THE VIKING AXE by Tyr Neilsen

Photo: T. Neilsen - B. Wemundstad

Photo: T. Neilsen - B. Wemundstad

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 and 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.

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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.

Photo: T. Neilsen - B. Wemundstad

Photo: T. Neilsen - B. Wemundstad

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

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Hávamál - verse 38