With summer well behind us, the color of the changing leaves brings one thing to the forefront of my mind – firewood. Growing up in a rural setting as I did, I was taught at a very early age to help my father cut, split and stack firewood. Along with lessons on how to sharpen the chain saw, and how to make a free standing wood pile not fall over at the first strong wind, was care and maintenance of the most important piece of equipment, the axe. So I was very excited to head into the Western PA forest to try out the CAS Hanwei Danish Axe.
CAS Hanwei describes this axe as “a fine example of the use of peacetime agricultural tools as weapons in time of war. Equally at home felling trees or adversaries, the axe evokes a fearsome picture of the woodsman at war”, and I was eager to put these claims to the test.Ever since we humans figured out that we could lash a sharp rock on the end of a stick, we have been finding different ways to use it. The method that imparts the most impact is a good swing, thus the axe was born. This tool has gone through centuries of evolution in the hands of man, and has been used for both peaceful tasks as well as in war against our fellow man. As a cutting device, the axe is a simple tool which, using a wedge on the end of a lever arm, efficiently transfers a cleaving force. The most common use is in chopping wood. Whether felling a tree or splitting a cut log into manageable, burnable sections, the axe is the go-to tool. The design of the CAS Hanwei Danish Axe gives the wielder a 9 ½ inch cutting sweep on a bearded head at the end of a 39 inch handle. This handle is typical for a modern two handed woods axe, with a tapered shoulder, thick belly and curving knob for a firm grip. This is unlike the historical examples which had thin, straight handles. Also different is the method of securing the head to the haft. The ancient design was to pass the haft through a hole in the head, known as the eye, and hammer in small metal wedges, expanding the haft and providing a friction fit. Modern wooden handled hammers and hatchets are still assembled in this fashion. Personally, I’m happy that CAS Hanwei decided to deviate from history, and pins the haft to the head using a brass pin driven perpendicularly through both the haft and head. This provides for a secure fit, and helped to minimize vibrations. The large configuration and head size would typically indicate this would be best used as a felling axe, meant for dropping trees.
So with an axe in one hand, and a brew in the other, off I went to try it out. I chose a thin maple tree only about 5 to 6 inches in diameter as my test subject, and got to work. Now a good felling axe needs to be very sharp, as you are cutting against the grain of the wood, but to keep consistent, I didn’t do any sharpening beyond the factory edge. My hands paid a small price for this in the form of some tender spots by the time I was finished, but overall it performed quite well. The long cutting surface of the axe head would be ideal for someone with little experience felling, allowing for a more forgiving surface. This is provided you maintain a tight grip! At a beefy 6 pounds 2 ounces, this tool isn’t for a weakling, and a weak grip could result in a miss, or worse, a flat hit! I managed to avoid this, and after about 15 minutes (and a few pulls on the ale), my little maple was sighing its way earthward. After dragging the tree over to the cutting horse, I grabbed a few seasoned logs that had already been cut up and needed to be split.
A good splitting axe has a thicker, more wedge shape than this one, so I wasn’t surprised that I had some difficulties. It took me a few swings to realize my main problem wasn’t the blade taper, but the positioning of the cutting edge. I had simply grabbed a few logs, rolled them out on the ground and started swinging away. With this axe, the beard, or the edge that extends beyond the head, does not go very far up. This design works well for a felling axe, where you position yourself nearly parallel to your cut point to get all the lever advantage you can, but is poor for an overhead cleaving action. This however, was easily rectified by placing the log to be split on another surface to gain some elevation. In this case, I used a larger diameter log under the smaller one. I have been told that this is a better way to split as it helps reduce back strain and also is kinder on the axe edge than sticking it into the ground, possibly hitting a rock. That being said, I’m usually lazy in this respect and just smack away. In this case though, the elevation made a huge difference and I was able to hit the blade edge properly. The lack of thickness on the head did cause me to have to lever out the axe from a particularly troublesome log, but overall it worked well. While the size and weight would not make this a good tool to strap on a pack for a long hike, it would be fine for an afternoon visit to the woods, where your main goal was to distinguish yourself from your friends and their puny hatchets. The looks you will get swinging this bad beauty will more than make up for the minor inconveniences.
But the use of the axe as an implement of war is nearly as old as our race itself, and one of the most notable occurrences was in the Battle of Hastings. Immortalized in the 230 foot long Bayeux Tapestry, this clash of wills and muscle took place on October 14th 1066 between Duke William II of Normandy, and King Harold II, last Anglo-Saxon King of England. That is a bit of a spoiler right there, Harry doesn’t make it out of this one; shot through the eye by a Norman arrow. But while the bow got the glory, it was the Danish Axe that symbolizes this struggle. The core of the English army was made up of professional foot soldiers called Housecarls, and they were trained well to use this axe with devastating efficiency.
In addition to my peace-time wood hewing, I have also swung an axe with the Society for Creative Anachronism for the past 15 years. Having had a variety of martial arts and combat training, I find the SCA a unique setting due to the fact that you can land and take blows that are truly lethal, yet walk away with minimum damage to fight again and again. Decked in a suit of plate mail, I have used nothing but axes, maces and pole weapons against opponents, preferring the heavy hit over the finesse of a one handed sword.
My good friend and leader of the mercenary group I fight with is the owner of a custom made historical reproduction of a Hastings-era Danish War axe. The most distinctive difference of the repro versus the CAS Hanwei Danish Axe is the handle design. As mentioned earlier, the historical weapon had a straight handle with a relatively thin diameter, as well as a very flat head with little wedge. As these were weapons designed to cleave a foe, a thinner handle and head would reduce overall weight. Also, the simple design could more easily be mass produced to speedily equip your forces. Finally, most man-on-man clashes are resolved in the first 30 seconds, so the need for a handle design to be swung over and over isn’t really necessary. If you don’t believe me, just take a baseball bat and hit a tree as hard as you can for a full 60 seconds. That will give you some idea of how tiring a prolonged fight with an axe or sword really feels like, and why you would want it to end as fast as possible. If you are in a melee with multiple opponents, you need to marshal your strength and the heavier the weapon, the more challenging this can be. But when it comes to penetration in hand weapons, mass is king! Your arm can not generate the speed necessary to make a rapier cleave through plate mail, and the time needed to train green soldiers in the finesse required to hit the unprotected spots is too long of an investment for too small of a return. But a good heavy axe can be swung by a peasant! Even if you don’t hit anything vital, you have at worst, robbed them of momentum and potentially damage their equipment. Then a follow up swing is all it takes to drop a noble, well trained knight by a peasant using a peasant’s weapon. Were I to take the field, I would gladly trade off the lighter axe for the mass and raw stopping power. Given a choice, I’d take the CAS Hanwei Danish Axe.
So here I sit, typing away and waiting for my next weekend trip to the woods. You can keep your hot coco and candy coated apples, because what will make me smile on the next brisk Autumnal Saturday morning will be the sound of a crashing tree and the feel of the CAS Hanwei Danish Axe in my hand. But if you have a few Normans around, send them on up; I could use the practice.
MSRP on the Danish is only $115 and street prices can be found well under $100 with some shopping around.
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