Myth busting : Viking carried axes because they were also useful as tools
Did Viking and other similar type of warriors / raiders did indeed carry axes as their favorite weapon because of their versatility and secondary purpose as a handy tool ?
Well at first glance the very idea seems appealing and convincing.
After all, we have all read, in our youth, D&D rules over emphasizing how useful an axe could prove itself in a number of situations for an adventurer : from chopping wood for the campfire to break through an heavy dungeon door.
And honestly even if we move away from fantasy to a more “historical” scenario, wouldn’t it make great sense for a Norse warrior to be able to easily break through the heavy doors of a rich monastery ? After all those monasteries were one of the main targets of such raid precisely because of the high concentration of riches that they were known to pile up…. And obviously those riches were usually carefully locked behind sturdy wooden doors !
So wouldn’t it make sense to opt for a powerful weapon that can double up as a much-needed tool in such situation?
Well as tempting as it may sounds at first glance, this very idea is – actually - quite far away from reality.
Why ? Let’s see that together ^^
First because axes meant to be used as tools have very little in common with specialized battle axes :
Most of the Norse were actually… farmers. That’s true. And if you need to defend yourself what would be the first thing you would grab ? Most probably the biggest sharpest item you would have in your farm : your axe.
So, could a common axe designed to chop wood become a useful weapon ?
Certainly it could kill a man when used properly… But is it optimized for that purpose ? God no !
“Tool axes” make quite poor weapons compared to true battlefield axes. Just by their very shape, axes used for cutting wood are poor at cutting flesh! Lumberjack axes have a much thicker edge to withstand repeated hits against trees but this is not so effective at cutting fabric or flesh for example. And their mass give them a slower swinging ax than a more optimized battle axe.
But the opposite is true too : battle axes really make quite poor tools ! Just have a look underneath at this elegant Frankish Francisca throwing axe that give their name to the fearsome Franks warriors : would you really think at first glance that it would be a proper tool for breaking through a heavy door ? Sure no!
Same goes for most one-handed bearded axes / Skeggøx. They could undeniably deliver quite a punch… But would prove quite suboptimal for such a purpose. Nevertheless, for daily life small cutting it can surely do the job quite easily.
On the other hand we can reasonably assume that any elaborately decorated axe including inlays of precious metals like the Mammen axe head would not be willingly used for such purpose.
But of course, we still have the option of the massive dane-axe / broad axe, don’t we ?
Such a massive weapon should easily be able to break through a massive door, shouldn’t it ?
Well fact it that those giant great axes were actually surprisingly light and agile for their size. They were elite warrior prized weapons and there was nothing crude nor massive or clumsy in their wielding. Some of those battle axes were surprisingly thin straight to the edge ending up being terrifying cutters. But would they be the ideal tool for tearing a heavy door to pieces ? Probably not !
Let’s have a look at the Langeid style axe for example. Surely a terrifying weapon but not the kind of tool that I would willingly used day after day to chop wood for the campfire.
Look how thin the blade actually is !
Langeid axe : Museum number C58882/4 Museum of Cultural History, UiO.
In a similar manner Danish Type L War Axe has fearsome cutting potential with its thin blade profile. But it is clearly not a heavy tool for crushing doors or chopping down trees. Instead, it is a specialized weapon for hewing lightly armored foes.
And what about the Lunow type ? Honestly even if its massive and long T-shaped blade looks impressive and scary but not well suited for such a task.
7 Lindholm Høje 8 – Haithabu 9 – Suderbys, Gotland 10 – Rosenlund
All of them are Lunow type axes
Because battle axes were NOT cheap weapon you could afford to carelessly damage :
There is a common misconception about axes that comes again and again every single time once discuss the topic : battle axes were by no mean a crude, cheap weapon mostly used by mass of poorly trained and poorly equipped fighters.
First thing first, the most common weapon among Scandinavians at the time was the spear, not the axe. Secondly those battle optimized axes were not simply farm tools pressed into service for the time of a raid. On the contrary they were rather highly specialized weapons designed for specific purposes.
The manufacturing of a proper battle axe required tremendous skill and there was nothing crude at all in the elegance, lightness and speed of those weapons.
They were made by skilled craftsmen knowing perfectly how to optimize them for their intended purpose : war.
Just a glance at the surviving head from Langeid grave N°8 for example is enough to immediately realize how surprisingly complex the blade geometry actually is. They were not crude. They were not cheap. They were elite weapon designed for elite warrior.
Third and lastly because you would be genuinely surprised how fast those powerful battle axes get damaged when you use them for the wrong purpose !
Have you ever try to chop wood with an historically accurate reproduction of a type M broad axe / Dane axe? That’s a very bad idea trust me !
There is very good reasons why axes meant to be used as tools have a very different profile and handle than those specialized for battle : they are sturdy and robust. Specialized for actions requiring extra weight and extra toughness.
You really cannot expect a much slender battle axe optimized for cutting through flesh and textile to be able to withstand such punishment without quickly being damaged.
They were blades designed for war not for those repeated punishment. They were meant to hit mail and occasionally shields… And undeniably they were strongly built for their shape…. But there is a huge gap between hitting a shield in the chaos of a battle and seriously planning to chop a monastery’s door to pieces with your great axe !
If it was a matter of life and death could you do it ? Yes for sure !
(and some designs could indeed probably do the job quite well)
But would you really willingly take the risk to irremediably damage your main weapon if you knew you still had few weeks of campaigning ahead ? Probably not if you can do otherwise. ^^
Petersen, Jan (1919): De norske vikingesverd : en typologisk-kronologisk studie over vikingetidens vaaben. Jacob Dybwad, Kristiania.
Wenn, Camilla, K. Loftsgarden (2012): Gravene ved Langeid - Foreløpige resultater fra en arkeologisk utgraving. Nicolay 117: 23–31.
Wheeler, Mortimer (1927): London and the Vikings. London Museum catalogues No. 1. Lancaster House, London.
NB : We do have evidence for heavier sturdier heads being occasionally used during later medieval sieges by warriors who seems to use them as their main weapons. But they were surely quite sturdier than the deadly fast & elegant blades typical of most Viking age broad axes.