Spear Fighting Within The Vikings

This paper was inspired by a debate on the Vikings-NA members-only email list in Late November 2005.

I'm reckoned to be one of the better spear fighters in The Vikings, so I decided to commit my thoughts to paper so that others can benefit from my experience.

Guthroth


1. Credentials.

I started spear fighting on my very first weekend as a steel weapon fighter in 1981. Throughout the 80's and early 90's it remained my preferred method of fighting. I started to use a smaller spear 1 handed with a shield in 1994 when I helped found a new group and found that my regular shield carrier buddies were missing. At the time 1H spear and shield was a bit of a novelty in The Vikings, but since 1995 it has been my primary fighting method.

As a Vikings RTT I am qualified to teach and assess all of the 'Basic' weapon skills except archery, but recent years have seen me concentrate mainly on Basic and Advanced spear.

2. Society Justification For Spear Fighting.

From the beginning of human conflict to the mid 17thC the Spear - in a variety of forms - has been the infantry weapon of choice. Even when the primary fighting man moved onto horseback, the spear - as a lance - continued to be the primary weapon until it was eclipsed by mass missile fire.

In our period, spears are extremely well represented in grave goods and iconography, and have their place in mythology as well. Odinns spear is his primary weapon, and even has a name. From a practical point of view, a spear is cheap and easy to make, uses a small amount of iron (compared to a sword) and is an excellent weapon to use against the main armour of the period, a ring shirt.

Although not the place to take this discussion further, the sword is much more expensive to make and care for, and carries with it the symbol of Lordship. In the poem about the Battle Of Maldon, the Eorl only draws his 'Gold hilted sword' _after_ his spear has been destroyed.

Taken together, the above makes a powerful case for the spear being the primary fighting weapon in our period.

3. Basic Training/Assessment.

Basic spear training/assessment is carried with a short spear no more than 5'6" - 1.68m - overall length. This sounds short but still works quite well against an enemy armed mainly with swords and axes.

3.1 Stage 1

In the first stage warriors are taught the basic shots using an action not unlike a pool cue, but with a shield in the off hand. The importance of controlled thrusts are emphasised, as is the fact that the elbow should _never_ lock straight. Killing blows are the normal chest, stomach and upper abdomen, but direct thrusts to the legs are not allowed because of the dangers of large haematomas. Instead, warriors are taught to thrust past the upper leg and deliver a kill by cutting back along the thigh (inside or out) instead. Chops are not a killing blow with a spear.

At this point, all warriors also need to be aware that a spear which is deflected by the defender may represent a risk to someone other than the specific target. An opposing sword or axe man will always try to deflect a spear thrust and in their haste to defend themselves they may do so with less care than we would like. Spear tips may therefore move in a variety of directions other than that intended by the wielder, and all spear shots must be delivered in a manner that takes some account of this fact.

3.2 Stage 2

In the second stage, warriors are taught a form of show fighting in which the spear is thrust over arm at the shield of the defender. This is intended to simulate what we believe is the historically correct usage where the face and upper chest are the primary targets.

At this point, this is _NOT_ a form of fighting that is recommended for use in a competitive format due to the risk of accidental hits to the head or face. This most often happens when a warrior thrusts at the upper chest, and the defender blocks up with his shield. If the spear tip has passed the shield rim when the shield starts to rise, the effect is to divert a chest shot towards the face of the defender, an event that is invariably regretted by all.

Another major element of this section is rearwards awareness. If you wield a spear over arm, and strive to remain as safe as humanly possible, inevitaby there is at least a couple of feet of spear shaft which is behind your hand grip, and this presents a clear danger to a warrior standing within about 3 feet behind you. In close combat situations where there is more than one rank of warriors, great care must therefore be taken not to injure your own troops.

4. The Basic Assessment.

In the basic Spear Assessment we look for competence, control and safety with the weapon rather than an efficient killing machine. Candidates are expected to be able to put in safe shots in a variety of situations, as well as knowing when not to strike their opponant. They are also expected to know how to react when they are quickly closed down by an advancing warrior, and how to ensure their weapon - which may be taller than the wielder - does not present a danger to anyone on the battlefield.

5. Advanced spear.

Once the warrior has passed the basic spear assessment they can move on to the Advanced one. Since the advanced spear assessment includes tuition in fighting from a second rank, working alongside a shield carrier in the front rank, and 'fencing' with other 2H spear users, candidates are expected to have completed the Formation Combat and Basic Display Combat assessments first.

This formally introduces a much longer weapon 7'6", which often has a larger, heavier head. Because of this it is invariably mounted on a thicker shaft, and whereas 7/8" (22mm) shafts are not uncommon for a 1H spear, 1 1/8" (28mm) or even 1 1/4" (31mm) shafts are most often used for a 2H one. The increased size and weight of the 2H spear means that this weapon is not always suited to warriors of a smaller or lighter frame, and this has to be considered when training a candidate. The length restriction is a compromise between what is safe to use and can be transported easily compared with the size of the historical weapons. No complete Viking-age spear has been found, so any reconstruction is based in part on guesswork. As with the Basic spear, a good deal of emphasis on Adv Spear is on safety, and again the issues caused by 'locked' elbows are repeated.

