What Armor and Weapons Did the Vikings Use?

From the little that’s known about them, Vikings have majorly been depicted as an aggressive group of people. Stories are told of their raids and invasions in most parts of the world especially in Europe. So naturally, there are three main things that Vikings are identified with. The ships they used to explore foreign lands for their raiding expeditions, as well as the weapons and armors they used to invade and loot these lands.

But because little is written about them, it can be difficult to specify what weapons and armors belonged to the Vikings. Fortunately, there have been certain archeological findings in different parts of the world that. These findings along with the little written records that exist of the Vikings are pieces of the puzzle we used to paint a clearer picture. This article’s main focus will be on exhausting the different types of weapons and armors Vikings were known to use back then.

Viking Arms and Armor

 

Viking Age Arms And Armor

As we’ve mentioned there are very few sources of information when it comes to the Vikings, three sources have however been vital in recreating the kind of life the Vikings used to live and the tools and weapons they had at hand. These sources include the Norse sagas, archeology, and Pictorial sources. Starting with the sagas, they were written between the 13th and 14th centuries, mostly by Icelandic missionaries after the Viking Age came to an end. While these sagas are based on historical characters and events they can’t be fully accepted as historical facts. That’s because the writers may have exaggerated or undermined certain aspects of the truth to achieve their literal goal. Still, these sagas have gone a long way in helping scholars recreate the Viking Age.

Archeology has also been a key tool in finding out more about the Vikings and their weapons and armors. Fortunately, Vikings had a burial practice that involved them burying their dead with things like weapons and other tools they felt the dead may need in the next world. It is these weapons that archeologists have found when excavating the different burial grounds that were discovered. The downside, however, is that these weapons were not built to survive all these centuries. Of the weapons and armors that have been recovered, the iron is in most cases rusted and corroded, and the wood or leather has rotted away. Although what remains of them are bits and pieces, they have still gone a long way in discovering more about the kind of Viking weapons that existed. Bio-archeology, which is the study of the bones of people who sustained battle injuries during the Viking Age, has also helped immensely. Through this form of study, researchers, scholars, and archeologists can determine the type of weapons that were used.

Aside from their burial practice, the Vikings also enjoyed carving. They would carve beautiful decorations on objects. These included stone, wood, or born carvings. These carvings were heroic tales from mythology. Examples of such are grave markers or memorial stones which would mostly have warriors wielding weapons ready for battle. With all these three sources combined, it has been easier to piece together over the years the type of weaponry, armor, and war culture the Vikings had.

From what is known from the sagas and findings, it is believed that the Vikings had a custom that required all free Norse men to own and carries around a weapon. Being that war was the main activity in Scandinavia during the Viking age, it was believed that a man never knew when they would need their weapon. Being such a vital thing, weapons were believed to be used by Vikings to display their wealth and status. The wealthy and noble would have an entire ensemble of spears, shields, and swords that have been beautifully finished along with a helmet and mail armor. Middle-class Vikings were believed to commonly wield battle axes and possibly shields. Poorer warriors would use several layers of thick woolen clothing as armor and average farmers were limited to a spear, large knife or common ax, and a wooden shield. Some would also use their hunting bow, either flat or long, especially in the opening stages of a battle.

Viking weapons

Viking Weapons

During the Viking age, many weapons were in use at the time. These included spears, lances, axes, swords as well as bows and arrows. The type of weapon a Viking yielded depended on their wealth and status. As explained above, swords were costly and reserved for the noble and elite warriors, the rest commonly used a spear and battle axes. The following are the different forms of weapons used by Vikings in their era:

Axes

Axes were considered the “common man’s” weapon. This is because they were easily affordable to people of all economic statuses and they were used as tools as well as weapons. Even women were believed to have used Axes given the findings from female Viking graves. Battle axes were, however, specifically designed for war and therefore distinct from the regular ax.

To begin with, they are light, well-balanced, and deadly sharp. The blades are broader, about 3”-18”, and have projecting spurs. The handles are also longer to give the warrior a longer reach, which was an advantage in battle. The designs of the battle axes however differed from each other. The blades had differing shapes and sizes, the spurs were either larger or smaller or even non-existent. Some battle axes were also either lighter or heavier and so forth. When it came to the decorations, most axes were plain, although some were found to have fancy gold and silver finishes or linings. ‘Hel’ was the most famous Viking ax. It belonged to King Magnus of Norway, who got it from his father Olav.

