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"Sounding Axe" or "Sportsman's Axe"?

One of those colloquialisms that tends to be thrown about on internet forums and social media is the use of the term “Sounding Axe” for significantly smaller than normal hatchets, typically with heads in the ½ pound range. The semantics of the term are one that I have never been sure of, which lends me towards discrediting users of the word itself. One of the curious notes about such axes is that the manufacturers of such items did not tend to refer to them as “Sounding Axes”. Vaughan, who seems to have been the last manufacturer of such axes, referred to their version in the 2009 company catalog as item # ZS-1/2 or the “Supersportsman’s Axe”. This tiny representative had a half pound head and was described with “Fits tackle box or jacket pocket”.

Earlier in the 20th century, the Kelly Works of the True Temper Corporation marketed a similar product in their early 70s catalogs as the K100, or the “Sportsman’s Light Axe”. Again, this little one had half pound head, and measured in at just over 11” in length and 13 oz total weight. Kelly marketing noted that it “Fits in tackle box – back pack”. Even earlier still, Sears marketed multiple small hatchets of a similar size, 1 as the Craftsman “Sport Axe” or “Sport Hatchet”, which was eerily similar to both the Vaughan and Kelly Versions, and then later on, a “KT 4826 Pack Axe” which was 14 oz total weight and described as a “Modified Hudson Bay Pattern”. This little one did not resemble the previous version or its Vaughan and Kelly counterparts. Similar patterns to these “Sportsman” axes have also been noted as being distributed by L.L. Bean and similar outlets.

As noted before, none of these manufacturers have marketed their product as “Sounding Axes”, so where did this term come from? After a deeper dive into the term, there may be an answer to that question. In their book “Lumberjack Lingo: A Dictionary of the Logging Era” Leland Sorden and Jacque Vallier define the “Sounding” of a tree as “to pound a standing tree with the flat side of an axe to see if it was sound, that is, not rotten to the core”. These seems to insinuate the use of a standard axe, and makes no note of a tiny hatchet. I’ve often wondered, “Why would a lumberjack or forester carry a tiny hatchet, just for tapping on trees, when they likely had a larger option at hand anyway?” Well, there seems to be an answer to that question as well.

In September of 1959, Calvin B. Stott, a well known forester from the Wisconsin Region, published an article in his long running newsletter for the US Forest Service “Forest Control by Continuous Inventory” that specifically noted a method for “Sounding”. The article, entitled " Sounding or Whomping -- which?”, was 4 pages long, and not only mentioned the brand and size of axes the author preferred, but even had a hand drawn picture of it to scale. The axe was noted as a “A half pound, Sears Craftsman Axe”, and the hand drawn image even included the full stamp. Stott’s article explain the importance of Sounding, and listed tree species that the act was specifically helpful with. Later on, in 1964, in a later edition of the same USFS newsletter, Stott would note ““Sounding Axe = ¾ pound size” “Carried to test the soundness of tree butts with evidence of rot or hollowness.” In an article that described equipment a forester should carry to measure woodland plots when working as a “1 man crew”.

Stott himself was quite a significant and well respected member of the US Forest Service. He was educated at Penn State Forestry School at Mont Alto and Yale University. He began his forestry work in Wisconsin in 1934, and published 142 issues of the monthly newsletter “Forest Control by Continuous Inventory”. He was the winner of numerous awards for his work, including the Wisconsin-Michigan Timber Producers Association Award of Merit, of which he was the first person outside that industry to receive. Stott passed away in 1991 at the age of 90. Despite these tiny hatchets not being marketed at “Sounding Axes”, I believe Stott’s lean on them as a functional tool for such use led to the use of the name. In the early 2000s, Forestry-Suppliers Incorporated (a catalog and web based retailer) sold the Vaughan Supersportsman’s Axe as a “Tree Sounding/ Sportsman Axe” and described it as “8 oz. Head axe is perfect for “sounding” trees. Foresters like the compact size (10" long, 2-1/4" blade) for carrying in vest or jacket pocket. Excellent, general purpose axe. Vinyl sheath included.” It’s likely that increased use in such a way by the Forest Service led to niche marketing of the products in that direction, while the vast majority of them were sold by the original intent: for use by sportsman as a tackle box, pocket, or backpack hatchet. The demographic for such sales was surely much larger and of more interest to the marketing departments of those manufacturers, as that’s where the sales would have been. However, by whatever marketing line or name they were sold, these tiny relics are of obvious interest to collectors and enthusiast, and are cherished whenever found.

Cal Stott, Forester, USDA, USFS, Region 9. “Forest Control by Continuous Inventory” No. 66. Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Sept. 1959

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