You’ll Keep The Case Winkler Pack Axe Close At Hand.

I’d describe it as a hatchet with a military tomahawk lineage. And, it can handle any marching orders you’re likely to give it.

The Case Winkler Pack Axe is a tool that provides more chopping power than a large knife, yet it’s small and light enough that you won’t be tempted to leave it at home. As a tool for survival applications on pavement or off, it’d be hard to beat.

What Is It?

The Case Winkler Pack Axe, as the name implies, is a collaboration between W.R. Case & Sons Cutlery Company and Winkler Knives and is the most recent offering in the Case American Heroes series.

First, let’s look at the build. At just 26 ounces, the Pack Axe is a lightweight hatchet. It’s crafted from a single piece of 3/8-inch-thick 80CrV2, an excellent high-carbon tool steel that’s strong, holds an edge well and—important for an axe—can take lots of pounding shock. The metal has a Caswell matte-gray nonglare finish. The flatback head features a cutting edge of 2.57 inches, sufficient for most tasks while still able to get into tight spaces.

While the Pack Axe could be secured to your belt, the author feels it’s more likely to be tucked into, or attached to, the outside of a pack. In either case, you don’t want to leave it at home! (Photo by Steven Paul Barlow)

There’s no wooden handle to chip, shatter or rot. The full tang is skeletonized, and it’s tapered so that it’s narrower at the bottom. This emphasizes the weight at the head and gives the Pack Axe excellent handling qualities. The curved knob at the bottom of the handle serves effectively as a hand stop to help you maintain your grip when you swing the axe. The handle panels are sturdy, Micarta-like canvas laminate. They provide a secure hold without becoming abrasive to the hand during long chopping chores. The handles aren’t removable.

Too common these days are the “packable” hatchets offered by some companies; they have stubby, little handles that just about negate their chopping abilities. Not so with the Case Winkler Pack Axe: It has an overall length of 14.25 inches. That’s sufficient to give you lots of leverage for powerful chopping swings. A hexagonal hole at the bottom of the handle allows for attachment of a lanyard or for hanging the axe when it’s not in use.

The Kydex sheath covers the whole head of the Pack Axe. It features two snap-on nylon straps that can serve as belt loops or for attaching it to MOLLE gear. To secure the axe in the sheath, there’s a knotted stretch cord that you wrap around the bottom of the sheath and secure in a notch at the top. It’s handy and provides quick access to the axe: Simply pop the cord out of the notch, and the axe can be pulled downward out of the sheath.

The cutting edge is 2.57 inches, concentrating its chopping power over a small surface area. Its size would be especially useful in tight spaces, such as when quartering game. (Photo by Steven Paul Barlow)

A Practical Blend

The Case Winkler Pack Axe is a well-integrated blend of a combat tomahawk and a woodsman’s hatchet. The tomahawk was indispensable for Native Americans, frontiersmen and early military units such as Roger’s Rangers. It was the ultimate utility tool of the time and was lightweight and handy enough to carry on a belt. It was a close-quarters backup weapon vital in the days of single-shot, muzzle-loading rifles. In addition, the same tomahawk was used to clear trails, build shelters and rafts, split kindling, quarter and butcher big game and many other tasks. The tomahawk often featured a friction-fit wooden handle that could be replaced easily when damaged; it could also be removed for using the head, alone, for skinning and other chores.

A woodsman’s axe, or hatchet, has many of the same attributes. It’s lightweight and handy, although it’s typically geared more toward bushcraft duties than for use as a weapon. Sometimes, the head of a woodsman’s hatchet will have a wider wedge to make it more suited to splitting wood. That head is secured to the handle; it’s not meant to be removed.

The upper portion of the handle is wrapped in paracord to protect the handle from errant strikes. It also provides a good gripping surface when choking up on the handle for precise cuts. The paracord has many other survival uses as well. (Photo by Steven Paul Barlow)
Todd Barlow sharpened this stick for use as a lashing post with a couple of good, angled slicing chops. (Photo by Steven Paul Barlow)

When Case and Winkler decided to collaborate on such a practical tool, military vet Kevin Holland was brought in to provide his design input. (The Pack Axe is the second of his designs in the Case Winkler series. The first was the Case Winkler Skinner, a fixed-blade knife that quickly became one of my favorites after I tested it a couple of years ago.)

