I could go on for page after page about shields, what has been found, the construction of those finds and where they were unearthed but other blogs and web sites have done it before and better than I could. I would recommend https://sagy.vikingove.cz/mene-zname-aspekty-vikinskeho-stitu/ as a great place to look if you are looking for that sort of information. (There’s a tab at the top right to change to English if the page loads in Czech)
So instead let’s look at shields from the perspective of a Viking reenactor
The most obvious factor is protection. Shields are still used today by the military and police, especially in riot control situations as they offer protection from melee and ranged attacks. They use it held close to their bodies with very little movement. But the shield can be so much more than just a simple barrier, with training you can use a shield to deflect and redirect blows forcing your enemy to over extend their attack. You can trap a blade and even use the shield to disarm your opponent. A shield can also be used as a weapon for punching or shield-bashing the enemy down although that’s something that must be done carefully in reenactment for safety reasons. Maybe most importantly for re-enactment it’s a way to identify which group each re-enactor is with, so that after the initial clash of sides in a large battle you can still tell who you are supposed to be fighting against.
So what do we look for in a re-enactment shield? Well that will vary from group to group and maker to maker. It is possible to buy really good quality shields which offer good representations of those used during various periods of history. But don’t assume that just because something is being made professionally that it’s going to be functional or historically accurate, a lot of sellers cater to a more fantasy audience with pretty designs that would be less useful than a coffee table with a bin handle on the back. Perfect to hang on a wall, total waste of time in a fight.
You can of course make your own reenactment shield. If you do you need to balance historical accuracy with practicality and safety. Odin’s Aett always put safety first but we want the finished shields to be in the right ballpark appearance wise too. The majority of our shields are made from marine plywood, 9mm to 12mm thick cut into a circle of between 60cm and 80cm in diameter. When deciding on size you need to take account of your own size and strength, a 12mm thick 80cm shield is going to be considerably heavier than a 9mm 60cm shield. Some members have gone for a more historically accurate double layer shield made from planks rather than plywood but this is a lot heavier and harder to use so not for everyone. If you join Odin’s Aett and want to make your own shield we can help, it’s not that difficult.
The smaller shield sizes are better for training and one on one combat as they allow more movement and require you to work a bit harder to maximise the protection. In larger battles especially those involving archers a bigger shield offers more to hide behind. If you are of larger build, more cover makes a real difference and can look better. A small shield can look pretty pointless when it’s trying to provide cover for 6ft foot tall burly warrior.
You will need a boss for the shield. They come in various sizes and shapes so beyond making sure the style is appropriate for the period you also need to be sure it has enough room for your hand when wearing your safety gloves. For our period a simple dome with a flat rim is the most common option.
Whether you use plywood or planks the shield should have a layer of cloth glued to the front and back. This both makes painting easier and reduces splintering when the shield is hit. Your shield will be hit and will be damaged so anything you can do to prevent having to pick splinters out of your arms is worth it.
You can prolong the life of your shield by edging it with leather. It is best to sew the leather in place while wet as the shrinkage as it dries will make the fit tighter.
You will need some sort of hand grip. This can be as simple as a wooden batten but shaping it so it sits more ergonomically in your hand will make it better. You can also get metal hand grips if you prefer.
Some people like to add a strap so the shield can be worn across the back. This isn’t a bad idea but if you do this remember to include a tie or buckle so you can undo it – we’ve seen a fair few people fall in battle and end up like an upside down turtle struggling to get up again because of the shield they are wearing. It’s funny to look at, but not the best look for a warrior.
Arm straps, are optional. I find they get in the way and make combat harder rather than easier but it will depend on how you fight. They do help spread the weight if you are carrying the shield for any length of time, like in a parade.
That just leaves you with the hardest decision of how to decorate the finished shield. If you aren’t going with a club design there are loads of simple patterns that can be used. The colours mentioned in the historical texts are mainly red, white, black and yellow, simple designs like dividing the shield into quarters can be very effective, but you can go for something fancier if you like. Remember it is a shield and if you use it on the field it will get damaged, it’s a shame to spend hours painting that Viking warrior shield you’ve always wanted only to have it shredded at the first fight, better to go for something that you won’t be too upset at having to repair and replace after a season or two.