So, why an axe?Typically, across most media, we find axes primarily in the hands of certain character types; Boisterous Bruiser types, Proud Warrior Race Guy types, etc. A lot of it has to do with the common perceptions that come with the axe and its history.
Axes, historically, were primarily used by lower-class folk who couldn't afford a sword for themselves. This is particularly true for medieval times, but also holds in other parts of the world. Axes might also be commonplace in regions that didn't have much in the way of metals. Swords require much more metal to make than an axe, sometimes 5 times as much, so axes hold a subtle air of 'lowliness' about them, the idea that either the wielder isn't privileged enough to have a more expensive weapon, or the idea that the wielder doesn't care much for ceremony or decadence and sticks to the axe because it's cheaper.
That doesn't prevent the axe, however, from becoming a very common weapon in the hands of experienced, dedicated warriors. Some simply preferred it, because of their culture or the axe's versatility (which differs from a sword's versatility). Vikings, perhaps the biggest real-life analog used for the Proud Warrior Race Guy and cultures of fictional dwarves and orcs, are perceived to have favored their axes, but swords and spears were not unknown to them by any meansnote . Medieval descriptions of events such as the Battle of Stamford Bridge, where it is said that a lone warrior wielding a Dane axe was able to stop an army from crossing a narrow bridge, helped cement the axe as the primary weapon in the perception of Viking culture, and thus helped it descend into the hands of the Proud Warrior Race Guy of our modern media.
Axes in the hands of the Badass Native stems primarily from the modern American perception of the Native American or 'American Indian,' who are known for their tomahawks. Much like the Vikings, tomahawks were wielded for their versatility and common utility, where a tomahawk could be used to chop tree limbs, carve wood much like a knife, or be used to hunt food. The Native Americans also lacked iron and ironshaping technologies, so the tomahawk, made from stone or bone (Horse jawbone was particularly popular), became favored as the common sidearm instead of the sword. When European traders first came to America, iron and steel tomahawks began to appear.
Lastly, the depiction of the axe as a weapon for the Nature Hero or character living in the wilderness descends from a few places; the image of the lumberjack (Who uses an axe to split wood) is one, and the Archer's Axe, also sometimes called a woodsman maul. Historically, rangers and other people who lived in or spent a lot of time in the wilderness, often wielded small hatchets as a sidearm to their bows. These hatchets were primarily used as tools, however; English archers would use axes to chop wooden stakes into sharp spikes, which were then set in the ground to counter enemy cavalry. The hatchet would then be employed as a melee weapon when the archer ran out of arrows or was forced into close combat. Another example of the axe-wielding Nature Hero could be seen in shepherds who wielded a Shepherds Axe, which served as a walking stick for shepherds leading flocks of sheep to the meadow. While too thin to split wood, they could cut through or hook down tree branches for firewood or to pull down apples, and was an effective weapon to defend their flocks.
These common perceptions are not the limits to where axes were seen. Axes existed in nearly every culture; even the Samurai were historically seen wielding Onos. However, much of modern media is very much descended from Western (European) culture, so Western perceptions of the axe are what we find ingrained in our minds today.
What were axes like, in reality?Axes in media are often massive, hulking blades of metal affixed to the end of a haft. The reality, as always, is both simpler and more complex. Axes in movies and games are, more often than not, Impossibly Cool Weapons that are far too big for any warrior to realistically wield. Even more reserved depictions often end up being too thick for a battle-axe, or have an oddly sized haft more similar to a Fireman's Axe than an actual battle-axe. Likewise, axes with two-heads are also misconceptions, as no battle-axe in history, outside of heraldry or ceremony, was made with two headsnote . Some might have a back spike, or in the case of some halberds, a hammer on the back, but never another axe blade, which could both ruin the weapon's balance and be a hazard to the wielder.
Another common reason the axe is associated with big brutes is because they're perceived to be very heavy, almost like a hammer with a blade instead of a blunt. Battle-axes, however, generally weigh the same as, or even less than, an analogous sword - both a one-handed axe and a one-handed sword weigh a little over one pound for their lightest variantsnote The difference is the distribution; an axe has a majority of its weight centered on the axe's head, while a sword has its weight centered in the hilt. This creates the illusion that an axe requires more strength to lift and swing, while the reality instead is that the axe is harder to control. Once an axe is swung, stopping it mid-swing, while possible, is very strenuous and can damage arm tendons. Therefore, instead the best way to swing an axe is to use circular momentum and a figure-eight pattern to keep the axe moving in repeated strikes. This leaves the wielder vulnerable during the backswing, but a shield can be employed to compensate for this downside.
