Nothing Certain but Death and Axes

Axe_KitRae

Why do swords get the glory?

Swords get most of the glamor in the pre-modern world of warfare. They’re flashy, elegant, and loaded with symbolism. When you think of a knight or a soldier of the middle ages, I bet you think of them with a sword. But when it comes to raw, lethal power, there is nothing quite like an axe.

Just to belabor my point on the sword bias in history:

Name three axes in history or fantasy that had names. Go on. I’ll wait quietly.

Not so easy, is it?

Now, name three named swords, in history or fantasy.

Yeah, if you have any historical or fantasy leanings at all, the list should come spilling out. Excalibur (King Arthur), Stormbringer (Elric of Melniboné), Glamdring (Gandalf the Grey/White), Longclaw (John Snow), Andúril (Aragorn), Ice (Ned Stark), Sting (The Police. Also, Bilbo Baggin’s sword). Want more from history? Durendal (Song of Roland), Joyeuse (Charlamagne), Tizona and Colada (El Cid).
I may have gotten carried away there.

Never has metaphor and image come together so disturbingly.

Never has metaphor and image come together so disturbingly.

The point is not that swords are overly glorified (God, but do I love swords), but that axes are underly glorified. They are the NFL offensive linemen of the weapons world. They are the Honda Civics of combat. Not flashy, but brutally efficient and reliable.

Axes may well have been humanity’s first real weapons. Museums in Europe are overflowing with flint axeheads crafted by Neolithic warriors.
The first axes in recorded history (that I am aware of) were labrys. I spent ten minutes looking for labrys in a book on female anatomy before I realized it was an ancient battle axe. And that battle axe was not happy when I asked her to show me her labrys. Wait. I’m drowning in a spiral of innuendo.

Labrys.
Ancient Greece.
Now I remember.

The labrys was the great double-bladed axe of the Minoan civilizations (The Minoans were from Crete and the Aegean Islands, in case that D you got in ninth grade history is coming back to bite you). They had lovely double-bladed axes, mostly for ceremonial purposes. And enjoy that mental-axe-image, because there really were no other double-bladed battle axes in history.

Read that last sentence again.

I know you didn’t read it again, so I’ll write it again.

Awesome, but fantasy.

Awesome, but fantasy.

There really were no other double-bladed battle axes in history.

Despite the prevalence of those types of axes in fantasy entertainment, they were incredibly rare in European history, and not very common outside of Europe, either.

Think about it. You’re a warrior. Running around fighting people. Sometimes running at them. Sometimes running away. But you’re always running. So why would you want to carry a ridiculously heavy piece of steel that had *THE SAME WEAPON ON BOTH SIDES?* It’s not like you’re going to get bored of the side you are hitting with and switch. Why not put a spike on the other side? That way you can punch through armor with one end, and crush mail or sever limbs with the other. And, really, steel was not cheap, so using it to clone your axe blade was not the best use of resources.

Moving on from the Minoans. The Romans used axes, but mostly as tools to cut down trees and such. The next big development for axes in battle really didn’t come until the 6th century or so, when the Merovingians perfected the Franciscan axe. These axes were fairly thin, with a high arch leading to a slightly curved head. Great for your run-of-the-mill dismemberings, but even better when hurled. Ironically, these axes gained fame during Charlamagne’s reign, even though it was his sword (and that of Roland) that survives in our historical knowledge base.

Vikings were all about power. And beards. And beard power.

Vikings were all about power. And beards. And beard power. This is a Viking-Franciscan design.

I don’t suppose it’s possible to write an essay about axes without talking about the Vikings. They had a reputation for axes, and a well-earned one. The Dane axe—most popular in the 10th and 11th centuries—had many variations. The most common version was a light, thin blade with a wicked edge and a forward sweep that allowed for extra killin’ power. These were sometimes mounted on short hafts (perfect for boat raids on unsuspecting monks) or on long poles (perfect for on-foot raids against unsuspecting monks).

The Vikings also perfected the bearded axe—a technique for disguising their axe as a person so that unsuspecting monks wouldn’t know they were being attacked until the last moment.

No. That’s not actually true.

The monks probably never knew they were being attacked because they died instantly.

Axe_BeardedYeah, okay, the disguise thing isn’t true either. A bearded axe is actually an axe blade with a long heel that hangs down. This bit of blade gives the wielder a greater cutting surface, but, more importantly, it provides a great hook. Why would you need a hook? Well, the Vikings (and the Saxons, really) fought in shield walls—long lines of men, shoulder to shoulder, holding shields. Trying to get through a shield wall was ridiculously hard. So, Vikings came up with the bearded axe. You strike with your axe *over* the opponent’s shield. Catch the inside rim of the shield with your axe. Pull hard. Suddenly, the shield dips and you opponent’s surprised face is pounded by your friend’s axe. Tada.

