A bit of a mix of bowling, archery and a gun range, Urban Axes in Highlandtown offers a different kind of sport for adults. (Ulysses Muñoz / Baltimore Sun video)
With a hatchet in one hand, Danielle Rowley stares intently at the center of the wooden target, 14 feet away. With full concentration, she brings the small ax back toward her right ear, and in a single fluid motion, Rowley hurls the hatchet at the bull’s-eye.
Rowley, a 36-year-old Canton resident, flashes a smile before she pulls the ax — slightly longer than a foot, weighing a pound-and-a-half — from the center. Though the previous round caused her to clench her fist after a miss, there’s no actual frustration in sight. She laughs with teammates, and waits for her next turn by a community table filled with pizza, snacks and — yes, beer.
“Ups and downs,” she said when asked how she’s throwing. “I’m going to keep practicing. You can only improve.”
It’s a typical Wednesday evening at Urban Axes, the Highlandtown ax-throwing bar whose mere concept — an 11,000-square-foot former warehouse where ax-throwing and alcohol co-exist — is often met with intrigue and head-scratching from the uninitiated. But those who’ve tried Urban Axes first-hand since it opened in July say the bar is a welcomed new activity in a city where social sports leagues are already popular.
Patrons agreed that while it’s nice to be able to enjoy a beer or glass of wine — they’re here to throw axes and socialize, not to get drunk.
“It’s not about the drinking,” Rowley said. “It’s about playing, and doing something you haven’t done before and having fun.”
Urban Axes is relatively new. After attending a friend’s birthday party in Canada at an ax-throwing bar, Krista Paton decided in 2016 to create her own company in Philadelphia with her husband and a couple of friends. After opening in Philadelphia and Austin, Texas, Urban Axes announced a Baltimore site in 2017.
The news was met online with a mixture of curiosity, excitement and shock. Some were incredulous at the idea of weapons-throwing and alcohol consumption. Paton, at this point, was used to the mixed reaction.
“It’s like the first question we get,” she said. “Any time you say ‘ax-throwing,’ especially when you start combining it with alcohol, people get a little nervous.”
The most severe customer injury the company has seen are splinters, Paton said. Urban Axes is a part of the National Axe Throwing Federation, whose safety standards were used to design the building’s layout, from the measurements of the chain-link fencing to the size of the targets, she said.
“Once you do it, you realize it’s a very safe and controlled environment,” she said.
It appeared that way on a recent visit: Participants focused on the targets, not their cans of Resurrection or National Bohemian that sat waiting for them separately, behind the throwing area. (You are not permitted to throw with alcohol-in-hand, and Urban Axes only sells beer and wine.) Once the league’s session began, the bar was empty.
Staff members have been trained “to be able to recognize any symptoms of inebriation,” Paton said. So far, Baltimore’s Urban Axes has not had to remove any customers for drinking too much, said assistant general manager Dena Glisan.
In a city with no shortage of bars, Urban Axes’ alcohol component is more of a bonus or afterthought to customers such as Gün Yaprak. His interest is in trying to improve at an activity that anyone can pick up and try. Those thinking this is a macho activity for aggressive muscle-heads have the wrong idea, he said.
“People attach this whole manly aspect to it, but it’s actually more of a finesse game. It’s not about the power you put into it,” said Yaprak, who lives in Brewers Hill. “Anybody can figure it out.”
A typical group or league session lasts two-and-a-half hours, and begins with electronically signing a waiver form (which includes accepting “personal responsibility” for any injuries or death) and instructors teaching participants the proper technique to throw. A round robin tournament follows, where the goal is to score as many points as possible by tossing and sticking the ax into the board. (Walk-ins pay by the hour, where they typically are taught how to throw and further practice.)
A bull’s-eye is five points, the middle ring is three and the outer ring is one. The final throw of the round offers the option of a “clutch” shot, where hitting a green dot equals seven points. The points are then used to seed players in a single-elimination tournament where the last thrower standing wins it all.
The accessibility of ax-throwing appealed to Jason Jones, a travel nurse from Mississippi who said he fell in love with ax-throwing after his first few tosses. He enjoyed it so much, Jones bought his own ax that he keeps in his car.
“That feeling of success when it hits the wood is just a sweet, sweet feeling,” said Jones, who lives in Baltimore. “It’s hard to describe, you just have to feel it.”
Typical social sports such as football and soccer made Yaprak feel at a disadvantage, but with ax-throwing, most people are starting on an even playing field. The resulting atmosphere is low-pressure and supportive, he said.
“The difference here was they somehow managed to create an air where it’s not a team sport, but the love that goes around is very team-like,” Yaprak said. “Everyone wants to help each other and make sure the other person is doing great.”
This is why Urban Axes recommends experiencing ax-throwing through larger groups ($35/person) and leagues ($120 for eight weeks), though there are daily walk-in hours ($20/hour). Three leagues lasting eight weeks long each meet Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Sunday evenings. Registration is full, and there’s a waiting list on Urban Axes’ website.
It’s a reflection of Urban Axes finding an audience in Baltimore and the company’s continued growth. By the end of the year, the company plans to open locations in Boston, Cincinnati and Durham, N.C.
Jones, who’s leaving Baltimore for California for his next nursing job in a few weeks, said the love of ax-throwing he found here will follow.
“This goes with me,” he said, pointing to his ax. “I’m definitely going to seek it out down there, and if it’s not in that area, I’ll find it somewhere close by, hopefully.”
For him, the joys of ax-throwing clicked quickly. But it was the inviting environment and friendly people at Urban Axes, he said, that turned it into something to look forward to each week, and eventually, into a new hobby.
“Everyone’s very friendly, very encouraging, while still holding that competitive edge, which is great,” Jones said. “I hadn’t done any sports since I was a child and I didn’t do well then — and then I came here.”