Ax Men was part of that blue-collar reality show gold rush that networks began participating in when shows like Ice Road Truckers and Deadliest Catch became hits. While some of these shows are best forgotten, History Channel’s Ax Men is one of the most memorable examples of this television trend.
The series followed several logging companies in forests and swamps. While that might not sound like the most exciting premise on paper, it soon became clear that actually performing this job requires the contributions of quite a few talented people with colorful personalities.
For as open as the crew members could often be about their lives, the jobs, and what they thought about each other, we’d later learn that Ax Men’s success helped hide quite a few dark secrets about the show’s production, its crew members, and many of those involved with the making of the show.
While some might not be too surprised to hear about these secrets given that many of the show’s cast looked like they were running from one thing or another, the nature of these secrets will no doubt shock those who view the series as a glimpse into an almost otherworldly way of life.
Here are 15 Dark Secrets From Ax Men You Had No Idea About.
15 Roger Gunter Was a Notorious Poacher
Given that the logging industry is a rough, tough, and often unrewarding job, it shouldn’t come as a surprise to hear that it attracts some more marginal types. By that, we mean that people with a record, people with fewer career options, and people who are just looking to embrace the wilderness usually seem to be the ones that choose that life. The show actually played up this aspect of the workers’ personality quite often.
It did not, however, dive into Roger Gunter’s history as a poacher. Gunter wasn’t necessarily one of the show’s brightest stars, but he was a vital part of one of the show’s swamp logging crew. Before that, he was a fairly notorious poacher who was caught hunting without a license on six different occasions. That tends to suggest a passion for poaching rather than a simple misunderstanding.
14 Shelby Stanga Was Arrested For Vandalism and Destruction of Property
Ax Men star Shelby Stang really became the icon of the entire series in many ways. Prior to his debut on the show, many people weren’t even aware that there was a thriving swamp logging industry. They certainly weren’t aware of the bizarre business practices that accompanied the industry.
Even still, Stang shouted “swamp logger” to everyone that saw him. He was a backwoodsman who didn’t seem fit for any other way of life. Stang’s personality made for great entertainment, but it also got him in some real-life trouble.
For instance, Stang was once arrested for using a chainsaw to cut down some of his neighbor’s trees. It’s not entirely clear what inspired him to do this as there was no recorded property dispute. Instead, it seemed like Stang just woke up that day and decided to get to choppin’.
13 Katelyn Sims Secretly Battled Cystic Fibrosis
Given that the vast majority of Ax Men crew members were men, it’s not hard to see why Katelyn Sims stood out. Actually, it wasn’t so much that she was a woman working in a male-dominated industry as it was that she seemed like a pretty average young woman whose personality didn’t really match the personalities of her co-workers.
What makes her contributions all the more impressive is her long-standing battle cystic fibrosis. For those who don’t know, cystic fibrosis is an inherited condition that affects the functionality of your lungs and can lead to digestive problems. It’s potentially life-threatening, but can be treated.
It’s not clear whether or not Sims felt the need to disclose her condition to the series’ producers, but if she did, they certainly did not mention it as Sims regularly trudged through some difficult work conditions.
12 Jimmy Smith Was Under Federal Investigation For Illegal Logging
Jimmy Smith was another Ax Men castmember who really helped set the tone for the show. As a veteran of the industry, Smith had seen and done it all. He often served as a calming presence on screen. He was a leader who seemed to know exactly what to make of every situation. That’s because Smith had seen it all. He’d even seen the business end of a federal investigation.
The Department of Natural Resources issued warrants for members of Smith’s S&S Aqua Logging company. Funnily enough, the actions of the S&S on Ax Men is what alerted federal investigators to the illegal practices of the logging company.
Basically, the problem was that Smith was logging certain areas without a license by claiming that natural events had made them legal to access.
11 Some of the Cast’s Family Members Have Called the Show Fake
Look, by now everyone knows that many reality shows are embellished in some way. While some are outright fake, others simply heighten existing information for the purposes of entertainment. It seems Ax Men included a few examples of both approaches.
While many of the show’s stars haven’t outright denounced the show as being fake, some of the families of the auxiliary crew members have stated that the producers clearly had no problem turning the show’s extras and small-time workers into whatever characters they happened to need.
For instance, they might say that an employee was a rookie when they really had quite a few years of experience. Others have gone so far as to say that certain crew members were “hired” by companies participating in the show simply because the production team needed more people in key scenes.
10 Pretty Much Everyone Hated the Editing
Even those who didn’t call Ax Men a complete fabrication have spoken out against the way the History Channel edited certain events. Reports of these editing mishaps vary pretty wildly, but the running theme involves the supposed fights that the crew members got in.
You may recall that there were quite a few times during the show that everyone seemed to be at each other's throats or were otherwise acting childish.
According to many of the people who actually worked in those companies - and the company owners - the History Channel decided early on to focus on these dramatic moments and encourage them whenever possible
. Apparently, there were many times when they would rush to capture a minor debate between workers. There were also plenty of moments when the production team would edit certain sequences in a way that made them seem much more dramatic.
9 Many of the Logging Companies Lost Money During the Show
The phrase “there is no such thing as bad publicity” often fails to take into account the fact that publicity has to pay-off at some point. For the companies featured on Ax Men, the additional exposure certainly had short-term pay-offs. Their names were on the map and they began receiving quite a bit of fan mail.
However, some of the logging companies that left the series later said that they posted their best years after they had left the show. There have even been reports of some of the logging operations making hundreds of thousands of dollars less when they were on the show.
