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Double- and single-bit felling axes.
A collection of bronze socketed axe blades from the Bronze Age found in Germany. This was the prime tool of the period, and also seems to have been used as a store of value.

An axe (/æks/ sometimes ax in American English; see spelling differences) is an implement that has been used for millennia to shape, split, and cut wood, to harvest timber, as a weapon, and as a ceremonial or heraldic symbol. The axe has many forms and specialised uses but generally consists of an axe head with a handle, also called a haft or a helve.

Before the modern axe, the stone-age hand axe without a handle was used from 1.5 million years BP. Hafted axes (those with a handle) date only from 6,000 BC. The earliest examples of handled axes have heads of stone with some form of wooden handle attached (hafted) in a method to suit the available materials and use. Axes made of copper, bronze, iron and steel appeared as these technologies developed.

The axe is an example of a simple machine, as it is a type of wedge, or dual inclined plane. This reduces the effort needed by the wood chopper. It splits the wood into two parts by the pressure concentration at the blade. The handle of the axe also acts as a lever allowing the user to increase the force at the cutting edge—not using the full length of the handle is known as choking the axe. For fine chopping using a side axe this sometimes is a positive effect, but for felling with a double bitted axe it reduces efficiency.

Generally, cutting axes have a shallow wedge angle, whereas splitting axes have a deeper angle. Most axes are double bevelled (i.e. symmetrical about the axis of the blade), but some specialist broadaxes have a single bevel blade, and usually an offset handle that allows them to be used for finishing work without putting the user's knuckles at risk of injury. Less common today, they were once an integral part of a joiner and carpenter's tool kit, not just a tool for use in forestry. A tool of similar origin is the billhook.

Most modern axes have steel heads and wooden handles, typically hickory in the US and ash in Europe and Asia, although plastic or fibreglass handles are also common. Modern axes are specialised by use, size and form. Hafted axes with short handles designed for use with one hand are often called hand axes but the term hand axe refers to axes without handles as well. Hatchets tend to be small hafted axes often with a hammer on the back side (the poll). As easy-to-make weapons, axes have frequently been used in combat, and is one of humanity's oldest melee weapons.[1]


Bronze socketed axe from the Heppeneert hoard (Belgium), about 800 BCE, collection of the King Baudouin Foundation, Gallo-Roman Museum (Tongeren)
Roman axes in an ancient Roman relief in Brescia, Italy
Shang dynasty axe

Hand axes, of stone, and used without handles (hafts) were the first axes. They had knapped (chipped) cutting edges of flint or other stone. Early examples of hand axes date back to 1.6 mya in the later Oldowan,[2] in Southern Ethiopia around 1.4 mya,[3] and in 1.2 mya deposits in Olduvai Gorge.[4] Stone axes made with ground cutting edges were first developed sometime in the late Pleistocene in Australia, where grind-edge axe fragments from sites in Arnhem Land date back at least 44,000 years;[5][6] grind-edge axes were later present in Japan some time around 38,000 BP, and are known from several Upper Palaeolithic sites on the islands of Honshu and Kyushu.[7] Hafted axes are first known from the Mesolithic period (c. 6000 BC). Few wooden hafts have been found from this period, but it seems that the axe was normally hafted by wedging. Birch-tar and rawhide lashings were used to fix the blade.

The distribution of stone axes is an important indication of prehistoric trade.[8] Thin sectioning is used to determine the provenance of the stone blades. In Europe, Neolithic "axe factories", where thousands of ground stone axes were roughed out, are known from many places, such as:

metal axes are still produced and in use today in parts of Papua, Indonesia. The Mount Hagen area of Papua New Guinea was an important production centre.

From the late Neolithic/Chalcolithic onwards, axes were made of copper or copper mixed with arsenic. These axes were flat and hafted much like their stone predecessors. Axes continued to be made in this manner with the introduction of Bronze metallurgy. Eventually the hafting method changed and the flat axe developed into the "flanged axe", then palstaves, and later winged and socketed axes.

