The ESEE Gibson Axe: Jack of All Trades, Master of None

I’ve always loved the idea of an all-purpose camp hatchet. Back in my Marine Corps days, I purchased what would now be the SOG Fast Hawk. It was cool for what it was but, in all reality, it was cheap. Having been on the lookout for a replacement over the years, you can imagine the excitement I felt when I first saw the ESEE Gibson Axe. Small, handy, and made by a company known for quality, I knew I had to have one.

Let’s start with the origin and purpose of this axe. James Gibson began his career as a bladesmith in 1998. While honing his knifemaking craft over the years, he also studied primitive living, survival, and bushcraft skills. At the junction of his life’s work comes the Gibson Axe. Designed as a handy, comfortable, and compact bush tool, it’s advertised as being able to accomplish most camp chores, wood carving in particular.

This axe was very comfortable in the hand. Sculptured micarta handles lend to a firm grip when chopping, while the bearded head, styled after ancient Viking axes, allows for a grip closer to the blade. This translates into improved handling characteristics when carving. Micarta is easily my favorite handle material, and it’s evident that a lot of thought was put into designing the grip surfaces of this axe.

The fit and finish are excellent, as you’d expect on any product from ESEE. The finish is a stonewashed black oxide. I think people will either love it or hate it. I saw one review on Amazon where someone was complaining that their axe looked nice but was covered in scratches. No, that’s how it’s supposed to look. And while I like the brown Micarta scales, it would’ve been nice to have other color options available.

Durability comes in the form of the venerable 1095 carbon steel. While an older steel, it has stood the test of time having been used in a wide variety of edged weapons over the years. What are the properties of 1095 that you should know? The Carbon-Manganese alloy makes for a very hard steel that yields excellent edge retention. It’s a very easy steel to sharpen at home; no need to use expensive specialized tools. 1095 comes in at a Rockwell hardness of 55. Some put this on the soft side for edged weapons, but I haven’t noticed it. More importantly, it isn’t brittle. Finally, and as a note of caution, carbon steel carries a low resistance to corrosion. So be sure to wipe it down with an oiled cloth after use.

Advertised as being able to accomplish most camp chores, I really put this axe through its paces in testing. Let’s start with the most common and inescapable task for any axe: wood chopping. Surprisingly, the Gibson Axe was not a stellar performer. Lots of effort was required to hack through any limb thicker than three inches, likely due to a combination of short overall length and a lack of weight in the head. Unfortunately, the very attributes that make this axe handy and packable also make it a poor performer for the one task it should do best.

If not a great wood chopper, maybe it would be better at batoning? Certainly the full tang should lend itself to that, right? Wrong. By necessity, trying to baton with this axe means you need to strike on the near side of the log by your hand, versus the far side like you would using a knife. This often results in the axe vibrating significantly in your hand, not unlike how an aluminum bat sometimes vibrates when hitting a baseball. Terribly uncomfortable. And while focusing on striking so as not to hit your hand, you’ll find the small axe head slips off target easily.

Of note, the finish on my Gibson Axe held up admirably while batoning.

Ok, so its not great at processing larger pieces of wood. What about making feather sticks?

Making a feather stick is the process of shaving down wood in to small curls that can then be more effectively used to start a fire. This is a common camp task, and the Gibson Axe specifically says it can be used for wood carving, so it should be a snap, right? Unfortunately, we come up short here as well. While the bearded design of the axe head does allow your grip to be closer to the blade, the distance from the cutting edge to your grip still makes feathering an awkward premise. Getting nice, tight curls that will be sufficient to start a fire really isn’t going to be a possibility with this axe.

Now that chopping, batoning, and making feather sticks are off the table, I thought maybe the Gibson Axe could at least draw some nice sparks from a ferro rod. Again, awkwardness due to the distance from your hand to the blade made it almost impossible. The required leverage just wasn’t there to accomplish this task.

Overall, I think the Gibson Axe suffers most from it being designed as a one-size-fits-all camp tool. Yes, it can perform all of the above tasks. But it does none of them well, particularly when compared to a sturdy knife.

As I tested this axe, my control was the venerable RAT-7 from Ontario Knife Company. The difference between the two was stark… and not in favor of the axe. I’m shocked to say, but perhaps the biggest accomplishment of the Gibson Axe was making me fall back in love with the same old knife I’d had for years. Considering that the RAT-7 ($75) was a better performer at half the cost of the Gibson Axe ($157), I can confidently say the Gibson Axe is not worth buying.

The Final Word: Overall, the ESEE Gibson Axe is an over-built tool that can accomplish many tasks, but none of them well. You’ll fight with it to accomplish common tasks, and find yourself wishing you had something better. Its looks, combined with the price tag, place it more in the realm of an artistic piece than an effective camp tool.

Full Disclosure: I have no affiliation with ESEE Knives, James Gibson, or any other product mentioned in this article. This axe was purchased with personal funds and the review was written without regard for any outside influence.

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