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Move over, bowling. Axe-throwing is the new league sport.

An old sport is new again and it's gaining in popularity.
Image: Kick Axe Throwing
Contestants throw hatchets at wooden bull's-eyes at the Kick Axe Throwing venue in Brooklyn, New York on March 3, 2018Mary Altaffer / AP file

On paper, combining alcohol and axe throwing sounds like a bad idea. But in a controlled environment with an axe-throwing “coach” looking over your shoulder, it’s actually an incredibly fun — and safe — way to spend an evening. Welcome to the latest craze.

Axe throwing as a sport isn’t new, and in fact might be one of the oldest in existence. What is new, however, is throwing axes in an urban environment, especially in the United States, where it’s just getting off the ground. In Canada and a few other spots in the world, urban axe throwing is booming and according to the National Axe Federation (NATF), participants have thrown nearly 20 million axes to date.

The beauty of the new urban axe throwing facilities popping up around the country is that they are accessible, social and as low-key or ramped up as you want them to be. Think of them as an updated — and far hipper — version of the 1970s bowling alley.

Much of the credit for bringing axe throwing to the United States goes to 35-year old Krista Paton of Philadelphia. Working in Toronto in 2013, she attended a party at a local axe throwing facility. “I had an amazing time, felt like I was good enough to compete, and thought that people in the United States needed to experience this,” she says.

She returned to her hometown of Philadelphia, brought three friends on board, and launched Urban Axes, a combination bar and axe-throwing facility that now has three locations with more opening soon. The chain is among several, along with independent spaces, popping up in many major metropolitans.

How axe-throwing works

A typical space looks like an old warehouse — and often is one — with high ceilings, heavy-duty walls and chain-link fencing surrounding targets on the sides and top. Upon the jacked-up wall is a wooden target with three varying sized and colored, concentric circles. Throwers take aim at the target and earn points depending on where their axes land. Hitting the bull’s eye will get you five points, the circle surrounding it three, and within the outer circle one.

Then there’s “clutch.” Each target has a set of two green dots above the circles. Throwers must claim they are aiming for clutch before trying it, and you can only go for it on the last of five throws in each of three rounds. Land the blade in between the dots and you earn seven points.

A perfect score is 81 and it’s a lofty goal. “When you first get competitive, your goal is to reach 25,” says Paton. “Then you start slowly working your way up to higher and higher scores and bigger goals.”

The axes that throwers use must comply with NATF standards. “The size, weight and length are all regulated,” explains Paton. “People who play regularly often have their own set of axes, but they still must comply.”

Giving axe-throwing a go

You can try your hand at axe throwing by walking in to public sessions, through group or corporate events or by joining a league, which is where the more competitive throwers often end up. “Leagues are set up in an eight-week format,” says Paton. “There are 30 people in each league and the first seven weeks operate in round robin format. The final week is playoffs.”

The number of leagues will vary by facility and in general, people join on their own or with a few friends. The beauty of axe throwing is that, while you are competing against others, you’re mostly aiming to best your own former scores. If you are coming into a facility as a walk up or with a group event, coaches man each target area to teach and oversee safety.

Alison Boober first tried throwing after taking a job at the Philadelphia Urban Axes. “I loved it and immediately went home and built a target to practice,” she says. “I spent a year on the job before I joined a league.”

Today, she can claim the title of first female in the United States to have thrown a perfect 81, and only the third in the entire world to have done so. At a recent Baltimore-based international tournament, the 30-year old Boober was the last woman standing, finishing 25th of 128. “Next year I’m aiming for the National Axe Throwing Championship in Canada,” she says. “I also want to win a league.”

This isn’t a sport where you need to bring in years of ball or other sport experience either, so it’s great for anyone looking for a fun activity.

Boober and Paton both say that women and men can compete on the same playing field because axe throwing is far more about skill than strength. “We claim that women start off better than men because they pay more attention to their stance and technique,” says Paton. “This isn’t a sport where you need to bring in years of ball or other sport experience either, so it’s great for anyone looking for a fun activity.”

When you want to get more serious, like Boober, however, it does pay to figure out the right axe and technique, as well as put in some hours of practice. “I belong to multiple leagues so that I can get in lots of throws, plus I do some extra throwing after shifts,” she says.

While alcohol is part of the culture of axe throwing in both walk-up and league play, those who take the sport seriously need to think about whether it helps or hinders their game. “There’s a big mental component to throwing,” says Boober. “You have to try not to let it get into your head too much.”

One thing is a given — once you’ve thrown an axe, you’ll want to do it again. “It feels like playing when you’re a kid,” says Paton. “It’s new and different and anyone can join the fun.”

NEXT: Embracing päntsdrunk, the Finnish way of drinking alone in your underwear

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