Hand axe

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Hand axes

Axes were common household tools – after all, every household had a hearth-fire which needed fuel, and wood was an essential building material. Nevertheless, axes do not seem to have been greatly used as combat weapons by the English or Welsh; they are much more characteristic of the vikings.

Illustration of a hand axe

Axeheads may be ‘bearded’ or wedge-shaped, with either straight or curving edges.

Axes may only have one blade – double-headed axes or axes with spikes are not appropriate for this period.

A simple hand axe

In terms of modern safety requirements, all axes must:

  • have secure heads, and should be shafted so that the axehead will not fly off the top
  • have a smooth, unsplintered shaft

For a full list of the Society Axe specifications please see this document

Logo.gif Technical Specifications - Hand Axe

  • The main body or disc of a shield will be made from wood and be no thinner than 8mm.
  • Blades may be made from mild steel.
  • Blades may be hard edge welded.
  • Blades may be case hardened.
  • Blade edges must be of semi-circular profile and have a minimum thickness of 3 mm.
  • Blade points/corners must be of a diameter of no less than 18mm (the diameter of 5p coin 1994 or later).
  • Head may be top or bottom hafted.
  • The length of the shaft must be between 23-36” (58-91 cm).
  • The Society authenticity guidelines provide information on the shapes of axe head used in different periods and regions.
  • The top third of the shaft below the head may be wrapped in leather/rawhide to prevent damage to the wood. Any such wrapping should be in the form of a stitched sheath.
  • In the event of any damage to the stop or shaft, or the head coming loose, the weapon must be immediately retired from use until it is repaired and made safe.

Logo.gif Restrictions and Notes on Use

  • May be used to make cuts.
  • Thrusts may be made to the body only.
  • No hooking of the opponent’s body is permitted. If the axe does get caught on a limb or in clothing, the wielder must let go of the weapon to avoid causing an injury.

Long axes, requiring two hands to use, are distinct from those that can be used single handed.

Carrying axes

Rather than carry an axe in the belt (as many warriors tend to), we would strongly encourage warriors to consider a leather cover for the axehead. After all, having a sharp blade close to the arteries in the legs isn’t a very good idea! Rather than a plain ring suspended from the belt (something of a re-enactorism), we would encourage something which fully covers the edge of the axe - an axe sheath.

Shafting an axe

First cut a piece of ash of approximately the right size. To fit it, roughly shape the shaft from the bottom upwards, so that the head can be slid into the shaft a little way, but jams. Bang it on with a lump of wood, then off again, and remove any wood which was marked by the head. Repeat for several hours until it is as far up the shaft as you want. For a good fit, use a chisel to carefully shape the last part of the shaft to match the socket exactly, so that the wood above the socket is substantially thicker than that within it, then soak the socket area in linseed oil to make it swell and grip well. Before applying the linseed, sand down the shaft.

Alternatively, an electric plane and sander will give you an axe shaft in an evening.

Primary sources for hand axes

An Anglo-Saxon huscarl carries a hand axe in the Bayeux Tapestry.


An Anglo-Saxon warrior carries a hand axe in a manuscript illumination from Cotton Cleopatra, an 11th c. manuscript.


Viking warriors carrying hand axes on the 9th c. Lindisfarne Stone.


Axe typology

Typology of viking age axeheads, based on Wheeler and Petersen.

viking axe chronology, developed by Gavin Archer

Several types of axehead are found in England:

  • Wheeler Type 1 (W I above), a simple woodland axe, mostly ninth century but also shown in the 'Caedmon Manuscript' (MS Junius 11) c.1000;
  • Wheeler Type 2 (W II above), more likely to be a woodcutting tool than a weapon, with most examples identified as ninth century, also shown in the 'Caedmon Manuscript' (MS Junius 11) c.1000 and the Bayeux Tapestry;
  • Wheeler Type 3 (W III above), bearded axes derived from franciscas, with examples from southern England and Orkney, closely linked to Petersen Type C (ninth century), which is not attested in England;
  • Wheeler Type 4 (W IV above), mid-ninth century and tenth century, closely linked to Petersen Types G (c.850-100), H (c.900-950), I and K (latter 2 tenth century);
  • Wheeler Type 5 (W V above), a transition between types 3 and 4, with examples from London, Repton and north Scotland, closely linked to Petersen Types E (c.850-925) and F (tenth century);
  • Wheeler Type 6 (W VI above), the wide-bladed 'dane axe', found in England from 1000 onwards, linked to Petersen Types L (c.950-1050) and M (eleventh century), with a number of examples from London, as well as East Anglia and Scotland.

File:Petersen axes.doc.pdf