Every free Viking was expected to carry weapons at all times, even when working the fields of his farm. Life in the North was harsh and violent, and conflict could always arrive without a moment’s notice.
One of the most famous Norse poems, the Hávamál, immortalized the norseman belligerence by saying: “a man should never move an inch from his weapons when out in the fields, for he never knows when he will need his spear. ”
No weapon is more iconic to the Viking than a spear. The spear is the weapon of choice of Odin himself, who carries his mighty spear Gungnir into battle while ridding his horse Sleipnir.
The metal spearhead of the Viking spear was sharp and lethal when used to stab and cut, and Viking spears were usually the first line of assault or defense in a battle. The Viking spear has a reach advantage over a sword or one-handed axe, it is a very fast weapon with the added advantage of keeping the enemy at bay.
The Viking spear could be used single-handed and two-handed, and there are a variety of shapes and sizes of Viking spearheads. Some spearheads were shaped for cutting, thrusting, hewing or hacking, whilst others were made specifically for throwing. According to the Eyrbyggja saga (The Saga of the People of Eyri), it was customary for Vikings to throw a spear at the enemy to start a battle. Spears were a practical weapon. They required less iron to be made than a sword or an axe, making them many times cheaper for the common viking.
The first choice of wood for a Viking spear shaft was ash. Ash wood is hard and strong, growing naturally straight. Viking spear shafts were usually round shaped, with a diameter of 2 to 3 cm (1 in). There was no regulation for the length of a Viking spear shaft, but a shaft of around 2 meters (6 feet) makes for a fast and well balanced weapon when used in combat and when thrown.
The Viking Spear from the Lendbreen Ice Patch
Viking swords were categorized by Jan Petersen in 1919 into 29 different types according to their hilts, as well several subtypes.
With the exception of just a very few Viking swords that are over 100 cm, most Viking sword blades range from 60 centimeters to 100 centimeters long (24 in to 39 in), with 70 to 80 cm (27 to 31 in) being the most typical blade length. Some blades had deep, wide fullers (the groove in the middle of the blade), sometimes inscribed with decorations, or names of the bearer or the forger. They were almost exclusively one-handed swords.
Most Viking swords have two sharp edges, but single edged Viking swords were extremely popular in the 9th century, especially in Norway. In fact the longest Viking sword that has been found is single edged and is an incredible 107 cm (42 inches or 3 ft 6in).
Swords excavated at Viking Age burials.
Such a sword would be perfectly balanced, and weighed only between 1 and 1.5 kilograms. As such, it possessed all the perfect traits to make it a truly vicious cutting weapon, perfectly combining length, weight, and design to be as lethal as possible.
All of this made Viking swords a highly coveted weapon – one that signified social status and honor. Not everyone could afford to own a sword. They were costly to make and reserved for prominent persons in a society. It is estimated that a Viking sword could cost anywhere from three to a dozen cows, depending on its quality.
Ulfberht viking sword
The Seax – A Deadly Blade To Have
Another bladed weapon that was highly popular during the Viking era was the Seax. Also known as the sæx, this weapon is a long knife or dagger, that could be as long as a short sword. These weapons were the most typical for the Germanic peoples of the Migration period and later of the Viking Age, and were worn by almost all free men. The seax was so widespread that the Saxon tribe was named after it.
One of the most typical and easily accessible Viking weapons is the seax. An excavated seax (top) and a replica (below).
A seax was usually a single edged blade worn in a scabbard. The lengths of the blade often varied from region to region, and could have been narrow and long, short, and most uniquely broken backed. The broken back seax is perhaps the most iconic of all the designs, typical for the Anglo-Saxons and perhaps the Vikings as well. This seax had a sharp break in the middle that ended in a vicious point – similar to a clip point blade we know today.
