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Viking Age Arms and Armor
The Shape of Viking Combat

shape of Viking combat

The phrase Shape of Combat is used to describe the nature of a fight. As was written in earlier articles in this series, no one knows what the shape of Viking combat was like, so we are forced to use many sources to create a speculative reconstruction.

Many people think Viking combat took the form of two big, hairy men, taking turns delivering massive blows to one another's shields, attempting to force their way through their opponents' defense as if they were chopping down a tree.

Some people think Viking combat took the form of the sophisticated, technique-driven devices as taught in the later medieval combat treatises, in which fighters used complex tricks to work their way past their opponents' defenses.

Neither of these approaches result in combat that matches the shape of the fights described in the sagas (which we believe accurately represent Viking-age fights).

We believe that shape was molded by the mindset of the Viking-age fighter: his warrior code. These unwritten beliefs were carried in his heart and guided his behavior in battle, as well as in everyday life. The sagas give us many examples of admired behavior and despised behavior that help to reveal that mindset. The eddic poetry, notably Hvaml, make that mindset even more clear.

Many kinds of fighters appear in the sagas: heroes and cowards, bullies and berserkers. Many of them are capable fighters. They seem to be familiar with weapons and ready to use them effectively. These different kinds of fighters use their weapons in similar ways.

They are direct, aggressive, efficient, and clever. They seize the initiative to take control of the fight. They do what is necessary to get the job done, when it is necessary to do it, using whatever tools are available. And so, they use clever and improvisational moves. They draw upon hidden weapons or reserve weapons as needed. They improvise weapons out of countless everyday objects that are at hand, using them in preference to conventional weapons at times when the improvised weapon has an advantage. They throw their weapons away, if that has an advantage. They use their weapons in unexpected ways.

There are not a lot of moves or techniques described in the sagas. Perhaps Viking-age fighters used only a small number of moves. But clearly, they used them well, completing the job efficiently. They improvised as needed, doing the unexpected when it gave them an advantage. They used a cloak, or a stick, or a stone, or a boat oar as a weapon. They pulled down their opponent's trousers to gain the split-second advantage needed for a killing blow (Fstbrra saga, ch. 23).

Power and speed were important to a successful Viking-age fighter, but so was mental prowess. It's worth remembering that poetry and combat were thought to be related. Both were gifts from inn, the greatest of the gods. Both required extraordinary improvisational skills, and the sagas suggest that some of the best fighters were also the best poets, including Egill Skalla-Grmsson, Kormkr gmundarson, Gunnlaugr ormstunga (serpent-tongue), and Hallfrer vandraskld (troublesome poet).

Additionally, while it was important to dominate physically to win the fight, it was also important to win honor as well, through physical symbols of shame, insulting taunts and curses, and through shaming strokes (klmhgg) such as a stroke across the buttocks (Bjarnar saga Htdlakappa, ch. 32).

The belief that the moment of death was predestined meant that Viking-age fighters were likely to continue fighting in the face of overwhelming odds, and despite injuries and wounds. After zurr ran Helgi through with his spear, Helgi continued to walk up the spear shaft in order to reach zurr with his sword (Droplaugarsona saga, ch. 10).

Rather than attempting a text description of the shape of Viking combat, we have created several short videos that illustrate combat moves described in the sagas. We believe these videos give a better sense of the shape of Viking combat than any text description.

Sword and shield versus two-handed axe

Some of the moves illustrated include:

  • thrusting with the horn of the axe: Grnlendinga ttur, ch. 5

...en Kolbeinn snaraist vi honum og stakk fram xarhyrnunni og kom barkann ri og hafi hann egar bana.

Kolbeinn sidestepped rur and jabbed the horn of his axe into rur's throat and that was his death.

  • hooking a shield with a weapon: orskfiringa saga, ch. 10

Askmaur skopar um hi ytra og vildi krkja af honum skjldinn.

Askmaur ran around him and wanted to hook his shield off him.

  • tossing away a sword, running under to grapple, and throwing an opponent down: Hvarar saga sfirings, ch.21

Atli sr a eigi mun svo bi hla, kastar san sverinu og hleypur undir orgrm og rekur hann niur vi vllinn.

Atli saw he was making no progress. He threw away his sword and slipped under orgrmur's guard and threw him to the ground.

