What Kind Of Bows Did Vikings Use?

Vikings bows

The Viking Age, a fascinating period that spanned from the late 8th to early 11th century, saw the seafaring Norse people from Scandinavia make their mark on history. Renowned as warriors, traders, and explorers, the Vikings traversed great distances, largely due to their advanced shipbuilding skills and combat prowess. Yet, their success in battle also hinged on their weaponry. In this article, we will delve into one such vital weapon, focusing on Vikings bows and arrows, specifically the Viking longbow.

The Importance of Archery in Viking Culture

Archery held a pivotal role in Viking culture, transcending the boundaries of simple utility and representing an integral part of their societal fabric. Bows and arrows served dual purposes – as warfare and hunting implement tools – which underpinned their importance in Viking life.

In warfare, the Viking longbow was a formidable weapon. It could disrupt enemy formations from afar, create chaos, and inflict severe damage. The strategic value of archery was apparent, and being a skilled archer was a highly respected asset in Viking communities.

In addition to its martial significance, archery was vital for sustenance. Hunting was a primary means of procuring food, and a well-aimed arrow could mean the difference between a successful hunt and an empty table. This reliance on archery for survival further imbued it with cultural significance.

Furthermore, bows and arrows were accessible to most Vikings. Compared to more complex weapons like swords, they were relatively easier and cheaper to produce, democratizing their use across various social strata.

Thus, archery was not just a skill but a lifeline in Viking society, deeply ingrained into their way of life, symbolizing both survival and strength.

What Was a Viking Bow Called?

The primary type of bow used by the Vikings is most commonly referred to as a ‘longbow.’ This name is somewhat of a modern invention, primarily used to differentiate it from other historical bows, such as the short or recurve bow. In the Viking Age, it would have simply been known as a ‘bow’ (or ‘bogi’ in Old Norse), as this was the predominant type in use.

These longbows were characterized by their length, typically equal to the height of the archer, and their relatively simple design. Made from a single piece of wood, often yew but sometimes ash or elm, the bows were shaped into a D-shaped cross-section.

It is also worth mentioning that while ‘longbow’ is a term widely used today, it can sometimes lead to confusion with the English longbow. The English longbow, which gained fame during the Middle Ages, especially in the Hundred Years War, was a different design used several centuries after the Viking Age.

Did Vikings Use Recurve Bows? 

The concept of recurve bows, characterized by their distinctive curve that pulls away from the archer when unstrung, is ancient, dating back thousands of years. Known for their increased power and efficiency, they were popular amongst many civilizations, such as the Mongols, Persians, and Greeks. However, when it comes to the seafaring Vikings, evidence suggests they did not commonly use recurve bows.

The primary evidence for Viking bow usage is from archaeological finds throughout Scandinavia and the Viking settlements. These finds have consistently pointed towards the use of longbows rather than recurve bows. The Viking longbows were simpler in construction, typically made from yew or elm, and had a D-shaped cross-section, quite different from the design of a recurve bow.

This isn’t to say that the Vikings were unaware of the recurve bow’s existence. They likely came across many different bow designs through their extensive travels and interactions with other cultures. Nevertheless, the recurve bow design did not find its place in the primary arsenal of the Vikings, possibly due to the complexity of construction or a preference for the proven efficiency of their longbows.

Ultimately, while the Vikings were known for their adaptability and propensity to adopt beneficial technologies, current archaeological and historical evidence suggests that they did not commonly use recurve bows. Their weapon of choice in archery remained the tried and trusted longbow.

The Viking Longbow: An Overview

Perhaps the most iconic and important type of bow utilized by the Vikings was the longbow. Contrary to popular belief, the term ‘longbow’ doesn’t strictly refer to the length of the bow but its shape and design. A longbow is roughly equal to the user’s height, allowing for long-range shots.

The Viking longbow was a powerful weapon constructed predominantly from yew, a wood known for its flexibility and strength. The bow’s design was simple yet effective, featuring a D-shaped cross-section with the flat side facing the archer. A well-crafted longbow could launch arrows at great distances, making it an advantageous weapon in hunting and combat.

Construction of the Viking Longbow

A Viking longbow was typically between 1.5 to 2 meters long. The bow’s crafting required meticulous attention to detail to ensure its effectiveness. The process entailed removing the tree’s bark and sapwood, leaving the denser heartwood, which provided the necessary resilience and power for the bow.

The bow stave was carefully shaped to ensure the right balance between strength and flexibility. The flat side (the belly) faced the archer and was under compression, while the rounded side (the back) faced away and was under tension. Ensuring the proper distribution of these forces was vital for the bow’s performance.

Arrow Types and Their Usage

Understanding the Vikings’ bows also requires understanding the arrows they used. Vikings crafted various arrows for different purposes, including warfare and hunting. The arrowheads were often made from iron and came in a variety of shapes and sizes, each offering unique advantages.

Broadheads, for instance, were used in warfare for their ability to cause significant injury, while narrower, pointed arrowheads were ideal for hunting as they could penetrate deeply into the prey. These arrowheads were often socketed or tanged, meaning they had a protrusion or a socket that fitted onto the arrow shaft, usually secured with resin or sinew.

