Written by: Umberto Giano & Vanatosis Arentire
Images by: Filipa Thespian
Originally a simple utilitarian tool, the battle-axe is considered one of the most formidable weapons of war: from the days of of the copper boat-shaped axes of the European Battle Axe culture (circa 2,900-2,350 BC) until the 19th century of this modern era. For these many thousands of years, the battle-axe terrorizes victims and leaves an indelible mark upon our society.
To this day, the mere mention of its name conjures images of fierce, bloody combat and barbarian invasions.
The fearsome relic even works its way into more modern culture. Who hasn’t heard the term “old battle-axe” to portray a certain stereotype of woman? (Note, I would never use that term myself, for fear of being chopped into tiny pieces by my women friends using that very instrument of death; I’m just saying…) Indeed, the battle-axe’s influence on us is pervasive and substantial, and in a sense, its story is our story.
The Battle-Axe through the Ages
The battle-axe spans many centuries and cultures. The axe itself hails from as far back as the Palaeolithic era hundreds of thousands of years ago, but the first hafted examples appear in the archaeological record around 6000 BC. The advances of technology and metallurgy continue throughout the successive centuries and with these innovations come the introduction of copper axes (circa 3000 BC), bronze axes (between 2000-1000 BC) and finally the familiar death-dealing iron specimens around 1000 BC. While the Roman legions utilize the iron axe primarily for labor purposes, the aggressive Germanic and Celtic tribes surging against their empire’s borders rely heavily on the battle-axe as an implement of destruction as well as a tool.
By 500 AD, the battle-axe develops a more elaborate form: axe heads begin to be made socketed in order for handles to be insert through the head, strengthening them and making them more dangerous. Around the same time comes the introduction of langets, small strips of metal which strengthen and protect handles. Germanic tribes run roughshod over the Roman legions in a series of invasions during this period and brought with them the feared francisca, or throwing axe. In the successive centuries the bearded, or skeg axe, is introduced to a terrorized Europe by marauding Viking warriors. It also isn’t unusual during this period for wealthy lords and chieftains to own battle-axes with elaborate decoration, such as intricately etched blades and tooled leather bound handles.
Battle-axes continue to be used throughout Europe during the Middle Ages and well into the 15th century. In the 14th century, the halberd, an elongated form of the battle-axe, rises to prominence. Cheap to manufacture, the halberd is extremely versatile countering pikes, spears and horse-mounted combatants. The introduction of gunpowder and plate armor eventually render the battle-axe irrelevant in warfare, but despite the subsequent precipitous decline in its use, the battle-axe does not entirely disappear until the early 19th century as historic records reflect Napoleonic troops still using them.
From the earliest simple tools to the ornate bejeweled pieces we see in later days, the fascination with the battle-axe remains with us to this day. Originally a simple tool, the battle-axe evolves into a weapon well before the Middle Ages. Ancient Chinese and Egyptians prize their decorated and ornamented battle-axes, along with the Roman Army, the Scandinavian Vikings, King Richard the Lionhearted, and Robert the Bruce.
Although the more elegant sword became the darling of the upper-class, it was no match for mail armor. But the battle-axe can hack and slash its way through the toughest of metal protection. The battle-axe comes in single-hand and two-handed versions and provides the basic form for its longer-handled medieval cousins, the halberd and pole arm. Yes, even in warfare, one size does not fit all.
The Classic Battle-Axe
The classic battle-axe is the war axe with which most people are familiar. Consisting of a large, thin blade, the weapon was made for slicing as opposed to chopping. Weighing far less than the common maul axe used today, the lighter battle-axe is more agile and easier to wield, making it ideal for war purposes. There were many versions of this axe, from smaller single-handed models to the large dual-bladed war axes popular in role-play with dwarves and barbarians.
The benefits of using an axe in battle are manifold. Their low cost and ease of construction make them cost-effective weapons of choice for a large, broad strata of medieval society. Equally important, the battle-axe can easily be modified to suit the specific needs of its wielder spawning variations on the classic battle-axe, such as the Scandinavian bearded axe, or skeg axe. The lower cutting edge of the skeg axe’s blade is called the “beard,” and it extends below the width of the butt to provide a wide slicing surface while keeping the overall weight of the weapon low.
While a bit heavier than the average two-handed sword, a bearded axe’s elongated lower blade is on par with the former as far as its ability to slice and cleave, and its true value is apparent when pitted against a shielded opponent. The blunt protrusions on the blade of a skeg axe hook and catch the opponent’s shield, pulling it down and leaving him exposed for follow-up strikes.
The Throwing Axe
The throwing axe, a smaller form of the standard axe, is purposed for ranged combat. Balanced for throwing and small enough to be hung from a belt, a warrior can carry a few at a time – and if the warrior’s main weapon is damaged or lost – a throwing axe makes a handy backup. A well-trained warrior can be quite deadly with this type of axe and limited only by the range of the weapon – usually around 30-50 feet.
These weapons are commonly used by foot soldiers in the early Medieval period, and the throwing axe is favored by Viking and Germanic warriors. Their small size and weight makes them easily carried for quick raids and guerrilla style engagements. When describing one of the most prominent examples of the throwing axe, The Complete Encyclopedia of Arms and Weapons states: “The francisca (or francesca) is a throwing axe used as a weapon during the Early Middle Ages by the Germanic Franks, among whom it was a characteristic national weapon at the time of the Merovingians (500 to 750 AD) and is known to have been used during the reign of Charlemagne (768 – 814). Although generally associated with the Franks, it was also used by other Germanic Peoples of the period including the Anglo-Saxons, and several examples have been found in England.”
The Pole Axe
The halberd is included in this category. These axes are similar to the battleaxe but have elongated metal-protected handles. The extreme versatility of this weapon suits it perfectly for both ground and mounted combat, as its size is more akin to wielding a lance. Many halberds are fitted with finials with sharp spiked ends and are used to pierce heavy plate armor. Others have hammers added to the opposite side of the blade, adding a crushing factor to battle if needed. The long handles allow the wielder to generate extra force with the blows, but the trade off is, of course, a lack of speed and maneuverability. The BBC show History says, “Long-handled battle-axes might be used instead of swords, particularly in open combat. The famed, double-handed broad axe is a late development, typical of the late 10th and 11th centuries. But as the owner could not hold a shield at the same time, he would take cover behind the front line of warriors, rushing out at the right moment to hew down the enemy.”
While this is by no means a comprehensive chronicle of the battle-axe, this account provides a useful layer of insight into the weapon’s history and evolution that can provide greater depth to the role-playing experience. Grasping the haft of a powerful battle-axe conjures timeless images of the mighty Viking (or Dwarf), axe raised high, roaring up a hill to slaughter, loot, and pillage. Only the strongest warrior can wield the commanding battle-axe successfully, and the very sight of it strikes terror in the hearts of those fleeing from its deadly arc.
This timeless artifact is more than just a tool or a weapon. It is an icon. A reminder of our origins and the violent past we all share. The player can caress the rough texture of its blood-spattered leather-bound handle, feel the weight of the weapon, and experience the visceral thrill of the legacy it imparts. The battle-axe proudly takes its place among the most venerated weapons ever made. And it can be yours.