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The Viking Art of War

discussion of ancient fighting arts | the modern fighting sport

Ancient Warfare


    Apparently, the Vikings didn't trouble to create armies, as we know them today. On the other hand, every able-bodied man was expected to be able to fight to defend his land and his family (and sometimes an influential neighbor, etc.). In Paddy Griffith's Viking Art of War, he says, "To a Viking the best definition of a soldier would surely have amounted to little more than an ordinary citizen who understands that he's living in a dangerous environment. He has to carry personal protection and to be a master of lethal force when necessary, although that may not mean he is any less of a handy-man, a navigator, a husband, or an athlete. In a society with very warlike codes of social, religious, literary and legal practices this definition would mean that almost all adult males might be counted as 'soldiers.'


    The Vikings were primarily foot soldiers. Horses were mainly used for transportation to the battle site. Of course, ships also played a vital role in their battles. Viking ships were fast and were good at getting the warriors quickly to a site for a surgical strike. One of the most famous battle strategies of the Vikings was the 'shield-wall.' With this technique, warriors would form a circle and cover themselves completely, from sides and top, with their shields. Spear-men would strike from the safety of the wall. In Roesdahl's and Wilson's book From Viking to Crusader we are given the eye-witness description of Viking battle techniques from an Arab named Ibn Miskawayh who describes the capture of the trading town of Birda'a: "They fight with spear and shield, they gird themselves with a sword and carry a battle-axe and a dagger-like weapon. And they fight as foot-soldiers, particularly those who come by ship."



    The cheapest and most common item in a Viking's armory was his shield. Generally made of wood, even the poorest warriors could afford one (and usually had several since they frequently were broken in battle). Shields were made of strips of wood. The Viking shield was circular and about a yard in diameter. It had a 'center grip' in the back where it was held. Else Roesdahl in The Vikings says, "Shields were made of wood with the edge strengthened in various ways; in the centre was an iron boss to protect the hand, which held a bar at the back."


    Helmets were relatively difficult to produce, technologically, and therefore were expensive. The possession of a helmet was a status symbol, and they were often decorated. One of the typical helmets of the day, the Spagenhelm, was made of a series of triangular plates held together at the base by a metal headband. Poorer Vikings would sometimes wear padded hats as head-protection. Griffith tells us, "There is no doubt that possession of a helmet was considered to be a mark of high status for a Viking warrior, showing not only that we was wealthy but also that he was better protected in battle. Helmets were ostentatious as well as practical, and a very great deal of social envy and one-upmanship tended to be invested in them."


    There is some doubt as to how many men had armor. For the rich, the armor of choice was chain mail. The poor made do with tough leather jerkins (if they had anything). Scale armor, probably originating from Byzantium, was also found. Metal armor was even more difficult to manufacture than helmets, and it took more sophisticated metal-working technology. Therefore, it was one of the most expensive items of all. Because of its costliness, mail was highly prized and would be passed down from generation to generation.



    Swords were also highly prized as status symbols, but were easier to come by and so many warriors had them. Viking swords were made with carbon-steel blades, forged with a technique known as "pattern welding." John Haywood in The Penguin Historical Atlas of the Vikings tells us, "the most favored weapon in Denmark and Norway was the double-edged long sword, which was used for hacking at the enemy rather than thrusting."


    Vikings were often known for their use of the axe. They made use of several types of axe. The light-weight single-handed axe was the most common. These axes could be used to cut firewood or to break through the enemy's front door. The two-handed long-handled axe took a great deal of space to swing and was of more help in battle than in shield-wall. Griffith says of the axe, "almost as much as the warship, the battleaxe became something of an inseparable hallmark of Viking identity. It was the weapon that seems to have been almost as common as the sword and, like the sword, was often given elaborate decorations and a personal name to individualize it."


    Spears were the weapon of choice for the poor soldier. Spears were usually mounted on an ash staff of about six- to eight-feet long. Spears were cheap and easy to manufacture and so were quite common. Unlike the hacking and slashing that was done with sword and axe, the spear was used for more pinpoint strikes. Spears often had a pattern-welded socketed blade. Griffith states, "In general the lighter and more streamlined patterns were used for throwing while the heavier (and winged) spears were for stabbing."

Bow and Arrows

    As we can see, Viking fighting styles were not always 'up close and personal.' They also made good use of missile weapons. In fact, most battles were begun with a thrown spear or a volley of arrows. Bows, like spears, were common. The Vikings used several types of bows: short, long, composite and even some 'self-composite' varieties. An assortment of arrow-heads were also used. Griffith tells us,"The arrow-heads were also very varied in style, ranging from trefoil points to plain leaf-shape and barbed designs for hunting."


Modern Viking Fighting

    The Vikings aren't around anymore, but you can still experience some of the excitement of battle! Our group practices a full-contact sport which gives the feeling of sword-play without the dangers of live steel. The Vikings themselves practiced for war with a variety of training exercises. We use weaponry and techniques that fuse the rigors of a modern sport with strict rules and referees with the flair and excitement of the sword-play spoken of in the sagas.

    Fighters use center-grip shields, made of metal, and edged with rubber to make them safer. Swords are made of rattan (solid bamboo), which gives the weight and feel of steel without it's risks. The head, torso and legs must be armored. Both metal and leather armor is used. Fighting is done both as one-on-one 'duels', or in large group 'melees.'

If you'd like to see some Photos of the modern battle, visit our
Photo Gallery.

Want to give it a try?

Contact Kim Seward