Gary Geiger, a 57-year-old Pittsburgh native, was raised by a professional wrestler and worked as a machinist after high school. Now he’s showing his future son-in-law, Mike Liscinski, how lethal he is with a hatchet — even after a few beers. At the latter’s engagement party — Liscinski will soon marry Geiger’s daughter Amanda — Geiger grips the axe two-handed and steps to the black line. The crowd falls silent as he focuses on the wooden target. He fires the axe, and it sticks just outside the bullseye, a near-perfect strike. When one of Liscinski’s friends ricochets his last throw off the board, Amanda runs into the throwing area and hugs her dad.
The Celtic sport of throwing axes rose to popularity in the Middle Ages. Until recently, however, it was pretty much reserved for the Lumberjack World Championship, the Olympics for loggers that’s held in Wisconsin and features events like logrolling and wood-chopping.
But that’s changing fast. Over the last two years, bowling alleys for hatchet-throwing have opened in almost every major American city. The trend began in Canada over a decade ago, and it’s since spread to England, Poland and Australia. There’s even a Facebook group for the operators of these facilities. And the sport hit mainstream credibility gold earlier this month when Jennifer Lawrence and Jimmy Fallon threw axes on The Tonight Show — harking back to one of the most famous moments in Tonight Show history (or at least the Tonight Show of yore):
The trend seems like someone has taken the ironic masculinity of an Old Spice commercial a little too seriously. Nonetheless, it’s being marketed as a sport that inflates the male ego and releases an inner warrior he always believed was there. The Liscinski-Geiger engagement party, for example, was held at LumberjAxes in Pittsburgh, and the x in the name is illustrated with two axes. In a neighboring county, the sign for Valhalla Indoor Axe Throwing features a Viking helmet and two axes. When I called the number on its website, a voicemail message said, “Sorry we couldn’t come to the phone. We’re busy training savages.”
Corey Deasey, co-owner of LumberjAxes, discovered the sport during a trip to Philadelphia in January. Deasey, 34, also owns Escape Room Pittsburgh, and after watching his wife, who was eight months pregnant at the time, almost win their tournament, he realized axe-throwing was going to spread across the country. “It’s a new immersive kind of entertainment,” he says. “And that’s what people are looking for today — to get away from their screens.”
Geiger chalks up the axe-throwing appeal to people being descendants of hunter-gatherers, as well as to the idea that men today are more feminized than they once were. “As modernized as we’ve become and the more material things that we have, you cut through all that bullshit, we’re no different than we were millennia ago,” he says.
I know a lot of older Pittsburgh men like Geiger: Tough, hard-working and nostalgic for when this was Steel City. He was well aware that LumberjAxes sits inside an old machinist warehouse, and the way our conversation flowed from the sport’s primal call to modern Pittsburgh’s evolution was a reminder that history plays a role in axe-throwing’s appeal. “Everywhere around this area, you either worked for a mill or you worked for a company that supported the mill in multiple ways,” Geiger says. “It’s a different world today.”
The axe has been an important weapon throughout the history of warfare. It started (more or less) with the Merovingians, a European dynasty that ruled during the fifth century who used a throwing axe called the francisca during their battles. It continued to be a poplar Frankish weapon during Charlemagne’s rule. “Each man carried a sword and shield and an axe,” the Roman historian Procopius once wrote about the Franks. “Now the iron head of this weapon was thick and exceedingly sharp on both sides while the wood handle was very short. And they are accustomed always to throw these axes at one signal in the first charge and thus shatter the shields of the enemy and kill the men.”
From the Vikings to Native Americans, axes continued to be an asset during military conflicts for centuries to follow. U.S. soldiers even used them during the Vietnam War. But Andy Gaul, a 24-year-old who celebrated part of his bachelor party at LumberjAxes, thinks the link to the Middle Ages is the most important one — for no other reason than Game of Thrones. Of course, that’s tough to quantify, but it’s not unreasonable to think that Jack Axes in Canada got a bump in business after Jason Momoa, who played Khal Drogo, was taped throwing axes and drinking beer there.
Gaul also knows what the association with Game of Thrones can do for a subculture. In his spare time, he studies German longsword as a member of Broken Plow Western Martial Arts, a group of medieval enthusiasts who teach and perform using ancient weaponry. “Now I can come [to LumberjAxes] and be nerdy and play with axes,” he says.
That said, the answer could be much simpler: Maybe throwing axes or jousting with longswords is nothing more than an excuse for a bunch of guys to get together and hang out.
Case in point: More than a decade ago, 38-year-old Matt Wilson and a couple of friends were drinking beer at a lake house in Canada. Out of boredom, they started throwing a hatchet at a tree. Wilson loved it so much that when he returned home to Toronto, he began organizing backyard tournaments. In 2006, he founded the Backyard Axe Throwing League; today, there are 10 BATL locations in Canada, one in Nashville and plans to expand to Chicago, Detroit and Phoenix.
And it all started when a group of dudes got bored.
“The desire was to get some good friends together and get to see each other for a little bit,” Wilson explains. “As you get older, it gets harder and harder to see your close friends, you know?”
If not science exactly, history would seem to back him up. Michael Kehler, a masculinity expert and professor at the University of Calgary, tells me over the phone that for centuries, man’s sense of community and belongingness has intersected with the association of “men being men and shared expressions of stereotypical masculinity.”
Women like axe-throwing for a lot of the same reasons. Several women at the engagement party said they enjoyed the axe-throwing tournament because it was fun competition with friends. And Nicole Davis, Amanda Geiger’s friend, was only half-joking when she told her husband that mastering the axe could prove useful. “In case Korea takes over or there’s a zombie apocalypse and we run out of bullets, if I can throw an axe, I feel like I can take care of myself,” she says.
As for me, I discovered another reason for axe-throwing’s popularity: stress relief. I went to Valhalla Indoor Axe Throwing amid a serious case of the Sunday Scaries. I felt anxious about having to go back to work on Monday, sad that I’m still single and angry that I’m not more successful. After 10 minutes of instruction, I was given three hatchets and a lane for an hour. It took several throws to get the hang of it. Sticking the axe into the wood is harder than it seems. But I eventually fell into a groove, and the thwack of the blade stabbing the board became like a thumb jabbing a pressure point.
I broke a sweat, forgot my problems and left feeling happy for a change.