It’s nothing new.
Think back to the donkey on the wall, the spiked tail in hand and the near impossible target — replace blindfolded spins with a beer buzz, the donkey ass for a wood-crafted scoreboard and the tail for a hand axe, one of the first tools our species made back in the early Stone Age.
On a late-spring evening 2.5 million years later, Stephanie Meletti of Greensboro is throwing for the first time outside Dram & Draught.
“We’re always looking for something other than going to a bar, but we want to go to a place where we can meet other people and relive all the energy we’ve got,” Meletti says of the over-40 social meetup group that got her here tonight.
“We came for a stress relief, but the drinks are a bonus. And where else are you going to see women having a great time with an axe,” adding with a whisper, “when there’re not police involved.”
Unlike in weight rooms, none of the men could be heard grunting, at least not in this crowd, whereas some women let out full roars from the Flying Hatchet’s mobile throwing lanes. The brand-new business parks outside Dram & Draught in Greensboro every Thursday and Pig Pounder every Friday. They’ll also set up shop for private events like birthdays, wedding and corporate “team building” events. Co-owners Chase Strange and Banks Baker, both in their twenties, decided to take a chance on the idea after wandering into an axe-throwing bar in Georgia about two months ago.They tracked down an old motorhome camper, stripped it and added the wooden targets so that throwers step inside an enclosed, open-air “cage.”
Axe Throwing Insurance, a company that specializes in insurance for this niche market, doesn’t yet quote for mobile operations because it’s such a new concept. The Flying Hatchet did find a company willing to extend a million-dollar liability insurance deal, though, which also shelters host bars. Six weeks into their venture, armed with financial investment from local powerbrokers like Marty Kotis, they’re already aiming to construct 15 additions to their fleet over the next few months and they’ve already drafted blueprints for a 1,000-square-foot facility near the corner of South Eugene Street and Gate City Boulevard. Long-empty warehouses in bygone industrial districts make for excellent locales, both in blueprint and rustic authenticity. The concept is a social lounge, but with axes — an edgy, athletic cousin to novelty social spaces like escape rooms and cat cafés.
“Bowling alleys aren’t just for bowling — you go there to socialize,” Strange says. “Our main goal is to get more people to come out and socialize with their friends.”
But axe-throwing is more viscerally satisfying than bowling a strike, particularly for urban and suburban dwellers removed from the necessary labor of splitting wood. A bit of a modern departure from the francisca axes the Franks hurled during combat in the early Middle Ages, the hand-axe phenomenon is a more obvious descendant of timbersports competitions in Canada, but in the US translates as an evolution of vaguely athletic social activities like darts and bowling with a lumberjack-fantasy twist. As a competitive sport, axe-throwing has been gaining popularity for more than a decade in Canada, boasting several national and international governing bodies and a world championship. The trend, as both competition and leisure, took off in major US cities in 2016. Serena Williams delivered a decisive blow to the abdomen of an outlined person on the wooden scoreboard on “The Tonight Show” with Jimmy Fallon in late 2018, just as the trend trickled down to North Carolina.
Strange says his mobile operation is one of three on the East Coast, with the others based in Tennessee and Florida, but that brick-and-mortars with multiple throwing lanes are quickly popping up in NC cities like Asheville, Archdale, Durham, Charlotte, Raleigh, Fayetteville and Wilmington, and smaller towns like Clemmons. A new branch of Charlotte-based Axe Club of America just opened in Winston-Salem. In addition to pay-to-throw hours on Thursday through Sunday, the indoor throwing venue hosts a competitive league on Monday and Tuesday nights in the Winston Junction building. It’s not a bar, but they serve local craft beer.
All venues train staff to instruct newcomers how to throw before anyone picks up a surprisingly light (typically 1.5 lbs.) hand axe. The throw is more of a chop from the elbow than from the shoulder, following one forward step with the non-dominant leg. Ideally, the hand axe should make one rotation before hitting the target of concentric circles painted on pine planks, the top corner of the blade sinking into soft wood.
Aside from its novelty appeal, it’s reason to let out a holler, to strut, to pose for a photo. It’s an opportunity to assert control, to unburden oneself, to experience elation, however fleeting. And despite everything that can be said about the trend’s diminishing novelty and some of these venues’ complicity in gentrification, there’s something to be said for, or at least be curious about, the rise of a socially-acceptable outlet for rage, weaponry and the endorphin rush; something poignant about the song of a brass bell rung after bullseye landings and for the whiff of sweet pine the thrower might notice upon yanking an ancient hand tool loose from a splintered scoreboard.
It still satisfies, even 2.5 million years later.
Find out more about the Flying Hatchet on their Facebook page.