Viking Weapons

Learn More about the different kinds of Viking Weapons.

The common perception of Vikings is that of fearsome warriors. However, the reality was often quite different. While some Viking armies did include skilled fighters, nobles, or well-equipped mercenaries, the majority were poor and often untrained men. Many Viking soldiers lacked effective weapons and armour, relying instead on simple household tools like knives and axes. They would also wield homemade round shields. These were pivotal to their combat, regardless of what other arms or leather armour they could scrounge together.

Viking armies or raiding parties often relied on a tactic known as the shield wall. In this formation, soldiers would line up with their shields held together, presenting a solid defensive barrier. Within the wall, fighters typically operated in pairs – perhaps as father and son, blood brothers, or even a married couple. The idea was for each fighter to watch the other’s back, with one warrior pinning back an enemy’s shield while the other struck their exposed chest. This coordinated approach allowed the Vikings to overwhelm individual opponents. So what gear were these fighters using?

Shields

The exact size and construction materials of Viking shields have been heavily debated. However, a well-preserved example discovered in 2008 at Trelleborg, Denmark provides valuable insights. This shield measures 85cm in diameter, smaller than many may have expected. Constructed from pine planks, it had a central iron dome or ‘boss’ that provided a grip for the wielder, protecting their fingers from incoming blows. Interestingly, the Trelleborg shield had calfskin on the face, which added an extra protective layer, potential fire resistance, and helped to disguise the wood grain. This raises questions about whether painted shields may have lacked this hide covering, as paint could serve a similar purpose in concealing the timber. Furthermore, there is evidence of shields decorated with symbols or insignia to identify individual warriors on the battlefield.

Knives, or seaxes

During the Viking Age, it was common for people to carry knives and other sharp tools that would be considered unusual or dangerous today. The Old English term “saex” referred to a specific style of knife, with adult men typically carrying two types – a small “scraem saex” (or “injury knife”) and a larger “lang saex” (or “long knife”), especially when hunting or going to war. While traditional knives lacked ornate hilts, some single-edged blades found in Scandinavia were actually modified lang saexs altered to resemble true swords. These converted blades often featured grips made from materials like antler or whalebone, though wood and leather were more common. Though not as precisely engineered as genuine swords, these modified weapons had an impressive and formidable appearance Viking warriors prized, despite their relative simplicity.

Spears

The spear was likely the most common battlefield weapon during the Viking Age. This versatile weapon allowed the wielder to injure or kill from a distance while keeping the target at bay. With training, Viking warriors could use spears effectively in close-quarters combat.

Spears held a certain reverence, as exemplified by the Norse deity Odin’s legendary spear, Gungnir. They were also a practical choice for poorer fighters, as the amount of metal required was comparable to that of a knife. Spearheads came in a variety of forms, from javelins for throwing to short and long spears for melee fighting. Some, like the angon spear head were specifically designed to penetrate and disable an enemy’s shield

Archery

Archery, while primarily a hunter’s skill, was likely widely practiced. Archaeologists have found bows made of ash or yew with heavy draw weights, suggesting archers on the battlefield provided close-range support rather than long-distance “bombardment.” Historical accounts describe fighters being shot down in the midst of melee combat, indicating a high degree of marksmanship by battlefield archers. At the Battle of Stamford Bridge, for instance, the outnumbered forces of Harald Hardrada reportedly arranged their shield-bearers in a single line, with archers positioned immediately behind them to shoot directly over the shields and into the enemy melee.   

We can categorise arrowhead designs into two main types: broadheads and bodkins. Broadheads are the standard diamond or leaf-shaped arrowhead that are commonly associated with arrows. Designed to cut into an animal or person’s body when shot from a bow, broadheads would create a large open wound. However, broadheads may not always penetrate obstacles, armour such as shields and leather padding, or tougher protection like mail.

In contrast, bodkin arrowheads have a more aerodynamic, elongated design, typically between two and six inches long. This shape was intentional, as bodkins were specifically designed to penetrate armour effectively. Bodkins could shoot straight through leather, wood, and even mail armour when fired from a powerful enough bow. While this made most battlefield armour obsolete, bodkins were less useful for general hunting purposes and were likely not produced or used extensively during the Viking Age.

Axes

Viking-age axes came in a wide range of sizes, from three inches to over ten inches long. Vikings used smaller axes for cutting firewood, while they wielded larger “Dane axes” as massive two-handed weapons in battle. The basic form of an axe was a wedge, often featuring a distinctive “bearded” element, like in the skeggøx, a type of battle axe.

Crafted from ash, these axe shafts balanced the weapon effectively. The bearded feature allowed Vikings to catch and control the rim of an opponent’s shield easily. This hook-like design also enabled them to catch other weapons or even hook an enemy’s limbs.

Dane axes, larger than bearded axes, were mounted on long poles similar to spears. Heroic Viking warriors used these huge weapons to fend off entire armies and decapitate charging cavalry with single, devastating blows. The Dane axe, a precursor to other European pole-arms, was named after its early Viking users. Veteran fighters favored these massive axes, as they required significant skill to wield effectively within the confines of a shield wall.

Swords

During the Viking Age, swords stood out as prized and often expensive family heirlooms. Vikings wielded cross-hilt or broadsword designs, like the renowned Cawood sword. These swords, double-edged and fullered, featured intricate hilt furniture and were designed for single-handed use.

Vikings used a technique called pattern-welding to craft stronger steel for their swords, spears, and knives. Sometimes, they made the hilt furniture from unique materials like whalebone. Viking swords typically weighed between two-and-a-half to five-and-a-half pounds.

A Viking sword has four key components: the blade, the fuller, the quillon, and the pommel. The blade, whether dull or razor-sharp, delivers devastating blows. The fuller, often called the “blood-channel,” reduces the blade’s weight, making it lighter and easier to handle. The quillon, or cross-guard, protects the hand and fingers from an opponent’s strikes. The grip provides a solid hold, while the pommel acts as a counterweight, ensuring the sword’s balance. A well-engineered pommel marks a well-balanced sword. Interestingly, the term “to pummel” someone comes from using the pommel as a knuckle duster, especially in close combat.

Unlike other Viking weapons, swords were designed solely for combat. Vikings used knives, axes, spears, and bows for various tasks beyond warfare, adapting them for battle. However, swords existed purely to defeat opponents, making them the most coveted weapon among Viking warriors.

Maille Armour

Maille armor, or chainmail as it’s commonly known today, was likely quite rare and expensive. Estimates suggest that only a minority of fighters in a Viking-age army would have had access to iron helmets and/or maille armor, with some exceptions for “professional” mercenary units where all members were known to have iron armor. Similar to swords, iron armor pieces were probably passed down as heirlooms.

The maille armor used the standard four-in-one European weave, but very few examples have survived. Producing a maille shirt would have cost more than building a castle or boat in 1066. The surviving maille shirts feature link sizes ranging from 4mm to 8mm, or up to 12mm for the Sutton Hoo example, indicating maille was generally quite small in scale.

All known maille was of the riveted variety, using both square and round wire sections.

For those without access to iron armor, leather greaves, jackets, or other garments sewn from animal hides would have been the only protective options available, highlighting the critical importance of the shield in Viking-era warfare.