Hi everyone! You’ve seen me make appearances in other peoples’ posts, but when Sam heard that I was going to be trying some unusual sports she buttonholed me to write about them in my first solo venture on this blog.
Toronto is a bit of a haven for all things hipster, including, shall we say, “sports of hipster origin”. Bowling, shuffleboard … and throwing sharp things. In the past few weeks, I’ve had the distinct pleasure of throwing both axes, at the Backyard Axe Throwing League (BATL), a fixture on the Toronto scene for nearly 10 years, and knives at newer arrival Toronto Knife Throwing (TKTO).
Although BATL really did start in backyards, it has now moved indoors and expanded to warehouses all over Ontario. TKTO has just one location, also in a warehouse. Both offer both group booking and league throwing, as well as a drop in option. I participated with friends in a group booking at each location. Both sports seem to have a similar format, where you’re on the range for a few hours with an instructor that teaches you about safety and proper throwing technique. You then rotate through to practice while being coached on technique, and finally there’s a mini-tournament for you to test your newly acquired skills against your friends’.
Both sports are similar to darts in that you’re throwing a sharp object governed by specific rules regarding size and shape, at wooden targets. Knives must be a minimum of 12″ long with no sharp edges – just a pointed tip. Axes must have a 1.5lb head and a wooden handle, and have a sharpened blade. Unlike darts, both knives and axes are thrown overhand, with spin, turning end-over-end before striking – and hopefully sticking into – a target. Knife throwing targets at TKTO were built with the end grain facing out, like a butcher block. Axe targets at BATL are vertical 2×8 planks on a frame. Painted rings on the targets have different values, with the bull’s eye worth a big 5 points.
Novice axe throwers are taught to throw over their heads using a two-handed grip. This is the safest and most controllable throw, and easiest to stick because it aligns the blade of the axe with the grain of the wood. While more advanced throwers seem to favour a one-armed throw that looks a little like a baseball pitch, I liked the symmetrical feel of the overhead throw, and it helped with endurance through a whole session of throwing. For safety reasons, after you throw your axe at the target, you wait for the person in the lane next to you to throw before walking to the target to collect your axe for the next throw.
With knives, you throw three knives per round, one at each of three targets. Because it’s harder to keep track of when all the knives are thrown, there is a range master who announces when to advance to “score your knives” and when you can start throwing again. The basic technique we were taught also uses an overhead throw, but it’s a single arm version that leaves your off hand free to hold your other knives.
In addition to the basic techniques, both sports offer some fun add-ons. At BATL, if your game is tied at the end of regulation throwing, you throw a “Big Axe” from further away in a sudden-death tie breakers. At TKTO, if you tire of throwing on the regular range, you can take a friend into the “Quick-Draw Cage” and see who can pull a knife from a holster and hit the target fastest.
One of the things I really liked about both axe and knife throwing is that although one definitely uses not just upper body muscles, but core and even legs to make strong, consistent throws, and endurance over the course of a session plays a role, throwing is definitely accessible to people of a large range of fitness levels and physical abilities. Skill is more important than strength to success and in league play for both sports, people of all genders compete against each other.
Despite their being perceived as having a macho image, I found that throwing sports are accessible and welcoming. The women and trans friends that I went with all had a great time, and our coaches at both locations, despite their gruff appearance and well groomed beards, were never intimidating or condescending. BATL Toronto East has people across the gender spectrum on staff, and the bachelorette party on the range next to ours blew any remaining stereotypes out of the water with their enthusiastic participation and raucous cheering. There is no question they had the most intense competition of the day.
There are some ways in which I found that throwing sports were less accessible. Certainly, the cost of throwing at an indoor facility isn’t necessarily financially accessible to everyone. That said, two friends that said they wouldn’t be able to afford to join a league but that they thought they might buy an axe and build their own target. I also found both the crowd and the staff at the locations I went to were largely white. I’m hopeful that as these sports grow in popularity, that participants and organizers alike will reach out to other communities to increase diversity and further add to the great sense of community that both sports claim as their hallmark.
Indeed, despite differences in sharp thing and throwing technique, I found that axe and knife throwing are pretty similar when it comes right down to it. They both share the distinctive characteristic of a laid-back, social vibe, even during intense moments of competition. There’s a real sense of fun and that coaches and participants alike create a supportive and encouraging atmosphere. The laid-back attitude extends to bringing your own snacks and drinks, although alcohol is no longer permitted at BATL and I was told that getting cupcake frosting on the axe handles is frowned upon. Nonetheless, I’ll be sure to return to try both knife and axe throwing again, and I’ll bring more friends for even more fun!
Sarah Hinchcliffe is an engineer with a penchant for collecting sports. She doesn’t fence or play field hockey any more, mostly spends her winters on skis and summers in a canoe, and is renewing a life-long love of cycling to join the feminist bloggers on this year’s Friends for Life Bike Rally. Friends might say she is a primarily bacon-fueled athlete but the truth is she doesn’t discriminate between delicious snack foods.