Spears

Another common Viking weapon was the spear. They used less iron and therefore were cheaper to make and acquire. They were also effective weapons and versatile in terms of use and design. A spear could be made of a variety of spearhead designs. The most common design was the leaf shape of the wing shape at the shaft. Others had long and thinner spearheads. Spearhead was mainly made of iron or although some would contain copper or silver finishings. The shaft had to be 3-10ft long and preferably made of Ashwood because of its flexibility and strength.

Viking spears could be thrown from long a long-distance or thrust into the enemy in battle. Throwing spears were the most common especially among elite warriors. They are heavier and longer. Thrusting spears were mainly used by inexperienced warriors and were lighter and shorter. According to their pagan beliefs, spears were also used to throw overhead their enemies as a way of sacrificing them to Odin to guarantee their win in the battle.

Bows and arrows

Initially, Vikings used bows and arrows for hunting, but they came to realize their value and effectiveness in war as well. They would use the bow and arrows during the opening stages of the war to eliminate the front rows of their enemies at a distance and significantly reduce their numbers. Skilled archers would be able to shoot 12 arrows in a minute.

The bows were made using wood with string bucklings such as elm or ash wood. The bow was supposed to be able to shoot an arrow at least 200 meters depending on the arrow and how heavy it is. The quiver would be made of leather or wood. The arrows differed in design based on their function that is either hunting or war. Generally, the arrows entailed flight-ends made of feathers and arrowheads made of iron. The shape and design of the iron head, for instance, war arrowheads were designed to pierce through the armor such as Bodkin and Trefoil arrowheads. The bows also tended to be heavily decorated since, unlike other weapons, they were easy to retrieve in battle once used.

Knife

Out of all the common weapons discussed here, the knife has to be the most common of them all. Everyone was allowed to have a knife, from men to women to children and even slaves. The design and size differed based on the use of the knife. The smaller and simpler ones were used as regular cutting tools, larger more complicated ones were used for battle or hunting or both.

There were, however, two classes of knives among the Vikings. The first one was called Knifr and was a regular knife of normal construction. It was a simple and plain single edge knife that could be used as a tool or weapon depending on the size.  The second was called a seax, with the broken back type of style. Unlike the regular knife, a seax was heavier and could even serve as a falchion or machete. Some were even large enough to be used as swords and commonly owned by wealthier warriors. Although it was single edged it was heavier than a knife and more cost-effective compared to a sword.

Sword

Of all the Viking weapons the sword was the most prized and prestigious. Given how much iron was needed to produce it, it was very costly to acquire. As a result, swords were limited to noble, wealthy, or elite warriors as well as military leaders. They displayed a warrior’s high status, and the more decorated the sword was, the wealthier the warrior was considered.

The Viking sword was double-edged and considered to be 35” long and about 1.6”-2,4” wide. Although the blade was mainly made of iron, sometimes steel and iron would be twisted together and flattened to a blade. Gold and silver were also sometimes used to decorate the swords. The aim of a sword was for it to be light, strong, and sharp enough to pierce a shield. Vikings carried their swords in leather-bound wooden scabbards, strapped over the shoulder where the Viking could reach easily with the right hand.

Because of the prestige, they carried these swords were passed down through generations. They were also given as gifts to honor those with high and mighty status. The best examples of Viking swords ever discovered are believed to be the Ulfberht swords. These legendary pieces were light, strong, flexible, and sharp, thanks to their excellent craftsmanship.

Sling

Sling is among the easiest manufacture weapon in Viking history. It is made up of a cup that is usually made of leather and strong but stretch of materials or rope. It gives lower-class people a tool or weapon that is formidable in battle. It is also an effective weapon for a light infantry who requires lighter weapons given their open formation in war.

Other polearms

According to the Icelandic sagas and other literature, the other polearm associated with the Vikings is called the atgeir. This name translates to halberd which is similar to a glaive. A glaive is a European polearm comprising of a sharp single-edged blade attached to a pole of varying lengths. There has been no evidence of such a weapon found in Viking graves like the rest. It could be that such weapons were rare among them or that they weren’t included in the Viking’s burial practices.

Viking Shields

Viking Shields

The kind of Viking shields believed to have been used is said to have come to form the Iron Age. There have been 64 shields that have been discovered in Norwegian burial grounds. This is from a ship buried with a normal man and hundreds of burial goods. The following are two of the main shields believed to have been used y Vikings based on the remnant found and pieced together.

