The sidewalks were empty in Philadelphia’s East Kensington neighborhood on the first truly miserable day of fall. The only people in the vicinity seemed to be a huddle of three burly men in black clothes, ripping cigarettes in front of what appeared to be either an abandoned warehouse, a biker bar, or a biker bar in an abandoned warehouse. Inside, it sounded like a blacksmith-themed rave was gearing up, clangs and thwacks punctuated with ecstatic whoops. “You here to throw?” one of the men asked me as I approached the building. Behind him, a sign gave away the location’s true purpose: Urban Axes.
I was there to watch, not to throw. It was the weekend of the second-ever regional tournament for the National Axe Throwing Federation (NATF), which, as its name might suggest, oversees ax-throwing competitions. Urban Axes was hosting the regional event for the Eastern section of NATF, drawing throwers from Ottawa to Baltimore and everywhere in between. The winner of the Philadelphia competition would go on to secure a place at the Wilson Cup international championship in Toronto. In early 2019, the Eastern regional champion will join the victors from seven other regions, as well as a handful of league and wild-card qualifiers, in the sport’s biggest competition.
Within the grungy, high-beamed space, boisterous laughter occasionally interrupted the continuous stream of clanking metal-on-wood action. Although this was one of the sport’s major events, the atmosphere was relaxed and jovial. The only dress code, apart from closed-toe shoes, seemed to be an unstated “beards encouraged” rule for the men. (It was a mixture of men and women competing.) The tattoo-to-human ratio was notable. So was the skill of the ax-throwers. I watched them splinter the wooden bull’s-eyes, lightly flinging their weapons in neat arches with frightening precision, then politely clinking their hatchet-style axes together when matches got close. Most bear-hugged after they finished competing; ax-throwing is an almost overwhelmingly convivial sport. “What’s unique about the culture is that you can play against somebody and have your ass absolutely handed to you,” Ottawa-based thrower and Backyard Axe Throwing League employee Shooter Coutts told me, “and still have a beer afterward.”
Throwers did reach for beers from the two fridges stationed near the lanes, although I also observed at least one man shaking and then chugging a protein shake. Apart from the noise, the mood among the dozens of competitors remained mellow, even as the competition drew to a close. The reigning champion, a Canadian man with incredible aim named Stefan Cavacciuti, was favored to win the event; everyone calls him Cappuccino. He works with Coutts at the BATL location in Ottawa. Keeping with the laid-back nature of the ax-throwing league, though, people didn’t seem to give him more attention than anybody else, and the tournament’s matches were equally, albeit sparsely, cheered on. The only real drama occured when the scoring software stopped working, leaving Urban Axes and its scoring volunteers scrambling to come up with a last-minute replacement. All games ended up scored by hand, and the team unfurled large sheets of paper to make their own brackets with Sharpies. Cappuccino won and was presented with a giant novelty check with his name on it.
“I am super competitive,” Coutts said. But: “I find that I’m cheering for my opponent more than I’m cheering for myself. I want there to be a good game. I want it to be a showstopper.” The growing interest across North America in throwing axes suggests that he’s not the only one.
While it is inarguably a friendly game, ax-throwing is both very new and very old, depending on who you ask. It’s old in that people have been throwing axes at stuff for as long as people have had axes. The Franks hurled francisca axes at their enemies during the early Middle Ages, while the Algonquians carried sharpened tomahawks long before they met New World colonizers. It’s new in that, historically, people generally used to throw axes in order to kill or maim each other (not very sportsmanlike). Ax-throwing is an obvious descendant of darts (throwing sharp objects at a board while drinking beer) and bowling (drinking beer while doing something vaguely athletic with your friends), but as a league sport in the United States, it’s a recent trend, one that has taken off really only since 2016. The sport has been slowly creeping southward; the first facility in Los Angeles just opened this fall in North Hollywood, but the owners are already planning to expand to seven more locations in Southern California. In Canada, the sport has been gaining popularity for more than a decade, and it is an obvious descendant of timbersports competitions, which have been held in North America for even longer; Stihl Timbersports, the most prominent organization, has held competitions that include ax-throwing since the 1980s. (At Timbersports events, axes are wielded for a variety of events, including wood chopping.) Meanwhile, the International Knife Throwers Hall of Fame, an organizing body for knife-throwing, also offers tomahawk-throwing.
