An ax sinks into the bull’s-eye at the Axe Pit in South Portland. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

SOUTH PORTLAND – There’s a man who regularly comes into the Axe Pit on Clark’s Pond Parkway at the end of his workday. 

Axe Pit co-owner Connor Winn at the South Portland business. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

“When he comes in, he might say hello, but that’s about all,” says Connor Winn, co-owner of the business. 

That customer is in no mood for chitchat. All he wants to do is hurl ax after ax at the pine boards.  

Whap! Whap! Whap! 

For an hour, the fellow assaults the pine boards and occasionally the hemlock plank at the center of the bull’s-eye. He sinks the blade deep into the boards, retrieves it and does it all over again. 

Whap! Whap! Whap! 

Does it make him feel better? 

You’d be surprised – there’s quite a lot of therapeutic value, as it happens, in chucking bladed implements at a wall. 

“By the time he was ready to leave,” Winn says, “he’d leave a completely different man.” 

Winn and his staff see it all the time. Couples come in with their kids and want to throw the axes as a family. Old-timers arrive in groups, skipping bingo that night in favor of hurling tomahawks. Single guys, groups of buddies, or just your average working-class Joes and Janes looking to have some fun or relieve frustrations at the end of the day. 

An assortment of axes are available at the Axe Pit in South Portland. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

“There is not a demographic that I have found who are more predisposed to throwing axes than others,” Winn tells us. “This is a sport for everybody.” 

He’s right, you know. It ain’t rocket science – although the very first ax I threw slapped against the boards like a dead fish and then fell stupidly to the floor. All it took was a few adjustments and I was sinking my blade like Grizzly Adams himself. 

Ax throwing – and yes, it’s a bona fide sport; there’s a league and everything – isn’t meant to be complicated. 

“It’s like you’re chopping firewood,” Winn explains, “but it just happens to be across the room.” 

It’s a great line and a funny one, but it’s also pretty much true. As I threw ax after ax at the bull’s-eye, I found the throwing motion to be almost identical to the technique I’d use if I were splitting wood for burning. 

By the time you get into your groove, you’re not even thinking about it. You’re just throwing and awaiting the satisfying whap! on the other end. 

Sun Journal reporter Mark Laflamme gets serious before trying his hand at ax throwing at the Axe Pit in South Portland recently. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

“Simplicity is everything,” says Winn. “You don’t want to over-engineer it. That’s what a lot of people do – they think that it’s all about flicking the wrist or using just the forearm. The more that you try to engineer this, the harder everything gets.” 

The dude knows a lot about axes and how best to throw them. And that’s a good thing because there’s a lot of ax throwing going on at the Axe Pit, which has a dozen lanes, separated by chain-link fencing, and can accommodate up to 72 people throwing all at once. 

AX THROWING: COMPETITIVE AND MEDITATIVE

So, how did Winn get involved in this weird business? As it happens, he was just a guy throwing axes in his backyard. The creation of the Axe Pit was actually the work of another man, Tim Johnson, who opened the business in 2017 after discovering the joys of ax throwing at a place called Rage while visiting Montreal with his wife. 

“It was just this little hole in the wall ax throwing place, but they had a blast,” Winn says. 

Returning to Maine, Johnson discovered that there was no place here at all where one could throw axes indoors. He opened a small shop in Westbrook, found that ax throwing was going to catch on, and decided to expand. He already owned and operated the Maine Warrior Gym on Clark’s Pond Parkway in South Portland and he found space next door for the Axe Pit. 

Boom! The business opened up and, what do you know? There are plenty of people out there who want to throw axes and for a variety of reasons. 

“It’s a stress reliever,” Winn says. “It’s just a lot of fun and it can be very skillful. It can be very relaxing, and it can also be really intense. The beautiful thing about ax throwing is it can be what you want it to be.” 

The Axe Pit sees a lot of new customers, but it also has its regulars. On social media, you hear from both types as they return from an afternoon of flinging the blades. 

An ax sinks into the bull’s-eye at the Axe Pit in South Portland. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

“Want to spend an evening doing something unusual and fun?” wrote one woman on Facebook. “Go to the Axe Pit and get in touch with your inner warrior. It’s harder than you might think and hence, way more fun than if it were a piece of cake. Challenging and good clean fun. We were a party of nine in two lanes and we had a great time!” 

“Had a great time with my daughter today,” wrote a local man. “The guys running the place were friendly and helpful, and the wide variety of sharp objects to throw was cool.” 

For some, it’s a social event, and who really cares how poorly or well he or she throws the ax? Some ax throwers like to have a few beers while getting their chop on, although there IS a three-beer limit (“for obvious reasons,” states a sign at the bar).

For others, the fun lies in competition, while for more than a few, throwing axes is almost meditative. 

