THE VIKING AXE by Tyr Neilsen

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. 


Vápnum sínum
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

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THE VIKING KNIFE by Tyr Neilsen

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.

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THE VIKING SAX by Tyr Neilsen

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.

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THE VIKING SWORD by Tyr Neilsen

The Viking sword was the most popular weapon of the Viking age. It was the mark of a warrior, a status symbol and a sign of power and authority. In fact, a good Viking sword might have been the single most valuable possession a man in the Viking age owned.

The Viking sword developed from the Roman Spatha, which in Ancient Greek meant sword. The ancestors of the Vikings used swords with intricately ornamented gilt hilts made of bronze, and such swords were used in Denmark and Sweden right up until 800 A.D. Then, as suddenly as the Viking Age began, new swords appeared.

These new Viking swords were very in different from, and much better than, the swords preceding the Viking Age. The Viking Sword was one long piece of iron, comprised of a single handed hilt, a cross-guard and a blade. It was longer than the spatha and had a sharper taper and point. A good Viking sword was very expensive, as swords were not easy to make, but during the Viking Age, a man’s life often depended on the quality of his sword, so Vikings wanted the best swords that could be made. The best were the Frankish Damascened blades, which were both sharp and supple.

The new Viking sword had an iron hilt that wouldn’t break in battle like the bronze hilts did, and the blades, made from different qualities of iron and steel wire welded together, had hard and strong edges. If the combination of hard and soft metals, welding, heating, softening, hammering and shaping were done correctly, then a sword of superb quality was produced.

The hilt of a Viking sword handle is comprised of the crossguard, the grip, and the pommel. At the top of the sword is the pommel, derived from the Latin for "little apple". The Viking pommel came in a variety of shapes, but it is basically a metal block found at the top of the handle. The pommel serves both as a counter balance to the blade and as a weapon to strike an opponent. The under part of the pommel is called the upper guard.

The iron part between the pommel and the blade of a Viking sword is called the tang. Over the tang is a grip which is the handle of the sword. Usually the grip would be made of wood, glued to the tang, and bound with leather or wire. The grips of most Viking swords are short, with just enough room for a one hand, five fingered grip, meaning Viking swords were wielded with one hand.

The crossguard of a Viking sword is a bar of metal set at right angles to the blade, between the blade and the hilt, and is the simplest form of sword guard. The purpose of the crossguard is to protect the user's hand. It prevents other sword blades from sliding down onto the hand during combat and stops the wielder of the sword from punching shields while swinging the weapon. The Viking sword was used for cutting and thrusting, but the bar crossguard exposes a vulnerability to thrusting.

The blade of a Viking sword has a slight taper which helps bring the center of balance closer to the grip. Some blades had a deep central depression called a fuller that ran the length on both faces of the blade. The fuller was created when the blade was forged, and it increased the strength and flexibility of the sword, while at the same time creating a lighter blade. This weight reduction and flexibility allowed the wielder to swing the sword faster with harder strokes, and also allowed the sword to bend without breaking when it hit bone or another weapon.

During the 300 years of the Viking Age, the Viking swords continually changed and developed. Not only did the size and shape of the hilt components and blade vary, but also the swords construction, with the biggest changes in the hilt. Sometimes it was how the pommel was attached to the tang and sometimes it was the size and shape of the pommel.

Viking sword blades ranged from 60 centimeters to 100 centimeters long (24 inches to 39 inches), though 70 to 80 cm was the most typical blade length. The widest part of the blade was typically 4.5 to 6.0 cm (1.8 to 2.4 in) wide, and the total weight of a typical Viking sword was a little over 1kg (2.2 lb). The heaviest Viking sword was found in Norway. It is from the 9th century and weighs 1.9 kg (4.2 lbs).

At the beginning of the Viking Age, especially in Norway, the most popular Viking sword had just one sharp edge. The blunt edge could be used for blocking which kept the other edge sharp. For the rest of the Viking Age, most Viking swords were double edged, meaning the blade had two sharp edges. The typical Viking sword blade with two sharp edges has a long edge (true edge) and a short edge (false edge). Cuts with the long edge are more powerful, but there are benefits to short edge attacks. As a Viking sword is identical on both sides, which edge of the blade is long and which is short, depends on which way in the hand the sword is held.  

Bladesmiths were capable of creating a mirror like surface on Viking sword blades, and these highly polished surfaces resisted corrosion better than less finished blades. Some blade surfaces had an inlay of iron, silver or gold, and were decorative rather than structural. Though many inlays are geometric designs, some are pictorial, depicting wolves, snakes and birds.

Some inlays were the sword makers name or mark. Two common Viking sword maker’s marks are Ulfberht and Ingelrii, and an Ulfberht sword might have been the best Viking sword to be made. There are so many Viking swords that have the Ulfberht mark, and were manufactured over such a long period of time, that they could not have been made by the one man. It is likely that the swords were made in a workshop where generations of smiths worked.

Archeological evidence suggests that many of the Viking Age swords came from the Frankish lands (Germany). These swords arrived in the Norse lands as finished weapons, or as unfinished blades to be fitted with hilts locally. Although Viking warriors sharpened and did some small repairs to their swords, there were professional sword sharpeners and professional sword repairers, who repaired pommels, hilts, guards and sometimes blades after they had been damaged. Most Viking sword blades were incredibly durable though, and archeological evidence shows long and continued use of sword blades, sometimes for several centuries.

Viking swords were valued because of their monetary worth, their magical worth if they had taken a life or saved a life, and because well-made swords survived to become old swords. Viking Swords were given names and were passed down from father to son for generations that covered hundreds of years. Viking warriors swore oaths on their swords, lives often depended on a sword, and the loss of a sword in the Viking Age was a disaster.

As well as sword names, and sword oaths, there was also a tradition of Vikings warriors inscribing runes on weapons, particularly swords. In the Icelandic Konungsbók, verse 6 of the Norse poem Sigrdrífumál teaches how to engrave runes on a sword to provide protection:

Sigrúnar þú skalt kunna,
ef þú vilt sigr hafa,
ok rísta á hialti hiǫrs,
sumar á véttrimum,
sumar á valbǫstum,
ok nefna tysvar Tý

Victory runes you must know
if you will have victory,
and carve them on the sword's hilt,
some on the grasp
and some on the inlay,
and name Tyr twice