The Viking spear is a deceptively effective and deadly weapon. One of the most common weapons during the Viking Age, the spear was an excellent all-purpose weapon used by the wealthiest and the poorest Viking, for hunting, self-defense and battles.
The metal spearhead of the Viking spear was sharp and lethal when used to stab and cut, and Viking spears were usually the first line of assault or defense in a battle. The Viking spear had a reach advantage over a sword or one-handed axe, and could be used very quickly in attacks or to keep opponents at bay.
The Viking spear could be used single-handed and two-handed, and there are a variety of shapes and sizes of Viking spearheads. Some spearheads were shaped for cutting, thrusting, hewing or hacking, whilst others were made specifically for throwing. According to the Eyrbyggja saga (The Saga of the People of Eyri), it was customary for Vikings to throw a spear at the enemy to start a battle.
Gungnir is the name of the spear owned by the Viking god of warfare, Odin. It was his primary weapon, and it was so well balanced it could hit any target. In the Poetic Edda poem Völuspá, Odin threw his spear over the heads of an assembly of Vanir gods to officially start the Æsir-Vanir War.
Well balanced spears could be thrown over a good distance at an opponent, on land or at sea. Spears were thrown from attacking Viking ships in sea battles before the vessels got close enough for hand to hand combat. Some Viking throwing spears were fitted with a grip near the middle of the shaft to assist a better hold, and according to some Sagas, some Vikings could throw spears equally well with the right or left hand.
The Viking Age spear was cheap to make. Basically, it is a spearhead made of iron attached to the top of a long wooden pole, called a shaft. The base of the spearhead was a socket that was held in place on the shaft by a rivet. Sometimes the spearhead and socket were formed from the same iron, sometimes they were two separate pieces welded together.
There are four basic designs for the Viking Age spearhead. The majority are angular blades with a diamond cross section. The second most popular type, according to finds, is the leaf-shaped spearhead, some of which were very large, making them a good slashing weapon. The third most popular spearhead is the square, or diamond shape bar, which was very good at penetrating chain mail armor. The least found spearhead type has a corrugated or stepped base shape, with a leaf-shape or angular blade. Even though it is strong, it is not known whether this type of spearhead had a special purpose, or if it was made by accident or design.
The length of Viking spearheads ranged from 20 cm (8 in) to 60 cm (24 in). Some spearheads had ‘wings’ at the base of the socket. These wings limited the depth of penetration of a spear thrust, as well as catching or hooking an enemy’s weapon, shield, or body part.
Regular spearheads with wings were called Krókspjót (hooked spear), whilst larger-headed spears were called Höggspjót (chopping spear) and could also be used for cutting. These small metal bits were formed or welded onto each side of the base of the spearhead. According to the sagas. Winged spearheads could be used very effectively to parry, trap and block an opponent’s weapon. When the wings were sharpened, they were lethal when being thrust forward and when pulled back.
The first choice of wood for a Viking spear shaft was ash. This wood is hard and strong and grows naturally straight. Viking spear shafts were usually shaped round, with a diameter of 2 to 3 cm (1 in). There was no regulation for the length of a Viking spear shaft, but a shaft of around 2 meters (6 feet) makes for a fast and well balanced weapon when used in combat and when thrown. Anywhere between 2 to 3 m (6 to 9 feet) results in a spear that can be used effectively in combat. Any shaft shorter than 2 meters loses the ability to keep an opponent at least a whole pace away. Any shaft longer than 3 meters makes the spear clumsy and heavy.
Thorir Hund kills King Olaf at the Battle of Stiklestad, spearing him under his chain mail armor - Peter Nicolai Arbo - 1859
A two-handed grip on the spear shaft gives the Viking spear more power and usability than a one-hand grip. Both ends and the shaft of a Viking spear could be used to hit an opponent, block attacks with weapons, and even trip opponents. By shifting the hand hold on a spear shaft, the ends can be used to hit an opponent at short range and long range. With a sliding grip, a spear can be thrust forward in such a way that both hands end up at the butt end of the shaft, which allows the spear to reach the full extent of the shaft in a thrust.
Often in a land battle, spear-men stood close together, and could only fight with over arm single-handed techniques. When spear-men had more room between and could fight more effectively, they held the spear low in a single-handed sliding grip.
Spearheads could be pushed against a shield at an angle that would leave an opponent vulnerable to attack. Spearheads with wings could be used to hook a shield and pull it away partly or completely, leaving an enemy vulnerable. Hamstringing is the name for cutting into the muscle at the back of the upper leg. This technique is very painful and bloody, and could cripple an enemy. Hamstringing was easily done with a Viking spear with or without wings on the spearhead.
The Viking spear was inexpensive to mass produce and took little time to train someone in its use, but it wasn’t only a popular because it was the cheapest weapon to make in Viking Age Scandinavia, it was also popular because it was very effective in single combat and in battle.
In its simplest form, a spear is just a pointed stick, but in its finest form, the Viking spear was a work of art. With a well-balanced and shaped shaft, and a steel spearhead beautifully crafted for accuracy in flight or battle, the Viking spear was formidable and lethal in close combat and over a long distance.
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
a man should not be more than
one step from his weapons
when a warrior is outside on the road
he can never be sure
when he will need his spear
HÁVAMÁL – verse 38