The first images that come to mind when you think of Viking weapons, you’d probably think first of either the iconic Viking sword, or a large two-handed axe. In the worst case, you might imagine they only used giant axes with two blades. Although the Viking sword is an iconic weapon and a symbol of their crafting skill, they weren’t particularly common. As for axes, they came in many different shapes and sizes. Overall, by far the most common weapons of the Viking age were axes and spears, both of which could come in many varieties, could be made cheaply and be used for many different combat techniques. So here I will explore their characteristics and use.
It would make a lot of sense for the regular man who couldn’t afford a purpose-built weapon to use what was at hand, and a smaller woodcutting axe can do the job well enough. However, many of these axes may not have been quite optimal for combat. For a start they would most likely be fairly blunt if used as a splitting axe, as well as unnecessarily heavy. Axes meant for battle were constructed differently to axes meant only as tools.
Generally speaking, axe heads in The Viking Age would be made of Iron or Steel, with Iron being more common in cheaper axes and in earlier parts of the period. There has been some evidence of Viking Age bronze axe heads, such as one found in Iceland. This could make sense as iron could be hard to come by in some areas even though bronze is generally considered to be more expensive at the time, but perhaps more easy to make weapons out of with less skill. The edge of a bronze weapon meeting iron or steel would very quickly get damaged or destroyed, but in this case the head had an iron cutting bit slotted into the edge to make it more practical. A wide variety of axe head shapes were used in the Viking age. The sketch to the right shows two different commonly used axe heads, the larger ‘Dane Axe’ and a smaller example of a ‘Bearded Axe’
As you would expect, most axe heads had a wedge-shaped cross-section to keep them sturdy against heavy impacts. In some examples however, the cross-section of the head near the edge could be diamond shape where it thickened, providing the needed strength whilst remaining light enough to be less tiresome to swing about. Some axe heads would do away with the reinforcing thickness and had very thin cross-sections, which were clearly too delicate for any sort of heavy work with wood, and would perhaps even be more easily damaged by an enemy’s shield, armour or weapon. A strike from one of these on an unarmoured part of the body would be devastating.
The shape of the head allows the axe to be used for a variety of special moves. It can be used to hook an opponent’s ankle, throwing him off-balance and onto the ground. It can also be hooked around the neck to pull a person in a direction he doesn’t wish to go. Additionally, the axe can be used to hook the edge of the shield pulling it away for an attack, or to disarm (shown below). This also demonstrates the usefulness of the shape of the bearded axe, as using this technique with a more pointed axe head may result the weapon becoming stuck, and the wielder finding himself disarmed instead!
Despite this drawback, the points at each end of some axe heads were kept sharp so they could be used offensively in a thrust, and perhaps a slash, adding to the weapons versatility and reach. The Dane Axe shape as shown earlier would be good for this use. Because the axe point widens so much more than a spear or a sword they could potentially create more grievous wounds when used in a thrust.
Other clever moves with axes are described in the sagas. In Eyrbyggja saga, Þrándr leapt up and hooked the head of his axe over the wall of a fortification and pulled himself up by the haft.
The sagas also suggest that occasionally axes failed during use. There are many examples where axe heads shattered, which could possibly be the case of a very thin axe blade coming up against a hard target, or could simply be a poorly made weapon. Axe hafts being used to parry or block attacks could sometimes result in splitting of the haft, especially when defending against other large axes or repeated sword strikes over time. This would be unlikely to happen in only a few swings though.
Moving on to the spear, which was the most commonly used weapon in the Viking age. It could perhaps be acquired cheaper than axes in many cases, and although primarily used for war, it could be used as a peace time tool just as an axe in many cases, most notably for hunting. Spear heads took many forms throughout the Viking age, some are shown in the illustration to the right.
