Collection: Axes and Hawks

I get a lot of inquiries on how to select a throwing ‘hawk, so here's a quick primer for those new to the sport. First, don't take these suggestions too seriously. Almost any axe can be thrown, and if you have a strong preference for a style that does not fit these recommendations you can probably make it work.

The key to sticking is consistency. This is most easily attained with an axe or 'hawk that has a bit of mass. It's best to throw the heaviest you can without strain. For most people this means a head weight of about 16 ounces.

Most people stick a ‘hawk with the handle at an angle of about 45º to the surface of the block. If the upper corner of the edge forms an acute point with the top of the head, the 'hawk will penetrate deeper, and is less likely to fall out. If the point of the edge is above the line of the top of the handle, the axe will still stick if over rotated so the handle forms more of a right angle to the surface of the block. If the edge of the hawk is curved rather than straight, it will be more likely to stick if under rotated so the handle and the edge are parallel to the block.

Using these criteria, the French Lady ‘Hawk and Viking Belt Axe should be excellent throwing axes, and this is in fact the case. Several of the others are not far behind however. The Octagon is very close, and is actually more popular with the black powder folks. The Apachie is just a bit lighter, and throws very well for smaller folks who find 16 ounces too heavy for comfort. Again, these are fine differences, and not hard and fast rules. I’m told the Viking Bearded Axe throws very well by those who have purchased one, and it does not closely follow the above guidelines.

When sharpening an axe for throwing I like to leave the fine grooves from a medium grinding belt on the bevel. I try to orient them so they will be more or less parallel the surface of the block when the handle is at a 45 degree angle. This helps to keep the blade in the block on a marginal throw. This will be standard on the Allan 'hawks unless you tell me you want a polished bevel.

If you need to resharpen your axe you will probably want to use a file and a stone. I use a belt grinder because I have one. I don't know that I'd buy one for the purpose. Unless you have other uses for a sander or grinder, a good file should work just fine. I say "good file" because files are much more fragile then they look, and most are abused. It's best to start with a new one, preferably single cut (with teeth running only one way rather than "criss-cross"). This style leaves a cleaner surface and less of a burr. Keep the teeth clear of chips. Chips will gouge the surface and may cause the file to skate on the edge. USE A GUARD ON THE FILE. If the file does lose bite and skate, it can cause you to drive your hand onto the edge. Apply the file to the metal only on the forward stroke. Lift it off for the return. If you press on the return you will break or bend the teeth and destroy the file very quickly. File with a rocking motion to form a convex edge. A good file will leave very little burr, and you can easily clean this up with a stone. When you are done, wrap your file in paper, or store it in a rack, so the teeth don't rattle against other tools. The teeth on a file are very brittle and break easily. A new file with sharp teeth will just cut the hardened steel of even heat treated axes and blades. A dull one will slide. Here's an excellent article on axe sharpening.

If you throw 'hawks, eventually you break handles. As you get better, you break them less often. Of course if you play "split the handle" with your friends, you'll break a lot more handles. Fitting a new handle should be fairly easy with the correct replacement. Ideally, the new handle should go in easily and snug up an inch or so from position. A couple of firm strikes from a fairly heavy hammer should be all you need. (A heavy hammer tends to move the new handle into position with less damage.) This only works if the head is supported by a stout vise. If you don't have a stout vise you might as well use a medium hammer.

 

However, this isn't an ideal world and you will probably have to do some fitting. If your new handle won't go in far enough, tap it in lightly, then back out. The tight spots will leave marks on the wood. Remove the marks with a wood rasp, knife, sandpaper, or whatever tool you prefer, and repeat until the handle is close to position. Then seat it firmly.

 

I've had some questions on how to remove a broken handle. I'd first try sawing it off a couple of inches below the head to provide a solid surface for pounding, then drive it out. It's tapered, so once it's started the rest should be easy. If it's broken close to the head, saw it off and try driving it with something having a flat end. If that fails, try drilling several holes from the top, then pound out the pieces. If all else fails, you can burn it out. If the axe has been heat treated you must keep the edge cool while you are doing this. I've never had to resort to burning out a broken handle, but I've seen it suggested in some old books. I suppose if you are in the woods without access to tools it could be a last resort.

 

A word about targets: My favorite target is the end grain of a section of softwood log. I like them as large as I can conveniently handle, but at least 18” in diameter and about the same length. Two or three feet is a lot better. Willow or poplar is best, but any soft wood will work nicely. A harder wood requires a stronger throw to stick. I just bore three 2” holes in the side and use sections of saplings or branches as legs. That way if I break one of the legs it’s easy to replace. I can also remove the legs if I want to transport the target. I set them about chest height.

If you don’t have ready access to sections of large log, you can often get one from a local tree service. If you cut your own it’s often free. If they have to cut it for you there may be nominal charge.

An excellent primer was written back in 1909 by Dan Beard, one of the founders of what later became the Boy Scout Movement.

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