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Double- and single-bit felling axes. Felling axe.jpg
Double- and single-bit felling axes.
A collection of bronze socketed axe blades from the Bronze Age found in Germany. This was the prime tool of the period, and also seems to have been used as a store of value. ALB - Hortfund Gross Gaglow.jpg
A collection of bronze socketed axe blades from the Bronze Age found in Germany. This was the prime tool of the period, and also seems to have been used as a store of value.

An axe ( /æks/ sometimes ax in American English; see spelling differences) is an implement that has been used for millennia to shape, split, and cut wood, to harvest timber, as a weapon, and as a ceremonial or heraldic symbol. The axe has many forms and specialised uses but generally consists of an axe head with a handle, also called a haft or a helve.


Before the modern axe, the stone-age hand axe without a handle was used from 1.5 million years BP. Hafted axes (those with a handle) date only from 6,000 BC. The earliest examples of handled axes have heads of stone with some form of wooden handle attached (hafted) in a method to suit the available materials and use. Axes made of copper, bronze, iron and steel appeared as these technologies developed.

The axe is an example of a simple machine, as it is a type of wedge, or dual inclined plane. This reduces the effort needed by the wood chopper. It splits the wood into two parts by the pressure concentration at the blade. The handle of the axe also acts as a lever allowing the user to increase the force at the cutting edge—not using the full length of the handle is known as choking the axe. For fine chopping using a side axe this sometimes is a positive effect, but for felling with a double bitted axe it reduces efficiency.

Generally, cutting axes have a shallow wedge angle, whereas splitting axes have a deeper angle. Most axes are double bevelled (i.e. symmetrical about the axis of the blade), but some specialist broadaxes have a single bevel blade, and usually an offset handle that allows them to be used for finishing work without putting the user's knuckles at risk of injury. Less common today, they were once an integral part of a joiner and carpenter's tool kit, not just a tool for use in forestry. A tool of similar origin is the billhook.

Most modern axes have steel heads and wooden handles, typically hickory in the US and ash in Europe and Asia, although plastic or fibreglass handles are also common. Modern axes are specialised by use, size and form. Hafted axes with short handles designed for use with one hand are often called hand axes but the term hand axe refers to axes without handles as well. Hatchets tend to be small hafted axes often with a hammer on the back side (the poll). As easy-to-make weapons, axes have frequently been used in combat, and is one of humanity's oldest melee weapons. [1]


Bronze socketed axe from the Heppeneert hoard (Belgium), about 800 BCE, collection of the King Baudouin Foundation, Gallo-Roman Museum (Tongeren) Kokerbijl van het Plainseautype in brons, 925 tot 800 VC, vindplaats- Maaseik, Heppeneert, Wayerveld, collectie Gallo-Romeins Museum Tongeren, He 1.jpg
Bronze socketed axe from the Heppeneert hoard (Belgium), about 800 BCE, collection of the King Baudouin Foundation, Gallo-Roman Museum (Tongeren)
Roman axes in an ancient Roman relief in Brescia, Italy Brescia Monte pieta romani1 by Stefano Bolognini.JPG
Roman axes in an ancient Roman relief in Brescia, Italy
Shang dynasty axe Shang Bronze Yue 2.jpg
Shang dynasty axe

Hand axes, of stone, and used without handles (hafts) were the first axes. They had knapped (chipped) cutting edges of flint or other stone. Early examples of hand axes date back to 1.6 mya in the later Oldowan, [2] in Southern Ethiopia around 1.4 mya, [3] and in 1.2 mya deposits in Olduvai Gorge. [4] Stone axes made with ground cutting edges were first developed sometime in the late Pleistocene in Australia, where grind-edge axe fragments from sites in Arnhem Land date back at least 44,000 years; [5] [6] grind-edge axes were later present in Japan some time around 38,000 BP, and are known from several Upper Palaeolithic sites on the islands of Honshu and Kyushu. [7] Hafted axes are first known from the Mesolithic period (c.6000 BC). Few wooden hafts have been found from this period, but it seems that the axe was normally hafted by wedging. Birch-tar and rawhide lashings were used to fix the blade.

The distribution of stone axes is an important indication of prehistoric trade. [8] Thin sectioning is used to determine the provenance of the stone blades. In Europe, Neolithic "axe factories", where thousands of ground stone axes were roughed out, are known from many places, such as:

metal axes are still produced and in use today in parts of Papua, Indonesia. The Mount Hagen area of Papua New Guinea was an important production centre.

From the late Neolithic/Chalcolithic onwards, axes were made of copper or copper mixed with arsenic. These axes were flat and hafted much like their stone predecessors. Axes continued to be made in this manner with the introduction of Bronze metallurgy. Eventually the hafting method changed and the flat axe developed into the "flanged axe", then palstaves, and later winged and socketed axes.

