The Vikings were explorers, traders, and pioneers, but their culture revolved around warfare. Starting in 793 with the violent raid at the abbey on Lindisfarne in northern England, Viking marauders plagued Europe with raids on coastal settlements for three hundred years. It was not until 1066 that the age of Viking dominance came to an end with the defeat of Harald Hadrada, following his invasion of England.
The popular image of the Viking warrior has him wearing a horned or winged helmet and wielding a short, double-bladed sword. Though the horned helmet is a myth, the Vikings did use swords in battle, when they could afford them. Scandinavian metallurgy was advanced enough to produce durable, flexible blades, but swords were expensive and often only wealthy Vikings owned them. Axes and spears were the weapons of choice for commoners unable to afford a sword.
The Vikings were only loosely organized in the era’s early years. Their society was self-regulating and chieftains usually did not interfere with neighboring villages. An individual wealthy enough to own a longship organized raids and gathered nearby warriors for the expeditions. Often without formal military structure or a consistent standard of arms, raiding parties were little more than groups of armed bandits led by the local chieftain (and owner of the longship, in most cases).
Thus, the presence of swords largely depended on the quality of the local blacksmiths and the wealth of the warriors. It is possible that some entire Viking parties had not a single sword among them, armed instead with cheaper weapons like axes. However, it is likely that warriors wealthy enough to participate in an expedition would own swords. Any wealth accumulated on the raid could also be used to purchase swords for future raids.
The traditional Viking short sword traces its origin to the Roman gladius, also known as a spatha. Roman expansion into northern Europe meant that local tribes acquired many examples of the Roman weapon. Migrating tribes carried these into Scandinavia, and smiths eventually developed designs of their own, based on the Roman prototypes.
Typical Viking swords were between 24 and 36 inches long, though later designs were as long as 40 inches. The weight was typically between 2 and 4 pounds, balanced a few inches from the hilt. Compared to later medieval swords, Viking swords were wide and designed for cutting and slashing. Thrusting (a favored tactic with Roman soldiers) does not appear in historical sources to have been the Viking preference.
Viking swords were suitably short for the kind of warfare the Vikings waged. Lacking space on longships, maneuvering in close quarters, and thriving on speed, Viking warriors needed weapons that matched their style of combat, and sword designs evolved to meet their needs.
Viking warriors came from a culture extolling the virtues of strength and stoic determination in battle. Skill and cunning were encouraged, and great respect was given to the warrior who defeated his foes through sheer power. Warriors did not attempt to bludgeon through their opponent’s defenses with a barrage of blind strikes until an opening was created. Instead, they sought to press a relentless offense in battle, trying to keep their opponents on the defensive. It took great physical endurance to maintain such a ferocious assault, especially when combined with skillful blade maneuvering. Viking Berserkers epitomized this combat philosophy, and before battle would drive themselves into a fury to heighten their energy and stamina.
A number of Icelandic sagas record how swords cut through entire limbs, and certainly Viking swords were powerful enough for the task despite occasional exaggeration in heroic stories. Among the colorful names Vikings gave their swords are “leg-biter” and “foot-biter,” indicating that the lower limbs were viable targets in combat. A cut to the ankle or foot would often result in defeat to the wounded warrior, so debilitating was the strike.
The Viking sword fell from prominence with the end of the Viking age. As mounted warfare became more prevalent, especially during and after the Battle of Hastings in 1066, short swords became secondary weapons for common soldiers. Knights adapted longer, narrower swords that were better suited for armored combat. Nevertheless, the Viking sword holds its place in history as an ideal weapon for a turbulent age.