“For a couple of my employees, this is a very relaxing experience,” Winn says. “Zen is the word that one of them likes to use. But for me, I love the competitive – the intense nature of it, because that’s what amps me up: doing well and being skillful and competing against people.” 

Some use bowling score sheets to keep track of their progress and to make a game out of it.  

There’s also the World Axe Throwing League, of which the Axe Pit is a founding member. The league was created because, while the sport of “urban ax throwing” was expanding internationally, there wasn’t much communication between different clubs. Rules were not standardized. Something had to be done. 

The Axe Pit has an area for patrons to sit and relax, drink a beer or just hang out. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

“Our vision is to prove that indoor ax throwing isn’t just a unique experience, it can be a competitive sport,” according to the WATL website. “We want to unite indoor urban ax-throwing facilities from around the world under one professional ax-throwing association.” 

The creation of the league allows rules to be set as canon, and as a result of that, there can be bona fide tournaments where committed ax throwers can rise to the championship level. 

And so on. But our visit to the Axe Pit was more about recreation than competition, which means I need make no mention of the fact that I completely outmatched Sun Journal photographer Russ Dillingham at the boards. 

MAKE THEM GO TO HOME DEPOT

By the time Winn came aboard and made a career out of ax throwing, he had already been hurling bladed implements at trees and such for six years. He started with a simple SOG Fast Hawk Mini he bought at Walmart. 

“I was like: Oh. This is kind of cool. I’m going to figure out how to throw this,” Winn recalls. “And it took me about three months over the course of a summer because I was just kind of throwing it hard at a pine tree. Nothing would stick, and then all of a sudden one day I got it. It clicked and I understood what I was doing. And ever since then, I just keep on throwing and I keep getting better. I kept improving until I had the opportunity to make it my my day job.” 

But surely the axes thrown at the Axe Pit are much fancier than that, right? 

The Axe Pit offers a well-stocked bar, but for good reason owners impose a limit on how much customers can buy. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

Well, yes and no. When you plunk down $20 for an hour of throwing, there’s a good variety of axes to choose from. Don’t just choose the first ax you see, Daniel Boone, or the prettiest. Your choice of weapon is important, and what works for you might not work so well for your husband, son or daughter. 

“Everybody’s different,” Winn explains. “And not everybody’s going to be able to throw the same weapon the same way. So, we do have a variety because people really enjoy picking something up and and feeling the different characteristics of it. Some of them are longer, shorter, heavier. The blade geometry is different, the shapes of the heads are different. Some of them are hatchets or more like axes, some of them are tomahawks, which are traditionally made for throwing. But people find that they like one kind or another.” 

The axes weigh between a half-pound and a pound-and-a-half. Some are no different than that battered old hatchet you bring along on camping trips. The double-bladed tomahawk is a little more exotic and there are quite a few different models in between. 

Winn and his staff are definitely there to help guide the newcomer to the world of ax throwing. They’ll help with ax selection and then go over some of the finer points of technique before you start chucking your ax at the pine. There’s also a  quick, mandatory safety overview at the beginning because nobody wants to lose a toe. 

For me, learning the best way to throw an ax is to just do it. Throw, throw again and then throw some more. I found that my body – mainly the arms, shoulders and back muscles – automatically made adjustments so that each throw was a little better than the last.  

As some wise soul said at the beginning of all this, throwing axes ain’t rocket science. Start throwing and before long, chances are good that you’re going be splitting those pine and hemlock boards wide open. Don’t feel bad: The Axe Pit is located next door to a Home Depot, so they have no problem scooting over for lumber when they need more boards. 

Make them need them. 

One of the signs for the Axe Pit at the entrance of the South Portland business. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

Ax throwing is clearly not just for Canada, for lumberjacks or for fits of rage anymore. The WATL reports that it has members in pretty much every U.S. state now and in several countries as well. 

Some believe that ax throwing may one day climb in popularity to the levels of more mainstream recreational sports like bowling or darts. Why not? If you know how to hold a hammer, you can probably figure out how to throw an ax. And once you throw that ax, it’s real easy to tell yourself that you need just one more throw, and maybe another one after that. 

I’m here to tell you: Once you start tossing axes at those boards, it’s real easy to get hooked. When I got home from the Axe Pit, I was tempted to set up some kind of ax-throwing lane in the basement, but that didn’t work out so well – puncture the hot water heater just once and your family will never forgive you. 

So, you can kind of see why the Axe Pit seems to have a good mix of curious newcomers and fully addicted regulars who just can’t get enough. 

“The feedback from the general public that come through here has been really positive,” Winn says. “We’re still keeping busy and people still keep showing up. And the best thing is when people come once, they tend to come back.” 

Sun Journal reporter Mark LaFlamme gives it a try at the Axe Pit in South Portland recently, allegedly besting Sum Journal photographer Russ Dillingham. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

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