Franks HouseDSCF7155.jpg
Hand axes from Swanscombe at the British Museum that belongs to Swanscombe Man who lived 200,000–300,000 years ago
CMOC Treasures of Ancient China exhibit - bronze battle axe.jpg
A bronze axe from the Chinese Shang Dynasty, 12th to 11th centuries BC
Zhejiang Provincial Museum 38.jpg

Symbolism, ritual, and folklore

Jade axe, Shang dynasty 13th Cent. BC Unique Shang Hafted Axe with Jade (Nephrite) Blade.jpg
Jade axe, Shang dynasty
in hieroglyphs
Axe alternative
in hieroglyphs

At least since the late Neolithic, elaborate axes (battle-axes, T-axes, etc.) had a religious significance and probably indicated the exalted status of their owner. Certain types almost never show traces of wear; deposits of unshafted axe blades from the middle Neolithic (such as at the Somerset Levels in Britain) may have been gifts to the deities.

A collection of old Australian cutting tools including broad axes, broad hatchets, mortising axes, carpenter's axes, and felling axes. Also five adzes, a corner chisel, two froes, and a twybil. Old axes.jpg
A collection of old Australian cutting tools including broad axes, broad hatchets, mortising axes, carpenter's axes, and felling axes. Also five adzes, a corner chisel, two froes, and a twybil.

In Minoan Crete, the double axe (labrys) had a special significance, used by priestesses in religious ceremonies.

In 1998, a labrys, complete with an elaborately embellished haft, was found at Cham-Eslen, Canton of Zug, Switzerland. The haft was 120 cm (47 in) long and wrapped in ornamented birch-bark. The axe blade is 17.4 cm (6.9 in) long and made of antigorite, mined in the Gotthard-area. The haft goes through a biconical drilled hole and is fastened by wedges of antler and by birch-tar. It belongs to the early Cortaillod culture.

The coat of arms of Norway feature a lion rampant carrying an axe, which is represent the King Olaf II of Norway, who honored as the Eternal King of Norway.

Axe pictured in the coat of arms of Torshavn Coat of arms of Torshavn.svg
Axe pictured in the coat of arms of Tórshavn

In folklore, stone axes were sometimes believed to be thunderbolts and were used to guard buildings against lightning, as it was believed (mythically) that lightning never struck the same place twice. This has caused some skewing of axe distributions.

Steel axes were important in superstition as well. A thrown axe could keep off a hailstorm, sometimes an axe was placed in the crops, with the cutting edge to the skies to protect the harvest against bad weather. An upright axe buried under the sill of a house would keep off witches, while an axe under the bed would assure male offspring.

Basques, Australians and New Zealanders [9] have developed variants of rural sports that perpetuate the traditions of log cutting with axe. The Basque variants, splitting horizontally or vertically disposed logs, are generically called aizkolaritza (from aizkora: axe). [10]

In Yorùbá mythology, the oshe (double-headed axe) symbolises Shango, Orisha (god) of thunder and lightning. It is said to represent swift and balanced justice. Shango altars often contain a carved figure of a woman holding a gift to the god with a double-bladed axe sticking up from her head.

The Hurrian and Hittite weather god Teshub is depicted on a bas-relief at Ivriz wielding a thunderbolt and an axe.

The Arkalochori Axe is a bronze, Minoan, axe from the second millennium BC thought to be used for religious purposes. Inscriptions on this axe have been compared with other ancient writing systems.

Parts of the axe

A diagram showing the main points on an axe An axe labelled-2edit.svg
A diagram showing the main points on an axe

The axe has two primary components: the axe head, and the haft.

Axe head

The axe head is typically bounded by the bit (or blade) at one end, and the poll (or butt) at the other, though some designs feature two bits opposite each other. The top corner of the bit where the cutting edge begins is called the toe, and the bottom corner is known as the heel. Either side of the head is called the cheek, which is sometimes supplemented by lugs where the head meets the haft, and the hole where the haft is mounted is called the eye. The part of the bit that descends below the rest of the axe-head is called the beard, and a bearded axe is an antiquated axe head with an exaggerated beard that can sometimes extend the cutting edge twice the height of the rest of the head.