The National Axe Throwing Federation was cofounded in 2016 by 39-year-old former bartender Matt Wilson. (One year after he started NATF, another nascent governing body, the World Axe Throwing League, was also founded. Both organizations seem to have similar goals for popularizing the sport.) Wilson is essentially the creator of modern league ax-throwing, thanks to the Backyard Axe Throwing League, which he established in 2006. Back then, it was literally just a game in his backyard, started after a cottage trip with friends. “It was raining, so we’re just sitting around the fire with our ponchos on. We couldn’t really do much on the water, so one of the guys pull out a hatchet and he started throwing it at some logs that we had there. And that’s really how it started,” Wilson said. “We had this backyard [in Toronto] that wasn’t being used for anything … so I told my roommate about it and he kind of shrugged it off. He was like, ‘Yeah, yeah sure.’ And I was like, ‘No, you don’t understand, you’ve gotta try this.’” Soon, he’d hooked a group of his friends on his homegrown activity. Then their friends wanted to come. And then their friends did too. Wilson started his own league, and then his own leagues. After a few years evangelizing for the game, he opened the first venue dedicated to ax-throwing games out of an old munitions factory in Toronto’s Portlands, a grim, industrial no-man’s-land. It exploded from there. BATL now has 13 locations in the U.S. and Canada, with several more opening soon.
Wilson created the game’s rules himself and now oversees the fledgling body enforcing those rules. He took inspiration from other sports. “There’s a little bit of a mix of concepts from the more traditional ax-throwing stuff that was going on, but also I grew up watching a lot of tennis and I kind of appreciate the longer-format match.” While there are also trick-shot competitions, round robins, and other casual variations, in tournament play, two competitors face identical circular wooden targets located about 21 feet away, and both throw at the same time. The highest number of points a player can score in a single match is 81. In the NATF, a bull’s-eye is worth five points and the concentric circles around it are first worth three points and then one point, and the surrounding wood offers no points. Except: There are two little green circles to the left and right of the target known as the “clutch,” and hitting the clutch can earn a player seven points. “The clutch in the top corner came into play as like a Hail Mary last-chance effort to get yourself back in the game,” Wilson said. For the Philly tournament, individual competitors played best-of-five series for the first few rounds and then switched to best of seven as it grew more competitive. For tiebreakers, they threw a larger ax.
While it shares lots of DNA with well-established pastimes, as a modern, stand-alone competitive game, ax-throwing is still niche. The Philadelphia space was filled with eager participants, but it lacked many spectators. Almost everyone there was throwing, and many of these throwers were also employees or owners of other ax-throwing facilities, so it felt at times like observing a private party more than an open athletic competition. But there were also obvious signs of the sport’s explosive growth; a banner showcasing all the league winners hung on the wall, and each year’s list of winners was exponentially longer than the last. Nearly everyone I spoke with had stumbled onto the sport by chance, which suggested an accessible barrier of entry for newcomers, even newcomers who have never even thought about chopping wood or wearing flannel. “I had my birthday here two years ago, and I became hooked and have been in a league ever since,” thrower Rebecca Cole said. “I’d only ever done team sports. I’d never done anything like this.” Some throwers seemed surprised by their own enthusiasm. “I found out I was pretty decent at this weird thing, so I kept doing it,” thrower Matt Kramer said. “On my birthday, I couldn’t get [an ax] to stick. Now I have my name on the wall.”
Since ax-throwing is so new, its fans evangelize for it with the fervor of the newly converted. “I can’t even describe how excited people get when they first hit a bull’s-eye with the ax. The way they jump, scream, yell—it’s everything,” firefighter Patrick Creed told me after he’d finished his throws. Creed also owns his own ax-throwing spot, Bury the Hatchet, near Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, and likes nothing better than teaching beginners about the sport. Creed had taught himself how to throw by watching YouTube videos; now, he devotes his time to providing IRL instruction. “When they come in, they’re so scared, they hide! They think, ‘I don’t want to hurt myself or someone else,’” Creed said. “Then, 20 minutes later, they’re like a Viking princess warrior.”
The sport’s overlap with lumberjacking, which includes ax-throwing in its roster of events, and popularity north of the 49th parallel have given it a reputation as a pastime imported from Canada, although Wilson doesn’t see it that way. “A lot of people in the early days, or even now, come to events and say it’s a Canadian thing,” Wilson said. “I do look on that with some reverence, and I know that there’s a lot of Canadian history there. But the ax and the throw have been around all over the globe in all kinds of iterations for thousands of years, hundreds of years at least. So, for me, I feel like it’s always kind of existed.”
