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Inspired by this question and this question, why do dwarves use (battle)axes so much? They are meant to be miners and smiths traditionally, which explains hammers and picks, but why would they have a preference for axes?

The only use I can think of for axes in mining is to cut props for keeping mineshafts up, which would be done on the surface, so why would they take them with them? It doesn't seem to make any sense. It seems elves (what with living in forests) should be the ones with an affinity for axes, if anything.

Is there an explanation in folklore, am I missing some key aspect of mining that requires axes, or is this just another case of 'Tolkien said something about it so it must be true'?

Side Note: Also, if anyone knows when the idea of dwarves with axes started, I'd be interested in that too.

To clarify: I am looking for the first example of Dwarves (in RPGs, fantasy literature, or folklore) preferring axes as tools and weapons, and/or why this is the case (folklore, any information about mining, etc.)

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migrated from rpg.stackexchange.com Jan 14 '13 at 23:21

This question came from our site for gamemasters and players of tabletop, paper-and-pencil role-playing games.

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@edgerunner This seems to be a very common trope throughout much of fantasy fiction. This seems like a perfectly valid question to me. But it does seem extremely similar to rpg.stackexchange.com/questions/21254/… –  TimothyAWiseman Jan 14 '13 at 17:08
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Dwarfs wouldnt necessarily only use mining related tools as weapons. They'd use whats best for chopping the enemy up. –  GrandmasterB Jan 14 '13 at 17:09
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Migrated as this is about "general fantasy fiction dwarves" which clearly predate RPGs. –  mxyzplk Jan 14 '13 at 23:22
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Fantasy fiction dwarves live underground. They typically harbor a grudge against elves. Elves love trees. Your average fantasy dwarf is just endlessly prepping for the ultimate grudge match, which will make it all the more poignant when the dwarves and elves team up against the Ultimate Evil of the fantasy world. –  Jeff Jan 15 '13 at 1:40
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Smithy work required high levels of heat i.e. really hot fires which in the MA would have required a lot of wood. Since dwarves are miners that also then do metal work, it makes sense they would regularly use axes for this part of the job when they had to surface for fuel. Why not also use axes for weapons of war? –  balanced mama Jan 16 '13 at 0:36

8 Answers 8

up vote 20 down vote accepted

I think that this and even more so this link explain the issue quite well.

To the latter I might add that an axe makes for a much better chopping weapon than a sword, making it more usable for the rank-and-file soldier, especially given dwarves' archetypical stature, lack of fine dexterity and any willingness for exquisite swordplay.

There are other circumstances as well. Armored target? Axe/falchion/morningstar is better than a general sword. Unarmored target? Go fetch your scimitar. Unprofessional/clumsy/heavily armored wielder? Forget about sword, axe is easier to use. Funds are limited? Forget about sword, it costs a fortune.

Side note: Tolkien's dwarves wielded swords just fine sometimes (Torin, for example).

EDIT: as per request, I include the quote from the second link in the post:

Useful for chopping wood and heads alike, axes are often pressed into service as weapons. An axe's wide, cleaving head is effective against armor, making it a slower and more powerful weapon than a sword, though not quite as massive as a hammernote . Smaller axes, such as the tomahawk or the francisca, can be used as throwing weapons. In certain media, they may even return to the user's hand like a boomerang, though they have the tendency to stick in enemies if they score a hit.

Historically, due to being somewhat easier to manufacture, their general familiarity to the peasant population and mobility (real-life combat axes were small and rarely weighed more than one kilo), they used to be the close combat Weapon of Choice of the common foot soldiers, as opposed to the officers and nobility, who wore swords (which were generally too expensive for commoners). While military weapons were often illegal for peasants to own, axes are tools, and avoid the prohibition. Franks used them extensively (lending their name to the francisca), and nowadays axes are associated with dwarves, Orcs, Vikings (and other members of proud warrior races), barbarians, medieval executioners, woodcutters, firefighters, and psychopaths (giving Ax Crazy its name and meaning). If the Big Guy of a Five-Man Band isn't using a hammer or his bare fists, he'll generally use a gigantic axe as a weapon. For extra comedy, the Cute Bruiser may be given a head-chopper bigger than the rest of her body.

May also include halberds and other poleaxes, which combine the chopping power of an axe with the range of a Blade on a Stick.

