Skol! Weekend warriors swing the steel, Viking style

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Viking re-enactors use blunt steel weapons.
Viking warrior re-enactors use blunt steel weapons to fight each other in friendly contests of skill.
Dan Koeck for MPR News

Moorhead may not be Valhalla. But to these guys, it's pretty close.

About a dozen men stand sweating in chain mail layered over wool padding and hornless steel helmets. They're swinging real swords, minus the sharp edges. The sounds of steel on steel ring out between thumps of swords against wooden shields.

The blows are choreographed, though occasionally one goes off target. There's a grunt of pain, but no limbs lost.

"We love the fighting and stuff," said John Chadwell, a Viking reenactor who'll fight in mock battles this weekend during Moorhead's Viking Festival.

John Chadwell of Omaha, Nebraska
John Chadwell of Omaha, Neb., looks for his next victim in a rehearsal for a Viking warrior re-enactment event.
Dan Koeck for MPR News

"It's a big kid toy fest swinging swords at each other," Chadwell said as the men worked on their moves. "But if you ask any of us what touched as the most on a weekend, it's when you make that connection with the little kid that you know really likes what you're wearing or what you're doing — even though you're a big smelly stinky ugly Viking."

Centuries after the original Vikings faded into history, Viking culture is enjoying something of a renaissance. The History Channel's popular drama "Vikings" has rekindled interest in the ancient life, including the combat that made the Norsemen feared and famous.

Chadwell, from Omaha, Neb., started a Viking re-enactors group 20 years ago. Now there are about 130 members across the Midwest who go to shows every weekend and interest is growing. A Facebook page for Viking re-enactments boasts more than 5,000 people across the country.

"It seems to go in spurts and it's really blown up in the last five six years," Chadwell said.

Most of the dozen or so guys practicing for the Moorhead festival are weekend warriors in their 30s to 50s. It's a hobby.

Marc Page, left, and Nicholas Bergeron, right
Marc Page, left, and Nicholas Bergeron, right, discuss Viking culture with Tim Jorgensen, center, of Moorhead.
Dan Koeck for MPR News

For Nicolas Bergeron, though, it's a full-time job. Bergeron, from Montreal, makes a living going to shows, performing in schools and fighting in movie scenes. He leads a re-enactor group called Vinland Elag.

It takes a lot of skill to fight with heavy steel weapons and not hurt each other, he said. Injuries are rare, although he was hit in the face once with a sword.

"It's all about training, discipline and knowing each other when we fight to give a good show to people," he added, "a good realistic fight."

There are several styles of Viking warfare. This style doesn't allow blows to the head. Others do. If a sword slides across a leg the warrior crumples to the ground.

"If we weren't doing this safely and pulling the shots it could be like getting hit with a crowbar but none of us are really swinging that hard," said Jeff Angus, an experienced Viking fighter from St. Louis.

Jeff Angus pretends to stab his opponent.
Jeff Angus of St. Louis, Missouri, pretends to stab his opponent while other victims play dead.
Dan Koeck for MPR News

"We're really working on making the shot so it's a solid contact," he added. "So you feel it, but light enough you're not gonna break a bone."

Angus practices several times a week on a dummy and fights nearly every weekend traveling across the country and around the world.

"It's just a really good martial art. It's the European version of what kendo would be for Japan and Asia," he added. "Part of that is the accuracy of hitting your target being able to control that shot, land the shot exactly where you want it to be. And it's just basically counting coup against your friends."

The goal is to be as historically accurate as possible, and teach people something about Viking culture, Chadwell said.

The event fighting is more about show than competition, "but that's not to say that we don't have our moments where we go away from the public and do a little bit of hard fighting them, feel a little bit more Viking," he said.

"It's like going to see a "Rocky" movie," he added. "Everybody's a bad guy then you know, everybody's tough."

And the dead will return to do it again next weekend.

If you go

The warriors will do battle Saturday at the Midwest Viking Festival in Moorhead.

It's held at the Hjemkomst Center is at 202 1st Avenue North. Festival admission per day is $10, with children under 12 free with a paid adult.

Before you go...

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