View Full Version : Viking Age Arms and Armor: A Speculative History

Tuesday, July 12th, 2005, 08:55 AM
source (http://www.valhs.org/history/articles/manufacturing/text/arms.htm)

Viking Age Arms and Armor


Comparatively little is known about Viking age arms and armor, and even less is known about how the weapons were used.

Our knowledge of the equipment is limited, compared to what is known about arms and armor from the later medieval era because, in comparison, little Viking era armament survives. Unlike the later medieval and Renaissance periods when arms and armor were stored under cover and protected from the elements, virtually all of the Viking age items survive only as grave goods.

Prominent men or warriors were buried (or cremated) with their arms and armor during the Viking period, and it is this material that we have available for study today. However, underground (or underwater), these materials degrade. The wood and leather rot, and the iron rusts. So, it's only under unusual conditions that any Viking age arms and armor have survived at all. While perhaps one thousand Viking age swords survive in various states of preservation, only a small number of Viking age helmets have survived. With so few items to study, it's difficult to determine if a particular specimen is normal or atypical for its historical period.


When looking at a historical blade, it can be hard to imagine what it might have looked like 1000 years earlier when it was new, because the surviving historical weapons tend not to be well preserved.

This photographic comparison (below) of a historical weapon and a modern reproduction gives an idea of the appearance of the weapon when new compared to today. The original is a Sax blade that has been dated to the 7th century, (Since there is no context for this find, the dating is conjectural, and my personal opinion is that the date is too early). The reproduction was made based on this historical artifact, and it's sheath and fittings are based on 10th century examples. Even if the blade were as old as 7th century, it would not be surprising to find later fittings on the blade. Blades were so valuable that they were used for centuries, and there are examples of blades where the age of the blade and the age of the fittings differ by 300 years.




Our knowledge of the use of the arms and armor is even more limited. Later in the medieval era and in the Renaissance, master fighters wrote down training manuals to teach combat techniques. Some of these manuals survive, and by studying them, one can gain an understanding of the fighting techniques used in those periods.

Nothing like that survives from the Viking era. So, little can be said that's definitive about the use of Viking age weapons.

One way we might learn about Viking era fighting techniques is to study the surviving weapons, to make reproductions, and then to try different techniques, attempting to reconstruct the historical techniques. But it seems unlikely that we could reconstruct the kind of effective fighting techniques that were refined over centuries and practiced by fighting men from childhood.

Alternatively, we might study the techniques taught in the later medieval fight manuals and adopt them to Viking age weapons. While Viking age weapons differ considerably from the weapons in later manuals, the later techniques did not spring up out of a vacuum. It's highly likely that the later techniques derived from the earlier, and the historic manuals represent time-tested, martially effective fighting systems. So, the historic manuals seem like a better place to start.

Another source of information about fighting techniques is the stories from the Viking age, such as the Sagas of Icelanders. One might think these stories would be especially useful as a source for fighting techniques. They were written by people who had almost certainly witnessed combat, and who probably had participated in combat. In addition, they were written for an audience who, similarly, had probably either witnessed or participated in combat and who were familiar with fighting techniques. So the combat situations described are probably realistic.

But the sagas have limited usefulness to the student of historical martial arts. The stories were not written down until centuries after the events they describe took place. So when the sagas talk about fighting techniques, are they describing 10th and 11th century techniques (from when the stories took place) or 13th century techniques (when the stories were written down)? Further, the stories were written for entertainment, and a detailed description of technique is rarely necessary for advancing the plot. As a result, the sagas tend to talk a lot about the participants in a fight, and the ramification of a fight, but very little about the techniques used in the fight.

The techniques described here are nothing more than the author's opinion about what techniques may have been used in the Viking era. They are simply guesses based on limited information and limited experience.

Please Note: To make the following information easier to digest, I have broken it into separate posts dealing exclusively with each weapon, as I know how exhaustive it can to read one, unbelievably long posting.

The first 3 posts all have to do with Defensive Arms/Gear, and the latter few will be about Offensive arms, followed by fighting techniques.

Alrighty... Now, on to the weapons! ;) :viking3:

Tuesday, July 12th, 2005, 08:57 AM
source (http://www.valhs.org/history/articles/manufacturing/text/arms.htm#shields)

The Shield

In the Viking age, shields typically were round, and were always made of wood. A reproduction shield is shown (below left). A typical shield was 80-90cm (32-36 inches) in diameter. While virtually all the surviving examples are made from solid butted planks (below right), literary evidence suggests that shields were made of plywood, created by building up layers of very thin planks, each layer oriented 90 degrees from the previous layer. However, no archaeological evidence supports this style of construction.


At the center of the shield was a domed iron boss, which protected the hand. A 10th century shield boss is shown in the photo (below left). The shield was gripped from the inside of the boss, as shown (below right). The arm did not slip through any straps, which permits the shield to be rotated freely from side to side. Although archaeological evidence is slight, iron reinforcing bars on the rear of the shield may have added strength to the shield and also served to hold the plywood or planking together.

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The shield was sometimes rimmed with leather to keep the shield from splitting when hit on edge (below). Some shields have evidence of iron or bronze clamps around the edge, perhaps to hold the leather edging in place. There is negligible evidence for iron-rimmed shields, although in chapter 40 of Grettis saga, it is said that a berserk carried an iron-rimmed shield to a duel against Grettir.


A leather sling, used to carry the shield over a shoulder (below), was probably common. There are many instances in the stories in which a fighter threw his shield over his back in order to wield his weapon with two hands, such as in chapter 70 of Egils saga.


The front of the shield was often covered with leather (although the reproduction shield in the photo, above, is not covered). Shields were probably painted and decorated.

The reproduction shield shown in the photo is only 6mm (1/4in) thick and weighs about 5kg (11lbs). Some historic shields are this thin, but typically they are thicker to withstand the rigors of combat. Shields with a thickness of 10mm (3/8in) are more common, but shields thicker than 30mm (1-1/8in) have been found. A shield that thick could weigh upwards of 15kg (33lbs), quite a substantial weight to be swinging around at the end of one's arm.

At the end of the Viking era, kite shields were used, shown in the photo (below left) and illustrated in the Bayeux Tapestry (below right). Their shape helped protect a fighter while riding on the back of a horse. However, during the Viking age, fighting was done on foot, so it seems unlikely they would have seen wide use.

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Several episodes in this saga can be quoted to dispute this conclusion. One of these occurs in chapter 129 of Njáls saga. The saga says that Helgi struck out with his sword and cut off the tip of his opponent's shield (as well as his opponent's leg). Round shields can scarcely be said to have "tips", suggesting that the shield in question was a kite shield. However, the significant word in the original Icelandic is sporđr, a word with multiple meanings. Some modern translations render this as "lower part of the shield", but "tail of the shield" also fits.

In another example, Ólafr prepared to defend his beached ship in chapter 21 of Laxdćla saga. He had his men form a line along both sides of the ship, so close together that their shields formed an unbroken row. The points of their spears extended out near the tails of the shields (skjaldarsporđr). Kite shields on board ship seem unlikely. Perhaps kite shields were used in Iceland in the 10th century. Or perhaps the 13th century author didn't know.

In many other sagas, shields are said to have been sliced through below the handle (mundriđi). In chapter 43 of Grettis saga, Atli sliced through Gunnar's shield below the handle, cutting off Gunnar's leg below the knee.