Round shields

Round shields were the most commonly used for defense among the Vikings. The shields were of course, circular and made of wood, specifically linden wood. There have been findings, however, that found shields made using poplar, fir, and alder wood. Iron and steel were often used as the shield boss although occasionally iron could also be used to reinforce the rim of the shield. The Vikings also used leather to reinforce the shield and would sometimes decorate the shield boss with gold or silver.

The round shields were expected to have a diameter of 45-120cm with the most common sizes being 75-90cm. Initially, the shields were smaller but larger sizes came up during the 10th and 11th centuries. The shields were mostly painted in one color although some would have varying patterns drawn on them. The common designs are those that had the cross or depictions of sun wheels pr segments. While these shields were used in battle some were hung on the sides of ships. A good example would be those found to be hung on the Gokstad ship discovered in a burial mound.

Kite shields

Scholars propose that Kite shields were a favorite of the Normans during Medival times and they were the ones who introduced them to Europe. There are, however, yet to be any findings of proof or remains of the shields from the Viking Age in any of the known settlements. The term Kite shield came from its unique shape, resembling a flying kite. It was a relatively large shield with an almond shape. It is believed to have been designed for mounted calvary and that its dimensions were based on the space between the horse’s neck and warrior’s thighs. The rounder curved top was to protect the soldier’s shoulders and torso and the narrow bottom protected his legs.

Viking Armor

Viking Armor

Helmet

Unlike popular depictions of the Vikings today, there is no evidence suggesting that they wore horned helmets. It is believed that it would have been impractical for battle. It is however possible that such helmets were worn for rituals and ceremonies during the Nordic Bronze age that was 2000 years before the onset of the Viking Age. Today there are six remnants of Viking helmets that have been discovered. They are named based on the locations from which they were retrieved. They include Gjermundbu helmets, Yarm helmets, and remnants found in Gotland, Tjele, and Kiev.

The Gjermundbu helmet is the most significantly reconstructed of all six. It dates back to the 10th century. The helmet was made using four plates of iron, in a similar design as a segmented pattern popular for helmets in the European Medival times. The helmet was a rounded cap with a spectacle guard around the eyes and nose forming a sort of mask. It is also believed that a mail aventail may have been attached to it falling from the ears to the shoulder.

The Yarm helmet is also fairly reconstructed. It was discovered in 1950 and dates back to the 10th century as well. This particular helmet is believed to have been made up of riveted iron bands and plates along with a simple knop on top. They also had a spectacle around the eye and a guard for the nose. At the bottom of the band were holes where mail was believed to have been attached.

Chain mail

Unlike helmets, chain mail is a rare find. It could be that during the Viking Age, the Norse people stopped including chain mail as burial goods. It is also possible that not everyone could afford the chain mail shirts. That’s because of the painstaking process of creating them, which made them costly, limiting them to the wealthy and noble.

Nevertheless, the chain mail shirts were very important armors for the Vikings in battle. They were likely thick layers of clothing underneath. The reason was that while the mail could protect you from being cut, it was of little to no use when it came to stabbing or blunt trauma.

Lamellar

In 1877, 1934, and between 1988-2000, a total of 30 lamellae were discovered in Birka, Sweden. Lamellar armor is a bodysuit armor made up of small rectangular plates arranged in horizontal rows. The plates are commonly made of iron, although some used steel or bronze and were laced together by leather or other strong fabric. There is, however, a debate that the armors discovered could have belonged to foreign mercenaries.

Cloth and leather

For the lower-class Vikings who couldn’t afford chain mail shirts, they were believed to have used cloth or leather as their armor. No evidence directly proves that Vikings wore cloth as armors in battle, but from pictorial data, it would be assumed so. They were believed to have worn several layers of hemp canvas or stout linen which provided effective protection at a much cheaper price. Winter clothes made from thick wool were also a good alternative. It is also assumed that even those who wore mail had to reinforce it by wearing this clothing underneath.

Leather armor, unlike the clothing, has turned up more frequently in archeological findings. Leather was however pricier and less affordable for the casual warrior. Still, overall, the existence of non-metallic armor among the Vikings remains inconclusive.

Conclusion

Relatively large numbers of weapons and armors from the Viking Age have survived until today. Thanks to sagas, archeology, and pictorial data, scholars have managed to shed more light on the types of weaponry Vikings choose to use in battle. Given the bad conditions most of them were discovered in, there may be an even greater myriad of weapons that never survived that remain unknown to us until date.

Viking Jewelry