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A battle axe (also battle-axe or battle-ax) is an axe specifically designed for combat. Battle axes were specialised versions of utility axes. Many were suitable for use in one hand, while others were larger and were deployed two-handed.
Axes designed for warfare ranged in weight from just over 0.5 kg to 3 kg (1 to 6 pounds), and in length from just over 30 cm to upwards of 1.5 m (1 to 5 feet), as in the case of the Danish axe or the sparth axe. Cleaving weapons longer than 1.5 m would arguably fall into the category of polearms.
Through the course of human history, commonplace objects have been pressed into service as weapons. Axes, by virtue of their ubiquity, are no exception. Besides axes designed for combat, there were many axes that doubled as tools and weapons. Axes could be modified into deadly projectiles as well (see the francisca for an example). Axes were always cheaper than swords and considerably more available.
Battle axes generally weigh far less than modern splitting axes, especially mauls, because they were designed to cut legs and arms rather than wood; consequently, slightly narrow slicing blades are the norm. This facilitates deep, grievous wounds. Moreover, a lighter weapon is much quicker to bring to bear in combat and manipulate for repeated strikes against an adversary.
The crescent-shaped heads of European battle axes of the Roman and post-Roman periods were usually made of wrought iron with a carbon steel edge or, as time elapsed across the many centuries of the medieval era, steel. The hardwood handles of military axes came to be reinforced with metal bands called langets, so that an enemy warrior could not cut the shaft. Some later specimens had all-metal handles.
Battle axes are particularly associated in Western popular imagination with the Vikings. Certainly, Scandinavian foot soldiers and maritime marauders employed them as a stock weapon during their heyday, which extended from the beginning of the eighth century to the end of the 11th century. They produced several varieties, including specialized throwing axes (see francisca) and "bearded" axes or "skeggox" (so named for their trailing lower blade edge which increased cleaving power and could be used to catch the edge of an opponent's shield and pull it down, leaving the shield-bearer vulnerable to a follow-up blow). Viking axes were wielded with one hand or two, depending on the length of the plain wooden haft. (See entry for Viking Age arms and armor.)
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Prehistory and the ancient Mediterranean
Stone hand axes were in use in the Paleolithic period for hundreds of thousands of years. The first hafted stone axes appear to have been produced about 6000 BCE during the Mesolithic period. Technological development continued in the Neolithic period (see, for example, the entry for the Battle-axe people of Scandinavia, who treated their axes as high-status cultural objects). Narrow axe heads made of cast metals were subsequently manufactured by artisans in the Middle East and then Europe during the Copper Age and the Bronze Age. The earliest specimens were socket-less.
More specifically, bronze battle-axe heads are attested in the archeological record from ancient China and the New Kingdom of ancient Egypt. Some of them were suited for practical use as infantry weapons while others were clearly intended to be brandished as symbols of status and authority, judging by the quality of their decoration.
In the eastern Mediterranean Basin during the Iron Age, the double-bladed labrys axe was prevalent, and a hafted, single-bitted axe made of bronze or later iron was sometimes used as a weapon of war by the heavy infantry of ancient Greece, especially when confronted with thickly-armored opponents. The sagaris—described as either single bitted or double bitted—became associated by the Greeks with the mythological Amazons, though these were generally ceremonial axes rather than practical implements. The Roman Army equipped itself with axes. Legionaries used them as laboring tools rather than as weapons of war. However, the Barbarian tribes that the Romans encountered north of the Alps did include iron war axes in their armories, alongside swords and spears.
The Middle Ages
Battle axes were common in Europe in the Migration Period and the subsequent Viking Age, and they famously figure on the 11th-century Bayeaux Tapestry, which depicts Norman mounted knights pitted against Anglo-Saxon infantrymen. They continued to be employed throughout the rest of the Middle Ages; although they dipped in popularity during the 12th, 13th and 14th centuries, they did not disappear: Robert I of Scotland used one to defeat Sir Henry de Bohun in single combat at the start of the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314, and they enjoyed a sustained revival in use among heavily armored equestrian combatants in the 15th century.
Most medieval European battle axes had a socketed head (meaning that the broader, butt-end of the blade contained an opening into which a wooden haft was inserted), and some included langets—long strips of metal affixed to the faces of the haft to prevent it from being damaged during combat. Occasionally the cheeks of the axehead bore engraved, etched, punched or inlaid decorative patterns. Late-period battle axes tended to be of all-metal construction.
As we have seen, battle axes themselves had gone somewhat out of favor with Europe's mounted knights between about 1100 and 1400 (although King Richard the Lionheart had famously wielded one while fighting at Jaffa in 1192, as did Robert the Bruce at Bannockburn in 1314). Expensive swords with long, straight, steel blades intended for slashing became, overwhelmingly, the preferred weapon of upper-class combatants during this period. Such swords were indeed fearsome objects when wielded expertly against foot soldiers clad in boiled-leather body armor or even maille covered knights on horseback.
However, when steel plate-armor covering almost all of a knight's body—and incorporating features specifically designed to defeat swords—was developed in the 15th century, a fresh generation of hafted weapons with greater impact-power had to be devised and adopted as a counter-measure by European armies. (Despite the significance of this development, swords would never lose their prestige as the premier implement of war and symbol of knighthood, changing over the duration of the later Middle Ages from a broad-bladed cutting instrument with a semi-rounded tip into a narrow thrusting instrument with a sharply pointed tip, capable of penetrating any "chinks in the armor" of a fully encased opponent: see, for example, the entry for estoc).
