Axes are prehistoric tools that have been tinkered with and improved for hundreds of thousands of years. Over time as we made advances in technology and discovered new resources, it has become a more efficient tool with greater balance, sharper blade, and better handling.
Whether you love history, axes, or both topics, you may want to learn more about the history of axes. We’re about to walk you through a timeline of major developments for this tool to give you a better understanding of how axes have become what they are today.
When were axes invented?
Based on archaeological digs in Africa, it is believed the first use of axes dates back 1.8 million years. The simple tools were made by the homo Erectus and comprised of stone that had bits chipped off to fashion a crude-looking blade. At this stage, the user would hold the stone in their hand as the concept of a handle hadn’t been devised. Source.
Around the time that axes originated, tools like pickaxes and other innovative cutting tools were also beginning to surface. It wasn’t until 600,000 BCE that two-sided stone axes were developed.
Researchers have found that although humans on different continents used different materials to make axes, their design was remarkably similar all over the world.
During the Middle Stone Age, handled axes were invented in Northern Europe. Rather than attaching a handle to the head, the first axes used an entire piece of reindeer antler. A blade was sharpened onto the base of the antler. This was a huge advancement as handles offered a lot more leverage, power, and comfort.
The first examples of axes that join an axe haft to a head, can also be found in Scandinavia. The Danes attached an antler helve to a chipped flint celt, which was superior to the previous all-antler tool. The bit was sharper and enabled the user to chop down small trees.
By 7000 BCE, flint axe heads were replaced by stone. They were stronger and sharper, making most jobs easier.
3000 BCE-200 BCE
During this period, axes evolved into much thinner, sharper tools. Stone was replaced by copper; copper was replaced by bronze. But it was the advent of iron that allowed the first use of an axe eye. At extreme heat, a rectangular piece of iron was folded around a bar. The other side of the head was hammered into a blade.
During this period, double-bladed axes were created by the Vikings. They were mostly used for general work like felling trees but were sometimes used as a weapon.
Around 1740, the English began mass-producing cast steel. This technology was applied to axe making by 1765 to make the cutting edge section of the head. Making the whole head from cast steel was cost-prohibitive at this stage.
As American settlers migrated towards the Pacific Northwest, they were faced with a challenge. Huge trees covered the landscape that European axes couldn’t cope with. To solve this, they developed felling axes that were much heavier with handles that were up to 42” in length.
Early felling axes were dangerous as little thought had been put into balance. Blacksmiths fixed this by forging heads that had a heavier poll, resulting in much-improved balance. Learn more about the forging methods here.
During the 1850s, steel was more readily available, and factories began producing axes at scale. Massive advances were made through die plating and casting, tempering shops, and grinding stones – all resulting in better axes.
By the early 1900s, axes had been on the decline for years. Saw technology continued to advance, offering a better solution. As power tools began to pop up, they were vastly superior in efficiency and much easier to use. Woodcutters quickly adopted modern alternatives and stopped using axes. Lumber camps and farms also threw down their axes, choosing easier methods of chopping.
Since the early 2000s, the axe industry has been going through a renaissance period. Traditional crafts, homesteading, bushcraft, camping, and survival have become much more popular.
The internet has allowed experts to share their knowledge, and beginners can easily learn new skills. Also, small axe makers can sell their products online, opening up a whole world of innovative axe designs.
Survival axes have grown in popularity with groups like survivalists and outdoor enthusiasts. This had led to innovations that hadn’t previously been a part of the anatomy of an axe. Extras like a compass, flint, fishing tackle, and other handy extras are often part of survival axes.
Although axes like tomahawks have been thrown for centuries, the 2000s have seen a surge in throwing axes as a sport. Many new axe manufacturers have started up, producing specialty throwing hatchets and tomahawks, with a big focus on well-weighted aerodynamic products.
Commonly asked questions
How were axes used in history?
The hand axe had a wide variety of uses over the centuries, including digging up vegetation, butchering animals, chopping wood, and as a weapon.
When was the first hafted axe invented?
Around 7500 BC the first true axes were invented that had a handle attached. They originated in Scandinavia and were originally made from an entire reindeer antler.
The use of axes spans back thousands of years. Originally a simple blade fashioned by chipping stone into an axe head shape, they have evolved into powerful, super-useful tools.
As axes are used for a wide variety of tasks and in varying industries, they’ve become more specialized in recent decades. Looking ahead, it’s easy to imagine axe manufacturers will continue to focus on creating tools that are excellent at performing one job very well.
Paradoxically, more often in social media groups, we see axe enthusiasts passionately fixing up old axes. This is likely to continue to grow in popularity, especially as older models gain value over time. With the old becoming new again, it’s likely niche manufacturers will ramp up production of vintage axes. Let’s hope so anyway!