Viking Weapons (Tools of the Trade)

Vikings for all occasions, no blade too sharp

Manaraefan Herred

Every tradesman requires tools for his trade and the Vikings were no exception. The trade of a Viking is war, or at the least personal combat.  Perhaps we should briefly explore the meaning of the word Viking.  Today when we talk about the Vikings we use the word to represent the culture of the peoples of Scandinavia from the late 8th century to the middle 11th century, when the word was first used it referred to a more specific group of people doing a specific thing, armed men using force of arms to achieve their goals.  These were raiders, pirates and sometimes conquerors.  The origins of the word are disputed but it’s application is not, one suggestion is that the word originated from the Norse word for an inlet, “Vik”, where pirates hid their ships ready to pounce upon any fat merchantman that might sail by.  Whatever the truth of that belief the term Viking certainly applied to such pirates and anyone else prepared to use violence for private gain.  Applying the term to a royal army led by a king with an established territory or nation is wrong except when the intent is to insult an enemy!

So, a Vikings trade is war and we will now look at his weapons:

The Sword is the foremost weapon of the warrior and is a visible symbol of his status in society.  In the early years of the Viking age only the richest warriors could afford a sword and the majority used axes which we will look at later.  Of the weapons we are going to look at the sword is the only one which has a single purpose and that is the killing of men.  This gives the sword a dark mysticism that the other weapons lack.  A well made and finely balanced sword is capable of subtle use in the hands of a skilled practitioner which also sets it apart from the other weapons which are crude tools of butchery in comparison (this is a little unfair but helps to make the point as to the primacy of the sword).  The sword is usually used in conjunction with the shield and together they are the most versatile weapon combination and able to face any other weapon on the battlefield with reasonable chances of success, if there is any doubt about this contention look back at the Roman Army which conquered a huge empire using gladius and scutum, sword and shield as their primary weapons.

Viking swords can have a blade over a metre long and are classified as the North European Broad Sword, they are the direct ancestor of the Medieval Broad Sword so beloved of the Knights of the Age of Chivalry. They can be found in the graves of warriors, some are passed down generation to generation, others are sacrificed to the gods.  Many are given names, usually after some great deed by the wielder, no doubt to enhance the warrior’s tale of his skill in battle.  The sword is usually worn on the left hip either suspended from a belt or baldric, left handed warriors were not tolerated as they tend to disrupt the shield wall but in these modern and enlightened you might well see a Viking wearing her sword on her right hip!

Sword

Blade - from the guard to the point.  The part of the sword with which a hit may be made.

Cutting edge - the narrow side of the blade from the grip to the point and back to the grip.

Flat - the wide portion of the blade between the edges, point and grip.

Foible - the third of the blade near the point.

Forte - the third of the blade near the guard.

Fuller - the channel or groove running from guard to near the point on both flats of the blade.

Grip - the place where the weapon is held.

Guard - the cross piece between the blade and the grip.

Middle - the centre third of the blade.

Pommel - the weight or counter balance that is fitted to the tang and holds the weapon together.

Point - the end of the weapon furthest from the pommel. The part of the sword with which a thrust may be made.

Tang - the part of the blade which passes through the guard and grip to the pommel where it is secured.

All free adult males also carry a knife (or seax, or scramaseax) hanging from their belt. This can be of impressive size but don’t be fooled into thinking it is a weapon, think more kitchen knife.  Of course a large sharp knife can be used to cause harm but a Viking, at least a Pagan Viking, would not wish to kill anyone, even a deadly enemy, with his knife.  To do so would damn him as a murderer walking the Shores of the Dead in Nifleheim for all eternity while dodging the jaws of Nidhoggr, among it’s other tasks this giant serpent chews on the denizens of the Shores of the Dead.  This doesn’t relieve the murderer of further torment as once they have transited the beast the torment begins again!  When the Vikings adopted Christianity this restriction on the use of a knife was lifted.  Though he may wear a knife in battle the weapon of last resort was the sword or hand axe, to die with such a weapon in hand meant that the warrior had given his all to the fight and was worthy to reside with the gods.

