Small hand axes tended to just be wood-axes which were used for combat. The construction of all axes followed the same general principal. A flat strip of 'soft' iron is folded in half around a mandrel to create the socket. A slice of much harder iron that has the properties of knife steel, is then fire welded in between the two iron halves at the cutting edge end. This limits the amount of expensive steel that is needed for the business end, keeping the rest of the axe relatively cheap. The hafts of the smaller axes were between 60 and 95cm (2' - 3') long with a blade about 7.5 - 15cm (3" - 6") wide. One special type of hand axe, particularly popular in the early Viking period, was the 'skegox', or bearded axe, so called because of its elongated lower edge.
The axe as a weapon is good in attack, but fairly poor as a tool to defend yourself with. It is a weapon that quickly induces fear, as it takes little imagination to guess what it could do. The user needs to be very confident of the outcome of a clash, as he will be fighting with a weapon that is quite heavy, resulting in easily over-committed blows. This could quite easily be his undoing against a warrior using a lighter weapon such as a spear, who is aware of the axe's shortcomings. A skilled fighter can with even a spear disarm a man wielding an axe by catching the axe where is joins the shaft and sweeping it out of the hand of the wielder.
In early Anglo-Saxon times some warriors used a special type of axe known as a 'francisca'. This axe was quite small, with a thick triangular section at the socket, resulting in a very heavy blade for it's small size. The francisca was designed for throwing, and had been particularly popular amongst the Franks. The Francisca is supposed to have been thrown in a massed volley to create certain amounts of mayhem prior to the onrush of the host of warriors. How well this worked is anyones guess today. Just the act of throwing the axe was probably enough to break the concentration of the opposing force for just the right amount of time before the warriors rushed in.
The Broadaxe, or Dane-axe, was a two handed axe introduced by the Vikings in the late tenth century but which soon became popular with Saxons as well, and was probably developed from the axes used to slaughter animals. The blades from existing examples in museums demonstrate that they have very thin section blades, designed to hack flesh apart. If they were as bulky as the smaller axe, it would prove to be too heavy for any sensible use. Usually used only by the wealthier semi-professional warriors it has a broad blade with a cutting edge of about 22 - 45cm (9" - 18") and a long wooden ash haft some 1.2 - 1.5m (4' - 5' long).
The Bayeux tapestry and accounts from the battle of Hastings show these Dane-axes wielded by the Huscarls cleaving 'both man and horse in two' at the same time. The Dane-axe's only drawback was that you need to have both hands on the shaft of the axe, with your shield slung across your back, leaving your front wide open to attack. The introduction of the Dane-axe is credited to King Cnut, who is also credited with the whole concept of the Karl or Huscarl you can see on the left. With such a fearsome tool to hand, few people would question this mans reasons. The action of swinging the axe prevents the Huscarl from standing close to any of his fellow huscarls, and this may well lead to trouble for him from any thrown javelin, however, the sheer ferocity of this warrior would daunt most foes, prompting them to make mistakes.
Original article by Ben Levick, 1991
Revised by Roland Williamson, 1999