Many military axes designed for combat have a spike on the head opposite the cutting edge. This Case Winkler collaboration was intended more for woods use than for war. Holland chose a flat area at the rear of the head instead of a spike. That gives the tool the ability to pound nails and tent pegs, along with other uses for which a hammer is required. He intentionally stayed away from the wide wedge heads used in splitting or felling axes.

Here, once again using the hammer side of the Pack Axe, Todd Barlow pounds in a lashing post used to secure a tarp over a tent at deer camp. (Photo by Steven Paul Barlow)

“If you look at the frontiersman’s or woodsman’s axes, they didn’t have these massive heads,” Holland pointed out. “They didn’t need a massive axe to carry on their belts or to throw in their packs. They needed a woodsman’s axe, and this is really what the Pack Axe is based on.”

He said he tailored the Case Winkler Pack Axe to be similar to those used by frontiersmen, because “those guys knew how to live in the woods.” Overall, Holland was pleased with the final design of the Pack Axe.

The sheath covers the head of the Pack Axe and has two snap-on nylon straps for attachment to a belt or MOLLE gear. A knotted elastic cord secures the axe in the sheath. (Photo by Steven Paul Barlow)

“When you see a taper in the tang, that is the mark of a handmade knife or axe,” he explained. “You don’t usually see that on mass-production blades. The paracord at the top is because a lot of times, guys will be splitting kindling, and they’ll nick the wood handle.”

While there’s little danger of ruining the Pack Axe’s handle—it features full-length steel construction—the paracord does add a measure of protection.

“If you do nick the cord on something, you could just rewrap it,” Holland said. “It’s also there to use in any kind of survival situation.”

While setting up his seasonal deer camp last fall, the author quickly fashioned this replacement tent pole using the Pack Axe. (Photo by Steven Paul Barlow)

Woods Utility

I brought the Pack Axe along when my brother, nephew and I set up our seasonal deer camp this past fall. We discovered we were missing a tent pole, so I went to work chopping a nearby downed tree branch to size.

The Pack Axe was extremely sharp when I first got it (you’d expect that from both Case and Winkler, so there was no surprise there!). And, I was very pleased at how easily the Pack Axe, as light as it was, chopped through the branch, which was 3 or 4 inches thick. I trimmed off smaller branches. Then, I choked up on the axe handle and took a grip on the paracord wrap. I found it made for a good gripping surface when making more-precise cuts. I sliced the smaller end of what was now about a 7-foot-long staff until it was shaped to fit into the end of the aluminum pole for which we were short one piece. Problem solved.

Todd Barlow took a turn with the axe to hammer in some tent stakes. A little more surface area on the hammer would have been preferable, but it got the job done. (Photo by Steven Paul Barlow)

We always rig nylon tarps over our tents as extra protection against potentially severe Northeast weather. My nephew took a turn with the Pack Axe and made some stakes and lashing posts to secure the tarp in a taut, inverted “V.”

We discovered that we’d have preferred a larger surface area on the back of the axe head for pounding stakes, but it got the job done. Later, when we used the Pack Axe to split 2-inch, kindling-sized pieces of wood, it did a fine job. It has excellent balance and handling qualities that help you be more precise and, therefore, more efficient with your chopping strokes.

When I returned home, I wiped down the Pack Axe with an oily cloth, and it looked as good as new. It’s not made of stainless steel, so you can’t neglect it. Although we used the tool all that day, the edge showed no indication that it had dulled, even a bit. I imagine when it comes time for a touch-up, a few strokes on a Lansky Puck or similar sharpener will be all that’s required.

The Case Winkler Skinner fixed-blade knife was the first design of retired military vet Kevin Holland that Case introduced. Holland has the distinction of having served in elite units of both the U.S. Navy and Army. (Photo by Steven Paul Barlow)
The handle of the Case Winkler Pack Axe provides a secure hold and is long enough to give you enough leverage for good chopping power. (Photo by Steven Paul Barlow)

Survival at Hand

Remember, when you’re relying on one tool for multiple tasks, there’ll always be compromises. When it comes to the choppers, a larger, heavier tool might chop and split better. However, a larger, heavier tool is one you’d most likely leave back at camp.