Seax

Back - the part of the blade opposite the cutting edge that is un-sharpened.

Blade - from the grip to the point.  The part of the scramaseax with which a hit may be made.

Cutting edge - the narrow side of the blade from the guard to the point.

Flat - the wide portion of the blade between the edges, point, back and grip.

Foible - the third of the blade near the point.

Forte - the third of the blade near the grip.

Grip - the place where the weapon is held.

Middle - the centre third of the blade.

Point - the end of the weapon furthest from the end of the grip. The part of the scramaseax with which a thrust may be made. 

Tang - the part of the blade that passes into the grip to where it is secured.

The hand axe was the weapon used by the majority of warriors when the Vikings first made an impression on European history, as the wealth of the Vikings increased it was replaced by the much more prestigious and desirable sword.  The hand axe is not to be despised though, with most of it’s weight in the head it could inflict serious damage on an enemy's shield and body.  Wounds from a hand axe are rarely superficial and it doesn’t take a great deal of force to inflict a serious wound, a skilled axe man can quickly demolish his opponents shield or use the weapon as a hook to pull the shield away and expose him to attack from the axe man's fiends.

The hand axe was easily available for use in war as they were made in great numbers for cutting wood, the main fuel in the Vikings homes.

Hand axe

Back point - the bottom part of the blade that curves backward to the edge.

Blade - the part of the weapon from the socket to the cutting edge.

Butt - the lower end of the shaft, it is narrower than the socket.

Cutting edge - the narrow part of the blade opposite the hammer.

Forward point - the top part of the blade that curves forward to the edge.

Hammer - the flat part of the head near the socket and opposite the cutting edge.

Head - the whole of the metal part of the weapon.

Shaft - the wooden part of the weapon that the blade is fixed too.

Socket - the hole through which the shaft passes.

Stop - the upper end of the shaft near the head, it is wider than the socket and prevents the head from flying off.

What could be better than a hand axe, a two handed axe of course!  Well you might think so but it is at first odd that they were not used until the end of the 10th century.  A little thought and it is plain to see why this is, the problem with a two handed axe is that a warrior can’t use a shield while swinging one at his enemy.  At the time the Vikings were mostly armed with hand axes most warriors only had a shield to defend them selves with, as their wealth increased they acquired swords and body armour.  Once their armour covered most of their body and was of a good strong construction they perhaps felt confident they could do without their shields in close combat, now they could wield those tasty looking tree felling axes without worrying that a quick poke from a spear was going to do them in before they had got into their swing so to speak.  Now they could smash shield with a single blow, possibly even breaking the shield arm of their enemy in the process.  Anyone else wearing chainmail armour could expect a bone crushing blow that had such force that even if their armour saved them from a cut they could suffer severe pain and possible broken bones. Great strength and stamina was a must for those using a long axe, as it is also known as, but even the greatest warrior will have to give up using it if he gets too tired or the tactical situation changes.  An axe man will have his sword on his hip and his shield on his back ready for use wherever he finds himself.

Long Axe

Back point - the bottom part of the blade that curves backward to the edge.

Blade - the part of the weapon from the socket to the cutting edge.

Butt - the lower end of the shaft, it is narrower than the socket.

Cutting edge - the narrow part of the blade opposite the hammer.

Forward point - the top part of the blade that curves forward to the edge.

Hammer - the flat part of the blade near the socket and opposite the cutting edge.

Head - the whole of the metal part of the weapon.

Lower third - the portion of the shaft nearest the butt.

Middle third - the centre portion of the shaft.

Shaft - the wooden part of the weapon that the blade is fixed too.

Socket - the hole through which the shaft passes.

Stop - the upper end of the shaft near the head, it is wider than the socket and prevents the blade from flying off.

Upper third - the portion of the shaft nearest the head.

