By Chris Chamberlain
Ever since the Paleolithic age when some unnamed caveman (oh heck, let’s call him “Og”) picked up a broken chunk of flint and flung it at a retreating furry proto-squirrel, humankind has been obsessed with throwing sharp objects for sport as well as for hunting. Whether you’re playing the once-banned game of Jarts in your yard or on the beach, or throwing a round of Cricket at your neighborhood darts pub, or the absolutely bonkers game of Mumblety-peg (which is basically just an excuse for friends to throw pocket knives at each other’s feet), playing with sharp objects offers a thrill that round balls just can’t top.
Is it really any wonder then that axe-throwing bars suddenly seem to be popping up everywhere? Maybe the question is what took so long?
Does the concept seem crazy? At first glance, at least a bit. It’s hard not to raise a skeptical eyebrow at the prospect of combining pitching hatchets at wooden targets with booze and beer. However, the best of these establishments strive to create a safe and fun environment for patrons to channel their inner lumberjack, ensuring that sober staff is always on hand to instruct throwers on proper techniques and monitor patrons’ alcohol intake. Axe-throwing bar owners emphasize that these aren’t regular bars with folks flinging axes; instead they are more like bowling alleys where the sport comes first and the chance to enjoy a beer or two is a nice added bonus.
It’s no surprise that the concept of axe-throwing bars emanated from the Great White North where lumberjack culture is an integral part of Canada’s history. An entrepreneur named Matt Wilson founded the Backyard Axe Throwing League (BATL) in Toronto more than a decade ago. New BATL franchises popped up around Ontario over the next few years, and by 2016 Wilson formed the National Axe-Throwing Federation with a membership of more than 6,000 tomahawk tossers from more than 75 cities in seven countries.
Axe bars range in size and opulence from tiny taverns to huge warehouses dedicated to teaching guests the joys of hatchet hurling. Some establishments offer full bars (but may limit the number of drinks guests can consume per hour while they’re playing), while others cater to private groups who rent out lanes and can BY their OB to enjoy during their reserved time. A common factor of all good axe bars is a dedication to maintaining a safe throwing environment by partitioning off the throwing areas into caged-in lanes, kind of like a cross between a batting cage and a bowling alley. At most venues, a single alley can contain two lanes, and a dedicated “axe coach” trains each thrower in the proper techniques to safely throw at plywood targets a few meters away. (It is Canadian, eh?)
Throwers should only handle an axe when it has been handed to them by a trained coach who will ensure that only one blade is in play in an alley at any time. Guests can rent alleys by the hour, and may be paired up with new friends if their group isn’t large enough to fill up both lanes. Over the course of a session, each thrower can expect to fling at least ten axes or hatchets, and should at least manage to embed a few of them in the wooden target during their first outing, even if it isn’t necessarily right in the bullseye.
After a little practice, though, players learn the techniques of gauging distances and rotations, and how to shift their weight from their back leg to the front. At this point, throwers with average skills can start to concentrate on accuracy, which opens up the opportunity to actually play some entertaining games. Most of the games revolve around throwing at a target painted on a sheet of plywood at the end of the lane with concentric rings that give a higher score the closer to the center your axe sticks. Other options are variations of traditional darts games like Cricket or Around the Clock. Leagues have been formed all across the country where teams can compete for the glory of the highest scores, and real pros even engage in trick shot competitions. (Don’t try this at home!)
However, since you’ll spend more time waiting a safe distance away for your turn to throw than actually in the alley, the rest of the amenities of a proper axe-throwing bar are also important. Stumpy’s Hatchet House started out with a single location in Eatontown, New Jersey in 2016 and has since expanded to more than 30 franchises across the U.S. Stumpy’s axe bars are nothing fancy, concentrating on offering a safe and fun time to patrons. The founders came up with their grand idea while enjoying a little recreational hatchet throwing during a backyard barbecue, and they have managed to recreate that casual vibe at their public locations.
BATL locations are a little more industrial, often housed in converted warehouses outfitted with chain link cages to partition the space into lanes. The satisfying thunk of blade into board or occasional clank of metal against cement in the case of a total miss are all the ambiance you’ll need to have a great time. At Axe Monkeys in Vegas, regular tomahawk tossing is augmented with a special “Rage Room” where you can take out your aggressions against a selection of inanimate and eminently breakable objects ranging from derelict computers and ancient televisions to furniture, cups and dishes. Suit up in safety gear, choose your weapons (hammers, baseball bats or golf clubs), pick your appropriate soundtrack, and enjoy the sort of smash therapy that would make the characters in “Office Space” proud!
On the more luxe end of the scale is the newest axe bar in Music City, the REC Room located on the second floor of the Downtown Sporting Club on Lower Broad in Nashville. The multi-story complex contains an upscale coffee shop and restaurant on the ground floor, 20 comfortable hotel rooms on the third story, plus a rooftop bar with a sweeping view of the neon rainbow of downtown. The main thing that guests are talking about is the axe-throwing area where a dedicated axe coach takes care of the eight players in two lanes per alley. In addition to training each thrower in techniques and safe practices, your coach also takes drinks and food orders. This is partially out of convenience, but also helps monitor the alcohol intake of each guest and thus help manage the line between having fun and getting too buzzed to handle a blade. Better safe than sorry, especially when axes are involved!
A current hot trend, axe-throwing bars are an especially popular choice for bachelor/bachelorette parties, team-building outings, and even a night out with friends.
If there’s not already an axe bar in your town, you probably won’t have to travel far or wait long to experience one yourself. Release the Paul Bunyan that lives within you for a big old time!
Confession: I began researching this story as a skeptic, but I’ve been at least halfway converted to the possibility that this isn’t a completely crazy concept. There are already four axe-throwing bars in Nashville. Will the fad be dead by 2021? Probably, but it is a bunch of fun in the meantime!
– Photo Credits: Stumpys Hatchet House, Danielle Atkins, BATL Nashville. Click on individual images for specifics.
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