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The Viking axe changed the face of war in the period of history we now call the Viking Age. During this 300 year period, Viking warriors were feared and admired around the known world for their use of weapons, but they acquired a special reputation for their use of the axe.
In Viking Age Scandinavia, the axe was the common tool used by every farmer. Even the poorest farm had to have an axe for cutting and splitting wood, so from childhood, everyone who grew up on a farm knew how to use an axe. This tool was quite versatile and could be used in a variety of ways such as building a house, ship or boat, on smaller tasks on a farm, for hunting, and even in combat.
Because iron and iron weapons were expensive, and because it was a tool used since childhood, the axe became the personal weapon of the farmer. From this beginning, the everyday tool of the ordinary farmer was developed into the game changing Viking combat axe.
A Viking axe consists of an iron axe head attached to a handle, also called a haft. When holding the lowest part of an axe handle, an axe can be swung and used to chop wood with the sharp part of the axe head. By holding the axe handle close to the head, an axe could be used to shape and carve wood. The same principles were used in Viking combat. When holding the lowest part of an axe handle, an axe could be swung and used to chop or cut at an enemy, and by holding the axe handle close to the head, an axe could be used in the same way as a knife.
As a weapon, the axe had fallen out of fashion over the centuries, but when the Vikings improved the old design, they brought the axe back into fashion with a vengeance. Although there were a wide variety of Viking axes, they all fell into two basic categories, the one-handed axe, and the larger two-handed axe.
The one-handed Viking axe came in many shapes and sizes, but all were light enough to be wielded with one hand. The two handed Viking axe, also called the Viking battle axe or ‘Dane Axe’, was large and heavy, and needed both hands to be used effectively. The one-handed axe could also be used for other types of work, but the Viking battle axe was designed exclusively as a weapon of war.
The one-handed axe had a small axe head, which varied in size and shape, weighed little and was well balanced. The cutting edge of this axe was generally 7 to 15 cm (3-6 in) long and very sharp. The axe haft was made of wood and could be as long as 1.5 m (60 in).
The battle Axe had a blade with a wide cutting edge that ranged from 22 to 45cm (9-18 in) long. This forbidding blade was mounted on a wooden haft of between 6 to 7 feet long (2 meters). Sometimes these long hafts were reinforced with iron strips to protect them from being damaged by an enemy’s weapon.
As there was far less iron and steel work on an axe head than a sword, axes were usually much cheaper than swords and a lot more available. Viking axe heads were single edged and made as a single piece of thick, wedge shaped iron. The ‘eye’ of the axe was the name given to the hole for the haft. One method was to punch the ‘eye’ out with a drift. Often with thinner blades, the metal was folded around the eye, and then welded into a solid piece.
Some Viking axe heads were elegant and thin, others were thick and heavy. Some had a hardened steel edge welded to the iron head, which made for a better cutting edge. Typically, Viking axe heads had a wedge-shaped cross section that tapered towards the edge. This cross section was sometimes diamond shaped near the edge which provided greater strength.
Being light, fast and well balanced, the one-handed axe showed great versatility when used as a weapon. It could be used in a variety of clever combat moves and was great for fast attacks. It could be thrown, used to manipulate an opponent and an opponent’s equipment, or swung to deadly effect. As the combat potential for the one-handed axe was realized, special axe head shapes were developed. As well as the normal sharp, round-edge type of the axe head, there began to appear combat axes with a square shaped projection at the bottom of the axe head. This type of axe was called the ‘Bearded Axe’.
The Bearded Axe projection was used to hook an enemy’s weapon or shield. When the edge of an opponent’s shield was hooked by the ‘beard’ of the axe, tremendous leverage could be used to control the shield with the axe. By using this technique, a shield could be forced in a direction away from the opponent, opening up attack possibilities against the opponent’s body, or even pulling or forcing a shield out of an opponent’s grasp.
Many people think that it is harder to fight with an axe than a sword, but in some circumstances, a Viking axe can be more effective than a sword or other edged weapons, as all the force from a Viking axe blow is concentrated into a small section of the blade, giving the axe enough power to cut though armor, helmet or shield.
On the battlefield, the Viking battle axe struck fear and terror into the enemy. Having a much longer reach than a sword, the Viking battle axe could very effectively cut or hook an opponent’s arm, leg, shoulder or neck from a distance. Being long and heavy, this weapon needed both hands to wield it effectively, but the cutting power of the devastating Viking battle axe was enough to rip through shield and armor.
The top and bottom of the haft of the two-handed Viking battle axe and the one-handed Viking axe are effectively used in combat through thrusting, hitting, swinging and hooking actions. The thrust of the haft handle can also be used to block and parry.
The pointed ends of the two-handed Viking battle axe, and the one-handed Viking axe, are sharp and vicious in combat. Sharpened to a fine point, they are deadly in thrusting or slashing attacks.
The one-handed Viking axe is light enough to be fast, and balanced enough to be accurate. The axe blade is razor sharp and is easily wielded in all directions to slash, stab and cut.
The one-handed Viking axe can quickly hook an opponent’s body part, such as leg, arm or neck, and pull an opponent off balance. It can also push or hook an opponent’s weapon, leaving them open for a strike.
The backside of the axe head, called the öxarhamar (axe hammer) is the flat metal backside of the axe. This part of the axe can be used in a hammering action for lethal and non-lethal blows, and was sometimes used to humiliate an opponent.