Other kinds of shields are mentioned in the sagas, including targa (target) and buklari (buckler), although it's not clear from the stories how these differed from normal shields (skjöldr). In translation, the words are usually rendered as "small shield".

In single combat, the shield was probably held at an angle to the body, either to the outside (to the left side for a right-handed man) or inside (to the right side). The angle prevented the shield from being driven straight in to the combatant's body, which might pin his arms and limit his options. The angle also allowed incoming blows to be deflected, rather than being caught straight on.

In use, the shield protects from neck to knees (below top). The head and the lower legs are exposed and unprotected. Thus, the head and lower leg were likely targets. While the shield can be moved rapidly to ward off blows coming in from a variety of directions, studies of skeletal remains show that many battle injuries occurred on the head and legs. The photo (below bottom) shows the skull of an 11th century fighting man. The top of the skull was removed by a blow from a sword. The terminus of the blow is indicated in the photo by the clear blade. Leg injuries visible in the skeletal remains from Fishergate (York) suggest deliberate attempts to sever the leg muscles, causing the combatant to fall without killing them



Offensive weapons sometimes stuck fast in a shield after a blow. When that happened, a clever fighter could twist his shield to either break the weapon, or break it loose from the grip of its owner. In chapter 150 of Njáls saga, Kari caught a spear thrust with his shield, then snapped the spear by wrenching the shield.

The sagas suggest that the shield might be used two handed to defend against a powerful attack. In chapter 55 of Laxdćla saga, Bolli saw Helgi prepare for a thrust with his spear. Bolli dropped his sword to hold the shield with two hands. This trick did not stop Helgi's spear from penetrating the shield and wounding Bolli.

Recent research suggests that the shield is not simply a wall to hide behind. The shield can be used very aggressively, not only defensively, but offensively as well.

A more aggressive defensive use of the shield is to bind the opponent's sword and shield, opening a line of attack. By sweeping his shield from outside to inside across his front, a combatant can capture and trap his opponent's weapons, leaving the opponent open to an attack. This kind of "shield bind" can be used to apply pressure to the opponent's body, allowing control of his movements.

Besides its obvious defensive uses, the shield can be used offensively. The edge of the shield can be used for punching, turning it into a very effective set of "brass knuckles". If a combatant does not take care control his opponent's shield, he may quickly find his teeth have been knocked out. In chapter 32 of Bjarnar saga Hítdćlakappa, Björn drove his shield into his opponent's head to kill him.

This aggressive use of the shield is discussed in more detail below, in the section on sword and shield technique.

The stories also describe instances where the shield was used completely passively. Shields were thrown on fallen combatants during a battle to protect them from further injury (Brennu-Njáls saga chapter 150). Swimmers under attack from missiles thrown from the shore would sling their shield on their back to protect themselves while swimming (Bjarnar saga Hítdćlakappa chapter 26).

During a recent practice, I discovered what should be obvious: a shield makes an excellent sail. A gusty wind makes controlling the shield very much more difficult. One wonders if a skilled fighter would take advantage of that in the same way he might contrive to put the sun in his opponent's eyes.

The stories say that a fighter might hold a second weapon at the ready in his shield hand, while fighting with his primary weapon in the other hand. In chapter 12 of Fóstbrćđra saga, Ţorgeir held a shield and an axe in his left hand while he fought with a spear in his right hand. Later in the fight, he threw down his spear and took up the axe in his right hand, using it to cut through Snorri's spear shaft, and then through Snorri's head.

The use of shields was probably universal. Someone without a shield would be, quite literally, defenseless, and would most likely be cut down very quickly. So, most everyone probably had a shield. Since the shield could and did break in combat, people expecting to be in a protracted fight probably had several shields on hand. The sagas are filled with examples in which shields split or punctured under the force of incoming spears, axes, or swords.

There are some students of Viking age fighting styles who say that a shield was the only defense needed, and that proper use of a shield makes other defenses (such as helmet and mail) unnecessary. Others would disagree, saying that even with a shield, the other defenses are necessary. We don't know enough about fighting techniques to resolve this question. However, since a helmet and mail were expensive, there were probably a lot of people fighting with only a shield for defense.

Tuesday, July 12th, 2005, 08:58 AM
source (http://www.valhs.org/history/articles/manufacturing/text/arms.htm#helmet)

The Helmet

During the Viking age, helmets were typically fairly simple: a bowl with a prominent nose guard, as shown in the photo of a reproduction helmet to the right. One thing to note: there are no horns. There is no evidence that Viking era helmets ever had horns (http://www.valhs.org/history/articles/manufacturing/text/horned_helmets.htm).

Both before and after the Viking era, helmet bowls were made from one piece of iron, pounded into shape (such as the reproduction Norman helm shown below left). However, during the Viking era, helmets typically were made from several pieces of iron riveted together, called a spangenhelm style of helm (below right). It's easier to make a helmet this way, requiring less labor, which may be why it was used.

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The spangenhelm used a single iron band that circled the head around the brow, and two more iron bands that crossed at the top of the head. The four openings were filled with riveted iron plates (below) to create the bowl. In some cases, hard leather may have been used to fill the four openings, rather than iron, to reduce cost. The nose guard was riveted to the brow. At first glance, the nose guard looks awkward and nearly useless, but I can attest to its usefulness: it's prevented my nose from being broken at least once.


It's not clear what was used inside the helmet. Something is needed to keep the helmet off the head and to spread out and absorb the force of a blow. A few surviving helmets (and pieces of helmets) have rivet holes which suggest that some sort of leather suspension system was used. In addition, it's likely that a cap made from an absorbent material such as sheepskin was used, not only to absorb the blow, but also to absorb sweat, in order to help prevent the helmet from rusting from the inside.

Some form of chin fastening is required. Without it, the helmet simply falls off in a fight. Unfortunately, there's little evidence for chin straps. There's no convincing archaeological evidence and little pictorial evidence (although the rider from the Bayeux tapestry shown, below, might arguably have a chin strap). On the other hand, we know that helmets both before and after the Viking age routinely used chin straps. From Grágás, the medieval Icelandic lawbook, we know that some hats had chin straps. But the most convincing evidence for me is that without one, a reproduction helmet is quite useless in a fight; it simply falls off. Some reproductions use a simple leather thong that ties under an the chin. But, speaking as someone with a full beard, I don't find that approach viable. The leather thong is constantly pulling on my beard. The reproduction helmet shown in the photos has a simple chin strap. When properly adjusted, it holds the helmet securely without tugging on my beard all the time.


Other styles of helmets have been found. The well known helmet (below top) found at Gjermundbu in Norway has a spectacle-like covering for the face. A modern reproduction with a similar style is shown (below bottom). The spectacle style is somewhat frightening both for someone on the outside looking in, and for someone on the inside looking out.



From the outside, it presents a frightening visage to the opponent, since the face is nearly completely covered and made anonymous. But it's even more scary from the inside, since the spectacles catch incoming spear tips and sword points and guide them right into the wearer's eyes. They're very dangerous in simulated combat, and in real combat, too, I imagine.

Some helmets from the period had mail curtains to protect the neck, like that on the reproduction helmet shown (below). Other forms of solid cheek and neck protection may have been used as well.


The modern helmet reproductions I've used have been pretty comfortable for all-day wear. They weigh about 4lbs (a bit less than 2kg), although some of the larger helmets (with mail and additional protection) may have weighed more than 4kg (10lb). In the Viking era, fighting men probably wore their helmets all day.

