12 centuries on and the Vikings are still a subject that looms large in our imaginations. Blonde, powerfully built men with horned helmets, nostrils flaring with aggression, weapon wielding to descend and capture. On a not-so-well-known note researchers assert that the weapon a Viking brought to his grave was a measure of his social standing. A more ordinary Viking would be buried with an axe or a knife, you needed to be one of the elite to be buried with a lance or a sword but it was only the gifted who were buried with their bow and arrow. In this article we will be paying special attention to the Viking bow and arrow which was the weapon of choice when attacking from a distance or during nautical battles to clear the deck.
Typically measuring 60 to 80 inches in length, a traditional Nordic bow was made with the wood of yew, ash or elm. (Bois d’arc, aka Osage orange, is another common option for advanced bowmakers, which was common to the Caddo Indians in America.) Though few wooden artifacts exist from the Viking era, most evidence suggests that the longbows made from these common woods were used throughout their lands, with yew wood being the most popular wood for modern bow makers.
“The difference between a Viking and an ordinary man is that a Viking sees everything as a challenge while an ordinary man sees everything as a blessing or a curse” – Viking Quotes
Some bow making enthusiasts, who do not have access to power tools, often order pre-tapered hickory bellies with bamboo backing strips ready to be glued; in order to avoid the heating and tempering process necessary to shape the wood. This is more inline with the English style longbow. Outside of power tools and pre-made staves, there are four main steps to the bow-making process.
Step 1 in the process of creating the bow includes the heating and tempering process necessary to shape the wood. Step 2 defines the handhold and limbs. Step 3 involves shaping the bow, shaving wood off the unyielding spots on the belly only, until both the upper and lower limbs curve similarly to each other. Step 4 is finishing with sandpaper and water proofing.
The properties of yew wood make it an ideal wood for this process and a creating a strong bow. Yew has the darker heartwood that is able to withstand compression forces surrounded by the lighter sap wood that is able to withstand tension forces as the arrow is drawn. In order to make sure that the bow is bending evenly, wood may need to be removed from parts of the limb. Grooves are then cut at the ends of the bow to fit the string. The string must naturally touch the center point of the bow. Some bowstring material possibilities are: rawhide, thin nylon rope, hemp cord, fishing line, strands of cotton or silk from caterpillars and ordinary twine.
It is believed that one shot from a Viking bow and arrow could pierce through shields and helms. Arrowheads were typically made of iron in various shapes and dimensions to serve different purposes including hunting small game and battle. Some of the various shapes included leaf, diamond, cylindrical, pentagonal, conical and v-notch. Varying anywhere between 55 to 120mm in length, replicas manufactured today are mainly made of mild steel or wrought iron.
While a bow seems to be a simple piece of bent wood, there’s quite a bit to the process of creating one. I highly recommend Tom Brown’s breakdown of Making a Bow and Arrow for greater detail on the process. And do let us know how you get on with making your own.
“But no warrior could work harm on another
Except by the flight of a feathered arrow…
Bow strings were busy, shield parried point,
Bitter was the battle. Brave men fell
On both sides, youths choking in the dust…
In the fire of battle he did not flinch,
Notching arrow after arrow as quick as he could.
Sometimes he hit a shield, sometimes he pierced a man,
Again and again he inflicted wounds
For as long as he could hold a bow in his hands.”