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+1 Those are very useful links –  Dakeyras Jan 14 '13 at 17:07
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What do you mean useful! They're TVTropes! I'm losing my evening now! –  fire.eagle Jan 14 '13 at 22:49
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Oddly enough though they demonstrated amazing dexterity in The Hobbit movie when putting the dishes away that exceeded any human capability by magnitudes. It was like they were Michael Jordan to the 3rd power. Either Peter Jackson is smoking crack or he knows something we don't. –  Jason Sebring Jan 14 '13 at 23:40
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That particular episode strikes I consider outstanding since I first read The Hobbit. Peter Jackson doesn't smoke nothing, he just stayed by the book. –  Jeor Mattan Jan 15 '13 at 7:46
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I also have to disagree with the "lack of fine dexterity" remark, and not just because of the movie. :) Historically, dwarves were excellent craftsmen, including making necklaces, rings, and even golden hair for Sif. –  John C Jan 15 '13 at 12:09

It may not be axes necessarily, but that they use what ordinarily would be a tool. Axes, hammers, picks, all of these are common weapons of the dwarf.

Bear in mind that in Medieval times, warriors used a variety of weapons- there was no one standard among those that had a choice. Some used pole-arms, some used axes, some used swords. Same thing with dwarves- I have never heard of any canon where there were ONLY axes used by dwarves.

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Not that I'm an expert on the battleaxe, but I have always thought that an axe made for battle makes a poor tool. –  Jeor Mattan Jan 14 '13 at 17:07
    
Tradition. What may once have been a tool used in battle became a tool FOR battle. Also, consider some things like the Falchion- It's design was so that it could be used as a wood axe as well as a weapon (and thus arming the peasants with a weapon during war, and a tool during peace). –  Garan Jan 14 '13 at 17:11
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@Dakeyras hugely depends on circumstances. Armored target? Axe/falchion/morningstar is better. Unprofessional/clumsy/heavily armored wielder? Forget about sword, axe is easier to use. You're broke? Forget about sword, it costs a fortune. –  Jeor Mattan Jan 14 '13 at 17:23
    
@Garan falchion bears much more resemblance to an axe in its usage, though I agree that this specific design is GREAT. –  Jeor Mattan Jan 14 '13 at 17:26
    
@Dakeyras The sword has often been exclusively a weapon of the nobility, so there's one historical incentive to spread the idea of the sword being better, regardless of the truth of it. –  SevenSidedDie Jan 14 '13 at 18:08

Weapons in many cultures come from tools used by the culture and then converting them into weapons because they already had familiarity with them. (See: Flail, nunchaku) The dwarven culture would not be any different in that regard. Tools dwarves would be familiar to them would be:

  • small hammers: for shaping metal and jewelry
  • sledgehammers: breaking rocks, mining
  • picks and axes: digging, mining, cutting down trees

  • Part of the dwarven occupation includes mining and digging which explains picks. They may also spend some time as blacksmiths, which may explain the availability of hammers both as tools and as weapons.

  • Axes are a natural tool to convert into a weapon. Forges need fire. Fire needs coals. Coal comes from wood. Wood comes from forests. Elves live and revere forests. Another bit of social awkwardness.

Dwarves who had careers as scouts, travelers, or soldiers might be more inclined to use weapons with a more military pedigree. Dwarves who travel may use staffs both as climbing tools and defensive weapons.

  • This includes swords, spears, staves, and bows.

  • Dwarves fight against creatures with heavily armored skins such as trolls and armor-wearing creatures such as orcs. Hammers/Flails as crushing weapons, make perfectly good sense since dwarves tend to be very strong, this allows them to damage armored opponents because they transfer crushing damage through armor to the target beneath. This is the real reason hammers were used in combat, they could harm a target beneath the armor breaking bones even if it couldn't break the armor.

  • Dwarves are shorter than human as a rule. Dwarves tend to fight in close quarters and they may also have to fight underground. Swords, especially long swords can be difficult to use if they are longer than you are tall. Yes, there are very long swords used by humans such as the claymore, but most swords tend to be only a bit longer than the arm of the person using them. Using shorter weapons such as axes and picks in close quarters makes sense.