The newly invented flanged mace, for example, was no crude bludgeon like its predecessors. The vertical flanges projecting at regular intervals from its head could fracture plate armor and smash into underlying body tissue—yet it was a much cheaper weapon to make than a sword, whose blade was inclined in any case to glance harmlessly off the smooth, curved plates of a well-designed suit of armor if used in a chopping manner.
Battle axes took the flanged mace's innovative design concept one step further. By concentrating the weight of a single, sharpened, crescent-shaped wedge on a small target area of metal plate, the battle axe was capable of slicing through an opponent's armor and cutting deeply into the exposed flesh beneath. A sharp, sometimes curved pick was often fitted to the rear of the battle axe's blade to provide the user with a secondary weapon of penetration. A stabbing spike could be added, too, as a finial. Similarly, the war hammer evolved in late-medieval times with the aim of punching its spiked head through helmets or breastplates. These armour penetrations were not always fatal. There are many accounts of plate armored knights being struck with said weapons and while the armor was damaged, the individual underneath survived and in some cases completely unharmed.
It eventually became common for these various kinds of impact weapons to be made entirely from metal, thus doing away with reinforced wooden hafts. But the increased use of gunpowder-driven projectiles by armies in the field during the 1600s—and the associated demise of elaborate plate armor—rendered the battle axe and its cousins redundant as weapons of war, and they passed into history.
Battle axes also came to figure as heraldic devices on the coats of arms of several English and mainland European families.
Battle axes were eventually phased out at the end of the 16th century as military tactics began to revolve increasingly around the use of gunpowder. However, as late as the 1640s, Prince Rupert—a Royalist general and cavalry commander during the English Civil War—is pictured carrying a battle axe, and this was not merely a decorative symbol of authority: the "short pole-axe" was adopted by Royalist cavalry officers to penetrate Roundhead troopers' helmets and cuirasses in close-quarters fighting, and it was also used by their opponents: Sir Bevil Grenville was slain by a Parliamentarian pole-axe at the Battle of Lansdowne, and Sir Richard Bulstrode was wounded by one at the Battle of Edgehill.
In Scandinavia, however, the battle axe continued in use alongside the halberd, crossbow and pole-axe until the start of the 18th century. The nature of Norwegian terrain in particular made pike and shot tactics impracticable in many cases. A law instituted in 1604 required all farmers to own weaponry to serve in the militia. The battle axe, much more wieldy than the pike or halberd and yet effective against mounted enemies, was a popular choice. Many such weapons were ornately decorated, and yet their functionality shows in the way that the axe head was moutned tilting upwards slightly, with a significant forward curve in the shaft, with the intent of making them more effective against armoured opponents.
During Napoleonic times, and later on in the 19th century, farriers in army service carried long and heavy axes as part of their kit. Although these could be used in an emergency for fighting, their primary use was logistical: the branded hooves of deceased military horses needed to be removed in order to prove that they had indeed died (and had not been stolen). Napoleon's Pioneer Corps also carried axes that were used for clearing vegetation—a practice employed by similar units in other armies.
The Tabarzin (Persian: تبرزین) (sometimes translated "saddle-hatchet") is the traditional battle axe of Persia (Iran). It bears one or two crescent-shaped blades. The long form of the tabar was about seven feet long, while a shorter version was about three feet long. What made the Persian axe unique is the very thin handle, which is very light and always metallic.
The tabarzin is sometimes carried as a symbolic weapon by wandering dervishes (Muslim ascetic worshippers).
Persian weaponry is at times identical to East Indian weaponry because these two cultures have intermingled many times over the century. "Tabar" means axe, and "zin" originally meant weapon.
There are examples of the employment of the battle axe in ancient India. The Farasa or Parashu was the weapon of choice of Lord Parashu Ram. It is still borne by some of the heretic sects of Indian Sadhus. A typical Farasa could have single edge or double edge, with a hole for fixing a shaft. The cutting edge of Indian Farasa is invariably broad and the length of the haft could be about three to four feet. It is invariably made of wood/bamboo. In fact, examples of Farasa can still be seen displayed in Indian households—particularly in the villages.
During the 17th and 18th centuries, the tabar battle axe was a standard weapon of the mounted warriors of India, Afghanistan and what is now Pakistan. Made entirely of metal, it had a strongly curved blade and a hammer-headed poll and was often decorated with scroll work. Sometimes a small knife was inserted in the tabar's hollow haft. The Iranians wielded a similar weapon.
The Keteriya was a type of battle axe that was used in ancient Sri Lanka. A keteriya consisted of a single edge and a short handle made of wood. This would allow the user to wield it with a single hand.
Different types of battleaxes may be found in ancient China. The qi (鏚) and yue (鉞) are sometimes used in ceremony, and such battleaxes made of bronze and jade have been found. The dagger axe is another form used in ancient times.
The battle axe is one of the most common type of weapons found in Vietnamese ancient cultures, particularly Dong Son culture.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Battle axes.|
- Danish axe
- Viking Age arms and armour
- Iron Axe Head Inlaid With Silver, British Museum, retrieved 5th June 2010.
- DeVries, Kelly; Smith, Robert Douglas (2007). Medieval weapons: an illustrated history of their impact. ABC-CLIO. p. 233. ISBN 978-1-85109-526-1. Retrieved 5 June 2010.
- Sydney Anglo (2000), The Martial Art of Renaissance Europe. New Haven and London. Yale University Press. P.150
- The Morgan Picture Bible
- Edward Hyde, Earl of Clarendon, The History of the Rebellion and Civil Wars in England (Oxford 1807), vol 2, pt. 1, p. 59
- Clarendon, History of the Rebellion, ii. pt. 1, p. 425
- Complete Persian culture (Dary dialect) by Gholam-reza Ensaf-pur