Hand Axe- a closer look

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As you may remember, I have written a post some months ago, presenting the virtues of a hand axe and trying to raise its profile a little in comparison to the sword. In this post, rather than introduce the weapon, I will present a more comprehensive guide to the various techniques and tricks available to an axeman. The more experienced warriors will probably not learn anything new, but I would welcome your comments and opinions, while the beginners will ( I hope!) learn some interesting and useful stuff to help them become more proficient!

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Axe In The Shieldwall

In my opinion, axes rule in the shieldwall, pure and simple. Yes,  a sword is faster and has far larger cutting edge- but in the confines of a shieldwall, it is difficult to use these traits to their full advantage. With an axe, you need less space to use it effectively, have the same range, and you can shorten or lengthen your weapon, depending on how close-quarters you get. An axeman is comfortable to get extremely close to his opponent, which is especially useful if your line is making a decisive push forward, something that swordsmen and especially spearmen cannot handle this well.

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An axe is perfect for hooking shield and weapons in the enemy line. Simply hook an opponent’s shield down, hold it there for just a few seconds and wait for someone to put in that killing shot into the exposed body- this trick works best in tandem with a spearman, who can strike at an exposed body part the moment an axeman makes an opening. This makes axe-spear the deadliest weapon combination to face on the field, with much more versatility than just a pair of swords or even sword-spear, spear-spear combinations.

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In the same way you pull away shields, you may hook weapons, to keep the enemy occupied or to try to disarm them. Remember never to hook limbs, as this is dangerous, especially around knees, and to always pull down, when disarming or using a circular parry, to avoid a weapon flying through the air..

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Axes are also ideal for defending against spears- due to their top-heavy balance and larger contact area, they are superb for knocking spears down, or to the side. A good axeman can defend against a spearman for ages, preventing him from making any kills, and making it easier for his own line.

In Single Combat

When fighting as an individual, an axeman must remember the limitations of his weapon- ie. he will always be slower than a swordsman of same ability and will almost always be outfenced by one. He will also have control over his weapon and have only a small cutting edge to make kills with.

But the answer to these limitation, is not to play the swordsman’s game- instead enforce your own rules of engagement.

By far, the most popular trick is this: you rush forward, fending off incoming blows with your shield. Once you are very close to your opponent (one, maybe two feet) you shorten your axe’s haft and then pull your opponents shield out of their way- strike for their chest as soon as it becomes exposed by pushing your axe into it. Performed with confidence and fluidity, this move wins axemen most of their fights- but it is also a widely known trick and your opponent will expect it, making it harder to pull off.

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My personal favourite trick, is to attack the opponent’s weapon instead of their body, and attempt to take control of it. As soon as your opponent presents his weapon forward, strike for it, and try to hook your axe around it. Once you have your axe hooked on the opponent’s weapon, use a circular parry to move it out of your way, and step forward at the same time. Release your weapon, and use your shield to cover the enemy’s weapon, while you yourself strike for the exposed side/shoulder. This trick requires speed- to hook the weapon and move it out to one side, before the enemy can react- as well as good footwork, to ensure that when you step forward, you maintain your balance and you land exactly where you need to be in relation to your opponent. It is a more complicated technique and requires practice, but is very effective and may even result in your opponent loosing their grip on their weapon, and becoming disarmed.

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Another vital technique to use, is feints- even though the axe is not as fast as a sword, feints can be performed with just as much success, but the technique needs a little adjusting. I find it easier to follow through with my initial attack, and allow my opponent to block it. Once I have made contact with the shield, or the weapon, then I put another shot, this time to a different body part, in the same instant. This technique relies on your opponent to over-commit to his defense, so the initial shot must be really “sold” to them. With enough speed and practice you should be able to make your next (“the real”) attack to connect with the body. As with most feints, this works best with a high-low feint: strike high, for the shoulder, and once the enemy has committed to defense and the blow has connected, with all speed you strike low, trying to get underneath the shield or past their weapon. This relies a lot on you being able to convincingly put in big, scary shots, forcing the opponent to commit fully to their defense.

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Shieldwork, is yet another very important element of using the axe effectively. I find, that with an axe, a flexible stance and active (even aggressive) shieldwork are required. What do I mean by it? Well, normally, a warrior will keep their shield static, only moving it as little as necessary, to parry incoming blows. I tend to move mine a lot instead, but always with a purpose in mind. I will actively put my shield in the way of an opponent’s weapon, almost “punching” into the blow, or follow their weapon around, wherever it goes. If I can, I will make sure that their weapon makes contact with my shield, so that I can feel where it is, and “glue” my shield to their weapon, to render it effectively useless. Often, I will try to hook my opponent’s shield away using my own, or to block their field of vision with it.

Parry-riposte is also very useful trick, where you parry a blow with a shield, and momentarily take control of the weapon, by forcefully pushing it, or skilfully rolling it, out of your way and to the side. At the same time, strike your opponent back, into the opening you have just created.

The above techniques are more advanced, and require very good footwork, flexible stance and fast reactions, as well as experience. A good idea is to practice slowly, at half-speed at first and gradually speed things up, as you become more confident using these techniques.

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Another trick, while simple, is rather brutal: simply batter the opponent into submission, launching attack after attack, left, right and centre. Keep your defence solid and keep on attacking, never giving them a moment’s rest. Advance forward and push on, and do not give the enemy a second’s respite. As a result, less experienced, or more timid warriors ( as well as those more used to “fencing matches” and “tappy shots”) will often make a mistake, either by loosing their balance, panicking or even becoming tired and slowing their reactions down. This technique requires aggression, control (be aggressive, but always safe and always pull your blows), stamina and good defense. More experienced or more naturally aggressive warriors will not fall for this trick, so judge your opponent wisely.

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These are a majority of available techniques and tricks, but not an exhaustive list. Warriors with more years under their belts than myself will surely have something to add and improve!

Also, the techniques shown above would all be used by actual warriors on the battlefields of the Viking Age (they would not of course pull blows or be concerned with safety rules!). I hope this was an interesting and informative post- feel free to put your comments and add further to the topic!

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