You can’t expect to wield supreme executive power just ’cause some watery tart threw an axe at you!
It doesn’t quite have the same ring, does it? Axes seem like the older, less understood cousins of the sword that don’t get talked about much. Sure they might have a movie appearance once in a while but we don’t really know how people fought with them, do we? They were just some kind of hacking tool that barbarians used to strike repeatedly into people with no thought for skill or technique, right? Only swords had a proper science to fighting with, everything else was just mindless bloodshed…
Or not. It probably won’t surprise you at this point to learn that I think all weapons have their strengths and weaknesses and are interesting to learn how to fight with. Let’s start with this movie trope of axes being used to cleave through shields. Basically, this was not their primary purpose. Yes axes can cut through wood, that’s what they’re famous for. But battle axes are different to wood-chopping axes. They’re thinner. This makes them lighter, quicker, and more efficient at cutting people. Sounds good, you might say. Only downside is a thinner axe isn’t as good at chopping through something made of wood, like say a shield. You might get through it eventually but not just one or two blows. Also, it’s likely to get stuck in it and in a fight where every split second counts, getting your weapon stuck isn’t ideal. My take is that in a protracted battle where a shield will sustain multiple strikes, it will eventually get broken and towards the end axe blows may be more useful in finishing it, but I think there’s a more practical use for axes in combat.
Let’s stick to shieldwalls for a moment. If you want to know how I think they worked in more detail, click here, but let’s focus more specifically on axes in shieldwalls for a second. Shieldwalls are basically a stand-off where, so long as you’re standing a bit apart, striking at each other depends largely on the relative lengths of your weapons (e.g. spear vs sword vs axe vs knife, etc.), how well you can out-think your opponent and, crucially, how well you work as a team. Axes in shieldwalls are an amazing team weapon. They allow you to hook over an opponent’s shield edge and pull it off-line to create an opening. Now if you’ve got a shield in one hand and an axe in the other, you can’t do much to exploit this opening. That’s where teamwork comes in. If you work in tandem with someone who has something like a sword, you can hook their shield to create the opening and your partner can stab into it to exploit it. This is the most useful thing about axes in group combat, their ability to hook and therefore control, if only for a second, an opponent’s shield.
In fact, not only are axes great in shieldwalls, they’re also useful in one-on-one duels as well. Now, for an off-hand weapon, there seem to be two extremes in HEMA: either you have a parrying dagger or a buckler. If you have a parrying dagger, you can defend yourself against thrusts very effectively, making it really good against something like a rapier. In contrast, a buckler is much better at protecting you from cuts by intercepting the blow, redirecting the energy and maybe even displacing their weapon long enough to strike. Axes are a great counter to a weapon which is good at both: the longsword. A longsword is a fair bit chunkier than a rapier so its point, while nimble, is relatively easier to catch. Also, having more mass and two hands, it’s generally very good at the bind. The axe is a good counter to these strengths. Basically, you can also use it to hook other weapons. The advantage an axe has over just binding with a sword is that it’s much easier to lock the weapon in place and keep it immobilised. After hooking, you can turn the axe sideways so it creates an even tighter angle and, hey, they’re stuck. Add to this that it’s quite easy for an axe to catch a blade; daggers are good at displacing a thrust but they don’t really catch them, axes do though. These two benefits together mean a longsworder trying to nimbly test someone with an axe in their offhand is likely to be intercepted and bound instead of finding an easy opening themselves. This is the hidden secret to axes I have not seen mentioned anywhere else.
Why isn’t it though? Why don’t HEMA schools teach AXE101? This comes down to the limitations of our sources. It’s much easier, and more useful to begin with, to train from a manual which has set weapons and techniques. We have plenty of historical manuals on longsword, rapier, broadsword/sabre but we have very few (bordering on none) that deal with axe fighting. Axes, like large shields, need to be reconstructed. We need to apply what we’ve learned from other weapon systems and, at the end of the day, experiment. So long as we’re experimenting with a proper martial framework to work off, we’ll gain some insight into how they could have been used.
These are my few thoughts anyway, having sparred against people using axes and occasionally using them myself. It’s encouraging to know that some authors are taking note of this kind of research. Bernard Cornwell, for one, is respected for the realism of his battles and, no surprise, he has a nuanced understanding of shieldwalls including the role of axes within them. The more people we have like him who both appreciate historical combat and have a voice to influence others in the modern world, the more people we’ll end up having to explore the limits of HEMA. I’m sure there’s plenty more still to discover and I for one look forward to seeing where our search for historical combat takes us.
(Photo by Silar, sourced from Wikimedia Commons)