Picks, Axes, and War Hammers

Picks, axes, and war hammers are shock weapons.

Nature and Use

Picks, axes, and war hammers are shock weapons. Like all members of this weaponry class, they are designed to be held rather than thrown and to multiply the amount of force that can be brought to bear upon an opponent, while also extending the warrior’s deadly range beyond the length of the arm.War hammersPicksAxesShock weaponsWar hammersPicksAxesShock weapons

Prehistoric picks, axes, and war hammers were variations on a single basic design. A wooden or bone haft, or handle, served as an extension of the user’s arm, so that the bone, horn, wood, stone, or metal head could be swung through a larger arc, thus acquiring more speed than could be achieved with the arm alone. When the head struck an enemy, its speed and mass transferred sudden, intense pressure to a small area and thereby delivered a wound that could be either disabling or fatal, depending upon the part of the body struck. The three weapons differed only in the impacting surface delivering the force and the type of damage that ensued.

The pick had a pointed head and was meant to puncture. The natural and most force-efficient method for wielding the pick was an overhead stroke, which meant that the head, shoulders, and frontal chest cavity of the opponent were the primary targets. Slanting and even horizontal strokes to the body trunk, although more awkward to perform, could also cause deadly injuries. Furthermore, should the pick point pierce the chest cavity, even if the blow was not swiftly mortal, the small, deep wound that the pick head made was likely to become infected.

The ax-head was a wedge with a sharpened edge that ran parallel to the haft. The Battle-axes[Battle axes]battle-ax almost invariably had a single leading edge rather than double blades. It was for cleaving, slicing, and cutting. Like the pick, the ax was most easily swung vertically, but it was a more versatile weapon because of its broad edge. Although the head and shoulders were the primary points of attack, the entire body, in fact, was at risk. If the ax-head had a sharpened rather than a blunt edge, slanting or horizontal strokes could do severe damage to the arms and legs, breaking bones or severing limbs entirely. Even a glancing blow or partial contact could open a long gash or slice and cause massive bleeding. Because of this utility, axes were nearly universally employed prehistoric weapons, from the first flint heads lashed onto sticks to such specimens as finely crafted North American tomahawks and ornately inlaid Scandinavian two-handed battle-axes.

The head of the war hammer, or war club, was blunt, often only a sturdy wooden knob or lump of stone, and its purpose was to shatter and crush. Although the war hammer could break leg, arm, and rib bones, the primary target areas were, again, the head and shoulders. A direct blow to the head killed by causing massive hemorrhaging even if the skull was not caved in, but even a light or partial impact was likely to stun, at the very least. Likewise, a blow to the shoulders, with their relatively delicate clavicles, could disable enemies and leave them unprotected against further attack. A variation on the war hammer, the Macesmace, had short flanges or spikes protruding from its head. Thus, it pierced and tore the flesh as well as shattered bones.

The great advantages of shock weapons were their accuracy, power, and economy. Even an unskilled warrior was capable of swinging and striking home with a pick, ax, or club, whereas it took considerable training and skill to use successfully such stand-off weapons as javelins or bows. Moreover, unlike javelins and arrows, which once sent in flight were difficult to retrieve for reuse, shock weapons posed a threat as long as warriors had the strength to wield them. On the other hand, picks, axes, and war hammers were very short-ranged, seldom extending the warriors’ effective battle reach more than twice that of the arm alone. The warrior, in close proximity to his enemy, was in imminent danger.

Combatants using shock weapons had to exploit these advantages while mitigating the disadvantages. Archaeological evidence, anthropological studies of nineteenth and twentieth century primitive societies, and surviving weapons reveal three often-employed tactical uses. Most often, battles opened with an exchange of fire from standoff weapons by the front ranks of opposing groups separated by an empty zone. If one group stopped fighting and fled, the second might pursue to kill or capture the enemy. The pursuers then used shock weapons after closing with the foe. Picks, axes, and war hammers also proved effective for fighting in confined spaces where standoff weapons were impractical: for example, a forest ambush or an assault on a fortified area. The weapons could be used to break apart defensive works and to destroy property as well as to harm people.

From left to right, an early sixteenth century battle-ax with a double-headed blade; an early Japanese pick with a stone blade bound to a wooden haft; and a late fifteenth century Italian war hammer with langets securing the head to the haft.

(Kimberly L. Dawson Kurnizki)

Last, shock weapons were occasionally used for close combat. A high degree of discipline is required for troops to meet face-to-face in a battle line, but by the Bronze Age, societies were sophisticated enough to support the requisite level of training, and this basic battle doctrine lasted into the Middle Ages. Engagements almost certainly began with exchanges of arrow or javelin fire, but then the front ranks of warriors advanced on each other until the lines collided, and warriors fought directly with shock weapons. In this hand-to-hand Hand-to-hand combat[hand to hand combat]combat, comrades-in-arms had to be close to one another in the line, practically shoulder-to-shoulder, so that their sides were protected while they concentrated their attack on the enemy warriors directly in front of them. Wood Shieldsshields were developed to protect their fronts, and the initial clash involved each opponent striving to shatter the opponent’s protection in order to force an opening for a killing blow. The side that succeeded in penetrating the line and dividing its enemy usually won the battle.

During the Iron Age, however, swords and lances increasingly became the main battle weapons. Axes, picks, and war hammers were used more and more as auxiliary weapons.


