The sound is the first thing you notice, deep and hollow, burnished steel hitting chewed-up white pine. It’s not quite the warm, resonant thok of an axe in the woods, but the nearest forest of any significance is 50 miles up the Hudson River. This is Brooklyn, one very long bow shot from the Gowanus Canal.
It’s a chilly Monday night before Thanksgiving and Kick Axe Brooklyn is surprisingly full. Around two dozen people cluster in groups of six or eight across several “ranges,” tidily built versions of the old roadhouse bar-band cages, target at one end, party at the other. There doesn’t appear to be any flannel in the crowd (for now) but there are at least three reasonably grown-out beards in plain sight. One of the beards puts his beer down next to a basket of plastic Viking helmets and walks forward to pick up an axe from a squat round block of maple (each range has one of these blocks, to which the axe is returned after it is declawed from the wood).
Nobody pays much attention as he squares himself to the softwood target 16 feet away, holding the axe — specifically, an Estwing hatchet weighing about a pound and a half — with both hands and raises it above his head. Then, in a surprisingly fluid motion, he steps toward a faded red line on the floor and releases the hatchet in the direction of several concentric red and black circles painted on the wood, axe head over handle, where it strikes fast about six inches to the left of the bull’s-eye. He shakes his head, pulls the axe from the wood, and goes to collect his beer.
Scenes like this occur with increasing frequency in cities across North America, from Toronto to Austin to L.A., as axe-throwing clubs attempt to create their own niche and fill it, something like a laidback millennial bowling alley except with deadly weapons. For some, particularly since the election of Donald Trump, the physicality and latent violence of axe throwing has served a therapeutic purpose. As Megan Stielstra wrote in an essay last year for The Believer, “I threw axes throughout the fall, waking up every morning to new impossible cruelties. … I kept trying to pass the axe to my husband, but he wouldn’t take it. ‘You need it more than I do,’ he said from behind the yellow spectator line.”
Aside from its salubrious value the basic appeal of axe throwing is not complicated: Like bowling or billiards or darts, it is a way to give loose structure to any given social gathering. When I ask Kick Axe’s Nathan Oerstler if he’s ever had to deal with any drama among the beer-drinking axe throwers, the recently promoted “axe master” (up from “axe-pert” — there is no pun left unmade at Kick Axe, as the name might suggest) demurs, explaining that most of the axe-perts are comedians or actors — theater types — and serve as much as entertainers as they do instructors or referees: in short, they keep the people happy. Kick Axe opened in December 2017 and is more flannel-inflected theme park than bar, its employees communicating via headset about what targets need replacing, which axes need sharpening. This level of organization makes sense when you consider the hundreds of pounds of deadly steel flying through the air at any given moment, but axe throwing wasn’t always this professionalized: In fact, the origin of the axe-throwing social club is basically a bunch of bored Canadians in the mid aughts, standing around drinking beer and chucking hatchets at backyard waste wood.
As Backyard Axe Throwing League (BATL) founder — and one of those bored Canadians — Matt Wilson recounted, people kept showing up to throw axes in his backyard, so he had no choice but to grow. And so they did: The BATL, which has 10 locations in Canada, has since expanded into the U.S. with spots in Chicago, Nashville, Scottsdale, Houston, and Detroit. This unlikely success story has spawned competitors: Ontario’s Bad Axe now has 15 locations across the U.S.; the aforementioned Kick Axe also has locations in Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., and is opening more in Florida and Texas; and there are at least a half dozen independent axe-throwing venues across the country (including Massachusetts’s Half Axe, whose name heralds the end of the useful axe pun, or at least demarcates its nadir).
Whatever side of the border these clubs are on, most of them affect a shaggy, woodsy aesthetic, a little plaid here, some taxidermied animal there. One could say the same thing of many of their patrons, from Calgary to Orlando: red-and-black Buffalo check accenting high-cut oxblood Red Wings; gray chambray tucked into vintage denim; Carhartt jackets over Carhartt vests over old Woolworth’s shirts.