Tag Archives: axes

would a war axe actually be an effective weapon at all, or has it just been made flashy for appeal? how strong would you need to be to be able to use one if so?

I’m not
certain which axe you’re thinking of, but axes have been used
extensively in warfare, including specialized designs intended specifically for
combat. These range from simple hatchets that function in roughly the same
capacity as a dagger up through the Danish axe. It’s also worth remembering
there are entire families of polearms that are, basically, very long axes.

I’ve
mentioned axes a couple times when discussing historical sidearms. They were,
frequently, used as backup weapons in medieval infantry. In part, because battleaxes
were, generally, cheaper to produce than swords, and (in theory) easier to
train on, so it was easier to arm infantry with battleaxes than swords.

Most
combat tactics with the axe involve generating inertia, and then once the
weapon is up to speed you connect. The examples I’ve seen were figure eight
patterns, though I assume there are others.

Multiple
cultures also developed axe variants for use as thrown weapons. We’re usually
pretty critical of throwing knives as a combat skill, but historically, some warriors
did carry extra axes to throw at foes.

As for strength,
the axe is like nearly every other melee weapon. It’s useful, but anyone of
roughly average strength should be able to use these things. Historical
battleaxes weighed somewhere between one to six pounds, so we’re not talking
about some massive Berserk style
chunk of steel. And, yes, this includes two handed designs. Compared to swords,
axes were lighter, (probably because there was less metal involved.) As with
any weapon, training and experience is far more important than strength. Put
another way, a battleaxe weighs less than your average housecat. Remember, axes
were light enough to bring extras for sharing with the crowd.

I’ll
harp on this a bit for a second, but it is
worth remembering that most weapons are pretty light. There are outliers, but
if you’re bringing a weapon to a battle, then you can expect to be swinging it
all day. A heavy weapon would wear you out, and leave you vulnerable.

The
weight is important for an axe, but the
distribution is what matters. The weight behind the blade will do the work for
you, when striking, you just need to get that weight moving, and then direct it
into the target. To make this work, you don’t need a lot of weight, and the
more you add, the harder it becomes to get the weapon moving and control it, so
you’re looking for a sweet spot of mass and control. Historically that appears
to have been somewhere around two or three pounds.

Ironically,
if you’re looking for a weapon that actually
required a lot of strength to use, that’s the longbow. Drawing one could
require the archer to pull anywhere from forty to sixty pounds, (or more in
some rare cases.) Or, in other words, your mental image of how medieval
combatants looked is on its head, the front line infantry were (in some cases)
scrawny little guys, and the archers were stacked.

-Starke

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I saw your post on improvised weaponry, and I wanted to ask: what about a fire axe? How big/strong would a character need to be to wield something like that effectively?

You’d need to be able to lift about five pounds.

The problem isn’t the weight, it’s being able to balance it and perform repetitive/continuous motions over an extended period of time. This is where the “strength” and “size” misnomers come in for a lot of people.

The kind of physical activity required is like being able to do a bunch of pushups or run laps around a track. It’s not a strongman’s one time five hundred pound lift.

Your character can be any size, be any shape, and weigh anything.

The skills they need fall more in line with being able to swing the axe multiple times, balance for its weight, swing it fast enough to hit their target, and recover (get themselves into a ready position so they can strike again) quickly.

The recovery is the key bit because recovery is where the openings are and where most of the critical mistakes happen.

90% of the time, the moments when your character is going to get hit will happen in the moments preceding their strike (their windup) or in the moments after it doesn’t land/misses/connects poorly. “Recover” is one of the most difficult concepts for the inexperienced fighter to grasp and most of them don’t do it, they don’t reset their defenses to ready for the next strike or block an incoming attack. It is difficult to keep up a continuous assault if your unfamiliar with the concept or the weapon in hand.

For example: the trick with using a fire axe as a weapon is to swing it in a figure eight pattern, and keep it moving. This allows the weapon to move faster via its own weight and reduces the strain on the arms. Once it starts moving, you ensure that nothing can stop it except for an incoming body. The continuous motion also creates a solid, intimidating defense.

The fire axe is in a category similar to a machete. It’s the cousin of a real weapon and can act as a weapon when necessary much more easily than trying to transition a dinner plate into a weapon to beat people with. Hammers, sledge hammers, culinary knives, dinner knives, etc, are in that same category.

They aren’t “improvised” in the same way a beer bottle or a garbage can lid is, they’re much closer to being weapons and make the transition fairly easily. Call them second-cousins. They’re not as suited for the situation as the medieval weapons designed for war, but they’ll work in a pinch.

However, unless they have a background in HEMA, most people who pick up a fire axe are going to use it the way they think an axe should be used. They aren’t going to think about figure eight patterns, attacks on alternate angles, spinning defenses, and rolling strikes. They’re going to use it the traditional way, like a lumberjack or a fireman trying to break down a door or split some wood. (Which works perfectly well when dealing with stationary objects that can’t fight back.)

This is going to be where the problems of the axe occur. While the overhand is a very powerful strike, there’s a reason why it was generally performed in conjunction with a shield.

