The Vikings were renowned for being not only fierce warriors but also master craftsmen. This is why they possessed not only some of the fastest ships in the world but also a wide range of weapons that they employed to deadly effect.
Indeed, while their reputation as being skilled, fast, and courageous warriors was no doubt well-deserved, the Vikings naturally relied on their weapons to wreak maximum damage. But which one was the most effective in the hands of a Norse warrior?
- READ MORE: A complete guide to Viking weaponry
The Viking axe, often synonymous with Norse warriors, was a versatile weapon that came in various shapes and sizes, tailored for both battle and daily tasks. Photo: RuslanStrelnik / Shutterstock
The battle axe
Arguably the weapon most synonymous with the Vikings, and at its most brutal in the hands of a berserker in a rage, the axe came in many shapes and sizes.
Some axes featured intricate engravings on the blade, while the double-handed battle axe could be as long as 1.7 meters and was perfect for bludgeoning brains in a swift raid or pitched battle.
The fact that it was cheaper to make than a sword – a shaft made of wood, which was readily available, rather than metal, which was not – made the axe the weapon of choice for most run-of-the-mill Vikings.
Famously, it was also a favored weapon of Ragnar Lothbrok, who employed it in battle from his early days as a farmer to his extensive raiding and fighting career across Francia and the British Isles.
While axes were more common, the Viking sword, with its detailed designs and symbols, stood as a testament to a warrior's prestige and the advanced metallurgy of the age. Photo: Dm_Cherry / Shutterstock
Just like many warrior cultures, the Vikings made some beautiful swords, with many of the specimens revealed by archaeologists bearing intricate carvings and symbols.
Typically double-edged and up to a meter in length, they were often a significant status symbol due to the high relative cost of manufacture.
Some Viking swords were even imported from the Kingdom of Francia. Naming these swords was a popular pastime, at least according to the sagas.
Probably the most notable example is Erik the Red's Leg Biter, which he used not only to commit manslaughter but also to subdue and conquer Greenland.
The dagger or small knife was more common among commoners, with the knifr even allowed to slaves, while the seax, which had a larger blade and was closer to a kind of machete, was one of the most popular weapons and a handy backup in battle.
For those eager to delve further into the intricacies of Viking swords, renowned scholars Ian G. Peirce and Ewart Oakeshott offer a comprehensive exploration. In their book Swords of the Viking Age, they trace the history and evolution of these weapons, referencing specific examples housed in European museums.
Interested readers can read our review for insights, or purchase the book on Amazon here.
The Viking shield, often circular in design, was not only a primary tool of defense but could also be wielded offensively, used to bash and strike opponents in the heat of battle. Photo: BreizhAtao / Shutterstock
A defensive weapon is still a weapon.
The shield wall, of course, was a crucial form of defense against arrow storms and spear attacks, with the typical circular shape enabling the Vikings to block out almost all space.
It was also more than helpful in hand-to-hand combat. And if all else failed, you could always use it to bash your opponent round the head.
Viking shields were also beautiful, with bright colors, stunning patterns, and often engaging symbolism.
Probably the most well-known example is the remains of an estimated 64 shields found with the Gokstad ship.
Painted yellow and black, they are believed to have been used not only in battle but also to protect the Norse against the elements when sailing in open waters.
- READ MORE: What you need to know about Viking armor
The Viking bow and arrow, while perhaps less iconic than the axe or sword, played a crucial role in Norse warfare, allowing warriors to strike from a distance and soften enemy lines before a melee engagement. Photo: Ron Zmiri / Shutterstock
The bow and arrow
Perhaps more associated with the Normans and Anglo-Saxons, archery was also a crucial weapon for the Norse.
A kind of light artillery for the turn-of-the-millennium warrior, the bow and arrow worked best as a long-range group effort to soften up the opposition prior to an infantry charge.
A typical Viking longbow extended as far as two meters and was used for fighting, hunting, and various other purposes.
Legend has it that Edmund, king of East Anglia, was executed by a Danish squad armed with longbows.
Archeological finds, including at Birka in Sweden, have indicated that some Norse archers practiced Eastern-style archery with hornbogi, or "hornbows," though these may have been inherited through fighting or trade rather than produced locally.
While the Viking sword and axe often symbolized personal valor, the spear was a testament to the Norsemen's tactical acumen, allowing them to engage foes from a safe distance or break through shield walls. Photo: Alex_Maryna / Shutterstock
One of the most versatile weapons on the market, spears could be hurled at attacking forces from a distance, used to break down a shield wall, or simply jabbed point-blank into a horse's flank, an Anglo-Saxon eye slit or the padded leather tunic of a noisy neighbor.
Like the axe, the fact that the spear had a wooden shaft meant it was more affordable than the sword, while its impressive length – up to two or even three meters – gave it an unparalleled range in close combat.
One notable type of spear, known as an atgeir, was held by Gunnar Hámundarson and lovingly described in Njal's saga.
According to the saga, when taken in hand, the weapon made a ringing sound in anticipation of the bloodshed to come.
An early 11th-century battle axe, discovered in the grave of a Christian male in Varnhem, Sweden. Photo: Dagjoh / Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)
And the winner is?
The Vikings also had other weapons, of course, including slings, lances, and possibly even crossbows on isolated occasions.
At the same time, the richest of them enjoyed the added protection of chainmail and, in some rare cases, helmets.
The Norsemen also knew how to use siege engines such as catapults and battering rams, which are thought to have been employed by the Vikings during the Siege of Paris in 885 - 886.
There is also a good case to be made for longships, which, with their narrow and deep keels, were the perfect tools for carrying out surprise attacks and sailing on long European rivers. So which is the best?
For us, while the Viking sword was arguably the most deadly, it's difficult not to look beyond the iconic battle axe.
Though perhaps the real answer is that it's not the weapon you hold in your hand that counts, but how you wield it.
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