A Battleaxe is an axe intended for battle (duh). Wherever there were trees and a need to chop firewood, people found an abundant need for axes. In a fight an axe will chop through a leg or a skull just as it would a log, so people took them along to war. Once it was established that they were good weapons, axe-makers began to make axes specifically to be weapons, tweaking the design to better serve in that capacity.
While there is nothing wrong with swords and maces, battleaxes are the go-to weapon for your average Dwarf in most fantasy settings. Vikings also are famous for their use of battleaxes, particularly because it was the weapon commonly associated with the legendary Viking bezerkers, though again they were generally perfectly fine using swords and spears. Axes however are nonetheless mentioned as respected weapons in Old Norse poetry. For example, some poems associated with the legendary Geatish King Dag Spaka (Dag the Wise) mentions the king's incredible and peerless skill with a battleaxe, which is significant given that swords are often thought to be a king's weapon in Germanic societies. Indeed, the axe is quite important also in ancient Scandinavian culture, though not to the extent of swords.
Battleaxes in warfare
Axes are bloody old, almost as old as maces. Both are "mass weapons," but the main difference is that an axe focuses the kinetic power of the swing into a sharpened edge while the mace strikes with pure concussive force.
An axe is a heavy bladed wedge of hardened material on the end of a handle (lever), utilizing two simple machines. It does damage by swinging that bit into the foe at high speed. On impact it delivers a lot of kinetic energy to a concentrated point with a cutting edge to drive it deep as possible. This can chop through shield, muscle, bone and armor. Even if it does not go through armor, its blunt force trauma can shatter bones. Battleaxes are great at killing people quickly, as their hits not only wound but also shock and cripple target, while mortal wounds from swords, spears or bows usually do not kill the target instantly, allowing it to strike few final blows before passing down.
The problem is that Battleaxes are cumbersome. To make them work as well as possible, they need room to get a good swing going to impact with full force. Swinging an axe at such distance also takes time. If your first strike is not lethal, your enemy has a fair amount of time to strike you while you get the next one ready. This also means that they are not the best weapons for confined quarters (for example, in a cave or a mineshaft), and it fucks up one's ability to fight in a tight formation, which was a very, very critical component of pre-modern warfare. Though if things broke down into a swirling melee, an axe-wielder would fare better.
Battleaxes are generally poorly balanced, meaning you cannot control them as well as swords, and generally should swing them around keeping momentum instead of making swings and thrusts and then quickly returning it to defensive position, like swords. This means axes are terrible at defense - not because they cannot parry, but because they cannot quickly switch between parrying and attacking. This problem, however, is easily solved by taking a shield in the other hand. Axes also tend to stick inside armour, shields or just enemy bones, unlike mauls and warhammers which are also good against heavily armoured targets. An axe's pole is usually much tougher than one on a spear or a polearm, sometimes with a metal core, since it isn't as long and, as a mass weapon, it needs less finesse to handle. It generally couldn't be snapped by a one-handed sword, but greatswords are quite capable of destroying an axe with lucky swing. That's why axe-wielders that aren't the throwaway arrow-fodder like militiamen usually carry some fallback weapon - short sword, dagger, or another axe.
Axes are also quite cheap compared to swords, though not as cheap as spears. Axe heads need much less metal than swords, but also require a good smith, unless you're pretty OK with your axe blunting after the few hits. Speaking of which, blunted, chipped or otherwise damaged axes are still quite a dangerous weapons, unlike spears, swords or daggers, so along with mauls they tend to be popular amongst those who cannot afford or assess a proper smith. Unlike swords and spears, axes also could be used outside the battle to chop some wood or to construct a camp. As mentioned earlier, if you are a peasant there would typically be some wood axes around if you needed a weapon and had little money.
In desperate situations axe could be thrown, but unless this particular axe was designed to be thrown and the wielder was specifically trained to throw axes results are usually quite poor. However with proper training and design throwing axes are quite devastating, able to one-hit-kill or at least cripple a man even through shield and heavy armour - something arrows and javelins are unable to do.
