Ericca Smith and Kristen Gandolfo throw their hatchets.
Neither blade makes contact with the target. Instead, they bounce off the wood and onto the floor of the caged trailer they are in. The women retrieve their hatchets and return to the red throw line. After a pause, they raise their hatchets and deftly throw again.
The blades of both hatchets stick to the wood. Though neither of the women hit the bulls eye, they are elated and high five each other.
The women are participating in one of the hottest new sports to sweep the country: ax throwing.
Think of it as high-octane darts.
“It’s something you can’t do anywhere else. It’s kind of, like, a little rebellious. It’s kind of against the norm,” said Banks Baker, owner of The Flying Hatchet, Greensboro’s first ax-throwing venue.
The sport, which has made its way down from Canada, mixes beer and blade. Ax bars are trending across the country, including the Triad. Tap That Axe Throwing has opened in Clemmons. Axe Club of America, which has two locations in Charlotte, is opening soon in Winston-Salem.
Baker, and business partner Chase Strange, wanted to get the jump on the sport in Greensboro. They built a caged two-lane ax-throwing arena out of an old camper trailer and hit the road several weeks ago taking the thrill to the bars. It may be the first mobile ax-throwing venue in the state.
“We’re trying to hit as many breweries as possible, you know, to give them something to do,” Baker said.
On a particular Thursday evening, the trailer was parked at Dram and Draught, a cocktail bar in an old service station at the intersection of South Eugene Street and Gate City Boulevard. Smith and Gandolfo stopped by after work to have a drink and throw hatchets. They were still in their work blouses and slacks, though Gandolfo did change out of her heels and into flats before entering the cage.
“We’ve seen this before and we wanted so desperately to try it,” Smith said. “It’s fun, but difficult. It’s worth the money.”
Throws are a buck a piece. Sometimes practice throws are allowed for first-timers like Smith and Gandolfo. They are coached by Strange who, along with Baker, call themselves “axperts” or “ax masters.”
“I don’t know how those lumberjacks do it,” Gandolfo said.
For many, though, it’s serious sport. The World Axe Throwing League, or WATL, has an entire website devoted to rules and technical information. The ESPN television network has aired the league’s world championship.
For the rest of us, it’s just pure adrenaline — and sometimes alcohol — fueled fun. Baker said its edgy and appeals to millennials.
“You’re able to tip toe on the edge without crossing it and have a lot of fun. It feels like, for lack of a better word, you’re being a bad ass,” Baker said.
Baker and Chase exercise discretion when sizing up customers.
“If someone is obviously intoxicated, like they are stumbling, we don’t let them in,” Chase said.
Baker and Strange plan to open a 10-lane brick and mortar venue next door to Dram and Draught in four or five months.
Not all ax-throwing venues mix spirits and blades. Kersey Valley in Archdale has alcohol-free hatchet throwing.
“I have seen families really enjoy ax throwing as something to do in a safe alcohol-free environment,,” said owner Tony Wohlgemuth who has been following the trend and wanted to add the experience to his entertainment venue.
Kersey Valley is 60 acres of heart-stopping attractions that started with a haunted house in 1985. Over the years Wohlgemuth has added year-round attractions to keep the business viable such as zip lines, a ropes course and escape rooms. He added the ax throwing in February.
While on spring break recently, Houston Parrish and his grandfather Ray Parrish came up from Randleman to throw hatchets at Kersey Valley’s two indoor lanes.
“Readyyyy ... and throw!” calls Andrea Jarrett, one of Kersey Valley’s trained axperts.
The handle of Ray’s hatchet strikes the wood and it bounces to the floor. The blade of Houston’s hatchet plants itself nicely two rings below the bulls eye.
Four points for Houston. Zero for granddad.
“You’re being very consistent Houston,” Jarrett praises.
Houston, 14, cracks a sheepish smile revealing braces as he and his grandfather retrieve their hatchets.
Throwers get a 10-minute lesson on technique, rules and safety. Scoring is done on a digital score board. Throwers can choose music that is played on loud speakers to keep the mood interesting.
“It’s a combination of darts and bowling,” Ray Parrish said.
Throwing a hatchet is a lot like throwing a dart with a straight, fluid motion of the lower arm bent at the elbow.
“She told us how to keep our arm parallel to the floor and how to follow through with the throw,” Houston said as he demonstrates the robot-like movement Jarrett taught him.
It does take some strength to throw the 3-pound hatchet, but you don’t want to overcompensate. Baker, of The Flying Hatchet, said that might be the reason women sometimes are better ax throwers than men. Men who are throwing for fun tend be macho and throw the hatchets too hard.
“It’s not about throwing it hard, it’s about the rotation of the ax and technique,” Baker said.
“I’ve seen mom’s beat out the dads quite often.”
About 12 feet is the ideal distance that allows the hatchet to make a complete rotation before the blade strikes the wood. A little too close or too far away, another part of the hatchet will hit with a thud and it will end up on the floor.
In a controlled environment, the sport isn’t as hazardous as you’d think.
“It’s no more dangerous than eating a tough steak,” Ray Parrish laughs.
Kersey Valley also offers an outdoor ax throwing course that allows throwers to move from one target to another in a wooded setting. The course is designed to comply with WATL standards, and each of the 11 targets is different. Some are the typical bulls-eye. Others are made up of patterns that require some sort of sequence of play, such as hitting different images of insects or tic-tac-toe.
High octane darts meets miniature golf.
Wohlgemuth said it’s the first ax course in the state.
“I like taking ideas that are trending and reinventing them at Kersey Valley,” Wohlgemuth said.
Distances can vary between targets, as do scores, which makes the course more challenging than a lane. The thrower has to figure out how many revolutions the hatchet must make to insure the blade strikes wood. The longest distance is a whopping 25 feet which translates to two complete rotations of the hatchet. Another target is suspended like a gong.
Back at Dram and Draught, friends Smith and Gandolfo concede the cage to two more customers.
Bruce Dabbs and Richard Dean have come specifically to throw back a few — drinks and hatchets — for Dabbs’ birthday.
“I can’t think of anything better than to drink and throw axes. That sounds like a great birthday for 46,” Dabbs said.
Smith and Gandolfo said they planned to do it again and bring friends.
“I’m going to go to work tomorrow and be like, ‘I did the coolest freaking thing,” Gandolfo said.
“You don’t throw an ax every freaking day.”