I’m not really going to talk about polearms in this post—that’s a whole nother post in itself. But I would be remiss if I didn’t talk about the pollaxe. It’s one of the most lethal battle tools ever created, and it’s possible that it took as many lives as all other axes put together. The pollaxe (or polaxe, or poleaxe, or oh-dear-god-don’t-hit-me-with-that) became popular in the 14th and 15th centuries, during the golden age of plate mail. Armor became so strong during this time that it became really, really difficult to actually kill anyone (well, anyone of importance, right?). And what fun was that? So the polaxe was created. A long shaft, crowned with a steel head (stop it, pervert) that featured an axe-blade on one side and a spike or hammer-head on the other. And usually with another spike at the top, just to make it lethal from any angle.

Axe_Poleaxe

Fierce in battle, the poleaxe was also the peasant answer to a pole tax.

These axes could be swung with enormous power, and regardless of what side you used to strike with, death or grievous injury was usually the result. The spike could punch through armor like a hot knife through something really flimsy like paper or wet drywall or lingerie. The blade could crush armor and cut through the mail, flesh and bone beneath. This was the tool of choice among medieval infantrymen, and it was devastating.

In the high Middle Ages, swords in battle were relatively rare. It was the axe and the bow that typically won the day. And yet the knight with the sword is the most resounding image of that period. That axe lobby needs a better PR firm.

The Zombie Survival Manual — Part Three

ZombieSurvivalLogo We’ve come to the third section of our Zombie Survival Manual, where we discuss perhaps the most perfect medieval killing implements ever created. No, I’m not talking about rats with plague. I’m talking about axes and polearms. Countless medieval battles and skirmishes have been won with these implements, and if you find yourself in a zombie apocalypse, there’s not better tool to have in your hands (or their heads).

 

Axes and Polearms

ScourgeCover_New_250When we are armed and armored we remove the bar and yank the door open. Tristan holds the poleax high over his shoulder as I peer out into the hallway. I see Joseph, the reeve, shuffling toward us. The morning light reflects from his eyes and I see no whites. He snarls as he lumbers toward me. I back into the room and Tristan drives the spike of his poleax deep into Joseph’s skull. The reeve twitches, then topples awkwardly. Blood leaks from his shattered skull and pools swiftly across the floor.

We walk cautiously into the hallway. A woman –from the kitchen staff by the look of her apron – crouches by the open stairs feeding upon a man whom I can’t identify. She hisses, then stands and runs at us. Red boils pepper her face and neck. I hold my sword in two hands and swing sideways, opening her throat and spraying the hallway with blood. She tumbles to the ground. Her head bounces and rolls along the wooden floor until it comes to rest against a wall.

“You fool,” Tristan’s smile has returned. “Who’s going to cook now? You need to think things through more carefully.”

I peer over the carved wood railing, down to the foyer, and see blood smeared across the floor. Someone screams in the distance.

– From THE SCOURGE by Roberto Calas

Axe

Axe “body spray” meant spattering blood in the Middle Ages.

I’d like to start by pointing out here an important distinction brought up by Strongblade fan, George Massie. When I’m tapping away at my keyboard, imparting this vital information about the upcoming zombie apocalypse, I am speaking about well-built, tempered-steel items. Please refrain from using stainless steel swords or axes. If the words “Made in China” are stamped anywhere on the product, there is a good chance that it will be useless against the undead (although it might look really cool in your hands)(but remember, drooling and shuffling isn’t cool at all). By all means buy stainless steel to display proudly in your home. But you don’t want to be this guy when the hungry dead rise. Thanks for the reminder, George!

I may have alluded to the fact that a zombie apocalypse is very similar to war in the late Middle Ages. Combat against armored opponents was all about penetration power and speed (which reminds me of something my girlfriend once said, but that’s material for another post). Soldiers relied on weapons that could unleash tremendous amounts of force. They had to, because heavy armor stopped all but the most powerful of blows. Swords were a rarity on the battlefield. So what did they use? Well, four out of five warriors prefer the fresh, minty striking power of axes. And the fourth warrior preferred to run away.

Of all the axes and polearms on the medieval battlefield, there was probably none more effective than . . .

 

Poleax

Most polaxes had hammers on the back, but that steel thorn would do just fine.

The Polaxe:
Advantages
: Fast, powerful, light, versatile, capable of cutting or crushing.
Disadvantages: None.

