The Viking shields were large round wooden shields with metal enforcements. Unlike other shields, the Vikings did not hold the shield by strapping it on the arm, as might be expected. Instead they were held with a single grip at the center of the shield, behind a metal boss.
This way of holding the shield, opened up a wide variety of techniques in the usage of the shield. The single grip gave the user a possibility to turn an twist the shield in various ways, thus making the shield a formidable defense tool, as well as opening for the possibility of using it in an offensive.
The shields were normally around 80 to 90 cm or around 35 inches in diameter, making it a rather large object to carry around for warfare. The size might be an indicator to the importance of the shield, when it came to the defense of the Viking warrior, as such a large shield would always be difficult to carry around.
There are some archeological finds that give us an idea about how these shields might have looked like and what they might have been made of. Another indicator of the design is the Gulathings law, where it describes in detail how the Viking shields are to be made.
According to the description of the shields made for the Gulathing community, the shield was to be made of wood with three iron bands and a handle fastened to the back side by iron nails. Later the law was revised to include a description of the front, which was to be made of a double layer of boards.
In the description of the Gulathing law, there is also a text indicating a certain color scheme, in this case white and red. The colors were most likely regional colors for the Gulathing area, as other shields are known to have had other colors, for example the colors found on shields from the Gokstad excavation show shields with fronts painted black and yellow.
The shields that have been found were made of fir, pine or spruce but most shields that are mentioned in Nordic literature indicate that the Viking shields were made out of linden or basswood as it’s known in the America.
The edge was most likely trimmed with leather to keep it together in case of an impact splitting the wood. With a leather or a rawhide on the edges, the shield would be more resistant to breaking apart.
Another way of enforcing the shield, would be to cover the front with leather. This increases the strength of the shield and prevents it from splitting up.
When looking at the shield from the opponents side, one would notice the size, as the shield would cover the bearer from the head to his legs. The flexibility of the bearer would also be noticed, as the shield could be maneuvered much more freely than had it been fixed to the forearm, as is the norm with larger shields.
When the Vikings were on the move, or not engaged in battle, the shield would be carried on the back using a leather sling. This reduces the weight a little, as well as giving extra protection from rear attacks.
Though the shield was first and foremost a defense tool, its design and usability made it a dangerous weapon in the hands of a trained warrior.