Scandinavians trained from childhood to be strong and self-reliant warriors. Running, jumping, and wrestling took the place of reading, writing, and math. As soon as a boy could carry a weapon, he was taught to thrust a sword, to swing a battle-ax, and to throw a spear.
All Vikings had weapons on them at all times, not just the Vikings on raids. In fact, a Viking saying was: “Don’t leave your weapons behind when you go to work in the fields-you may need them. ” Viking men and women carried knives. In battle, warriors used swords, axes, spears, and bows and arrows. The Viking’s most important possession was his long sword, which was iron and doubled-edged. Some swords had names and were decorated to show importance. Weapons were passed down family lines or buried with a warrior.
Viking warriors wore helmets in battle, but contrary to popular belief, they probably did not wear helmets with horns. No horned helmets have ever been found with Viking remains, nor are they depicted in carvings, tapestries, or on other objects from that age. Most Vikings did not wear much armor, though chieftains sometimes donned chainmail coats. Armor was expensive, but also heavy in battle. Vikings relied on round wooden shields for protection. Shields were riveted together with iron for strength and then painted with designs. They could be temporarily attached to the side of a Viking ship for extra defense.
HEEDING THE HIRD
The basis for many Viking armies was the hird, the personal retinue of a chieftain or king. This force was fed, housed, and paid with silver and gold to retain loyalty, so it was not usually large. Even the most powerful kings rarely had hirds larger than a few hundred warriors. In times of war and overseas expeditions, a hird was joined by freemen chosen by a chieftain. There were advantages for men to join a hird. It was a way to gain power and riches that they might not have had the opportunity to gain at home, especially if they were not to inherit land. The first overseas raids consisted of the combined forces of several chieftains’ hirds. Hird discipline was based on each warrior’s honor, which bound him to his chieftain or king. To keep his honor, which was all-important, a warrior pledged to follow certain rules, which may have included promising not to switch allegiance to another chieftain, swearing not to fight another member of the hird on punishment of being exiled, and promising to kill any exiled member of the hird on sight. Offences often meant losing a seat of honor at the great feasts held by the chieftain. A warrior’s rank was determined by how close he sat to the chieftain on these occasions.
Viking battle tactics included the shield wall, a device once used by the ancient Romans. In this maneuver, warriors standing side by side placed their shields in front of them, protecting their bodies and creating a wall. They held their spears overhead and moved forward to attack the enemy. The shield wall was used by enemy forces as well, so a shield-wedge was used to counteract it. In this maneuver, warriors marched in a wedge shape and moved forward to force a hole in the adversary’s shield wall by putting pressure on a certain point.
In a shield-burg, a small number of warriors used their shields to create a sort of fortress around themselves, in front, in back, and overhead. This was effective when trying to deflect spears and arrows. However, overall, Viking forces employed few maneuvers in war, relying instead on the combined heroics and ferocity of individuals.