THE VIKING SWORD by Tyr Neilsen

Photo: T. Neilsen - B. Wemundstad

Photo: T. Neilsen - B. Wemundstad

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.

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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.

                                                                    fROM LEFT TO RIGHT - CHANGES IN HILT DESIGN FROM EARLY VIKING AGE TO LATE VIKING AGE

                                                                    fROM LEFT TO RIGHT - CHANGES IN HILT DESIGN FROM EARLY VIKING AGE TO LATE VIKING AGE

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).

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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.

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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

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