The classic example from the sagas of a fighter killed before he could put on his helmet occurs in Njáls saga (chapter 92). Ţráinn and his men, while traveling across the frozen Markarfljót river (shown, below, as it appears today), saw an imminent ambush from Njál's sons (who were lying in wait on Rauđuskríđur, the hill on the far side of the river). Inexplicably, Ţráinn took off his helmet and cloak. Before he could put his helmet back on, Skarphéđinn Njálsson seized the initiative and slid across the ice to drive an axe though Ţráin's skull.


Because iron was difficult to make during the Viking era, it was expensive. So helmets were expensive and thus not common. Anyone who could afford one would certainly want one. But probably not too many people could afford one. Helmets were probably prized and carefully preserved, repaired as needed, and passed from generation to generation. Some may well have been used for centuries before the iron became too thin and weak to provide any real protection. At the end of a battle, helmets were probably stripped from the bodies before they were buried in a mass grave, and then the helmets were redistributed to those who needed one.

Tuesday, July 12th, 2005, 08:59 AM
source (http://www.valhs.org/history/articles/manufacturing/text/arms.htm#mail)

Mail shirts

During the Viking age, mail shirts took the form of the reproduction shown (below). Typically, the garment was T-shaped, with short sleeves (half to three-quarters length) and thigh length (anything longer would make it difficult to ride a horse).


Mail is made up of thousands of interlocking iron rings. (Modern reproduction mail is shown, below). In the Viking era, it was always made with a 4-in-1 pattern, in which each ring passes through its four nearest neighbors.


In order to make mail, a smith started with an iron bar, which he drew into iron wire. The wire was wound around a wooden form to create a spiral of iron wire. The spiral was split down its length to create a few dozen open iron rings. One by one, each ring was passed through neighboring rings to form the fabric of the shirt, then closed and sealed shut with a rivet. This process was repeated again and again, thousands and thousands of times to make up the fabric of the shirt. The reproduction mail shown in the photo has about 30,000 rings in it.

Some samples of mail from the Viking age have alternating riveted rings and solid rings (probably punched from a sheet of iron). There's also evidence that solid rings were made by welding shut open rings. Some Viking age samples of mail use round rivets, rather than the wedge-shaped flat rivets used in the reproduction shown above.

Regardless of how it was done, the rings of mail were made solid. Links which were simply bent into shape and butted together without a means to hold them shut were not strong enough to stand up to the rigors of combat. One exception was mail intended for fairly light duty, such as neck protection.

During the Viking age, the diameter and gauge of the wire rings varied considerably. The photo (belwo) shows the sleeve of a 13th century mail shirt, which uses finer wire and smaller rings than the modern reproduction shown above. Both, however, are in the range of wire and ring diameters that were used in the Viking age.


Unfortunately, little mail survives from the Viking era. Underground or underwater, the thin rings rust away very quickly. Most mail from the period survives as a rusty pile of junk. The 10th century mail shown (below) is better preserved than most. The one, more or less, complete surviving mail shirt from Gjermundbu was in many pieces when found.


In a few instances, the word spangabrynja is used in the stories, usually translated as "plate-mail", such as in chapter 5 of Grćnlendinga ţáttur. Whatever it might have been, the story says that Símon did not care for it, and he threw it to the ground as useless junk.

It's important to note that mail does not provide a complete defense; mail is only a secondary defense. If one were to draw the edge of a sword across the arm of an combatant wearing a mail shirt, the sword wouldn't bite; the mail would protect against a cut. However, if one were to take that same sword and strike a powerful blow against the arm or shoulder of the combatant, the mail would not prevent the skin from being bruised, or the bones from being broken. The mail does little to absorb or dissipate the force of a blow, and the force passes right through.

Both before and after the Viking era, fighting men wore padded garments under their mail to help absorb the force of a blow (below). Typically, these garments consisted of two layers of wool or leather stuffed with fleece or animal hair, then sewn together. Unfortunately, there is no archaeological evidence that such garments were worn during the Viking era, nor any mention of them in the stories. One hopes that the Norsemen were aware of and used such garments. They make a enormous difference in comfort and safety in simulated combat. One assumes that in real combat, they could make the difference between a disabling injury and a minor one.


Although the mail protects from a cut, the stories say that mail could be punctured by weapons. In chapter 53 of Egils saga, Ţórólfur, using two hands, thrust his spear through Earl Hring's mail shirt (and through the Earl as well).

Archaeological evidence confirms that mail could be punctured. The thigh bone (femur) shown (below) is from the skeletal remains of a man who died from combat injuries in the 11th century. The bone shows clear marks of the impact of ring mail against the bone, suggesting his upper leg was hit with a sword blow so powerful as to force the rings of his mail shirt through the muscles of his leg into contact with the bone.


The reproduction mail shirt shown above (first photo in this post) weighs about 12kg (26lbs). The weight is not particularly burdensome, since a lot of the weight is taken up on the hips by the belt.

Regardless, the stories say that sometimes raiders left their mail shirts on board ship when they went raiding, so they wouldn't be weighed down. In chapter 82 of Haralds saga Sigurđarsonar, Snorri relates that on the day of the battle at Stamford Bridge, it was a day with hot sunshine, and the Norwegians left their mail shirts behind, on board ship.

However, 12kg of iron was quite literally a treasure in the Viking age. Few people could have afforded that much iron. Mail shirts must have been very rare. Anyone who could have afforded one would certainly have wanted one. But probably few people could afford one.

Mail, like helmets, was prized and was probably passed from generation to generation, repaired as needed. After a battle, mail was probably removed from the bodies before any mass burials, to be redistributed and reused by those who needed it.

Other defenses

The sagas mention other personal defenses. In chapter 45 of Eyrbyggja saga, Freysteinn was protected from a sword cut to his neck by a piece of horn sewn into his felt hat. In chapter 41 of Vatnsdćla saga, Ingólfur put flat stones on his chest and back, which protected him when he attacked a band of thieves. In chapter 2 of Vopnfirđinga saga, Brodd-Helgi similarly protected himself with flat stones under his clothing. When Svartr thrust at him with his halberd (höggspjót), it glanced off the stone so violently that Svartr pitched forward, allowing Brodd-Helgi to cut off his leg.

The stories tell of ways that fights were stopped by third parties. The most common method was to throw clothing or blankets onto the combatants' weapons, rendering them ineffectual. This was done by men to capture an opponent without harming him (Egils saga chapter 46) or by women to stop a fight (Vopnfirđinga saga chapter 18).

Tuesday, July 12th, 2005, 09:00 AM
source (http://www.valhs.org/history/articles/manufacturing/text/arms.htm#sword)

The Sword

More than anything else, the sword was the mark of a warrior in the Viking age. They were difficult to make, and therefore probably rare and expensive. A sword might be the most expensive item that a man owned. The one sword whose value is given in the sagas (given by King Hákon to Höskuldur in chapter 13 of Laxdćla saga) was said to be worth a half mark of gold. In saga age Iceland, that represented the value of sixteen milk-cows.

Swords in the Viking age were typically double edged and were used single handed, since the other hand was busy holding the shield. Blades ranged from 60 to 90cm (24-36 in) long, although 70-80cm was typical. Late in the Viking era, blades got as long as 100cm (40in). The blade was typically 4-6cm wide (1.5-2.3in). The hilt and pommel provided the needed weight to balance the blade, with the total weight of the sword ranging from 2-4 lbs (1-2 kg). Blades had a slight taper, which helped bring the center of balance closer to the grip.