  • throwing a man down and killing him with a sax (short-sword): Grettis saga, ch. 56 (and many others)

Fann hann eigi fyrr en Grettir tk hann upp yfir hfu sr og fri niur svo hart a saxi hraut r hendi honum og fkk Grettir teki a og hafi ekki ora vi hann og hj egar hfu af honum og lauk svo hans vi.

Grettir lifted him up above his head and threw him down so hard that he lost his grip on the sax. Grettir took the sax and without a word, cut off his head and ended his life.


Spear and sword versus sword and shield

Some of the moves illustrated include:

  • hanging a sword from the wrist while using a spear: Egils saga, ch. 58

Egill var ar fyrir runninum en engi bjrn og er hann s hvar Berg-nundur var br hann sverinu en ar var hnk mealkaflanum og dr hann hana hnd sr og lt ar hanga. Hann tk hnd sr kesjuna og rann fram mt Berg-nundi.

But it was Egill and not a bear that was hiding in the bushes, and when he saw Berg-nundur, he drew his sword. There was a loop on the hilt which he drew over his hand to let the sword hang there. He took his spear in his hand and rushed towards Berg-nundur.

  • fighting with a spear in one hand and a sword in the other: Brennu-Njls saga, ch. 146

Hann hafi spjt annarri hendi en annarri sver en engan skjld.

He had a spear in one hand and a sword in the other, but no shield.

  • jumping over an incoming spear thrust to deliver an attack: Eyrbyggja saga, ch. 45

En er etta var tinda lagi Freysteinn bfi til Steinrs og stefndi hann mijan. En er hann s a hljp hann loft upp og kom lagi milli fta honum Eftir etta hj hann til Freysteins me sverinu og kom hlsinn og brast vi htt.

Freysteinn bfi lunged at Steinrr aiming for his middle. But when he saw this, Steinrr leapt into the air and the spear passed between his legs After that, he struck at Freysteinn with his sword, and the blow landed on his neck and made a loud noise.


Two swords versus improvised weapons

A man armed with two swords attacks another man who is preoccupied with his clothing and who has foolishly left his weapons out of reach. The foolish man responds to the attack using improvised weapons and shows his fighting skills more than make up for his lack of weapons. Some of the moves illustrated include:

  • hearing the noise of the weapon slicing the air: Eyrbyggja saga, ch. 36

orleifur tk hana upp og reiddi skjtt yfir hfu sr og hugi a setja hfu Arnkatli. En er Arnkell heyri hvininn hljp hann undir hggi

orleifur picked it up and lifted it quickly up above his head, intending to bring it down on Arnkell's head. But when Arnkel heard the whistling sound of the weapon through the air, he ducked under the blow.

  • picking up an improvised weapon: Svarfdla saga, ch. 5

Greip hann sstubba einn og barist me.

He grabbed the stump of a log and fought with it.

  • using two swords, one in each hand: Droplaugarsona saga, ch. 15

Grmur hafi tv sver v a Gaus kunni a deyfa eggjar. Grmur v jafnt bum hndum. Hann br upp sveri me vinstri hendi en hj me hinni hgri til Gauss og af ftinn fyrir ofan kn.

Grmur had two swords, because Gaus knew how to blunt sword-edges. Grmur fought equally well with both hands. He raised one sword with his left hand and struck with the right at Gaus, taking off one of his legs above the knee.

  • using a cloak to make a sword ineffectual: Finnboga saga ramma, ch. 39

Finnbogi spratt upp mti og br feldinum a sverinu og snarai a honum egar.

he sprang up to meet him, throwing his cloak on the sword and instantly twisting towards him.

  • using a sword two-handed: Egils saga, ch. 66

Og er skjldur Atla var mjg nttur kastai hann honum, tk sveri tveim hndum og hj sem tast.

When Atli's shield was split right through, he tossed it away, took his sword in both hands and hacked away with all his might.

  • kill with the edge of a shield: Bjarnar saga Htdlakappa, ch. 32

reif Bjrn spor skjaldarins hinni hendinni og rak hfu ri svo a hann fkk egar bana.

Then Bjrn grasped the bottom of the shield with his other hand and drove it into rur's head so that he was killed at once.