Seaxes were efficient and deadly weapons, carefully combining a design that is much longer than an average dagger or knife, but still light and small enough to be used as one.
broken back modern seax
The Round Shield – An Impenetrable Wall
Round shields most commonly measured between 75 and 120 centimeters (30 to 47 inches) in diameter, covering most of the torso of the wearer. They were made of wood, most often from fir, poplar or linden, all lightweight and resistant materials. In their center they displayed an iron element, sometimes called “boss”, which gave stability, resistance and helped deflect blows, while their rims were often reinforced with raw hide or in rare cases, even metal stripes.
Round shields were lightweight enough to be efficiently worn in combat, not only to deflect blows, but as a striking weapon in itself, as they were sturdy enough to shield-bash enemies into oblivion.
While some historians claim that the Vikings never interlocked shields in a “shield wall”, most historians agree that the tactic was commonly used by Norsemen during the Viking Age. Also known as “skjaldborg”, the shield wall offers the best protection against a volley of arrows in an area without cover.
The Norsemen also utilized round shields as protection on their longboats. Special fastening points were developed that allowed the shields to be fixed along the boat’s edges. This protected the crew from any projectile weapons from the shores, but also made for an efficient wind and wave break.
Bows and arrows
Bows and arrows may not be not the first weapons that come to mind when we think about the Vikings, but they are amongst the most important ones. Vast amounts of archaeological evidence suggest that they played a major role in both hunting and warfare for the Vikings.
Ullr, the God of the Hunt and Keeper of Vows is also a master archer. The sagas mention bows made of horn, hornbogi, ‘hornbows’. Short, reflexed composite bows made of layers of horn and sinew on a wooden core, which are generally associated with mounted archers from Eastern steppes have also been discovered in Viking graves.
Longbows, commonly associated with England, were also present on the hands of skilled Vikings, as archeological evidence shows in the case of the Hedeby bow. The bow was found in the area of the Viking town of Hedeby, which now lies in northern Germany (Haithabu), and was dated to around 800-1000 CE. The Hedeby bow was 40 mm wide and 33 mm thick at the handle, with a length of 189 cm and made of yew. It had an estimated draw weight of around 80-100 pounds, which is also around the same poundage of typical English longbow.
Modern replica of the Hedeby bow
The Axe – The Most Iconic of Viking Weapons
There is no weapon that is more characteristic for the Vikings and their era than the axe.
Vicious, deadly and efficient, even the poorest farm had to have an axe for cutting and splitting wood. From childhood, every single viking knew how to use an axe. This tool was quite versatile and could be used in a variety of ways such as building a house, ship or boat, on smaller tasks on a farm, for hunting, and even in combat.
Its versatility is undeniable: When holding the lowest part of an axe handle, an axe can be swung and used to chop wood with the sharp part of the axe head. By holding the axe handle close to the head, an axe could be used to shape and carve wood. The same principles were used in combat. When holding the lowest part of an axe handle, an axe could be swung and used to chop or cut at an enemy, and by holding the axe handle close to the head, an axe could be used in the same way as a knife.
Although there were a wide variety of Viking axes, they all fell into two basic categories, the one-handed axe, and the larger two-handed axe.
The one-handed Viking axe came in many shapes and sizes, but all were light enough to be wielded with one hand. The two handed Viking axe, also called the Viking battle axe or ‘Dane Axe’, was large and heavy, and needed both hands to be used effectively. The one-handed axe could also be used for other types of work, but the Viking battle axe was designed exclusively as a weapon of war.
The Dane axe was especially lethal in combat. The design of the axe head featured a narrow base which spread into a very wide cutting edge – often measuring 30 centimeters (12 inches). Pointed “horns” at the top and bottom gave the axe both a sweeping and shearing ability. The Dane axes were immensely popular in Scandinavia among the Vikings, and from there spread through areas under their influence.
Another design associated with the Viking Age is the skeggøx – the bearded axe. This design had a much less curved top portion, but a prominent lower extension of the axe head. This lower part not only extended the cutting surface of the edge, but also gave the warrior a special way to hold the axe. This protected his hand and gave a unique tactical approach to axe combat.
What is your favorite Viking Weapon? Leave your comments below.