Bow Strings and Their Importance

The Viking longbow would have been useless without a well-crafted string. These were typically made from animal sinew, hemp, linen, or even silk. The string needed to be strong yet flexible, capable of withstanding the powerful draw of the longbow.

The Role of the Viking Longbow in Battle

The longbow’s importance in Viking warfare cannot be understated. As an early form of artillery, the longbow was used to disrupt enemy formations from a distance before the main infantry forces engaged. Additionally, the sheer volume of arrows that a group of archers could unleash had a significant psychological impact on the enemy, creating fear and confusion.

Still, the effectiveness of the longbow was heavily reliant on the archer’s skill. Training to use a longbow efficiently took considerable time and practice. A seasoned Viking archer could launch arrows with impressive accuracy, striking fear into the hearts of their enemies.

Archaeological Evidence

Our knowledge of Viking bows and arrows comes from various archaeological finds throughout Scandinavia and areas of Viking influence. Grave goods often included weapons, providing us with insight into Viking archery. One notable discovery at Hedeby, an important Viking Age trading center, uncovered numerous arrowheads, evidencing the importance of archery in Viking society.

Bows in Norse Mythology: Did Odin Have a Bow?

Odin, known as the All-Father in Norse mythology, is one of the most important gods in the Viking pantheon. He is depicted as a god of war, wisdom, poetry, magic, and death, among other things. Despite his association with warfare, the primary weapon Odin is most frequently linked with is not a bow but a spear named Gungnir.

Gungnir, crafted by the dwarves, was a magical spear that was said to never miss its mark, much like an unerringly aimed arrow. Odin wielded this spear in many tales, symbolizing his authority and power.

Although many tales of gods and heroes in Norse mythology use bows and arrows, Odin himself is not typically portrayed with a bow. His son, Ullr, however, was the god associated with archery, among other things. Ullr was said to be such a good archer and skier that no one could compete with him. He used a longbow made from yew and was invoked for help in individual combat.

So while bows and archery held a prominent place in Norse mythology and Viking warfare, Odin, the chief of the gods, is not traditionally depicted as wielding a bow.

Did Valkyries Use Bows?

In Norse mythology, Valkyries, meaning “choosers of the slain,” are female figures associated with Odin. They are known to ride over battlefields, choosing warriors who have died bravely in combat to join Odin in Valhalla, a majestic hall in Asgard.

The depiction of Valkyries varies across different sagas and poems, sometimes appearing as beautiful maidens, other times as fierce warriors. As per historical texts and mythology, the main “weapons” Valkyries are associated with are not physical ones like bows or swords, but their power to choose the slain and their ability to influence the outcome of battles.

On the other hand, in contemporary popular culture, particularly in artwork, literature, and video games, Valkyries are often portrayed as warrior maidens bearing arms, and bows are frequently included in their arsenal. Though not based on historical or mythological texts, this depiction aligns with the more general image of them as warrior figures.

In conclusion, while Valkyries have a significant role in Norse mythology, particularly related to warfare, their traditional association isn’t with bows or other weapons. Instead, they hold a more mystical and symbolic role in the battlefield narrative, choosing who lives and who joins the banquet in the afterlife.

How to Make a Viking Bow? 

Making a Viking bow, specifically a longbow, requires craftsmanship, patience, and a good understanding of traditional woodworking techniques. Here’s a simplified step-by-step guide.

  1. Selection of Wood: The first step is to choose a suitable piece of wood. Yew was preferred for Vikings due to its elasticity and strength, but ash and elm can also be used. The wood should be about 6 feet long (1.8 meters), straight, and free of knots.
  2. Shaping the Bow: The next step involves shaping the wood into a ‘D’ cross-section. This is achieved by removing the wood’s outer layer and sapwood, leaving the heartwood. The flat side of the ‘D’ (the belly) faces the archer, while the rounded side (the back) faces the target. The middle of the bow should be slightly thicker than the ends, which taper to form the nocks where the bowstring attaches.
  3. Tillering: This process involves bending the bow to check its flexibility and ensuring the limbs bend uniformly. Removing small amounts of wood from areas that don’t bend enough ensures the bow has an even, smooth draw.
  4. Stringing the Bow: Lastly, a string is attached. Viking bowstrings were usually made from animal sinew, hemp, or linen. The string should be tight enough to give the bow its characteristic shape but have enough slack to be drawn back easily.

This basic guide should give you an idea of the craftsmanship involved in making a Viking bow. Always remember creating a functional and efficient longbow requires practice and refining of skills.

Conclusion: The Legacy of Viking Archery

Viking archery, highlighted by the use of the longbow, remains a testament to the innovation and practicality of Viking culture. These bows were not just weapons of war or tools for hunting but integral components of Viking society and identity.

Their importance in warfare, both for their psychological impact and practical efficiency, marked the Vikings as formidable opponents. The skill and discipline required to master these weapons reflect a society that valued tenacity, precision, and resilience.

In terms of hunting, the longbow’s role underscores the Vikings’ deep connection to their environment and resourcefulness. The craftsmanship involved in their creation highlights their sophisticated understanding of materials and engineering.

Today, the Viking longbow’s legacy is seen in modern archery, historical reenactments, and popular culture. They stand as enduring symbols of a civilization that, over a millennium ago, used their ingenuity and skill to leave a lasting impact on the world.