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Old 25th December 2020, 05:22 PM   #1
M ELEY
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Default A 19th century naval boarding ax

Here is what I believe to be a true 19th century private purchase naval boarding ax. I say 'true' because there are many mimics of such things, including fire axes and trench tools for soldiers. My example has a crescent-shaped (bearded) blade with a wicked 4-sided spike, forward/rear facing langets to secure the head, an early lathe-turned haft (based on the top of the haft cross/circle marks) and round eye. I make my argument that this is a legit boarding piece based on forging marks on the head (thus, an earlier piece), langets that are very primitive and awkwardly made ( not machined duplicates) secured by primitive uneven pins (versus screws) and early hand-turned haft. The rounded eye duplicates the British and American patterns while the bearded blade/spike and rear/frontward langets mimic the French patterns. This eclectic mixture of styles could indicate that it is a variant private purchase pattern meant for the Merhcantman ships or privateers during its period of use (perhaps 1810-1840- end of Age of Fighting Sail). It could likewise be from another nation than the typical naval powers at the time (Dutch, British, French, Imperial Russian, American). I have seen an East Indian ax/blunderbus combination weapon of the same period with a near identical ax head. The ax measures 17" long, head is 8 1/2" wide, spike approx 3", cutting edge is 3 1/4".

Boarding axes didn't start to even have set patterns until nearly the beginning of the 19th century. Prior to that, they were basically spike axes descended down from the 'battle ax' pattern of earlier times. Congruent with their development were the spike tomahawks of the fur trade coming into America. Boarding axes were used primarily as tools aboard ship to cut away fallen spars/ropes after a battle or storm damage. The spike end also was useful to pry free any impacted 'hot shot' (red hot cannon balls straight from the furnace fired by land installations into the hulls of ships to set them ablaze). No amount of water buckets could extinguish a molten hot shot, which would smolder and set planking on fire! The ax men would have to run out in the fray and pick at the fiery shot in the hopes of dislodging it and heaving it over the side! Finally, the boarding ax was of course a deadly weapon in combat on the close confines of a ship's deck. Boarding parties of men crossing plank bridges onto an enemy vessel would often carry these type weapons.

Great sources for these include:
Boarders Away- Gilkerson, Indian Tomahawks & Frontiersmen Trade Axes-Hartzler/Knowles, Swords and Blades of the American Revolution-Neumann,
Small Arms for Sea Service- Rankin

And, of course, David's/Cutlass Collector's excellent and definitive page-
http://www.boardingaxe.com/index.html
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Last edited by M ELEY : 25th December 2020 at 06:09 PM.
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Old 26th December 2020, 02:33 AM   #2
shayde78
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Thanks for sharing, Mark. I like the simple, no-nonsense look of this one. A good holiday present for you. I can sense your pulse quickening as you typed the description as these evoke thoughts of salt air and saltier warriors of the high seas. A perfect match for you!
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Old 26th December 2020, 02:38 AM   #3
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Thank you, my friend! Yes, you get it exactly!
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Old 26th December 2020, 10:13 PM   #4
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Cap'n, thank you so much for showing this boarding axe, and for the excellent information regarding these tool/weapons. While I have not studied these in any depth, your great presentation has totally piqued my interest (you'd think you were a writer or something! .

The resources you have cited are of course ideal for information on these, but I thought to consult one other, as these once off the vessels, often found their way into trade stations and in degree into American Indian tribal context.
That is "American Indian Tomahawks", Harold Peterson, 1965 (p.140, #312) which is a French boarding axe (as you have described) M1833. Though these were often diffused into the Indian trade, apparently the influence remained present for continued production of such axes for American naval use into the Civil War.