The assessment is significantly more involves and tests the ability of the warrior while using the weapon two-handed and trying things like pulling the shield aside, disarming the opponent, etc. all of which require more skill and ability.

An important thing to remember is that allows use of a spear Up To 7’6” long, and does not force you to use one that is as long as that. Personally I use a spear about 6’6” long with a shield. This gives a much greater reach than a swordsman or a spearman trained only in basic spear, and still provides protection against the longer 2H spears and Dane-axes.

6. Tactical considerations in a re-enactment environment.

Over the years, I've seen just about every combination of spear and other weapon you can imagine and how useful spears are depends on how many you have, how many the opposition have, and what percentage of each sides warriors are so armed.

If, when forces that are about even in numbers meet, one side has even a small number of spears (even down to 1 in 20) and the other has none, the spear-armed side will usually win. Even in the hands of an average spearman, the extra reach and the ability to cross-strike makes an enormous difference. If the spearmen are experienced they can contribute to overcoming a major disadvantage in numbers. This happened at a European event attended by some of my group last year, where two experienced spearmen butchered the opposition (who had no spears) with such efficiency that the following day, the non-spear group was bolstered to a 2 to 1 ratio against the spear armed side, and the guys with the two spearmen still won !

When both sides have small numbers of spears (somewhere between 1 in 3 and 1 in 10) the 1H spearman is really worth his salt. The mix of weapons means that many of the warriors have to get close to kill their opponant, and in doing so lose some peripheral vision. If their shield comrades are not wide awake they are easy meat for a 1H spearman who can still stand in the line and block for himself - thus occupying an enemy warrior - and strike sideways for an easy kill against the side, armpit or belly of an enemy swordsman who steps forward to try for a kill.

When spear ratios rise higher than 1 in 2 the 'porcupine effect' comes into play.
If both sides are similarly armed, the battle tends to turn into a poking match in which both armies drift to the right (in order to gain some benefit from their neighbours shield). A spear block like this is very vulnerable on the flanks and needs to be covered by sword and axe armed 'skirmishers'. In the main battle individual skills become less important, but out on the flanks they can prove vital. The battle is often decided by the short-weapon armed warriors who, if they can defeat their opponants quickly, can then move in on a spearwall’s flank and mop them up quite easily.

If one side has lots of spears (1 in 3 or higher) and the other lacks them (1 in 10 or less) the problem is different again. The side with the lesser number of spears simply cannot stand against a determined advance by the spear armed side, so has to resort to a trick from over 2000 years ago - they defend, give ground and spread out. The spearmen cannot expand their frontage without leaving gaps, so the side without spears ends up packing both flanks. Done correctly this leads to a 'Cannae' situation, where the spear line is first double outflanked, and then struck in the rear. Very satisfying….

In small numbers, Daneaxes are similar in use to spears, and provide a useful extra reach for a side with limited spears. They are often found working alongside spearmen where they hook the opponants shield, allowing the spearman a clean shot.

That being said, a confident warrior with a 1H spear and shield can be, in re-enactment combat - a Daneaxe warriors worst nightmare. They have no defence against the thrust and are usually outreached.

7. Personal Ramblings.

Even in a re-enactment setting, spears are clearly more dangerous to the defender so more care is needed. Over the 20+ years I have been involved in learning and teaching this weapon skill I have inevitably seen, and been involved in, a number of accidents where a spear is involved. This is inevitable in our hobby, where combat is effectively a contact sport, but we can never stop striving to reduce these incidents.

We know that the spear was the dominant weapon in Anglo-Saxon warfare from a number of sources, and given it's pre-eminent position throughout N Europe it is likely that Norse armies fighting in Scandanavia were similarly heavily dependant on the spear. It is possible that Viking raiders, being more intent on getting in and out, were more inclined to use short weapons. In a one-on-one situation, armed only with an 8-foot spear, only the most skilful A-S Thegn would stand much chance against a competant sword-wielding Viking.

That being said, in order to more accurately represent Anglo-Saxon armies of the period we really need to get over 90% of combatants to fight with spear in the initial stages of a battle, even if they resort to sword or axe towards the end.

Finally, I personally am not convinced that 2H spear and no shield was a viable method of fighting in our period. In Anglo-Saxon culture the shieldwall was far more than a military formation. The term was used to represent a brotherhood of men who had faced perils together and overcome them. A warrior without a spear is horribly exposed both to other spearmen, and the occasional archer. Connected to this, I believe that the oft-used tactic of placing a seax in the back hand is, in reality, a re-enactorism developed specifically to provide a 'get out' for the 2H spearman with no shield.

Happy Spearing !!

Unless otherwise stated, the content of this page is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 License.