When discussing medieval shields, they shall be grouped together by general shape. While this system of classification has its flaws, and there must necessarily be some overlap between shields that came from different parts of the world and periods of time when observing such a system, it is a quick and easy way to classify a large corpus of artifacts.
Shield Terms Glossary
What About the Other Shields?
Which Shield Should I Bear?
The word buckler is actually derived from the Old French term for “shield boss,” which should give a pretty significant clue as to its origins. A buckler is—quite simply—a small fist-shield generally between 12” and 18” in diameter. The shape is often—though by no means exclusively—round, with a central dome under which the first grips the shield’s handle. It is easy to look at early center-grip shields and see a buckler foreshadowed in the boss of the shield. Bucklers became so representative of medieval fighting arts that by the 15th century, “buckler” was a synonym in medieval English for “fighter.”
Cynara's rather battle-scarred buckler. This particular type from Purpleheart Armory is made of boiled leather, and is very sturdy.
Peak Era of Use: Between 1200—1500 A.D., although also used both before and after.
Construction: As its origins suggest, the buckler was one of the first shields to be made exclusively of metal throughout, although many examples of wooden and even boiled leather bucklers can be seen. Most bucklers weigh between 1 and 3 pounds.
Most often used by: Everybody. The medieval buckler was everywhere. Though often considered a defense of the merchant class, the buckler was used as both a training tool and a battlefield weapon by the knightly classes as well. In the later Middle Ages, most regular soldiers of a liveried army would carry a buckler, whether they were infantry, archers, halbardiers or gunners.
Pros: Quick and light, allows for a wide range of off-hand grappling maneuvers, easily constructed and easily found for purchase. Many historical treatises still exist detailing systems of sword & buckler usage. Does not block line of sight very much. Easily carried at hip.
Cons: Small surface area; beginners may tend to flail with it. Not as easy to display heraldic designs. Proper use can be counter-intuitive and difficult to learn without proper training.
Round Center-Grip Shield
The shield most often associated with the Vikings and Anglo-Saxons, the round center-grip shield was incredibly popular with foot soldiers and mounted warriors alike (although it gradually fell out of favor with cavalry in favor of other shield forms). A good, all-purpose shield, the round center-grip shield is often between 24” and 34” and made of wood. It can be rimmed or unrimmed, plain or lavishly decorated.
Subclass: Oval Shields
Some center-grip shields are oval-shaped rather than circular. These are most often identified with the Franks, but also found use with all the warriors listed below. These did not stay as popular as the circular round shields.
This center grip shield from Mercenary's Tailor is edged with tough rawhide. Note the central steel boss.
Peak Era of Use: 800—1100 A.D. (Oval shields 800-1000 A.D.)
Construction: Wood. Some sources specify linden-wood, a close European relative of bass-wood, which is light but tough. Poplar, alder and oak also seem to have been common choices for shield-wood. Extant shields are predominantly flat, but iconography seems to indicate that a convex shallow bowl-shape was also incredibly popular. At least four or five planks are generally glued together and held in place with steel or iron stabilizers across the back. Some may have been constructed in a sort of ply-manner, with different kinds of wood sandwiched together and cut into a circular shape. The boss is always of steel or iron, and can be either domed or cone-shaped. Weight ranges between 5 and 12 pounds, 7-9 being a comfortable middle ground.
Most often used by: Any warriors at the time. The round center-grip shield was of course used by the Vikings and the Saxons, but also by the Franks and even the Normans.
Pros: Versatile, instinctive to use. Broad surface area. Appropriate for most types of combat between the so-called “dark ages” and the earlier crusades. Center-grip allows for quick shift of shield position. Fairly easily carried on back.
Cons: Heavier than buckler—its closest relative in grip. Beginners can tend to block their own line of sight with it. No extant treatises detailing its proper use, although much can be learned from iconographic evidence.
Round Shield (Target)
Similar in shape and size to the round center-grip shield, a round “target” shield has no central boss under which it is gripped, but rather a set of enarmes—either two or three—which hold the shield on the wearer’s arm. This seems to have been a development preferred by mounted troops, as it freed their shield hand up to hold reins. The name “target”—from the Norse targa—reflects the fact that these shields were often used as archery targets fixed to stuffed dummies. This sort of shield stayed popular into the Renaissance as a civilian weapon.
