Weapons in the Middle Ages

The Middle Ages were fraught with frequent wars and battles and weapons were extremely valuable for success in these campaigns.  Using limited technology it was possible to create a wide range of weapons and defensive gear for knights and soldiers.  Tournaments and sporting events served as important training practice for many aspects of a military career.  Skills with lances, knives, or in hand-to-hand combat were necessary to survive a campaign.

Fortifications were developed to be extremely strong and durable making offensive attacks very difficult.  Military campaigns needed to be prepared to pursue multiple tactics if they were to be successful.  Calvary and foot soldiers in addition to those specializing in more complex equipment were all required for an attack or a defense.

Examples of Arrow-Based Weapons

The bow and arrow is one of the most traditional of weapons.  It can be used to strike from a distance and many archers develop precision and accuracy important for successful strikes.  A significant disadvantage of using archery equipment is that it is only useful until the archer runs out of arrows.  It can be cumbersome to carry an abundance of arrows, but they are the ammunition required.

Crossbows are ancient weapons used in East Asia for centuries.  They operate similarly to a bow and arrow but utilize a mechanism for the release and propulsion of the projectile fired.  Crossbows can be in a number of sizes from handheld varieties to those mounted on large framework.

Spears are considered pole weapons and feature a long shaft and a pointed tip.  For combat purposes spears often incorporate a mineral or metal point for greater strength and durability.  A spear can be further subdivided into thrusting spears and throwing spears and each feature subtle differences in design.  Spears have connotations of ancient warfare, but the simple design and production allowed this weapon to have continued use throughout the Middle Ages.

Examples of Blade-Based Weapons

A sword can refer to any number of weapons in the Middle Ages.  Some varieties are single-bladed whiles others are double.  It is also possible for the blade to be straight or curved as well as differences in length and weight.  The weight and length of the sword was dependant on the user of the sword.  Height and strength contributed to selecting the proper sword for a knight.  The most common medieval sword variety is the arming sword, which is cruciform in shape and meant to be used one handed.

Daggers were used for close combat, though evidence suggests that it was not used until the Late Middle Ages, despite its popularity in Antiquity.  The necessary proximity of combatants using daggers, or other short-bladed knives, requires a different skill set than sword fighting. A benefit of the dagger is that the small size allowed for it to be concealed and easily drawn in case of loss of other weapons.

Other Weapons

The Middle Ages saw the development of artillery and the use of explosions as a weapon.  Though it would be a several centuries before personal firearms were developed, medieval canons used gunpowder explosions to propel cannonballs into fortifications thereby reducing the defensive advantage of the attacked party.

Entrance to fortresses and castles was essential to a successful offense, and battering rams were useful tools for breaking down doors and gates.  Battering rams are considered part of the siege engine category of weapons.  Multiple people were required to work together to create enough force to penetrate the surface.  Later, more advanced developments suspended one end of the log on a support structure so that the release and subsequent swinging motion would generate the necessary force.

Catapults have been in use since ancient times, but their effectiveness contributed to the continued use throughout the Middle Ages.  The varieties of catapults utilized human force, torsion, or counterweights to hurl projectiles over long distances.  Stone and rocks were the most common projectiles, but fire was efficient for destroying wooden edifices and garbage and chemicals were destructive in other ways.

Personal Defenses

The weapons mentioned above are primarily viewed through an offensive perspective, but most are also used defensively.  Being properly equipped in terms of weaponry was extremely important for military success, but survival depended on methods of personal defense.

One of the most resounding images of the Middle Ages is of a knight in armor.  The suits were heavy and often very uncomfortable, but the metal was able to deflect a lot of potential damage.  Armor was not perfect at its role of protection because although it may prevent a stab wound, the force of being struck could still cause bruising and other damage.

Also the joints of the suit, which corresponded on the joints of the limbs and body, were often points where blades and arrows could penetrate.  It was not always practical in terms of expense, comfort, and activity to wear a full suit of armor, but other defensive garments were used for protection.  Chain mail incorporated many small links to form a vest or tunic.  This prevented larger blades from reaching the skin, but thin blades could potentially penetrate the armor.

Another piece of defensive equipment was a shield, which could be of a large range of sizes and shapes.  Shields were developed to be held by the non-dominant hand while the weapon is in the other.  Shields deflected blows from the opponent and allows the individual to fight offensively and defensively simultaneously.  Despite the advantages, sometimes shields were considered too cumbersome to justify their use.


Weapons in the Middle Ages were designed to be as efficient and practical as possible, though personal weapons were often decorated and embellished as symbols of ownership and displays of wealth.  Common knights and soldiers would not necessarily have ornate hilts or engraved blades on swords, but the nobility were able to exhibit their wealth and influence in yet another medium.

Shields could also be decorated, most commonly with the family or royal coat of arms.  Medieval weapons are now valued artifacts and modern collectors and historic centers display swords and shields as part of the interior décor.

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