Competitive indoor ax-throwing is like darts – “but bigger and more satisfying,” declares the Urban Axes website. Also, with a potentially deadly tool and a 12-point liability waiver.
Ax-throwing has officially arrived in the United States. Specifically, in a former textile mill in Philadelphia’s Kensington area, a gritty neighborhood quickly gentrifying with condos, cafes and hipsters. Another, unaffiliated hatchet-hurling venue, Bad Axe Throwing, also recently opened in Chicago.
“It’s not just come and throw an ax. It’s a structured game,” says Stuart Jones, one of Urban Axes’ four partners. “It’s this constant quest for mastery. It’s mentally challenging as well.” Although, he concedes, “it’s not hugely challenging physically.”
Which would explain the beer.
Ax-throwing is played with 1.5-pound, 14-inch axes and is often enhanced by multiple tallboys (you must be 21 to play). Urban Axes is a BYOB venue offering a quartet of kitchen-size refrigerators that on this night are fully stocked with players’ craft and down-market brews. (Wine and food are also welcome.)
The game is the latest entry in inventive leisure, a low-cost activity that provides community, novelty and the newest twist on a party when paintball and painting pottery have become been-there, done-that.
Ax-throwing is done in groups of eight or more, or in league play, with 30 competitors who register online. Two players stand in adjacent lanes, taking turns tossing axes at a target 14 feet away. In eight-week league play, competitors play round robin, a computer program assigning the pairings.
And whence did competitive indoor ax-throwing come? You can blame Canada for this.
A decade ago, Matt Wilson was a bartender with an ax. He was having fun, throwing it at a wooden target in his Toronto backyard. Parties, crowds ensued. His dream was to remain a bartender, possibly graduate to bar manager. He had no plans to become an ax magnate, let alone the commissioner of Canada’s National Axe Throwing Federation.
“It’s the entrepreneurial spirit, not the paycheck,” he says by phone from Toronto of the commissioner gig. Good thing, given that he draws no salary.
Five years ago, Wilson moved the game indoors and opened his first venue. Today, the Backyard Axe Throwing League has eight locations in Canada, a ninth set to open in November, and 150 employees. There are 1,500 league players – that is not a typo – in the province of Ontario alone.
One attraction of competitive ax-throwing: a level hurling field. Most likely, you will stink in the beginning. Later, you will improve.
Size does not matter. Burly lumberjack-like competitors rack up zeros. Tiny players score multiple bull’s eyes.
Ax-throwing is about form, technique and muscle memory, not strength. In that regard, if nothing else, it’s a lot like golf.
When tossed correctly, the ax spins in full rotations, registering in the pine target with a comforting thwack. Tossed wrong, not that we know from experience, the metal clanks against the wall and the wooden floor, sometimes boomeranging close to a competitor’s feet. Ergo, the requirement of closed-toe shoes.
“Ax-throwing is a vehicle to bring people together,” Jones says. “The ax is just a medium to get 30 people to come together and share. The ax is the great equalizer.”