Hand axes from Swanscombe at the British Museum that belongs to Swanscombe Man who lived 200,000–300,000 years ago
A bronze axe from the Chinese Shang Dynasty, 12th to 11th centuries BC

Symbolism, ritual, and folklore

Jade axe, Shang dynasty
in hieroglyphs
Axe alternative
in hieroglyphs

At least since the late Neolithic, elaborate axes (battle-axes, T-axes, etc.) had a religious significance and probably indicated the exalted status of their owner. Certain types almost never show traces of wear; deposits of unshafted axe blades from the middle Neolithic (such as at the Somerset Levels in Britain) may have been gifts to the deities.

A collection of old Australian cutting tools including broad axes, broad hatchets, mortising axes, carpenter's axes, and felling axes. Also five adzes, a corner chisel, two froes, and a twybil.

In Minoan Crete, the double axe (labrys) had a special significance, used by priestesses in religious ceremonies.

In 1998, a labrys, complete with an elaborately embellished haft, was found at Cham-Eslen, Canton of Zug, Switzerland. The haft was 120 cm (47 in) long and wrapped in ornamented birch-bark. The axe blade is 17.4 cm (6.9 in) long and made of antigorite, mined in the Gotthard-area. The haft goes through a biconical drilled hole and is fastened by wedges of antler and by birch-tar. It belongs to the early Cortaillod culture.

The coat of arms of Norway feature a lion rampant carrying an axe, which is represent the King Olaf II of Norway, who honored as the Eternal King of Norway.

Axe pictured in the coat of arms of Tórshavn

In folklore, stone axes were sometimes believed to be thunderbolts and were used to guard buildings against lightning, as it was believed (mythically) that lightning never struck the same place twice. This has caused some skewing of axe distributions.

Steel axes were important in superstition as well. A thrown axe could keep off a hailstorm, sometimes an axe was placed in the crops, with the cutting edge to the skies to protect the harvest against bad weather. An upright axe buried under the sill of a house would keep off witches, while an axe under the bed would assure male offspring.

Basques, Australians and New Zealanders[9] have developed variants of rural sports that perpetuate the traditions of log cutting with axe. The Basque variants, splitting horizontally or vertically disposed logs, are generically called aizkolaritza (from aizkora: axe).[10]

In Yorùbá mythology, the oshe (double-headed axe) symbolises Shango, Orisha (god) of thunder and lightning. It is said to represent swift and balanced justice. Shango altars often contain a carved figure of a woman holding a gift to the god with a double-bladed axe sticking up from her head.

The Hurrian and Hittite weather god Teshub is depicted on a bas-relief at Ivriz wielding a thunderbolt and an axe.

The Arkalochori Axe is a bronze, Minoan, axe from the second millennium BC thought to be used for religious purposes. Inscriptions on this axe have been compared with other ancient writing systems.

Parts of the axe

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A diagram showing the main points on an axe

The axe has two primary components: the axe head, and the haft.

Axe head

The axe head is typically bounded by the bit (or blade) at one end, and the poll (or butt) at the other, though some designs feature two bits opposite each other. The top corner of the bit where the cutting edge begins is called the toe, and the bottom corner is known as the heel. Either side of the head is called the cheek, which is sometimes supplemented by lugs where the head meets the haft, and the hole where the haft is mounted is called the eye. The part of the bit that descends below the rest of the axe-head is called the beard, and a bearded axe is an antiquated axe head with an exaggerated beard that can sometimes extend the cutting edge twice the height of the rest of the head.

Axe haft

Wedging of Axes

The axe haft is sometimes called the handle or the helve. Traditionally, it was made of a resilient hardwood like hickory or ash, but modern axes often have hafts made of durable synthetic materials. Antique axes and their modern reproductions, like the tomahawk, often had a simple, straight haft with a circular cross-section that wedged onto the axe-head without the aid of wedges or pins. Modern hafts are curved for better grip and to aid in the swinging motion, and are mounted securely to the head. The shoulder is where the head mounts onto the haft, and this is either a long oval or rectangular cross-section of the haft that is secured to the axe head with small metal or wooden wedges. The belly of the haft is the longest part, where it bows in gently, and the throat is where it curves sharply down to the short grip, just before the end of the haft, which is known as the knob.

