A shield was an essential piece of equipment for every Viking warrior, used for both offensive and defensive purposes the shield could mean the difference between life and death for a Viking. It was in fact so difficult to fight against edged weapons without a shield that it would be a rare day to find a Viking warrior in combat without his trusty shield. With that being said, in the times of the mighty old Norse warriors a shield was considered a throw away item. Should a shield save its owner in battle and be split in two, then the shield would have served its purpose.
Of course the old Norse shields were heavy wooden objects, and carried considerable weight in their frame and could weight up to 7 kilograms. The Viking warrior would not carry his shield in his hand when not in battle, instead the Vikings commonly affixed a leather strap to the back of the shield, allowing them to carry the shield over their shoulder and on their backs.
The Viking era shields were round, almost perfect circles and would be around 90 cm or 64 inches in diameter offered protection for a large portion of the wielders body. The shape and size most likely evolved over time, with the perfect blend of size and protection against weight and mass balancing out over time. Of course the very nature of the varying size and shape of the human form meant, there were likely a range of shield sizes in use, with most warriors bearing a shield that matched their body size.
The decoration of the shield is another area where personality and style come into play. Viking warrior shields were often decorated and painted, found examples show black and yellow paint, but there were likely many choices of colours used, along with a variety of patterns and designs implemented.
The Viking shield construction followed a very common pattern, the construction of nearly all shields were the same, with only minimal differences in materials and decoration. All shields were constructed primarily from wood a readily available material, while some shields added metal, leather and fabric, in various forms and utilities.
The main body of the shield was constructed from wooden pieces split along the grain, which would provide extra strength and rigidity to their construction. These wood pieces were butted up straight edge to edge and held together with a rim and cross pieces or the handle of the shield itself. Coverings would sometimes be used to add extra strength and sturdiness.
The common wood types used for the shields were likely the local trees, and its thought the Vikings chose the lighter timbers to make their shields, like locally grown alder, spruce, linden or fir trees.
At the centre of the Viking warrior shield would be the Boss, an iron dome shaped protector, the boss would offer protection for the shield bearers hand. If the shield were to be struck or hit then the boss would ensure that even if the wood was penetrated the boss should offer a good level of safety for the hand.
The boss would be rimmed by a flange which would be affixed to the shield with iron nails typically bend over on the rear of the shield. It was important for the size of the boss to offer wide enough protection and they were typically 6 inches or 15 cm in diameter. The shape of the boss itself could range from an almost perfect dome shape to a more flat surface head.
Of course to hold the shield effectively a hand grip is required and on the old Norse shields this would run almost one hundred percent of the shield diameter. The hand grips was typically constructed from wood and affixed to the shield with nails along its length, though there is evidence to suggest that metal hand grips were sometimes used, and in some cases the boss itself would have a small hand grip built in.
The Viking shield due to its constructed was typically rimmed with a piece of animal skin or leather. This rim was important for multiple reasons, it added rigidity to the shield, the butted wooden piece construction benefited massively from having a rim to held keep the construction sturdy. The rim also made the shield perform better under stress from enemy attacks, the additional strength would help keep the shield in one piece. The rim would be affixed to the shield with multiple small nails or tacks, and in some cases iron clips were used.
Due to the construction of the shields used by the Viking warriors, they were prone to splitting and cracking when attacked with bladed weapons like an axe. One way the warriors would strengthen their shield to this kind of attack was to put a covering on their shield.
Its likely the covering would have been a fabric covering, like linen, or if available a leather covering. Both would have served a purpose in providing extra rigidity to the shield, and also helped to hold the wood together should it be penetrated by an edged weapon.
Many historians believe that most Viking shields would not have been covered however, and in this case its likely the wood was created with some varnish or sealant, to ensure that the shield did not soak up excess moisture, weakening and making the shield more heavy.
In battle the Viking warriors would wield their shield with the main priority of saving their life, but of course they could also use it as a weapon and many a story has been told of a fight being resolved with the strike from a shield.
The shield was still a primary defensive item however, and in combat the Viking warriors would have ensured they kept the shield protecting their torso at all times, with side to side attacking movements coming from their weapon held typically in front of the shield.