The popular image of Vikings is rushing off a longboat, brandishing a deadly sword or huge axe. However, while they lived centuries before Robin Hood (and, unlike that man in tights, were actual historical figures!) Viking warriors often used a bow and arrow.
Any look at the geography of the Nordic region, and you will see now (and even more so in the early medieval period) huge swathes covered by deep and dense coniferous forests. Giant elms, birch, and spruce trees were not only felled to fashion longships but were also used to construct a plethora of bows and arrows.
To speak of any one "type" of a Viking bow and arrow would be extremely foolhardy. This was an era before any sort of mechanized mass production could spit out exact copies. Every weapon was handmade, some with more skill and love than others, meaning this was as much a labor of love as it was a considerable investment of time.
Modern historians, particularly those specializing in arms and armament, believe that most of the bows that the Vikings used were composite, crafted with several different materials such as wood, sinew, and animal horns.
All these products were readily available and, when combined, allowed an efficient and powerful weapon, enough to kill some wild game... or a warrior.
- READ MORE: A complete guide to Viking weaponry
Unfortunately for us moderns, so much of ancient warfare is unknown to us. What small glimpses we have through historical chronicles, the Norse sagas, or other eyewitness accounts are problematic due to their bias and lack of reliability.
This has been the problem plaguing historians trying to study and analyze the Vikings at battle for generations. What we do know, however, is mostly from archaeological digs.
Luckily for us, there has been a plethora of Viking-era arrows and arrowheads. Most of these arrows were made from stripped wood and featured iron or bone arrowheads.
Some researchers have estimated it took about 2 hours to make a single arrow, including fletching, shafting, and attaching the arrowhead. Compare this to the thousands of hours needed to forge a sword, and it's no wonder a bow and arrow was a popular weapon.
Most of the arrowheads were broad and were designed to pierce armor or whatever protection a warrior had on.
The arrowhead itself was fashioned into a "Bodkin Point," which is essentially a metal spike that makes it extremely hard to be pulled out of flesh, cloth, or metal.
- READ MORE: Why did Vikings use slings in combat?
Mastering the art of archery, warriors could skillfully engage foes from a secure distance, sowing confusion and seizing opportunities in the enemy's ranks during sieges, naval encounters, and battles on the field. Photo: Francesko221 / Shutterstock
Used in some very Viking battles
It was in the later medieval period that siege weapons, such as a trebuchet, were perfected and used commonly by European warriors. The Vikings, however, used a bow and arrow as their long-range weapon of choice.
Whether laying siege to a town, fighting a naval engagement, or facing off against combatants across a field, using a bow and arrow allowed Vikings to engage the enemy and inflict damage from a safe distance. This also often caused confusion and chaos in the enemy ranks and may lead to a break in formation that the Vikings could ruthlessly exploit.
The two most famous examples of Viking use of bows and arrows occurred in the pivotal year of 1066 CE.
At the Battle of Stamford Bridge in October, Norwegian King and Viking warrior Harald Hardrada led an invasion of Northern England to try and seize the throne of the last Anglo-Saxon King, Harold Godwinson.
The battle revolved around a famous bridge where the Anglo-Saxons were peppered with arrows, taking heavy losses before being able to turn the tide, kill Hardrada and stave off the invasion.
Yet Godwinson had barely a second to relax as, weeks later, a new threat invaded from the south, William, the Duke of Normandy. Though William's claim on the English throne was dubious, Godwinson had to rush his tired men the length of England to face them on a battlefield near Hastings.
If we are to believe one of the most beautiful pieces of early medieval propaganda, the Bayeux Tapestry, the end of Anglo-Saxon England was caused by an arrow to the eye (historians have also suggested the throat) of King Harold.
Practice makes perfect
Using a bow and arrow was a skill that had to be constantly honed and perfected. Becoming proficient with a bow took extensive training, dedication, and practice.
When not on the battlefield, target practice was often the most common way of honing that skill. Archery contests were held, which allowed the development of improved accuracy, speed, and shooting from a range of different positions, even on horseback.
In an era before supermarkets, hunting was a popular pastime and a means of putting food on the plate daily. Using a bow and arrow whilst hunting, sometimes on horseback, allowed Vikings to catch deer, birds, and wild boars.
A Viking did not necessarily do battle every day, but they certainly had to battle hunger, and the use of a bow and arrow to hunt was a way to stave off this eternal enemy.
Finally, the humble bow and arrow had such reverence in Viking culture even off the battlefield.
The Norse God, Ullr, was associated with hunting and was often depicted wielding a bow and arrow. This was seen as a sacred weapon that allowed people in Viking societies to not only defeat their enemies but also provided a form of entertainment and put food on the table daily.
For more on the latest archaeological work that has uncovered Viking-era arrows, visit the National Geographic website here.
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