The overhand/overhead motion creates huge openings in the defense both coming and going, it’s also repetitive and easily adapted to. When you bring your arms up, you expose your entire torso. When the arms come down, your head is now in an easily reachable range. The time which it takes to lift the axe back into position and bring it down are where the openings are.

For most people, axe strikes are also stationary.

What the axe has in its favor is that it is a recognizable weapon and also terrifying. The axe has been the favored weapon of Hollywood horror monsters, it’s recognizable for what it can do, and person threatened with it will know that they are being threatened with a weapon. 

This isn’t like a character standing around with a bottle of hairspray and a lighter while pointing it at their aggressor, a beer bottle, or just a can of spray paint.

Walking out with an axe is like walking out with a knife, or even a sword. It may seem weird for the situation, but their opponent is going to what it means, what it is, and what it can (potentially) do.

While the weapon can’t fight your battles for you, intimidation and headgames are part of warfare. If your character wants to intimidate an attacker or an enemy, then the fire axe is going to be a lot more useful than the frying pan or the dinner plate.

Can any character pick up a fire axe and go to town?

Yes.

If you find yourself asking the question of “Can X do Y?” when it comes to combat. The answer is probably going to be yes, especially if it involves size, weight, height, or any of those statements about sex, gender, and body type.

Much as Hollywood and society at large want us to believe that the only ones capable of combat are six foot tall men between 180 to 225 pounds, life doesn’t work like that.

Physical activity is as much a matter of mind as it is body. You can learn to adjust to your body, condition your body, and adapt your body to the technique. It doesn’t matter who your are or your size, if you try you can learn to do the thing. If you decide to give up because of some arbitrary reason, then you won’t.

Most of us give up inside our own heads before we try.

And the only combat metric that matters is: did you live?

After that, everything is gravy.

When working with fiction, we create a simulacrum of real life. The point is to stick in enough “real life” bits to sell the audience on the suspension of disbelief.

What matters most is that you asked the question.

-Michi

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How difficult would it be for someone to change in weaponry fighting? Like going from fighting with a small battle axe to something like a long sword? It seems difficult if at all possible for the person to go from one to the other.

If you mean “pick up a weapon they’ve never seen before, in combat, and start from zero?” Very difficult. Actually, “difficult” might not be the right word, they would be fighting at a serious disadvantage. Without knowing the weapon they’re using, they’d be more likely to make exploitable mistakes when facing someone who’s actually been trained in that weapon.

If you’re talking about training in a new weapon, it varies. Some weapons transition easily into others, axes and hammers, or staffs and polearms. Even so, once you have a base, learning new weapons isn’t particularly difficult.

That said, swords are fairly difficult weapons to learn, and transitioning from an axe to a sword, or sometimes even between different types of swords, is non-trivial. Your character could certainly learn the sword, all it would take is time, dedication, and a willingness to learn new combat techniques.

Now, some of this might not be relevant, because combatants are rarely trained in one weapon exclusively. A medieval mercenary might favor an axe, but, depending on the quality of their training, they’d probably have a functional understanding of pole arms, maces, morning stars, crossbows, and most weapons, including swords, that were commonly used in their region. This was also true of knights (and their various counterparts), who would learn to use whatever weapon came to hand.

Low grade shock troops and basic infantry might only know one or two weapons, but for everyone else, versatility was how they stayed alive on the battlefield.

-Starke

Do you know anything about axes that a writer might find useful? to be a bit more specific: I’m vaguely aware that the US army still has ‘tactical tomahawks’ of the pointy bit-ed axe variety, but can find nothing on their use in combat.

I’m pretty sure those aren’t intended for combat. Though, being able to kill with one is probably viewed as a perk.

Most axe combat, and even just using axes as tools, is based around momentum, building it quickly and maintaining it. Fortunately, the axe’s weight works in the combatant’s favor here.

Fair warning: neither of us are axe experts. I’ve use axes and hatchets extensively in Scouts; but, obviously, not on people. So neither of us know any of the more advanced techniques.

One handed axe strikes usually work by forcing the axe head into an elliptical path. The combatant will bring the axe up, then use the wrist or shoulder as a fulcrum to drive the axe into its strike vector. This can actually start with the blade being driven away from combat, only to flick it around and back into the opponent with little to no warning.

Two handed strikes usually work off building and maintaining momentum through multiple strikes.

A woodsman’s strike uses the combatant’s hands as a fulcrum. The strike starts with both hands placed far apart, one near the shoulder, and one near the knob. The combatant draws back, and as they strike they slide their hand down the shaft, closing the distance between their hands. This is strictly a one shot strike, though, as there’s no follow up, once the axe is imbedded in someone.

If the strike blows through someone, or reflects off a hard surface, you can regain control by moving the leading hand back up the haft, though this will also eat it’s momentum. I suspect that, with practice, you can simply whip the blade around into someone else, without completely killing it’s momentum, but I’m not sure of the logistics involved.

There was a historical technique for a bearded axe, that resembles a whip flourish. The axe would be swung in an “infinity” pattern. Starting over the shoulder, it would be driven down in front of the combatant, and back over behind their shoulder, it would then cross its path on the opposite diagonal. That said, the bearded axe had a six foot haft, so it handled more like a staff than a normal axe.

-Starke