“I think of it as having Canadian roots, but it’s definitely an international sport,” Coutts said. There are now ax-throwing clubs in a number of cities around the world, including Seoul, Sydney, Bangkok, and Krakow. There are more than 4,500 league members signed up in the NATF, but countless more casual players, people who go for a throw as an alternative to sitting at a bar or who take their Tinder dates to a venue instead of a tapas spot. It’s gaining steam as a leisure activity as well as a competition. “Our business is a ton of corporations now come for team building,” Creed said. “We do groups of anywhere from 12 to 100, and they come and rent the whole facility.” Ginger Flesher-Sonnier, a Philadelphia-area-based entrepreneur, began opening ax-throwing spots after she sensed a space to offer the sport in a more polished, lounge-like setting geared at casual participants. “I like to take experiences to the level where it’s a place that a girl will book to hang out with her friends or go out on a date or take their new work friends, or do team building,” she said. After opening Brooklyn’s first ax-throwing bar, Kick Axe, in late 2017, Flesher-Sonnier quickly realized that she was on to something. “From the beginning, we were booked solid on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays,” she said. “If I had 20 ranges, they might be full.” She is in the process of opening new locations in Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. Meanwhile, several rival ax-throwing spots are slated to launch in Brooklyn by the end of the year.
The potential to hop onto a burgeoning trend has driven a number of people into the industry. Robert Jenkins, who owns the Pittsburgh area’s Valhalla Indoor Axe Throwing, is now an ardent thrower. “My league name,” he said, “is King Robert.” But he started loving the sport only after he and his wife seized the business opportunity of owning a venue. “It was not something we were into,” he said. “We just gave it a shot and crossed our fingers and hoped that people would like it, and that they would come. But we had never thrown an ax before we started building our facility.”
To bring up the first thing almost everybody says when ax-throwing gets mentioned: Yes, axes are sharp. Sharp and heavy and occasionally still used for murder reasons. Hurling a weapon across a room is something people are not usually encouraged to do. Even holding an ax is not often socially acceptable, as they are scary weapons. Despite the veneer of danger and the growing numbers of novices throwing axes in these spaces, there are no competitive ax-throwing horror stories. The facilities train their employees to carefully watch participants. The axes can’t bounce back far enough to injure someone standing behind the throwing line, and they’re not sharp enough to cut through a closed shoe if someone accidentally drops it. There is, of course, the obvious fact that someone in a murderous mood could use the axes for evil, but by that measure, bowling balls are also terrifying weapons. Thus, you get the thrill of doing something dangerous without being in any danger. It’s a roller-coaster situation, not a bungee-jumping situation. Going to an ax-throwing court is the easiest way to feel like Jack Torrance going bonkers just for a moment without alarming or harming your loved ones or the authorities. Several venues allow children over 8.
Another attracting factor that should not be discounted is how viscerally satisfying this sport is. The sound of the ax lodging itself into wood holds a similar appeal to a baseball bat making contact with a baseball or a perfectly calibrated high five. (“It’s a great stress reliever,” thrower Christina Vuong told me. She was right.) This is a key point, as there are many reasons to be furious and overwhelmed with anger in 2018, and few activities are as immediately rage-slaking as taking a weapon and destroying something.
When I asked ax throwers why, exactly, they’d come to love the sport, many echoed each other with a different reason why they cherished their offbeat sport so much: community. “You call everyone your ax family,” thrower Julie Dalton enthused. “It’s the mixture of people from all walks of life that create this special environment that I have never experienced anywhere else,” thrower Chris Cadieux said. “I grew up playing sports like hockey, soccer, and baseball, and never felt like I belonged. It wasn’t until I found ax-throwing that I knew that’s where I belonged.” Even casual participants can reap the game’s social benefits. The fact that ax-throwing is novel and also frequently involves drinking makes it an especially appealing activity for thawing potentially awkward social encounters and for good old-fashioned bonding with your buds. It’s a flexible game. Like bowling or darts, it can shift from relaxed to competitive depending on group dynamics. But even the highest-level competitors emphasized that much of their investment in the sport came from the people it brought into their lives. Cavacciuti, one of the sport’s best throwers, said that one of the best parts of ax-throwing for him was his new friends. The second? “Most importantly finding the woman I want to spend the rest of my life with, my girlfriend Shauna Akkermans a.k.a. Vanilla, also the general manager of BATL Ottawa!”
Adorable! However, I must tell the truth. When I first heard about ax-throwing, I thought it sounded corny. On the 20-minute walk from The Ringer’s NYC office to Kick Axe, there is a mind-boggling variety of other establishments devoted to niche leisure activities, including a fencing gym, a Crossfit box, an indoor skateboarding park, a shuffleboard club, an archery facility, and a rock-climbing gym that also offers yoga. Gowanus is basically Brooklyn’s adult playground district, and seeing all these spaces at once really makes it obvious that a certain subset of people are really jonesing to recreate the experience of attending a child’s group birthday party, which brings ax-throwing’s embarrassing side into sharp relief.
