Vikings used their shields for both offense and defense. Some Viking shields were likely covered or rimmed with animal skins that shrunk when dried and provided greater strength and less likelihood of splitting when hit with a weapon. Shields were made to fit the person using them and could be anywhere from 24 to 38 inches in diameter; this allowed the person to find the right balance between needed defense and the weight of the shield.
Viking Shield Law
In Norway, laws existed that dictated the way shields were made. The Gulaþing and Frostaþing laws state that wooden shields should include three bands of iron attached with iron nails. These laws were later amended. They required the shields to be made of double planks of wood and painted red and white.
Round shields protected the person from neck to knees, making the head and lower legs more appealing targets. While absorbing and redistributing the power of a blow over a larger surface area, the shield could also trap a weapon when it penetrated the would but stuck fast. This was advantageous because a weapon so caught could be wrenched away from the attacker or broken. The round shield could be used like brass knuckles to strike an unprepared opponent.
The center of the shield had a grip that was covered with an iron dome, or boss, to protect the hand. This type of grip was less stable than shields that were strapped to the forearm, but it allowed for greater reach and maneuverability. Shields probably had leather straps so the warrior could sling the shield onto his back and use both hands to wield a weapon like a spear. They may have also been hung over the shoulder, especially when traveling.
Viking Shield Uses
Many shields were likely decorated. Vikings made paint from minerals, including iron oxide for red, malachite for green and vivianite for blue. The paint would protect the wood from the elements and tell others about the allegiance of the Norseman wielding the shield. Colorful shields could be used for decoration in longhouses.
Viking longships were equipped with shield racks that allowed the shields to be hung off the side of the longship. Shields thus placed would provide some protection against missiles shot at the ship. However, they would also inhibit the operation of the ship. The decorated shields were likely only hung from the racks to make a spectacle when leaving or entering a harbor and when combat was imminent.
Kite shields may have been used later in the Viking age. These shields were designed to protect a man on horseback and were relatively little used. Vikings tended to fight on foot, using horses only for transportation and to get away from a fight quickly.