Axe haft

Wedging of Axes Verschiedene Verkeilungen.png
Wedging of Axes

The axe haft is sometimes called the handle or the helve. Traditionally, it was made of a resilient hardwood like hickory or ash, but modern axes often have hafts made of durable synthetic materials. Antique axes and their modern reproductions, like the tomahawk, often had a simple, straight haft with a circular cross-section that wedged onto the axe-head without the aid of wedges or pins. Modern hafts are curved for better grip and to aid in the swinging motion, and are mounted securely to the head. The shoulder is where the head mounts onto the haft, and this is either a long oval or rectangular cross-section of the haft that is secured to the axe head with small metal or wooden wedges. The belly of the haft is the longest part, where it bows in gently, and the throat is where it curves sharply down to the short grip, just before the end of the haft, which is known as the knob.

Types of axes

Axes designed to cut or shape wood

Splitting axe Axt zum spalten1.jpg
Splitting axe
A Swedish carpenter's axe Carpenter's axe.jpg
A Swedish carpenter's axe

Axes as weapons

According to the legend, a man called Lalli killed Bishop Henry with an axe on the ice of Lake Koylio in Finland on 20 January 1156. The murder of St. Henry by Lalli, painting by Karl Anders Ekman (1854). Henrik Lalli Ekman.JPG
According to the legend, a man called Lalli killed Bishop Henry with an axe on the ice of Lake Köyliö in Finland on 20 January 1156. The murder of St. Henry by Lalli, painting by Karl Anders Ekman (1854).
The execution of the Duke of Somerset after the Battle of Tewkesbury in 1471 Beheading duke somerset.jpg
The execution of the Duke of Somerset after the Battle of Tewkesbury in 1471

Axes as tools

Hammer axe

Hammer axes (or axe-hammers) typically feature an extended poll, opposite the blade, shaped and sometimes hardened for use as a hammer. The name axe-hammer is often applied to a characteristic shape of perforated stone axe used in the Neolithic and Bronze Ages. Iron axe-hammers are found in Roman military contexts, e.g. Cramond, Edinburgh, and South Shields, Tyne and Wear.[ citation needed ]

See also

Related forestry terms

Related Research Articles

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Hammer</span> Tool consisting of a shaft with a weighted head attached at a right angle

A hammer is a tool, most often a hand tool, consisting of a weighted "head" fixed to a long handle that is swung to deliver an impact to a small area of an object. This can be, for example, to drive nails into wood, to shape metal, or to crush rock. Hammers are used for a wide range of driving, shaping, breaking and non-destructive striking applications. Traditional disciplines include carpentry, blacksmithing, warfare, and percussive musicianship.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Polearm</span> Pole-mounted close combat weapon

A polearm or pole weapon is a close combat weapon in which the main fighting part of the weapon is fitted to the end of a long shaft, typically of wood, extending the user's effective range and striking power. Polearms are predominantly melee weapons, with a subclass of spear-like designs fit for thrusting and/or throwing. Because many polearms were adapted from agricultural implements or other fairly abundant tools, and contained relatively little metal, they were cheap to make and readily available. When belligerents in warfare had a poorer class who could not pay for dedicated military weapons, they would often appropriate tools as cheap weapons. The cost of training was comparatively low, since these conscripted farmers had spent most of their lives using these "weapons" in the fields. This made polearms the favoured weapon of peasant levies and peasant rebellions the world over.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Adze</span> Woodworking tool with the cutting edge perpendicular to the handle

An adze or adz is an ancient and versatile cutting tool similar to an axe but with the cutting edge perpendicular to the handle rather than parallel. Adzes have been used since the Stone Age. They are used for smoothing or carving wood in hand woodworking, and as a hoe for agriculture and horticulture. Two basic forms of an adze are the hand adze —a short-handled tool swung with one hand—and the foot adze (hoe)—a long-handled tool capable of powerful swings using both hands, the cutting edge usually striking at foot or shin level. A similar tool is called a mattock, which differs by having two blades, one perpendicular to the handle and one parallel.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Broadaxe</span> Type of axe with a large head that is primarily used as a tool

A broadaxe is a large (broad)-headed axe. There are two categories of cutting edge on broadaxes, both are used for shaping logs by hewing. On one type, one side is flat, and the other side beveled, a basilled edge, also called a side axe, single bevel, or chisle-edged axe. On the other type, both sides are beveled, sometimes called a double bevel axe, which produces a scalloped cut.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Chisel</span> Tool for cutting and carving

A chisel is a tool with a characteristically shaped cutting edge of blade on its end; for carving or cutting a hard material such as wood, stone, or metal by hand, struck with a mallet, or mechanical power. The handle and blade of some types of chisel are made of metal or wood with a sharp edge in it.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Tomahawk</span> Axe from North America

A tomahawk is a type of single-handed axe used by the many Indigenous peoples and nations of North America. It traditionally resembles a hatchet with a straight shaft. In pre-colonial times the head was made of stone, bone, or antler, and European settlers later introduced heads of iron and steel. The term came into the English language in the 17th century as an adaptation of the Powhatan word.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Splitting maul</span> Heavy, long-handled axe for splitting wood

