What Did Viking Armor Look Like?

Viking Armor

Vikings, the infamous Norse seafarers, left an indelible mark on history as they embarked on conquests and expeditions from the late eighth to the early eleventh century. From Northern Europe, the Vikings traveled to various parts of the world, leaving a trail of stories and legends that still captivate us today. The powerful Viking warriors were known not only for their fearlessness and ferocity in battle but also for their striking and functional armor. This article delves into the appearance of historical Viking armor and its various elements, providing insights into medieval Viking attire and the significance of authentic Viking armor.

What Did the Vikings Actually Wear?

The Vikings’ daily attire was heavily influenced by their Scandinavian environment and the materials available to them. Their clothing was primarily made of wool, linen, and animal skins, designed to provide warmth and durability.

Men typically wore a tunic, which was a long-sleeved, knee-length garment. The tunic was worn over trousers or leggings, usually made from wool. The waist was fastened with a belt, which also served as a place to hang tools or weapons. During colder weather, Vikings would layer their clothing, adding a cloak or a fur-lined coat for extra warmth. Their footwear consisted of simple leather shoes or boots, often stuffed with straw or grass for insulation.

Women’s attire was similar, with a long woolen dress as the main garment. The dress was worn over an ankle-length linen shift, which acted as an undergarment. Women’s dresses were fastened at the shoulders with a pair of brooches, often decorated with intricate patterns or designs. Like the men, women wore a cloak or shawl during colder months and donned leather shoes or boots for footwear.

Accessories were an essential part of Viking attire. Both men and women wore various types of jewelry, including rings, bracelets, and necklaces made from silver, bronze, or glass beads. These accessories served as adornments and reflected the wearer’s wealth and status. Moreover, the Vikings wore head coverings, such as caps or hoods, for additional warmth and protection against the elements.

What Armor Did Vikings Actually Wear?

When it comes to Viking armor, it’s essential to separate popular myth from historical fact. The Viking warriors, known for their fierce reputation and maritime prowess, actually wore practical and functional armor that offered adequate protection during battles and raids.

Contrary to popular belief, Viking helmets did not feature horns, which would have been highly impractical during combat. Instead, the most common type of Viking helmet was the Spangenhelm, a simple, rounded cap made of iron, often with additional padding from cloth or leather. This helmet design also included a nose guard or nasal, which extended down from the forehead to protect the warrior’s face.

Viking body armor primarily consisted of a mail shirt, known as a byrnie. Made from thousands of interlocking iron rings, the byrnie provided excellent protection against slashing and cutting attacks. In addition to the mail, Vikings sometimes wore padded leather armor called gambesons beneath the byrnie. This extra layer provided cushioning and absorbed some of the impact from blows while offering additional protection against arrows and thrusting attacks.

Shields played a crucial role in Viking defense, as they were large and round, made from wooden planks, and reinforced with a central iron boss. The boss provided extra strength to the shield and functioned as a hand grip, allowing the Viking warrior to maintain a secure hold while wielding a weapon.

Historical Viking Armor – Fact Versus Fiction

When discussing historical Viking armor, it’s essential to separate fact from fiction. Many popular cultural portrayals of Vikings, such as television shows and movies, have skewed the public perception of what Viking armor truly looked like. While it is true that Vikings were fierce warriors, much of their armor was less ornate and more practical than what is commonly depicted in modern media.

Fiction: Horned Helmets

One of the most iconic and enduring images associated with Vikings is that of a warrior wearing a helmet adorned with large horns. This myth has been perpetuated by numerous films, books, and artwork, but no historical evidence supports the idea that Vikings wore horned helmets in battle. Horned helmets would have been highly impractical and dangerous for the wearer, as they could easily get entangled or provide opponents with a convenient handhold.

Fact: Spangenhelm

The most common type of helmet worn by Vikings was the Spangenhelm, a simple, rounded cap made from iron. It often included additional padding for comfort and a nose guard to protect the face. The Spangenhelm provided adequate protection without hindering the warrior’s mobility and vision on the battlefield.

Fiction: Elaborate Plate Armor

Another common misconception is that Vikings wore intricate plate armor, similar to medieval knights. In reality, plate armor was not in use during the Viking Age and was not a part of Viking armor.

Fact: Mail Shirts and Padded Armor

Vikings predominantly relied on mail shirts called byrnies for their body armor. These mail shirts consisted of thousands of interlocking iron rings, effectively protecting against slashing and cutting attacks. Vikings sometimes wore padded leather armor called gambesons beneath their mail shirts for added cushioning and protection.

Fiction: Highly Decorated Shields

While Viking shields were indeed often painted, the idea that they were covered in intricate designs and decorations is largely a product of modern imagination. Viking shields were primarily functional, made from wooden planks and reinforced with a central iron boss.

Fact: Round Wooden Shields

Viking shields were typically round or slightly oval and made from wooden planks. The shields were bound with a leather or rawhide rim and featured a central iron boss, providing extra strength and a handgrip. Their primary purpose was to provide defense during combat and protect the warrior from incoming attacks.

