The axe is an ancient and ubiquitous tool that has been used for millennia to shape, split and cut wood, harvest timber, as a weapon and a ceremonial or heraldic symbol. The axe has many forms and specialized uses but generally consists of an axe head with a handle, or helve.

The earliest examples of 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 with the axe being a type of wedge. This reduces the effort needed by the wood chopper.

Most modern axes have steel heads and wooden handles (typically hickory) although plastic or fibreglass handles are not uncommon. Modern axes are specialized 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


Iron age axe head from Gotland
Iron age axe head from Gotland

Godfrey of Bouillon holds a Pollaxe
Godfrey of Bouillon holds a Pollaxe

Early stone tools like the hand axe were probably not hafted. The first true hafted axes are known from the Mesolithic period (ca. 6000 BC), where axes made from antler were used that continued to be utilized in the Neolithic in some areas. Chopping tools made from flint were hafted as adzes. Axes made from ground stone are known since the Neolithic. They were used to fell trees and for woodworking. Few wooden hafts have been found, but it seems that the axe was normally hafted by wedging. Birch-tar and raw-hide lashings were used to fix the blade. Since the late Neolithic (Michelsberg culture, Cortaillod culture) very small axe blades of a rectangular shape became common. They were hafted with an antler sleeve. This prevented both the splitting of the haft and softened the impact on the stone blade itself.

The earlier Neolithic axe blades were made by first knapping and then grinding a stone. By late Neolithic times, sawing (wooden saws and sand) became common. This allowed a more efficient use of the raw material. In Scandinavia, Northern Germany and Poland axe blades made from knapped and polished flint were common.

Stone axes are quite efficient tools; using one, it takes about 10 minutes to fell a hardwood ash tree of 10 cm diameter, one to two hours for an ash of 30 cm diameter. (Modern comparison: 25 cm softwood white pine, standing chop, under two minutes with a 3.5 kg competition felling axe.)

From the late Neolithic onwards (Pfyn-Altheim cultures) flat axes were made of copper or copper mixed with Arsenic. Bronze axes are found since the early Bronze Age (A2). The flat axe developed into palstaves, flanged axes and later winged and socketed axes. The so-called "Battle-axe people" of 3rd millennium BC Europe has been suggested to correspond to early Proto-Indo-Europeans, ancestors of the later Celtic and Germanic tribes. Axes also were an important part in the Chinese weaponry.

The Proto-Indo-European word for "axe" may have been pelek'u- (Greek pelekus πέλεκυς, Sanskrit parashu, see also Parashurama), but the word was probably a loan, or a neolithic wanderwort, ultimately related to Sumerian balag, Akkadian pilaku- (see also Labrys).

Late Neolithic 'axe factories', where thousands of ground stone axes were roughed out are known from Great Britain (for example Great Langdale in Cumbria), Ireland (Lambay Island, Porphyry, Rathlin Island and Tievebulliagh, porcellanite) Poland (Krzemionki, flint), France (Plancher-les-Mines, Vosges, pelite, Plussulien, Brittany, meta-dolerite) and Italy (Val de'Aoste, omphacite. The distribution of stone axes is an important indication of prehistoric trade. thin sectioning is used to determine the provenance of ground stone axe blades.

Stone axes are still produced and in use today in parts of Irian Jaya, New Guinea. The Mount Hagen area was an important production centre.

Symbolism, ritual and folklore

At least since the late Neolithic, elaborate axes (battle-axes, T-axes, etc.) had a religious significance as well 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 Somerset Levels in Great Britain) may have been gifts to the gods. In Minoan Crete, the double axe (labrys) had a special meaning. Double axes date back to the Neolithic as well. In 1998, a double axe, complete with an elaborately embellished haft, has been found at Cham-Eslen, Canton of Zug, Switzerland. The haft was 120 cm long and wrapped in ornamented birch-bark. The axe blade is 17,4 cm 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.

In the Roman fasces, the axe symbolized the authority to decapitate. 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.

Parts of the Axe

The axe is comprised of two primary components, the axe head, and the haft.

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.

The Axe Haft is sometimes called the handle. 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's 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 into to the short grip, just before end of the haft, which is known as the knob.

Forms of Axes

Axes designed to cut or shape wood

Splitting axe
Splitting axe
  • Felling axe - Cuts across the grain of wood, as in the felling of trees. In single or double bit (the bit is the cutting edge of the head) forms and many different weights, shapes, handle types and cutting geometries to match the characteristics of the material being cut.
  • Splitting Axe - Used to split with the grain of the wood. Splitting axe bits are more wedge shaped. This shape causes the axe to rend the fibres of the wood apart, without having to cut through them, especially if the blow is delivered with a twisting action at impact.
  • Broad axe - Used with the grain of the wood in precision splitting. Broad axe bits are chisel-shaped (one flat and one bevelled edge) facilitating more controlled work.
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