THE VIKINGS:Combat equipment and fighting techniques

Throughout the Dark Ages, war was a fact of life in many areas. From the opportunistic raids of Vikings to the massed battles of the C10th, most areas experienced the fear of imminent violence, and saw their men march off to fight and die.

So, how exactly did they fight? On the whole, details of the battles and combat of the period are sketchy at best, although some detailed descriptions of individual fights are recorded in the Icelandic sagas. It is mainly from grave finds of the early period, and carved stones and legal texts from the later periods that we draw our knowledge of the combat of the Viking Age. The laws of Norway, Denmark and Sweden state that every able-bodied man should own weapons according to his status. In Norway, a sword or axe, spear and shield must be owned. In Sweden and Denmark, this was a sword, spear, shield and iron helmet for each man. In addition, it is common for the law to state that each "bench" (in a ship) or each local chieftain (sturaesman) should have a mail shirt or protective jerkin and a bow and arrows.

Combat Equipment

Swords - the sword was the weapon of choice of the wealthy warriors and the aristocracy of the Viking Age. Found throughout Europe, it is common for the sword blade to be imported from a Frankish workshop, and fitted with hilt fittings made locally. Many swords are engraved or inlaid with a makers mark or name, with INGELRII and ULFBERHT the most common. The blade was sharp on both edges, around 90cm long including the tang (10cm), with a blade 10cm wide at the top, tapering to a slightly blunt tip. The sword was a slashing weapon, not generally used for thrusting. Constructed in the early period by "pattern welding", the central section of the blade is made up of twisted rods of iron, beaten together to form a strong and pliable core, and also leaving the pattern of the twisted rods in the blade. A harder (but more brittle) edge was then welded to the core. Later, as the quality of iron smelting improved and thus a purer and more regular source of iron became readily available, pattern welding fell out of fashion.

Axes - the characteristic weapon of the Vikings, the axe is found in many burials and is shown on several carved stones. With at least three recognised types, it ranges from a short, single- handed version to the "Danish Axe" of 1-1.5 metres in length, wielded in two hands with a swing which could behead horses with one stroke. Few axes are found in purely Saxon contexts, and it is generally true that in the rest of Europe the axe had been superceded by the sword by the time of the Vikings. The Danish Axe is perhaps best known from the scenes on the Bayeaux Tapestry which depict Harold's huscarls wielding the axes with two hands against the Norman cavalry.

Spears - spears are the most common weapon found in graves in Scandinavia during the earlier Viking Age, and in England from the earliest Saxon period. Grave evidence disappears completely with the general conversion to Christianity, but it is highly likely that spears remained the most common weapon in use - cheap and easy to produce, they are nevertheless a very effective weapon which requires little skill or training to use. Most Viking spearheads are long and thin (from 30cm to as long as 50cm), and would have been equally useful as thrusting or slashing weapons. From the length of the heads and the reconstructed length of the shafts (2-2.5 metres), it is likely that such spears were used in two hands. Although it has been suggested that these could be used in conjunction with a shield, it is perhaps more likely that they were used without a shield once the combat closed beyond the area in which missiles could be useful. Shorter spears capable of being used as javelins are also found in great numbers, suggesting that the opening rounds of a battle in Viking times would involve a salvo of missiles as the lines closed. Some of these are of a size which makes it difficult to decide whether they are small javelins or large arrow heads. These could also be used as a single-handed weapon with a shield, providing the reach of a spear while retaining the defence of a shield.

Archery -  bows of varying sizes were used extensively in hunting, and would undoubtedly have been used in battles, particularly at sea. Ranging from short bows of around 1 metre to sizes of almost 1.8 metres, these were capable of shooting over an effective range of up to 200 metres, being even more effective when used in volleys. An arrow shot from a Viking bow would almost certainly pierce a mail shirt at short range, but at longer ranges could only threaten unarmoured warriors unless a lucky shot hit an exposed area. The bows were made of yew or ash, with some late examples found of composite bows, strengthened with horn or iron. The nocks were of wood or horn, and the arrows probably of around 70cm.

Shields - round and traditionally made of linden (lime) wood (although the available evidence suggests that in fact most were made of more common woods, such as larch, beech, oak, or even pine), most shields would be relatively thin, lasting no more than one battle. Although it is thought that metal rims were used to add to the protection a shield gave, no evidence has been found for this. However, the use of leather or rawhide as either a reinforcing rim or as a full cover for a shield would have been common. Ranging from 60cm to 120cm, the shield was the single item of equipment which changed most during the Viking Age. The larger sizes are based on those found in the Gokstad ship burial, but as these were never intended for battlefield use they may not be an accurate representation of the general style. Shields were made from planks of wood, held together by a wooden or iron bar running from top to bottom of the shield. In the centre, a cutout hole allowed the shield to be gripped with the hand covered by an iron boss of hemispherical or conical shape. Given the thin wood used, it is likely that shields were used to deflect a blow, rather than parrying it directly, as it is likely that sword and particularly axe blows would cut through the shield. Towards the end of the Viking Age, kite-shaped shields became widespread, giving better protection to the legs. This was typified by the Norman Conquest (the Normans being second-generation Vikings), although the Saxon army also seems to have had some kite shields, probably only among the huscarls and the aristocracy.