A splitting maul also known as a block buster, block splitter, chop and maul, sledge axe, go-devil or hamaxe is a heavy, long-handled axe used for splitting a piece of wood along its grain. One side of its head is like a sledgehammer, and the other side is like an axe.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Poleaxe</span> Medieval European pole weapon

The poleaxe is a European polearm that was used by medieval infantry.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Battle axe</span> Axe specifically designed for combat

A battle axe is an axe specifically designed for combat. Battle axes were specialized versions of utility axes. Many were suitable for use in one hand, while others were larger and were deployed two-handed.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Froe</span> Tool for cleaving wood

A froe, shake axe or paling knife is a tool for cleaving wood by splitting it along the grain. It is an L-shaped tool, used by hammering one edge of its blade into the end of a piece of wood in the direction of the grain, then twisting the blade in the wood by rotating the haft (handle).

A wedge is a triangular shaped tool, a portable inclined plane, and one of the six simple machines. It can be used to separate two objects or portions of an object, lift up an object, or hold an object in place. It functions by converting a force applied to its blunt end into forces perpendicular (normal) to its inclined surfaces. The mechanical advantage of a wedge is given by the ratio of the length of its slope to its width. Although a short wedge with a wide angle may do a job faster, it requires more force than a long wedge with a narrow angle.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Billhook</span> Cutting tool

A billhook or bill hook, also called a pruning knife or spar hook, is a versatile cutting tool used widely in agriculture and forestry for cutting woody material such as shrubs, small trees and branches. It is distinct from the sickle. It was commonly used in Europe with an important variety of traditional local patterns. Elsewhere, it was also developed locally such as in the Indian subcontinent, or introduced regionally as in the Americas, South Africa, and Oceania by European settlers.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Doloire</span> Type of axe

The doloire or wagoner's axe was a tool and weapon used during the Middle Ages and Renaissance. The axe had a wooden shaft measuring approximately 1.5 metres (5 feet) in length and a head that was pointed at the top and rounded at the bottom, resembling either a teardrop or an isosceles triangle. The top of the shaft was fitted with a metal eye or socket that was welded to the head of the axe near the base of the blade. The upper part of the blade extended above the eye, while the opposite side of the socket featured a small blunt hammer head. The head of the axe itself measured approximately 44 cm. (17 inches) in length, was sharpened on the back and flattened bottom edges, and was uniformly decorated with punched and incised abstract floral patterns.

This glossary of woodworking lists a number of specialized terms and concepts used in woodworking, carpentry, and related disciplines.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Hafting</span> Process by which an artifact is attached to a haft

Hafting is a process by which an artifact, often made of bone, stone, or metal is attached to a haft. This makes the artifact more useful by allowing it to be launched by a bow (arrow), thrown by hand (spear), or used with more effective leverage (axe). When constructed properly, hafting can tremendously improve a weapon's damage and range. It is estimated that hafted weapons were most common during the Upper Paleolithic and Middle Paleolithic. It was one of the first tools where hominins took separate elements and united them into a single tool. The development of hafting is considered by archaeologists to have been a significant milestone. It was not only an improvement in the technology at the time; it also showed the progression of the human mind toward a world of complex tool-making.

A flint axe was a Flint tool used during prehistoric times to perform a variety of tasks. These were at first just a cut piece of flint stone used as a hand axe but later wooden handles were attached to these axe heads. The stone exhibits a glass-like fracture similar to obsidian, and can be knapped to form large blades. The offcuts were sharp enough to be used a small flint knives, while the larger parts of a knapped nodule could be polished to form an axe-head. They competed with other hard rocks such as greenstone, which were produced at Langdale in the British Lake District and got larger as working continued. They tend to be larger and heavier than the simple axes, and are sometimes known as axe-hammers.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Twybil</span> Hand tool used for chopping out mortises in green woodworking

A twybil is a hand tool used for green woodworking. It is used for chopping out mortises when timber framing, or making smaller pieces such as gates. It combines chopping and levering functions in a single tool.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Cleaving axe</span>

A cleaving axe or cleaver is a form of axe used within green woodworking to split wood lengthways. Cleaving (riving) is used to turn a log into lumber or billets into firewood. Splitting axe is sometimes described as an old name for a splitting maul or froe.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Carpenter's axe</span>

Carpenter's axes or carpenter's hatchets are small axes, usually slightly larger than a hatchet, used in traditional woodwork, joinery, and log-building. They have pronounced beards and finger notches to allow a "choked" grip for precise control.


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Further reading

Neolithic axes

Medieval axes

Modern axes