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Forum Index > Off-topic Talk > What makes a good battle axe? Reply to topic
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Deshler Davies




Location: Virginia
Joined: 05 Oct 2009

Posts: 20

PostPosted: Mon 05 Oct, 2009 5:05 pm    Post subject: What makes a good battle axe?         Reply with quote

I posted this in off topic because it is my first post on this forum and i do not want to offend anyone by putting it in the wrong place.
I tried the search option and have been googling for several days finding only meager results and fantasy weaponry.
The few i have found all claim to be the best but no one is offering any reasons why a particular axe is indeed a finer weapon.
i am looking into maybe purchasing a two handed axe but i am rather new to axes so i do not know what to look for in such a weapon. The grade of steel, wooden handle or steel, balance and shape. (this is not interned for pole arms)
That being said I turn it to the experts here to maybe guide my hand to the right hilt.

-All in good faith and no offense intended
Desh
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Allen Foster





Joined: 17 Feb 2008
Reading list: 4 books

Posts: 244

PostPosted: Mon 05 Oct, 2009 5:16 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

I asked the same question to Joe Maccarrone about why Eric McHugh's battle axes were some much more expensive than everyone elses and this is what he said:

"Hi Allen,
It's because it's hand forged using the period method: a harder steel cutting edge forged onto a softer blade body. Not many guys can do it this way; Eric is one of them..
Thanks,
Joe "

My favorite Axe of all Time was Patrick Kelly's Danish Axe made by Eric McHugh. Maybe Patrick will post a picture of it.

Thanks,
Allen

"Rise up, O Lord, and may thy enemies be dispersed and those who hate thee be driven from thy face."
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Deshler Davies




Location: Virginia
Joined: 05 Oct 2009

Posts: 20

PostPosted: Mon 05 Oct, 2009 5:23 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Thank you very much Allen I will research the maker but I am still lacking a basic understanding of maybe say the specs on a well developed war axe.
steel type
weight distribution
handle construction
and overall handling of the weapon
(also i am thinking of double headed not single as much of eric's are)
Your comment is however very much appreciated and was extremely pront
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Ken Speed





Joined: 09 Oct 2006

Posts: 656

PostPosted: Mon 05 Oct, 2009 5:28 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Allen, OK, I don't really mean to force you into defending another's assertion and I'm not saying that it isn't true that Eric
Mc Hugh can weld mild steel and high carbon steel but that seems to sort of beg the question. WHY does this make a better axe? i would think that a lot of design issues would be equally if not more important than the quality of the steel (within reason)
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Allen Foster





Joined: 17 Feb 2008
Reading list: 4 books

Posts: 244

PostPosted: Mon 05 Oct, 2009 5:37 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Ken Speed wrote:
Allen, OK, I don't really mean to force you into defending another's assertion and I'm not saying that it isn't true that Eric
Mc Hugh can weld mild steel and high carbon steel but that seems to sort of beg the question. WHY does this make a better axe? i would think that a lot of design issues would be equally if not more important than the quality of the steel (within reason)


Ken,

My take on it was that very few can make a "period" axe. So I guess the term "better than" means different things to different people. Better historically may not translate to better performance especially when period methods are pitted against some of the newer high strength spring steel. That's my guess.

Allen

"Rise up, O Lord, and may thy enemies be dispersed and those who hate thee be driven from thy face."
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Allen Foster





Joined: 17 Feb 2008
Reading list: 4 books

Posts: 244

PostPosted: Mon 05 Oct, 2009 5:48 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Deshler Davies wrote:
Thank you very much Allen I will research the maker but I am still lacking a basic understanding of maybe say the specs on a well developed war axe.
steel type
weight distribution
handle construction
and overall handling of the weapon
(also i am thinking of double headed not single as much of eric's are)
Your comment is however very much appreciated and was extremely pront


Deshler,

The specs for a top of the line axe as far as this forum goes would be more dependent on the specifications of an exact copy of the real thing. I don't think there were standardized specs although I could be wrong since I am certainly no expert in this area. As far as I've read it seems that very few (if any) hafts have survived the ravages of time although the type of wood I believe is known. Someone help me!