The photo (below left) shows a reproduction of a Viking era sword. The original on which it is based was found in east Iceland and dates from the 10th century. The sketches (below right) show some of the variations in blade size and shape that existed in Viking era blades. All three blades in the sketch date from the 10th century.

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Stories say that sometimes fighters used their swords two-handed. But the grips of most surviving Viking age swords are quite short, with barely room for one hand, much less two.

During the early part of the Viking age, swords blades were made with a process called pattern welding. This technique was used because there was no one material good enough for making sword blades, with the proper combination of strength, flexibility, and ability to hold an edge.

Part of the problem was that the iron making process was not understood during the Viking age. Sometimes, the smith would go through the entire smelting process and end up with highly desirable low carbon wrought iron. But sometimes, he would start with the same raw materials, go through all the same steps and end up with useless high carbon cast iron. The process of controlling the smelting operation was not yet understood.

In order to make a usable sword blade with the available materials, the smith created a composite material. He started by bundling together selected bars of different types of iron. He heated this bundle, and when it was hot enough, he started twisting it. He continued the heating and twisting process until the billet was ready to be worked, and then he shaped it into the blade.

The partially worked billet (below left) was used to make the pattern welded knife blade shown (below right).

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The heating and twisting process created a composite, made up of different kinds of iron that together, had the necessary strength and flexibility for a sword blade. However, despite using this pattern welding process, sword blades from the Viking age were far from ideal. In some cases, hard iron strips were welded onto the edge of the sword to provide a material better able to hold an edge. Even so, some stories describe how, during an extended battle, swords became so dull and dented they no longer cut (e.g., Óláfs saga Tryggvasonar chapter 109). And, the stories describe instances in which a sword blade bent during a fight. In chapter 49 of Laxdćla saga, Kjartan was ambushed. He was not carrying his usual sword, a gift from the king, but rather a lesser sword. Several times during the battle, Kjartan had to straighten his bent blade by standing on it. In chapter 13 of Gull-Ţóris saga, Ţorbjörn's sword blade broke when he hit Ţórir's helmet with it.

The pattern welding process creates a beautiful, delicate pattern in the surface of the blade as the different types of iron come to the surface. The pattern in the surface of a reproduction blade is shown (below).


Later in the Viking era, as the iron making process became better controlled, better iron became available, and pattern welding was no longer used.

Tuesday, July 12th, 2005, 09:01 AM
source (http://www.valhs.org/history/articles/manufacturing/text/arms.htm#sax)

The Sax

A Sax is a type of short sword used primarily during the early part of the Viking era. It's a one handed single edged weapon with a blade length ranging from 30 to 60cm (12 to 24 in). Saxes usually had simple fittings and no crossguard. Hilts were made of wood, bone, or horn.

Saxes had a characteristic blade-shape with parallel edges, coming to a point at the tip. A 7th century sax blade is shown in the photo (below top), and a modern reproduction sax, based on this example, is shown in the photo (below bottom). The sheath is based on a find from Trondheim.



Compared to swords, saxes were more crudely fabricated. Rather than being crafted by skilled, specialized smiths, saxes were probably made by local smiths. Blades tended to be heavier and thicker than sword blades. The back edge of the 7th century sax blade, shown above, is nearly 6mm thick (1/4in). However, some sax blades were pattern welded, like sword blades of the period, indicating a higher level of craftsmanship. The historical blade shown above and the reproduction based on it (below) are pattern welded.


Saxes were usually carried in a scabbard suspended horizontally from the belt. A 10th century burial cross in a churchyard in Middleton, Yorkshire shows a warrior surrounded by weapons (below). The sax is shown suspended from his belt.


Different length saxes are sometimes referred to by different names, such as langsax or scramasax. However, the usual term that appears in the period literature such as the Icelandic family sagas is sax and, rarely, but equivalently, höggsax and handsax.

Some people preferred a sax over a sword for fighting. In Grettis saga for instance, Grettir preferred his sax, called Kársnautr, which he took from Kár's grave mound. When wielded by a powerful fighter like Grettir, it's clear from the saga that the sax could inflict horrific damage.

We know little about how saxes were used. Some of the later medieval combat manuals teach the use of the falchion (below), a distant relative of the sax. Perhaps some of those techniques can be applied to the use of the Viking age sax.


Tuesday, July 12th, 2005, 09:02 AM
source (http://www.valhs.org/history/articles/manufacturing/text/arms.htm#spear)

The Spear

When people think about Viking age weapons, typically they think of the battle axe. However, the second choice, for someone who could not afford a sword, was not an axe, but rather, a spear.

During the Viking age, spear heads took many forms. The photo (below left) shows a modern reproduction, typical of the late Viking age. The photo (below center) shows an 11th century spearhead, while the photo (below right) shows a 10th century spearhead. Earlier spearheads were about 20cm (8in) long, while later ones were as long as 60cm (24in). The spearheads were made of iron, and, like sword blades, were made using pattern welding techniques during the early part of the Viking era. They were frequently decorated with inlays of precious metals. Some spear heads, such as the one shown to the right, had "wings" on the head, useful for a variety of tricks. These are called krókspjót (barbed spear) in the stories.

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The heads were fixed to wooden spear shafts using a rivet. The shaft and head had a combined length of 2-3m (7- 10ft) long, although longer shafts may have been used. A passage in chapter 6 of Gisla saga suggests the spear shaft was long enough that a man's outstretched arm could touch the rivet (below). The diameter of the shaft was typically 3cm (about an inch). A strong, straight-grained wood such as ash was used.


Many people think of the spear as a throwing weapon. One of the Norse myths tells the story of the first battle in the world, in which Ođin, the highest of the gods, threw a spear over the heads of the opposing fighters as a prelude to the fight. While spears were certainly used that way during the Viking age, there's little advantage to throwing one's weapon away in a fight. Not only do you lose your weapon, but you risk having your opponent pick it up and use it against you. Worse, your weapon may be caught in flight and flung back at you, a trick used on several occasions by Gunnar (e.g., Njáls saga chapter 54). Despite these risks, the sagas are filled with examples where spears were thrown, such as chapter 145 of Njáls saga. Spears were also used with "throwing strings" (snćrisspjót) for longer reach, such as in chapter 24 of Reykdćla saga og Víga-Skútu where Skúta shot a spear across a river ford, killing Ţrándur.

A passage from chapter 48 of Grettis saga suggests that the rivet could easily be removed. Grettir arrived at Ţorbjörn's farm, Ţoroddstađir, to take revenge on Ţorbjörn for his killing of Grettir's brother, Atli. After Grettir arrived at the farm, he sat down and removed the rivet to prevent Ţorbjörn from throwing the spear back at him. The head flew off when Grettir threw the spear. After killing Ţorbjörn, Grettir searched for the head, but couldn't find it. According to the saga, the spearhead was found in the marshland behind the farm centuries later (shown, below, as it appears today).


More commonly, the spear was used as a thrusting weapon. It provided a means to inflict injuries from a distance.

This capability was used to advantage in mass battles. Norsemen, as a rule, tended to avoid mass battles, primarily because they weren't as good at them as other Europeans of the time. But, if a mass battle were necessary, men lined up, shoulder to shoulder, with shields overlapping. After all the preliminaries (which included rock throwing, name calling, and the general trading of insults), the two lines advanced towards each other. When the lines met, the battle was begun. Behind the wall of shields, each line was well protected. But once a line was broken, and one side could pass through the line of the other side, the battle was essentially over. Terrible damage could be done from behind, and the battle usually broke down into armed melees between small groups of men.

