Axe Throwing Emerges in Milwaukee as Alternative to Darts & Pool

Jun 19, 2018

The thought of hurling sharp, potentially dangerous objects doesn't appeal to everyone. But Jason Hilleshiem wanted to try the activity as soon as he learned about it. So he was one of the first customers at Fling Milwaukee, the city's first axe-throwing establishment, which opened in May.

He lined up inside what looks kind of like a batting cage, waiting his turn to hurl a hatchet at a target painted on a wooden wall.

"The first one I think I just tried to throw it a little too much. And then the second one it was a little less. And then that third one -- I kind of just let it fly on its own and it stuck. It felt really good," Hilleshiem says.

Hilleshiem says there's something satisfying about the "thunk" of a hatchet digging into the wood. In fact, that's what grabbed Fling owner Becky Cooper Clancy. She first threw an axe at a bar in Canada a few years ago.

"It was so fun. And the first time I landed an axe in the target, it was just such a visceral feeling of accomplishment that I was hooked from the very first time," Cooper Clancy says.

Cooper Clancy and her husband already owned Bounce, a family entertainment center in Milwaukee. It has an arcade, laser tag, restaurant, and bar. They decided to expand the facility to include axe-throwing. She admits that children can roam freely from one area to another. But Cooper Clancy says they're not in danger. Only paying customers -- older kids and adults -- can access the fenced-in throwing lanes.

"We designed our arena to be fully enclosed with a fence so that nobody is inside the throwing arena who shouldn't be. We're completely enclosed. We have locks on the gates, we have locks on the cabinets that store the axes themselves," she says.

Fling instructor Jordan Roque shows off some moves.
Credit Ann-Elise Henzl

Fling got its safety guidelines from the National Axe Throwing Federation, or NATF. So have other facilities, including an axe-throwing bar that just opened on the east side called AXE MKE. 

"The NATF is a governing body for rules and trying to grow the sport as like a promotional entity, and so we're trying to bring the best of the best to be a part of that and really set the standard high and say, 'Hey, this is how it's done and you should do the same,'" Matt Wilson says. He is commissioner for the Toronto-based group.

Wilson helped establish the indoor version of axe throwing more than a decade ago. He's founder and CEO of a chain of axe-throwing bars called BATL. There are 14 locations in the U.S. and Canada, and BATL plans to open more in the United States soon.

"It just continues to grow in popularity and more and more organizations are popping up all the time, not just in North America but worldwide. I think it's definitely not at its peak at all," Wilson says.

Wilson says there are a couple of reasons the activity is so attractive. He says there's something "primal" about hurling a hatchet. He adds, there's an art to throwing axes, and joy in mastering the technique.

Jonathan Winski agrees with the appeal of the sport. He's co-founder of Midwest Knife & Axe Throwers. Winski has been tossing hatchets for decades and teaching people how, including in his yard in Fort Atkinson, WI.

Winski is pleased the sport is catching on. But as its popularity grows, he's worried that axe throwing facilities will crop up that don't follow best practices. "My concern is, is there someone teaching? Do they have a good knowledge base, some good history behind them? What is their experience? And is there some form of line or range monitor or supervisor that's keeping an eye on everything?"

Winski says his concern level rises, when bars and restaurants -- places that serve drinks -- offer axe throwing. "It's not an old fuddy-duddy, 'Oh alcohol is, you know, just going to just screw everything up.' That's not it. But alcohol definitely does play a part," he says.

Members of Midwest Knife & Axe Throwers travel throughout the summer, giving lessons at places like Renaissance fairs and pirate fests. He says it's not uncommon for people to walk up, beer in hand, and ask to throw an axe. Nor is it uncommon for instructors to turn them away, after picking up on subtle signs of inebriation.