Allen

"Rise up, O Lord, and may thy enemies be dispersed and those who hate thee be driven from thy face."
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Deshler Davies




Location: Virginia
Joined: 05 Oct 2009

Posts: 20

PostPosted: Mon 05 Oct, 2009 5:52 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

perfect
now we are getting to the bone of the matter
I am looking for performance.
combat ready and made from possibly modern material if they are superior.
I am looking for a modern double headed (or head and a half) combat axe.
but i still need the physics of what will make it a good weapon and why.
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Allen Foster





Joined: 17 Feb 2008
Reading list: 4 books

Posts: 244

PostPosted: Mon 05 Oct, 2009 5:58 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Deshler Davies wrote:
perfect
now we are getting to the bone of the matter
I am looking for performance.
combat ready and made from possibly modern material if they are superior.
I am looking for a modern double headed (or head and a half) combat axe.
but i still need the physics of what will make it a good weapon and why.


Then I would say you should speak to someone well versed in metallurgy. We have plenty of folks like that at this site. You may also want to pose the same question over at the armour archive. That site is frequented by a lot of armour and weapon makers for live action sparring and reenactment.

"Rise up, O Lord, and may thy enemies be dispersed and those who hate thee be driven from thy face."
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D. Austin
Industry Professional



Location: Melbourne, Australia
Joined: 20 Sep 2007

Posts: 208

PostPosted: Mon 05 Oct, 2009 6:36 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Hi Deshler,

I'm not saying they didn't exist, but I'm not aware of any historical examples of double bit "battle axes". Early "Viking" type axes generally had only one bit (blade), and although later medieval axes commonly featured beaks or spikes at the rear, the double bit axe was certainly not a common item. I get the feeling that the classic battle axe from D&D or LOTR, is more of a fantasy weapon.

For a two handed axe, wood is the only choice for the handle (if you rule out plastic, fibreglass etc.) as a steel handle strong enough to withstand a good swing, and light enough to wield, will certainly bend, if not break. Hickory is great for axe handles, as is ash. From a historical European view, you'd probably be looking at ash. Oak is quite strong too but can have a tendency to crack.

As for weight distribution, there are pros and cons of both thick axes and thin axes, but for a fighting axe, a fairly thin profile is more to my taste. This will still leave the point of balance quite close to the head of the axe.

The reason (in my opinion) that using two types of steel makes for a better axe (providing acceptable design and workmanship), is that the body of the axe can be made from mild steel, which will remain soft and thus absorb the shock of impact better, whilst the cutting edge can be made from a higher carbon steel, and hardened. Particularly with a thin axe, it is better to be made from bendy steel than breaky steel, and if the whole piece was hard, you'd run the risk of it cracking.

There are other ways to achieve this effect, such as differential hardening (as seen on Japanese swords) and differential tempering (a common method employed by blacksmiths in making tools), but using two types of steel is more historically accurate for a medieval axe. Ken has a point though, when he says that design issues can be of higher importance than steel types.

I'd recommend, if you're after a really good axe, that you go to a reputable smith and discuss your requirements. If you want one "off the shelf", you could start by looking at Arms and Armor or Gransfors Bruks.

I hope this has been of help,

Darren.
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Ken Speed





Joined: 09 Oct 2006

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PostPosted: Mon 05 Oct, 2009 7:13 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Well, this is starting to get interesting!

I was of the impression that axes were made of a soft steel head with a high carbon tempered steel bit because originally it was difficult for smiths to make large quantities of carbon steel. I guess I always accepted this as "the truth" because I had no other explanation.

So now I'm getting curious, how are modern day good quality axes made? I'm not even sure if Collins and Plumb axes are still being made but if they are and if they're still good quality, how are they made? Then my next question is this: does anybody know how the supremely high quality axes that competitive lumberjacks use are made? Some of the best ones, I think, come from New Zealand, are they differentially tempered?

I remember the Eric McHugh axe with that extremely thin blade that widened out in section just before the cutting edge, it absolutely looked like a machine for murder and mayhem but would it have been better or worse if it were differentially tempered or tempered consistently throughout? Actually, given the profile of an axe head wouldn't it basically be differentially tempered virtually by default?