But before a line broke, while the two lines were going at each other hammer and tongs, the spear offered some real advantages. A fighter in the second rank could use his spear to reach over the heads of his comrades in the first rank and attack the opposing line. A man armed with a winged spear (as shown in the photo above in the page) could use the wings to bind his opponent's sword or spear, or even to pull his opponent's shield away, perhaps providing an opening or advantage that someone in his first row could exploit.

When the line broke, stories say that people would sling their shields over their shoulders and use the spear two-handed. In this mode, the spear has even more reach, since the fighter can bring his hands way back towards the butt end of the spear. In a thrust, the spear shaft can slide so that both hands are at the butt end of the shaft, allowing the spear to reach the full extent of the shaft in a lunge (below). Also, two handed, the spear provides the combatant with enough leverage to lift his opponent up off his feet, impaled on the tip of spear.


In chapter 45 of Grettis saga, Ţorbjörn knocked loudly on the door at Atli's farm, then hid. When Atli went to the door, Ţorbjörn rushed up holding his spear in two hands and ran Atli through. When he took the blow, Atli said, "Broad spears are in fashion these days," and fell dead.


I used to think that the spear, despite its advantage of reach, was slow, compared to a weapon like the sword. I have been shown otherwise. A spearman can keep a swordsman very busy, flicking the point from face to belly and back again, while staying out of range of the sword. However, a spearman would need to be wary that anyone armed with a sword didn't find his way past the point of the spear. Once past the point, the swordsman would have every advantage. The stories say that fighters armed with swords had the ability to cut a spear shaft in two with their sword, rendering the spear useless. For instance, in chapter 82 of Grettis saga, as Ţorbjörn and his men thrust their spears through the doorway to Grettir's house, Illugi chopped the heads from the shafts of all their spears.

One approach that seems to work well when a swordsman faces a spearman is for the swordsman to adopt the inside ward with his shield, inviting an attack -


When the spearman thrusts, the swordsman can move to outside ward, deflecting the thrust -


The swordsman steps in behind the shield, and places himself in a perfect position to lop off the head of the spear. From here, the swordsman is well situated to control the shaft of the spear with his shield as he closes the distance to attack the spearman -


This approach fails, however, if the spearman does the kind of lunge thrust illustrated above on this page. The spear is fast enough that the spearman can recover and set the point on the other side of the swordsman's shield, ready to impale him if he moves forward to cut at the shaft.

A spearman might also respond the swordsman's attack by shortening his grip, bringing his spear under the shield, and attacking the other side.

We know little of the details of how spears were used in the Viking age. Some of the later medieval fight manuals teach techniques for staff weapons that can be adopted to Viking age spears, but we don't know if those techniques were used in the Viking age.


Tuesday, July 12th, 2005, 09:03 AM
source (http://www.valhs.org/history/articles/manufacturing/text/arms.htm#axe)

The Axe

The axe was often the choice of the poorest man. Even the lowliest farm had to have an axe for cutting and splitting wood. In desperation, a poor man could pick up the farm axe and use it in a fight.

Axes meant for battle were designed a bit differently than farm axes. The photo (below top) shows two reproduction axes based on 10th century finds, while the photo (below bottom) shows a historic 10th century axe head. Axe heads were made of iron and were single edged; there's no evidence that double edged axes were used in the Viking era.



A wide variety of axe head shapes have been found. The sketch (below right) shows three different 11th century axe heads. In the early part of the Viking era, the cutting edge was typically 7 to 15cm (3-6in) long. Typically, the head had a wedge-shaped cross-section. The cross section of the head near the edge was sometimes diamond shape, which provided for greater strength for a given weight of iron. (A modern reproduction is shown, below left)

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Fóstbrćđra saga chapter 23 tells of a special axe made by Bjarni for Ţormóđr, which was hammered all the way out to the edge with no obstructions, resulting in a very sharp blade.

However, some axes had very thin, elegant cross-sections. (A reproduction is shown, below left, and a historic axe, below right, all on similar scales). One wonders how much abuse the original could have survived, having a head that thin.

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Later in the Viking era, axe heads became much larger, with crescent shaped edges 22 to 45cm (9-18in) long. These axes were called breiđ-řx (broad axe).

The shaft was made of wood, and was typically about 1m (40in) long, although presumably the shaft was sized for the intended use of the axe and to balance the axe head. Axes with smaller heads might well have shorter shafts. Both of the reproduction axes shown (below) are nicely balanced, despite the obvious difference in the length of their shafts.


At one time, my opinion was that the axe, being poorly balanced, was harder to control than a well balanced weapon like a sword. However, recent experiences have forced me to change my opinion.

The photos (below) show a 12th century axe. The head and shaft weigh only 770g (1.7 lb.), less than some swords. In the hand, it's beautifully balanced and is easily directed towards the target. It's hard to claim that an axe is harder to control after experiencing something as well balanced as this example.

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One advantage of an axe over other edged weapons is that all the force of the blow is concentrated into a small section of the blade, so the axe has enough power to punch through a helmet or mail.

The curved shape of the head allows the axe to be used for several tricks. It can be hooked over an opponent's shield to pull it out of position, providing an opening for a thrust or other attack. It can also be used to hook an opponent's ankle or neck, throwing him off balance and onto the ground.

The pointed "beaks" at each end of the blade (öxarhyrna) can be used offensively as was done by Kolbeinn in chapter 5 of Grćnlendinga ţáttur. He drove the beak of his axe into Ţórđ's throat, killing him.

Another trick with an axe is described in the sagas. In chapter 62 of Eyrbyggja saga, Ţrándr leapt up and hooked the head of his axe over the wall of a fortification. He pulled himself up on his axe handle into the fortification and attacked Hrafn with his axe. The story doesn't describe the fortification, but perhaps it was similar to the saga-era fortification Borgarvirki in Iceland shown (below) as it appears today, built in a natural stone bowl.


Fortifications may have been entered by raising a man on his shield using spear-points (below), as described in chapter 5 of Gull-Ţóris saga. In that case, the fortification was probably wood, since after being raised, Ţórir dug his axe into the wall to pull himself up over the top.


Axes (as well as other weapons) were sometimes used to strike a blow that was not intended to be lethal. The backside of the axe head (the hammer) was frequently used for that purpose. Sometimes, the blow was made to humiliate an opponent, or in other cases, made against an opponent so inferior that he didn't seem worthy of a proper blow. In chapter 9 of Ţórđar saga hređu, Össur and his men surrounded the cowardly Ţórhallur and forced him to betray the location of his friend, Ţórđur. Össur struck at Ţórhallur with the back of his axe, knocking him out, and said, "It's bad to have a slave as your best friend."

We have little knowledge of how axes were used in the Viking age. Many of the later medieval combat manuals teach the use of the halberd, the poleaxe, and other staff weapons (below). So far, this material has not been very helpful for understanding the techniques of Viking age axes, due to the significant differences between the earlier and later weapons.


Images from the Bayeux tapestry (below) show combatants using their axes two-handed, but left-handed. Thus, the blow comes in on the undefended side of their opponent.


