In recent years, all of the major manufacturers have pushed electric chainsaw technology, but few, if any, have come close to replicating the performance of petrol saws. Until now that is, with Stihl’s MSA 300 proving a seriously impressive piece of kit. 

This is the third battery saw I’ve tested and in the two previous cases I’ve said:
1. Not really any good.
2. Good, but not quite good enough. Yet.

I was not really impressed with the first one I tested other than noting it was light and handy for DIY. I couldn’t see it ever being used on a harvesting site and the options during arb operations looked limited.

The second saw I tested did length up and end off all the boards I used in a 40-metre-long fence I put up at home during the first lockdown. I was impressed with its speed and the battery life. I did have a go at felling with it and small larch were easily dealt with, but a lack of chain speed and a constant tendency for the chain to pinch convinced me we were still some way off a battery saw that could compete with even a small petrol saw.

Now we come to number three, the Stihl MSA 300. 

Stihl hints the MSA 300 is comparable to its evergreen MS 261, the latest derivation of the immensely popular 026, which is a model that has evolved through many years in the hands of cutters all around the globe. It was some claim to make and one I couldn’t wait to test out as I have a 261 in my inventory of saws. I must admit the 261 doesn’t get used much as we have been felling diseased ash for a number of years, but lately I’ve ‘consciously uncoupled’ from that type of work and my collection of 70-cc-plus saws may be getting a rest as I look to focus on small thinnings for biomass.

READ MORE: Forestry needs to get over its prejudices to electric technology

The last, and hopefully final, ash felling we did had a big blown beech right on the extraction route which had succumbed to Storm Arwen. The estate’s land agent asked me if I could shift it. It was a tree the 70-year-old woodsman didn’t feel able to tackle, being something like 20-tonnes-plus, so I said yes so long as I could take all the unsaleable timber for my own firewood store at home, which would include a couple of really big limbs that would test the MSA 300.

The first test it got, however, was logging up an Ifor Williams plant trailer-load of 2.5-metre lengths of ash firewood. I’d guess there would be just about a tonne and a half of timber in it and it was all 6–12 inches in diameter. I had two fully charged batteries and the chain was brand new, so I laid into the load with some gusto, cutting it into 8” lengths, splitting it with my log splitter standing right next to the trailer with the log store within arm’s length. I was shocked at how well the MSA 300 cuts hardwood. The chain is something else. I didn’t know what was so special about it, but, wow – it cut like nothing else I’ve used before.

You have to understand this all took place in May 2022 and at the time the saw chain was brand new and yet to receive much press. I was genuinely surprised. 

I sawed all the remaining firewood with the MSA 300, including the remainder of the big beech. 

Forestry Journal:

The MSA 300 is a clear demonstration of where the technology is heading regarding battery-powered saws and there is a clear path of progression. When I make hydraulic pipes in the back of my work van, I use a battery angle grinder to cut the hose. When we fit band tracks we run the tensioners up with a battery impact. We do very few repairs without using a battery ratchet or battery impact and, while for some jobs I still use corded power tools, the simple fact is this means firing up the generator and running out an extension cord and this option is quickly becoming a last resort. We almost always use battery tools now and the same may well happen with saws.

I criticised a number of things when I tested the previous saws, especially the little Husqvarna, which wasn’t aimed at forestry work or arborists but was purely a garden tool.

Annoyances included having to constantly turn the saw back on as it timed out quickly, a lack of chain speed, a lack of power, constant pinching of the chain and the big one, a really short runtime.

The MSA 300 has addressed most if not all of these concerns and a few I hadn’t thought of.

The MSA 300 has three power modes; light work on mode one, medium sawing on mode two, and heavy-duty cutting on mode three. This is achieved by setting the chain speed to 20, 24 and 30 m/s respectively. The lower the setting the longer the runtime. 

The most annoying thing I found with previous battery saws was the need to keep switching them back on if you didn’t use the trigger for more than a few seconds; the MSA has a side press button that sits just where the user’s thumb rests and it takes a small movement to reset the power to on. 

The runtime is much longer than previous battery saws I’ve used and the claimed 44 minutes is achievable in favourable circumstances. 

Power is remarkable and I’d go so far as to say it’s astonishing. Some of this may be down to the incredible chain, which has a narrow kerf, but I’m more than happy to confirm the MSA 300 does indeed compare well to a small petrol saw and it easily outclasses the 30–40-cc homeowner models sold in DIY superstores we are all familiar with.

The things I hadn’t considered as issues are monitored by the warning light for the chain brake, which I guess is aimed at the inexperienced user who may buy a high-quality, well-known brand over a cheap eBay special. While I wouldn’t find it essential, I would guess it might save dealers time explaining to irate customers just why their new saw wasn’t working properly.