It is so interesting to see the actual utility use in which these were employed, and that the spike was used to dig out 'hot shot' imbedded in the wood of the ship as an incendiary. While I can understand the use of the blade to chop through rigging and broken wood, that dynamic I had not thought of.
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Old 27th December 2020, 04:24 AM   #5
M ELEY
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Thank you, Jim, for your input on this piece. Yes, I had forgotten Peterson's amazing tome on the subject of spike axes/tomahawks. I have wanted a copy of this volume for years, but they are long out of print and I can't afford, like, $800 for a copy!! Thanks for posting a pic of the m1833 French model, which features the bearded blade and front/rear langets like my specimen. That's the interesting thing about naval items; there were 'official' patterns issued to seamen (after 1790's, that is) and there were 'private purchase' items for the merchant class and privateers. Private purchase axes/cutlass/pikes could literally be anything from contemporary surplus items, older stock items from decades before, or primitive blacksmith items/put-together pieces made in small batches custom for what that ship's captain wanted or wished to spend. You rarely see this kind of mishmash of items with the exception of Spanish colonial, American Revolutionary War pieces and CW Confederate items. I understand some collectors shy away from these types, but I for one love them for that exact reason. They are one-off, unique in a sense and many seriously border on the level of folk-art!
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Old 28th December 2020, 11:06 AM   #6
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Hello,

I disagree with that being a 19th naval axe, either the design or the even the stick seems old enough, for me is clearly a 20th century axe, it can be a fireman's or something else, it's not something new so I will consider before 1950.

Sorry but this is my honest opinion.

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Bruno
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Old 28th December 2020, 03:19 PM   #7
M ELEY
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It's OK, Bruno. As I said myself, I 'believed it to be' a boarding ax. This particular area of collecting is dicey at best and I'll take your opinion under consideration. Hoping to get a few more in before making a decision to keep her. I've owned it for a long time, so it is not a big deal either way. Thanks for your input-
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Old 28th December 2020, 07:21 PM   #8
Jim McDougall
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I think distinguishing a weapon which is essentially also a tool with basic similarities which might enable its use in varied contexts, to one specific area is pretty much impossible without exacting provenance.

It is in a way like trying to identify a Civil War weapon as Confederate, when weapons of same types and makers were used universally by both sides. Usually weapons of rougher or cruder character are considered Confederate with the thinking that they had little industrial or supply capacity. Obviously this is not a necessarily adequate observation.

The boarding axe is similarly a dilemma in identification as most of them do have a similarity to the fireman's axe. However it must be considered that in function, they are primarily the same with a pike at the back of the head opposing the curved blade. The pike at the back was to dig out molten shot in ship fires, and to dig out burning embers in burning wood in general.
So basically, their primary function was the same, in fact the axes on ships were often termed firemens axes. These were kept typically near gun ports and a fireman was the job of one gunner, who also kept water bucket at hand. Accidental explosion of powder, burning wadding etc. were perils at hand in addition to enemy shot.

Gilkerson in "Boarders Away" (1991, p.25),
"... weapon and tool, the axe was carried to sea by sailors in time before memory, and there it has remained into the present as the ships FIRE AXE, still looking very much like its direct parent, the boarding axe".

p.29:
"...it should be observed that for specialized purposes men of war also carried other kinds of axes such as various kinds of carpenters axes as well as larger broad axes which were sometimes issued to boat parties when it was anticipated that they would have to cut heavy anchor cable. Boats also carried hand hatchets for cutting of all lines".

p.30
"...the private ships carried the entire panoply of battle gear including boarding axes, which were generally unmarked copies of naval styles".

p.31:
"...the boarding axe was a thing of the sea, and it was unhappy and useless ashore except when fighting fires".

It seems that the well known fire brigades of the 19th century and early 20th were more small community groups which may well have relied on the local tool suppliers much in the manner of those charged with supply of private vessels.
It would not seem unlikely that a tool with such commonality as a fire axe (aka boarding axe) might not have seen use in either of these contexts, nor if one transcended use in one area into the other.