Today, battle axes are still used in modern military applications, usually taking the form of hatchets or tomahawks, and are built as multi-purpose tools that can be effective as both a tool for helping with labor or as a weapon for chopping some unlucky sod's head off.
Types of Battlexe
In addition to the typical battleaxe, there were many other forms of axes meant to be used as weapons.
- Tomahawk: An axe similar to a hatchet favored by many Native American tribes (and later some European colonists) that could be used both as a hand-to-hand weapon and as a throwing weapon. In fact some Native Americans refused to be photographed without displaying their tomahawk. Older versions had heads made of stone or deer antler, but metal was later used when the colonists first landed and trade between Europeans and Native Americans began. Some were modified with a hole drilled down the center of the shaft and a hollow poll so they could also be used as tobacco pipes; these were crafted as trade goods to be presented as gifts. (Some historians have noted that such pipe tomahawks could be viewed as a metaphor for Native American-European relations, as it could be used either as a peace-pipe or a weapon, much like how Native Americans and Europeans could both engage peaceful trading or wage war against each other.) Modern versions continue to be used in the military today. If equipped with a back spike and/or some sort of edge for thrusting, they are surprisingly versatile all-purpose tools (as axes generally are) and just as useful in close combat.
- Spontoon Tomahawk: A variation of the tomahawk developed by French fur trappers that replaced the traditional wedged axe head with a knife-like stabbing blade.
- Shepherd's Axe: An axe with a long, straight shaft and a head which is sharp on one end and flat on the other. The head was designed to fit comfortably into one's hand without chopping it off, and could also be used as a hammer or a walking stick. As the name suggests, it was mainly used by shepherds in the Carpathian Mountains (i.e. much of Central Europe, including Poland, Ukraine, and Hungary) who needed to defend themselves against bandits and wild animals.
- Poleaxe: As the name suggests, it's an axe head on a pole, making it a form of pole-arm. In many respects, the poleaxe is the swiss-army knife of polearms. Compared to a halberd, it has a smaller head, which focuses kinetic energy onto a smaller area and lets it cut through armor more effectively. The spike on the end of the pole's butt also made it useful for thrusting attacks, and it could be used to block in the same way as a quarterstaff. A hammer or spike was typically mounted opposite to the axe head. In short, if you wanted options when going into combat - particularly armored combat, the poleaxe would serve you well.
- Halberd: Another pole-arm, differing from the poleaxe in the long spike on the top of the axe head and the hook on the back of the axe's blade, which was ideal for pulling a mounted knight off his horse. It could be used as a spear as well as an axe in close quarters.
- Danish Axe: An early battleaxe with a single-edged blade with pronounced "horns" at the top and bottom of the blade, also known as a Viking axe. Its blade was rather light and it had similar proportions to a modern meat cleaver, making it excellent for cutting through flesh and bone-the Bayeux Tapestry depicts a warrior decapitating a Norman knight's horse with one blow using it.
- Bearded Axe: Also associated with the vikings, the Bearded axe was more asymmetric in shape in that the lower portion of the axe head extended downward across the haft (hence the "beard"). This allowed the axe to have longer surface area without adding too much weight, while allowing the user to hold the axe closer to the axe head for increased dexterity, mainly when using the axe as a tool. That gap could also be used for hooking enemy weapons if the opportunity presented itself.
- Throwing Axe: These axes were explicitly designed for throwing and are best thrown in an overhead motion- that way the axe head rotates as it flies through the air, preferably into a victim's body. While harder to aim than a throwing knife, it is far more lethal if it connects. The tomahawk and francisca are both forms of throwing axes.
- Francisca: An early throwing axe used primarily by the Franks during the Early Middle Ages. The head is too heavy for it to be useful in melee combat and it's difficult to aim even compared to other throwing axes, but it doesn't need to be accurate- it's capable of causing injury with its weight alone, and it bounces when it hits the ground, giving it a nasty tendency to cripple anyone unfortunate enough to have their legs struck by a bouncing axe. They were commonly thrown in volleys to intimidate and weaken foes before a charge.