By understanding the historical facts about Viking armor, we can appreciate their battle gear’s practical and functional aspects. The Viking Age was marked by innovation and adaptability, which is evident in the design and effectiveness of their armor. Dispelling popular myths allows for a more accurate representation of Viking culture and, in turn, a better understanding of their legacy.

Did Vikings Use Scale Armor?

There is little evidence to suggest that Vikings used scale armor extensively. Scale armor consists of small scales attached to a backing material, usually made of leather or cloth, to create a flexible, protective covering. While scale armor was used in various cultures and regions throughout history, it does not appear to have been a common choice among the Vikings.

Most of the available evidence points to the fact that the primary type of body armor used by Vikings was the mail shirt, known as a byrnie. Made from thousands of interlocking iron rings, the byrnie offered effective protection against slashing and cutting attacks while remaining relatively flexible and lightweight. In addition to the mail shirt, Vikings occasionally wore padded leather armor called gambesons, which provided extra cushioning and protection.

Some Vikings may have come across scale armor during their travels and raids, as they encountered various cultures with different armor styles. Yet, given the lack of archaeological evidence and historical accounts supporting the widespread use of scale armor among the Vikings, it is reasonable to conclude that it was not a typical component of Viking armor. Instead, they relied on mail shirts, padded armor, and sturdy wooden shields for their protection in battle.

Medieval Viking Armor – Components and Materials

The Medieval Viking armor can be broken down into several key components: helmet, body armor, and shields. This section will delve into each component, examining the materials used and the overall design.

Helmets: Protecting the Head

Unlike the popular image of a horned helm, the Viking helmet was simple and functional. They were typically made from iron and occasionally covered with leather or padded cloth for added protection. The most common Viking helmet design was the “Spangenhelm,” which featured a rounded cap and a nose guard, also known as a “nasal.”

Body Armor: Defending the Torso

The most common form of body armor for the Viking warrior was a mail shirt, known as a “byrnie.” Byrnies were made from interlocking iron rings and provided high protection against cuts and slashes. Vikings sometimes wore padded leather armor, referred to as “gambesons,” beneath the mail for extra cushioning.

Shields: Blocking Blows

Shields were an essential component of Viking armor. They were usually made from wooden planks and reinforced with a central iron boss. The boss acted as a hand grip, allowing the Viking to hold the shield while still having the freedom to wield a weapon.

The Importance of Accuracy of Authentic Viking Armor 

Understanding the appearance of authentic Viking armor is crucial when studying the Viking culture and its military tactics. Accurate representations of Viking armor help historians and archaeologists better understand the intricacies of Viking warfare and the lifestyle of these renowned seafarers. For enthusiasts and reenactors, authentic armor ensures the Viking legacy is honored and preserved correctly.

A Formidable Combination of Viking Weapons and Armor

In addition to their armor, Viking warriors carried an array of weapons, including swords, axes, and spears. These weapons, combined with their well-designed armor, made them a formidable force on the battlefield. Each weapon played a vital role in Viking combat, with the long-handled battle-axe being a favorite due to its versatility and power. Swords were a status symbol, often adorned with ornate decorations and precious materials, while spears were a common weapon for all warriors.

How Did the Vikings Make Their Weapons and Armour?

The Vikings made their weapons and armor using a combination of craftsmanship, skill, and resources available in their region. Their ability to forge metal, shape wood, and work with leather contributed to the effectiveness of their weapons and armor. Here is an overview of the process for creating Viking weapons and armor:

  1. Metalworking: Vikings forged their weapons and armor primarily from iron, which was abundant in the Scandinavian region. Skilled blacksmiths would extract iron from bog ore or import it from other regions, then heat it in a charcoal-fueled forge. The heated iron would become malleable, allowing the blacksmith to shape it using hammers, anvils, and other tools. High-quality weapons, such as swords, often had a steel edge, which was harder and held a sharper edge compared to iron.
  2. Crafting weapons: Viking blacksmiths would shape weapons like swords, axes, and spearheads using the same forging technique. They repeatedly hammer and fold the hot metal to create strong, durable blades. Once shaped, the blades would be ground and sharpened. Sword hilts, axe handles, and spear shafts were often made from wood and sometimes decorated with intricate designs or inlaid with precious metals to showcase the owner’s wealth and status.
  3. Creating armor: To make a mail shirt or byrnie, blacksmiths would craft thousands of tiny iron rings by wrapping a heated iron wire around a rod, cutting the resulting coil into individual rings, and hammering them flat. These rings would be interlocked in a specific pattern, with every ring connecting to four others. The blacksmiths would rivet or weld the rings closed, making the mail shirt strong and durable. Helmets were forged using similar techniques to shape the metal and assembled with rivets.
  4. Crafting shields: Viking shields were primarily made from wood, using planks of lime, fir, or alder. These planks were carefully cut and arranged edge-to-edge in a circular or slightly oval shape. A craftsman would then bind the shield with a leather or rawhide rim, reinforcing its structure. The central iron boss would be forged separately and then riveted to the wooden shield, providing added strength and a handgrip.
  5. Leatherwork: Vikings used leather to create padding for their armor, such as gambesons, as well as for straps, belts, and scabbards. Leatherworkers would prepare the hides using tanning and curing techniques, then cut and sew the pieces into the desired shapes and sizes.