These indicators and the power-mode lights are mounted on the rear handle in easy view and are easily controlled by a simple master switch. The battery-power indicator is on the top face of the battery with a display button in the same style as most of the battery tools we are all becoming familiar with.

The fascia of the saw is a little like a modern car dashboard with warning lights and level indicators of a similar ilk you may well find in a Ford Ranger, which is my latest pickup, but you never found in a Morris Marina, which was my first. Regardless of all this tomfoolery, there’s nothing I didn’t quickly get used to and I did not miss having to yank on a starter cord every time I picked the saw up. Pressing the on switch with a thumb doesn’t cause the same sort of elbow pain as yanking on the starter of a saw that’s halfway between hot and cold.

Using the MSA 300 – or any battery-powered piece of equipment – requires a slight change of mindset. This is the future, there’s no denying it, and given that cheap fuel isn’t likely to ever return, we’d better get used to it. Electric power does have its advantages; you can hear a petrol chainsaw on full chat from miles away, not so a battery saw. Stihl’s published noise figure of around 104 dB coupled with vibration at 1.6 and 1.5 m/s2 for right and left handles confirm my thoughts that this is a quiet and smooth piece of equipment. It isn’t as light as I’d thought though at 5.4 kg, although much of that weight can be attributed to the battery. 

Forestry Journal:

Just what is it like to use though? That’s what any chainsaw operator will want to know.

To start with I cut firewood, but I did take it onto a clearfell we were doing and I felled a few trees with it. I cut some silver birch that was the sort likely to flick a harvester chain off without at least having the decency to provide a few decent lengths of timber. I did, however, spot a couple of decent Norway spruce that were close to the boundary of the site and if I looked from just the right angle they were maybe just on our side, so I took my chance and felled them.

Well-grown Norway is quite a buttery wood to cut and that new chain certainly dealt with it well. I felled a couple of trees, dressed them out and cross-cut them. The bigger of the two yielded four 3.75 m sawlogs with a minimum top of 16 cm, and two lengths of 3 m chipwood, so not small poles by any means. I’ve always liked dressing out nice clean poles and I was pretty quick in my day. The technique and muscle memory never leaves you. It’s just the muscles and flexibility that fail as you reach my age. Nonetheless, the light weight, good balance and quick response of the MSA 300 didn’t feel at all alien to an old boy brought up on the best petrol engines the leading chainsaw manufacturers could produce. It’s also superbly smooth; so smooth in fact that I couldn’t fault it and

I’ve got fingers that start to buzz if I use an angle grinder for more than a few minutes.

I loved the MSA 300, but the big question is: would I buy one?

I don’t know. I did find it extremely handy to have around for cutting off branches and stumps on extraction routes. It is an ideal saw to carry on a forwarder.

I can’t see how any battery saw is going to work in a manual harvesting setting, not quite yet, and I’m afraid that one particularly large pachyderm in the parlour is cost.

To work the way I did cutting firewood I needed two batteries. When I wasn’t dealing with the big beech I filled my trailer with 2.5 m lengths of firewood. I hauled them home and cut them into round logs with one battery and split and stacked the logs as I went along. When the first battery was flat I put it on charge and fitted the second. When the second went flat (the saw just stops, there’s no fading off in power) the first one was almost fully charged. It was possible to leave one battery at home on charge while I went back to the wood with enough charge in the other to length up sufficient wood to fill the trailer again, and in this way I adapted how I worked to get the job done, but it wouldn’t have worked without two batteries and I’d suggest two is a minimum.

Forestry Journal:

I have just looked at one of the major forestry equipment supplier’s websites to put together what it will cost in early 2023 to buy an MSA 300 fitted with a 16” bar, a charger and two AP 500S batteries. The saw, charger and one battery come as a kit and cost £1,155, with a second battery adding £345, making a total of £1,500 or about the same as two MS 261s. At first sight that looks like a deliberately negative statement from someone who likes the saw and the concept, and it is, but it’s also realistic. New tech is expensive; have you looked at what the latest iPhone costs? It’s also fair to say the newest smartphone doesn’t represent even a fraction of the technological leap that the move from fossil fuel to electrical power does. I’d expect the price of the technology to come down. 

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Would I buy an MSA 300? Well, yes, I would, if I was an arborist or a gardener or I was doing anything other than hand cutting timber for volume production.

This is the best battery saw I’ve tested and it’s the nearest thing to a comparable petrol saw I’ve seen and as such it’s down to the work you do and what you need from a saw.

In the near future battery power will become the norm.