Boarding Axes From the Age of Sail  Hache d’abordage, Enterbijl, Entrebil, Änterbila,  Entrebile, Hachas de Abordaje
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Boarding Axes by Nation


Function

Ships carried a large quantity of tools to meet any eventuality. These of course included axes for fire fighting - fire being an ever present hazard on wooden ships - for general repairs, and for tree felling and wood gathering ashore.


The main uses of an axe when fire fighting, whether at sea or on land, were for breaking open doors, smashing windows or knocking holes in walls and roofs to affect a rescue, releasing smoke or creating fire breaks. The thin angle of the blade as well as the spike could also be driven into the gaps around doors and windows to lever them open. At sea during battle this would also include damage control such as clearing fallen rigging and spars by cutting and dragging them clear and to pry out embedded hot cannon balls before they set the wood alight.

Axes were therefore always part of a vessel’s equipment and it is from these that the Boarding Axe evolved to fill a niche created by the art of naval warfare at the time of the great sailing ships.  

As well as being used for damage control they were also used as a combat tool in any boarding action between vessels, and it was this action that generally concluded the fight. The boarding axe was used to cut through anti-boarder nets and lines, to cut through rigging or ropes holding gun ports open, to smash through the doors and windows of cabins to attack the opposing crew who may be defending that as a stronghold. And of course in melee an axe may not be as good as a sword or cutlass but it was still a handy personal weapon.

A boarding party would always include a complement of axe carriers to support the main body of marines and sailors armed with musket and cutlass. As the axes were generally stored in racks near each gun they were also handy for defence against enemy boarders, being quickly available to the gun crews to cut grappling lines or defend themselves.

Form

The functions listed above help define the form of a boarding axe - a cutting blade opposed by a spike, often downward curving and mounted on a wooden shaft long enough to be used two-handed and nearly always with protective langets fitted.

The boarding axe is much lighter than a tree felling axe and the cross-section profile is of narrower angle - almost flat in some cases - than the wedge shape of a wood cutter, where the shape of the wedge helps to split the wood. No such large angle is needed for smashing doors or cutting rope or for that matter flesh. The axe blade needs to be sharp enough to cut rope of varying thickness whether severing one inch manila in a single cut or chopping through mainlines at several times that diameter.

The curvature of the blade edge is also significant. Consider splitting wood, where the best position is for the log to be raised on a block above the ground so that the edge of the axe strikes more or less horizontally and then continues down through the log. This position is ideal for straight edged blades.

Now consider trying to cut through a rope on the deck at foot level - unless you bend your knees or alter the swing awkwardly in order to keep the cutting edge horizontal, the corner of the blade is likely to cut into the deck before a clean cut is made. Crescent shaped or flared blades offer an advantage for cutting at various heights and angles.

Except for Britain and America most boarding axes have curved edges for this reason. Britain stuck with its chisel shaped pattern and straight edge for decades but it is interesting to note that many private purchase axes show British features but with crescent blades.

Perhaps this finally had some influence on the British admiralty because the 1859 model adopted a flared blade pattern. Note also that although the French reduced the curvature on their 1801 model they returned to a deeper arc in the 1833 issue.


Attributes of a boarding axe:







McGrath and Barton give a comprehensive insight into boarding actions and the weapons used.

With regard to boarding axes they quote from the manual  “Instructions for training a ships crew in the use of arms in attack and defence”, written by Lieutenant Green an experienced officer who served at Trafalgar.

 “....it was not such an effective weapon,…… as it was a weapon that when sharpened is of great service in cutting rigging……inferior to thrusting weapons, such as the musket and bayonet, pike and cutlass”.


Boudroit notes that ordinary ship axes and poll axes were sometimes issued to individual members of boarding parties to complete a specified task, for example the cutting of gun port lanyards or for staving in deck planking to allow grenades to be dropped between decks.


The spike was used as a hook - which is why it is often downward curving - to drag away and clear tangled rigging and to pry out cannon balls from the wood structures. The hook could also be used to assist boarding from a small boat by hooking onto lines and assisting the climb. The boarding axe ladder formed from axes spiked into a ship’s hull is, however, regarded as myth.

The shaft of the axe was generally long enough to be used two-handed for bigger cutting jobs but the axe was also light enough to be used one-handed to cut smaller ropes using the other hand to hold it against a firm backing. In general handles were approximately 22-28” (56-71 cm) long, except in the Scandinavian countries where longer handles were the norm.

Handles often had a ball shape or swelling at the end to help prevent the axe slipping through the hands. The long handle made it easier to drag tangled rigging away using the spike as a hook, especially if it was on fire, but of course many surviving axes have had the handles reduced in length at some time in their lives.


Boarding Axe Function and Form

The boarding of the Triton by the French corsair Hasard in 1796.


The last fleet action with all ships under sail occurred in 1827 at the Battle of Navarino when a combined fleet of British, French and Russian ships defeated the Ottoman Turkish and Egyptian force.

From around 1840 new patterns of boarding axe reflected the changing nature of naval warfare with smaller size and shorter spikes. The advent of steam power, steel wire rope for rigging, iron clad armour and then iron hulled ships together with the rapid development in weapons from turret mounted guns and explosive shells to reliable cartridge small arms, all contributed to the change. The days of deciding a sea battle by broadside and boarding were over.

The first iron hulled and propeller driven steam ship the SS Great Britain crossed the Atlantic in 1845; she still had masts and sails but these were secondary to her primary propulsion.

By the 1850s wooden hulled ships were largely redundant. In 1845 the British Royal Navy had 140 ships, 31 of which were small steam powered vessels. Only fifteen years later, in 1860, of the 183 ships in commission only 21 relied on sail for propulsion.

Although remaining a frequent naval encounter, the nature of boarding actions changed and with less rigging and wood there was much less need for the boarding axe. This change is illustrated during the American Civil War when covert boarding attacks by small boats against stationary warships became a constant threat and some vessels successfully used boiling water and steam jets from their boilers to repel boarders.

The Battle of Navarino  1827


Boarding axes like cutlasses were not issued to individuals but stored in racks or mounted at each gun so they were not regarded as personal weapons.  They were less likely to be preserved as mementos or taken as trophies and if captured they were often pressed back into the service of their captors.

As the age of sail came to its close thousands of these axes were taken for use ashore. A boarding axe is of little use in farm or homestead as it is too light for felling and too large for kindling. The handles were often shortened in an attempt to make them more useful but with limited success. Although some undoubtedly found a second life in the fire service of the day most probably ended up as scrap.

It is therefore ironic that this lowly shipboard tool and weapon is now rarer than most officer’s swords of their respective navies and in some cases fetch a higher price.


The descendants of the boarding axe still survive to this day as the fire axe found in glass cases in ships and office buildings and on the back of fire trucks.

End of an Era

To the left is the heavy wedge shape of a modern wood splitter axe, in the centre is the finely tapered French 1801 blade and to the right is the almost flat cross-section of a British 1859 model.

This French axe was not re-sharpened but cut through 1” manila rope in one strike against a wood block and spiked into this old oar deep enough to lift and carry it with the axe alone.

UPDATE April 2017
Major Revision to French Page