Viking Age Arms and Armor
Other Viking Weapons
Other weapons are mentioned in the sagas and other sources. In general, we don’t know what they were, and the old Icelandic words are translated differently by different sources. Examples from the period are not known to exist (although one wonders if there is an unrecognized lump of rusty iron on some museum’s shelf that was once one of these weapons).
The atgeirr was Gunnar Hámundarson’s preferred weapon in Brennu-Njáls saga and is usually translated as “halberd” (although sometimes as “bill” or “javelin”). In addition to using it as a weapon, Gunnar routinely vaulted onto the back of his horse using his atgeirr. The saga text suggests that the weapon could be used both for thrusting and cutting.
From the way Gunnar uses his atgeirr in the saga, one wonders if it might have been like a glaive, a pole weapon used in the later middle ages. Three 16th century glaives are shown in the photo to the left.
Gunnar’s atgeirr is thought to lie at the bottom of Breiđafjörđur off the point of land called Skor (right), lost in a shipwreck in the 18th century.
Egill used a kesja on several occasions (such as in chapter 58 of Egils saga), translated as “halberd”. In chapter 2 of Gisla saga, Gisli used a höggspjót, also translated as “halberd”. One source suggests that atgeirr, kesja, and höggspjót all refer to the same weapon, but we don’t know what it might have been.
In chapter 66 of Grettis saga, a giant used a fleinn against Grettir, usually translated as “pike”. The weapon is also called a heftisax, a word not otherwise known in the saga literature. The saga says that the weapon had a wooden shaft and was equally suited for striking or stabbing.
In chapter 30 of Harđar saga og Hólmverja, Hörđur threw a gaflak (javelin) at a man, killing him. In chapter 53 of Egils saga is a detailed description of a brynţvari (mail scraper), usually translated as “halberd”. It had a rectangular blade two ells (1m) long, but the wooden shaft measured only a hand’s length. The word bryntröll (mail troll) is also used, translated as “halberd”. In chapter 37 of Laxdćla saga, Hrútr struck Eldgrímr between the shoulders with a bryntröll, splitting his mail and cutting through Eldgrím’s body.
So little is known of the brynklungr (mail bramble) that it is usually translated merely as “weapon”. Similarly, sviđa is sometimes translated as “sword” and sometimes as “halberd”. In chapter 58 of Eyrbyggja saga, Ţórir threw his sviđa at Óspakr, hitting him in the leg. Óspakr pulled the weapon out of the wound and threw it back, killing another man.
Rocks were often used as missiles in a fight. These effective and readily available weapons discouraged one’s opponents from closing the distance to fight with conventional weapons, and they could be lethal weapons in their own right. Prior to the battle described in chapter 44 of Eyrbyggja saga, Steinţórr chose to retreat to the rockslide on the hill at Geirvör (left), where his men would have a ready supply of stones to throw down at Snorri gođi and his men.
Búi Andríđsson never carried a weapon other than his sling, which he tied around himself. He used the sling with lethal results on many occasions.
Búi was ambushed by Helgi and Vakr and ten other men on the hill called Orrustuhóll (battle hill, the smaller hill in the foreground in the photo), as described in chapter 11 of Kjalnesinga saga. By the time Búi’s supply of stones ran out, he had killed four of his ambushers.
A speculative reconstruction of using stones as missiles in battle is shown in this Viking combat demonstration video, part of a longer fight.
Some sources suggest that Vikings used machines to hurl their missiles. For example, when writing about the Viking sieges of Paris, Abbo Cernuus, a monk and an eyewitness to the events, wrote that the Danish invaders used siege engines and ballistae to hurl poisoned darts, javelins, and stones. I, like some other students of the period, remain highly skeptical of the use of these kind of machines by Vikings. There are many reasons to discount the writings of Abbo and other clerics who may have used familiar Latin words to describe unfamiliar Viking weapons and tactics.
Some 20th century scholars have suggested that most large Viking war ships were equipped with catapults. They estimate the machines were capable of throwing stones 3-10kg (about 5-20lbs) a distance of 300 m (about 0.2 miles). Again, I remain skeptical. Large Viking warships have been found, but archaeological evidence for these kind of machines is absent. Nor is there any discussion of their use in the saga literature, despite some detailed description of naval battles, notably in the kings’ sagas. During the battles, rocks were thrown, arrows fired, and spears and other missiles hurled, but nothing in the literature suggests that any mechanism was used to send them on their way.
An exception is the throwing strings (snćrisspjót) used to launch spears, described in the article on spears.
Additionally, Eiríks saga rauđa (chapter 11) says that the skrćlingjar, the native Americans in Vínland, used valslöngur to unleash a barrage of unspecified missiles on the Greenlanders. The word is often translated as “catapult”, but more likely refers to a hand-sling, a weapon known from other sources to have been used by native Americans.
Thor picture stone
Some modern fantasy sources suggest that Vikings used war hammers in battle, perhaps inspired by Ţór’s hammer, Mjöllnir. Evidence for the use of hammers as weapons in the Viking age is negligible. Even Ţór’s hammer, often used to crush the skulls of giants, is described in poetry and shown in contemporary pictorial sources to be more like a blacksmith’s hammer, not particular well-suited for combat. An 11th century picture stone (left) illustrates the story of Ţórr fishing for the Miðgarð serpent, with his foot through the bottom of the boat, and his hammer raised high.