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A Deadly Formula - Why Viking Weapons and Armor Were So Effective

A Deadly Formula - Why Viking Weapons and Armor Were So Effective

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Nothing continues to be so inspiring and thrilling from early medieval history such as the Viking Age. This exciting historical period turned the nations of Europe upside down, and ushered in a new, revolutionary age. As these brave Norsemen sailed forth from their age-old settlements, they began exploring all corners of Europe – from England in their west, all the way to the eastern lands of the Slavs. And with these raids and explorations, they bound these lands to themselves, and became involved in the most complex political spheres.

And above all, the Vikings were remembered for their prowess in battle and their skill as fierce warriors. But how did they manage it? How were they so successful in the field of warfare? Today we are attempting to answer that question, as we make a thorough exploration of the known Viking weapons and armor that made the age so iconic and fierce!

An Introduction to Viking Weapons and Armor

Even though the Viking Age today is so thoroughly represented in the modern media and entertainment, the actual archaeological discoveries that act as an insight into their methods of warfare have always been sparse. What we know today about the weaponry, the styles, and the strategies of these ancient Norsemen – and all those that they influenced – can be attributed to complex research that covers the historical Norse Sagas, the pictorial evidences, and some actual archaeological finds.

What is clear, is the fact that Norsemen of the Early Middle Ages and before, greatly valued weapons and warfare, and were not strangers to either of those. Furthermore, Viking men were expected to carry weapons at all times, and were very much free to do so everywhere. It is even mentioned in the Hávamál, one of the most famous Norse poems, that “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. ”

We can safely assume that much of Norse life – both within their nations and without – was centered on violence and warfare. Political spheres revolved around it, personal feuds, and even passing of judgement. And with that being said, it was only natural for these fierce men and women to develop new and advanced weapons, armor, and fighting tactics.

What we know is that even before they sailed towards the British Isles – which began in 793 AD with the raid on Lindisfarne – the Norsemen frequently ravaged the coastal lands of the Baltic, and sailed inland through the river systems, where they could test their skill in battle, and further improve their weaponry through trial and error.

Today, many of the archaeological discoveries that are connected with the weaponry of the Vikings come from rich burials. In these cases, famed heroes and rich chieftains were buried with their lavishly built and richly decorated swords and spears, which tells us that a man’s weapon was a highly prized item – one which often cost a lot of money to produce. But the entire arsenal that was at the disposal of Viking warriors was much more rich than simply swords and spears. So let’s take a closer look at everything a skilled Norse warrior could have used.

The Viking Sword – The Norseman’s Best Friend

By far the most popular and well-known weapon in a Norseman’s arsenal was his sword. Even though today, this unique style of swords is called a Viking sword, it was also widespread in use throughout much of Northern and Western Europe during that time. These perfectly designed Viking weapons evolved from an earlier style of swords that are attributed to the Migration period and the Germanic tribes such as the Franks.

Swords of this type were mostly produced from the 8 th to the 11 th century, and had quite a few unique features that made them so efficient and, in turn, widespread. One of these features was the grip. The most noticeable part of such swords was the pommel – the bottom end of a grip. They were distinctly shaped by three or five round lobes, and it quickly became the most recognizable part of a Frankish / Viking sword. The hand guards were also distinctly short, contrary to what later became a standard with the knightly sword.

Swords excavated at Viking Age burials. As you can see the unique pommels typical of Viking swords. (viciarg / CC BY-SA 3.0)

Swords excavated at Viking Age burials. As you can see the unique pommels typical of Viking swords. (viciarg / CC BY-SA 3.0 )

The length of the blade was most often between 70 and 90 centimeters (26 and 35 inches), and they were sometimes inscribed with decorations, or names of the bearer or the forger. Such a sword would be perfectly balanced, and weighed only between 1 and 1.5 kilograms, and in total measured up to 105 centimeters (41 inches). 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 initially own a sword. They were costly to make and reserved for prominent persons in a society. It is estimated that a sword of this type would cost an equivalent of 1,300 US dollars to purchase.

