The Viking broadsword was for single handed use as the other hand always held a shield. Its shape was still very much based on the swords of the Dark Ages and on an elongated version of the Roman spatha, with a tight grip, long deep fuller, and simple cross guard.
Contrary to popular belief, the Viking helmet rarely sported twin horns as often depicted in Hollywood movies, instead they were often similar to the one the re-enactor is wearing below.
The Viking sword, typically from the 9th and 10th centuries had a long wide double edged blade with a wide central fuller. This sword was basically designed for cutting and slashing, and it performed this action very well as many invaded peoples could attest. The tip of the blade could be used for thrusting and stabbing as it tapered into a rounded point.
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The hilt of a Viking sword was adorned with quite a straight forward hand guard with slightly slanted forward quillions that were of a stout design. The handles of Viking swords were often made from wood and then covered with leather, some examples however were cast from solid brass.
Viking swords were quite distinctive in that they all utilized a heavy pommel on the end of the handle, this acted as a counterbalance and made it easier to wield. The sword weighed a few ounces under two and a half pounds and had a moderate blade a two and a half feet in length, the overall length of a typical Viking sword was around three feet.
Actually, our knowledge about arms and armor of the Viking Age in the 8th to 11th centuries is based on relatively limited archaeological finds, ancient illustrations, and loose accounts from old, passed down through the ages, Norse sagas and laws recorded in the thirteenth century.
According to Norse law, all Vikings were required carry swords at all times. These arms were also indicative of a Viking's social status. A wealthy Viking would have a complete ensemble of a metal helmet, wooden shield, chain mail shirt, and animal-skin coat, among various other ancillary equipment.
Owning a sword was a matter of high prestige for every Viking, quality sword's were actually valued at about half a crown each, there was no inflation in those days so for a few hundred years this price never changed, half a crown was apparently worth about a dozen milk cows, so they was quite expensive.
The Viking sword was generally laminated from high and low grade carbon steel, the high carbon steel providing durability, whilst the low carbon steel offered flexibility.
Constructing such weapons was the job of a specialist and it is thought now that many blades were imported from places such as Afghanistan. Vikings of higher status would own ornately decorated swords, with silver or gold accents and inlays, the scabbard would also be decorative.
Scientists at the United Kingdoms National Physical Laboratory (NPL) recently used an electron microscope to analyse some Viking swords. Surprisingly it turns out that the Vikings did indeed import their best steel from Herat now called Afghanistan.
"Sword making in Viking times was important work" states Dr Alan Williams, a top archaeo-metallurgist at the Wallace Collection, a London based museum of Object d'Art (prn: objaydar) which has an impressive collection of ancient arms and armor.
He further stated, "On their travels, the Vikings were keen to pick up any innovative new means of improving their sword making, but until now we haven’t known where they have sourced some of their materials. The results from NPL confirm for the first time that the material analysed was brought by the Vikings from the Middle East to the Baltic area and throws new light on an important trade route that was in use until the 11th Century.”
Metal from Viking swords were analysed using a powerful scanning electron microscope, it showed that many swords were made of imperfectly melted steel consisting of a mixture of iron and carbonaceous materials heated together to give high carbon steel.
NPL’s results match descriptions of ancient sword making in Herat described by ninth century Arab philosopher and writer Al-Kindi. This links to a known Viking trade route down the Volga and across the Caspian Sea to Iran. Until now it was not known that Vikings had brought crucible steel back to Scandinavia and integrated ancient Arab steel making methods with their own sword-swordsmithing.
Below is seen a modern copy of a Trondheim Viking sword that was created with Damascus laminated steel. The handle, hilt and pommel with all its design and embellishments is typical of a Viking sword.
High carbon crucible steel created a hard, sharp yet durable and resilient sword which was super high tech around the turn of the first millennium. Centuries ago such steel was only available from advanced civilisations of India and Central Asia where they had this technology some 1600 years BC.
The Vikings were generally ignorant barbarians and the ancient Britons, who were quite skilled still didn't have the technology to make laminated steel themselves...so they imported it through secretive trade routes.
According to a report in a U.K newspaper The Guardian published in December 2008, many Viking swords in some of the most prestigious weapons collections in the world are actually fakes.
The age of the fakes however, are the same age as the genuine swords, about a thousand years old. The best quality Viking swords bear the makers name of Ulfberht in raised letters at the hilt, Ulfberht was the top brand name of the day just as Smith & Wesson, Colt and Heckler & Koch is today.
These specialist high quality swords were made from ingots of top grade crucible steel traded or purchased by the Vikings from Afghanistan and Iran. However, in the 11th century the supply of high carbon steel was difficult to get through as the trade routes were blocked by Russian cavalry and infantry. So therefore low quality fakes flooded the Scandinavian market as there was always high demand for new swords.
These fakes looked identical to the genuine top quality Ulfberht's and their blades were indeed very sharp, but the carbon content had only a third of Ulfberht's genuine top brand high quality swords.
These fakes could prove fatal in combat to the Vikings who were duped into buying them. The locally hashed up poor grade iron of such inferior swords was simply hardened by quenching, making the blade sharp, but also brittle and was prone to break in battle, and there were no refunds or warranties in those days.
The Vikings prized and revered their swords above everything else and history shows that the Vikings awarded names to their swords such as fotbitr meaning leg biter or gramr meaning fierce. With each Viking carrying a personalised blade illustrates the close bond they had with their swords, indeed for the Viking to die in battle with sword in hand was his greatest wish and guaranteed him a place in the halls of Valhalla.
Many fine examples of Viking swords have been recovered either from river beds, Viking graves and some have even been discovered inside small stone tombs on their own, the sword itself was obviously considered important enough to warrant its own funeral.
Certain recovered swords have been judged well enough preserved to be used in combat today such is their condition a fine tribute to the skill and dedication of the Afghani or Iranian sword-smith all those centuries ago.
Page created August 22nd 2009. Updated November 8th 2012