Without specific markings or provenance we cannot unequivocably say this axe is one or the other, but safely that it is distinctly of a form that was used in both an axe on vessels as well as in fire fighting ashore.
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Old 28th December 2020, 10:51 PM   #9
M ELEY
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Excellently put, Jim! And I appreciate those quotes as well as I haven't looked at my copy in awhile. i was just about to make this very same statement, but not nearly as eloquently as you have! I understand Bruno's concerns with it appearing less aged. The problem with this, however, is that many of these axes never saw action and sat in a rack (or a barrel, as they did in Age of Fighting Sail where they literally 'rolled out the barrel' during a boarding). Likewise, there are many examples of known boarding axes that appear ever more 'minty' than mine. The front/rear langets on mine are seen on French boarding axes, but also on fire axes, military trench tools, etc. But the difference is, most of the fire axes with said langets have a square eye, like the French boarding axes. My example has a round eye, like the Brit and (some) American patterns. I can't remember seeing a fire ax with front/rear langets and a round eye. Likewise, most fire axes were machine-made pieces coming out mid-19th and later. The langets on mine are definitely made by hand, uneven, with the prongs (for lack of a better word) that extend over the eye being primitive and again hand-made. Finally, the haft is made on a lathe, which seems odd for something coming out of the Industrial Age and in large batches. The head also appears to have minor smithing flaws, pointing to it not being cast...
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Old 29th December 2020, 02:01 PM   #10
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Hi Mark,

It is a great axe but very hard to positively identify for all those reasons already expressed by Jim and others.
The evolutionary link to fire axes is well known. Early French personal fire axes were almost exact copies of their naval cousins - just smaller. There are Gilpin fire axes identical to the mid 19th century boarding axe that are marked to some of the first British fire brigades created earlier in the century.

Most surviving boarding axe examples tend to be military. I guess this is because they may have been returned to stores for re-use when a ship was scrapped or sold and also being well marked they may have been more likely to have drawn a collectors eye in later years.
But Mark is right we know much less about private purchase axes, they are much harder to identify and much rarer. Ship owners would have purchased spike axes made locally that could do the job or they may well have been supplied by the shipyard as part of the equipment. This would have included axes following military patterns but unmarked.

I can't be sure either way but I would tend to agree with Bruno in that it is probably a later axe.

Unlike langets that are forged as part of the head, separate langets need a way to stop the shaft pulling up or down through the eye. Usually a step in the wood underneath and lugs over the top as in French and Scandinavian axes do the job.

It is hard to tell from pictures alone but the lugs on top are embedded in the head. A recesses need to be cut out in the head to accept the lugs - easy to do with machine tools a lot harder using hand tools. If they were just hammered over as opposed to into a recess it would be too weak.
If taking the trouble of making the top flush then there was probably a reason. Is there any sign of a way that a cap was fixed over the eye?

Jim sums it up well...:
Quote:
Without specific markings or provenance we cannot unequivocably say this axe is one or the other, but safely that it is distinctly of a form that was used in both an axe on vessels as well as in fire fighting ashore.


CC
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Old 30th December 2020, 03:55 AM   #11
M ELEY
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Thanks for commenting, David. I get it and have to decide if I can 'live' with an uncertain piece in the collection or not. Perhaps I'll just buy one of the known examples. I'm just drawn to some of these mystery pieces (private purchase)
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Old 30th December 2020, 05:28 PM   #12
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More pics to clarify (or muddy the waters further ) of the ax. Note that the langets are extremely rough at the eye. Likewise, they are not identical to each other in length/thickness and they are not straight, appearing to be more individually crafted. Still on the fence with this one-

I forgot to include dimensions- 17" tall, head total length 8 1/2", spike approx 4", blade length 3", cutting edge 3 1/4", eye width approx 2". This would seem too small for a fire tool? The haft narrows dramatically towards the end, which never had a cap, lanyard hole, etc.
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Last edited by M ELEY : 30th December 2020 at 07:52 PM.
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