Every generation has its defining sport, which often starts as an underground pastime and moves into the mainstream as it garners more attention and following. It happened for surfing, for skateboarding, for ultimate Frisbee and - you could make the argument - for MMA as well. The most recent entry to the pantheon of new sports is one with medieval roots, a sport that has existed in some capacity for centuries, but which is seeing a surge in popularity presently because of a newly organized competition circuit. That sport is "axe throwing".
If you've never seen an axe throwing competition before, it's probably close to what you're thinking: a feat of accuracy and strength, whereby competitors attempt to throw their axe at the centre of a wooden target. In round robin style gameplay, one winner emerges as the most accurate thrower and is named champion. It's like if darts was played by a lumberjack.
But where did the sport come from, and how did it catch on so considerably? To answer that, this article will look back at the history of this budding sport, from its medieval precursors, through to its contemporary iteration, the latest in axe throwing scoring technology and the competitive circuit that has legitimized the game.
As early as the 3rd Century AD, the Franks and Anglo-Saxons of Europe were crafting axes for throwing. Granted, their axes were for throwing at other people, and not wooden targets, but in tracking the lineage of axe throwing, you have to give credit to these Germanic foot soldiers for being the first.
The act of throwing an axe didn't really become a sport until much later, in all likelihood starting with the North American pioneers (lumberjacks as you might colloquially call them) who, with nothing but time on their head, started making a game out of throwing axes. But the sport all but died out, becoming merely a footnote in some history books. That is, until recently...
If necessity is the mother of invention, then boredom is the father. In 2006, a couple of guys on vacation at a cottage near Toronto were bored enough to start throwing their axes at a tree stump. What started as a simple way to pass the time grew quickly into a network of people who met up to throw axes - a network that would become known as the Backyard Axe Throwing League, or BATL for short.
The Popularity Surge
With some newly opened up axing throwing facilities in Toronto, the game took off. While certain people took to axe throwing for the competitive element, many people wanted to try it just for fun. It caught on, in part, because it was a fun alternative to your average birthday party or corporate event. Soon, BATL expanded all over North America, with other leagues started popping up as well, and before long hardcore axe throwers started to organize their very own, international event...
NATF & NATC
In 2016, the National Axe Throwing Federation (NATF, for short) was formed to help bring together axe throwers around the world. The league culminates in an annual event called the National Axe Throwing Competition (NATC) where axe throwers square off in the hopes of winning the Wilson Cup, plus a handsome $16,500 prize.
As the sport made strides toward full legitimization, their statistics tracking became more sophisticated; a NATF and BATL website tracks axe throwing records, current global standings and champion points. What had started as a backyard pastime blossomed quickly into a legitimate, stats-driven sport.
Axe throwing continues to gain popularity, in large part thanks to its recreational appeal. Leagues allowing drop-ins and parties often find themselves packed to the rafters with people eager to try the new-ish sport. And with the influx in recreational axe throwers comes an uptick in international competitors. Some people get started with axe throwing by attending a friend's birthday party or going to a bachelorette party, and wind up completely enamoured by it - it isn't long until they are a full league member, competing around the world in tournaments.
That's the history (so far) of axe throwing. If you have tried the sport, you'll no doubt understand its appeal, but for the uninitiated, it can be described like this: take the most exciting game of darts you have ever played, and then times that excitement by 100.
But excitement alone wasn't responsible for the sport's popularity. Axe throwing caught on because it was an awesome, engaging sport, but it endures because of its welcoming community and inclusive principles. All abilities and identities find a space in the axe throwing community, making it a truly 21st Century sport. If you haven't tried it yet, check to see if there is an axe throwing facility in your area, but be warned: you'll probably get hooked.