Ser Maelgrim's target shield--shot many times with arrows.
Peak Era of Use: 1100—1500 A.D. (dependent upon military or civilian use)
Construction: Flat wood, although later target shields might be slightly convex, like a buckler. Generally, wood, or iron-plated wood was the construction method of targets. Leather-covered wood and even plain iron seem to have been popular at times as well (although in general, the completely iron versions were later period than medieval). A stuffed cushion or pad for the arm was usually found on target shields, which could also be rimmed or unrimmed.
Most often used by: Professional warriors at first, civilians in later periods.
Pros: Medium surface area, instinctive use for shield-strikes and bashes. Easily aligned and held in place. Fairly easily carried on back. Appropriate for much of the medieval period. Texts illustrating proper use still extant. Very good for heraldic display.
Cons: Mildly heavy. Arm-straps link its maneuverability directly to movement of the arm, so it is less versatile than a center-grip shield. Harder to cast away when beaten useless. Easy for beginners to block their line of sight with it, although not as easy as with the center-grip shield.
Often associated with the Normans pictured in the Bayeaux Tapestry, the so-called “kite shield” actually found use by the Saxons in the same battle. Sometimes as long as 45” kite shields are rounded at the top with straight sides tapering to a long point, sometimes rounded as well (although later versions, after the adoption of the Great Helm, feature a flat top). As such, they protect riders’ legs when held in a neutral position, and protect a foot soldier from the knees to the shoulders. Early kite-shields were flat, but soon developed a curve so that the sides face in towards the bearer. The longer versions tended to be used with spears and javelins rather than swords.
Subclass: Teardrop Shield
The teardrop shield is similar in shape to the kite shield, but is broader and, instead of straight tapering sides, it bulges out as it narrows to a point. This type of shield seems to have developed partially from the Oval shields used by Frankish cavalry, and is sometimes pictured both with a boss and without.
Ser Owen's kite shield, the lion charge is a good example of early heraldic display.
Peak era of Use: 1000-1300 A.D. (Teardrop shield 800-1200 A.D.)
Construction: Wood, often faced with heavy linen or leather. Early kite shields have bosses, although they are vestigial, and do not protect the hand. Rather, all kite shields are held by a system of enarmes. Generally weighing between 6 and 12 pounds.
Most often used by: Mounted troops, who did not need shield mobility quite so much, although infantry also took advantage of their superior coverage.
Pros: Tons of surface area: very good defense. Protection for the upper leg, both mounted and on foot. Excellent for heraldic display. Appropriate for combat styles from the High Middle Ages.
Cons: Moderately heavy. Like the target, arm-straps link its maneuverability directly to the movement of the arm, so it is less versatile than a center-grip shield. In addition, its size also makes it less versatile. More difficult to learn correct use, as the tendency to “hide” behind the shield can be more pronounced.
Most often pictured with the classic knight, a heater shield gets its name from museum curators who noted its similarity in shape to the bottom of a heating iron (like the type you use to iron your clothing). Its top is flat, and the edges come to a point, like a triangle with convex-curving sides. Developing from kite shields, early heater shields are often just under two feet wide. In later period shields, when used in conjunction with high quality armor, the shields shrink in size to about 1’ by 1-1/2'.
Herr Lantz's heater shield. As with the kite shield, one can see that the shape is well-suited to heraldic display. The shield strap can be seen off to one side.
Peak era of Use: 1200—1500 A.D.
Construction: Wood, sometimes wood braced with iron or steel. Often made of a composite of woods, so that the shield is tough but light, as well as dense enough to grip an enemy’s blade. Usually faced with heavy linen or leather. Earlier heater shields are flat, but examples from the late 13th and early 14th centuries are often curved in the manner of a kite shield. Rimmed or unrimmed. Strapped with enarmes. Weight between 4 and 7 pounds.
Most often used by: Knightly classes, although all cross-sections of society are shown using them in medieval iconography.
Pros: Lighter than many other shield types because of their shape, they can be moved quickly. Reasonably large surface area. Excellent for heraldic display. Appropriate for High and Late medieval combat styles.
Cons: Legs left relatively unprotected. Edges make it difficult to construct a safe simulator that can be used for striking. Enarmes link mobility to arm movement, just as with target and kite shield.