gotta put some work into these to really make them shine.
My biggest gripe is the handle on these tools. I ordered a 22″ replacement handle for my Norse Hawk and it was plagued by the same problems (in addition to a large heartwood inclusion). Step up your handle game, Cold Steel.
But if you can work around the sub-par haft and are moderately competent with sharpening, you’ve got a rock solid, no-frills chunk of hammer-forged, 1055 steel that, in keeping with the Viking theme, will survive Ragnarok itself.
It’s a great tool, a fine weapon, and a worthy investment.