Sax and shield versus one-handed axe and improvised weapons

Some of the moves illustrated include:

  • throwing stones during a fight: Kjalnesinga saga, ch. 11

Bi varist drengilega. Lt hann ganga grjt fyrstu. Var a jafnsnemma a fallnir voru fjrir menn af eim brrum enda hafi Bi loki grjtinu.

Bi defended himself manfully. At first he let fly with stones. By the time he had used up his stones, four of the attackers were dead.

  • a foolish man attacks strongly but becomes timid under a strong counter-attack: Grettis saga, ch. 59

Gretti leiddist n fi og sveipai til saxinu og hj annan fylgdarmann Gsla banahgg og hljp n fr steininum og stti svo fast a Gsli hrkk fyrir allt t me fjallinu.

Grettir grew bored of the irksome fight then. He swung his sax (short-sword) and dealt one of Gsli's companions his death blow, then leapt out from behind the stone and attacked so furiously that Gsli was driven back along the side of the mountain.

  • cleave a man to the shoulders: Hvarar saga sfirings, ch. 10

Hann hljp a me reidda xina og hj hfu Brandi og klauf hann herar niur.

He ran at Brandur with a raised axe and struck him in the head and split it down to his shoulders.


Sax and shield versus spear

Some of the moves illustrated include:

  • attempting to get past a spear: Brennu-Njls saga, ch. 145

Kri Slmundarson kom a ar er fyrir var Bjarni Brodd-Helgason. Kri reif upp spjt og lagi til hans og kom skjldinn. Bjarni skaut hj sr skildinum ella hefi spjti stai gegnum hann. Hann hj til Kra og stefndi ftinn. Kri kippir ftinum og snerist undan hli og missti Bjarni hans.

Kri Slmundarson came up to Bjarni Brodd-Helgason; he grabbed a spear and thrust it at him, and it hit his shield. Bjarni jerked his shield to the side - otherwise the spear would have gone through him. He swung his sword at Kri's leg, but Kri pulled back his leg and turned on his heel, so that Bjarni missed him.

  • kick a shield into an opponent's face: Grettis saga, ch. 40

slr hann fti snum nean undir skjaldarsporinn svo hart a skjldurinn gekk upp munninn svo a rifnai kjafturinn en kjlkarnir hlupu ofan bringuna.

he kicked the bottom of the shield up into his mouth so hard that his face ripped open and his jaws fell down to his chest.

  • a spear pins a man to a snowdrift by his scrotum: Droplaugarsona saga, ch. 10

Og er hann kom skaflinn skaut Helgi Droplaugarson til hans milli ftanna og gegnum kyllinn og fll hann bak aftur en spjti festi skaflinum og hkk hann ar skaflinum allan daginn.

But when he came into the snowdrift, Helgi Droplaugarson hurled a spear between his legs and pierced through the scrotum, and he fell backwards, and the spear stuck fast in the snowdrift, and he hung there on the snowdrift for the whole day.


Surprise attack with a one-handed axe

Some of the moves illustrated include:

  • A surprise attack from behind a cloak: Fstbrra saga ch.22

Og er minnstar vonir voru bregur ormur hggxi undan skikkju sinni og hggur hfu Loini svo a hann fll egar dauur til jarar.

And when it was least expected, ormur drew out an axe from under his cloak and struck at Loinn's head so that he fell to the ground dead.

  • Peace-straps (fribnd) prevent a sword from being drawn: Krka-Refs saga, ch.3

v leggur Refur spjtinu orbjrn mijan. Fll orbjrn bak aftur og gat ekki brugi sverinu. Var a og fribent enda bar brum a.

At that instant, Refur thrust his spear through orbjrn's middle. orbjrn fell backwards. He had not been able to draw his sword because the peace straps were fastened.

  • Strike with the pommel: Vatnsdla saga, ch.32

Jkull spratt upp og hljp a honum, laust milli heranna Bergi me hjltunum svo a hann fll vi fram.

Jkull sprang up and leapt at Bergur, and struck him between the shoulder-blades with his pommel so that he fell flat on his face.

  • Dragging an opponent by the hair: rar saga hreu, ch.10

San tk hann hr honum og kippti honum fram stokkinn og hj af honum hfui.

He grabbed him by the hair, dragged him to the bedstead and chopped his head off.

