The thwack of metal axes hitting wood targets regularly punctuates the upbeat rock music playing at Hatchet Alley.
A dull thunk and it’s a miss — the ax grazes the plywood beams but doesn’t stick. Applause and cheers from the other side of the large, airy room suggest someone else is having more success. But finally, after the coach assigned to your target offers tips on your stance and your aim, you manage to hurl the ax just to the left of the bull’s-eye. There it stays.
And it’s a satisfying thing. Every time your ax snaps into the mottled beams, you feel good.
After working at another ax-throwing venue in town, Hatchet Alley co-founder Earl Ball decided he wanted to open a venue of his own. He recognized the growing popularity of the activity and wanted to offer it in a clean, "aesthetically pleasing space, a space that people would be comfortable to hang out in."
"That was my goal, to make it as comfortable of a space as possible," he says. "You want people to stick around and have a good time."
About two months old, Hatchet Alley is located in a standalone building near the U.S. 183 and Texas 71 interchange, where construction is heavy. Ball is nonetheless optimistic about the site — the construction is temporary, he said.
There are 24 targets lined up along two walls in the front portion of the 12,000-square-foot building. The welcome desk is in the center, as well as a bar area that isn’t yet in use, pending the approval of a zoning change to sell beer and wine. (For now, Hatchet Alley is BYOB.) The back of the building is devoted to bocce ball and football bowling.
» RELATED: At Austin warehouse, players drink beer, throw sharp objects, have fun
Yes, that’s right. "Football bowling" is not a typo. Also known as fowling in Michigan, the state where it originated 15 years ago, football bowling is exactly as it sounds — using a football to knock over your opponents’ 10 bowling pins. Whoever knocks down the other side’s pins first wins.
But it’s not as easy as it sounds, Ball said. Footballs tend to fly and "go everywhere," which is why the back room often features one activity at a time.
"People playing bocce ball might not be aware there’s a football headed their direction, so it’s best to just divide up the days to be football-specific or bocce-specific," he said.
Leagues for each of the sports kick off in January. Hatchet Alley is also a good site for large events, Ball said. Up to 400 people can fit in the building at a time, although groups of about 200 or fewer are preferable if you want everyone to participate at the same time.
Football bowling and bocce ball don’t require the constant supervision of a coach like ax-throwing. When you’re assigned a target, you also have a coach who’s there not just to help you with your throwing technique but to make sure no one gets hurt. (To that end, every ax-throwing participant must also wear closed-toe shoes.)
» RELATED: Central Machine Works now open as massive brewery, beer garden in East Austin
Ball teamed up with fellow Austinites Will Pitts and George Launey to open Hatchet Alley in a long-unused building next door to Callahan’s General Store, the owners of which are their landlords. They’ve already seen early success with the concept, which has drawn people at a range of ax-throwing skill levels. Many have never tried it before. The common denominator is that they all tend to love it, Ball said.
Throwing axes "is a weird thing in that it’s strangely satisfying, and people who come in and don’t have any level of expectation or understanding, they go, ‘Oh, I really like that! That was more enjoyable than I thought it was going to be.’ It’s cathartic."
He’s noticed that people who are a little intimidated by the idea of hurling axes at a wall start their Hatchet Alley sessions sometimes with football bowling. It’s still an obscure, little-known sport outside of the Detroit area. But it’s become a hit within the venue because "it’s just so silly. A random, enjoyable thing to do," he said.
Once the zoning change goes through, Hatchet Alley will be able to sell beer and wine. For now, you can bring in your own alcohol (no hard liquor, though) and whatever food you like. (Large groups can arrange catering.) Another plan for the venue is to develop the outside space, adding a stage for live music shows starting in the spring and room for outdoor football bowling. Hatchet Alley might bring in a food truck, too.
Generally, reservations are required to participate in all three activities, although the venue at 443 Bastrop Highway has a daily walk-in schedule: 5 to 10 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 4 to 10 p.m. Friday and 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.
For more information, visit hatchetalley.com.