By about 1.5 million years before the present, the first small hand axes were being produced as part of the Acheulean tool tradition of the Lower Stone Age;axesPaleolithic era, the earliest part of the Old Stone Age. Probably first used as tools, these axes, or Biface axesbifaces, were about 4 to 6 inches in length and were made by flaking both sides of a stone to form an edge. The affixation of this biface to a handle was an innovation of the Upper Paleolithic era (35,000 to 10,000 years ago), as was the development of hammers, an evolution of the simple club. The use of obsidian or flint, which could be chipped into a much sharper edge than could other types of rock, began during the Mesolithic, or Middle Stone Age, period in Europe (10,000 to 8,000 years ago). Likewise, picks probably began as simple sticks with pointed ends more or less perpendicular to the handle and evolved in tandem with the ax, as pointed rocks or horns were attached to handles. Picks, axes, and battle-hammers appear to have been employed as weapons generally throughout the prehistoric world during the Mesolithic period, depending only on the availability of suitable materials to make them. Isolated, preliterate cultures continued to use such weapons, in some cases, well into the twentieth century. Indeed, highly developed non-Western armies used such weapons–for example the Zulu Knobkerriesknobkerrie, a short, heavy, wooden club that could be swung or thrown–to telling effect against Western forces with firearms through the nineteenth century.

The addition of the Hafts, Neolithichaft, or handle, to a shaped head was the key technological step in producing shock weapons. Three common methods of attachment developed: lashing the head into a wooden sleeve, as in the vee formed by two branches of a limb; binding the head into split wood; and inserting the head into a bone socket. Rawhide or animal tendons served as lashings. During the Neolithic Stone Age;axesperiod (8,000 to about 4,000 years ago), stoneworkers learned to drill holes into flint by applying alternately heat and water. This process allowed them to insert a haft through the head and wedge it in firmly with shims, improving the strength of the ax.

With one face left blunt and the other shaped to either a point or a blade, the Neolithic weapons could function as combination hammer-axes or pick-axes. When artisans learned to grind the edge, rather than to form it by flaking off chips of flint, they were able to produce slimmer ax-heads with sharper edges, which enhanced the power of the weapons to pierce and slice. These finely wrought axes were valuable commodities. In some areas, notably prehistoric England, axes were highly prized for barter. In fact, archaeologists debate whether the axes were intended to be wielded or to serve strictly as a kind of currency, although they might well have served both functions.

Another innovation occurred when humans began to use Metallurgycopper to make ax-, pick-, hammer-, and mace-heads. The molten metal could be poured into a mold and, after cooling, cold-hammered and whetted to a fine edge. However, copper is soft and the edges quickly dulled. Bronze, an alloy of copper and tin, is much harder, and became the standard material for tools and weapons beginning about 3000 b.c.e. in the Near East. This technical advancement launched the Bronze Bronze AgeAge. About 1600 b.c.e. Roman artisans began making tools and weapons from brass, a zinc-copper alloy harder and more durable than bronze. About 2500 b.c.e. in SumeriansSumer, craftspeople moved the socket holding the handle to the back of the ax-head, reducing its weight and giving the weapon better balance.

In Europe;NeolithicEurope during the Neolithic period, maces were more common than axes, and at Çatalhüyük[Catalhuyuk]Çatalhüyük in modern Turkey, the site of a large Neolithic settlement, archaeologists uncovered copper maces dating from as early as 7000 b.c.e. Because they were difficult to make, these early copper maces may have been the weapons of leaders. An indication of their status appears in a small relief sculpture dating from around 3100 b.c.e., showing MenesMenes (Egyptian pharoah)Menes (c. 3100-3000 b.c.e.), the first Pharaoh to rule all of Egypt, striking an enemy’s head with a mace.

The advent of iron and steel made it possible to shape more elegantly flared, sharper ax-heads with thinner heads, as was true, for instance, with the two-handed Viking battle-ax. MacesMaces became common weapons during the Middle Ages, whereas picks were relegated to use in warfare primarily for digging and breaking down defensive structures. These weapons became obsolete after the introduction of fire-arms, and by the beginning of the sixteenth century, European armies were unlikely to carry them into battle.War hammersPicksAxesShock weapons

Books and Articles

  • “Anglo-Saxon Broadax.” Military History, 24, no. 3 (May, 2007): 21.
  • Bennett, Matthew, et al. Fighting Techniques of the Medieval World, A.D. 500 to A.D. 1500. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2005.
  • Diagram Group. The New Weapons of the World Encyclopedia: An International Encyclopedia from 5000 B.C. to the Twenty-first Century. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2007.
  • Dupuy, R. Ernest, and Trevor N. Dupuy. “The Dark Ages–Battle-Ax and Mace: 800-1000.” In Encyclopedia of Military History from 3500 B.C. to the Present. New York: Harper and Row, 1977.
  • Ferrill, Arther. Origins of War: From the Stone Age to Alexander the Great. Rev. ed. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1997.
  • Grant, R. G. Warrior: A Visual History of the Fighting Man. New York: DK, 2007.
  • Guilaine, Jean, and Jean Zammit. The Origins of War: Violence in Prehistory. Translated by Melanie Hersey. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2005.
  • Hogg, Oliver Frederick Gillilan. Clubs to Cannon: Warfare and Weapons Before the Introduction of Gunpowder. London: Duckworth, 1968.
  • Keely, Lawrence H. War Before Civilization. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.
  • Nicolle, David. A Companion to Medieval Arms and Armour. Rochester, N.Y.: Boydell Press, 2002.
  • Otterbein, Keith F. How War Began. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2004.

Films and Other Media

  • Barbarian Battle Tech. Documentary. History Channel, 2007.
  • The Dark Ages. Documentary. History Channel, 2007.

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