Swing open the door of a nondescript warehouse off Airport Boulevard on a Sunday night and the steady thunk-thunk-thunk of ax meeting wood meets your ear.
You’re not in Austin anymore — or at least it doesn’t feel like it. You’ve landed in a world of checkered flannel shirts and wooden targets, one where players spend hours staining ax handles or bedazzling them with glitter, carefully sharpen 4-inch blades, then heave them toward bull’s-eyes painted on wooden walls inside chain-link cages.
Severine Cushing shows off her decorated ax during league play on Jan. 21 at Urban Axes. Urban Axes hosts decorating parties for league members. Julia Robinson/ FOR AMERICAN-STATESMANAmerican-Statesman Staff
In many ways, league night at Urban Axes doesn’t differ much from league night at the neighborhood bowling alley or softball diamond. Once a week for eight consecutive weeks, players gather in an attempt to outscore the competition. It’s sporting and social and stress relieving, all rolled into one.
Rules are simple: Athletes play three matches, throwing their axes at a red-painted target five times per match. A bull’s-eye scores five points, the next ring scores three and the outer ring one. On the fifth throw, whoever is leading can call "clutch" and aim at a fist-size green dot for seven points. In case of a tie, players trade their forearm-size axes for a long-handled one that looks like it could shear the head off a rhinoceros. The highest score wins the match; best of three wins the tournament.
PRETEND YOU’RE AN OLYMPIAN: Fit City tries skeleton, bobsled and ski jumping
But since ax throwing involves flinging sharp objects, there are differences, too. For one, participants in Urban Axes’ league sign a waiver that includes the phrase, "I believe I am physically, emotionally and mentally able to participate in axe throwing." They must wear closed-toe shoes. Competitors use their own lanes and don’t retrieve their axes until their opponent has finished throwing.
Jennifer Smith retrieves her ax after a throw during league play at Urban Axes. Julia Robinson/ FOR AMERICAN-STATESMANAmerican-Statesman Staff
And, interestingly, at the Austin venue, which opened in September, they can drink while they toss. "Sharp stuff and beer — it’s kind of funny," said Severine Cushing, 26, who plays in the Sunday night league alongside about 40 other participants.
Urban Axes was founded in 2016 in Philadelphia by a group of Australian and American friends inspired by the popularity of ax throwing in Toronto, where more than a dozen hatchet-throwing clubs operate. Today it operates locations in Philadelphia and Baltimore. It plans to expand to another eight to 10 cities, including Boston, later this year.
The venue provides 1.5-pound axes, but many of the league players buy their own, spending about $30 for each one. Most beginners use two hands to steady the ax overhead before letting it fly. More skilled throwers, like Cushing, toss single-handed.
Cushing signed up for the Sunday night league (there are midweek leagues as well) after trying ax throwing at an open house event. A few weeks ago she hosted an ax-decorating party at her home, and she came to a recent league night wielding an ax bedazzled with glitter and googly eyes.
"I want it to be intimidating, yet approachable," she said of her creation.
PLANS: What’s next for the hike-and-bike trail? Leaders unveil 15 projects
Which is all good, especially when you see Cushing let her ax fly. It sticks to the target with a solid smack, possibly the result of Cushing’s background as a javelin thrower. "I think it helps with channeling the force of the ax," she said. "And you get power from the step."
Earl Ball, Urban Axes general manager, describes the system for scoring an ax throw. Julia Robinson FOR AMERICAN-STATESMANAmerican-Statesman Staff
Her tip to others breaking into the ax-throwing world? "Don’t take it too seriously. Just have fun," she said. "It’s exhilarating. It’s a great sport because anybody can take it up and get good at it."
She makes it sound easy, but it takes time to hone the skill. Not every ax sticks to the wood, for one. Rookies tend to bounce two axes off the wall for every one that wedges firmly into place. And the ones that stick aren’t necessarily anywhere near the target. Veterans, who when they’re in full swing look oddly like airline workers flagging in jumbo jets, know exactly when to release to make an ax stick. They also use a water bottle to spray down the wood now and then, making it more grippy.
John Crowley, 30, of Austin, joined the league to try something different and meet new people. After one visit, he was hooked.
"When you sink one, it’s satisfying," Crowley said. Already he’s learned one of the secrets of an accurate toss. "It’s all about the spirit fingers at the end, the release. When I notice I’m not throwing well, I focus on the release."
Really, though, for many of the players, league play is about more than just ax throwing. "There are a surprising amount of women," Crowley said. "You don’t have to come here and stare at a bunch of bearded men."
LOVE STORY: For 59 years, he brought her flowers. See how he honors her memory now
Because ax throwing is apparently better with a little booze and food under the belt, too, guests can bring their own beer, wine and food. Hard liquor is not permitted; craft beer and rosé seem to be beverages of choice. Drinks aren’t allowed in the throwing arena, and a coach will shut things down if a participant is drunk or acting inappropriately.
"I haven’t seen any bloodshed yet," Crowley said.
Johnathan Taylor drives all the way from Copperas Cove, where he serves in the military, to play in the league. On a recent night, he wore a gray and black plaid kilt with a holster, for easy access to his axes, including one he stained the color of cabernet and another wrapped in red and black stripes, which he calls his Freddy Krueger ax.
"What’s not to like?" he said. "You can drink beer, hang out with friends and throw sharp objects."