There is a heft to the tool that implies purposeful brutality. A lopped triangle cut from 6-millimeter-thick CorTen steel, weighing 7.75 pounds with handle, a sharp axe at one end, a sharp shovel face at the other, broad sharpened flat edge on one side, rake teeth along the opposing side, the tool is built to cut, move and shape dirt. Conceptually, it's a combination of the trailbuilder's stalwarts; part McCleod, part Pulaski, but built with more heft. It's called the Warlord Battle Axe, first appearing last year on Instagram of all places, and now being swung into dirt around the world.
Andrew Durno is the man who brought this imposing piece of metal to life. Known to the Instagram world as @tallbeast (at 6-foot-6, it's a fitting handle), he describes himself with typical Kiwi understatement as "a tall chap who lives in Wellington, New Zealand, with his girl. Likes his cats, tattoos, bass guitars, helicopters, single-malts, great music and Malaysian curry laksas." Digging a little deeper, his personal life resumé reads like something torn from the General Dude Fantasy Bucket List: bike messenger in New Zealand, mountain bike guide in the French Alps, helicopter pilot, a concurrent 20-ish year stint with raunchy rock band Head Like a Hole (HLAH) and for the past decade he's been second in charge of the workshop at Weta Studios (as in, "Lord of the Rings," really big special effects).
So, with a lifetime of riding under his belt, as well as access to the necessary machinery and the skillset to use them, and with a sense that he needed to contribute something to the trailbuilding culture, Durno began to tinker with the prototype for the Warlord Battle Axe. He recalls, "I started riding around '94 … been completely obsessed ever since. I love it all: riding with mates, riding by myself, tinkering in the garage, buying, selling, fixing, breaking, road trips, health, sanity. I've always seen riding as a form of meditation—it clears the mind of the world's detritus." When it came to the inspiration for his thuggish trail tool, Durno states simply: "It was a form of trail karma. I don't have time to dig trails, and a lot of my friends are out there putting in the hard yards. But I do have the tools at my disposal to make something that makes their job easier.
"I saw a couple of tools on Instagram and thought, 'I have the equipment to do something, not necessarily better, but something that might work well for my trailbuilding mates.' I basically took a bit of inspiration from a lot of other tools—digging/cutting/raking/stomping/scraping/chopping/levering/stump-removing and just banged one out."
The prototype tool was handed over to his friend and trailbuilding fiend, Rod Bardsley, who had no idea what he was up to. "I just got a call to say something was in the pipeline. A few days later I met him on the hill and he handed over the Battle Axe MKI. I'd love to say it wasn't very good and I made it what it is today, but it was very similar to our MKII. I hate hard work, so I wanted a grunty tool that would do it all for me as long as I could get it over my shoulder. So we made it a little bigger, thicker plate steel, reduced the comb size of the rake tines and widened the pointy end blade so it was more of an axe than a pick, and the wide blade was primarily an earthmover."
From there, the seedling idea of helping out a few friends took root on social media and germinated unexpectedly. "Rod suggested a few changes, and I was off," said Durno. "He did a write-up for Chainslap which then got picked up by NSMB … Originally I was intending to make five of them for my key trail crew but other people were after them too. So I set up an Instagram page to check interest and have now made close to 100." Before he knew it, the Tallbeast had a fledgling business on his hands.
In the dirt, the Battle Axe is formidably effective and can bench virgin dirt at speeds that seem almost laughable for a hand tool, so long as the operator has the muscle to swing it. This efficiency belies its almost comic book, fantasy weapon appearance. Visually, with its custom laser cut name and angular edges, it conjures up Middle Earth-ian war tools or maybe Maori combat weapons. Durno is quick to dismiss any overwrought musings: "I think you might be reading a bit more into it than there really is. It literally went from a drawing on paper with 'about this size' guesstimates on sizing and then onto the plasma cutter. 'We'll need a brace there' and 'put a bottle opener on it here.' Add a bit of 'that angle looks brutal enough,' a small discussion about finish—'shall we finish it so it looks snazzy? Nope, leave it looking like it's made for the job of getting beat up and swung in anger." At this point I'd like to point out that the fabrication is done by my mate Robbie—he is a wizard."
In spite of the over-the-top appearance, described by Bardsley as, "Carry one on your shoulder and you feel like Conan the Barbarian, and you assume girls think you're hot," every aspect of the Battle Axe has a purpose. The narrow end is an effective root and stump cutter. The wide end chops dirt, and anything that might also be in the way. The broad side is perfect for smoothing cut trail and pulling dirt from high to low. The rake side clears duff and leaves. The very slightly convex face of the tool base is good for tamping fresh-cut soil. And the weight helps with all of that except for raking, right up until the operator runs out of arm strength. If there's any limitation, it's in the mixed blessing and curse that is the Battle Axe's weight. It may, in Bardsley's words, be "one tool to rule them all," but it weighs about as much as any two other tools. This makes it heavy on the shoulder carrying to and from trails, and it becomes very obvious when the person swinging the handle runs out of steam. Nevertheless, nothing else this side of something motorized can touch it for moving dirt.
Demand for the Battle Axe surprised Durno, who isn't about to give up his day job, in spite of adding another tool to the line in the form of a beefy slab-sided rake named The Gravedigger. In order to meet the growing demand, as well as circumvent the heinous shipping fees associated with flying heavy plates of steel from New Zealand to the U.S., he's teaming up with Aaron Lucy in Colorado to have tools made stateside in a more UPS-friendly climate. They will be priced similarly to high-end McCleods, and brawny-shouldered interested parties can track a Warlord Battle Axe down via Durno's new website, or via the eponymous Warlord Battle Axe Instagram account (@warlord_battleaxe).