Most modern peoples experience with axes is limited to those designed as a tool for chopping or splitting wood. Additionally, most modern "battle axes" are fantasy weapons that have little in common with historically accurate fighting axes. In either case, these axes tend to be heavy and unsuited for actual combat with anything other than a log.
Paul Bunyan in Akeley, MN. USA.
As with all good tools form follows function. Most axes designed for felling trees have a handle between two and three feet in length and a head with a relatively thick cross section, allowing it to withstand repeated impacts with hard materials. The length and geometry of the handle is optimized for very strong swings of the tool from above in the case of splitting wood, or from the side in the case of felling trees. Anyone who has used an axe in this manner knows that such swings have significant momentum, and that it is very difficult to stop or redirect a swing once it has begun.
This attribute of axes designed for strongly hewing stationary pieces of wood has led many people to the conclusion that fighting axes must be an unwieldy weapon, or that warriors utilizing axes must have been some kind of super-men. Neither of these conclusions stands up to the historical record. In fact, just as in the case of wood axes, the forms of fighting axes relates to their intended function.
In general this means that fighting axes tend to be lighter, thinner, and much more maneuverable than axes intended for use as tools. Though, as we will see, this is complicated by the case of later axes designed for use against heavily armored foes. It is also not to imply that axes were only ever for either work or for fighting. In fact, one of the primary benefits of many axes was that they could be used for building your house and for defending it. Such dual use axes, however, involved compromises in design that made them widely versatile, but perhaps less finely optimized than their more specialized brethren. The Arms and Armor Nordland Axe is an excellent example of a dual use axe from the pre-Viking period. The blade is highly bearded, a style that developed to save expensive iron in manufacture while preserving a useful cutting edge and lightening the axe head, making it a useful weapon as well as woodworking tool. However, the lighter head limits its usefulness in certain kinds of work, while its blade geometry makes it less capable of hewing through cloth, leather, and the body of an enemy than a dedicated fighting axe (check out this blog post about cutting tatami with our Type L Fighting Axe). If you could only afford one axe, then this was probably your best option. Check out this previous blog post that examines the Nordland Axe in detail.
In the pictures below are displayed, from left to right, a felling axe for cutting down trees, a splitting maul for splitting wood, a relic fighting axe from the Viking period, and a modern, historically accurate reproduction of a Viking period axe, all viewed from the top to expose how they differ in terms of thickness of the blade and socket. Spitting mauls are of course the heaviest of these axes, designed as they are for a simple downward strike at a stationary target. Anyone who has split wood in the past knows that it can take a great deal of force to split some logs, and the heft of the axe allows gravity to assist in that endeavor. The felling axe is the next thickest of the tool axes, occupying a middle ground between the maul and the fighting axes. This is because felling axes need to be more maneuverable as the cuts need to be carefully placed and are often struck more or less horizontally. Additionally, when felling a tree the forester strikes first from above, and then from the side, hacking out wedges of wood, a goal that is facilitated by a slightly thicker axe head. A forester using a heavy maul to fell a tree would soon be exhausted or injured by the unwieldy tool. The fighting axes to the right are substantially thinner than either of the wood axes, with long thin blades akin to a chef's knife or a culinary cleaver. This too is due to their specific function, quickly striking with great accuracy and speed to cut relatively unarmored foes. Importantly, the fine geometry of these blades allows the fighting axe to slice or hew rather than chop, opening up a wide variety of techniques and tactics for warriors to employ when fighting skilled enemies.
The differences between axes designed as tools and those designed as weapons does not stop at the weight of the head. The shape of the head and the length of the haft also vary based on what tasks the axe is supposed to fulfill. Combat axes tend to have a forward point that can be used for thrusting, and a beard or rear point that can be used for hooking. This is clearly seen in the below pic of an Arms and Armor Danish Axe. Dating from the 10th century, this example also features a haft that is approximately 56" long. This would make it quite unwieldy for chopping wood, but gives a substantial reach advantage in combat, especially when thrusting with the point as with a spear. The long light blade is only 1/8" thick, and despite having a cutting edge 10.5" long, weighs slightly more than a pound (the rest of the published weight is in the haft). This particular form would be very poorly suited for forestry and would require to much labor if used to chop down a bunch of hardwood trees. Although you could use it for such if you had too, it really isn't designed for that kind of abuse. Like a sword, it is a dedicated fighting weapon. This axe also features a differentially heat-treated carbon steel blade, allowing it to maintain a very fine edge.
Our Burgundian Poleaxe is yet another example of an axe form following function. A close replica of a 15th century original currently in the Wallace Collection, this axe was designed to defeat the heavy armor of the High Medieval period. At 70" long, with a weight over four pounds, this is a very substantial weapon that differs significantly from all of those pictured above. It features an axe blade with a 6" cutting edge, an 8.75" top spike, and a spiked hammer opposite the axe blade, making this something of a multitool for defeating the finest armors. This poleax also features langets, metal reinforcing plates that run from the head along the sides of the haft (check out this blog post on the function of langets on polearms). These langets helped to deal with the stresses that occur when a heavy, long hafted axe is swung and struck against an armored target -- an action that might risk breaking the weapon. This danger was mitigated by using the weapon with the hands spread apart, and thrusting with the point or tip of the axe most of the time, and only engaging in giant "Hail Mary" swings when such a risk was deemed justified. The axe head of this weapon has a profile more akin to a felling axe, though it maintains the points of a fighting axe. The cutting edge is deeply curved in order to focus the power of the blow onto a single small area of the armored foe, thereby maximizing impact.
Combat axes against armor
Of course, there are many other types of axes, both for fighting and for woodworking, but despite this great diversity, one maxim remains true, "use the correct tool for the job at hand". An excellent axe for clearing your yard might be a very poor war axe, and an excellent axe for sacking a monastery might be very bad indeed for splitting wood. Check out our entire line of historical axes here. Happy chopping!
Nathan Clough, Ph.D. is Vice President of Arms and Armor and a member of the governing board of The Oakeshott Institute. He is a historical martial artist and a former university professor of cultural geography. He has given presentations on historical arms at events including Longpoint and Combatcon, and presented scholarly papers at, among others, The International Congress on Medieval Studies.
Craig Johnson is the Production Manager of Arms and Armor and Secretary of The Oakeshott Institute. He has taught and published on the history of arms, armor and western martial arts for over 30 years. He has lectured at several schools and Universities, WMAW, HEMAC, 4W, and ICMS at Kalamazoo. His experiences include iron smelting, jousting, theatrical combat instruction and choreography, historical research, European martial arts and crafting weapons and armor since 1985.