Tuesday, July 12th, 2005, 09:04 AM
source (http://www.valhs.org/history/articles/manufacturing/text/arms.htm#bow)

Bow and Arrow

Bows were used for hunting and also for battle. In mass battles, bowmen stood behind the normal lines and fired their arrows into the enemy indirectly, at a high angle, to fall into the enemy from above.

Perhaps the most notable use of a bow in the sagas is Gunnar's single-handed defense of his home, Hlíđarendi (below), from an attack by Mörđr and his men. In chapter 77 of Njáls saga, it is said that he was able to kill or wound ten men before his bow string was cut by the attackers.


A reproduction bow (below left) and arrowhead (below right):

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Bows were made from the wood of a yew, ash, or elm. Typically, they were 1.6 to 2m (60 to 80 in) long. Arrows heads were made in an enormous variety of shapes and sizes. Arrow shafts typically were 70 to 80cm (28-32in) long.

The estimated draw weight of one 10th century bow is 90lb, and the effective range of this weapon was about 200m (650ft).

However, medieval Icelandic law gives a different estimate. The distance of the flight of an arrow, ördrag (bowshot) was a unit of measure commonly used in Icelandic law. For example, Grágás, the medieval Icelandic law book, requires that the court empowered to confiscate an outlaw's property be held within a bowshot of the outlaw's home (K 62). A later addition to Grágás defines the bowshot to be two hundred fađmar (about 480m).

Other Weapons

Other weapons are mentioned in the stories. In general, we don't know what they were, and the old Icelandic words are translated differently by different sources. Examples from the period are not known to exist (although one wonders if there is an unrecognized lump of rusty iron on some museum's shelf that was once one of these weapons).

The atgeirr was Gunnar Hámundarson's preferred weapon in Njáls saga and is usually translated as "halberd" (although sometimes as "bill" or "javelin"). In addition to using it as a weapon, Gunnar routinely vaulted onto the back of his horse using his atgeirr. The saga text suggests that the weapon could be used both for thrusting and cutting.

Gunnar's atgeirr is thought to lie at the bottom of Breiđafjörđur off the point of land called Skor (below), lost in a shipwreck in the 18th century.


Egill used a kesja on several occasions (such as in chapter 58 of Egils saga), translated as "halberd". In chapter 2 of Gisla saga, Gisli used a höggspjót, also translated as "halberd". One source suggests that atgeirr, kesja, and höggspjót all refer to the same weapon, but we don't know what it might have been.

In chapter 66 of Grettis saga, a giant used a fleinn against Grettir, usually translated as "pike". The weapon is also called a heftisax, a word not otherwise known in the saga literature. The saga says that the weapon had a wooden shaft and was equally suited for striking or stabbing.

In chapter 30 of Harđar saga og Hólmverja, Hörđur threw a gaflak (javelin) at a man, killing him. In chapter 53 of Egils saga is a detailed description of a brynţvari (mail scraper), usually translated as "halberd". It had a rectangular blade two ells (1m) long, but the wooden shaft measured only a hand's length. The word bryntröll (mail troll) is also used, translated as "halberd". In chapter 37 of Laxdćla saga, Hrútr struck Eldgrímr between the shoulders with a bryntröll, splitting his mail and cutting through Eldgrím's body.

So little is known of the brynklungr (mail bramble) that it is usually translated merely as "weapon". Similarly, sviđa is sometimes translated as "sword" and sometimes as "halberd". In chapter 58 of Eyrbyggja saga, Ţórir threw his sviđa at Óspakr, hitting him in the leg. Óspakr pulled the weapon out of the wound and threw it back, killing another man.

Everyday items were sometimes placed into service as weapons, according to the sagas. Such items as a boathook (Hávarđar saga Ísfirđing chapter 4), a whale bone (Hávarđar saga Ísfirđing chapter 10), a scythe (Finnboga saga ramma chapter 40), a pitchfork (Finnboga saga ramma chapter 32), a clothes beater (Reykdćla saga og Víga-Skútu chapter 22), mane shears (used for trimming a horse's mane, Bjarnar saga Hítdćlakappa chapter 32), and a sled runner (Eyrbyggja saga chapter 37) were used in fights, sometimes with lethal results.

Tuesday, July 12th, 2005, 09:06 AM
source (http://www.valhs.org/history/articles/manufacturing/text/arms.htm#technique)

Sword and Shield Combat Techniques

As described earlier in this article, we don't really know how weapons were used in the Viking age. We don't have any material that teaches us how Vikings used their weapons. The best we can do is to make some educated guesses based on later combat manuals. Here are a few guesses by the author of this article, with help from other sources. Most of the guesses are based on material from Talhoffer's manual from the year 1467.

The usual disclaimer: These materials are for reference and study purposes only. Historical combat is potentially dangerous. Students wishing to explore these techniques should do so only under the supervision of a qualified, experienced teacher of historical martial arts.

Most martial arts systems have a series of wards: positions one adopts in which the combatant has good offensive and defensive options, but which give him a chance to size up an opponent and decide what to do next. Combatants probably began in a relaxed stance with the shields nearly parallel with the line of engagement (rather than flat on to the opponent). This position gives a combatant a clear view of the opponent, with the shield in an aggressive, forward position, close to the opponent and ready to strike.

The shield can be either on the outside, as shown in the photo (below), or on the inside.


Some wards that may have been used (adopted and named here from the German longsword tradition) include:

High ward (below left) and ox ward (below right), both with the shield on the inside:

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Plow (below left) and side ward (below right) both with the shield on the outside:

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Cuts probably included: a high cut, attempting to split the skull in two; a diagonal cut, attempting to separate neck from shoulders; a middle horizontal cut, which can target anywhere from shoulder to thigh; and a low rising cut, which attacks anywhere from the leg up to the armpit.

Cuts can be made from either side. It might at first seem that the shield is in the way of a cut from the left. The sketch (below) is taken from Talhoffer's fight manual of 1467. It illustrates the use of longsword and dueling shield, which are both much larger than Viking age weapons. Both of the combatants have swept their shields from the outside to the inside and are making a thrust over their shield arms.


A similar approach seems to work quite well with Viking age sword and shield. Attacks can be made both above and below the shield arm when the shield is on the inside.

In a fight, it does no good to attack the opponent's shield. Behind his shield, a fighter is well protected. Instead, one must attack the opponent's body. As a result, a primary objective is to draw the opponent's shield out of the way, opening up a target for an attack. One can imagine tricks in which a blow is targeted at one quarter, causing the opponent to move his shield to defend. That response gives the attacker the opening he needs. He can pull his blow or otherwise deceive his opponent and retarget the blow at the available opening.

For example, the later medieval fight manuals teach that the ox ward is a particularly useful and versatile ward for a variety of weapons (illustrated in Talhoffer's 1467 manual, below). From this position, one could start a cut or thrust to the face and then, when the opponent repositioned his shield, pull the attack and strike to the lower quarter. Did fighting men in Viking times use this ward or use these tricks? We don't know.


The photos (below) show a modern interpretation of a sequence using that kind of trick:

Blue (on the left) begins in ox ward, shield outside. Red (right) begins in plow, shield outside -


Blue delivers a thrust to the face. Red responds by stepping outward and bringing the shield up to defend -


Blue pulls the thrust and delivers a cut to Red's exposed leg -


Red has an excellent opportunity to use his shield offensively in this sequence if Blue isn't careful.

