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'Practice really makes perfect' in ax throwing

On International Ax Throwing Day, physicist Metin Tolan tells DW how best to launch the tool - and explains why the traditional way of hurling them is relatively weak.

DW: Is throwing an irregular-shaped object like an axe harder than throwing a ball?

Metin Tolan: No, not strictly physically speaking. In practice it is harder, though, because you can't control the axe as well when you launch it. It requires practice to get the necessary velocity, to know when to let go and to throw it at the right angle. If you want to be good at axe throwing, you'll need lots of training. 

What are factors to watch out for to throw an axe as far as possible?

There are a number of different things you need to know. The first and most important factor in any throwing event is that you have to throw the object with as high a velocity as possible. I'm also assuming that in competition, participants throw a standardized axe. I couldn't imagine that everyone brings their own axe, since there are distinct differences, like how much the axe weighs and how long it is.

Physikprofessor an der Technischen Universität Dortmun Metin Tolan (Lutz Kampert)

One of Tolan's fields of interest is the physics behind sports

So let's say they throw an ax with a 1.5 meter-long (five-foot) handle and a 10-kilogram blade (22 pounds). I would throw that thing just like a hammer thrower tosses his hammer in track and field competitions. He spins around a couple of times and lets go at exactly the right moment. This spinning assures that whatever object you're throwing flies away with greater velocity.

The second factor that's important is the right launch angle. With a heavy ax, that would be around 45 degrees. With a lighter soccer ball, it's different - because of the aerodynamic resistance, the right angle for that would be around 35 degrees.

In clubs where beginners practice ax throwing and in competitions, the throwers aren't allowed to spin for safety reasons, even though that seems to be the best way to cover great distances. Competitive ax throwers raise the ax with both hands and launch it forward. What do you think of this technique?

I totally understand that spinning is too risky. It's tough to know when to let go and having a stray ax fly around would simply be too dangerous. If you throw the ax that way, you should bring the heavy blade as far back as possible to throw it with as much velocity as possible. It's the centrifugal force at work. You basically have the same advantage as you would have spinning around, only tilted at 90 degrees. The only difference is that you can't spin around multiple times this way. So with this technique, it mostly depends on the degree of force with which you can launch the ax - and that you can find exactly the right angle to throw it.

When you launch the ax from high above your head, the perfect angle is a bit more horizontal - it's 40 or even 35 degrees. I believe finding the right angle requires a great deal of technique. You only have mere tenths of a second to find the right angle before the ax leaves your hands. So ax throwing seems to be a sport where practice really makes perfect. But of course force and muscles are important as well to throw the ax with the needed velocity.

Dr. Metin Tolan is a physics professor at TU Dortmund University in western Germany.

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