When fantasy writers think of axes as a weapon, they usually assume that a fighting axe is much the same as an axe for cutting wood. They assume that a fighting axe is heavy, clumsy, and is used for chopping strokes. It is a weapon for the working class, like a scythe and billing hook, with none of the glamour of a sword. However, thanks to an article on Quora and the opinion of some historical re-enacters, I recently discovered that none of these assumptions are true.
Admittedly, re-enacters report that an axe in unskilled hands is not much of a weapon. To wield an axe well requires strength and practice. But the same can be said of a sword. To use a sword requires more than thrusting the point towards your opponent, and to use an axe require more than chopping with all your strength. The only difference is that a novice sword-user might survive reasonably well in a shield-wall, while a novice axe-user is apt to leave themselves exposed and end up wounded or killed.
The most effective axe for combat is usually called a Dane axe. “Dane” in this case is a generic name for all Norse, who were as likely to use this weapon as a sword. A Dane axe was usually a one-handed weapon, with a wooden shaft about a meter long, and weighing about 1.5 kilograms, depending on the user. These are also the average dimensions of a sword, although longer, two-handed Dane axes also existed. The blade was an uneven crescent, with the top horn longer, and the bottom horn more of a hook. Many people assume that a Dane axe would be top-heavy in order to deliver a crushing blow, but the technical descriptions all emphasize the lightness of the blade, as well as its thinness, which could be as little as 2 millimeters of high grade steel. In other words, a Dane axe is balanced, just like a sword. When I think, that is only sensible. A blade-heavy axe might deliver a stronger chop, but would be harder to pull back, and would expose the user longer. Much better to be satisfied with less force and increase your chances of survival.
More importantly, this construction indicates that a Dane axe was not used just for chopping, or even primarily for that purpose. In fact, the design was much versatile. Besides chopping, the user of a Dane axe could thrust with the upper horn, transforming the axe into a short spear and allowing the user to inflict damage at a bit of a distance, especially if the axe was two-handed. In addition, the lower horn could be used to hook a blade or shield, allowing the wielder to block, or else thrust the enemy’s weapons aside, then to attack with the upper horn. The Dane axe actually offers multiple attacks in one, just as a sword’s tip or edge does. Once that is understood, it becomes obvious that a Dane axe was not a clumsy weapon, but one that required considerable skill.
The construction also refutes the idea that a Dane axe was a peasant’s weapon. The thinness of the blade and its shape suggests that the Dane axe required a skilled smith to make. It was not a farming implement that could be carried by a poor man marching off to war. Moreover, it was carried by the elite housecarls of Anglo-Saxon England, as well as by the Varangian Guards that protected the Byzantine Emperor. Later versions of the Dane axe were considered a knightly weapon, just as a sword was, and are known to have used at times by both Kings Stephen and Richard I. As well, during the Viking era, Dane axes with elaborate silver inlays were made, likely for ceremonial purposes. The common argument that swords were the weapons of the nobility simply does not hold up.
Besides, although a first-rate sword, in which various metals were twisted and folded over each other, took time to make and could be fabulously expensive, not all swords were so elaborate. Probably the majority of swords in the Dark and Medieval Ages were cheaper works, produced by local smiths. There is also evidence for swords cut in one piece, like the average kitchen knife, a form of mass-production probably inspired by the suppliers to the Roman legions.
If swords have more prestige than battle-axes in the modern imagination, the reason is probably that ceremonial swords were worn in Europe by nobility and army officers long after they were obsolete. In fact, they are still worn today. Nor have axes been favored in romance and fiction. There is no battle axe equivalent to The Three Musketeers or The Princess Bride. And along with romance of swords has come a denigration of the battle axe — as well as a deep-seated ignorance of how versatile they could actually be.