As Blue makes the thrust, he must be certain to bind both Red's sword and shield with his own shield. If he catches only Red's sword, Red is at liberty to punch out Blue's teeth with the edge of his shield -


Another way to open a line of attack is by sweeping the shield from one side to the other and binding the opponent's weapons.

Blue (right) begins in plow, shield outside. Red (left) begins in ox, shield outside -


Red delivers a high cut to Blue's head -


As the cut comes in, Blue steps to the side and sweeps his shield from outside to inside, catching Red's incoming cut -


Blue binds Red's sword and shield, and delivers a thrust to Red's exposed side -


This shield bind seems to effectively end the fight. Although not apparent in the photos, Blue has excellent control over Red's body. Red's weapons are useless, and Blue has good targets at the head, shoulders, back, or legs. Additionally, it appears the shield bind can be used when the combatants are already engaged; it seems to have wide applicability whenever an opponent raises his sword during an engagement.

The shield bind is such a powerful technique for ending a fight that we wondered if there might be some way to avoid it. Although not mentioned in Talhoffer, one possibility is that as Blue begins to sweep his shield to catch Red's incoming blow -


... a very quick Red might step back on his left foot, stepping out of the incoming shield bind. Blue's shield, meeting no resistance, overshoots, allowing Red to complete the attack to the head or other target -


If a combatant can't trick the opponent into creating an opening, he may have to create his own opening. One example is shown in the illustration (below) from Talhoffer's manual. The combatant on the left has just kicked his opponent's shield from outside to inside ward, creating an opening.


A modern interpretation of this trick using Viking sword and shield is shown in the following series of photos:

Blue (left) begins in ox ward, shield outside. Red (right) begins in plow, shield outside -


Blue delivers a thrust low to Red's groin. Red blocks with his shield, putting it in good position for Blue to kick the shield inward using the same step with which he thrusts -


With Red thoroughly bound up, Blue is free to cut to the leg, or alternatively, to make a slice to the neck or a false edge attack to the head -


Showy tricks like this are not without their hazards.

As before, Blue (now on the right) begins in ox ward, shield outside. Red (left) begins in ox, shield outside -


As Blue delivers the thrust and shield kick, Red steps back, pulling his shield away -


Blue's exposed foot makes for an inviting target, although an attack to head or neck could also work here -


The later medieval fight manuals teach the advantages of closing the distance to grapple during a fight. There are instances where a combatant might step right in to his opponent, converting the sword fight into a wrestling match, and pinning his opponent's arms and weapons or executing a disarm or a throw. From the stories, we know that Norsemen enjoyed wrestling and practiced it as a sport (e.g., Grettis saga chapter 72). Did they also practice it in combat? The Viking age swords were short enough that, when in distance, it was only a short step to be within grappling range, so it seems quite possible. But we don't know.

Earlier, I had thought that grappling would be difficult with Viking era shields. However, Talhoffer describes a technique with dueling shield and mace (shown below) which works nicely with Viking sword and shield.


In the sketch above, the combatant on the right begins with his shield inside and makes a high attack over his left arm. The combatant on the left drops his weapon and throws his right arm out, deflecting the incoming attack. He grasps over his opponent's right arm (controlling the weapon), drops his shield, steps forward on his left foot, and grabs his opponent around the neck to throw him over his hip.

There are several examples in the Icelandic sagas where grappling is described as a normal part of combat. In some cases, an unarmed man grappled with an armed man who attacked him (e.g., chapter 19 of Bjarnar saga Hítdćlakappa). And in some cases, an armed man might choose to discard weapons that had become useless, and close the distance to grapple. In chapter 65 of Egils saga, Egill and Atli's shields were so badly shattered by the exchange of blows that they became useless, and they threw them away. Egill also threw away his sword and grappled with Atli, eventually killing him by biting through his throat. In a similar situation, Atli threw away his sword and went underneath Ţorgrím's defense to grapple with him in chapter 21 of Hávarđar saga Ísfirđings.

Later manuals, such as Meyer, describe three phases for each exchange in a fight: Zufechten (Onset); Handarbeit (Handwork); and Abzug (Withdrawal). Talhoffer's techniques focus on the onset. Little is said about handwork and nothing about withdrawal. So how do two combatants fighting with sword and shield withdraw? We are just beginning to find satisfactory answers. The shield seems to make Meyer's usual withdrawal techniques useless. However, we know from the sagas (for instance, chapter 18 of Vopnfirđinga saga) that earnest fights could go on for a very long time without any wounds being inflicted. That strongly suggests an effective withdrawal technique existed.

One technique that shows promise is to initiate a withdrawal with a shove. When two fighters are bound up with little additional work that either can do, a combatant can shove forward while stepping backwards. Doing so opens the space between them, allowing the combatant to see available options, and either to withdraw safely or to start a new attack. To the opponent, the shove is confusing, since it 's not clear whether the shove signals an advance or a withdrawal.

Viking shields are large enough to temporarily blind an opponent to an incoming attack, a trick that may be used to advantage. The shield can block the opponent's view of the developing attack. However, a combatant can also temporarily blind himself with his own shield if he's not careful, blocking his own view of his opponent's attack.

The stories say that fighters sometimes swapped weapons from one hand to another. In chapter 10 of Droplaugarsona saga, it is said that Helgi showed his skill in arms in a fight against Hjarrandi. Helgi threw up his sword and shield and caught them in the opposite hands, which allowed him to strike a blow against Hjarrandi's thigh. We have found a technique for doing this swap that is extremely confusing to the opponent, since the swap appears at first to be merely a change in ward. The historical sources are silent on how best to take advantage of this swap, but our research continues.

Later medieval manuals teach the value of cuts made with the false edge of the sword. An illustration of the false edge Schielhauw cut with a longsword is shown (below), taken from Meyer's fight manual published in 1570.


Double edged swords have what is known as a true edge and false edge (below). The true edge is the "front" of the blade, the edge in line with the knuckles. The false edge is the "back" of the blade. Cuts with the true edge are more powerful. But there are some benefits to false edge cuts.


If Blue delivers a true edge high cut and Red parries with his shield, Blue is done; there is no more work he can do -


However, if Blue uses the false edge, and the cut is parried -


there is still more work that Blue can do. The attack is less powerful, but the angulation of the blade permits additional targets to be reached -


Did Vikings use the false edge in their fights? Did they use any of the tricks outlined above? We simply don't have enough information to know.

It's not clear how boys trained to learn the use of weapons. A few wooden swords and fragments have been found, some of which represent faithful copies of real weapons. But we don't know if they were toys or serious practice weapons. The stories suggest that Norse people were familiar with the concept of "mock" combat, called skylming. It's not clear whether this "fencing" was sport or practice, or perhaps both. In chapter 12 of Gunnlaugs saga ormstunga, Gunnlaugr came upon two men fencing who were surrounded by many spectators. Gunnlaugr walked away in silence when he realized they mocked him as they fought.

Regardless of the method, it seems likely that boys started training at an early age. There are several examples in the stories of young boys using weapons to kill, most notably in chapter 40 of Egils saga Skallagrímssonar. Young Egill used an axe to kill a player on an opposing team in a ball game. Egill was six years old.

However, not everyone in the sagas is depicted as being skilled with arms. In chapter 24 of Finnboga saga ramma, Uxi struck at Finnbogi three times with a two-handed axe, and three times failed to connect. In chapter 24 of Bjarnar saga Hítdćlakappa, Ţórđur sent the brothers Beinir and Högni armed with axes to kill Björn. When they made their attack, Björn used no weapons on the brothers, but was able to grapple with them and bind their hands behind their backs. Björn then stuck their axes under their bonds in back and sent the brothers back to Ţórđur, thoroughly humiliated.

