Battle axe

A battle axe is an axe specifically designed as a weapon. Battle axes are essentially specialized versions of utility axes. Many are suitable for use in one hand, while others are larger and were wielded two-handed. Axes designed for war range in weight from just over 1lb to 6lbs, and in length from just over a foot to upwards of five feet.

Through the course of human history, commonplace objects have been pressed into service as weapons. Axes, by virtue of their ubiquity, are no exception. Besides axes designed for combat, there were many axes that were both tools and weapons. Axes could be designed as throwing weapons as well (see the Francisca for an example). Axes were always cheaper than swords and far more available.


Battle axes generally weighed far less than modern splitting axes, especially mauls, because they were designed to cut flesh rather than wood; consequently more narrow, slicing blades are the norm. This facilitates deep, grievous wounds, additionally, a lighter weapon is much quicker in combat. The handles of military axes were often reinforced with metal bands so that an enemy warrior could not cut the wooden handle. Some axes even had all-metal handles.

Stone axes have been in use since at least the 3rd millennium BC, see Battle-axe people. They were followed by copper, bronze, iron and steel axes.

In the eastern Mediterranean the double-bladed labrys was known, and the sagaris, described sometimes as single-bladed, sometimes as double-bladed, became associated with the Amazons. This led Renaissance historians (e.g. Johannes Aventinus) to credit the Amazons with the invention of the battle-axe.

Battle axes were also common in Northern Europe in the "Viking Age" (9th and 10th C) and up to the 16 Century, see Viking Age arms and armour.

Most medieval European battle axes had broad, socketed heads (meaning that the axe head has an opening into which the haft is inserted.), and some included long strips of metal (langets) along the haft to prevent the haft from being damaged during battle. Many polearms, such as halberds and pollaxes, are variations of the form of the battle axe.

In Napoleonic times and later, Farriers in military service carried heavy long axes. Though these could be used for fighting, their primary use was to remove the branded hooves of horses, which were used to prove the deaths of the animals. Napoleon's Pioneer Corps also carried axes that were used for both clearing a path and fighting.

Horseman's Axe, ca. 1475
Horseman's Axe, ca. 1475

This is an example of a battle axe that was specialized for the use of horsemen. Axes designed for infantrymen were shorter than those for cavalry. Note the hole on the haft for the accommodation of a leather thong to be passed over the wrist, the belt hook for ease of carrying when not in use and the lagnets. This example dates from the last quarter of the fifteenth century and is 27 inches long. The haft is a replacement. The punched decoration on the blade suggests German manufacture. Other variations of this design include a hammer face instead of the spike behind the blade.

A good reference, contemporary with their use, is the Maciejowski Bible of ca. 1250.


Waldman, John Hafted Weapons in Medieval and Renaissance Europe. Brill, 2005.

London Museum Medieval Catalogue. Various dates and editions.

Wallace Collection Catalogue (London) for examples of variations.

See also

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