A Resource for Historic Arms and Armour Collectors
Medieval Reproductions Viking Helmet
A hands-on review by Patrick Kelly
The common image of a Viking warrior is that of an axe-wielding brute wearing a large horned helmet. While the axe may have been a favored weapon of the Nordic warriors of Norway, Sweden, and Denmark, they were no more brutish than their neighbors nor did they have a penchant for sporting helmets that made them look like a two-legged bovine. Unfortunately, this image has long been propagated through Victorian-era artwork and Wagnerian opera. In fact, it is hard to determine how a "typical" Viking helmet looked or if there even was such a thing.
Surviving armour from the Viking Age is extremely rare and when examples are found they are invariably in fragmentary condition. It is fairly certain that the primary body defense was mail, as it had been in previous centuries and was to continue to be for several more. It is commonly assumed that the ubiquitous nasal helm, a conical helm with a simple nasal guard, was widely used during the Viking Age. This type of helm is often depicted in period artwork and surviving examples are found all over Europe. Given the commonality of this design, it is logical to assume that it was a type of helm in use during the Viking Age. Still, it is hard to determine exactly what form the common Viking warrior's armour took, or if armour was even widely used during the period.
To date there has been only one helm that can be definitively described as "Viking." This helm was discovered in 1943 at a farm called Gjermundbu in Norway. The helm was part of a large grave-find that included many other items such as a sword, two axes, two spearheads, eight arrowheads, and the fragments of a mail coat (the earliest example found in the Nordic countries) as well as sundry personal goods. An elaborate scabbard chape was also found along with the sword, and due to the quality of these grave goods it is believed that the deceased was a Viking warrior of high standing. The helm itself is in the usual fragmented condition and only partially survives. Due to its condition a complete reconstruction of the helm is not possible. Still, from the surviving fragments the helm's general construction can be determined.
The Gjermundbu helm is made with the Spangen method, a segmented form of construction that became so common during the early Middle Ages. This typically consists of four to six plates that are held together by riveting them to reinforcing bands. As can best be determined by its condition, the helm's skull was formed from four plates that were connected to each other by four reinforcing bars that ran along the exterior of the helm. Evidence shows that four additional bars may have been attached to the helm's interior as well. The skull assembly was then attached to a horizontal brow band. The helm's most distinctive feature is its face guard. This consists of a spectacle or ocular-shaped plate that would have protected the brow and nose of the wearer's face. A short spike was also attached to the helm's crown. The significance and intended use of this last feature is unknown.
The grave-find itself has been dated to circa 970 AD, and while all other items found in the grave would have been considered "modern" at their time of interment, the helm is believed to be considerably older. This is primarily because of its similarity to older helms of the Vendel period, such as those found at Valsgarde, Sweden and the famous Sutton Hoo Helm found in Suffolk, England. Many of these helms feature face-plates and ocular face-guards similar to that of the Gjermundbu helm. While these were common features found during the pre-Viking periods they seem to have fallen out of fashion by the 10th century. Therefore the assumption that this helm may predate the accompanying grave-goods is a logical one. Fragments of mail were also found along the helm's rim. While it seems certain that some form of mail neck drape was connected to the helm its exact form is unknown.
The subject of this review is manufactured by Peter Fuller of Medieval Reproductions in Calgary, Canada. Mr. Fuller is widely recognized as a skilled armourer and is often used as a consultant by western martial arts groups such as the Association for Renaissance Martial Arts (ARMA) as well as institutions such as The Royal Ontario Museum, Ontario Canada.
Mr. Fuller has been making armour since 1980. In 1986 he began working at The Glenbow Museum in Calgary. He worked specifically in their arms and armour collection, which houses the second largest collection of European armour in Canada, as well as the largest collection of Japanese armour in the country. This gave him valuable hands-on experience with antique armour. Since 1994 he has operated his own company, Medieval Reproductions, and has made armour for the Glenbow Museum, the Royal Ontario Museum, The Higgins Armory Museum, as well as manufacturing prototypes for Museum Replicas Limited.
This helm is not a direct copy of the Gjermundbu find but is rather inspired by that artifact. While the Medieval Reproductions example features the same Spangenhelm style of construction its method of attachment differs from the original. Instead of using four reinforcing bars with two rivets each to connect the skull-plates, this helm utilizes four connecting bands that feature double rows of rivets. A theory concerning the original helm states that it was possibly made for ceremonial purposes due to the apparent fragility of its construction. This is possible; however, modern sensibilities typically assume that the arms of antiquity were far more overbuilt than they actually were. When this is taken into account this supposition remains only an interesting theory. Regardless of the design intent of the original the method of construction chosen by Mr. Fuller does result in a much stronger design.
The skull assembly is connected by another substantial row of rivets to a horizontal band that forms the helmets rim. At the juncture of the connecting bands and the rim-band these pieces are connected by four plates. Mr. Fuller chose this method rather than running the connecting bands below the rim. The latter method would have resulted in gaps forming between the plates, while the chosen method gives the helm a much cleaner appearance. The characteristic ocular plate is fitted to the front of the helm by five large rivets, while a small spike is secured to the helm's top by a circular plate. The helm is also lined with a period-correct leather suspension system (theoretically correct since no original examples survive) and mounted with a leather chinstrap. Both of these items are riveted to the helm's lower rim. A mail neck drape can be attached to the helm as an option; however, since modern and inaccurate butted mail is used I elected to decline this feature.
Measurements and Specifications:
Replica created by Medieval Reproductions of Calgary, Canada.
Fit and Finish
The front connecting plate is inscribed with the simple outline of a Thor's hammer, and the edges of the ocular plate are also inscribed with a single line approximately an eighth of an inch from both the interior and exterior edges. These small elements give the helm a nicely detailed appearance. All rivets are evenly spaced and set throughout the helm's construction. The entire piece has been burnished to a high sheen. This is not the overly glossy finish that is normally found on cheaper production armour, but is instead a deep rich polish that imparts a look of quality to the helm. (Note: this may not be evident in the accompanying photos due to our photographic setup.)
The only measurement I supplied Mr. Fuller was my cranial circumference, yet the result was a helm that fits my head perfectly. It is supposed that the mail coif and other similar head coverings such as an arming cap were not used during the Viking Age since no examples have ever been found nor are they illustrated in period artwork. Therefore a helm design of this period should fit the head fairly closely and this one does. When this is combined with the chinstrap and leather suspension system the result is a helm that fits the head snugly and securely.
I have wanted a helm of the Gjermundbu style for a long time. The Viking Age has always been of particular interest to me, and few objects are more characteristic of this period. Most helms I have found that have been inspired by the original are either horribly wrong in their proportions and finish, or purely decorative due to their construction. None of the examples I have personally handled have come close to this helm in terms of quality. My experience with Peter Fuller at and his company was also overwhelmingly positive. Mr. Fuller clearly informed me of the required timeline for construction and delivery, and once assembly had begun I was updated with in-progress photos of the helm. In terms of cost vs. quality, this helm was indeed money well-spent. I cannot recommend Peter Fuller or Medieval Reproductions highly enough.
About the Author
Patrick is a State Trooper serving with the Kansas Highway Patrol. He has been fascinated with edged weapons, particularly the medieval sword, since early childhood. Not only is Patrick thankful for any opportunity to indulge in his favorite hobby, he is also blessed with a wife who tolerates a house full of sharp pointy things.
Photographer: Patrick Kelly