30 June 2013

Real-World Weapons: The Axe and Mace


I must admit, I am significantly less familiar with the short unbalanced weapons than I am with, say, the sword and spear. Additionally, there are no period texts detailing the use of the mace or the short axe. Dagger, sword, spear, poleaxe, yes - axe and mace, no. So much of what we can say about these weapons is speculative.

What we can do is look at surviving specimens and accurate reproductions to get a sense of what the weapons were like, physically.


A standard European mace. This is likely a little out-of-period for me, likely c. 1450-1500, but is substantially similar to earlier models. Image courtesy of Nazanian and Wikimedia Commons.
Replica battleaxe, based on an archeological find in Norway. Reasonably typical of battleaxes in general. Photo from myArmoury.com, axe by Arms & Armour.

First off, these weapons are shorter than I had previously thought - one handed maces don't seem to vary much from the 24" mark. They're also lighter than I had thought - rarely more than 3 lbs, and often only 2 lbs - sometimes less. The same goes for axes, although they tend to be a little smaller and lighter still!

The balance point ranges from the middle of the weapon to a little past the middle (i.e. closer to the head). It looks like the balance point would be further, but there you are.

This all contributes to making maces and axes significantly handier in combat than you might expect.

Mace - Description

The difference between a mace and a club is subtle. To my mind, the defining features of the mace are two-fold: all-metal construction, and the use of flanges or knobs on the head.

Length: 20-30"
Weight: 2lb
Balance point: 2/3 up from butt end.

Mace Variation - Morning Star

The morning star is simply a mace with spikes instead of knobs or flanges, especially if there is one larger spike at the very top for thrusting.

Axe Description

Military axes had very small, thin, light heads compared to woodcutting axes or hatchets. The head would also often have a cut-out between the blade and haft, allowing for the axe to be used for hooking, and reducing weight while maximizing cutting area.

Weight: 1-2lb

Axe Variation - Military Pick / Warhammer

A military pick or warhammer are basically just piercing or bludgeoning versions of the axe. Some axes even incorporate a pick on their back end, and most warhammers have a hammer side and a pick side. Otherwise, they are very similar to an axe. 


It seems to be a common misconception that maces and axes were big, heavy things that dealt damage through their weight and brute force. The reality is that they were usually smaller and lighter than swords, and relied as much on the speed of the swing as on their unbalanced weight distribution.


Archaeological evidence shows that people killed by axe blows were typically struck from above, leading me to believe that fendente (i.e. overhead strikes) were more typically used with these weapons than mezzane (strikes parallel with the ground). Logically, this makes sense - gravity would be pulling the heavy head of the weapon down, lending more force to the blow for free.

The other common injury with axes seen is leg injuries. This is likely because axes were used with shields - two fighters with shields apparently find opportunities to hook the axe under the opponent's shield. Later treatises of the sword don't describe leg strikes - they focus on attacks to the head, neck, and weapon arm.


A dagger play that might be usable with an axe. From the Pissani-Dossi MS of Fiore Dei Liberi's manual.

Two more dagger plays that might work with an axe or mace. From the Paris Manuscript by Fiore Dei Liberi.

If using an axe or mace with your other hand empty, you could possibly do some dagger/baton defences with the shaft. The problem immediately apparent in adapting these plays is that axes - while they can thrust - are not suited for the devastating thrusts to the vitals that daggers are capable of.

It may be possible to do some of the sword defences, but the short shaft and lack of guard would limit your options there. While handier than you'd think, an axe or mace is not going to be a great option for your only defensive weapon.

Except in urgent situations, typically an axe or mace would be used with a shield. This makes up for the lack of agility compared with a sword - at least compared to a sword without a shield.


  1. There's some videos of viking fighting with axes and the leg strikes make lotts of sense from viewing the video.
    The weight of the real life weapons is enlightening but of course make perfect sense, having a weapon that tires you out in seconds is pointless.

  2. Years ago on SFI there was talk about about either an Arabic or Persian manual for the mace. Sadly, I can't remember much beyond that, but it might be an interesting line of inquiry.

    1. I have heard of this, but have not been able to find it - let alone an English translation.

      Any other details would be helpful.

    2. http://www.swordforum.com/forums/showthread.php?40839-For-Maister-Brown-Islamic-Mace

    3. Thanks, Thomas. Actually I had seen this a while ago - it's more of a pamphlet than a manual!

      It would have been great if it was a little more in-depth, along the lines of the European fight books.

  3. I also had the feeling that maces and axes during the 15th and 16th centuries were primarily used while mounted against other mounted men-at-arms.

    1. It seems to me that these weapons would be equally useful on foot or on horseback, although footmen would probably more likely choose a similar two-handed weapon, like a hammer- or axe-headed poleaxe.

  4. It would be good to get your thoughts on the difference between mounted and infantry combat when using all these weapons, there must have been some impact on their use, enough to quantify for game use?

    1. Indeed, there are important differences with some weapons on horseback or vs horseback.

      I'm still working on mounted combat, but I think once I've worked out foot combat thoroughly, mounted combat will be fairly easy to slot in.

      Stay tuned!

  5. Would you have the axe do more damage due to its cutting ability, or the same damage as a mace? I can accept that a crushed humerus is just as effective as a severed one, but the axe seems to be a more penetrating weapon.

    1. No, I think it's simpler to treat them the same. I'm trying to give just enough flavour to each class of weapon to differentiate them without getting bogged down by differences between individual weapons in the class.

      If a mace and an axe are going to be treated differently, why not a gladius and an arming sword? A halberd and a poleaxe? A gladius and a falchion?

      It quickly gets very, very, complicated. And I would say the distinctions, at that point, are well below the level of abstraction of a useable combat system.