The Viking Bow

If you ask people which was the most common weapon during The Viking Age, you’ll probably hear that it was the axe, or the spear, or perhaps the seax. Some will claim it was the iconic Viking sword. While it is true that everybody had a knife of some sort, and that most people used an axe on a daily basis, the most common weapon during The Viking Age was actually the bow. Everybody had a bow. It was a hunting tool and it is fairly obvious that most people were, by today’s standards, incredibly good at instinctive shooting. During heathen times both boys and girls learned to shoot from a very early age, and while the upbringing of boys and girls was probably more separated after the Christian kings rose to power, I like to believe that even then, girls were taught to use the bow, at least when nobody was looking.

I have been a passionate historic archer and bowbuilder for several years and I find it fascinating to see that “primitive” peoples around the globe always seem to figure out how to design bows that fit the sort of wood they have available. For instance, in Scandinavia you would choose a narrow design like the longbow for a piece of yew, while you would make so-called flatbows from woods like ash and maple. We don’t know a lot about what the Vikings’ bows looked like, but people back then probably understood very well how to fit the design to the woods they had in their surroundings. Therefore, there was no such thing as one Viking bow design. There were many. Also, being made of wood, at least in this part of the world, bows were an expendable item. Once a bow started to get worn out and lose its poundage, or maybe broke one cold winter day, it was thrown away or maybe shaped into a spoon or a kid’s toy. Then you just made another one.

My favourite bow is the longbow. It is such a timeless design. I like to call my longbows “stickbows” because that is what they are, just a stick with a string attached to it. Such bows shaped the history of the world. And the stickbow was probably the very first bow design when our distant ancestors first found out that a stick with a string attached to it could throw a smaller stick at animals far away. And while I never shot at animals, I still remember those boyhood summers when I made my first bows out of juniper and shot arrows with stone points. There is something about a simple, wooden bow that connects you to the past in a profound way. Anyone interested in ancestry and origin, and especially The Viking Age, should give historic/primitive archery a try. I often say that when you’re holding a bow, you’re holding a part of the past in your hand. There is nothing quite like it.

– Bjørn Andreas Bull-Hansen