The increase in revenue is attributed to the fact that the workers weren’t as distracted by the cameras and were able to focus on their jobs.
8 Mike Pihl Was Arrested for Injuring His Children While Drinking and Driving
Mike Pihl was one of the show’s first stars. The owner of the Pihl logging company always came across as somewhat gruff, but his personality mostly seemed to be the result of his blue-collar work and lifestyle. He never really seemed like a bad guy, and he even helped a former employee start his own company that later got featured on the show.
What you might not know about Pihl is that he was arrested in 2009 for injuring his own children. It seems that Pihl had a few drinks and decided to go on a drive with his kids. During that drive, he flipped his car into a ditch and was promptly booked for assault and drinking and driving. The DUI charges were reportedly dropped due to a technicality involving driving on personal property.
7 Katelyn Sims Wasn’t Really David Stone’s Cousin
While we’re on the subject of Katelyn Sims, let’s talk about her introduction to the series. She was brought in during the show’s sixth season as part of the Dreadknots Logging crew. This colorful crew was famous for firing guns into the water to find logs.
Sims replaced crewmember Chris Miller and was introduced to the audience as crewmember Dave Stone’s cousin. She was even referred to as “cuz” at several points.
The funny thing is that there doesn’t seem to be a relation between Stone and Sims. In retrospect, it’s quite possible that Stone referred to Sims as a cousin in a “folksy” kind of way. If that was the case, the History Channel never really clarified the relationship. Perhaps they simply didn’t know.
6 Jimmy Smith Filed Fraudulent Disability Claims
You might think being investigated by the federal government is bad enough, but that little court case was hardly the end of Jimmy Smith’s legal troubles.
Around the time that Smith was battling charges related to illegal mining, separate charges were filed against the veteran logger related to his exploitation of disability claims.
Yes, it seems that Smith had applied for disability and medical benefits years ago before Ax Men began filming. However, he never dropped the claims even though he continued to work as a logger.
While that might work for some people, it was a little hard for Smith to get away with it given that he’d also decided to continue working on a globally broadcast series while also claiming disability checks.
5 Many of the Original Crews Thought It Was Going to be an Educational Show
Remember that era when the History Channel was the place to go to watch history come alive? The earliest form of the History Channel broadcasted everything from WW II documentaries to... well, there were a lot of WW II documentaries. Still, it was a tremendous educational resource for many viewers.
Some of the first companies to agree to participate in Ax Men first felt that they were signing on for a traditional History Channel program. In other words, they thought it was going to be a more educational series that focused on the history of the industry, how loggers deal with natural resources, and the profession’s role in the modern world.
Instead, Ax Men became a personality and drama-fueled reality show. Not everyone felt that was the direction it should have gone in.
4 Jay Browning Has A Long-Standing Hatred of the History Channel
Jay Browning was arguably Ax Men’s first star. The veteran logger connected with fans of the show through his gruff nature and tendency to speak his mind. The fact that he also had a prosthetic limb designed to hold a chainsaw also lent him a certain blue-collar mythical status that kept many tuning in.
The funny thing about Browning success is that Browning resented the show he helped make popular for quite some time. In interviews that followed his departure from the show, Browning talked about his displeasure with the History Channel and how they insisted on running things. He even went so far to say that the History Channel’s portrayal of the series set the industry back 50 years in terms of perception and how potential future employees approach the business.
3 Many Real Loggers Didn’t Like The Show
We already talked about some of the bosses not liking Ax Men and some of the family members not liking Ax Men, but we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention the real-life ax men that also hated the series. That isn’t to say that everyone in the industry hated the show, but it certainly seems to have attracted an unusual amount of industry insiders with nothing but bad words to say.
Aside from the “fake” nature of the series, the main complaint that everyone had regarding the presentation of the show as the way that the producers glossed over the day-to-day operations of the job in order to focus on dramatic moments. According to the bosses, this presentation fostered the perception that loggers were universally unprofessional and not reliable.
2 Clay Gustafson Believes the History Channel Kicked Them Off the Show For Being Too Professional
While some of the companies featured in Ax Men’s first season returned to the show for its second season, a couple did not. One of these companies, Gustafson Logging, was actually thought of as a pretty popular addition to the first season’s roster. It was strange to hear that they weren’t invited back for another year.
Sometime after his time on Ax Men, Clay Gustafson came out and said that he believed the reason that his company didn’t receive a second season invite is because his crew was too professional.
In retrospect, the Gustafson crew were a comparatively dry bunch who rarely engaged in dramatic television moments. Clay believes that the fact the camera crew couldn’t get many shouting matches out of them is a big part of the reason they were given a pink slip.
1 William Bart Colantuono's Death Prompted Safety Investigations Related to the Show
While quite a few of the people who worked on Ax Men ended up dying tragically, that’s not all that shocking when you consider that the job is known for having a notably high mortality rate. Still, the death of Ax Men pilot William Bart Colantuono hit fans especially hard. Colantuono was a well-liked and personable worker whose helicopter antics were usually an episode highlight.
The circumstances of Colantuono’s deaths weren’t necessarily unusual - the rotor blade on his helicopter malfunctioned and caused him to crash - but the incident prompted an unusually deep investigation.
Those familiar with the case reported that the investigation was partially based on the fact that Colantuono was often seen on Ax Men participating in less than ideal acts on the show. The belief was that his mechanical problems may have been partially caused by requests to perform some “showy” actions by the producers.
Do you have any Ax Men trivia to share? Leave it in the comments!