Axe throwing brings buzz, concern to West Loop

By ARTS & CULTURE EDITOR

When Chris Bowles found out he was expected to throw axes for amusement, he was terrified. But after getting trained by an axe throwing coach and learning the safety rules, the fun began at Bad Axe Throwing, a Canadian recreational axe throwing chain.

The Chicagoan was visiting the company’s Winnipeg, Manitoba, location, but he will soon be able to throw axes in Chicago at its 11th location, 165 N. Loomis St., opening Sept. 9. Chief Axe Thrower and Managing Director Jesse Gutzman said the West Loop neighborhood was the perfect neighborhood for its hew home.

“[The West Loop is] hip, it’s up and coming, and that’s exactly what we are, so it was a good mix,” Gutzman said. 

He said the new location is fully booked for at least its first two weeks, which has not happened before at any of its other sites. Chicago is also the company’s entry into the U.S. market, which Gutzman said is just the beginning of its expansion. 

“We’ve never seen reception to our idea and our introduction to a city like we have for Chicago, so this is really changing the game for us,” he said. 

Chicago’s West Loop is a place where unique businesses like Bad Axe Throwing thrive, said Matt Letourneau, development committee chair of Neighbors of West Loop, an organization that advocates for the area and its businesses. 

Letourneau said the addition of Bad Axe Throwing to the community is exciting and unusual but fits with the neighborhood’s eclectic scene.

“The West Loop is an exciting place to be, and there is something new everyday,” Letourneau said. “It’s something that will help people remember their stay in the West Loop.” 

Bad Axe Throwing has no age restriction, although an adult must sign a safety waiver for children under 18, Gutzman said. He said it is a popular destination for bachelorette and birthday parties and stressed that participants get detailed training and safety tips on how to throw an axe. 

Chicago’s location is special because it has two private rooms. The setup is simple, Gutzman said. People throw axes in a large  room with wooden targets and protective wooden flooring. Adjacent wire cages separate spectators and allow them to watch from the other side without paying a fee.

Gutzman added that people are allowed to bring their own beer, but staff is not allowed to handle it, and glass containers and hard liquor are prohibited. 

“People are very conscious that they are throwing axes and drinking, and because of that, everyone is forced to be mindful,” Gutzman said.

Since the opening’s announcement Aug. 18, people have voiced concerns about the safety of axe throwing and alcohol. 

Christina Trevino, a bartender in Oak Forest, Illinois, who saw the Chicago Tribune’s Aug. 23 article on Bad Axe Throwing, said the combination sounds like a “disaster waiting to happen.”

As a bartender, Trevino said she sees how alcohol affects people, especially in a competitive setting.

“You cannot drive while you are intoxicated, but you can go and throw an axe?” Trevino said. “That makes no sense.”

Letourneau said it is too early to make a blanket statement about the safety of drinking beer while throwing axes, but he hopes customers will be responsible. 

Alderman Walter Burnett (27th Ward) said he was unaware the business was opening in his ward and declined a request for comment. 

Gutzman emphasized that safety is a main priority, and the company had no injuries related to axe throwing or alcohol consumption at any of their locations. 

“I like to give humanity the benefit of the doubt,” Gutzman said. “We have a lot of rules set in place to make sure people don’t do anything to excess.”

Bowles said combining beer and axes didn’t interest him because the sport is fun on its own. 

“Once you get in there, you get in the mindset of playing with axes and getting into the game, [so] I don’t think you need to get drunk,” Bowles said.

Jon Winski, owner and manager of Midwest Knife and Axe Throwers in Wisconsin, agrees that the sport is competitive. Winski, who started axe throwing when he was five years old and was the knife instructor for the 2014 movie “Divergent,” filmed in Chicago, said people need to be knowledgeable about the sport and its possible dangers.

“Like any sport—hockey, football, tennis—you are going to face some risk,” Winski said. “But as long as you approach it in a safe manner, learn the rules and seek out instruction, you can have a great time doing it.” 

He said his company, which specializes  in educational and demonstrative axe and knife throwing, does not allow people to throw axes while drinking alcohol because safety is his utmost priority. 

While some Canadian locations do sell beer, Gutzman noted Bad Axe Throwing’s original goal was more focused on enjoying the game. 

“Chicago meets with our initial image from our very first location,” he said. “It’s about people celebrating however they want while we just show them how to throw axes.”

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Updated 4:40 p.m., September 8

Bad Axe Throwing announced they will no longer have a BYOB policy at the company’s new Chicago location, according to a Sept. 8 email from Melanie St. Armour, marketing and development coordinater for Bad Axe Throwing.

St. Armour said that the decision was made after speaking with city officials. 

“We’ve agreed with the city that it would be in our best interest to not allow BYOB in Chicago,” she said the Sept. 8 email.

The location’s open house previously scheduled Sept. 9-11 has also been changed to Sept. 23-25 due to electrical issues, according to the event’s Facebook page.

The company added in a Facebook comment on the event page that to comply with the City of Chicago’s regulations, they are not allowed to let participants under 18 throw axes. Originally, participants under 18 needed to be accompanied by an adult but were allowed to play.

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