James Austin Type M Danish War Axe
A hands-on review by Jeremy V. Krause
Throughout history the axe has served man as a preeminent tool of everyday tasks and as an efficient and lethal weapon. Using stone, bronze, iron, and steel, the common craftsman and the master smith alike have formed axes to meet the needs of the village community and of the fighting class.
This review examines a recreation of what has been called the hafted axe, the Great Axe, Danish War Axe, or simply the Dane Axe. The Dane Axe emerged from the late Viking Age and continued in use into the 12th and 13th centuries. Ian Petersen in his Typology of the Viking Axe classified axes of this period as Type M and R. E. M. Wheeler classified them as Type VI. Though the type can be traced to the Viking peoples of Scandinavia, examples have been found in England, Normandy, and extending into Western Europe. Taking into account the long history of its use, the Dane Axe may be viewed as a transitional weapon between the Late Viking Era and the High Medieval period.
The piece featured in this review was created by James Austin of Austin Forged Axes; a blacksmith currently working in California. In 1982 Mr. Austin decided to follow his life-long passion for historic European craftsmanship. He left graduate studies in chemistry and accepted a chance blacksmithing apprenticeship in Diessen, a small village in Bavaria. There he studied under a master blacksmith and assisted in the renovation of ironwork in a historic cloister church. Mr. Austin returned to the US to start his own business as a metal craftsman, where he specializes in historical renovation and the creation of original metalwork including decorative features, furniture, and gates for designers and architects. For the past two years Mr. Austin has been engaged in a focused study of the form and the historical forging technique of the Viking axe.
Mr. Austin states: "In late 2010 I began my own effort to decode how they were made. I wanted to create a thorough roadmap of this process to enable myself and others to forge axes in the Viking style using authentic techniques. As a blacksmith it is a bit of European heritage I would like to help recover and make accessible." Mr. Austin has developed forging techniques based on the examination of metallurgic composition and corrosion patterns seen on extant samples. In this way he believes he is creating Viking and Medieval axe reproductions using historic forging precedents.
The mild steel eye and body of the blade are formed by an asymmetrical wrap and the 1075 bit is joined to the blade using a cleft weld. This forging method is consistent with some historic examples of extant Danish Axes. Mr. Austin describes the specific techniques he used on this piece as a kind of distillation of "best practices" from period examples. He has taken elements from different axes and chosen the approach that provides the strongest and most durable form as well as giving an aesthetically pleasing finish.
Measurements and Specifications:
Replica created by James Austin, Austin Forged Axes, of Oakland, CA.
Upon taking this axe in both hands one is immediately struck by the dynamic harmony of shaft and axe head into one exquisite fighting implement. The axe head is light for its bold and dramatic form, and coupled with the ergonomic shape of the shaft, presents a fast and versatile weapon that is an absolute joy to wield. The light weight of the head in union with the long shaft allows for fluid control and rapid recovery from both quick mid-shaft slicing movements and shearing blows taken with the hands positioned further towards the butt of the shaft. It is clear that this axe would be a fast and lethal implement in the hands of an experienced fighter.
Since I did not own this piece I elected not to use it in any cutting exercises. However, taking into account the thin blade cross-section and keen edge, this weapon should excel in cutting light to medium targets. The care that Mr. Austin has taken in faithfully translating the form, mass, and weight of historic examples into this axe ensures that it handles as a period Danish axe should.
Fit and Finish
The excellent handling of this weapon is matched by a bold and impressive aesthetic. Mr. Austin has sought in his craft to forge axes as close to the final shape as possible, requiring minimal grinding to arrive at the final form. Keeping that in mind, one must admire the precision he has achieved in the shaping of this piece. Any small signs of forge welding do not distract from the presentation, but draw attention to the skill evident in its making. The mild steel used in the eye and body of the blade is finished to a soft satin sheen. Some light file work has been applied in a kind of "cross-hatch" pattern, providing visual interest. The high carbon bit is finished to a higher, but not mirror, polish, setting it apart and emphasizing the long, noble curve of the edge. The weld-line along the rear of the bit meanders gracefully along its curve and is an especially lovely detail.
This axe can be characterized by symmetry of form and function, giving off a palpable sense of historic authenticity. The warmth and care taken in its crafting and the handmade nature of this piece give testament to the artistic vision of its maker. But even with this consistent and lovely presentation there is one point of visual discontinuity. The modern maker's mark used by Mr. Austin seems irregular and out of place on this piece. A more stylized or even pseudo-historic stamp or inlay would be a better choice as a maker's mark and would retain the harmony that is characteristic of Mr. Austin's work. This sole inconsistency should be viewed within the entire context of this otherwise exquisite presentation.
This axe is a not only a beautiful weapon but also a work of functional art. The study and passion that James Austin has committed to the forging of the Viking axe shines in this exquisite weapon. In this piece we see not only a semblance of the shape and form of an archetypal Dane Axe but, through the use of historic forging techniques, the essence and spirit of the originals from which its maker drew inspiration. The serious arms and armour collector seeking the very finest reproduction of a Viking or Medieval axe constructed along historic parameters would be well-served in the commission of a piece by Austin Forged Axes.
About the Author
Jeremy Krause is a Clinical Social Worker currently living in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. His interest in the Middle Ages and European medieval arms began as a child and has developed into a particular fascination of arms and armour from the early medieval period. His collection consists primarily of pieces representing the period 1000-1300 C.E.
Photographer: Nathan Robinson
De Norske Vikingesverd, by Jan Petersen
London and the Vikings (London Museum Catalogues, no 1), by Wheeler, R. E. Mortimer