Paradoxically, a two-handed axe is much more agile and easy to control than a one-handed axe, purely by the virtue of using two hands while not actually weighing that much more than a one-handed axe; a Dane axe can weigh as little as 2 pounds, less than a one handed warhammer, and the blade of a two-handed axe is often as thin as 2 millimeters, which significantly cuts down on it's weight. While one-handed axes are almost best used only for overhanded, downward strikes, a two-handed axe has more complex techniques and can be easily compared to wielding a shorter spear or staff. Although it still tends to the momentum-swinging style, it's very light, quick, and it's relatively easy to stop it mid swing and rapidly change direction, a far cry from the hulking tons of metal seen in fiction which seem to swing their wielders around as much as they swing it.
Axes are perceived to require less skill than a sword, and that is true to an extent. Axes are more straightforward and natural to wield, whereas a sword has a plethora of complex cutting and thrusting techniques. However, it is more accurate to say that a sword requires more finesse, rather than more skill. For example, a more obscure and less known skill of axe-wielding is the act of 'choking up' on an axe, bringing your hand up the shaft and wielding it while holding the axe right below the head. This allows for a very fast, agile, and extremely short ranged style based on short draw cuts and 'punch' cuts. Conversely, you can wield an axe with your hand as far down the handle as possible, and while this can slow you down it will also provide the most powerful strike to break through shields or thick breastbones. This provides an axe with a large range of adaptability, being able to sacrifice range and power for speed and accuracy, or vice versa, based on the situation at hand.
Battle-axes are best wielded for their offensive utility; an axe-head is an extremely effective hook, as this experienced (As in, do not try this at home) instructor demonstrates, and can be used to pull away weapons or turn shields, or, hooked onto a limb, can be used to trip enemies or control their movement. This is particularly true of 'bearded' axes where the blade extends down farther than the axehead's body. Axes were also wielded to split wooden shields (Swords are hilariously bad against even cheap wooden shields, often getting stuck in the wood or breaking if they strike a nail), and while they aren't as effective against armor as a mace or warhammer, they are more effective against armor than a sword, particularly if the back has a spike or pike. In a fictional culture where warfare, and thus armor, is common, an axe might be more favored than a sword for these reasons.
Some axes were made with the dual-purpose of being both weapon and tool. The aforementioned tomahawk and archer's axenote are two such examples; hatchets are used to split wood in addition to being hunting or emergency weapons, while tomahawks served to whittle wood and even could be used to skin an animal. These weapons will be thicker built than most axes made purely for battle. Many conscripted militia or peasants who couldn't afford a war weapon would also bring axes from home that they used as tools for splitting wood, and would wield them as weapons, although they weren't optimized for the task like a proper battle-axe.
Axes in fiction depicted with serrated edges or 'teeth' are extremely impractical. Serrated edges on knives and other implements are for cutting through really thick material without much give, like a saw cutting through wood. An axe is predominantly a slashing weapon like a sword, not for chopping like with a tool axe (This is why battle-axes largely have curved blades - longer cutting surface for better slashing). Ending your swing on impact instead of following through with a slice will fail to get through cloth or leather armor, and in some cases, can damage your blade. Therefore the edge needs to be straight, clean, and razor sharp; serrations or teeth would get in the way of a clean slice.
Contrary to a lot of fiction as well, axes are not particularly well suited to being thrown. Throwing Your Sword Always Works may as well be called Throwing Your Axe Always Works. Unless it was an axe specifically designed to be thrown, then throwing it won't be particularly effective, and in the worst case, you're just tossing your weapon away. Some axes, such as the Tomahawk (Primarily a melee weapon but was built with the ability to be thrown in specific circumstances) and the Francisca (A pure, dedicated throwing axe made to be thrown before engaging in melee with a different weapon), were made for throwing, but axes that weren't balanced for it are just as likely to hit the enemy haft first than blade first. Throwing an axe also requires a specific knowledge of the proper distance the enemy has to be, how many times the axe will spin in the air based on distance, and arc of the axe through the air.
Where an axe fails is its convenience. While an axe is an effective weapon during war and tool during peacetime, it is not easily carried around everywhere. On a battlefield, where infantry often have time to draw their weapon before charging into combat, this is no problem, and common ring 'sheaths' on belts were made to hold axes until they were drawn or they were simply carried around in the hand. A sword, however, is much quicker, easier, and more dramatic on the draw, which helped the sword seed its way into the hands of the nobleman and common guard alike.