Some spearheads were quite small, and some also featured ‘wings’, as can be seen on some in the illustration. These wings are thought to have been developed for uses such as hooking shields or people, and perhaps may have made it easier to parry an enemy’s weapon. In the case of the very long bladed spears, the head could possibly be used on its own as a makeshift short sword. In this instance the wings may aid with grip and parrying the same way a sword’s crossguard might if there is space for the hand below them. It is considered that these wings were what eventually developed into larger parts of polearms of the later Medieval and Renaissance periods.
Spearheads were generally made of iron, and were sometimes made using pattern welding technique and decorated with inlays of precious metals or with scribed geometric patterns, similarly to the way higher class swords would be made.
Spear heads were fixed to wooden shafts using a rivet. This rivet could be removed to prevent an enemy from throwing your spear back at you once initially thrown, as the head would stay stuck in the ground or person it found itself imbedded in. This lessened the risk when throwing your spear, as it was shameful in the extreme to be hit by your own weapon.
The sockets on the surviving spear heads suggest that the shafts were typically round. However, there is little evidence that tells us the length of the shaft. The sagas suggest that a long shaft was uncommon, and this makes sense when it can be considered that most wielders may want to use their spear one-handed so that they may use it in combination with a shield. An overly long spear would be too ungainly and heavy to be used one-handed
The use of a spear offered great advantages in many battles such as when used in a shield wall formation. Similarly to the Classical Greek Phalanx formation, 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 of enemies. Konungs skuggsjá (King’s Mirror), a 13th century Norwegian manual for men of the king, says that in the battle line, a spear is more effective than two swords.
If a spear was being used single-handed with a shield, warriors could sling their shields over their shoulders and use the spear two-handed. Used this way, the spear has even more reach, since the fighter can bring his hands way back towards the butt end of the spear, still keeping the stability required to fight effectively. In a two-handed thrust, the spear shaft can also 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, greatly extending the reach of the thrust at speed. This technique works well in single combat
Spears used alone have always been considered terrible for single combat; however, the spear is a surprisingly quick weapon. A spearman can keep a swordsman very busy, thrusting the point from face to belly and back again, while staying out of range of the sword. The spearman could also make it difficult for an enemy to defend with a shield, as the range makes it easier for the spearman to attack the unguarded side of an opponent, forcing them to pay attention to move their shield back and forth, perhaps tiring them. However, a spearman would need to be wary that the enemy didn’t find his way past the point of their spear. Once past the point, a swordsman would have the upper hand.
In the situation where an enemy gets past the point of your spear, you could rely on the use of a secondary weapon. In many cases this could be an axe, as it was cheap and more useful than a sword outside of combat it would be more likely. A small axe could be kept in reserve easily, perhaps hidden under your cloak in order to fool your opponent into thinking they only had to deal with your spear.
An axe could also be held in reserve behind a shield (shown left), a trick used by Þorgeirr in Fóstbræðra saga. In a fight with Snorri, Þorgeirr dropped his spear and grabbed the hidden axe that was in his left hand. This technique gives you the extra option of throwing your spear as an attack, without the risk of being weaponless afterwards.
Axes and spears could be used in many more interesting ways. Some examples taken from sagas describe the use of spears to raise up a shield, used as a platform for someone to stand on in order to scale a fortification. This could be used in conjunction with the axe as described earlier, being used by someone to pull themselves up. Another example describes an axe being used to cut steps into a snowy hill in order to climb it, and then sliding down the slope with a spear raised to attack.
Overall, we can see that, although these two weapons may get less praise thank the Viking sword, they certainly had their numerous advantages. They were cheaper, more versatile, and could even be used in combination in many useful ways. This goes to show why they were so commonly used, and not often as a compromise.
Blakelock, E. S., The Early Medieval Cutting Edge of Technology (Bradford, 2012)
Parker, P., The Northmen’s Fury: A History of the Viking World (London, 2014)
Short, W. R., Viking Weapons and Combat Techniques(Yardley, 2009) www.hurstwic.org
Wise, T., Saxon, Viking and Norman(Oxford, 1979)
(Illustrations based on photos from Viking Weapons and Combat Techniques)