It’s convenient that “axe” sounds like “ass”, because it means that venues offering axe throwing, the latest offbeat activity to infiltrate urban bars and remodelled warehouses, can pepper their marketing copy with PG-13 puns. Interested in “kicking axe and taking names”? Want to have a “kick-axe axe-perience”? Then you better, uh, “back that axe up.”
The trend traces its roots back to 2006 when Matt Wilson and some friends were hanging out at a cottage outside Toronto and had a timeless boredom- and beer-induced idea: throw an axe at a log. Back home in Toronto, Wilson bought a cheap hatchet, set up a duct-taped wood target in his backyard, created a point system and began inviting friends over for some macho competition. The Backyard Axe Throwing League (BATL) was born. It soon grew so rambunctiously popular – booze plus testosterone-fuelled physical activity equals noise – that in 2011 the league moved indoors, into an old munitions factory in Toronto. Today the BATL is one of a host of successful axe-throwing franchises in Canada and America, with competitors including Bad Axe Throwing, Bury the Hatchet and Blade & Timber. It didn’t take long for it to spread further afield. Axe-throwing venues can now be found on every continent except Antarctica, in countries as varied as Australia, Brazil, Ireland, Jordan, Russia, South Korea and South Africa. New ones are opening so often you’d think we were preparing for a zombie apocalypse.
But axe throwing isn’t about steeling ourselves for a violent future. It satisfies a nostalgic yearning for a supposedly simpler past. City-dwelling young people have, for decades, been seeking out forms of entertainment that are refreshingly removed from technology. Bowling, billiards and darts gave way to paintball, archery, escape rooms and – in America after the 2016 presidential election – rage rooms, where people could take out their frustration on electronics, crockery and other pleasingly shatterable objects. Sure, there are other ways of coping with modern life – yoga, meditation or alcohol – but they are either dangerously fun or not fun enough. Axe throwing is the best of all worlds. It allows cooped-up, stressed-out urbanites to experience the catharsis of violent physical activity without actually hurting anyone. It carries the gritty patina of danger while being relatively safe, and it’s more socially acceptable than throwing a printer against a wall.
The Oscars swag bag this year included a $13,500 voucher for a “VIP experience” at Kick Axe, in the industrial-chic Brooklyn neighbourhood of Gowanus, near a rock-climbing gym, a shuffleboard bar, barbecue joints and craft breweries. I visited on a weeknight with my girlfriend and a friend. The entrance was marked by a statue of Babe the Blue Ox, the bus-sized sidekick of Paul Bunyan, the giant American lumberjack who’s said to have formed the Grand Canyon with one earthward swing of his mighty axe. Inside, there were flannel-wrapped armchairs, taxidermied stag heads, walls with log-cabin wallpaper or murals of snowy wilderness. I had expected to find plenty of “lumbersexuals” – indistinguishable, bushy-bearded 20- and 30-something white men wearing flannel, denim and leather – and was pleased to be proven wrong. Only a minority of Kick Axe’s employees were white, and among my fellow axe-throwers there were as many weedy, straight-from-the-office men as brawny women with full-sleeve tattoos.
After being greeted with “man” or “dude” by at least two employees, I heedlessly skimmed and then signed a waiver as long as this article. Our “axe-tructor,” a cheery black guy called Lawrence, then led us to our axe-throwing range. Two throwing lanes, enclosed by a wire fence and with sawdust on the floor, faced two wooden targets, 15 feet away, which resembled oversized dartboards. Before we’d even touched an axe – really a blunt hatchet, I learned with disappointment and then relief – Lawrence mentioned a recent viral video, in which a ricocheting axe nearly hits the woman who just threw it, before assuring us that axe-throwing injuries were unheard of.
This meant that our biggest hurdle, initially, wasn’t physical – you can be noodle-armed and throw an axe well – but mental. My girlfriend was so wary about hurling a potentially deadly object that her first few throws didn’t even reach the target. Mine bounced off the target with all the energy of a deflating balloon. Even after I got the power right, my aim remained a liability. The axe hit the bull’s eye nearly as often as it wedged itself into the plywood above the target.
After getting in a few rounds of practice throws, we began the axe-throwing games. Jokey trash-talking ensued, spurred on by Lawrence’s ribbing and the two beers my girlfriend and I shared. (Employees are trained to recognise when patrons are too intoxicated to throw safely.) The first game was a simple first-to-30-points contest, with each of us getting three throws per turn; the last, and most exciting, involved docking points from your competitors based on what part of the target you hit. And then, after less than an hour of axe throwing, our time was up. Seventy-five minutes, $35.
I left Kick Axe feeling the same way I do after seeing a movie that got 95% on Rotten Tomatoes but which did nothing for me: glad to have experienced this zeitgeisty thing, but reluctant to pay a not-insignificant amount of money to do it again. My girlfriend felt the same way. My friend, who handily won our axe-throwing competition, raised the question of whether axe throwing would be appropriate for a first date. Should one of the first things you learn about a potential romantic partner be that they’re frighteningly handy with an axe? Watching your date flail helplessly with a hatchet can’t be much of a turn-on, either.
Like archery or ice hockey, axe throwing would be more fun (and cheaper) in the place where it was invented: outside. Better a tree-ringed backyard than an echoey warehouse dressed up to look like the great outdoors. My dad had the right idea a few months ago. After buying a new coffee table, he carried the old one into the yard, took an axe – a proper one he uses to split actual logs – from the garage, and got down to business. He texted me a picture of himself beside the table’s carcass, splintered strips of wood on the lawn, with the triumphant caption: “A real lumberjack!”