The Writer’s Guide to Types of Shields

The shield is almost as iconic as the sword when it comes to fiction and legend. Just like the sword, since it is not a commonly encountered item, most modern writers are lacking in accurate information. There is unfortunately a lot of misinformation presented as fact.

Today we will be looking at types of shields. My focus will mainly be on medieval Europe since that is when and where most of my knowledge is and because most depictions of shields in movies, TV shows, and books are from this period.

As always, magic is the exception to the rules. Because magic.

Types of Grip

There are two main ways to hold a shield: center grip or straps.

Center Grip – The center grip, just as it sounds, has a center handle that the user holds with one hand. Some shields are domed or have an extending center boss that allows room for the hand. Others just have an extending handle.

The benefit of the center grip is the ability to move it anywhere it is needed, making it quick and nimble. The downside is that any impact to the shield is concentrated on the user’s wrist. This limits the amount of force the shield and its wielder can absorb or dish out.

Straps – For shields that were strapped to the arm, there was a leather strap that the user slipped their arm through and a handle that they gripped with their hand. The handle could be made from either leather, wood, or metal. There was a variation of this set up that used a belt known as a guige. The guige looped around the neck or shoulders, helping to support the weight. It also allowed the shield to be carried on the back or dropped and retrieved later. [1]

This configuration was more secure than the center grip and put the hand closer to the edge of the shield. This allowed the user to hold something in their left hand, such as reins or a dagger. Since the shield was more firmly secured to the body, the user could absorb and exert much more impact. The off-center configuration was also beneficial in shield formations and walls since the edge overlapped the shield to its right. The downside was the loss of agility in moving the shield to different locations since it was attached to the body.

A center grip Viking shield. Photo source.
A heater shield with straps. Photo source.
A medieval depiction of a guige (right) and a modern reproduction. Photo source.

Types of Shields

There are many types of shields from around the world and throughout history. Below I will be focusing on the most common medieval European shields.

One thing I will point out before I begin are the terms I’m using. Most of them are not from the period but assigned later by historians to differentiate between types of shields. Most shields used during the Middle Ages were just called “shield.”

Heater Shield – This shield is probably the most iconic and the one most people think of when picturing a medieval shield with the flat top and pointed bottom. It was developed during the 12th century from the kite shield (more on that later). It commonly used straps. It was carried by every class of society and became the standard for displaying heraldry. It was on the smaller side and left the legs unprotected. It was named a heater shield by 19th century historians who thought it resembled the shape of an iron.

A medieval knight carrying a heater shield. Photo source.

Kite Shield – Also known as a teardrop shield, the kite shield was large with a rounded top and a pointed bottom. It was developed to protect the entire body of a mounted rider. However, it was also used by foot soldiers because of the amount of protection it provided. It was used heavily by the Normans starting in the 11th century. [2] Straps and occasionally a guige were the most common ways of holding it.

Kite shields depicted on the Bayeux Tapestry. Photo source.

Round Shield – This type is one of the oldest and simplest forms of the shield. It is closely associated with the Vikings, who commonly used this type of shield. It could have a center boss or not, and could either use a center grip or straps.

Two 3rd century round shields with a center boss. Photo source.

Tower Shield – The tower shield was not a commonly seen type of medieval shield but people during that period were aware of them. The most famous version of the tower shield was the Roman scuta, a center grip used by Rome legionnaires including in the testudo or tortoise formation.

Roman soldiers with their scutum. Photo source.

I hope this was helpful. Let me know if you have any questions or suggestions by using the Contact Me form on my website or writing a comment. I post every Friday and would be grateful if you would share my content.

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Let’s get writing!

Copyright © 2021 Rebecca Shedd. All rights reserved.

[1] Clements, John (1998). Medieval Swordsmanship: Illustrated Methods and Techniques. Boulder, Colorado: Paladin Press. ISBN 1-58160-004-6.
[2] Oakeshott, Ewart (1997) [1960]. The Archaeology of Weapons: Arms and Armour from Prehistory to the Age of Chivalry. Mineola: Dover Publications. pp. 176–177. ISBN 978-0812216202.

74 Comments on “The Writer’s Guide to Types of Shields”

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