The weapon that marked a man out as a warrior was the spear; all the graves of warriors contain a spear.  The spear is one of man’s oldest weapons, possibly the third weapon man made after the rock and club.  It’s simplest form is a long stick sharpened by burning one end and scraping the charred wood away leaving a point. It is used by nearly all, if not all, cultures on Earth, only those living in the densest jungle might hesitate to use one.  It survives to the present day in the form of the bayonet fitted to modern assault rifles which means it probably should get it an award for the design classic of all time!  It was usually used in conjunction with a shield and held in the right fist level with the wielders eyes, this was because he was usually standing very close to his comrades either side of him in the shield wall.  His first target was the face of his enemy, as his foe was probably armed the same way and of the same intent this made spear combat a very scary thing indeed, one has to wonder if the approaching warriors by some unspoken mutual assent avoided each others face and settled for a shoving match with their shields.  This is certainly implied in some ancient Greek military texts, the Greek Hoplite fought in a very similar manner.  Spears can be any length up to about nine feet long, over nine feet and it is beginning to get into the realm of the pike, a simple guide is that if the weapon can be used effectively in one hand it is a spear, if it requires two hands to use it is a pike.  Spears between five feet and six feet six inches can be referred to as short spears or throwing spear, under five feet and they more properly fall into the category of javelins.  Any spear, any weapon in fact, can be thrown at the enemy if the warrior feels that is the best thing to do but whether or not a spear is a throwing spear really depends on what the warrior intends to do with it from the outset.  If the spear is for throwing you can be assured the warrior has more than one or another descent weapon to use after he has thrown the spear, it would be foolish to rely on the enemy to throw it back.

Spear

Blade - the part of the weapon from the socket to the point.

Butt - the lower end of the shaft.

Cutting edge - the narrow side of the blade from the socket to the point and back to the socket.

Head - the whole of the metal part of the weapon.

Lower third - the portion of the shaft nearest the butt.

Middle third - the centre portion of the shaft.

Point - the end of the weapon furthest from the end of the

Socket.

Shaft - the wooden part of the weapon that the head is fixed too.

Socket - the hole through which the shaft passes and is fixed.

Spine - the ridge that runs down the centre of the blade from the socket to the point.

Upper third - the portion of the shaft nearest the head.

Wings - protrusions from the head between the blade and socket.

The shield, while in the strictest sense not being a weapon, is an essential part of a warrior’s equipment.  For many it was the only protection the warrior had from the attacks of his enemy and will only be discarded when damaged beyond use or to speed up flight from battle!  The Spartan wife/mother would entreat the warrior to return with his shield or not at all, while not specifically stated in these exact terms it was a concept well understood by the Viking warrior and all other warrior cultures.  Along with the spear it is one of the defining symbols of a warrior.  They varied in size, as did the warriors, but were designed to cover the man from chin to knee which suggests quite a heavy piece of kit, but none that have been excavated are thicker than five millimetres. They were made of hard wood, mostly lime wood and may well have been covered with a thick hide, indeed one of the earliest English laws instructs warriors to cover their shields with ox hide rather than pig skin!

 shield 2

Back - the flat surface of the shield towards the warrior holding it.

Boss - the metal centre of the shield that protects the hand holding the grip.

Brace - wooden or metal batten used to hold the planks of the disk together.

Cover - leather or cloth glued to the face of the disk to protect and secure the planks.

Disk - the main wooden part of the shield.

Face - the flat surface of the shield away from the warrior holding it.

Grip - the place where the shield is held and part of the brace.

Rim - the outer edge of the disk and the metal or leather binding that protects the rim of the disk.  Also it helps hold the planks of the disk together.

Rivet - metal pins used to secure the boss, brace and metal rim to the disk. 

Strap - fitted to the brace to secure the shield to the warrior.