The Seax – A Deadly Blade To Have

Another bladed weapon that was highly popular in the Old Germanic world is the Seax. Also known as the sæx or the sex, this weapon is best termed as a long knife or a dagger, and very rarely 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.

Even though seaxes varied greatly in their design, and came in many different shapes and sizes, they still followed some pre-established design elements that connect them all under that single name. Typically, a seax had a tang in the center line of the blade. The tang is the extension of the blade that is socketed into the handle. These were most often made from wood, and sometimes horn.

One of the most typical and easily accessible Viking weapons is the seax. Pictured: an excavated seax (top) and a replica (below). (Bullenwächter / CC BY-SA 3.0)

One of the most typical and easily accessible Viking weapons is the seax. Pictured: an excavated seax (top) and a replica (below). (Bullenwächter / CC BY-SA 3.0 )

A seax was almost exclusively a single edged blade, and 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 much more widespread than for example swords, and could be carried even by an average farmer. Those more exquisite and expensive seaxes would be richly decorated with inlaid gold. Either way, it was an efficient and deadly weapon, 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.

The Round Shield – An Impenetrable Wall

The use of shields was perfected during the Viking Age, and a special style was iconic for the Germanic peoples of the Migration period. Today, this design is known as the round shield. These large shields most commonly measured between 75 and 120 centimeters (30 to 47 inches) in diameter, but were still lightweight enough to be efficiently worn in combat. And their size covered most of the torso of the wearer. Round shields were made from wood, most often from fir, poplar, or linden. These timbers were the lightest and had the best properties for use in combat. In a center of the shield was an iron “ boss”, a conical element that would deflect blows.

Representation of warriors running into battle using Viking weapons and the typical round shield. (destillat / Adobe stock)

Representation of warriors running into battle using Viking weapons and the typical round shield. ( destillat / Adobe stock)

The Vikings perfected the use of round shields in warfare. Their most famous battle tactic is known as the “shield wall” ( skjaldborg), and it perfectly displays the efficiency of these shields. A sort of a Viking Age “phalanx”, the shield wall utilized a series of interlocked shields to cover the row of warriors. In this way, the shields were sturdier and provided a proper wall to fight from. 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.

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 and deadly, and very efficient in battle, axes had a lot of favorable characteristics that made them widespread throughout Europe, Scandinavia, and the Germanic world as well. What made the battle axe so efficient? Well, the answer is simple – its design.

First of all, it was much cheaper to build than a proper sword – there was much less work and iron required to forge an axe head, and the rest of it was made of wood. Then, it gave the warrior a tactical advantage. Axes were most often very long, and this meant that the warrior had a better reach in battle, and could keep his opponent at a distance from himself. And it was also a common tool – which contributed to its widespread use.

Perhaps the most popular of the varied battle axe designs of the Viking Age is the so-called Dane axe. These iconic Viking weapons had a perfected design that 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.

The most iconic of Viking weapons was the battle axe. Pictured: representation of Viking style axe and round shield. (Dmitriy / Adobe stock)

The most iconic of Viking weapons was the battle axe. Pictured: representation of Viking style axe and round shield. ( Dmitriy / Adobe stock)

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.

The Helmet – Multifunctional Protection

Most historical sources and Viking era depictions of warriors show them with some sort of helmet on their head. Needless to say, a good head protection was vital for any warrior in the early medieval period. Actual archaeological discoveries of Viking Age helmets are sadly very sparse, but we can still get a pretty good insight into the main versions in use. The simplest version of the iron helmet was a simple conical cap with a nose guard extension in the center. The conical shape was vital to deflect blows aimed from above, and the nose guard was an added protection from blows to the face.

A more complex, exquisite design from that period is the so-called “spectacled” helmet. These menacing-looking armor pieces had a more round shape, and a distinctive front face guard in the shape of spectacles. This guard covered the nose and the area around the eyes, forming a unique “mask” that was both protective and fearsome. Some of these designs also utilized chainmail extensions that covered the rest of the face and the neck. A warrior with one of these helmets and full battle attire was truly a fear-instilling site, and a formidable opponent to face in the field.

