The basics of ax-throwing, according to Philly's best ax throwers

Maybe you’ve been absolutely slaying darts at your favorite dive bar and need something a little more challenging. Maybe you just want to know what it feels like to hurl a weapon — in a controlled environment, of course.

Either way, the sport of ax throwing is rapidly gaining popularity in Philadelphia and beyond. Urban Axes opened in Kensington in September 2016, while Bury the Hatchet has Cherry Hill and South Philly locations, and a King of Prussia location opening soon.

Urban Axes has six leagues with 120 members. Seventeen of them competed at the National Axe Throwing Championship finals in Toronto last weekend. Three placed in the top 32, and two throwers, Sean Malvey and Will Gelatko, won the doubles competition.

I asked these highly qualified ax throwers for some beginner’s tips on how to get started in this very Canadian sport. (Spoiler alert: It’s harder than it looks.)

The rules

Throwers select their own axes, which must weigh between 1.25 and 1.75 pounds.

A target features three concentric circles — a large blue one, a medium red one, and a black bull’s eye. Throwers earn one point for landing their ax in the blue circle, three points for the red one, and five points for the bull’s eye. If the ax lands between two circles, judges will take a look at where most of the blade is embedded and award points based on that.

Each thrower gets five throws in a game, and they must win two games out of three in order to take a match. On the fifth throw, a thrower can earn seven points for hitting one of the green dots above the target. Throwers can throw at their own pace but must wait for their opponent to finish their throw before retrieving their ax for safety reasons.

The beginner’s throw

Most expert ax throwers throw with one hand because it gives them more control over where the ax lands on the target, but if you’re just starting out, it’s better to use a two-handed grip to master the motion.

“I used a two-handed grip for a long time before switching,” Jacob Markovitz, a league member who competed in Toronto this weekend, said. “I was pretty mediocre for about 12 weeks before it finally clicked for me.”

For the two-handed grip, place your dominant hand on the bottom of the ax handle and your other hand on top of it. You want to raise the ax all the way above your head and swing it forward while keeping your eye on where you want the ax to go, before letting go with both hands when it’s at eyebrow level. Let your arms swing all the way through the throw. The ax should fly forward and rotate toward the target if you do this properly. (Don’t worry if your ax lands on the ground dozens of times before you get it to stay in the target. According to the experts, that’s all part of the learning process.)

Camera icon Steven M. Falk
Urban Axes currently has six competing leagues in Kensington.

Footwork

If you thought ax throwing is just about arm strength or hand-eye coordination, you’re wrong. According to Markovitz, what you do with your feet is just as important. Most throwers take one step toward the target while throwing. They also line up their feet in the exact same spot each time and try to combine the step and throw into one fluid motion. (Don’t expect to be able to do this when you’re starting out.)

“So much of ax throwing is muscle memory and basic footwork,” Markovitz said. “It’s easy to learn but hard to master because everyone throws differently, so it’s all about making small adjustments until you get your throw down.”

If your ax lands short of the target, you should move forward a little bit. If it doesn’t rotate completely before hitting the target, move backward until you hit that sweet spot.

One important thing to keep in mind is that if you’re right-handed, you want to step forward with your left foot and vice versa.

Get out of your head

When I threw my first ax, it didn’t even touch the target. The throwing motion felt really awkward and I couldn’t get the ax to do one full rotation. (In competition, the ax needs to rotate at least once in order for it to count.)

Thanks to the coaches at Urban Axes, I eventually got my ax to stay on the target after at least 30 throws.

“It’s totally mental,” Markovitz, who began throwing axes because he could routinely land a hatchet in a tree during camping trips, said. “At the end of the day, practice makes perfect if you’re that motivated.”