Viking Weapons – The Axe

It’s one of the most common weapons and an iconic image of the Viking age – The axe welding warrior, kicking in the door, slaughtering anyone who gets in their way. But is this the way we should look at the tool? Because first off it is a tool, we use them to chop down trees, shape blanks for woodturning, we craft with them. It’s a utility item that no Viking household would be without. Even today axes are everywhere, but the image of the axe welding warrior still makes people think of the Vikings.   It would certainly be a weapon accessible to people from all social strata so is an ideal starting point for a new Viking re-enactor.

Odins Aett Vikings Peterborough at the Little Miracles Open Day 2019
Some of Odins Aetts ready for axe combat

Axes come in many different sizes and shapes, so how does a wanna-be Viking know where to start?  There are two ideal starting points Jan Petersen’s axe head typology from 1919 which lists twelve axe head shapes which are each given a letter, and the Mortimer Wheeler typology from 1926 which lists six variations, numbered one to six.  The Petersen’s list covers shape, time period used and location of evidence. Both are good reference to find the perfect axe for your interpretation of a particular Viking warrior or trades person.

Axe categories – Pererson version

So now you know which axe head you want, what do we look for in an axe?

A well constructed fighting axe should be light weight – this isn’t about historical accuracy but because as reenactors we don’t actually want to kill each other.  A lighter weapon is easier to control and less likely to do serious damage in the case of accident.  Having said that, do remember that any re-enactment weapon is an actual lump of metal and it will hurt if you don’t pull your blow or remain in control while fighting.  

A fighting axe should be made from hardened steel, this is because it you don’t want to have to replace it every year as it’s getting worn out. There is a lot of steel on steel contact during training and combat displays and the axe needs to withstand that.

A fighting axe needs to be blunt – that means at least 3mm wide at the edge and all the corners rounded.  Again this is a safety measure.  Bear in mind that even if the weapon starts out blunt it will pick up nicks and burrs in use and you should check for these before and after every combat.  It only takes a small flaw to cause lasting damage.   A useful fight hack is to put a penny against the corner and feel for any sticky out bits which you then grind down to match the width of the penny. 

Bearded Axe
See how the corners protrude from under the pennies? Those points need to go before this will be safe to use

This axe is a Petersen type C, bearded axe type.  As you can see, the corners on this axe head need to be ground down to give them a bit more of a curve to make it safer for use. This style of axe dates from around 900ce, finds of this type were found mostly around Sweden and a few in Norway. At the time of publication none of this type have been found in the UK, but it could be a good choice for a member of our group who’s backstory included time in Scandinavia.

The following are a few of my axes so you can see what to look for and what to avoid

This axe is closest to the Petersen type B, another bearded axe.  This has been found dating from around 600ce to 840ce. It’s a nice weight for fighting and has a good surface area.  The longer beard makes it effective for catching other axes or hooking shields.

Type B Bearded Axe

This is a type C, this one has well rounded corners and is lighter than the one above even though it has a larger head. The type appears to be the most common small axe used by re-enactors covering our period.

Type C – note the curved corners for safety

This is not a fighting axe it is a wood working axe or a single sided axe.  This one is sharp so definitely never going on the battle field.  It stays in the living history area for cutting firewood and shaping and trimming bits of wood for crafting. Its referred to a Wheeler type 2.  This was bought from Deerwood who are an excellent resource for period tools.

NOT a fighting Axe – this one is sharp!

At first glance this one is similar to a type A or Wheeler type 1 which is common axe that runs from the roman period throug the Viking age and beyond.  However the asymmetrical blade and larger head means it is better classified as a type H or Wheeler type 4 which have only been found from between 900ce to 975ce which is a much tighter time frame although still fine for our purposes.

NOVATEK CAMERA

This is a small version of the Type M or Wheeler type 6 the only specifically combat axe according to Wheeler. This is commonly known as a Dane Axe amongst the re-enactment group though the head on this one is very small for a Dane Axe.  If it was rotated so the upward sweep of the head became the lower point it would be closer to the type K or L.  These are thing to look for when buying an axe for re-enactment combat, you don’t want to walk on the field with something that’s just wrong.

A very confusing axe

Lastly the king of the Viking axes, the real type M.  This is a broad axe or Dane axe as we like to call it. This particular one was crafted by Paul Binns, one of the top weapon smiths in the UK, and is a joy to use. Dating from the 940 ce until 1200 ce it’s a popular Viking age weapon that appears all over the place

44447Dane Axe

I would recommend that anyone taking part in Viking combat learns to fight with an axe, it’s a good cheap weapon, iconic for the period and very versatile to fight with.  If you are looking to purchase an axe there are plenty of resources on line or speak to one of the group leaders who will help you check that you aren’t wasting your money on something that isn’t suitable.  The main criteria is always safety, followed by history, but with a bit of care you can find the perfect axe and start having fun.

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