Traditional Viking Armor – Adapting to Different Environments

Viking expeditions took them to various climates and terrains, from Scandinavia’s cold, harsh lands to the warmer regions of Southern Europe and the Middle East. The adaptability of traditional Viking armor allowed them to thrive in these diverse environments. The flexible mail and padded gambeson provided protection and mobility, ensuring the Viking warriors could move comfortably and efficiently, regardless of the environment.

How Thick Was Viking Armor?

The thickness of Viking armor varied depending on the type of armor and the materials used. As mentioned previously, the primary kind of body armor used by Vikings was the mail shirt or byrnie, made from thousands of interlocking iron rings.

The thickness of individual rings in a Viking mail shirt could vary but typically ranged from 1 mm to 2 mm. These rings were often between 6 mm to 10 mm in diameter, providing flexibility and movement while maintaining effective protection. When a mail shirt is made up of many thousands of these small, overlapping rings, it creates a durable and robust protective layer against slashing and cutting attacks.

Vikings sometimes wore padded leather armor or gambesons beneath their mail shirts for additional cushioning and protection. The thickness of these gambesons could also vary, but they were usually made from multiple layers of linen or wool, adding several millimeters of padding.

Viking helmets were made from iron, and their thickness depended on the metalworking technique and materials available to the individual blacksmith. Viking helmets could have a thickness ranging from 1 mm to 3 mm, with some higher-quality helmets having a more even thickness distribution for better overall protection.

Shields, another essential part of Viking armor, were constructed from wooden planks, often with a central iron boss for reinforcement. The thickness of Viking shields could range from 6 mm to 12 mm, depending on the size and quality of the shield.

How Did the Vikings Prevent Swords from Slipping Out of Their Hands?

The Vikings employed several techniques and design features to prevent their swords from slipping out of their hands during combat. These features ensured a secure grip and effective weapon handling:

  1. Hilt Design: Viking sword hilts were designed to provide a comfortable and secure grip. The handle consisted of a crossguard, grip, and pommel. The crossguard, which extended horizontally from the blade, served to protect the wielder’s hand from an opponent’s weapon sliding down the blade. The pommel, a weighted piece at the end of the grip, provided balance and acted as a counterweight to the blade, making the sword easier to wield.
  2. Grip Material: The grip of a Viking sword was often made of wood or bone and then wrapped with leather, cord, or metal wire. The wrapping materials created a textured surface that improved friction, making the grip less likely to slip during combat. Additionally, the grip’s shape could be slightly contoured or tapered to fit comfortably in hand, enhancing the overall handling of the sword.
  3. Gloves: Vikings may have worn leather gloves to improve their grip on their weapons further. The gloves provided additional friction between the hand and the sword grip, reducing the chances of slippage. Moreover, gloves offered protection against blisters and calluses from extended use of the weapon.
  4. Combat Techniques: Vikings practiced various combat techniques emphasizing control and efficient weapon handling. They were trained to maintain a firm yet flexible grip on their swords to prevent them from slipping while allowing for fluid movement and strikes. The way a Viking warrior held and wielded the sword played a crucial role in preventing it from slipping during combat.

These combined design features and practices allowed Viking warriors to maintain a secure grip on their swords during battle, ensuring they could fight effectively and confidently without the risk of losing their weapons.

Protection and Style of Male Viking Armor

The male Viking armor was not only practical but also reflected their status and personal tastes. Wealthier warriors often had intricately decorated helmets and swords, demonstrating their rank and power. Some Viking warriors adorned their armor with silver or bronze fittings, adding a touch of style and prestige to their battle gear.

Viking Armor Names – An Insight Into Viking Culture

Viking armor components had their unique names, reflecting the importance of each piece in their culture. Here are some Viking armor names and their corresponding features:

  1. Spangenhelm: The rounded cap helmet with a nasal guard, commonly worn by Viking warriors.
  2. Byrnie: The mail shirt that offered protection against slashes and cuts.
  3. Gambeson: The padded leather armor worn beneath the mail for additional cushioning.
  4. Skjoldr: The round shield made from wooden planks, with a central iron boss for reinforcement and grip.

A Lasting Legacy of Viking Armor

Viking armor remains a fascinating subject of study, as it highlights the innovation and adaptability of the Viking warriors. The combination of functional and stylish elements in their armor demonstrates their commitment to both practicality and status. By understanding the appearance and significance of historical Viking armor, we can truly appreciate the legacy these formidable Norse seafarers left behind.

In summary, Viking armor consisted of functional and adaptable components, such as the Spangenhelm helmet, the mail shirt byrnie, and the versatile wooden shield. These elements, combined with their diverse weaponry, made the Viking warriors a fearsome force on the battlefield. By accurately representing the armor of the Vikings, historians, and enthusiasts can better understand their culture, warfare tactics, and the significance of this iconic warrior class.