Norse Weapons – The Bow

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The Vikings used a bow they called a ‘bogi‘ in Old Norse.

Bows were predominately used for hunting, but in many cases they were also used for battle, especially in battles or attacks at sea.

Even though nautical battles were not common to the Norse who preferred to fight on land, bows were indeed used in sea battles. They could use their bows to shoot an arrow at an enemy awaiting them on the beach as they tried to land. They used the bow to attack other ships by shooting arrows and throwing other missiles from their ship at the enemy’s ship as they tried to clear the decks of men so the ship could be taken.

Ólaf’s Saga describes the bow being used in a fight at sea in the Battle of Svölðr in 1000 AD. Einarr Þambarskelfir, an archer of King Ólaf, shot an arrow at Jarl Eirik whom was in an opposing ship and hit the tiller above his head so hard that it penetrated the wood through to the arrow’s shaft.

Another shot followed with an arrow that penetrated all the way through his stool with the barbs coming out of the other side. The Jarl then ordered a man on his ship named Fin to shoot back at the ‘tall man by the mast,’ whereas he did and hit Einarr Þambarskelfir’s bow and broke it in two.

It is said that King Ólaf’s ship was eventually overtaken and that King Ólaf of Norway, rather than die in the hands of his enemy, jumped over the side of the ship in full armor and drown.

One of the land battle tactics commonly employed by the Norse was to hurl and shoot various missile weapons at the enemy line prior to charging. After of course, throwing a single spear over the enemy line in the name of Odin first. Gaining favor of the gods was an important ritual of battle to the Norse.

Vikings often used bows to effectively shoot arrow volleys at their enemy. At short ranges it is said that a Norse arrow could pierce mail armor, but at longer ranges they only threatened the warriors not wearing armor. But fighting the enemy at a safe distance wasn’t a concern to the Norse, whom would much rather get within melee range.

bow

The Norse used short bows that were made of yew, elm, or ash and varied in size from around 1 meter to about 2 meters long. Some late examples have been found of Norse composite bows that had been strengthened with either horn or iron. At Hedeby, an important Viking trading settlement that flourished from the 8th to 11th centuries, a complete bow measuring 1.92 meters long made of yew was found. It is estimated that this war bow had a draw weight of well over 100 lbs. Most replica bows of this period have a draw weight of 100 to 130 lbs.

On average, Norse bows were able to shoot an arrow up to 200 meters. The distance an arrow traveled in a single bowshot was a commonly used unit of measurement in Viking Age Iceland. For example, in the medieval Icelandic law book, Grágás, it was required that when the court confiscated an outlaw’s property, that it be within an ördrag (the distance of an arrow in a single bowshot) of the outlaw’s home. The Grágás later defines an “ördrag” to be 200 “faðmar” (approximately 480 meters or about 1575 feet).

This selection of arrowheads is from excavations carried out by the National Museum at various sites in Viking Dublin

Norse arrowheads were usually of iron and made in a variety of shapes and sizes as well. Many arrowheads have been found at several Viking Age Icelandic house sites that varied in design and size, even a forked arrowhead that was probably used for bow fishing. The average lengths of Norse arrowheads ranged from 10 to 15 centimeters (4-6 inches).

Most arrowheads had a tang that allowed it to be driven into a hole of a hardwood shaft and then secured in place with cord and pitch. It is estimated that the arrow shafts were probably 70 to 80 centimeters (28 to 32 inches) long and about 10 millimeters (3/8 inch) in diameter.

Njáls Saga tells of the use of a bow by the Icelandic hero, Gunnar Hámundarson that single-handedly defended his home against an attack led by Gizurr hvíti. The hero Gunnar used his bow from a loft in the upper level of the house, to kill and wound ten of his opponents before his bow string was cut by one of the attackers. It is said that he asked his wife Hallgerður for a lock of her hair to mend the bow, but Gunnar had slapped her previously so she vindictively refused. He was then forced to fight his attackers off in hand to hand combat where he was killed.



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