Depending on where and with whom you have it, a conversation on the subject of batonning can be quite controversial. It can quickly lead to some heated debates, with both sides passionately presenting supporting arguments. The usual arguments against it are: “knives are made for cutting, axes are made for splitting”, “a knife is not a froe”, “knives are not made for striking in this way”. It is true enough of course, knives are indeed not froes, most knives are far more versatile. Truthfully, only splitting axes are made for splitting, much like felling axes are made for felling. As for what a knife is made for, well that is determined by the designer and the maker. Knives can easily be purposed-designed for all sorts of uses, and they should be chosen based on realistic expectations.
There is no disputing the fact that, in most cases, an axe will be a better choice for a chopping tool than a knife. The axe has undergone hundreds of years of evolutionary development, and countless subtle tweaks, most of them specifically to enhance the efficiency of this tool in the task of chopping wood. The weight distribution and inertia development essentially guarantee the axe will chop hardwood wood far better than most knives. However the chore of splitting is not quite so cut and dry, and circumstance is the determining factor there in my opinion.
When it comes to splitting wood for the purpose of starting a fire under wet conditions in a wilderness environment, you enter a change in paradigm versus splitting large, cleanly sawn pieces of firewood on a chopping block. Even if you are fortunate enough to find a suitable flat wooden surface to serve as a chopping block, the odds of getting the fire wood to stand there without being held in an upright position are not in your favor. Those odds would get exponentially less favorable with each subsequent split. If you take a good look at the photo here, I'm sure you can see where things could go horribly wrong when doing this while cold, wet, fatigued, and miles from medical care.
There is seldom an actual need to chop or split anything larger than 2 to 3 inches in diameter in order to make a fire, even under wet conditions. In a recreational camping situation, doing so wouldn't be so much of a problem, people relax and unwind in different ways. However doing so in a survival situation would typically be a waste of precious calories and moisture. Batonning is generally a safer approach to splitting small diameter limbs, particularly when fatigued, because: A) your hand is out of the way of the object you are striking with, and B) that object does not have a sharp edge.
Due to the fact that you are going with the grain rather than against it, the edge of the knife is exposed to very little impact with the wood, unless you are batonning knotty wood. Some knots are nearly as hard as glass, so batonning knotty wood shouldn't be done unless there is no other choice and the fire is a necessity. The biggest threat to the knife in batonning clear wood, of a reasonable size in diameter, comes from misdirection of force. Lateral force applied to the blade could damage the knife, so be sure to strike the spine straight on in line with the split.
Batonning is a very useful skill to have in the woods. When done properly, it is highly unlikely that a good quality knife will suffer any ill affects from it. The knife pictured is the mid-tech model of the Fiddleback Forge Bushfinger. It is made of 5/32 CPM S35VN stainless steel. This one has done more batonning during the course of testing, than most knives will do in a lifetime, and has suffered no damage from it. Under the described conditions, using this technique, a decent pile of kindling can be produced in a shorter amount of time, with less energy expense, and done more safely than if performing the same task with an axe.
Obviously this blog post will not end the great batonning debate, I knew that going into it, and that was not the purpose of writing it. The purpose was to offer information and some food for thought. In the future, should you find yourself in the wilderness with a need to split wood, and deliberating on how to go about it, just ask yourself this one simple question. Will my chosen method put part of my body in the path of a sharp object that is moving with a fair amount of inertia? Then, if the answer is yes, ask yourself is this really a wise idea?
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