All the above weapons require getting close to the enemy and exchanging blows with him, the wounds the weapons cause are horrendous and no sane person would risk them without first exhausting all other possibilities.  For this reason Viking Age battles usually have three phases, the first is negotiation and intimidation.  The leaders of the two forces meet and the Vikings try to persuade their enemy that they are big fierce and mean, they are going to win any fight so the locals might as well hand over their valuables now and at least keep their lives and wives.  If this works Danegeld is paid.  If negotiation and intimidation fails they move on to phase two, they now try to win the fight using assorted missiles which we will be looking at next.  Only if the missile phase of the fight fails to drive off the enemy do they risk life and limb in the uncertain prospect of victory through blood.

The javelin is the most common missile weapon used by the Vikings and their enemies, each warrior would come to the fight with two or three, they can be held easily in the left hand while holding a shield though it was best if they were used before serious hand to hand combat began.  It is possible to hold a spear and one or two javelins behind the shield while throwing the first javelin at the enemy, it is therefore possible to launch two or three volleys of javelins at the enemy before getting stuck in with the spear.  The Romans carried two pilum which they launched at an approaching enemy before drawing their swords, if they could have thrown three in the time available and still be ready to face the enemy sword in hand they probably would have issued their legionaries with three pilum, the fact that they didn’t probably suggests that two volleys at an approaching enemy is the best that can be hoped for.

javerlin 1

Blade - the part of the weapon from the socket to the point.

Butt - the lower end of the shaft.

Cutting edge - the narrow side of the blade from the socket to the point and back to the socket.

Head - the whole of the metal part of the weapon.

Point - the end of the weapon furthest from the end of the socket.

Shaft - the wooden part of the weapon that the head is fixed too.

Socket - the hole through which the shaft passes and is fixed on some javelins.

Spine - the ridge that runs down the centre of the blade from the socket to the point.

Tang - the part of the head that passes into and secures it to the shaft.

After the javelin the bow was the next most common missile weapon.  These were long bows in the sense that they were about the height of a man but when we talk of long bows today we think of the English long bow of the middle ages which was a much more powerful weapon.  However the Viking long bow was effective up to 100 yards or more and had less well armoured targets to deal with.  They had a variety of arrow heads including long thin ones later known as “bodkins” which more easily drove through mail armour and could, at close range, punch through a shield far enough to ruin a warrior’s whole day if he was not holding it away from his body.

bow

Back - the side of the bow facing away from the archer when loosing.

Belly - the side of the bow facing the archer when loosing.

Bow window - the space between the string and the belly of the bow.

Draw - the longest distance from the belly of a bow to the string when pulled.

Grip - the place where the bow is held when loosing.

Lower bow nock - the position at the bottom of the bow where the string is fixed.

Lower limb - the part of the bow below the grip.

Nocking point - the place on the string where the arrow is fitted.

Serving thread - additional thread in the middle of the string to protect it when fitting an arrow.

String - the cord to which arrows are fitted.

Upper bow nock - the position at the top of the bow where the string is fixed.

Upper limb - the part of the bow above the grip.

Arrows

Blade - the part of the weapon from the socket to the point.

Cutting edge - the narrow side of the blade from the socket or tang to the point and back to the socket.

Fletching - the feathers at the rear of the arrow.

Flight - an individual feather that is part of the fletching.       

Head - the whole of the metal part of the weapon.

Nock - the groove cut into the top of an arrow.

Pile - rubber blunt.

Point - the end of the weapon furthest from the end of the socket or tang.

Rubber blunt - that which should be placed at the business end of an arrow, also known as a pile.

Shaft - the wooden part of the arrow

Socket - the hole through which the shaft passes and is fixed.

Spine - the ridge that runs down the centre of the blade from the socket to the point.

Tang - the part of the head which passes into and secures it to the shaft.

The final weapon we are going to look at is the sling, this is not a warrior’s weapon, rather it is the mark of a peasant.  It is entirely possible that our Viking warrior was proficient in its use having learnt to use it in his youth. As a battle weapon it was despised and those that would use it were not of the warrior class and would not be tolerated on the battlefield.  Our heroes would be on the receiving end of some sling shots but not on the battlefield, the local peasantry often took a dim view of people carrying off what few possessions they had and no doubt would express this opinion with the odd sling shot before making off in to the deep forest.

