Devastating Viking Weapons: The Dane Ax

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One of the more popular battle axes used by the Norse was the Dane Ax (Danish Ax).

It was an ax that consisted of a wide, thin blade that was ‘pronounced’ at both the toe and heel of the bit with the toe swept inward for better shearing power.

Replica Danish ax head. Forged by Bronze Lion. 14 August 2008.
Replica Danish ax head. Forged by Bronze Lion. 14 August 2008.

The cutting surface of the Danish battle ax varied between 20 centimeters to 30 centimeters (8 to 12 inches) and the average weight was around one kilogram to two kilograms (two to four pounds). It was lightweight and resembled more of a meat cleaver than a wood ax that had devastating cutting ability.

The half (handle) of the ax ranged from 0.9 meters to 1.2 meters (3 to 4 feet) long. This enabled a powerful and controlled swing with the edge of the blade just right to cut through whatever it hits.

The Bayeux Tapestry shows us exactly the size of a two handed Danish Ax in comparison to the size of the wielder. The battle axes were shoulder level in length with slightly curved handles giving the blade edge a better cutting angle.

dane ax
Dane Ax on Bayeux Tapestry. Infantry armed with spears, swords and battle axes that fought the huscarls Harold Hastings. Bayeux Tapestry, Bayeux. Picture by Urban, February 2005.

The standard shield wall was the most commonly used battle formation of the day. Just about all warriors of the day used it.

When in the shield wall, most attacks against your opponent are made overhead. The overhead attack is an attempt to hit over the top of the enemy’s shield while aiming at their head and trying to bash or split them in the head, neck, or shoulders. Most thrusts while in a shield wall formation would go against the enemy’s shield and open yourself up to similar attacks as you must open a small gap in the wall to allow you to thrust.

Shield to shield battle scene from the History Channel Series, “The Vikings”

Spears are generally used most effectively with two hands while thrusting at the enemy’s chest and waist level. But they can also be used by warriors behind the shield wall that were thrusting and targeting enemy warriors that were involved in another fight and stabbing overhead at the enemy behind the shield wall.

This was where the dane ax could be used to reach over the shield wall and be swung down upon the enemy’s heads and shoulders behind their shields.  Their shields would also be shattered and split from the powerful overhead hacks by a dane ax armed viking warrior.

Hurstwic Viking Combat Training
Hurstwic Viking Combat Training

Using two hands in combat did expose them to similar attacks from the opposing side using spear thrusts. This went on until the shield wall was essentially shoved, hacked, and stabbed down by sheer force.

Viking Shield Wall by Mark Millmore
Viking Shield Wall by Mark Millmore

Once the shield wall was broke down, individual fights ensued and were most likely settled by using opportunistic wounding blows that left an opponent disabled but not dead – out of the fight and no longer a threat.

Quite often, legs and arms would be the only exposed targets that would be easy to hit. Obviously the limbs were the most tempting target against a warrior that was wearing a mail shirt or other body armor that would also be protected by their shield. The head was usually crowned with a helmet, so the exposed legs, arms, face and neck would be the best areas to target.

The legs were a grand target of opportunity for a dane ax armed warrior to swing at.  An over-swing still allowed the dane ax wielder the opportunity to clip their opponents legs out from under them and bring them to the ground as they swung their ax down upon them with force.

Many of the fallen warriors are usually found with major leg injuries where they were incapacitated and then left behind to bleed to death on the field as the battle went on to be decided. It was a common practice of the day for the victor to return and slay the enemy’s wounded that remained.

This was considered granting mercy in lieu of a slow and painful death from their injuries.

Videos featuring the Dane Ax

Simulated combat with a Dane Ax vs. Ax and Shield.

Swing and chopping demonstrations with a Dane Ax.

Documentary re-enactments of combat with axes.

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