“I’ve been in situations before where I needed an axe,” Holland said. He recalled a time in Norway when a snowmobile went off the trail and got hung up on a downed tree branch. He had a Winkler axe with him and was able to chop the branch to free the machine.

Two-thirds of the tapered, full-length tang is fitted with canvas laminate grip panels. (Photo by Steven Paul Barlow)
The more you carry the Case Winkler Pack Axe, the more uses you’ll find for it. (Photo by Case Knives)

Yes, this axe is expensive. It lists at a penny under $500. But, if it’s cared for and not abused, this tool is an heirloom possession that can last several lifetimes. A good chopping tool that’s sufficiently light and compact to be included in your essential gear when you’re traveling light and staying highly mobile can be invaluable.

Nevertheless, don’t think its usefulness ends at quartering an elk, splitting kindling or making an emergency shelter. A tool such as the Case Winkler Pack Axe can be a lifesaver in more “civilized” environments too. For instance, extricating a motorist from a wreck or chopping your way out of a room that’s ablaze are just a couple of uses that come to mind.

Splitting kindling proved an easy task for the handy Case Winker Pack Axe. (Photo by Steven Paul Barlow)
The back side of the Pack Axe head features a hammer head instead of the spike found on many combat tomahawks. (Photo by Steven Paul Barlow)
Despite the Pack Axe’s light weight and small size, the author found that it cut through tough hardwoods with ease—thanks, in part, to its sharp blade and efficient geometry. (Photo by Steven Paul Barlow)

Case And Winkler—A Dream Partnership

The collaborations between Case and Winkler for the Case American Heroes series bring together two companies with reputations for making excellent blades.

Case has deep roots. They extend back to 1889, when the four Case brothers sold their handcrafted knives out of a wagon along a trail in southwestern New York State. Eventually, W.R. Case & Sons was formed.

While the company has made every type of knife over its history, it’s especially known for its top-quality, American-made, traditional folding knives that are prized by collectors and often passed down from one generation to the next. Based in Bradford, Pennsylvania, the company is now owned by Zippo Manufacturing Company, makers of the famous windproof lighters.

Winkler Knives is a much more recent arrival to the world of edged tools. Daniel Winkler began making knives in 1975 and was doing it full-time by 1988. He was accredited by the American Bladesmith Society as a master bladesmith in 1993.

Winkler’s design inspiration came from the knives and axes of America’s frontiersmen. His designs attracted the attention of soldiers needing sturdy, practical blades, and Winkler has been supplying elite military units ever since. Of course, savvy civilians have also seen the value in his semi-custom blades.

Kevin Holland’s Big Influence on Winkler Military Axes

Kevin Holland was the natural choice for working on the Case Winkler Pack Axe design. He’s the one who first got Winkler involved in making military axes.

Holland entered the U.S. Navy upon graduation from high school. He became a Navy SEAL and served during Desert Storm. Back in the United States, he had more duties.

“I was tasked with finding a breaching axe,” he said. “I saw the movie, The Last of the Mohicans, and found out who made those axes. It was a guy who lived about 30 miles from where I grew up near Boone, North Carolina. Daniel Winkler was his name.”

Holland called him on the phone and explained that he was looking to get a breaching axe made for his SEAL team.

“A combat axe wasn’t a common thing back then. I drew him a picture of what I wanted, sent it to him, and he made the axe. He sent it to me in the mail. That was the first one he ever made for a military person. I carried that the whole time I was a SEAL. When I got out, I was a wildlife officer in North Carolina, and I carried it in the door of my car.”

Then, after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Holland went back into the military, this time trying out and signing on with an Army Special Operations unit. When fellow soldiers saw his Winkler axe, many of them wanted one just like it.

From that time, a large part of Winkler’s business has been crafting knives and axes for elite military units.


Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in the January, 2020 print issue of American Survival Guide.

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