- Axe Pistol: A wheellock or flintlock pistol with an axe head attached to the end of the barrel used from the 16th to 19th centuries. Pistols of the time were single-shot and very short-ranged (you could only reliably hit a man-sized target up to 30 meters out before it became a complete crapshoot), so they often ended up being used in close quarters as clubs. Adding an axe head to a pistol meant that it had a critical edge over a regular pistol in a brawl, albeit at the cost of a bit more weight, being somewhat more unwieldy as both a pistol or a regular axe of similar size and a somewhat higher price tag than a regular pistol. Then again, the accuracy penalty and increased heft caused by fitting an axe head to the muzzle of a gun that was never intended for long-range shots, and required a lengthy reloading process after every shot, certainly won't be at the front of your mind when your enemies are at arm's length already, so the ability to hack them to pieces right after using your one shot will be very attractive. Axe pistols were used by both cavalry and by sailors.
- Bardiche: Standing on the line between battle axes and glaives is the Russian Bardiche. Used by the Streltsy (troops armed with firearms) as a close combat weapon and as a stand to brace their otherwise cumbersome fire arms on.
- Military shovel (AKA "Entrenching Tool" or "E-Tool"): Not strictly an axe, but I doubt anyone who's got his head split in half by one is going to be able to argue the difference. It's what you get when you take the broad metal head (preferably sharpened) on a long handle (for a shovel) or a short one (for a spade) and swing the head edge-first at people, effectively turning your humble digging tool into an ersatz but perfectly serviceable axe. During World War I, originally expected to last only a few months in a Napoleon-style clash of armies on the open field, bogged down into the bloody quagmire of trench warfare on the Western Front, the Entrenching Tool (actually a spade) become one of the most important tools a soldier could carry, as the ability to quickly dig a machine gun into place or create a foxhole to shelter from the near-constant artillery fire became a necessity. When attacking enemy trenches, soldiers found that their long rifles with bayonets (created for the purpose of turning a musket into a spear to ward off now-obsolete cavalry charges) too long to be of use, so many of them quickly took their shovels and sharpened one edge to assist in close quarters fighting. Although still used by soldiers primarily for digging trenches and constructing fortifications in the field, the military shovel still finds use as an improvised weapon on occasion, and it helps that sharpening one or both edges of a spade's metal head doesn't hurt its ability to dig foxholes or trenches. More than a few insurgents got their heads split apart by combat engineers they foolishly charged. Go ahead and model your artillery-and-trench-loving Death Korps of Krieg troopers with sharpened spades in one hand so they can split the heads of heretics and Xenos for a period-accurate and awesome-looking conversion!
Double-Headed or Double-Bitted Axes: What A Real Battleaxe Never Looks Like
Listen up, fantasy artists, video game designers, and stupider roleplayers: You see those images at the right? They're called a Labrys, and they're completely unusable for combat. To the extent they were ever used against people, they were used almost exclusively for religious purposes by certain cults in ancient Greek history, or as a symbol of either Greek history (usually by fascists), or as a symbol of femininity (as the Labrys was associated with Goddess worship: just look at the shape, and look at a spread female genitalia, and realize the ancients could be quite perverted).
The thing is, they're completely unwieldy for combat, as they weigh twice as much as a "normal" axe, and have worse aerodynamic properties. Wielding a Labrys in combat is going to be difficult to impossible for anyone not wearing Power Armor or isn't a hot robot girl. (And we're not too certain about the Mecha making it at all useful: You'd still have to deal with the fact that you'd still get a lot more bang for your buck with a single-headed axe, especially compared to if you put a pick of some kind on the other end.)
So, where did these double-headed axes come from, you may ask (because we do find double-headed axes in archeology sites almost all over the world)? The logging industry. Having an axe that you could cut twice as many trees with before having to return to base to have your blade sharpened is more valuable when you spend most of your day walking around cutting down trees. The doubled weight is also an advantage when what you're cutting doesn't move.
Footnote 1: They are also a symbol of the Black Furies as well, who take quite a bit more inspiration from the Greeks.
| Battleaxe - Dagger - Lance - Mace - Club |
Pole-arm - Spear - Sword - Warhammer
| Blowgun - Bows and Arrows - Cannon |
Crossbow - Firearm - Rocket - Shuriken - Sling