Armour - the most common armour of the period was the mail shirt, referred to as a byrnie for most of the period. Made from iron rings which were individually punched from plates or wound from drawn wire, each ring was linked to four others. In later examples, every second ring was solid, with the split rings being linked into the shirt and then riveted closed. With over 30,000 links in the average shirt, the effort required to make a mail shirt was considerable. Most shirts had half-length sleeves, and reached to mid- thigh or knee length, protecting the most vulnerable parts of the body. A good shirt would easily stop a slashing blow from a sword or axe, although the crushing effect of an axe blow would cause extensive bruising and possibly internal injuries. Against a thrust from a spear, a mail shirt would probably offer little protection against anything other than a glancing blow if the spear was used with two hands. Against a spear used single-handedly, the protection would have been good, preventing deep penetration and absorbing most of the force from the blow. However, most spearmen would have been trained to aim for the face or throat, negating the benefit of the mail shirt.

Some of the effect of crushing blows against a mailed warrior could be mitigated by wearing additional padding under the mail, but it is not clear that this was common for the majority of the Viking period. Later, it is likely that some form of padding was common for Norman knights, but since this would most likely be of linen stuffed with wool, no examples have survived.

Combat Style

In the shieldwall, most attacks are made over the head, crashing down onto the head, neck and shoulders. With spears used with two hands a chest or waist-level thrust across the lines, targetting a warrior involved in another fight, would have been very effective although it exposes the spearman to a similar attack from the opposition side.

Once the shieldwall breaks down, individual fights are likely to have been settled by wounding blows, leaving the opponent disabled but not dead. Many corpses are found with major leg injuries, suggesting that there were incapacitated and then left to bleed to death while the battle continued.

With running melees across a battlefield, those targets which are easy to hit are the most tempting - legs and arms are the most obvious. Against a warrior in a mail shirt, the lower arms, face and neck are the obvious target areas. Although the lower leg is uncovered, any attempt to reach this low would dangerously expose the warrior to a counter attack, and so is unlikely to be successful.

Battlefield Tactics

The Shieldwall -Once battle was joined, each side would form a line of warriors, perhaps several deep, formed into the "shield wall". Each warrior overlaps his shield on both sides, presenting a wall which is strong enough to stop a rushing opponent from penetrating. From behind this wall the warriors would absorb the initial charge, and then loosen slightly to fight individual battles and small melees. With many spears in the lines, the opponent opposite and those up to four down the line were within reach, making combat frantic and deadly. To step out of the line was to die. Retreat of even a few feet could lead to loss of initiative, and would eventually result in a wholesale withdrawal or even rout. With men standing so close and in several ranks, movement was limited, and even highly trained warriors would find it difficult to manoeuver quickly on the battlefield. As a result, outflanking moves were common, and unless stopped quickly could prove overwhelming. At Stamford Bridge, such a move defeated Harald Hadrada when he could not hold his right flank. Once encircled, defeat followed quickly.

The Boar Snout - The "Boar's Snout", or "Swine Array" (svinfylka) was held to be a trick given to the Vikings by the wily God of War, Odin. The sheer weight and momentum of the charge could drive the wedge through an opposing shield wall, turning the battle and spreading panic through the enemy. Although this is probably based on a Roman formation, it is noticable that it is not documented as a Saxon tactic, appearing unique to the Vikings at the time. Since formations of this type require considerable practice and training to achieve effectively, it is more likely to have been employed by the permanent troops of the hearthtroop rather than by the levies called up on an irregular basis.

Huscarls - The "household troops" of an earl or king, these were the most experienced and best equipped warriors. It is normal for them to be placed in the front rank in battles, as shock troops and to bolster the morale of the other warriors. They are also seen as separate units, operating as a rapid reaction force on the flanks or to reinforce areas which appear weak. The task of defending the standard and the leader of the army fell to the Huscarls.

Leadership - contrary to later tactics, it was expected that a Viking Age leader would lead from the front. Having achieved his position partly by his skill at warfare, it was expected that the leader would stand in the middle of the front rank, leading the charge and the boar snout. All would depend on his personal fortunes - if he fell, it is likely that his army would withdraw or rout, although his huscarls were expected to stand over him and die with their leader. It seems to have been normal for the leaders of Viking Age armies to attempt to seek each other out on the battlefield, attempting to ensure a quick victory by cutting of the head of the army. Although not normally successful, in several cases the huscarls of one army have breached the shieldwall and slain the opposing leader, presumably as part of an advance led by their earl or king.