  • Axes have a similar damage profile, bringing great weight to a singular edge, allowing it to penetrate heavy armor. Often battle axes would have a singular point on the other side to skewer an opponent whose armor may be too great for any other means of attack. In the hands of a physically fit dwarf, an axe is nearly the perfect weapon, quick, balanced, devastating, capable of armor-piercing and bone-breaking.

Dwarves and Dwarven weapons

The Dwarven Company. Open image in a new tab to see it at full size.

Weapons shown in the movie include:

  • Nori: Battle staff - weighted staff with a spike and ball combination
  • Ori: Hand axe
  • Dori: Short sword, double edged
  • Fili: Single edged sword, machete-like
  • Kili: Short Bow, double-edge, long-sword
  • Oin: Armored staff
  • Gloin: Single bladed battle-axe
  • Bombur: Soup ladle, mace-like weapon
  • Bofur: Hammer, pick
  • Bifur: Short Spear
  • Balin: Double bladed sword
  • Dwalin: Great Sledgehammer
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What is the difference between Dwarves and Vikings? Vikings were real swingers. Here's a nice Viking axe link: hurstwic.org/history/articles/manufacturing/text/viking_axe.htm –  Major Stackings Jan 15 '13 at 6:53
    
That was a good piece Major. It definitely looks like the ax has a lot of good things going for it, a lot more than most fiction gives it credit for. –  Thaddeus Jan 17 '13 at 8:31

While not really a origin of the idea, Terry Pratchett's take is succinct:

[...] carrying a dwarfish axe. It was a mining axe, with a pick point on one side, in order to go prospecting, and a real axe blade on the other, in case anyone tried to stop you.

From The Fifth Elephant.

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+1 for Terry Pratchett –  Dakeyras Jan 24 '13 at 17:31

As you said, they are proficient with hammers and picks due to the affinity for mining. It makes sense that they would use a weapon that is handled in a similar manner. It uses the same muscles, motions, etc that they have already mastered.

Besides being physically strong, axes (and other melee weapons) make sense from a psychological level for a fierce, passionate people. It's more personal to get right into the thick of the battle.

As for Elves, they are more elegant and efficient, so bows make more sense to them than axes. If anything, I think living in the forest would make them less likely to prefer axes. Sure they need to cut down trees sometimes, but for the most part, they live in harmony with nature. Using a weapon symbolically known for cutting down the forest would be very out of character for them.

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The axes historically brought to battle varied a great deal, there have been several mentions of Norse inspirations. To the person who said "war axes" don't look like they'd be useful, I suggest looking at some of the more "rustic", pre-industrial versions.

Notably, the little known "Broad axe" (used for squaring and facing of large timber for building frameworks) and even it's smaller brother the "broad hatchet" (used in preindustrial times for basic prep work of a log chunk prior to further refinement with other tools) Both are difficult to find and most people are unaware of their existance in the modern era. The rise of premilled lumber from lumber yard essentially left them without any real purpose. (the exception being those who still wish to do woodcraft in the archaic processes...) The Broad axe in particular, with it's sweeping face and extended horns often more closely resembles those made "for" battle than a standard tree-felling axe.

In the days before log mills, if you wanted something made of wood, you had to cut and shape the log solely by use of hand tools. These were tools virtually every male person (who wasn't a noble) understood and knew how to use. In an era when "peasant mobs" were frequently pressed into service, generally without being given any "formal" weaponry or training, grabbing something as familar and readily avalalbe as the nearest broad axe, turned an inexperienced peasant into combatant that even an armored knight would take some care in facing.

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The Dwarves in Middle earth are based on Norse mythology.

With the possible exception of the spear, which was a popular low budget weapon in almost all cultures, by far the most popular weapon among the Northmen (Vikings if you like) was the axe.

I really think it's as simple as that.

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In norse mythology it was the Dwarves who forged Mjolnir, its typically referred to as a hammer but was also referred to as an axe, or sometimes both (which would make sense) Of course it wasnt mad FOR the dwarves.

Many of the points already mentioned are very solid reasons, it makes sense given their size, culture, habitat, foes, and combat style. Additionally Axes make for great throwing weapons and dwarven dexterity especially allows for this. They also often are portrayed as throwing hammers but Axes can be carried in stacks for this purpose with less encumbrance.

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