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A Viking "Bearded Axe" ca. 1000 (top) and a German Horsemans Axe ca. 1100 (bottom)

A battle axe (also battle-axe or battle-ax) is an axe specifically designed for use in melee. Battle axes were specialized versions of utility axes. Many were suitable for use in one hand, while others were larger and were wielded 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), such as the Danish axe or the sparth axe. 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 were both tools and weapons. Axes could be designed as throwing weapons as well (see the francisca for an example). Axes were always cheaper than swords and far more available.

Overview

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 more narrow, slicing blades are the norm. This facilitates deep, grievous wounds. Additionally, a lighter weapon is much quicker in combat. The handles of military axes were often reinforced with metal bands called langets, so that an enemy warrior could not cut the wooden handle. Some axes even had all-metal handles.

Stone axes have been in use since at least the 3rd millennium BC, see Battle-axe people. They were followed by copper, bronze, iron and steel axes. There are examples of use of battle axe in ancient India. 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 in the middle for fixing the shaft. The cutting edge of Indian Farasa is invariably broad and the length of the haft could be about 3-4 feet which is invariably made of wood/bamboo. In fact example of Farasa can still be seen in the indian house holds particularly in the villages.

In the eastern Mediterranean the double-bladed labrys axe was prevalent, and the sagaris, described as either single or double bladed became associated with the mythological Amazons, though these were generally ceremonial rather than practical tools.

Battle axes were also common in Northern Europe in the "Viking Age" (9th and 10th C) and up to the 16 Century. See Viking Age arms and armour.

Most medieval European battle axes had broad, socketed heads (meaning that the axe head has an opening into which the haft is inserted.), and some included long strips of metal (langets) along the haft to prevent the haft from being damaged during battle. Many polearms, such as halberds and poleaxes, are variations of the form of the battle axe. The axes had fallen out of favor among knights and nobility, and were replaced by swords. However, when armor designed to defeat swords appeared, simpler weapons were employed. The mace could crush though armor and damage the tissue underneath. The battle-axe took this one step further, by concentrating the weight on a wedge it crushed through armor and easily cut flesh.

In Napoleonic times and later, equine specialists, or Farriers in military service carried heavy long axes. Though these could be used for fighting, their primary use was logistical. The branded hooves of horses were removed to prove that they had died. Napoleon's Pioneer Corps also carried axes that were used for both clearing a path and fighting.

Horseman's Axe, ca. 1475

This is an example of a battle axe that was specialized for the use of horsemen. Note the hole on the haft for the accommodation of a leather strap to be passed over the wrist, the belt hook for ease of carrying when not in use and the langets. This example dates from the last quarter of the fifteenth century and is 69 cm (27 inches) long. The haft is a replacement. The punched decoration on the blade suggests German manufacture. Other variations of this design include a hammer face instead of the spike behind the blade.

A good reference, contemporary with their use, is the Maciejowski Bible of ca. 1250.

See also








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