Example of a Viking ‘spectacle’ helmet. (Jeblad / CC BY-SA 3.0)

Example of a Viking ‘spectacle’ helmet. (Jeblad / CC BY-SA 3.0 )

The Byrnie – Chainmail to Save a Life

One of the most important designs that was developed in ancient warfare was the chainmail, also known as the byrnie. This complex and very protective peace of armor was very expensive and time consuming to make. It consisted of hundreds and hundreds of individually connected iron rings, which together formed a flexible but hardly penetrable iron shirt.

Due to the complexity and the expensiveness, it was most often reserved for only high-ranking individuals and powerful chieftains of Viking Age Scandinavia. It is the least documented armor type in archaeological finds today. A chainmail could be worn over multiple layers of clothes or thick armor, and was a great stoppage against slashes and to an extent penetrations.

Example of chainmail armor from Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland, US. (Roy Luck / CC BY 2.0)

Example of chainmail armor from Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland, US. (Roy Luck / CC BY 2.0 )

Those warriors that could not afford chainmail armor – and there were many – often relied on lammelar armor: equally difficult to make, but much more affordable. It consisted of many interlocked leather or iron squares sewn together. Lammelar armor was popular in both the Germanic and Slavic warrior world.

In the end, the simplest warriors had to rely on cloth and leather armor for protection. They could not afford either lammelar or chainmail armor, and thus developed unique padded gambesons, thick woolen layers, and cured leather armors.

Dress to Impress…or to Kill

It might be an often-debated popular myth, but it is no secret that the Vikings and other warriors of the Viking Age were well versed in the arts of warfare. Menacing and fierce, backed by a pantheon of wise and warlike gods, these warriors descended upon the field of battle with ferocity and zeal that is so iconic to them. And to help them come out on top, they had a great variety of lethal weapons and protective armor.

Top image: Above all, the Vikings were remembered for their prowess in battle and as fierce warriors. But how did they manage it? Let’s explore the iconic and brutal Viking weapons and armor to discover just that.   Source: Nejron Photo / Adobe stock

By Aleksa Vučković

References

Oakeshott, E. 1996. The Archaeology of Weapons: Arms and Armor from Prehistory to the Age of Chivalry. Courier Corporation.

Oakeshott, E. 2002. Swords of the Viking Age. Boydell Press.

Somerville, A. and McDonald, A. 2013. The Vikings and Their Age. University of Toronto Press.

Sprague, M. 2007. Norse Warfare: The Unconventional Battle Strategies of the Ancient Vikings. Hippocrene Books.

Thompson, L. 2005. Ancient Weapons in Britain. Pen and Sword.

Comments

Elías Halldór Ágústsson's picture

Viking societies had an absolute ban on weapons in courts of law, political assemblies and religious rituals. Such a site would be cordoned off with a set of cordons called vébönd and it was strictly forbidden to cross them armed.

I have heard a story that the Vikings had inadvertently found a way to surface hardening their swords by heating them first and then forcing them into their victims’ bodies. The nitrogen in the blood produced a harder superficial layer on the steel, enough to keep a sharper edge for longer without compromising the strength of the sword. 

Patrick Parsons's picture

This is just a clickbate piece. The 'Vikings' had no major technological or tactical advantage over their opponents. Their successes were due to their ability to form and disband large raiding groups and their strategic mobility; the political situations in the kingdoms they attacked, their following of very different customs of warfare, and ultimately psychological factors. Technology was not a key aspect. Their enemies were better armed and more cohesive. At Ashdown 871 King Aethelraed of Wessex and Alfred (his brother) fought 2 Kings and 5 jarls and defeated them. As so few of the battles fought against the wicenga and Danes are described in any detail we know nothing of what happened. Frankish sources note the use of flank attacks and ambushes, and breaching the rituals of parlay by the Northmen, and even their use of mounted bands (riddari). It would be better if the author actually knew anything about early medieval warfare and looked at the rituals and psychological aspects of warfare.

An important point that you failed to mention is that one of the reasons many of the the swords were so effective was due to their "pattern-welded" construction. This mixture of different types of steel with different carbon levels resulted in swords that were capable of holding a very sharp edge while at the same time being flexible and less prone to breakage during use.

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