By Richard Chin Star Tribune AUGUST 1, 2018 — 3:09PM
Your steely eyes lock on the target as you cock your arm and throw.
The light glints off the deadly blade as it whistles gracefully through the air.
There’s a satisfying “thunk!” and a spray of splinters as the ax head sinks into the wooden board, right in the bull’s-eye. People around you are cheering. A bell is ringing. Someone is handing you a beer.
This, you think, is better than miniature golf.
At least that’s what promoters hope you’ll think when you try your hand at the latest recreational activity to hit the Twin Cities area: ax throwing.
City folk who don’t really need to split wood are picking up axes (actually more like hatchets) and hurling them at targets as part of corporate team-building activities, bachelorette parties or guys’ night out.
In the past year, indoor ax throwing venues have opened in a warehouse space in northeast Minneapolis, in a former canning factory in St. Paul and at a family entertainment center in Oakdale. You can also do it outdoors at a paintball center in Lakeville. It’s a little like going to a bowling alley. They provide the axes, the rules and — once they get city liquor licensing approval — the beer. You can feel like a lumberjack and an athlete: Entrepreneurs are promoting the activity as a new sport with league competition and tournaments.
It might seem scary, but you don’t have to be an action hero. Instructors say they can teach almost anyone to do it — even kids — in a few minutes.
“It’s kind of exciting and fun and a little bit dangerous,” said Jason Kimmel, a 43-year-old Lakeville man who threw axes with a couple of 40-something buddies at FlannelJax’s in St. Paul. “There’s nothing like holding sharp steel in your hand.”
Kimmel’s friend, Scott Brophy, agreed. He first tried ax throwing at a work event. “It was so much fun that we wanted to come back,” he said. “I thought when I walked in that this would be fun to do with our wives.”
Urban ax throwing is a Canadian import. It originated in the Toronto area about 12 years ago.
“Everybody wants to throw an ax. But they might not know it,” said Matt Wilson, who claims to have pioneered recreational ax throwing when he started the Backyard Axe Throwing League in his Toronto backyard in 2006.
In 2011, he opened his first indoor ax throwing business, which now has more than a dozen locations. Competing startups, such as Bad Axe Throwing, which has a location in northeast Minneapolis, followed.
Today, Wilson estimates there are more than 100 throwing venues in Canada and the United States.
“It’s kind of a fun, neat, hot concept,” said Keith Beveridge, an Edina entrepreneur who was in the windshield repair business before he got into ax throwing.
Last April, he opened up FlannelJax’s in the former American Can factory in St. Paul’s Hamline-Midway area. He hopes it’s his pilot venue: He’s looking to open a second location in the Twin Cities area, then branch out with other locations and eventually start a competitive league. (There are two competing governing bodies, the National Axe Throwing Federation and the World Axe Throwing League.)
Evan Walters, the 30-year-old commissioner of the World Axe Throwing League, said it’s poised to be bigger than cornhole.
“The feeling of landing an ax in a board is just much more satisfying than throwing a bag through a hole,” he said. “You just get this rush of adrenaline.”
Cornholers, of course, beg to differ.
“I have not heard of ax throwing. That seems really like a niche sport,” said Frank Geers, president of the American Cornhole Organization (motto: “We are cornhole.”). Geers claims his sport rivals golf in popularity and is poised to be “the world’s biggest sport someday.”
Walters wants ax throwing to be in the Olympics. “That’s my personal goal,” he said.
Hurling sharp metal objects has been around a lot longer than the newest crop of ax throwing venues.
The Lumberjack World Championships (“the Olympics of the forest”) has been held since 1960 in Hayward, Wis., including competition in throwing a full-sized, double-bit, two-edged ax at a wooden target.
Since 2003, the International Knife Throwers Hall of Fame of Austin, Texas, has been holding championships in knife and tomahawk throwing, with categories for three spins, speed throws and throws as far as 89 feet.
Things are more user-friendly at the local ax throwing halls. They are usually set up sort of like a batting cage, with lanes divided by fencing and a wooden board target about 12 feet away.
The businesses supply the instructor to show you techniques for two-handed or one-handed throws that will send the ax spinning once in the air before hitting the target. The result: a satisfying “thunk” as it sticks in the target, or a “thud” as it falls to the floor.
“There’s a real art to it,” Wilson said. “There’s a real beauty to the ax leaving your hand and spinning in the air. It gets you in the gut.”
Unfortunately, it’s not like bowling where you have a ball return machine. Players have to retrieve the ax before throwing it again.
Instructors say the activity is safe as long as you follow basic safety procedures. Like if the ax bounces off the target back toward you, don’t try to catch it. Bad Axe coach Aaron Baker said he’s seen guys try to do that.
“The biggest injury we get are splinters,” said Sarah Rockstad, an ax throwing instructor at FlannelJax’s.
Competition is similar to darts. You score points depending on where you hit the target, but it only counts if the ax sticks in the wood.
“It’s mostly about foot placement,” Rockstad said.
Many of the instructors say women seem to pick it up faster than men.
“They tend to listen to me,” Rockstad said. “The guys, they come up and try to hit it as hard as possible.”
Ax throwing might seem like the latest activity designed to attract the attention of jaded urbanites looking for the next thing after escape rooms. But proponents say it is a new sport with widespread appeal.
“Finding someone who wants to throw an ax, it’s not hard,” said Barry Zelickson, owner of the Big Thrill Factory, which began offering ax throwing at its family entertainment center in Oakdale in February. “It’s one of those things people instinctively want to try.”
Dr. Quentin Gabor understands.
“For those attracted to it, there may be a truly satisfying primal feeling upon wielding the ax that crescendos upon heaving it toward the target and again crescendos upon sinking into the mark — or feeling let down, and compelled to throw again if it fails,” said Gabor, a psychiatrist and University of Minnesota Medical School assistant professor.
He suggested that throwing a deadly weapon may tap into a Freudian “death drive” or let people play out “the Northern archetype of the lumberjack that harks back to adventure amongst solid inhabitors of the deep woods and Northern European heritage and merges with the player’s sense of self.”
Or maybe people are bored with golf outings and making toilet paper bridal gowns.
FlannelJax’s suggests ax throwing for birthday parties, bachelorette parties, divorce parties, even baby or wedding showers.
And it’s a natural for sharing on social media.
“It’s all about that photo of doing something cool,” said Matt Ames, owner of the Barnco entertainment company that opened Battle Axed in Lakeville last year.
Ames and others say the competitive aspect of the activity and the potential for league play give ax throwing long-term potential for repeat customers.
“We don’t think it’s a flash-in-the-pan kind of activity,” he said.