Types of axes

Axes designed to cut or shape wood

Splitting axe
A Swedish carpenter's axe

Axes as weapons

According to the legend, a man called Lalli killed Bishop Henry with an axe on the ice of Lake Köyliö in Finland on 20 January 1156.[12][13] The murder of St. Henry by Lalli, painting by Karl Anders Ekman (1854).
The execution of the Duke of Somerset after the Battle of Tewkesbury in 1471

Axes as tools

Hammer axe

Hammer axes (or axe-hammers) typically feature an extended poll, opposite the blade, shaped and sometimes hardened for use as a hammer. The name axe-hammer is often applied to a characteristic shape of perforated stone axe used in the Neolithic and Bronze Ages. Iron axe-hammers are found in Roman military contexts, e.g. Cramond, Edinburgh, and South Shields, Tyne and Wear.[citation needed]

See also

Related forestry terms


  1. ^ "The history of the axe". Gränsfors Bruk Sweden. Archived from the original on 30 January 2023. Retrieved 30 January 2023.
  2. ^ Leakey, M. D. 1972. Olduvai Gorge. Vol 3. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  3. ^ Asfaw, B.; Beyene, Y.; Suwa, G.; Walter, R. C.; White, T. D.; Woldegabriel, G.; Yemane, T. (1992). "The earliest Acheulean from Konso-Gardula". Nature. 360 (6406): 732–5. Bibcode:1992Natur.360..732A. doi:10.1038/360732a0. PMID 1465142. S2CID 4341455.
  4. ^ Foley, Robert Andrew; Lewin, Roger (2003). Principles of Human Evolution. Wiley. ISBN 978-0-632-04704-8.
  5. ^ Hiscock, P.; O'Connor, S.; Balme, J.; Maloney, T. (2016). "World's earliest ground-edge axe production coincides with human colonisation of Australia". Australian Archaeology. 82 (1): 2–11. doi:10.1080/03122417.2016.1164379. S2CID 147777782.
  6. ^ Geneste, J.-M.; David, B.; Plisson, H.; Clarkson, C.; Delannoy, J.-J.; Petchey, F.; Whear, R. (2010). "Earliest evidence for ground-edge axes: 35,400 ± 410 cal BP from Jawoyn Country, Arnhem Land". Australian Archaeology. 71 (1): 66–69. doi:10.1080/03122417.2010.11689385. hdl:10289/5067. S2CID 134077798.
  7. ^ Takashi, T. (2012). "MIS3 edge-ground axes and the arrival of the first Homo sapiens in the Japanese archipelago". Quaternary International. 248: 70–78. Bibcode:2012QuInt.248...70T. doi:10.1016/j.quaint.2011.01.030.
  8. ^ Micu, Alexandru (21 August 2017). "Around 4,500 years ago, Vietnamese stone-age traders traveled hundreds of kilometers to sell their wares". Archived from the original on 26 October 2020. Retrieved 23 October 2020.
  9. ^ Arnold, Naomi. "Geography: Block busters". Archived from the original on 6 November 2020. Retrieved 23 October 2020.
  10. ^ "History of the Australian Axeman's Hall of Fame & Timberworks | Latrobe | Tasmania | Australia". Archived from the original on 26 April 2012. Retrieved 20 February 2020.
  11. ^ Johan David. "Notes sur trois outils anciens du charpentier : le bondax, la bisaiguë, le piochon" Archived 28 October 2011 at the Wayback Machine, Revue des archéologues et historiens d'art de Louvain 10. 1977.
  12. ^ Michell, Thomas (1888). Handbook for Travellers in Russia, Poland, and Finland. J. Murray, [etc., etc.] pp. 532. Lalli bishop.
  13. ^ Fryxell, Anders Fryxell (1844). The History of Sweden. Original from the New York Public Library: R. Bentley. pp. 192. Lalli bishop.
  14. ^ "小斧为斧,大斧为钺——从工具到"权杖",钺的演变史". Tencent News. 23 April 2021. Archived from the original on 22 March 2022. Retrieved 23 March 2022.
  15. ^ "CAA PAPER 2009/01 Cabin Crew Fire Training" (PDF). Archived (PDF) from the original on 3 March 2017. Retrieved 3 March 2017.
  16. ^ "Types of axe heads". 31 October 2019. Archived from the original on 2 November 2019. Retrieved 3 January 2020.
  17. ^ Farlex. "Lathing hammer". The Free Dictionary. Archived from the original on 9 December 2019. Retrieved 3 May 2021.

Further reading

Neolithic axes

Medieval axes

Modern axes