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This article's completion rating is 2 out of 5. Article structure and content is subject to change as data is still being collected.
Viking Age Compendium articles on Archery:
Archery & Bow Overview
Viking Age Compendium articles on Archery:
Archery & Bow Overview


Bows in the Viking Age were made from a single piece of ‘D’ section wood, usually yew if available [Halpin 2008]:p.40-41 (Dublin, Hedeby, Wassenaar), but elm (Dublin, Hedeby) and even scots pine (Dublin) were also used. Bow varied in strength up to around 100lbs (Hedeby).
Bows were made by working down a wooden stave so that the heartwood formed the bulk of the bow, giving it its strength, while a layer of sapwood was retained along the bow’s back to give the bow more elasticity under tension and to help prevent it from breaking.
Many of the bows were extremely simple and we have a number of finds of bows that still have the bumps and branch accretions left from the removed branches along their backs (Wassenaar, Hedeby).

Bow Grips

None of the bows found in the Viking Age have any distinct swelling around the area of the handgrip or show any evidence of having a separate handgrip attached. The bow-staves run roughly parallel along their entire length. The only unique finds of bows that do have a distinct handgrip come from the C7th Alemannic graves at Oberflacht in southern Germany.

Bow nocks

To attach the bow string a simple notch or ‘self-nock’ was cut into the bow stave, near both the bow’s terminals. Self-nocks can be either double-nocks or single-nocks, otherwise known as ‘side-nocks’, with similar numbers having been found of each type. The nocks were always cut into the sides of the bow-stave and never into the front or back.

When bows were single-nocked, or side-nocked, then the cut notches are cut into the opposing sides of the bow-stave, top and bottom.

Some bows only had a self-nock at one end of the bow-stave, with the assumption that the bow-string must have been tied on at the other end (Hedeby, Dublin). A manuscript image showing a tied on bow string might also be seen in the Stuttgart Psalter.

Nocks of different material

It appears that nocks with horn inserts or separately attached horn nocks were not used on self-bows in the Viking Age period. Mary Rose?

Finds of separate nocks have been found, such as the bone example from the C7th grave at Bad Cannstadt in Germany, but these have been identified as coming from a composite bow [Hoernig 2005]:p.119.

Stringing nocks and string keepers

Some bows have either a secondary set of nocks at one end of the bow-stave (Dublin, Waterford) or alternatively a hole has been drilled through the terminal (Adare Castle) [Halpin 2008]:p.59-60. The secondary set of nocks, known as ‘stringing nocks’ helped in stringing the bow. <><> The hole drilled through the terminal was probably a ‘string keeper‘. A loop of twine or leather thong was passed through the hole and the bow string with the intention of stopping the bow string from slipping down the bow-stave when unstrung.

Deflexed and reflexed terminals

We also have evidence for some bows having deliberately bent terminals after the nock points. These bent terminals either pointed towards the shooter (Dublin, Hedeby) or pointed away from the shooter (various manuscripts). Bows with terminals that bend towards the shooter, otherwise known as ‘deflexed’, are considered to be a diagnostic characteristic of a ‘Viking’ bow. These bent terminals were purely decorative and did not affect the ability of the bow in any way [Halpin 2008]:p.???.

Almost all of the Anglo-Saxon manuscripts show bows with nocks bent away from the archer (reflexed), the complete reverse of the deflexed nocks found in archaeology.
Many of the bows found in Hedeby have the 'Viking' style of nock that are bent towards the archer (deflexed), along with the Ballinderry bow from Ireland. Paulsen [Paulsen 1999] makes the case that this is “caused by shrinkage of the soft sapwood in the front”, a theory that is rejected by Halpin [Halpin 2008]:p.61 who cites a number of authors including Hardy who makes the comment that the bows from the Mary Rose were also re-curved and “that no process during the lifetime of the bows, or after deposition, are convincing explanations for this feature”.

Bow Strings

These were probably made from hemp, linen or silk. The evidence seems to point at hemp being the most commonly used material (Halpin 2008, p.61). Bow strings were usually 3 to 4mm thick and made from 3 ply twine (Altdorf, Switzerland [Hoernig 2005]:p.110)
Wincott Heckett has suggested that a tablet-woven tubular silk cord, dated to mid C12th, from Waterford may be a bowstring. [Halpin 2008]:p.61 Halpin then quotes Soar who suggests that the most common material for bow strings was hemp. In York, England, a lump of beeswax was found with a groove possibly caused by rubbing against a thread or string. Walton-Rogers comments that beeswax was often used on bow strings [Walton Rogers 1997]:p.1785

Using the Bow

Loosing arrows

During the Viking Age there were two methods employed for loosing arrows. The ‘Mediterranean loose’, which went on to dominate during the Middle Ages and the ‘Primary loose’, which w<><>. Arrows seem to have been drawn to the chest and not to the chin as is traditionally taught in modern longbow shooting.

Archery in warfare

Using archery in warfare appears to have been common in mainland Europe but probably not in Britain or Scandinavia. Why this was so is difficult to understand. Bows were used to both attack and defend fortifications but not apparently in direct combat.
In Charlemagne’s armies it became an essential weapon: ‘lanceam, scutum et arcum cum duas cordas, sagittas duodecim’ Capitulary of Aachen of 802/3, c 9. This instruction is most likely the result of the Carolingian wars against the Avars who we know from grave finds used composite bows with bone lathes [Manley 1985]:p.226.
We have evidence from manuscripts that in battle archery was often performed by two men working together, one firing while the other supplied arrows.


Battle of Maldon ‘poisoned point’ & ‘bows were busy’ [Manley 1985]:p.225

Horse Archery

It appears that archery was not performed in Britain from horseback but it might have been done in France and the rest of mainland Europe. Byzantium warriors were known to ride backwards while shooting [Nicolle 1984].


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