Sling shotCup - the place where the shot is placed in the sling.

End - the end of the lower strap furthest from the cup.

Loop - the place on the strap where the thumb passes through it.

Lower strap - the part of the sling from the cup to the end.

Upper strap - the part of the sling from the cup to the loop.

Shot – the missile.

Comments on this site should be sent to Roger Barry

My Sword

I hold my sword in my hand,

As I stride across the land.

My sword is swift to bight,

It cuts deep in every fight.

My sword is quick to swing,

Battle’s song it does sing.

My sword is my friend,

In hand held to my end.

My Seax

A seax or a knife,

Not used to take a life.

Dishonour to he with seax slays,

In the afterlife everyone pays.

The seax is a useful tool,

But murder is for a fool.

Seax kept out of hand,

Not for the warrior band.

My Axe

I wield my mighty axe,

I claim the bloody tax.

Shields I can break,

Wounds you need not fake.

No man do I fear,

I don't stand in the rear.

I stand proud on the battle plain,

Tales are told of my fame.

My Axe

I wield my mighty axe,

I claim the bloody tax.

Shields I can break,

Wounds you need not fake.

No man do I fear,

I don't stand in the rear.

I stand proud on the battle plain,

Tales are told of my fame.

My Spear

The spear I use to fight,

To slay the foe forth right.

Quick with deadly thrust,

Many I put in the dust.

With others I make a prickly wall,

Before which you will fall.

Here I take my stand,

I hold this piece of land.

My Shield

My shield protects my hide,

It never leaves my side.

My shield takes many blows,

Keeping me safe from my foes.

Into battle I take my shield,

With it I leave the raven field.

At home again it hangs on wall,

Listening in the warriors’ hall.

My Bow

My weapon is the bow,

With it death I do sow.

Sharp eye I have to see,

You'll not long hide from me.

Bring to battle your shield,

Or I'll make you lie on the field.

Mighty mail my arrows pierce,

The pain is something fierce.

My Javelin

My javelin flies true and straight,

To send a warrior to his fate.

With my shield three I carry,

My foe to fright and harry.

Brave is the one before me,

Else javelins point makes him flee.

Long is my javelin throw,

To put my foe down low.

My Chainmail

My mail is really quite heavy,

But it keeps me from death's levy.

Into battle it I wear,

It keeps me hail and fair.

Blows rebound from my mail,

As my foes, forever fail.

I shall ever keep it on,

On you I'll fall upon.

As with the shield mail is not strictly a weapon but if a warrior could afford it he would use it.  Mail is expensive and therefore indicates that the warrior is reasonably wealthy and of a respectably high social class, or at least aspires to be.  No Viking chieftain or their hearth troop would knowingly go into battle without their mail, a good example of this is the Battle of Stamford Bridge where the Norwegian king and Viking Harald Hardrada (Ruthless) was defeated by king Harold II Godwinson.  According to Harald’s Saga many of his men had left their mail aboard their ships as they were not expecting to fight a battle that day, this gave the English a great advantage and led to the defeat of the Vikings.  It is possible that this was untrue and the lack of mail included in the saga so as to maintain Harald’s reputation, if so it still adds strength to the argument that a warrior would always wear his mail in battle as the excuse was believable to it’s Viking audience.

My Helmet

An essential item is my helm,

I wish to stay in this realm.

Killing blows glance off,

Not my helm I will doff.

A friend to me it has been,

Without it I am never seen.

Keep yours on your head,

No wish to join the dead.

Another essential piece of equipment, after acquiring a shield the warriors must have a helmet.  A simple functional helmet would be cheaper and easier to obtain than mail and slightly more useful.  When equipped with a good shield a warrior is more likely to be struck on the head than on the body, at least while the shield wall holds together, and a head wound is likely to be fatal.