Swords were highly prized during the Viking era and were used for generations. The sculpture shown (below) illustrates an episode from chapter 17 of Grettis saga. When a young man, Grettir prepared to leave Iceland. His father had a low opinion of Grettir and refused to give him a sword, saying, "I don't know what useful thing you would do with weapons." His mother, who was more supportive, gave Grettir the sword given to her great-grandfather by King Haraldur of Norway.


Archaeological evidence also supports the long and continued use of sword blades. At least one example of an 11th century sword blade with 15th century fittings exists, indicating that sword blades several centuries old continued to be maintained and used.

A prominent or powerful man was buried with his sword. However, the stories say that families were not averse to entering the grave mound and digging the sword back up if one was needed later on. Stories tell of adventurers who entered a grave mound to recover valuable weapons, along with any other treasures buried there. For example, in chapter 18 of Grettis saga, Grettir entered Kár's burial mound, fought the mound dweller, and returned with Kár's short-sword.

A sword's scabbard provided protection for the blade when not in use. Scabbards were usually made as a sandwich. The innermost lining was fleece, since the natural oils in the wool helped keep the blade from rusting. Wood surrounding the fleece provided the physical strength to protect the blade, and leather covered the entire structure. Many scabbards had metal chapes at the tip, to protect the point of the scabbard (and sword), and some had metal mounts at the throat of the scabbard.

A sword without a scabbard was considered "troublesome". In chapter 6 of Hallfređar saga, King Ólafr gave Hallfređr a sword without a scabbard, a troublesome gift for a troublesome poet. The king said that Hallfređr must keep it for three days and three nights without harm coming to anyone.

Early in the period, scabbards were usually slung from a baldric, a belt over the shoulder. Later, they hung directly from the waist belt. Some swords had a strap on the hilt which could be pulled over the hand, allowing the drawn sword to hang while another weapon was being used. In chapter 58 of Egils saga, Egill drew his sword and pulled the loop over his hand in preparation for a fight with Berg-Önundur. During the fight, when Egil's spear stuck fast in Berg-Önund's shield, Egil grabbed his sword and was able to run Berg-Önundur through before his opponent could even draw his sword.

The stories talk about the use of a friđbönd (peace strap), straps to prevent the sword from being drawn in places where the use of weapons was prohibited. (An interpretation of a friđbönd is shown on the reproduction scabbard, below.) An example occurs in chapter 28 of Gisla saga, at a ţing (assembly) meeting.


The two young sons of Vésteinn arrived at the ţing unrecognized. Approaching Ţorkell, they complemented him and asked to see his fine sword. Ţorkell agreed and handed over the sword in its scabbard. The boy undid the peace straps and drew the sword. Ţorkell said, "I didn't give you permission to draw the sword." The boy responded, "I didn't ask," and lopped off Ţorkel's head, avenging the death of his father by Ţorkell.

In chapter 3 of Króka-Refs saga, Ţorbjörn could not draw his sword fast enough, due to the peace strap, and he was killed in his bed-closet by Refr.

Tuesday, July 12th, 2005, 11:41 AM
Archaeological evidence confirms that mail could be punctured. The thigh bone (femur) shown (below) is from the skeletal remains of a man who died from combat injuries in the 11th century. The bone shows clear marks of the impact of ring mail against the bone, suggesting his upper leg was hit with a sword blow so powerful as to force the rings of his mail shirt through the muscles of his leg into contact with the bone.

When that happens to you you know you REALLY pissed off the other guy.

Tuesday, July 12th, 2005, 05:14 PM
That Seax would have been a utility/stabbing instrument.
One look at its narrow design and savage tip leaves me in no doubt whatsoever. Even the Langseaxes would have been vicious stabbing weapons.
A stab is far easier to inflict, and is far more often fatal.

I made a shirt of mail armour when I was younger (yes, a whole shirt, it took me a LONG time) and me and my mates experimented, it could withstand a slash from a machete with ease, though a padded vest was needed to absorb the impact of the blow. A stabbing blow however, we put the shirt on a mannequin, and all of us could stab through it without too much trouble with a forceful blow. There is no way on Earth I would want to be shot at with a Bow and Arrow or stabbed with a strong knife wearing only mail.

source (http://www.valhs.org/history/articles/manufacturing/text/arms.htm#sax)

The Sax

A Sax is a type of short sword used primarily during the early part of the Viking era. It's a one handed single edged weapon with a blade length ranging from 30 to 60cm (12 to 24 in). Saxes usually had simple fittings and no crossguard. Hilts were made of wood, bone, or horn.

Saxes had a characteristic blade-shape with parallel edges, coming to a point at the tip. A 7th century sax blade is shown in the photo (below top), and a modern reproduction sax, based on this example, is shown in the photo (below bottom). The sheath is based on a find from Trondheim.



Compared to swords, saxes were more crudely fabricated. Rather than being crafted by skilled, specialized smiths, saxes were probably made by local smiths. Blades tended to be heavier and thicker than sword blades. The back edge of the 7th century sax blade, shown above, is nearly 6mm thick (1/4in). However, some sax blades were pattern welded, like sword blades of the period, indicating a higher level of craftsmanship. The historical blade shown above and the reproduction based on it (below) are pattern welded.


Saxes were usually carried in a scabbard suspended horizontally from the belt. A 10th century burial cross in a churchyard in Middleton, Yorkshire shows a warrior surrounded by weapons (below). The sax is shown suspended from his belt.


Different length saxes are sometimes referred to by different names, such as langsax or scramasax. However, the usual term that appears in the period literature such as the Icelandic family sagas is sax and, rarely, but equivalently, höggsax and handsax.

Some people preferred a sax over a sword for fighting. In Grettis saga for instance, Grettir preferred his sax, called Kársnautr, which he took from Kár's grave mound. When wielded by a powerful fighter like Grettir, it's clear from the saga that the sax could inflict horrific damage.

We know little about how saxes were used. Some of the later medieval combat manuals teach the use of the falchion (below), a distant relative of the sax. Perhaps some of those techniques can be applied to the use of the Viking age sax.


Tuesday, July 12th, 2005, 05:38 PM
What did you use to stab with? Just a knife or something bigger?

Sunday, January 24th, 2010, 12:20 PM
I have some comments about this statement:

"Part of the problem was that the iron making process was not understood during the Viking age. Sometimes, the smith would go through the entire smelting process and end up with highly desirable low carbon wrought iron. But sometimes, he would start with the same raw materials, go through all the same steps and end up with useless high carbon cast iron. The process of controlling the smelting operation was not yet understood."

I have smelted iron and steel, and have smithed the iron/steel I have smelted for a long time. Any smith that has worked both low carbon iron and high carbon steel knows there is a difference in the way they look,feel under the hammer, and what the look like when in the bloom stage. I suspect that the smiths of old were no hapless dummies that did not know how to control the temperature or the amount of carbon in what they were making.

The people who write these things should at least talk to a smith or watch him work for a while. There are many other "myths" that are posted in this thread that can be proven wrong just by talking to a general iron smith. The quality and the process of making steel and iron from the migration age through the late viking age surpasses any other historical methods including the Japanese. All of this can be proven by having a general working knowledge of iron and steel.