Ever heard of Agincourt? A miraculous battle where heavily outnumbered English soldiers defeated a French army. Two weapons were responsible for the victory: The longbow and the polaxe. We’ll discuss the longbow next time. Because I want to focus on the finest killing weapon ever created. The polax is a the swiss-army-knife of combat. Zombies coming at you from the left? Use the axe blade to prune them back. Zombies on the right? The hammer-head will turn them to mulch. Zombies dead ahead? Ventilate them with the jutting spike on top. It’s killing in 3D! And the zombies don’t even need special glasses! Every move you make with a polaxe kills something. It’s death incarnate.

I would normally take a moment here to mention weaknesses, but there are none. The polaxe has great reach but can still be used at close range. It is durable and strong, but light enough for extended combat. Eric Schweighauser posted on our Facebook page that he would pick a poleax against the hungry dead, and I’m with him.

If you are at all serious about the zombie apocalypse (and face it, who isn’t these days?) then go out and get yourself one of these. No, get three. Or four. Because when money is no longer valid, the new currency will be polaxes. Yeah. They’re that good.

Other useful weapons?

Tomahawk2

The Tomahawk: A real coup in the zombie apocalypse.

The Tomahawk:
Advantages
: Fast, ranged, decent penetration power, light.
Disadvantages: Slow to remove after a strike

Okay, not exactly medieval, but certainly historical. Micheal Koselke mentioned these on our Facebook page, and he’s absolutely right. These are brilliant. In terms of all-around efficiency, it’s hard to beat the tomahawk axe. Again, let’s get our definition straight: I’m not talking about the stone-headed weapons created by Native Americans. I’m talking about the steel-head versions crafted by the English. These metal versions were basically modified naval boarding-axes that settlers traded to the Native Americans. Which is odd, since some of those traded axes were no doubt used to kill settlers. But I digress.

The tomahawk was used by Native Americans and settlers alike. They were an invaluable tool for skinning, gutting and for personal defense. They can be thrown with a lethal accuracy, and can penetrate a skull on a solid hit. And some of them have smoking pipes on the side opposite the axe blade. How awesome is that? Take down a few zombies, then toke up with your bedraggled band of bloody and traumatized survivors.

As I mentioned above, tomahawks can also be thrown, which is way-high on the coolness factor. But unless you have a large supply of axes, the last thing you want to do is throw them away.

Disadvantages? Tomahawks don’t have the penetration power of polaxes. To get through a skull, you need to swing hard. And those of you who passed the bar know that the laws of physics aren’t kind to narrow weapons striking a skull. The blade becomes wedged, and removing a wedged blade takes precious seconds. And there are no time-outs in a zombie apocalypse.

Halberd

Halberds: The perfect weapons. Until they’re not.

Halberd:
Advantages
: Excellent combat range, versatility, great penetration power.
Disadvantages: Relatively slow, Loses effectiveness at very close range

And when I say halberd, I mean all of the long-hafted pole weapons except the poleax. That includes but is not limited to: The Bardiche, bill, fauchard, ranseur, war scythe, glaive, guisarme, spontoon, pike, and sharpened pole vaulting poles. Each of these weapons has its own particular strengths and weaknesses (except the pole vaulting pole, which has only weaknesses and is a spectacularly bad idea). But all of these weapons share the same basic characteristics: a long pole with a killing doo-hickey on one end. This doo-hickey can be an axe head, a spike, a hook, or all of the above. Unlike the poleax, these polearms are always very long. They were used to keep enemy armies at a distance, mostly so that gunners could fire into their ranks with impunity. But poelarms were also lethal in their own right. Swinging a long staff generates a lot of momentum. In fact, if we calculate the strength of a halberd swing, using Rotational Kinetic Energy (KER = .5Iω^2 and I = mr^2), and we add Angular Momentum (L = Iω) and throw in Centripetal Acceleration (Ac = ω^2r or v^2/r) just for the hell of it, we come up with the following equation: Halberd + Swinging Really Hard = Horrible+Torturous+Death.

Polearms are also quite good for forcibly removing horsemen from the saddle, but unless you get the vary rare “Mounted Zombie Apocalypse” that particular advantage won’t be an advantage at all.

There are other problems with these types of pole weapons. Polearms were typically used in ranks. That means, to be fully effective, everyone in your survivor party should have one, and you should keep riflemen behind you to thin out the herd. But a single halberdier can be flanked easily. And when you get flanked by zombies, your shiny halberd will be about as effective as that sharpened pole vaulting stick.

 

And, like always, I have data to back up my confident analysis. Feast your eyes on the Axe and Polearm Effectiveness Chart:

AxeEffectivenessChart

See you next week when we talk about ranged weapons!