Tuesday, March 1, 2016

The History of the Hand Axe

By E.S. Moxon

Acheulean hand axe [Africa], courtesy of lithiccastinglab.com

Since man first crafted a tool, a blade for stabbing or slicing was the most versatile. Through millennia, through Stone, Bronze and Iron Ages man has used knapped or smelted blades in everyday life. As precursors to the modern steel axe, they were for killing prey on the hunt, stripping meat from a carcass and for carving bone into tools or amulets. These were not merely tools, however. The skill of craftsmanship, often attributed to assistance from a divine source, gave these objects importance. Early man’s reliance on them for his life or food source meant they became revered not only for their functionality, but became worthy of decoration and admiration.

At the University of Southampton a postgraduate study identified tribal distinctions between the designs of two main Neanderthal cultures in Europe. A western tribe in what is now France, used symmetrical, triangular and heart-shaped hand axes. During the same period, an eastern tribe, in what is now Germany, created asymmetrical bifacial blades. More amazingly, groups of Neanderthals from both tribes living near the borders in modern day Belgium, created axes using combinations of both western and eastern designs. These designs, used over a long period, suggest the patterns were passed on from generation to generation. Like tribal markers or crests and the banners used by their forebears, the Neanderthals were defining weapons and territory through art. Even more interestingly, the Belgian group provides evidence that they were open to accepting influences from neighbouring civilisations, or that tribes intermarried and combined designs.

Bactrian ceremonial hand axe, British Museum

Practical tool, object of decoration and symbol of cultural identity: the enduring importance of the hand axe continued. The Bronze Age gives us a wealth of archaeology for yet another aspect of this weapon – as a ceremonial object. Found almost ‘as-new’, preserved in peat at the fen site of Shinewater near Eastbourne in East Sussex, is the socketed axe from north-west continental Europe (late Bronze Age). Then there is the beautiful bronze and silver Bactrian ceremonial hand axe from Pakistan. Residing at the British Museum, this piece dates from 2000BC and consists of a boar’s back and a tiger clutching a goat. It is a perfect example of a ritualistic object, the intention that its great beauty proved the worth of the ceremony to receiving deities.

As man began to build enclosures and walls around his treasured livestock and land, the hand axe took on a more lethal role, in combat. Already familiar with its multiple uses, man adapted them for war and to maim. Across cultures and continents, the hafted (with handle) hand axe has many names: adze, francisca, halberd, hatchet, hurlbat, labrys, parashu, tomahawk. This is not an exhaustive list, but there are too many to mention here, suffice to say man and axe are synonymous with one another. Specifically, the francisca is a small throwing axe about the length of the forearm. The haft, or handle, is often made of hickory or ash woods and the blade, of steel. Being inexpensive to make, it was available to men of all ranks throughout the Germanic kingdoms of Europe. When writing ‘Wulfsuna’, this was the axe I had to familiarise myself with and not simply from reading books!

From king to commoner, the francisca was a useful instrument. Unlike a sword or Seax, it did not depict wealth or require costly sums to obtain. However, the materials used could still set them apart, as is evident from the royal grave goods at Sutton Hoo for example. High quality woods, ornate carvings and specialised blades could define the status of its owner. We can gain further understanding of how this weapon was embraced across social divides by looking at the names given to its pertinent parts:-

Head, Eye, Cheek, Beard, Throat, Shoulder, Belly, Heel, Toe...

Naming the familiar sections of the axe with human body parts likens it to a living being and, in my mind, bestows upon it a high regard. For those who owned them, in battle the francisca became a living, breathing extension of the warrior who wielded it. Honoured gods such as the Saxon ‘Thunor’ or Norse ‘Thor’ and ‘Tiw’ prove how symbiotic the relationship was between man and his weapon. So, I donned a helm, grabbed a shield and axe and fought out my research with a willing tutor and opponent!

'Hooking' my opponent's shield!

From the first clash of shields, Germanic warfare was at close-quarters. Comparatively light to other weapons, the hand axe could be used with one hand, allowing the bearer to also hold a shield for defence. Easy to wield effectively in tight spaces they were the favoured Saxon weapon, whereas swords were expensive and required elbow-room to draw them from their scabbards. The hand axe was extremely versatile. Held at the ‘throat’ (bottom of the handle) and used in wide swings blade or ‘butt’ (flat head at back of the blade) could connect with your opponent with devastating results. Bringing the grip up to the ‘shoulder’ underneath the ‘beard’ the end of the handle, or ‘knob’ was effective to stab the enemy in the windpipe – much like the pommel was implemented on the end of a sword hilt (from where we get the word ‘pummelled’, or rather ‘pommelled’).

Being one of the lighter-weight axes, it could also be thrown at speed. From this grip the blade could also be a hefty knuckle-duster, capable of punching faceplates on helmets and slicing flesh at close-range. Held at the ‘belly’ (half way down the handle) it could strike a nasty dent or break through an iron helmet, allowing the owner to hook the ‘beard’ or ‘heel’ of the blade onto the top of an enemy shield. Hooking could reveal vulnerable faces/upper bodies for a lethal strike. It could also be used on helmet ornamentation, so as to yank an opponent’s head forwards or backwards.

From my first-hand experience, albeit slow and safe, it revealed the hand axe to be a wholly versatile piece of warrior equipment. It is easy to see how it remained a popular weapon for thousands of years.

~ ~ ~

Blood, betrayal and brotherhood.
An ancient saga is weaving their destiny.
A treacherous rival threatens their fate.
A Seer's magic may be all that can save them.

Elaine writes historical fiction as ‘E S Moxon’. Her debut Wulfsuna was published January 21st, 2015 and is the first in her 'Wolf Spear Saga' series of Saxon adventures, where a Seer and one named ‘Wolf Spear’ are destined to meet. She is currently writing her second novel, set once again in the Dark Ages of 5th Century Britain. You can find out more about Book 2 from Elaine’s website where she has a video diary charting her writing progress. She also runs a blog. Elaine lives in the Midlands with her family and their chocolate Labrador.


  1. I saw one of Shakespeare's plays screened live from The Globe theatre in which shorter hand-axes (ie one in each hand) were used to wincing effect. The speed, and choreography, was spectacular. Thanks for the fascinating post.

  2. Thank you Linda. What a wonderful viewing experience! I do believe it takes great timing and turn of speed to wield these weapons effectively. You need to know the weight and balance intimately. I was so fascinated by the hand axe I wrote a scene into my book where two friends have an axe race; a kind of assault course with targets and obstacles, carried out on horseback.

    1. Great stuff. I hope the novel/s do well for you.


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