This is, as it turns out, not a rare reaction. “I actually went kicking and screaming. I thought it was a stupid idea,” Ilan Jacobson, a venture capitalist who has partnered with Matt Wilson to expand BATL, told me over the phone. “But then I arrived and realized it was the most fun thing ever.” Jacobson was so taken by the sport’s potential that he made a highly unusual move for a VC and invested in a sport. “I’m doing the math in my head, and I thought there was a real business opportunity there,” he said.
Jacobson believes that ax-throwing has the potential to resemble the heydey of bowling, with a large population of casual participants and then a more hardcore group of athletes. “We think that the mainstream individual will just go there for fun, but there will always be a subset that take it more seriously,” he said. Since Jacobson came aboard in 2014, Wilson has made a number of moves to organize the sport, establishing the NATF, its guidelines, and its championship. While he had previously held tournaments just for the different locations of his BATL venues, the creation of the federation meant that teams from all sorts of other venues could join in, opening up the field. “I want to have several large-scale tournaments throughout the year similar to tennis with the Grand Slam circuit,” Wilson said. While prize money is still very modest, the pots have grown considerably already. “The very first [championship] tournament was like a hundred bucks or a case of beer,” Coutts said. Last year, BATL gave away $16,500 in prize money. In 2018, Pabst Blue Ribbon and Jameson Whiskey were among the sponsors Wilson was able to thank. “I have to work on my Instagram and other stuff to start promoting myself better to get sponsors,” Cavacciuti said.
This drive to polish the ragtag activity into something more closely resembling an athletic league reflects their ambitions to turn it into an Olympic sport, something treated as a legitimate competition and buoyed by sponsorships. Wilson said he was excited by the first wave of sponsorships happening, as these deals spoke to more growth. “It’s super exciting because we’re going beyond the creation of a sport,” he said. “We’re actually seeing the creation of an industry around that sport.”
When I tried ax-throwing in Toronto earlier this fall, I had a similar conversion moment to Jacobson. Maybe it was geeky, but it was definitely immensely satisfying. It is hard to feel weak or powerless while holding an ax and difficult to feel burdened while releasing it. Hitting a bull’s-eye is as easy as bowling a strike but far more thrilling. Any lingering embarrassment about participating was blotted out by how fun it was. I even took an Instagram shot of my bull’s-eye.
Rather than hurting it, I believe part of the potential for widespread appeal is the sport’s Manic Pixie Group Activity cornball factor. This is what makes Flesher-Sonnier’s Kick Axe so canny: The location is a little bit swankier than the original spots, adding flourishes like faux-Canadiana decorations that basically exist solely to be Instagrammed. Apart from their value as tools to be thrown, the rustic-looking axes evoke rustic authenticity, both practical athletic accessory and ideal prop for conveying #CottageLife vibes. Kick Axe goes all in on the theme, placing an enormous statue of Paul Bunyan’s blue ox out in front and offering hygge-core touches like free slipper rentals. The logic checks out: Lumberjacks are hot. Ax-throwing makes you feel like a man or woman of the woods, which is, straight-up, a nice thing to feel like. Playing that up is likely to draw more newcomers into the activity. If people end up actually liking the competition once they’re lured in by the (thirst) trappings, all the better.
The sport’s burst of popularity has already altered the way it is played. “The biggest change I’ve seen over the last few years is that there are more and more people who are taking it quite seriously,” BATL employee and thrower Brian Henry Starling said. “This has made average scores skyrocket, especially within the last 18 months. The competitive aspect of the sport had broadened so much in that time it’s almost hard to believe.” Many of the Canadian throwers I spoke with credited their Philadelphia brethren for introducing ax innovations into the game. They also noted that Philly-area players tended to team up and rent their own practice spaces, a strategy that hadn’t caught on in Canada beforehand. As the sport moves to new regions and picks up more participants, the blades stay sharp, but the competition gets sharper.
Tastes and appetites change, and there’s always a possibility that ax-throwing could become a modern-day jai alai, briefly trendy and then quickly obscure. Many attempts to launch sports leagues have resulted in spectacular failure, from 2001’s disastrous XFL to Roller Hockey International in the 1990s. There is, however, much to recommend ax-throwing at this particular moment. (And the XFL is rising from the dead, so who knows?) It provides a space for big, cathartic movements, and it fosters an environment where people feel safe and cared for while they play. It’s the most wholesome way to incorporate weapons into your life, a pursuit too dead-simple and straightforward to be a fleeting fad. “It’s a nice break from my workweek,” thrower Matt Kramer said. “I come here and throw the metal thing at the wood thing.”
An earlier version of this piece misidentified ax thrower Christina Vuong as Christina Wall. Also, because of an editing error, a pull quote misidentified Matt Wilson as Mike, and incorrectly stated that he was the cocreator of modern league ax-throwing; he is the creator.