I’ve always liked the idea of throwing sharp objects with extreme precision. What could be more impressive than splitting the hair on someone’s head with a well-aimed knife? What could be cooler than slicing a watermelon with a weaponized playing card? Nothing. But go down to the park and start hurling hatchets at Frisbee players and they’ll lock you up (thanks, Obama), so I’ve never been able to determine whether I truly have a talent for bladesmanship.
All of which is why I was excited when I learned of Stumpy’s Hatchet House. Located in an industrial park in Eatontown, New Jersey, Stumpy’s bills itself as the first indoor hatchet-throwing facility in the United States. This feels like an idea whose time has come: Rage is in the air these days, and throwing hatchets indoors is probably a healthier method of sublimation than leaving obscene website comments. I had to try it.
I grew up in the suburbs and live in a city, so I don’t exactly encounter many hatchet-appropriate situations. I’ve never had to fell a sapling, build a shelter, or decapitate small game. Everything I know about hatchets comes from the young-adult novel Hatchet—and that book isn’t even about a hatchet so much as a kid who survives a plane crash. Thanks for nothing, Hatchet!
So I was very glad to be shepherded by Mark and Trish Oliphant, co-owners of Stumpy’s Hatchet House, who were themselves relative novices when they founded the business with another couple earlier this year. Mark is a retired union carpenter who spent more than three decades working on projects everywhere from Fort Dix to Six Flags Great Adventure. His wife Trish spent 15 years working for Polo Ralph Lauren. They envisioned spending their retirement in leisure, perhaps in North Carolina, as proprietors of a gentleman’s farm. Alcohol and boredom intervened.
After a rowdy backyard bonfire annoyed their neighbors one evening, a slightly soused Mark, searching for a quieter diversion, started throwing a hatchet at a makeshift target. It was fun, so he did it again and again. Later, the Oliphants were visiting a brewery in Cape May—“drinking again,” Mark Oliphant notes—when they started to discuss projects for retirement. “What about that shit we were doing in the backyard?” Mark recalls his wife saying. Empires have been built on less.
They spent months searching for the right location—trying to convince prospective landlords that an ax-tossing business was totally fine—and opened in April 2016, in a space previously occupied by a boxing gym. One of the first visitors was a curious cop. (“I thought I’d done something wrong,” remembers Mark Oliphant.) A group of Trish’s former co-workers came in one day and were “in hysterics” when they saw the place. “They all thought we were crazy,” Mark says, “but now they see the potential.”
A trip to Stumpy’s involves a brief safety lecture (“no trick shots” gets particular emphasis), a demonstration, and ample time to throw hatchets at hand-painted targets in caged-off “pits” that resemble batting cages. The facility is BYOB, and many groups do just that: I shared my visit with about 20 tech workers who were enjoying a bucket of iced Shipyard beers at 2 p.m. on a Wednesday. The facility has an upscale rustic motif that would be just as suitable for a bachelor party as an Orvis catalog shoot. Trish handles the décor and branding, while Mark does the woodworking—a Sisyphean task, given that the facility goes through approximately 100 targets per week and generates a party-sized pretzel jar’s worth of large splinters each day.
Stumpy’s uses camping hatchets, “which are tools, not weapons,” Trish says. “But as I tell people, the crowbar in my car is a tool, but if I hit you with it, it’ll hurt like a mother.” The axes are sharp enough to stick in a wooden target but dull enough that they won’t draw blood when you gently touch your finger to the blade. (I tried it and lived to type this article.)
So what’s it like to throw hatchets indoors in a New Jersey industrial park? Hatchet-throwing is sort of like playing darts, but with cooler projectiles and no math, and also you’re not constantly being interrupted by drunk people trying to get to the bathroom. Like darts, success in hatchet-throwing has more to do with technique than raw power. Overly aggressive or crooked throws will bounce off the board; conversely, your hatchet will go nowhere if you run away from the target while throwing, as my wife did for some reason during her turn in the pit.
Mark Oliphant instructs Stumpy’s patrons in two distinct throwing styles. When throwing with a single-handed grip, you raise your forearm at a right angle and then extend it straight in front of you, as if delivering a karate chop, taking care not to snap your wrist as you release the hatchet. With a double-handed grip, you raise the hatchet behind your head and lurch toward the target in the manner of the undead.
The single-handed throw offers greater precision, but the two-handed heave is much more dramatic; a couple of heaves and it’s easy to imagine yourself repelling marauders, or possibly Steven Seagal. With either method, an ideal throw will see the hatchet rotate approximately 1.5 times before striking the target blade-first. I was initially worried about getting it right before I realized that literally no one gets it right at first. “It’s not like ‘She’s good, she threw hatchets in college,’ ” Mark Oliphant says. “Probably a really big percentage of people don’t even own a hatchet.”
I am one of those people. And yet my trip to Stumpy’s has made it mildly more likely that I will someday buy one. I don’t know what I’d do with it—I have nowhere to throw it, except inside my apartment, and if I did that I would probably lose my security deposit—but I do know that an hour’s worth of hatchet-throwing was surprisingly gratifying: It made me feel like a badass, even though I am anything but; it was cathartic, even though throwing a hatchet with utter abandon is clearly not the best way to do it; and it carried a visceral and hard-fought payoff, at least on the rare occasions that my projectiles actually lodged into the wood. It’s more of a physical workout than firing a gun, more evocative than hurling a javelin. To throw a hatchet is to momentarily transport oneself to the frontier and be inducted into the ranks of hunter-gatherers. A good throw—seriously—makes you feel alive.
About those good throws, though: “It usually takes about eight to 10 throws before you get the hang of it,” Mark says. If that’s true, then I’m on the remedial track. In about 30 or 35 throws, I stuck the target only three times. The first time I did so, I let out a triumphant scream. (This is apparently a common reaction for me.) The second time, I pumped my fist. The third time, I just got embarrassed that I had only struck the target three times. Upon striking a bull’s-eye, throwers are encouraged to ring a loud celebratory bell, a thrill I did not get to experience. The takeaway: I suck at hatchet-throwing—for now. But with a few more turns in the pit, a little muscle-memory practice on the side, and a beer or two to steady the ol’ nerves, I bet I would quickly improve.
Though Stumpy’s has only been open for about six months, it has already become popular with companies looking for novel team-building activities. Prominently stapled to a wooden plank near the rear of the facility are business cards from the various groups they have hosted: a nearby school district, a solar-panel company, a local Mexican restaurant. “If we go bowling one more time, I’m gonna kill somebody,” says Mark Oliphant, mimicking the interior monologue of a jaded corporate-event planner. “We could do something fun instead of bowling.” Having cornered the market on hatchet houses in New Jersey, the Oliphants are setting their sights nationwide. On the Wednesday that I visited, they were scheduled to meet with a franchise attorney who was attracted to the concept for its novelty.
“Every damn corner, there’s another frozen yogurt franchise. I’m sick to death of froyo,” Mark Oliphant recalls the attorney saying in their initial conversations. “This is gonna fly.”