Balls OutEdgy New Trend: BYOB Hatchet-Throwing
Forget the shooting range. For some good cathartic fun, why not get drunk with friends and hurl some sharp, weighted weaponry?
Here at GQ we like to stay on top of opportunities to drink and do controlled damage. Thus we headed to Eatontown, N.J. to visit Stumpy’s Hatchet House, the nation’s first and only BYOB hatchet-throwing facility. It was a Saturday night and we were ready to throw down. Or rather, ready to throw straight and true.
“BYOB hatchet-throwing facility” calls up a Tarantino-esque tableau; I pictured myself splayed on the ground with a beer in one hand and a wayward hatchet poking out of my jugular. Others seem unfazed; Stumpy's regularly fills up with hatcheteers. On Saturday most visitors were locals—everyone had known everyone else for at least a decade, there were no hipsters, and everyone was drinking. Periodically someone would wander in from the night, waddling under the weight of a full styrofoam cooler. Kids are not allowed, because they can't drink and because they would instantly spoil our hatchet fun.
Hatchet-throwing is actually much safer than darts, Stumpy’s co-owner Trish Oliphant explained in a 15-minute safety spiel. For starters, people are far less likely to wander in front of someone throwing a hatchet. The facility is divided into eight throwing pits separated by metal caging, each with two hatchets and two targets painted on wooden boards. You can safely throw hatchets next to your lover as woodsy foreplay.
It would also be hard to accidentally kill someone with one of the hatchets at Stumpy’s. Oliphant explained that recreational hatchets are blunter than, say, a meat cleaver—but they still do a number on the targets. (Stumpy’s goes through 60-70 boards a week.) Before you start throwing, co-owner Mark Oliphant demonstrates safe throwing technique; you can do a one-handed, karate-chop motion, or you can do a two-handed overhead that will make you feel like a lumberjack assassin. You may not throw two hatchets at once, because this isn’t The Patriot.
Besides enforcing the rules, the Oliphants keep Stumpy’s civil and safe by virtue of being kind, welcoming folks who could nail you between the eyes with a hatchet if you make any trouble. Mark is 6-foot-6 with a white mustache that is about 6-foot-5, and Trish is the hatchet to his ax, just clearing 5 feet. I really wanted them to like me. “People treat this place like it’s our backyard,” said Stuart Josberger, who is also a co-owner, along with his wife Kelly. Stumpy’s does feel like a cozy home. The space has soaring ceilings (it was once a boxing gym) but string lights, American flags, and huge wooden tables made by Mark give it a basement-in-Wisconsin vibe. A 6-month old golden-doodle named Woody naps in the front office.
On Saturday night at 7 P.M. a group of women were celebrating the divorce of one in their numbers, a beautiful killing machine named Michelle. “It was a bad one,” a friend of Michelle’s explained over a 40 of Miller High Life. A cluster of black balloons hung over the pit, and a sign read “Ax Your Ex.” Michelle was already lined up at the pit, and she suddenly lunged forward and hurled her hatchet right into the bullseye. All the women cheered and Michelle did a karate kick, then ran to ring the “bullseye bell” while her friend struggled to wrench the hatchet from the wall.
A little later a bachelor party arrived with one cooler of Miller Lite (and two auxiliary coolers in the truck). They started throwing, with little success at first. It takes a few tries to get the hang of hatchet-throwing, Mark told me as hatchet after hatchet bonked ineffectually against the boards. “You throw like Mom!” the groom yelled every time one of his three brothers missed the target. Upon learning that the group across the corridor was celebrating a divorce, the groom joked that he might go ask for advice. Just then Michelle, the deadeye divorcée, sank another hatchet in the heart of the bullseye. The groom looked intimidated. “They’re good, they’re getting every one,” he said quietly.
“Women tend to get it more quickly,” Trish observed, “but the men catch up.” After half an hour the bachelor party was still missing the target, but over at the divorce party the bullseye bell rang every few minutes. “If I could get it to stick in there, then I’d start talking shit,” said one guy in a Hooters shirt.
Then, all at once, the bachelor partiers got the hang of it. One man wandered up to Mark and asked, casually, “Do you guys have an organized way of doing points, or…” Mark showed him to a chalkboard next to the pit, and he began carefully writing out names. At the end of every bachelor party the winner gets one painted board from the target to take home. Things can get pretty heated.
Striking something with a hatchet is the third-most primal thing you can do at any given moment (1. Sex, 2. Eating an entire rotisserie chicken in under five minutes.) In the 1987 young-adult novel Hatchet, a boy named Brian must use a hatchet to survive in the wilderness after a plane crash, all the while coping with his parents’ divorce. At Stumpy’s you get to hit stuff with your hatchet, but instead of surviving in the wilderness you get to drink a bunch of beer while you cope. You also get to hang out with your friends, while Brian mostly just hung out with himself. In summary, your life > Hatchet.
I got my hatchet to stick between the boards (heh heh) after eleven tries. To celebrate, I called Trish over and looked at her expectantly until she said "good job." She looked pleased even though it was just to the left of the bullseye, which makes me just to the left of competent. There is a predictable catharsis to a successful throw. It’s like sinking your beanbag in cornhole, but 200 times more satisfying because your beanbag is a murder weapon.
As Hooters guy put it, raising a hatchet over his head and smiling for a picture: "This is better than guns!"