For defense, Vikings used large circular shields. Usually, the size of the Viking shields varied between 30″ and 36″ (75 – 90 cm). The shield excavated at a Viking fortress Trelleborg (Denmark) in 2008 was 33,5″ broad. No less renowned are shields from Gokstad Viking ship burial (Norway). With the end of the Viking Age the traditional circular shape was replaced by Continental kite shields with elongated bottom edge that ensured more protection for legs. Viking shields were used as the means of defense in battle, but for ship crews they also functioned as protection from waves and the wind, being fastened to gunwales (the upper edge or planking of the side of a Viking longboat).
Viking Shield Construction
The board of a shield was flat. It consisted of seven to eight planks, which were 8 to 10mm thick in the center and 5 to 6mm thick towards the edges. The planks were usually made from fir, alder or poplar wood. These timbers are light and not very dense. Sagas specifically mention linden, which, however, is not so common in archaeological evidence. For strength and flexibility, Vikings didn’t saw logs into planks, but split them, always along the grain. It is not clear whether the planks were joined directly to each other. Most probably they were held together by other shield parts that were attached to them: leather cover, handle, boss and rim. The other possibility is that the planks were glued together. Gokstad shields did not have leather facing, but they might have been made for the burial, not for battle.
In the center of a Viking shield there was a circular hole covered with a hollow iron boss. It was hemispherical and protected the hand. Usually, the shield boss had a thin flange and was about 6″ diameter. The points of nails, by which the boss was attached to the shield, were bent over or flattened on the inside.
The handle or grip crossed the central hole and went across the whole of the shield, almost from edge to edge. It was tapered towards the ends. Trelleborg shield has a shorter grip with incised interlaced design and an oval central hole. The handle was nailed to the board.
Decoration: shields from the Gokstad ship were painted black and yellow and placed along the longship’s railing alternately. Images on runestones often represent round Viking shields with ‘pinwheel’ patterns.
Unlike oak, timbers that were used to build Viking shields were not likely to split. The thin planks had to absorb the energy of sword blows. The fibers bind around the sword blades, which stuck in the shield. In general, combat techniques of the Vikings seem to suggest shield movements that deflected blows rather than blocked them. At least, the thin and light construction of the Viking shield may point to such use.
One of the widespread warfare techniques was forming a ‘shield wall,’ when warriors formed a line so that each shield was overlapped from both sides by the other warriors’ shields. The wall had to be strong enough to prevent the enemies from penetrating through it.
The use of screws or bolts is not supported by historical finds, neither is the metal edge on the shield. Plywood may serve we’ll for a shield, and I’m sure if the Vikings had had access to plywood, they would have used it. But if you want an authentic shield, you use thin planks of light wood and nails that you hammer flat on the inside. For the edges, leather strips soaked in water work best.
Regarding the link on making a shield: it is much easier to raise a dome rather than dish it. Set a tow hitch ball in a vise, use vise grips to hold the sheet metal, and hammer down around the ball until you have a dome. Then, to set the flange, mark the circle for it and use a cross peen hammer on an anvil, block of iron, or hard rock (granite or such).
The wood should be hand laid planks. In the later period, two cross plies became common.
I speculate glue wasn’t commonly used because hide glue would soften in the damp climates of Britain, Scandinavia, and at sea.
Why doesn’t the round shield have spikes around the edges, the question was brought up in a conversation between my dad and I and i explained it to be unwieldy he said otherwise, i did light research to settle the dispute however i found nothing that corresponded to what i asked so, would a spiked edge of a shield be unwieldy or practical?
Talon, I think a spiked edge would possibly damage the owner of a shield.
Were the shields on the viking longship able to be removed?
Yes, the warriors typically hung their shields from the gunwales while travelling on ships like the Drakkars!
Does anybody know who made the Shields? I know how they made them and why they were used, but I can not find who made them.
They were made by there owners if that makes sense. People made there own shields.
Spikes were just not used, there is no historical evidence for them. Not everything you see in a video game has actual historical credibility.
They did use a type of long bearded ax..for wrapping opponents shield and force it down.as well as boarding ships in close battle
Interesting. Thank you, Kris.
I believe you are wrong about the shields and weapon both. The use of shields by Scandinavian warriors during the Viking age seems to have been quite ubiquitous. We have strong sources to indicate this is the case, even to the point of the shield being included in a roster of weapons for a Holmgang, (ritual combat or trial by combat). In the case of Kormáks saga, each participant is allotted 3 shields, testifying to their disposable nature- likely only the boss would retrieved and used again.
The shield itself could formidable weapon, a blow struck with the iron boss would leave a lasting impression. Additionally, it could be used to hide ones intentions in a combat, allowing an unexpected strike to be landed.
A viking warrior was very unlikely to give up the protection a shield offered, though he may have held an additional hand weapon in his shield hand for back up.
A Scandinavian warrior armed with the famed two handed “dane axe” WOULD stow his shield on his back, but only once close quarters fighting commenced.
As to the “war pickax” there is little evidence to suggest that it was a common weapon. An adze used for forming ships planks could have been used as an impromptu weapon, but in all but the most dire cases the user would have have a more suitable impliment (axe or seax) close at hand. In short, the war pickax of the viking era exists primarily as speculation only, and is likely either a fiction or improvised weapon.
Thank you for a detailed commentary, Tor.
Even “Berserkers” had shields to chew on. No armor, but usually represented with shields. I’d say that’s pretty ubiquitous.
I heard that metal bosses consist of two types.
Earlier bosses were hemispherical, while later ones were rather flattened. Sometimes they had a cylindrical neck between the flange and the dome.
I have read that the Norse warriors used a war pickax like a podlaski. A hammer on one side and a sharp pick on the other. For smahing throw armor and shields. Sometimes have a speak in the middle of both hammer and pick to keep a enemy at bay.
Pickle or Bickle is German for cucumber or the tip of spear or the tips of the ww1 German helmets. I believe that Viking would only use shields when fighting light battles. Have a two small one handed weapons being better then a sheild unless it had a sharp 6 to 12 inch bickle in the center for stabing.
Two weapons has a disadvantage against one weapon and a shield. If one sword was brought down on the opponents right from the side, a parry would send it the opposite direction and down. The opponent can simultaneously push aside your second weapon with the shield, leaving your body completely exposed to a upward attack with the sword.
This could not happen if both had a sword and a shield because the sword could only be brought down on the opponents shield without first crossing the sword across your body, which leaves you in an unbalanced position and able to be knocked over with the shield.
Long story short, two swords meet a sword and a shield, there will be two swords lying on the ground and a shield raised in victory.
In the specific case of 2 weapons vs 1 weapon and shield, I would not default the victory to the shield – In a duel the main advantage of a shield is lost – the passive defense, especially versus spears and arrows.
However, in a raid, battle or melee, bringing 2 weapons instead of a shield is really begging to be pierced in some way, shape or form.