As the story is set in a fantasy world, readers are free to imagine the weapons and armour however they like. But Tolkien’s world is grounded in many real world influences, including Norse and Saxon elements, which add depth to the characters, settings and action. If Middle-earth is to be imagined as generally reflecting the Dark Ages and Early Middle Ages of Europe, then some examples of the types of weapons and armour that might be seen there can be given.
Mail armour was a mesh formed of linked metal rings that can be worn as protection over most body parts. A mail shirt might be worn at waist length, to the middle of the thighs, or down to the knees. Sometimes mail might hang from a helmet to protect the neck. Mail provided good protection against the slashing, piercing and thrusting weapons of the time. Gimli’s “short shirt of steel-rings” is a mail shirt, as is Frodo’s mithril armour.
Scale armour is made up of small scales of metal attached to leather or cloth. Scale armour offers better protection from blunt weapons, but is not as flexible.
Padded cloth and leather armour would offer some protection in a fight, or could be worn under mail.
In Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings film trilogy, some characters (notably the Men of Gondor) are shown wearing full plate armour. Tolkien does not mention plate armour in the books, and these full suits of plate could perhaps be seen as a little anachronistic with what seems to be an early Middle Age setting (though individual metal breastplates covering the chest, and vambraces and greaves covering arms and shins might be used). However, The Lord of the Rings is not set in any specific time and readers are certainly free to interpret the world as they like.
Battle-axes were common weapons in the Middle Ages from the 9th to the 16th centuries. The wedge shape of the axe-head is good for crushing armour, then penetrating through with the sharp blade. Click here to see an image of Gimli’s axe in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings film trilogy.
Swords were one-handed, long and straight, based on the design of the Roman spatha. In the late Viking Age the front hand-guard developed into the larger cross-guard – at right angles to the blade and hilt – that is associated with medieval and later swords.
Influenced by Norse mythology and literature in which heroes give names to important swords, some of the swords in The Lord of the Rings are named. Named weapons can be understood as more powerful and carrying a greater lineage and history than those that remain unnamed. Examples in Tolkien’s books are Sting, named by Bilbo in The Hobbit and given to Frodo in Fellowship of the Ring, Narsil, reforged and renamed Andúril (Flame of the West), which is part of Aragorn’s legacy as future king, and Glamdring, Gandalf’s sword.
Bows have been used for hunting and warfare for thousands of years and by many different societies. They are made using flexible wood such as yew, ash or elm, with a grip in the middle, and are strung by bending the wood to loop the string over both ends. A recurve bow has tips that bend away from the archer, storing more energy and giving the bow more power, but putting greater strain on the wood. Tolkien mentions that Mirkwood bows (what Legolas is using) are shorter than the bows of other elves. Later he is given a longer bow by the elves of Lothlórien. Crossbows are not mentioned anywhere in Middle-earth. Click here to see a picture of Legolas’ Mirkwood bow from Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy.
Shields were made from planks of wood, covered with leather or hide at the front and fitted with a hand-grip at the back. Germanic and Viking Age shields were usually round, with kite shields that tapered at the bottom coming into fashion later. Shields are mentioned often in The Lord of the Rings, suggesting that one-handed weapons were more common in Middle-earth.