After writing an essay on the construction and use of Viking round shields late last year I started thinking about the possibility of me making one myself. After doing the research for my essay i realized that the materials I would need would be easy to find, and putting them together would be quite doable without much skill or any experience. I decided to do it, and keep a record of the process in case anyone else would like to try it or be interested.
First of all, I’ll introduce some of the history behind this type if shield. Round shields were used by the Vikings throughout the Viking age (8th – 11th Century) but they were also presumably used prior to and after this time period as well. Round shields of the same type were not used exclusively by the Vikings, as this was the primary shield design for the early Saxons, and even for the later Anglo-Saxons, as well as many other peoples of similar Nordic or Germanic origins as the Vikings and Saxons. The Vikings also used other types of shield, most significantly the kite shield which was adopted later, and is better suited for cavalry use. It is generally considered that round shields would have been used in the vast majority of combat and battle situations, as it was cheaper and easier to construct a shield that provides greater defence than it was to make armour that would have actually had a significant effect on the user’s protection.
Considering the fact that this shield was commonly used in Viking conflict, it is possible to assume that it was highly effective for use in many types of combat. It makes for a very effective defence as it blocks attacks to many targets simultaneously due to its size, shape and the way in which it can be held. In a relaxed position, the shield protects from neck to knees, with the head and the lower legs exposed. Thus, the head and lower leg were likely targets. Studies of skeletal remains show that many battle injuries occurred to the head and legs.
The shield could also be used offensively. The rim of the shield or the boss can be used to punch an opponent, allowing for the use of another weapon such as a sword to exploit the openings made by this attack. It is considered likely that a more aggressive posture would have been used with a shield, especially in single combat. The rim of the shield would be held facing the opponent rather than holding the shield flat and hiding behind it. With the weight of the shield resting on the arm and shoulder in this position, the user could more easily and quickly defend himself from powerful attacks. Projectiles would glance off the shield due to the angle, rather than get stuck in the shield, which would make it heavier and potentially useless. These methods are supported by modern reconstructions and tests of Viking age round shields. Further methods of use for the round shield that prove its effectiveness in combat include certain tactics used in large-scale battles. For example, large formations of lines of men could be formed into a wall of shields, similar to the earlier Greek Phalanx. As long as close formation was kept, this tactic could be used to easily engage and survive against perhaps larger forces that did not use this shield. Another way in which this shield was used is to disarm an opponent. This could be done by blocking a strike with the rim of the shield, and if the attack was powerful enough it could ‘bite’ into the shield. The shield could then be twisted or moved in such a way that could break the weapon, or simply pull it from the wielder’s grip. Alternatively, the shield could be used to parry a spear attack with such force that it may break the head of the spear off.
Before I could start building the shield, I had to decide on the size and style I would make it in. First of all, looking at the materials, I would have to decide on the type of wood to use. A Viking shield would be made from softwood, preferably linden wood, but finds show them to have been made from spruce, fir or pine as well. Literary evidence suggests that the best shields would be made from plied layers of wood, but they have been commonly found to be made from butted planks. Based on this information, I decided to use modern plywood as it would be easier to use and make the shield sturdier. The type of wood I went for is a Scandinavian spruce, just for a bit more authenticity. As for size, I decided to go for the maximum diameter and thickness, of 12mm thick and 90cm in diameter. Shields would have averagely been from 6-12mm thick and 70-90cm in diameter. Presumably the size of a shield would depend on the size and strength of its user, so my shield may have turned out a bit big and heavy for me in the end. Finally, I had to decide on the other materials to use, which included the edging, the facing (if any) and the handle and boss. For edging I decided to use strips of rawhide, as it was easier to find in the right measurements than leather, and for the facing I decided to use linen rather than leather too, as a single piece of leather in the right size would have been quite expensive for me. The handle of the shield would be made out of a simple piece of wood rather than iron, and the shield boss I chose is one of the more common rounded types in a dark iron colour, rather than a shiny polished steel that many people seem to use today.
So to start constructing the shield, I first had to cut out the rough circle and hole in the middle. Using a modern electric saw sped up the process and saved me a lot of time and effort without any difference in the end result.
After sanding the edges and the handle hole into the correct shape, the next step was to glue on the linen facing. The end result of this wasn’t perfect, as there are some creases in the material that I couldn’t correct due to the glue drying quickly and working alone meant that I couldn’t stretch out the fabric for a better result. I think it turned out acceptably anyway. After this I painted the front of the shield in a white undercoat in preparation for future painting, and let it dry before I carried on
The next step after that was to attach the rawhide edging. Having never worked with rawhide before I wasn’t sure what to expect from it, but I did know that I had to soak it for a long while for it to become soft and workable. Attaching the rawhide to the edge took the most effort and time by far. This was mainly due to me not having a proper place to work and having to just use the floor. In the end though, it turned out ok, with only a few imperfections such as some of the nails bending.
Now it was starting to look like a shield, almost. Now all that needed to be done was to nail on the shield boss and handle, which didn’t take too long. And it was done!
So this is the finished result, minus the leather strap I plan on adding to the back and the painted design on the front, which I still have yet to decide on. I enjoyed making this shield, and I plan to make another in the future, maybe with planked linden wood if I can find some, and perhaps smaller, with a leather facing, different boss shape and an iron handle.
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