Dalton Villines could easily be a fan favorite on The Walking Dead. As a matter of fact, the folks at AMC might want to take note ASAP. He’d be as deadly with axes as Daryl is with his crossbow.
The Kingston, Arkansas, native and Marine veteran is a mind-blowing trick-shot artist with an axe, or four. Watching videos on his Instagram feed is like eating Lays potato chips — you can’t watch just one. He’s funny as hell, humble, and enthusiastic, and he absolutely loves what he does. The fact that he lives in the land of almost perpetual spring break (Fort Walton Beach) probably doesn’t hurt either.
Free Range American caught up with Villines and talked about axe throwing as stress relief, why being a pro is boring, exploding Harrier jets, and schooling Jason Momoa.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
FRA: So what did you do in the Marines?
DV: I was a helicopter mechanic, I worked on the Hueys and Cobras. And it was, I absolutely loved it. Like it was the best experience of my life. I would have loved to do it for many, many years. But I messed up my right knee while I was in and didn’t get medically separated. But I decided that I didn’t want to mess it up anymore. So I went ahead and got out.
FRA: Did you have an interest in aviation mechanics before you went in?
DV: Most everybody that joins the Marine Corps, they want to be the guy with the gun, kicking down doors and all that. And that’s what I wanted to do until I took my ASVAB and I scored really, really well on it. My recruiter said that I wasn’t allowed to. As soon as he told me about working on helicopters I was like, well, I’ve worked on dirt bikes and lawn mowers. Can’t be too much different.
FRA: So you rode dirt bikes growing up?
DV: I rode anything that I could get on. I rode horses, rode bulls a little bit, rode dirt bikes, four-wheelers … I absolutely loved it.
FRA: Did you ever deploy?
DV: Yeah, I was in the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit back in 2014. We basically did a float with the Navy and went into the Persian Gulf around Iran and Iraq and all that. It was rough for a lot of people, but I had a blast out there. I was on a smaller carrier. An LHD-3, the USS Kearsarge, and then I also spent some time on an even smaller carrier, the USS Arlington.
FRA: What’s the craziest thing that you’ve seen on a carrier?
DV: Craziest thing I’ve seen? Well, we had a sewage line bust on the carrier while we were in the middle of the ocean. We had to go down to the lower V of the boat and clean it all up. It took us days.
But, I mean, we got to see lots of really cool animals while we were out there. One day I was up on the flight deck working on the main rotor actuator on a helicopter and I looked out across the water and there was a pod of, like, thousands and thousands of dolphins just out in the middle of the ocean, middle of absolute nowhere, just swimming right along. That was absolutely nuts.
We also had one Harrier explode on the deck, but nobody got hurt. That was pretty interesting.
FRA: No shit. Landing or takeoff?
DV: It was about to land. What had happened was the engine had something get sucked up inside of it and it caused the engine to just blow up. One thing about the Harrier pilots that I will always have a tremendous amount of respect for, this pilot didn’t even flinch. He looked back, saw the big explosion, opened the canopy, stepped out, forgot his books and stuff, leaned back in, grabbed his books, and just walked away casually like nothing happened.
FRA: How did you get into axe throwing?
DV: It was honestly just kind of like a spur-of-the-moment thing. I was transitioning out of the military. I think I had maybe a month or two left. So I was mostly just doing paperwork and getting everything ready for me to be a civilian again. I was bored. Really, really bored. I was used to working crazy hours on helicopters and all that. I needed a hobby.
So, on my way to work one day I looked over and saw an axe-throwing range. And I was like, hmm, I’m going to give that a shot. The next day I walked in and my first throw was a bull’s-eye and I was like, I absolutely love this. And I just kept doing it. I was a regular there for probably a couple of months. Twice a week I’d go in and just throw for an hour or two and hang out.
The owners approached me and asked if I wanted a part-time job. That sounded like exactly what I needed. So I got to teach people how to throw and I threw for free, and I absolutely loved it. And I just have been doing it ever since.
FRA: Was there a standard axe you started with?
DV: Well, there’s not really a standard. Every axe-throwing range is completely different. I just got used to one axe that you’ll see in most ranges. It’s an Estwing camper axe. I learned with those axes, and I fell in love with them.
Over time, people kept showing me new axes and a lot of people were bringing in axes and stuff just to see me throw them. To see if I can throw them crazy. Nine times out of 10 I could. I’m not saying I never missed, but it was very seldom that I couldn’t figure it out.
FRA: Okay, you throw because you love it. What about competitively?
