A Resource for Historic Arms and Armour Collectors
Eric McHugh Bearded Axe
A hands-on review by Bill Grandy
The Viking period saw a great appreciation for a multitude of weapons, but an often-overlooked weapon is the axe. Axes were everyday tools, which may be why they are not as sought after by modern collectors, but it only makes sense that these tools would have been converted into highly effective weapons of war. Ewart Oakeshott wrote of how Vikings named their axes with colorful monikers such as "Fiend of the Shield" or "Battle Witch", showing that these warriors held a certain amount of reverence for these arms. Interestingly, the terms "fiend" and "witch" seem to be held exclusively for axe names, whereas swords and spears held separate adjectives for their names.
The bearded axe in particular was a popular style. This weapon, named because the lower part of the head is flat instead of pointed, was a particularly devastating style due to fact that the broad, thin edge was backed by a thick body for resiliency. Such a weapon could strike hard against a man in armour, or compromise a shield with its sheer force. Such weapons were often two-handed, like their wood-axe cousins, for control and power.
Eric McHugh is a bladesmith who once worked with Albion Armorers in addition to making his own creations. He forged this axe based on his thorough research of an original from the Vendel Period (7th to 8th century) located in the National Museum of Denmark. The reproduction is handmade by traditional methods.
The recreated axe is very close to, but not exactly like, the original upon which it is based. The original has round langets, while Eric chose to make this axe with pointed ones. His reasoning behind the change was because the modern collector tends to think of the pointed ones as more archetypical for the style of axe, therefore making the round ones look odd to modern eyes (even though they were quite common in the period). The eye socket is made of mild steel which was forge-welded to a higher carbon edge, heat-treated to around a 56 to 57 on the Rockwell hardness scale. This gives the axe a softer body to absorb shock, but a harder edge to retain sharpness.
Measurements and Specifications:
Replica created by Eric McHugh.
Where most swords in some way or another balance the thrust, cut and slice, an axe's primary method of attack is based on percussive cuts. The shape of an axe head will focus momentum into a fairly small area and could transfer the shock through the mail and padding that many fighters would have been wearing. Because of this, the balance of most axes will be much further forward than most swords, and this bearded axe certainly follows suit.
It is easy for most people to assume that axes, due to their forward balance, are slow and clumsy. This replica is a very nice example that proves this image to be false. The weapon has far more versatility than one might gather from a casual glance. With the off-hand near the butt of the haft and the dominant hand closer to the head, this weapon can be wielded comfortably and easily. The dominant hand can shift around to change techniques easily: In closer-in fighting, the dominant hand can shift further towards the head, allowing very fast strikes utilizing more of a "punching" type of hit, but at the expense of sacrificing some power. At a greater distance, the dominant hand can slide slightly further down the haft mid-swing, in the same way one would chop wood, to not only cover the extra distance but to add momentum for much more powerful strikes.
In addition to simple attacks, the shape of the head presents multiple offensive options. If an opponent were to parry the haft of the axe, the head can easily hook and tear down the opposing weapon. Should the wielder over-reach with the blade, he could even hook an opponent and yank him down. It can even perform limited thrusting, though thrusts with this particular axe would be more like hitting with a battering ram than like the piercing attacks of pointed weapons.
The axe is not difficult to recover from an attack, either. The head is heavy enough to cause significant damage, but because it is a two-handed weapon, the off-hand can easily be used as a brake, so that if one misses the opponent, the weapon stays in front where it can still be used to defend. The only concernand this is true of all axesis maintaining edge alignment on any strikes that are not directly downward because the edge is so far away from the haft that it wants to naturally face down. One cannot hold the haft too loosely, or it will rotate this way.
I have often heard people claim that an axe is a purely offensive weapon. While it is unfortunate that there is very little surviving evidence to detail how an axe like this was used historically, a basic understanding of larger hafted weapons can be applied to this weapon, and one can begin seeing that this is as effective at defense as it is with offense. Much like with a larger poleaxe, the haft can be used to deflect and stop outright oncoming attacks, and this axe's haft is more than substantial enough to take some serious damage. The wood will certainly be more easily damaged than metal, but historically it could easily be replaced after extensive use. The portion of the haft from the hand towards the head could be used to knock aside an oncoming blow, which would then leave the blade in a perfect position for a follow-up attack. A downward cut could be caught on the haft between the hands, which could easily flow into a strike with the butt of the haft, leading directly into a downward strike with the blade. One could even catch and set aside a sword blade with the top of the wide head.
Fit and Finish
This axe is not the decorated status symbol of a chieftain, but the austere weapon of a warrior. Despite its deadly feel in the hands, it resembles the wood axe that every common man would have had. That said, it is not crudely made in the least.
The blade is expertly shaped, with each angle crisply defined, and each curve smooth and flowing. The taper is even and well executed. Despite being such a simple-looking tool, a close examination of the careful shaping of the head shows that it was clearly made by a craftsman who knows his trade. There are a few barely noticeable surface flaws that are most likely the result of forge-welding. Such flaws are visible on originals, and all in all actually make the piece look more authentic. They are too small to hinder performance.
The oak haft is sanded smoothly and feels quite sturdy. It is subtly shaped so that one can feel the edge alignment without looking, but it is still comfortable in the hands. It tapers so that the main portion in which the hands grip is smaller, but the butt gets larger to keep the hand from sliding off easily.
This is a very impressive axe. If it could be sent back in time it might not look out of place to most people, and that quality is difficult for modern smiths to capture. It also is an incredibly effective example of this type of weapon. It is the type of reproduction that fulfills the needs of a reenactor, a collector, or a martial artist wanting a modern weapon that is as close as possible to an antique.
About the Author
Bill Grandy is an instructor of Historical European Swordsmanship and sport fencing at the Virginia Academy of Fencing. He has held a strong passion (obsession?) for swords and swordsmanship for as long as he can remember. He admits that this passion comes from a youth spent playing Dungeons and Dragons, but he'll only admit that if there are no girls around.
Special thanks to Andy Bain, who allowed his axe to be reviewed, and to Eric McHugh for supplying background information.
Photographer: Bill Grandy