Axe Culture

Where the hell is a semiotician when you need one? The self-appointed critics of late-stage capitalism? My family received the gift of axe-throwing at Christmas, and I only am escaped alone to tell thee it was satisfying. But what does it mean?

Throwing axes for fun and profit was the invention of a Toronto bartender and actor who started “the first commercial indoor arena” in 2011. His franchise spun into the United States, where the easily-replicable idea was picked up by others. Venues opened in Philadelphia and Chicago in 2016 and can be found now in dozens of locations in the United States and abroad. Some of these gross more than a million dollars a year, in part due to low-skill staff and no amenities other than plywood lanes, 2×6 wall targets, and a bathroom. Axe-throwing is marketed for corporate teambuilding, date nights, wedding-disappointment venues, and—since many are BYOB and most are indoors—as something to do with your buddies while you down a case of Bud Light.

The one we went to was in a light-industrial area on the edge of town. The cost was $35 per person for 1.5 hours. An employee was in the parking lot putting splintered planks on a trailer to go to the dump. Inside, two young guys manned the payment desk. Repurposed furniture sat right behind the half-dozen “lanes,” which were shorter and narrower than I expected—maybe 12 feet long and five wide. I see no reports online of injuries in axe-throwing businesses, but the way tables and chairs were positioned, a sweaty hand could let an axe go on the backswing and clock somebody in the head.

A section of chain-link fence separated our lane from our neighbors’. We all silently agreed on lane courtesy and stopped throwing when the neighbors retrieved their axes. Most people miss, and axes clatter off walls, bounce around on the floor, and occasionally poke their blades through the fences.

Articles on the web often say coaches in these businesses teach you how to throw safely, and then they watch over play. Not here. Dude showed us the two sizes of axes—a 1.5-pound hatchet and a larger, three-pound, single-blade axe—and said we could throw with one or two hands. He demonstrated but failed to stick either with multiple throws, and he stepped over one so it did not hit his shin when it bounced off the wall and floor. He said customers usually took five throws to get the range. The idea, he said, was to get one complete rotation and make the blade strike the wood parallel to its grain, or it would not stick. He left us to it. Later I realized he never even had us sign the waiver, so here I am with all my toes, like a sucker, instead of a multi-million dollar settlement.

Two couples came in and set up on the lane next to us. One of the men set down a case of ice-cold Bud Light. The men were big men and made lumberjack jokes. The women were taller than me and, though powerful, stuck the axes more than their dates did, since they were not trying to kill it. Off to the left a family of four cheerfully threw their axes and spoke softly between rounds.

Why axes and why now? Umberto Eco would say it signifies something in the zeitgeist. That seems fair, in the age of useless macho. I think of ads for that new game show, hosted by The Rock, who says the odd, strenuous activities are based on his workout routines. Evidently he stays in shape by hitting a wrecking ball with a sledgehammer and rolling uphill through logs.

Most axes are not made to be used as weapons; they are too big and slow. That is part of what makes them so apparently manly—purposely crude, in the same category of weapon as the cudgel, the mace, the barbed-wire ball bat. They power through, cause damage even if they do not stick with a satisfying chunk and handle-quiver. There is a vague sense of Thor and his hammer about them, or bloody battles from some HBO series I have never seen—maybe about Vikings or medieval people. That is, they are fantasies or anachronisms. Who even uses one in the age of the chainsaw? (A maul, used to split logs, is even more brutish, but is not thrown.)

I have been seeing modern “combat tomahawks” on a Facebook group I follow for ex-military types, men who post daily with loving photos of dive watches, bottles of liquor, edged weapons, firearms, and women on the beach—sometimes all in one shot. But even they, some of them former SAS or Special Boat Service, do not (yet) post about throwing axes for fun, or as a way to build skills for the collapse of civilization. Axes are different from the throwing knives and Fairbairn-Sykes daggers they favor.

Knives are smaller weapons, sharper, more easily concealed, thrown, or used in close combat. James Bond slips his in surgically, instantaneously, when all other hope is lost. M is about to be killed! Who will—wait! Bond, who has been in the freezing water—oh he’s so cold—sneaks in to the back of the church, and FTTTT! Problem solved, with time left for a dying villain to make funny faces—he did not expect that. Fighting knives are pulled from a boot like a throwing star from a ninja’s sleeve in the night.

The axe, though is a statement, a spectacle, a threat, as much as it is a weapon. It is an American weapon, unlike those other more elegant and suspiciously foreign solutions. “Giving someone the axe” is a definitively American act with an end game—you’re fired—whereas sticking it to them (a knife metaphor) is recoverable, a goad, a mere prod to further action.

The dude who could not stick his own axe to the wall told us five throws was what it usually took for new customers to be able to embed one in the wall. It took us most of half an hour to hone the skill. In the end, for me, it was the hatchet, not the bigger axe my sons could use, that I favored. The satisfactions of the long, slow delivery, digging in my extant toes on the trailing foot and making a line from ankle to fingertips. The repetitive motion was great stress relief after celebrating the lord’s birth; the mind went blank as the body built muscle memories. My boys and I just destroyed that wall, whatever it signified.

John Griswold

John Griswold is a staff writer at The Common Reader. His most recent book is a collection of essays, The Age of Clear Profit: Essays on Home and the Narrow Road (UGA Press 2022). His previous collection was Pirates You Don’t Know, and Other Adventures in the Examined Life. He has also published a novel, A Democracy of Ghosts, and a narrative nonfiction book, Herrin: The Brief History of an Infamous American City. He was the founding Series Editor of Crux, a literary nonfiction book series at University of Georgia Press. His work has been included and listed as notable in Best American anthologies.