On a blustery Thursday evening, the sound of deep thuds and high shrieks can be heard along the canal in east London’s Hackney Wick. They emanate from axe-throwing venue Skeeters, named after the famous native American axe and knife thrower. It might sound unnerving, but head inside and the fairy lights – plus colleagues enjoying a work social – soon put you at ease.

“It’s been a stressful year at work so it seemed like a good work social,” says Gemma Sutton, a 27-year-old product designer who tonight tried axe throwing for the first time. “It was fun. Most things you do as work socials involve going to a bar – it was nice to do something a bit different.”

Skeeters is just one of several axe-throwing venues open, or set to open, across the UK this year, with many predicting that going out for a night of throwing axes at a target will become the new bowling.

Much like bowling, axe throwing involves lanes. Punters are given axes, though some ranges do let you bring your own, and are taught to throw them at wooden targets painted with concentric circles and dots. While detailed rules are laid out by the International Axe Throwing Federation for league and tournament games, for beginners it is broadly a case of encouraging them to hit as close to the centre of the target’s concentric scoring circles as possible – the bullseye is worth five points, with the outer circles worth incrementally less.

Venue owners across the country tell of a broad range of throwers. “We’ve had enquiries from the Women’s Institute, scout groups, software companies,” says Harry Househam, events manager at Ridgeway View Axe Throwing, an outdoor venue that opened in the Oxfordshire countryside earlier this month. Back at Skeeters, co-founder Luc van Helfteren says: “It’s incredibly empowering. Most people are on a pretty level playing field when it comes to axe throwing,” he says. (Throwing hard is counter-productive if you want to get your axe to stick.) Software engineer Karun Vinavagan, 26, also part of the work social, says he tried the sport for the first time tonight: “I thought only athletic people would be able to do it but anyone can do it.”

It is this democratic nature that many point to as a reason for its popularity: “It’s approachable and accessible to children, adults and those with disabilities,” says Adam McCarthy, who hopes to open Angle Axe Throwing, Peterborough’s first range, in early June. He has tried “various sports from dodgeball to football and manage to get hurt in everything I try”. By contrast, he says, “axe throwing is a sort of co-operative competitive sport”. The cheers of support for others’ on-target throws certainly makes the session at Skeeters feel more supportive than cutthroat.

Elliott Shuttleworth, chief executive of Boom Battle Bars, which already has venues in Norwich, Cardiff and Liverpool and plans to open 21 new locations across the UK in the near future, points to how quickly you improve: “We think the beauty of the sport is that it’s tricky but it’s easy to pick up … guests go from useless to Spartacus in the first 30 minutes.”

For some, the appeal is escapism, with many venues branding themselves with Viking helmets or fantasy-inspired puns: Game of Throwing has a venue in Newcastle that will soon be followed by others in Chelmsford, Hull and Plymouth.

“It captures people’s imagination,” says Househam. “You get to feel like you’re in an episode of Game Of Thrones, or Ragnar Lothbrok from Vikings, hurling your weapon towards your enemies.”

A man about to throw an axe
Axe throwing’s association with broadcaster ESPN in the US has boosted the sport’s popularity. Photograph: Jesse Levi Hummel

Van Helfteren, one of three founders who built Skeeters up from a derelict patch of concrete and buddleia during the first lockdown, has theories that it taps into something deeper. “The act of throwing in and of itself is a very human, evolved trait,” he says. Most primates aren’t built to do “the baseball or axe throw, where you lift your arm over the shoulder … we evolved that as a hunting technique.” By contrast with the Valhalla vibes, he sees the sport as calm and zen.

For those worried about the safety aspects, Van Helfteren reassures that it’s extremely unlikely that anything will go wrong. Skeeters is “built around safety”, he says, with baffles, special floorings and cages of specific dimensions, plus each session is overseen by a trained instructor. “A lot of people can be apprehensive to start. They’re scared the axes are dangerous,” says Househam. “But once people start throwing, they realise it’s not as dangerous as it first seems.”

While Ridgeway has a strict no-alcohol policy, other venues are more relaxed. Skeeters doesn’t serve alcohol but allows people to bring in their own beer and wine – Van Helfteren stresses that they take safety very seriously but says “you can safely throw after a couple of drinks”.

Axe throwing has already taken off in Canada and the US. According to Mario Zelaya, who founded the World Axe Throwing League in 2017, it is a strong partnership with broadcaster ESPN that helped the sport explode. In the UK, he says, “axe throwing is still very new”. But the long-term goal is for it to become widely popular.

Thanks to pent-up energy during lockdowns, Zelaya, who also founded Bad Axe Throwing, which added to its Wembley venue with a new spot in Croydon earlier this week, thinks that “demand for the activity, as a fun stress-reliever and exercise, will be huge in the upcoming months”. First-timers Vinavagan and Sutton corroborate his prediction: both will be back to try it again.