Medieval axes existed in a large diversity of types and styles. Here we have three versions of large war axe in varying weights and forms. We will take a look at how this affects their use and what type of choses a warrior of the past was making when picking their axe.
These large axes all are about the same length (56 Inches) but vary in weight from just under two and a half pounds to just over 3 and a half pounds. This obviously affects the feel and function of the axe when the majority of that weight is at the business end of the weapon.
The weight of the head dictates the distance down the haft one feels comfortable controlling the weapon. As the distance between the hands controlling the haft increases, leverage allows the back hand to manipulate the axe more precisely. In the video you can see that the Irish Axe is more nimble when the hands are closer together at the end of the haft allowing greater reach with control.
Large medieval axe from the Morgan Bible
The heavier reinforced edge axe, the heaviest one, can be swung at the same distance but the weight and physics of the weapon dictate it will need to carry through the swing and be recovered with greater effort or an adjustment to the swing used for the lighter axe.
Dane axe at the Battle of Hastings
The warriors of the early middle ages would have been well aware of all these variations and would have chosen an axe that best met the needs at hand. Whether on a cattle raid, sneak attack or meeting the invading army in full armor and a well formed battle line. These efficient and devastating weapons were legendary and often the deciding factor between success and failure.
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