  • Breaking the neck to quiet down an unruly opponent: Finnboga saga ramma, ch.40

Finnbogi snarar san hfu hans og brtur bak aftur og linast hann heldur vi slkar byxingar.

Finnbogi snapped his head back, breaking his neck. With such rough treatment, orbjrn quieted down considerably.


Spear versus sword and shield

Some of the moves illustrated include:

  • Catching a spear in flight and flinging it back: Brennu-Njls saga, ch.54

Gunnar tk lofti spjti og skaut aftur egar og fl gegnum skjldinn og austmanninn

Gunnar caught the spear in the air and threw it back and it went through the shield and the Norwegian

  • Falling sideways to avoid a spear: Brennu-Njls saga, ch.38

reif Atli spjti og skaut eftir honum. Brynjlfur kastai sr niur vi vellinum en spjti flaug yfir hann fram.

Atli grabbed his spear and threw it at him. Brynjlfur threw himself to the ground, and the spear passed over him.

  • Cutting the leg tendons: Kormks saga, ch.16

Halldr komst bak Vala og beitir hsinar honum Hvtingi.

Halldr got at Vali from behind and used [the sword] Hvting on his leg tendons.


Spear throw followed by grappling

Some of the moves illustrated include:

  • Pulling the nail from a spear to prevent it from being returned: Grettis saga, ch.48

Hann settist niur og drap r geirnaglann v a hann vildi eigi a orbjrn mtti aftur senda.

He sat down and removed the rivet from the shaft, to prevent rbjrn from throwing the spear back at him.

  • A grappling throw from behind: Krka-Refs saga, ch.5

En er Gellir linar skninni tekur Refur undir brklindahaldi Gelli annarri hendi en annarri milli heranna og sktur honum klakann stund fr sr. Koma niur Gelli olbogarnir

But when Gellir went at him less strongly, Refur grasped Gellir with one hand on his belt and the other between his shoulder-blades and threw him onto the frozen ground a short distance off. Gellir came down on his elbows

  • Using the helmet to manipulate the head: Grettis saga, ch.40

Hann hafi allt eitt atrii a hann reif hjlminn vinstri hendi og svipti vkinginum af baki

In a single movement, he grabbed the berserk's helmet with his left hand and dashed him from his horse


Axes with grappling

Some of the moves illustrated include:

  • An axe gets stuck after a blow: Vatnsdla saga, ch.39

Og er hann heyri a xin aut veik hann sr hj dyrunum en rir hj sinn er fram tk r vindskeiunum og st xin ar fst

And when he heard the axe whistling, he got himself through the doorway and rir's blow hit the beam and the axe stuck fast in the beam

  • Using the shield two-handed: Laxdla saga, ch.55

En er Bolli sr a kastar hann sverinu en tk skjldinn tveim hndum

When Bolli saw this, he threw down his sword and took his shield in both hands

  • Throwing the shield at an opponent: Brennu-Njls saga, ch.92

Tjrvi renndi fyrir hann trgu og stejai hann yfir upp og stst

Tjrvi threw a shield at him, but he leaped over it and landed smoothly

  • Use of a wrestling stone (fanghella): Gunnars saga Keldugnpsffls, ch.7

anga brust eir a svo a ftur Gunnars nmu helluna. sleppti Gunnar eim tkum sem hann hafi ur haldi en tk bum hndum axlir honum en hljp sjlfur fugur upp yfir helluna og v kippti Gunnar a sr blmanninum svo snggt a hann tk sundur tvo hluti vi hellunni.

They struggled across the field until Gunnar's feet touched the slab of stone, when he released his hold, took the black man by both shoulders and leaped over the stone backwards. As he did so, Gunnar jerked the black man towards himself so suddenly that he split in half across the stone.

Many more examples of fighting moves from the sagas are used to illustrate the remaining Viking arms and armor articles on the Hurstwic site. In addition, we have created a DVD that demonstrates and teaches 19 fighting moves and tactics taken from the pages of the sagas.

The sagas show an aggressive, direct fighting approach using simple moves, along with clever moves and spur-of-the-moment improvisation as needed to overcome an opponent's defense. It is this shape that we believe defines Viking-age combat.

Hurstwic Viking combat training DVD

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