Has any one tested the idea that a softer steel head cushions the blow? Can a human being really exert the kind of force that mild steel is going require to deform enough to cushion a blow?
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Bennison N




Location: Auckland, New Zealand
Joined: 06 Feb 2008
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PostPosted: Mon 05 Oct, 2009 7:25 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

It was my understanding that the Minoan Culture of very Ancient Greece had the double bladed axe as a symbol of their culture, and as such probably used it as a weapon as well. Maybe look them up?

These appear to be short and more suited to use in one hand, although it looks very awkward to me, being a sword guy...

"Never give a sword to a man who can't dance" - Confucius

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D. Austin
Industry Professional



Location: Melbourne, Australia
Joined: 20 Sep 2007

Posts: 208

PostPosted: Mon 05 Oct, 2009 8:58 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Hi Ken,

I'll attempt to answer a few of your questions.

You’re absolutely right about carbon steel having been more difficult to produce and thus more expensive than iron. Another reason for welding an edge on to the bit, which is more pertinent than material cost these days, is that mild steel is easier to forge. If you’re using a hammer, not a machine, this can make a big difference in the time taken to forge the axe. Still, even these days if making an axe, I'd rather use an old chisel and some scrap mild steel than buy a big lump of tool steel.

The best quality racing axes are probably machine made from one piece and are probably not differentially heat treated, as a more controlled method can produce greater consistency in results. With strictly measured temperatures and steel contents, the type of “insurance” offered by using different steels is less necessary.

I believe that the widening out of the thin blade just before the edge is a result of welding an edge to a softer body. This in itself prevents hardening of all but the edge of the axe. I guess it also adds strength and rigidity whilst keeping the weight down (like an I-beam or a wide fuller in a sword).

I’m not sure about “default” differences in hardness in an axe as thin as the one we’re talking about, but on a more “wedge” shaped axe, like a work axe, when quenching to harden it, the edge and eye would technically harden quicker than the thicker middle body. This wouldn't do however because you don’t want the eye to be brittle, so you would either quench only the edge, or you would temper the axe by applying heat to the “poll” or rear of the axe, watching the colours flow and cooling once the edge was at the right temperature.

Softer steel certainly does prevent damage to an impact tool (and potential damage to the user). A common machine made centre punch will generally have a mild steel body with a high carbon steel rod inserted into it. As to whether or not a human can exert enough force to require this in an axe, I guess that depends on what you’re hitting with it, but I have heard tales of axes breaking from hitting a knot in a tree on a cold morning.

Cheers,

Darren.
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Jared Smith




Location: Tennessee
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PostPosted: Mon 05 Oct, 2009 11:12 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Ken Speed wrote:
I was of the impression that axes were made of a soft steel head with a high carbon tempered steel bit because originally it was difficult for smiths to make large quantities of carbon steel. I guess I always accepted this as "the truth" because I had no other explanation.


In terms of historical artifacts, I am not sure what point in history a high carbon center piece became "typical" construction. Viking and medieval axes tend to be mild steel or highly variable carbon content wrought iron. Because the blade angle is coarser than a knife/ sword and uses more momentum and area to do it's work, it does not need to be as tough a material as a precision tool blade (compared to a wood plane, knife, or sword.) Then again, very few archeologists seem to examine these things for purposes we are interested in as to how they were fabricated. They do not generally clarify if the center of an unearthed axe was identical to the surface samples that they tested.

Enclosing a tool grade carbon steel material within the center will make an axe or hatchet that can retain it's edge longer. Differential hardening will happen naturally since the tool steel edge is very exposed to the quench, while much of the body is so much thicker that it's center will cool more slowly. Many present day blacksmiths can and do make hatchets/ tomahawks/ axes/ and adzes with a tool steel center. A fellow blacksmith showed me one hatchet and an adze recently finished, and two hatchets in progress (drifting handle holes, and final shaping remaining) this past Saturday. One was made of solid tool steel, and, he commented how tough it was to forge to completion. The use of softer steels for the body just seemed to occur to him as a logical choice for subsequent versions. I would guess that today this method is "typical" of hand crafted axes with many hundreds of smiths able to perform it.

