Vikings, John McKenna, the show’s official armorer
Vikings has some of the best battles and weaponry on network television. So of course, inverse had to talk to John McKenna, the show’s official armorer. Mckenna has also worked on Ripper Street, King Arthur, The Lobster, Six Shooter, The wind that Shakes the Barley, and more.
The armorer for a show supplies and decides which weapons the cast and background use. Weapons are designed for each character and they each have dedicated weapons. A first set of weapons and then a set of doubles so they can shoot with the character and a double at the same time. Each individual pretty much whatever the stunt guys decide are best suited for them. He likes arming the whole cast, but particularly Rollo because his fighting routines have always been heavy handed. He became the ax-man.
McKenna has been an armorer for 33 years and has worked in many shows: historical, contemporary, and everything in between. