Vikings, Shields, and Game Rules

I’ve been building a lot of shields recently.

Part of this is just because I like working with wood. The crafting aspect of it is very satisfying, and is more visceral than blogging, obviously. But it started with me doing research for Dragon Heresy. I’ve always been skeptical of the bonuses from shields in D&D, and the AC bonus from 5e is nothing to write home about. You carry a shield and get a bit of a boost . . . and maybe you can do some fun things, but mostly not.

GURPS gives more versatility, and a nice defense bonus that +2 takes a defense roll of 8-, or 25% chance of success, to 10-, which is 50%, which doubles the odds of a successful defense. Of course, the benefit changes with the skill and equipment of both combatants, but basically, the 3d6 curve makes a +2 bonus a reasonably big deal, the equivalent of about +5 in the flat-curved d20 distribution, or the equivalent of giving disadvantage on attack rolls when attacking into the shield.

Huh. That’s not bad, actually.

But I digress.

Actually, I don’t digress. While the martial arts classes are cool (and that’s one of the reasons I keep doing them), the reason I did it in the first place was to get a personal feel on what a shield does for you, how you use it, and how much protection they can actually provide.

Viking Shields

The first thing to clarify here is that this discussion is only about shields modeled after those that were said to have been in use from about 700AD through 1000AD. These are fairly interesting in their construction and dimensions . . . but “these” has an issue, and that issue is that there is substantial dearth of evidence on what these things actually were.

I have had the privilege of training with Roland Warzecha, of the Dimicator martial arts school in Germany, who has spent perhaps 30 years or more researching the practical aspects of medieval weapon fighting. He does a lot of sword-and-buckler play, and to quote his website, he takes a lot of inspiration from the 1300s-era manuscript I.33, ” I.33 is DIMICATOR’s main source for historical swordsmanship.”

Recently, the school I’m in (Asfolk, in Eagan, MN) got a writeup in the Pioneer Press. (I’m the only guy in armor.) Naturally, one should never read the comments. But if you do, you’ll see a fairly harsh comment (naturally) that is filled with the typical bile and misinformation that characterizes such. Still, for giggles, I forwarded it to Roland and Arthur (my instructor). Roland had this to say, which I quote here to illustrate the dearth of information that we have available to deal with Viking fighting during the period in question:

I would be interested in the “we have extensive volumes of first hand accounts for Viking combat and tactics”. I must have missed them in 30 years of research. The most extensive accounts on Viking Age combat are from the Icelandic Sagas, and those were written down some two centuries later. They are far from being first hand. Contemporary sources, however, like e.g. the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, contain disappointingly little detail, if at all

While it is true that there are thousands of Viking artifacts, they include exactly one helmet (namely the Gjermundbu one), and fragments of one mail shirt from the same burial. There is exactly no complete shield. Even the few ones with most of their wooden board still preserved, like the ones from the Gokstad burial, are incomplete, with some parts having perished, leaving us with mysteries as to e.g. the nature of a possible edging etc. 

In short, the historical physical record stinks. The historical written records may suffer from two centuries worth of memory drift. Or not – the guys at Hurstwic have done some recreation work and conclude (from their sources page):

Fights are often mentioned in the sagas. Our research now leads us to believe that the saga authors were experienced fighters, writing for an audience made up of experienced fighters who would be unwilling to accept (and possibly insulted by) exaggeration in the depiction of battle.

Additionally, the sagas authors seem to have been aware that weapons had changed between their own time (when the sagas were written) and the Viking age (when the sagas took place). The photo shows a fighter using weapons from the time the sagas were written (left) facing a fighter armed with Viking-age weapons. When the saga authors wrote about weapons and their use, they seem to describe weapons and moves from the Viking age, rather than from their own time.

We believe there are many errors in the Sagas of Icelanders, such as anachronisms. We believe there are fantasy elements in the sagas. So, the sagas must be used with great care as a historical source. Yet, we are much more willing now to accept that the fighting moves described in the Sagas of Icelanders represent realistic, Viking-age fighting moves.

I got the opportunity to train first with Hurstic, then with Roland, on successive weekends at Asfolk. Good times.

But back to the shields.

The fragments we have are mostly very, very thin. While the page from Hurstwic on shields suggests that one shield was measured that was over an inch thick, I have been told that such measurements included the thickness of the grip/handle. By and large, the center of the shield tended to be about 5-7mm thick, and would taper to the edge, which might be as thin as 1.5mm (based on finds of shield-edge clamps). My own shield tapers from 1/2″ at the boss down to 1/4″ at the edge. My wife’s is 3/8″ mostly throughout, with a sanded chamfer in the last few inches. Reports of thicker shields frequently have issues as to how the measurements were taken – and also edge thicknesses of complete shields may well include rawhide facing and edging, which can increase the thickness of the apparent edge.

The thing is, these shield were not made of adamantium, either. Less than a half inch of wood, and the list of woods I’ve seen varies: pine, fir, spruce, alder, linden (basswood), and poplar. These are all pretty soft woods. Green, rather than kiln-dried, lumber will make them even softer than stuff you’ll buy at stores.

And remember: when you make a shield, you don’t wander down to VikingShieldWoodOnline.com and order up (as I do) nine four-inch wide, 36″ long perfectly square, butted, kiln-dried basswood planks, and then head over to Viking Longhouse Depot to get a basswood 1.75″ square dowel, or perhaps a poplar 1×3″ board out of which to carve the handle.

You cut down a freakin’ tree. And then, likely using hand tools such as axes and a process called riving to make the boards. Seriously – there’s nothing on that shield that wasn’t done apurpose, so if the shields were that thin, it’s because someone made them that way, deliberately. And they could have made it another way, easily. But they didn’t. So it’s worth carefully considering why, since these weapons were used to defend real people who could be really, really killed if it wasn’t used right.

Building a Shield

For a brief diversion, how have I made my shields these days?

I usually start with basswood blanks of 1/2″ or 3/8″ thickness, usually 36″ long and 4″ wide. They’re fairly affordable from balsawoodinc.com, and enough to make a 36″ x 36″ shield blank will run about $50.

I should use hide glue to butt them together, and one day I will. For now, I clamp them with yellow carpentry glue.

The handle is invariably a basswood square dowel, or perhaps two glued together to get the right size. I get these for a few bucks from Home Depot – if the wood type isn’t specified, it may well be basswood.

Ideally, you’ll use a hand plane or curved scorp to chamfer the shield from full thickness in the middle down to 3-7mm at the edge. This is non-trivial. If you have it, a belt sander isn’t really the same, but can help. A router is really cheating and will take a lot of time, but very effective – and then you can sand out the grooves made by stepping the thickness down to the desired level. Ahistorical, but works like a charm.

The boss I have been getting from VikingShield.com, they’re $20-30 but they’re too thick for historical accuracy. The one on my big shield is from ArmStreet, made custom to my request, removing the fancy inlay work to form a working shield. It was 16 ga steel and pretty light relative to other bosses, but still a bit ahistorical. I may contact Arms and Armor here in the Twin Cities to see if they’ll make me an historical one, and for how much.

I carve the handle to taste. The raised grip on my personal shield is nice for grip but tends to rotate too much in the hand. My wife’s (smaller) shield is better from that respect, and future grips I make will either be flush, or maybe 1/8 to 1/4″ offset. There will also be a bit of an indent for the thumb, because I like trying new stuff with the handles. If you want raw history, just make it a D-shape, with the round part facing outward.

The boss and handle are best affixed with either soft annealed iron nails, or copper roofing nails, which can easily be removed and reworked. You’ll need a good, hard surface to pound on, or else the torque will split the thin shield-wood.

Posture and Stance

As far as I can tell, and given my early instruction in the matter, the practice of holding the viking shield face-on to a foe was not going to work very well. The shields were too thin and there were no straps the way later period shields (and likely early period too – heavy strapped shields such as the Greek aspis secured the shield to the arm, and the warrior also grabbed a handle well off-center). These shields were about twice the expected weight, if not more, than a typical viking shield, which (perhaps coincidentally, perhaps not) tends to weigh, when made properly, abotu 6-8 lbs (which happens to be the weight of the D&D5e medium shield as well, though that weight conforms to the size and weight of a wooden heater shield as well).

The viking shields were held in basically a buckler grip. This means a foe could rotate the shield pretty freely if presented one-handed to them, simply by pressing on one far edge. The way we’re taught to use the shields has the edge presented.

The image of me and Eric doing a defensive drill shows how we’re taught to present the shield. Fairly extended, resting against the arm a bit for biomechanics and stability, and edge-on.

Interesting thing about this – a properly made shield, when struck at with a sharp sword, will catch and trap the blade of that sword. Nearly every time. The thinner, the easier this happens, but even with the thicker wood with no rawhide edging, a good shield bind was obtained.

It is worth your time to watch the test video of an extremely authentically-made shield being tested against a sharp sword of proper weight. This is the third video in that series, the first two detailing the construction of the shield. The test itself is fun to watch, and contrasts a poor reproduction shield (plywood, thick rawhide, etc) with the better one.  Unlike most videos of this type, read the comments. The discussion is reasoned, and Roland is relentless in separating things for which we have historical primary source evidence, things for which we have historical inferred evidence, and stuff that was either made up or associated with vikings over hundreds of years of aggregate cruft.

The (Viking) Shield Wall is a Lie (?)

With apologies to lots of folks, one of the things that seems to take a real hit is that this sort of shield could be used effectively in a shield wall that way you see it in shows such as Vikings and The Last Kingdom. The evidence for such a thing seems to hang on a few lines of poetry and perhaps a personal anecdote in first person. Perhaps.

But arrows, javelins, or thrown spears would probably go right through such a shield face. Deflection can and does work, but just holding the face out is going to not go well. I think Arthur has done some tests with a 70-80# bow, and I’m sure I’ll do some in the future. But I have to figure a thrown javelin such as those made here by Arms and Armor would be a very bad idea to take on the face of the 1/4 to 3/8″ thick soft wood that makes up the bulk of such a shield. Even the boss was maybe 1-2mm (DR 2-4 in GURPS terms, maybe) and might be vulnerable, not to mention small.

The image is, I believe, a still from The Last Kingdom. Look how thick the shields are – way thicker than 1/4 to 1/2″, and even more profoundly so on the edge. That’s the typical view of these things, but not based on historical evidence, is my understanding.

One Swing, One Kill

So, if you didn’t form the shield wall, and you didn’t present the face of the shield, then how do you fight with one?

Cautiously. We do a lot of “feeling” drills, with edge-to-edge contact, and using the shield to manipulate the other edge, trying to open up the defenses for a sure shot that will wound. And then back to a defensive posture – the first rule of real-life combat tends to be “don’t die,” rather than “first hit.” You see this when folks go at it with machetes or whatnot for real – a lot more dodging and defensive work, and less aggressive charging.

First Word, Last Word

It’s worth pointing out, again, that the record is very, very sparse. We have some weapons, some shields and shield fragments, a single helmet and fragment of mail, writings of poetry and prose, and some other things. Grave goods, and a few lucky finds that are well preserved. But does that mean that what I’m talking about here is the last word in such things?

Of course not! The groups in question are taking their best guesses. Educated guesses, informed by decades in some cases of training in both eastern and western martial arts, by fight manuals, by period art for other cultures and stories and documents from the period in question. The sagas. But we weren’t there, so is all we can do is try and figure “does this make sense? Does it seem to work? Does it work with properly weighted and constructed arms and defenses? Can one do such fighting for the amount of time that armies and duels were known to take place? Is it biomechanically sound or stupid?”

And then we see what we can do. But don’t take any of this as the last word! If we are lucky and fortunate enough to collect new evidence, then the methods and conclusions will, of course, change.

Target Seeking

It is really, really hard to get to the body of a person holding a shield at proper distance in a guard stance. Really hard. Way harder than a +1 or +2 to Armor Class. With proper footwork and mobility, one can easily spend minutes going back and forth looking for – and trying to create – an opening worth exploiting.

But what we mostly do to find that opening can mostly be considered a form of binding, which in turn is a form of grappling. We push and probe and test defenses, trying to find some give or weakness. When found, we develop it – but the defender can (and does!) give back and try and re-establish contact, a superior position, and the initiative. The weapon can and is used to reinforce the shield, too, as well as manipulating the foe’s shield. All in all, it’s really interesting – and of course you do go for wounds when you can! Especially to the legs, and a wrap-shot to the shield-arm hand. If the foe launches a poorly conceived attack, you cut at the sword arm as well. The main body is nice . . . but it’s also not exactly hidden that all the vital bits are there. Forensic evidence supports many smaller, but still nasty, wounds on warriors that were perhaps slowing a target down, until finally a horrific finishing blow would result.

In any case, the shields are used both defensively and very, very aggressively. Beyond the “feeling” or “fuhlen” drills, one can strike with the shield edge, as well as – if you’re skilled and have good timing – press the shield into the foe to bind their weapon arm, pinning it to the body or restricting their motion as well.

We call the shield the “primary weapon,” because it’s out in front, it makes first contact, and is the piece of kit that is used to both deny and provide openings, while the sword, axe, or spear is used to deliver wounds, certainly . . . but only when an obviously good target, and a sure hit, can be obtained.

Game Relevance?

That, of course probably makes for boring games.

So, if one were to try and bring the key, exciting elements of Viking shield use into an RPG, what would you need to do?

Probably ensure mechanics that:

  • Provided a much more significant penalty to the attacker’s ability to hit, or boost to the defender’s difficulty number than that provided in most games.
  • Also make it such that the shields can and should be used to cancel this ability; a probing attack, a grapple, a contest of skill and/or strength. With a properly successful move, the shield should be taken out of consideration, at least for one round.
  • Ensure that stepping back or moving backwards in the face of a successful attack is viable and effective
  • Consider that striking at an attacker who takes a blow on their shield may well bind your blade, and provide mechanics for following up on such an event.
  • Ensure that the shields are delicate enough that a blow that isn’t a miss that hits the shield face directly will seriously damage the shield integrity. It still may trap the weapon, but it will probably ruin the shield, too.

The go-to move for this particular style of combat is “I probe with my shield” or “I grapple/bind with my shield” rather than “I try and hit him with my sword.” That’s exactly backwards from how nearly every game I’ve ever played works out.

Hell, for all we know, it’s also exactly backwards from how folks fought in the real world, 1150 years ago. But given the kit we have, and the advantages and opportunities that weapon-and-shield both provide and deny, shield-first and weapon-second feels right.

Caveat Viking

Oh, and of course, that’s likely only true for this particular style of kit! Vikings did not seem to favor much armor at all, or at least, no armor that survived to be found to modern day. The weapons were also made of notoriously unreliable/variable bloomery iron, not the more homogenous crucible steel. Bloomery iron was ore chemically reduced in place to form iron. Crucible steel was fully melted. Big difference in properties.

Still – these observations don’t apply to Greeks. They don’t apply to Roman legions with the scutum and gladius. They don’t apply to rapier play, or sword-and-buckler play where constant probing and aggressive use of the weapon is seen. And, well, longsword fights don’t exactly have a shield, do they?

So this is very specific to a certain place, a certain time, and a certain kit.

It was still an eye-opener, and I’d be fascinated to see what misperceptions might be discovered (and ergo, what fun new or different game mechanics might arise) from more practical weapon-and-shield work. Of course, for many other periods of history, our information is much better than for the Viking age – so there are real advantages to deriving practical and properly historic bodies of martial technique there.

Finally – I’m not an expert. I’m noting what I’ve observed and what I’ve been taught, and what has been told to me by folks like Bill Short and Roland Warzecha, and Arthur himself, who is no slouch when it comes to weaponsmithing and historical practical archaeology. I’d welcome new info from primary sources!

18 thoughts on “Vikings, Shields, and Game Rules

  1. Oh, this is wonderful! Thank you for sharing all your research and hard work!

    Too funny: just last week I wrote a couple of posts for D&D style fantasy combat that came at the shield almost exactly opposite from the realistic way you are handling them. Here’s Making Shields More Valuable: http://treasurehuntersrpg.blogspot.com/2017/07/making-shields-more-valuable.html which is the second one. I’m sure they’ll make you grind their teeth because they’re so silly.

    But overall you are right: shields ought to be worth at least as much as chain armor and probably even add to attacks. The mechanical bonus they provide is far outweighed by having something more useful in your hand.

    1. Your rules aren’t silly, they’re direct. How can you make shields better? Give them something to do. Taking a hit in exchange for potentially or certainly destroying a shield is a good rule (Shields will be Splintered). Higher AC bonus is also good, either for melee or (especially) perhaps for missiles. Nothing wrong with that. Making the shield a “primary” weapon is so foreign to how gaming has been done (and is specific to the viking style of combat as we’re recreating it in our classes) that doing it the “realistic” way I describe might not get a bunch of buy-in, especially if just whackin’ the foe with a sword is a viable tactic – why would you “waste” a turn with a shield probe when you can inflict HP? And given the game tends to put “all defensive stuff” into an AC boost, a lot of the more esoteric benefits in a straight-up DnD game are rubbing the cat the wrong way, so to speak.

  2. I wonder if the the thickness confusion comes from 16th–18th century Highlands targes? Since these are vaguely patterned after Viking shields (in the same way that the sparth was patterned after Danish long axes), but other than plank-built construction aren’t made, worn, or used the same way.

  3. When I was still fighting in the SCA I used a center grip shield held flat to my opponent because it masked bad habits I learned in the early 80s and could never break. The reason I bring this up is your mention of the ‘D’ shaped grip style. I used this form myself and found that if you held the grip on the upper part of the ‘D’ so that it fits well in your hand tabling of the shield was much less of a problem than with a flat grip. The ‘D’ shape grip would probably be a bit less comfortable to use in the style you describe though. You might want to give it a try though.

  4. This is highly speculative and based exclusively on my thoughts I had while reading this; the shield page on hurstwic seem to base much of the hypotheses on accounts in the sagas. I haven’t looked for an exhaustive list of the shields found, but is it possible they had thicker or otherwise different shields for war or when traveling abroad as opposed to personal combat and decoration (domestic use, I guess :P)?

    I’ve been reading a lot lately and from what I’ve gathered, one should use caution, or at least be aware of the problems, when using Iceland to say things about the viking age and viking lands at large. While the sources from there are infinitely more numerous than the rest of scandiwegian lands, and are the best and pretty much only sources we have, life there was also in some ways very different from elsewhere in that they were pretty much all farmers. I read recently in Icelanders in the Viking Age (https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B005LHO3E6/) that this meant that they expected, and thus were dressed for, single combat or at least combat with no more than a few people fueled by revenge, rather than war or bandits.

    As I said, nothing more than food for thought. I’ll stop before I get even more rambly, but I’d love your thoughts on this.

    1. Darn it, a misplaced finger ate my reply.

      In short: The observation of Viking = Icelandic from Hurstwic seems a valid critique. And Iceland seems to be “flatter” in social structure either because they left to get away from such, or were banished and rejected such. And that seems to be upheld in at least Egill’s saga.

      War shields vs burial goods is again, legit. That being said, medieval folks in battle could fight for hours, and a heavy shield held away from the body gets tiring after not too long. But there may well have been different styles of shield for different fighting. There’s been some speculation/questions I’ve heard voiced about, for example, whether dueling shields and battle shields were the same.

      The amount of work required to create anything from that period is staggering. So any physical artifacts should probably be approached with the attitude that whomever created such a piece did it for good, not-stupid reasons. It’s up to us to figure out what those reasons were, and why they chose them!

      1. The point about a heavier shield tiring you out is very true. I found this post and the Hurstwic site exceedingly interesting, I love this kind of new insight. I was planning a viking game (to commemorate my recent viking age binge) in GURPS and this gives a lot of inspiration. Using Damage to Shields from basic set and having them use the Shield (Buckler) skill should give the game a unique flair to set it apart from standard medieval fantasy

        Thanks for the input! I’ll definitely bring this with me ^^

  5. Super interesting post, thank you! I’m always jealous of people who manage to make time for learning things like historical martial arts in practice. Maybe when the kids are a little older…

    In Gurps, would you say the style you describe could be passably well represented by:
    1. Focusing on Shield skill rather than Broadsword, meaning the former would be typically about 2 levels higher (DX/E at 4-8 pts. Vs DX/A at 2-4 pts.), and
    2. Favoring Shield Feint as the primary Technique?

    1. Yeah – your list would do well. Using shield to grapple using technical grappling, Feints and Beats, Setup Attacks (using my Pyramid article). This sounds like a good Blog post for today!

    1. It’s an interesting post, and I like some of the thoughts that you have. It would be very interesting to get a bunch of people trained in different shield Styles together to make comparisons on that sort of thing. So few people really fight with shields and have been trained in the different styles of their use, that I strongly suspect that it’s a lot like people who have never held, fired, or work with Firearms making game rules for them. It’s all based on Hollywood.

      1. Indeed, that would be pretty fun, though I have not trained with any shield in a long time – and it was almost exclusively the small buckler (GURPS “Dueling Buckler” IIRC). My HEMA weapon of choice right now is smallsword (for the most part – I have dabbled in others!)

        You are right, though, in that a lot of how things are portrayed in games is based off of other media. This probably isn’t the worst thing, though, as it would fit the expectations of most players I’d imagine.

  6. Thanks for making these long, detailed write-ups! I’ve been a fan of Roland Warzecha’s Youtube channel for a long time. It’s great to see all the different HEMA cogs start to click together and turn as one. For someone like me, who hungers for authentic, researched history and wants great games, but has zero martial arts experience, these sorts of collaborations and reports are phenomenal. Keep it up!

  7. The shield wall IS a fallacy. It is one based on misinterpretations and superimpositions from studies into Greek and Roman warfare. I have treated the issue as part of my MA-thesis and given lectures about the subject, basing it on research into primary historical and archaeological sources. Some of these results have already appeared on social media and been published in conjunction with news articles.

    In addition, I might add that I have also undertaken the first scientifically documented experiment designed to test different uses of the shield and how it related to its construction. The tests were undertaken with an authentic shield and a sharp sword. All of the above results are to be published in full in a peer-reviewed journal.

    Best,
    Rolf Warming
    Director of the Society for Combat Archaeology

      1. A few here:
        Lundt Hansen, Anders. (2016, December 30). ‘Skjoldmuren er faldet’. Weekendavisen, p.12-13.

        Rough draft of experimental write-up (appendix 4 in my MA-thesis): https://www.academia.edu/27661409/Round_Shields_and_Body_Techniques_Experimental_Archaeology_with_a_Viking_Age_Round_Shield_Reconstruction

        http://historienet.dk/civilisationer/vikinger/vikingerne-pryglede-fjenden-med-skjoldet

        http://sagy.vikingove.cz/interview-with-rolf-f-warming/

        I think I have also left a few comments on the SoCA and Dimicator FB page 🙂 :
        https://www.facebook.com/combatarchaeology/
        https://www.facebook.com/Dimicator-266934476773420/

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