Hidden behind a shield, the one-handed Viking axe can be held in the same hand that is holding a shield, making the axe readily available if anything should happen to the other weapon being used. If a spear is thrown, or if a warrior drops his shield, the axe can be immediately put to use.
The one-handed Viking axe can be used singly, with a shield, or together with other weapons. The one-handed Viking axe and the Viking sword have similar reach, and when both weapons are used together, they make for a fearsome combination.
The one-handed Viking axe can also be accurately thrown.
Weapons meant the difference between life and death to the Viking warrior. These tools of the trade were always kept in good working order, and according to the Hávamál, weapons were not to be more than one step away from a person. Weapons were also objects of status, and some Viking axe-heads were ornately decorated with designs etched into the flat surface of the blade, others with inlays of precious metals such as silver and even gold.
From cutting and splitting wood, to building, hunting and combat, the Viking axe was truly a valuable and versatile tool.
skala maðr velli á
feti ganga framar
því at óvist er at vita
nær verðr á vegum úti
geirs um þörf guma
When away from home
don't be more than
one step from your weapons
when a warrior is travelling
they can never be sure
when they need a weapon
Hávamál - verse 38
No other sentence better describes how important the knife was to Viking Age society, than the Nordic proverb “Knívleysur maður er lívleysur maður” which translates to “The knifeless man is a lifeless man”.
The knife pre-dates the Viking Age, but the word knife possibly descends from knifr, which is the Old Norse word for blade. It was the most essential tool for staying alive in the rugged North a thousand years ago. With cold and hostile winters that could last 6 months out of the year, owning a knife would mean the difference between starving and surviving .
There are 2 distinctive types of Viking knife, the small, basic, single edge knife that served as an everyday utility tool, and the slightly larger knife that was used for hunting, fishing and combat. A Viking knife could be very useful in a combat situation, and as a result of having worked and trained with knives since childhood, Vikings were excellent knife fighters.
Throughout the Scandinavian regions, the Viking knife came in all shapes and sizes, with the Norwegian version being more detailed than the rest. The Viking knife ranged from basic pummeled metal, to elegant shining steel blade, and intricate handles of wood, bone or horn with metal inlay.
Basically, the Viking knife was made of a piece of iron that was shaped into a blade and tang. Viking knife blades ranged from 3 to 4 inch blades, until there is difficulty differentiating it from a small sax. Viking knife tangs were sometimes formed into a crude handle, but mostly a handle of bone, horn or wood with simple fittings were secured to the tang.
Generally, both the back and sharp edge of the typical Viking knife was relatively straight, with some amount of curvature to either surface towards the point. Most Viking knives taper in thickness slightly as they run from the hilt to the point. Having the greatest weight of the blade placed closest to the handle tends to reduce the force of impact of the working end of the blade, but it makes the tip feel light and increases control.
The Viking knife was usually held in a leather sheath, which ranged from the very simple to highly decorative sheathes with metal furnishings. Knife sheathes hung from a child or man’s belt, and by a thin metal chain from a woman’s apron.
A Viking knife was something every man, woman and child owned, in every class of Viking society, including slaves and kings. Outside of the home, men used knives for farming, hunting, fishing, carving, and when the need arose, for combat. Inside the home, women used the knife primarily in the preparation of food, but they also used knives in sacred ceremonies for the family, farm and village. The Viking knife was integral to a Viking burial, as verified by the large number of knives found in burial sites of Viking Age Scandinavian men, women and children.
Some Viking knife blades are as well made as any sword blade, with handles of beautiful and ornate decorations and fittings. But no matter how ornate, the Viking knife was known for being tough, solid and dependable, which perfectly describes the Vikings who developed it.
The Viking Sax is a long knife, or short sword, that was commonly used in the Viking Age. It is a mean one-handed, single edged cutting weapon with no crossguard, whose sharp tipped blade ranged in length from 30 to 70 cm (12 – 28 in).
The Viking sax had one very sharp edge to its blade, and a thick, solid, blunt edge (or back). Some of these blunt edges were slightly curved, or were straight for the most part, then angled towards the tip. This type of sax was often called a broken-back sax. Other sax blades have a mild curve to the point on both sides of the blade. The Viking sax was usually about 8mm thick (0.3 in) and often simply made, with hilts of wood, bone or horn and simple fittings.
The Viking sax is usually carried in a sheath, or scabbard, that hangs at a slight angle, horizontally from a belt. This angle prevents the sax from sliding accidentally out of the scabbard. It is carried mostly sharp edge up, so that the blade doesn’t cut through the scabbard.
This weapon was usually referred to in the Icelandic Sagas as sax, which is the Old Norse name for this weapon, but depending on its length, it was also referred to by different names, such as scramsax, höggsax, handsax, broadsax or langsax (long-sax).
The shortest sax is called simply short sax or sax. The narrow sax has a longer narrow blade. The light broad sax has a larger blade, and the heavy broad sax has an even broader, longer and heavier blade. The narrow long sax has a long, narrow blade, and looks like a short sword. The long sax blade is 50 cm and over and looks like a sword. It sometimes has fullers, grooves, pattern welded blades, and even inlays of brass, copper or silver.
In peacetime, the Viking sax was as an everyday machete-like tool that was useful in the forest, wood working, farm-work, hunting, skinning wild animals and preparation of food. In a time of conflict or war, the Viking sax was a rugged and deadly weapon that served well in combat and on the battlefield. According to the Icelandic Sagas, some Vikings even preferred the sax over a sword for fighting.