DV: I competed professionally for about a year. I was in the 2019 world championships, competed in the US Open, and a bunch of tournaments across the country. I had a lot of fun doing the competitions. But, to me, it got boring really fast. It was just bull’s-eye, bull’s-eye, bull’s-eye. Once you get up to the professional level, they don’t miss. Whoever misses first loses. Once I got up to that level I wasn’t having as much fun at it. After the world championship, I was like, I’m just gonna start goofing off and doing crazy stuff.
I started videoing it and posting it up. One day, me and my buddy were on our way to a friend’s house and [ESPN] SportsCenter messaged me and asked if they could share my video. I didn’t even really think it was SportsCenter, so I was just like, okay, whatever, here, go ahead. And then somebody sent me a link to it actually being on SportsCenter. Me and my buddy decided we were going to chug a beer for every 100,000 views. We made it to about 2 million views and had to take a break.
I’ve been on SportsCenter, I think three or four different times. ESPN five or six different times. And to me, it’s still absolutely crazy to this day that I was just goofing off throwing axes and people started watching my videos.
FRA: Well, you’re doing a little bit more than just throwing axes. No-looks behind the back, scissor throws, bounce shots, four long-handled axes all at once.
DV: Yeah, so honestly, when I say I fell in love with it, it was a different kind of love than most people think. I was going through a rough time. Getting out of the military was rough for me. I never thought it would be, but I was always down in the dumps. When I was throwing an axe, it was the only time that I wasn’t thinking about all that and I wasn’t completely stressed out.
So I would just go out there for a few hours, every chance that I could. I would just learn how to throw the axe the craziest way you could think of, because as soon as I get an idea in my head, I would do it until I figured it out. And when I say figured it out, I mean, I would throw it until I could do it pretty much every try.
For some crazy trick shots, they would take me five or 10 minutes to learn, some of them might take me a few days to figure. It was like a puzzle. Finding the balance of the axe, finding out how you need to hold it, how much force you need to put on it from what distance. There’s a whole lot more that goes into it than a lot of people think.
FRA: Your duals partner in the world championships, wasn’t she just a kid?
DV: Yep, Ella. At the time she was 8 years old, and she was better than most grown men throwing axes. When we started competing I just thought it would be fun, and then I realized we were actually competitive and I was like, if we win this tournament and my partner is 8 years old, then this is going to be the funniest thing in the world. Nobody could ever talk trash on either of us ever again as long as we live.
FRA: Did you win?
DV: Nope. But we had a lot of fun.
FRA: What’s the next trick you’re working on?
DV: So I usually keep my tricks pretty quiet until I get them down. But next one I’m working on, I have four axes in my hand, throw two axes up in the air, and then do what I call a scissor shot, which is one overhand and one underhand while those two are still up in the air. And then get those to stick, catch the two that are falling from the air, and then throw them the same way but reversed behind my back.
FRA: Wait. What?!
DV: Yeah, there’s, there’s definitely some screws loose in my head because I get these ideas in there and it’s just gonna bother me until I do it.
FRA: Who would you like to throw against? Like, go shot-for-shot with?
DV: Jason Momoa is a pretty well-known axe thrower. I would really love to throw against him, just so I could show him what real axe throwing looks like. I’d love to put him in his place. I don’t have anything against him, but I’ve watched his technique and I have studied it and I’ve got a few tips for him.
FRA: You’ve had to have hit yourself at some point, yeah?
DV: Oh, yes. Many, many, many times. The key to throwing axes in a safe way is when you’re practicing absolutely nuts stuff, like throwing it over your back without looking or in between your legs, is don’t use the sharp axe. I hardly ever use a sharp axe in practice. Sometimes you’re just not as lucky as other times. I’ve got several scars, but I love every single one of them. I remember where every single one of them came from.
FRA: Do you work with veterans at all? Introducing them to the sport?
DV: When I was in North Carolina working at a range, a lot of groups were military veterans and I’d teach those guys how to do it. Actually, a lot of professional axe throwers out there right now, like John Bradley and Josh Russo, a lot of them are Marine Corps veterans, Navy guys, and Army guys.
I’ve told every veteran that I come in contact with around an axe-throwing range, hey, just go try it. It might not do the same thing for you that it did for me. But it is one of the best stress releases and one of the most satisfying things that I have ever done in my life.
I think my favorite part about it now is I have kids reaching out to me, like people from all over the world, just so many people and they always ask me for advice about axe throwing and all that, and I love giving it to them. I just get so much enjoyment out of teaching people.
Read Next: Off Script: Free Range Q&A With Correy Hawk of Organic Archery