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Medieval Weapons Experts Fact-Check Arya’s Needle, the Red Viper’s Spear, and Other Game of Thrones Arms

Like last year, the fourth season of Game of Thrones has been very sword-heavy, which makes sense, considering that both seasons drew heavily from George R.R. Martin’s A Storm of Swords, the third book in his "A Song of Ice and Fire" fantasy series. Swords also make sense because, well, swords are easy. We know swords. We get swords. But given that the show also involves giants, dragons, and magic, no doubt we’ll be seeing more imaginative weapons in seasons to come, so it makes us wonder: Why would someone ever not use a sword? For example, in season one, we heard a lot about King Robert Baratheon’s preference for war hammers — but why specifically would he prefer to use that weapon? And have the characters who’ve wielded non-sword weapons used them properly? To find out, Vulture spoke with Zak and Beth, the proprietors of Starfire Swords, Ltd. and enthusiastic experts in the history of medieval weaponry.

THE RED VIPER’S SPEAR

In medieval times, who used a spear? Peons?
Zak: You name it, everyone used it. It’s a universal weapon used by horsemen and foot soldiers, and used by aborigines for hunting. So it’s almost the most universal type of weapon.

Interesting. So why would you choose a spear over, say, a sword?
Beth: Part of it is a comfort level. Part of it is — especially with something like a sword versus a spear — there are some things I don’t want to touch with a six-foot pole. I’d much rather have them at a distance and resort to a sword if I really screwed up. Working in distance as opposed to someone who likes tight corners — it’s very much about body size and agility and comfort level.

ROBERT BARATHEON’S WAR HAMMER

Can you give me a sense of what war hammers were like in medieval times?
Zak: War hammers were primarily related to jousting in full armor. The idea was to make dents in the armor and pierce holes in it. Normally a sword could not do that very well — but a war hammer had a very long point, sort of like a pick, and it did a good job of going through armor sometimes. Unfortunately, sometimes it got lodged in the armor and the owner lost it or went with it.

Why would someone have selected that weapon instead of a sword?
Zak: It was actually primarily a secondary weapon. It was used for close combat rather than at a distance, sort of like a dagger. In most circumstances, except when you’re in full armor, a dagger doesn’t really do any good.

There was a character on the show who used war hammers exclusively. He was a very big man and also a king. Would you say his choice of weaponry involved a certain level of overconfidence?
Beth: Absolutely.
Zak: Oh, yes.
Beth: He’s gonna lose that hammer sooner or later.

SHAGGA’S BATTLE AXE

One character we’ve met on the show primarily used battle axes. Can you speak on that? 
Zak: Battle axes were a little different because the battle axe was generally a choice weapon of someone who had a lot of strength behind them. There are stories of men with battle axes cutting men in full armor almost in half with one blow. But like I said, generally it was a choice weapon for someone who had a lot of physical power.

This character often fought while wielding two battle axes at the same time. Was Shagga crazy?
Zak: To use two axes, I would find it awkward. However, if the person is perfectly ambidextrous, it might actually work very well for them.

THE DOTHRAKI ARAKH 

One of the tribes on the show who favored a weapon that I can only describe as a short sword-knife combo. It has a handle and a rounded blade, but it’s shorter than a sword.
Beth: That blade hails from an Egyptian design. I am familiar. The Egyptian curved sword that goes the wrong way ...
Zak: Yeah, that one was used way back. There are certain places where, actually, it has been used very recently. Part of [its appeal] was that it could reach behind a shield.
Beth: And nail a guy in a kidney.

On the show, it was primarily used by people who were on horseback. Does that make sense?
Zak: No.
Beth: It would be more a preference of a foot soldier than a mounted soldier, because that curve goes the wrong way for mounted use. You want the sharp part on the outside of the curve for mounted use.

What type of soldier would use it?
Beth: It was generally used by foot soldiers. It’s a sneakier blade than a straight blade. It also does require a bit of proficiency to use the blade to full potential.

ARYA’S “NEEDLE”

There’s a young girl on the show who carries around a very thin circular sword that has a pointy end but isn’t necessarily a full blade.
Beth: Like a foil.
Zak: The only purpose for a foil is the pointy part. You can’t slash with it. You need pinpoint accuracy with it.
Beth: It would actually make her a better fighter in the long run.

It demands accuracy?
Beth: Oh, absolutely, since there’s no blade, everything depends on the point. By the way, they tend to break fairly easily, which would put it as a combat toy. It was mostly used in training.
Zak: In training or in duels. It was never really meant to be used as a general weapon. They have been extensively used in duels, but that’s the only degree of usefulness.

JOFFREY’S CROSSBOW

What is the difference between a crossbow and a standard longbow? And what are the pros and cons of each?
Zak: There have been a few battles in England where the Englishmen used longbows against crossbows and they actually held their own. However, it depends on the user itself. Crossbows generally allow someone with less skill to be able to do a reasonably good job with a bow, but there isn’t really that much more of a superiority. One of the problems is that it took a long time to load it. A regular bow you could fire ten arrows in the time the man with the crossbow could replace one, but it definitely requires a lot more skill.
Beth: And quite a lot of physical strength. 

On the show, the crossbow was used mainly by a king who doesn’t fight in battle; he used it ostensibly for protection.
Zak: A crossbow is not a protection implement. A crossbow is more of a distance attack. It generally was used sort of as a precursor of artillery, to get them at a distance.
Beth: Not a terribly realistic portrayal for the crossbow in use. The king would seldom be stooping to his own personal defense. That’s what you have other people for!

Well, it’s a very violent universe, and I think he just used it to feel tough.
Beth: Well, that makes some sense. But two things being equal, I’ll go with the longbow every time.

YGRITTE’S LONGBOW

Why is that?
Beth: As Zak pointed out, you can get off ten shots with that longbow in the time it takes to reload the damn crossbow. And the crossbow was a very awkward instrument. Especially the ones that came out in the medieval period. They were not easy to use. They were a royal pain in the butt.
Zak: Some of them, you lay on the ground and use your feet to stretch it out before you could load an arrow in it. Some actually had a lever. You had to pull the string back out with a lever.
Beth: And make sure you catch the hooks in it, otherwise you’d have to redo the whole thing. I’ll stick with the longbow.

Would that be your preferred weapon?
Beth: I work with swords but I play with bows on a very regular basis. I rather enjoy it. Personally, I like frying pans. They get the message across.
Zak: Just to clarify, she’s talking about cast-iron frying pans.

Because they’re heavy?
Beth: Yes! They also have a better trajectory. [Laughs.] They’re much more effective than axes, and as a side set, they’re perfectly legal to own.