Gear Guide: The Handaxe

Handaxes are iconic weapons, deadly and brutal.

In D&D 5e, handaxes do a respectable amount of damage, and while they are not quite as versatile as daggers, they are still excellent as a backup weapon, a ranged option for primarily melee characters, or an intimidating weapon to dual-wield.

The handaxe is often underutilized, especially by Strength-based martials who usually prefer a single weapon, often magical. However, the cost of keeping a handaxe around is usually pretty low, and you never know when you might be able to eek out a little more damage.

If you’re curious about the handaxe or are just reading up on the weapons of D&D 5e, this guide will provide all the information you need on what a handaxe can do and how best to use it.

Handaxe Stats

The handaxe is a 2-pound, one-handed melee weapon with the Light and Thrown (20/60) properties. Generally, the weapon costs 5 gp, though your DM might alter that depending on the local economy. It does 1d6 slashing damage and uses your Strength modifier for the attack.

Light

The Light property means that a handaxe is, well, light. That qualifies it for dual-wielding or two-weapon fighting as it’s known in 5e. A fuller discussion of using the handaxe for two-weapon fighting can be found in the How To Use a Handaxe section below.

Besides this mechanical meaning, the Light property simply means that a handaxe is small and easy to wield.

Thrown

The Thrown property means that handaxes are suitable to be used as either melee or ranged weapons.

The handaxe can be thrown at targets up to 20 feet away or up to 60 feet away if you are willing to take disadvantage on the throw. You cannot use the handaxe as a ranged weapon against targets more than 60 feet away.

How To Use a Handaxe

There are a couple of ways to use a handaxe and only a couple of classes I would really recommend wielding a handaxe.

Handaxes are best for Strength-based martials or in a pinch, Dexterity-based martials with a good Strength score.

Ideally, a handaxe should be a backup weapon; a barbarian or a paladin might keep a few handaxes on their person for when they cannot move to an enemy and need a quick ranged attack lest their Extra Attack or Bonus Action go to waste.

For example, say a barbarian charges up to an enemy using their total movement and in one mighty critical hit slays their foe. If every other potential target is out of reach, you want to be able to make some kind of attack, even if it’s one that isn’t as optimal as it could be. After all, a greatsword is not a ranged weapon.

Alternatively, if you have the Strength score to wield it effectively, a handaxe might be a good option for ranged classes when they get cornered. Unless you have a feat to avoid this, ranged-weapon attacks within 5 feet suffer disadvantage, so having a backup melee weapon or two is always a good idea.

Many archers and crossbow experts will likely choose a dagger since it can be wielded with Dexterity, but the handaxe does do more damage, so if you have a solid Strength score, it may be the better option.

In addition to these cases where an attack may go to waste/be suboptimal, a handaxe can be useful for two-weapon fighting. If you’re a class that already uses a light one-handed weapon as their main weapon and you have a good Strength score, you ought to have a handaxe.

Two-weapon fighting takes your Bonus Action in exchange for an extra attack (without your Ability Score modifier to damage). Most uses of your bonus action will probably be better spent elsewhere unless you’ve specifically taken abilities that support two-weapon fighting, but if you don’t have a use for your Bonus Action, you’ll simply lose it that round!

That’s where the handaxe is perfect, especially for classes that don’t have a lot to do with their Bonus Action already, like barbarians. If you can do something with your Bonus Action, do it! And if you don’t, give the handaxe another swing for that bit of extra damage.

Disadvantages of the Handaxe

Of course, there are times when the handaxe is simply not the best choice. For example, some characters might want to dual-wield and are willing to take the feats and abilities that support this.

Handaxes at first seem like an attractive option, but the Dual Wielding feat allows you to wield one-handed weapons that do not have the Light property. That means you can use weapons like the rapier and longsword whose 1d8 damage die beats out the handaxe (though it might still be a useful ranged option).

A handaxe will also likely be an offhand weapon, a side option, or a backup. That means you just aren’t likely to have a magical handaxe. Many, many creatures in D&D 5e have resistance to nonmagical slashing damage, so you might find that the ranged/backup option that handaxes provides is only marginally helpful after resistances are factored in.

Still, if your build does benefit from having a handaxe as a backup weapon and you have one of the magical options from the next section, the handaxe is a must-have.

Magical Handaxes

Unfortunately, there are not a lot of pre-existing magical handaxes in D&D 5e. There are of course some generic types of magical weapons, like a Weapon of Warning, which can be applied to any weapon, though the best of these generic types is probably a simple +1, +2, or +3 weapon, depending on what tier of gameplay you’re operating in.

Of course, where there is a lack of options, that is where homebrew flourishes. Below are two interesting homebrew magical handaxes that you can use for inspiration in designing your own magical options, or just use as is (balance not guaranteed!).

Remember, if you don’t like these choices, there’s really nothing stopping you from reskinning any magical weapon in D&D 5e as a handaxe if you want.

Homebrew Magical Handaxes

Axes of the Bifrost

This pair of Very Rare handaxes require attunement and has a Norse theme (in case the title didn’t tip you off).

They function similarly to normal handaxes, except their range is increased from 20/60 to 60/120, giving them surprising distance. Their movement to being more comfortably a ranged weapon comes with the addition of the Finesse property, allowing you to use Dexterity for them.

When you attack with these axes, you attack with both at once. So one attack action gets a bonus attack along with it, and with Extra Attack, you can make two attacks per “official” attack.

Finally, the axes have three magical charges, regaining 1d3 charges at dawn. At the cost of one charge, you can use Bifrost Warp. For a Bonus Action, you teleport to within 5 feet of one of your axes if it’s not in your hands and is less than a mile from you. You have to have at least one hand free to do this since it will fly to your hand when you teleport to it.

Alternatively, you can spend a Bonus Action to make one of your handaxes appear in your hand, and happily, this does not cost a charge.

Overpowered? Probably! I would consider removing that ability that doubles your damage output!

However, the teleportation is undeniably fun and adds some insane mobility to a martial class if you use it right. This weapon almost justifies the fighter’s lackluster class features for its four extra attacks (at level 20) since a martial can basically use an attack and a bonus action to teleport up to 120 feet.

You don’t always have to attack a person, after all!

The Howl

This Rare axe also requires attunement and has a similar “call back” feature as the Bifrost Axes. It is a +1 magical weapon, and when thrown, a ghostly wolf’s howl can be heard.

The axe has six charges, one of which can be used to either teleport the axe back to your position or to teleport to an unoccupied spot within 5 feet of a damaged creature. The axe regains 1d4+1 charges at dawn.

As you can see, teleportation is popular with handaxes. This weapon is a little more balance than its companion, placing more limitations on the teleports.

However, you don’t have to use a Bonus Action, which can lead to some interesting combos.

Conclusion

There are plenty of ways to make use of handaxes. Even if a magical handaxe never features in your game (either because you don’t want to think up interesting stats as a DM or because your DM never gives you a spare magic item), they are still worth having.

Melee combat can be strong, but it’s limiting. As a martial, you don’t want to be caught flat-footed if an enemy manages to outmaneuver you, even for one round. It’s critical to have a decent ranged option, and a handaxe is one of the few options that let you use your Strength for the attack rather than forcing you to use Dexterity.

Even if you never think you’ll use it, if you’re a Strength-based melee martial class, you should definitely have a spare handaxe just in case.