Absence of evidence is not necessarily evidence of absence!
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Ken Speed





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PostPosted: Tue 06 Oct, 2009 4:06 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Hi Darren,


Thanks for the information. Yes, I can see that it would be much easier to forge a mild steel body to hold a high carbon bit. I can also see that a mild steel body with a carbon steel blade makes sense for metal on metal use and things like that. I'm a bit more skeptical about the utility factor when the "choppee" is a soft human body or even a mailed human body.

Hmmm.......I'm originally from Minnesota, I think the state name means, "Damn, it's cold here!" Happy In any case, I chopped and split a lot of wood in very cold weather and have to admit that while some of it was knotty and some wasn't I never saw an axe head shatter.

So we seem to have determined the proper characteristics of the head from a metallurgical standpoint. I think it would be interesting to talk about the design elements that make a good battle axe.

Hmmm...........double bitted battle axes, I tend to distrust artistic sources but I do seem to remember a Japanese woodblock print of the forty seven Ronin in which one is carrying an improbably huge axe, I think it was double bitted.


Ken
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Marc Blaydoe




Location: Maryland
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PostPosted: Tue 06 Oct, 2009 5:11 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

I think it matters what you are batttling as to what makes a good battle axe. Who/what is your opponent? A tree? A wooden shield? unarmed peasant? Mailed warrior? Armoured knight? Mounted or dismounted?

A Lochaber axe is different from a "Danish" axe is different from a pole axe. Are you looking at a specific period or merely common attributes?

An armed man is a citizen. An unarmed man is a subject.
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Ken Speed





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PostPosted: Tue 06 Oct, 2009 7:43 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Marc made a good point when he said, "I think it matters what you are batttling as to what makes a good battle axe. Who/what is your opponent? A tree? A wooden shield? unarmed peasant? Mailed warrior? Armoured knight? Mounted or dismounted?"

Let's imagine we want to arm a Viking warrior with an axe, what should it be like. A two hander or something that can be used with one or both hands? Is it bearded? Why? How long? How heavy? If we can answer some of those questions we can see who is making a good reproduction Viking axe, right?

Ken
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James R.Fox




Location: Youngstowm,Ohio
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PostPosted: Tue 06 Oct, 2009 3:35 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Sirs- Check out Hurstwic: Viking Arms and Armour. Ir shows original excaveted weapons,as well as modern re-creations. It also shows basic combat techniques with one and two handed axes. There are a number of points made,for example, combat axes uniformly had thin blades to make them light and fast. Wood axes with thick blades are slow,and a combat axe is for cutting flesh and bone. Also, the upper amd lower horns of a crescent shape ax blade were sharpened so as to stab with the upper horn and hook the arms and legs with the lower horn.
Ja68ms
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Deshler Davies




Location: Virginia
Joined: 05 Oct 2009

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PostPosted: Tue 06 Oct, 2009 5:25 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Finally we have the issue of average weight distribution. do you add weight to the handle.
I think i am looking for if it exist a hand and a half handle. As in it is a weapon you "can use in one hand"
and still finding a modern choice. I am not looking for a replica ie. new materials

-no disrespect intended
desh
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Marc Blaydoe




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PostPosted: Wed 07 Oct, 2009 4:50 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

If you are not going for a specific historic period, it really matters what your intended target is. Who is your opponent and what weapon is he using? Armored or unarmored? Shield or no? What is your fighting style? Are you looking to create maximum damage or merely intimidate or to denote status? Different circumstances necessitate different fighting axes.

If you want "modern", then i recommend the Albion "Death Dealer" based on the artwork of Frank Frazetta which is a truly imposing weapon.

An armed man is a citizen. An unarmed man is a subject.
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Ken Speed





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PostPosted: Wed 07 Oct, 2009 5:53 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Deshler said, "I think i am looking for if it exist a hand and a half handle. As in it is a weapon you "can use in one hand"
and still finding a modern choice. I am not looking for a replica ie. new materials"

OK, so I think you want a battle axe that can be used with one or both hands, that is preferably double bitted and is not a replica of a historic weapon. If I have that right I'd say the Nordland axe comes pretty close to filling the bill for you at a fairly reasonable price. It isn't double bitted but other than that it seems to do what you want.

I've wondered if there is a way to "antique" it a little and make it look less modern. My problem with it is it looks like a Viking axe designed by someone from the bauhaus movement. Of course, I have a lot of other projects so the Nordland may have to wait.


Ken
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