Vikings had a fierce reputation as skillful in melee combat and would often use everything and anything at their disposal, even less glamorous weapons - like a sling.
Yet don't judge this underrated weapon too soon as its versatility, range, and psychological impact belied its small size.
Small arms for not such small arms
Imagine this. You're cast back into about 1000 CE onto a battlefield somewhere in Anglo-Saxon England. Two armies are facing off against each other.
Being a bit of a history nut (as well as a subscriber and regular reader of The Viking Herald), you can easily identify the armies. One side are the Anglo-Saxons English brilliantly spotted by you as, after all, you are in Anglo-Saxon England. Easy enough.
The side a few hundred yards (or meters) away speak an Old Norse tongue and, therefore, must be Viking warriors. Now, being an omnipotent observer, what are the weapons that these mighty Norse ne'er-do-wells are brandishing? Swords? Frankish swords, perhaps?
Whilst not perhaps the coolest or sexiest weapon any sort of pre-modern warrior could wield, slings were an important part of a warrior's weaponry throughout the ages.
Viking warriors, who were perhaps the preeminent naval shock troops of their age, were known to carry and use slings, often with deadly accuracy and effect. So why did Vikings bring a sling to a sword fight?
A cheap and versatile weapon
Long after plucky young David was said to have felled the giant Goliath (according to the holy books of Islam, Christianity, and Judaism), there were Vikings warriors who took the battlefield armed with a sling.
Considering the level of metal, steel, and, you know, sharp pointy things that can kill floating around any early medieval battlefield, a sling may, at first, seem like a curious choice of weapon. Yet the humble sling was one of the most versatile weapons available.
The sling was also incredibly lightweight. This made it much easier to carry, rather than having to lug around a sword or an axe which could weigh up to a few kilograms / several pounds.
Slings may often have been used when more lethal options were not readily available. Illustration: The Viking Herald
Unlike other expensive weapons forged from iron or metals, a sling was also a much cheaper option. No skilled artisan or metalsmith was needed to forge this weapon.
If the weapon was lost, there was no need to fork out a king's ransom to acquire another. Adding to the cheap price factor was that the ammunition it required was, literally, lying on the ground.
Small stones and other rocky objects were readily available throughout the natural environment, making them accessible everywhere the Vikings raided and battled.
Viking slings: Small weapon, large psychological impact
Whilst the Vikings operated in an era where any sort of understanding of the drives, fears, and psychology of the human brain was little understood, they still knew a thing or two about how to wage psychological warfare.
Slings were a key part of this effort to scare the enemy and break their resolve and spirit. The sight and sound of projectiles whizzing and whirring overhead, something that could cause significant damage to an opponent's body (imagine getting a rock slung into your eye or nose!), would add another degree of stress to an already high-stress situation.
Furthermore, the sight and sound of these small, but lethal, projectiles could create fear and confusion amongst even the most disciplined armies.
Considering the Vikings had to deal with some of the most technologically and strategically sophisticated armies of their day, from the Byzantines to Abbasid forces, from the Franks to the Anglo-Saxons, Viking warriors needed all the tricks of the trade to get an edge on their supposedly superior foes.
While opponents might be able to fend off an incoming arrow or spear with their sword, small rocks and pebbles, something hard to pick up during battle with the rest of war all around, could do a significant amount of damage to incapacitate and slow down opponents.
Whilst a sling was not, perhaps, the first choice of weapon that a Viking may select preparing for battle, its versatility and size made it a more than adequate supplementary choice.
Whilst the sagas and records regale the Vikings' use of swords and axes along with their skill in hand-to-hand combat, slings may often have been used when more lethal options were not readily available.
Aside from the battlefield, slings were also useful for hunting small game or birds.
For more on the strategy and tactics that many Vikings adopted, visit the National Museum of Denmark website here.
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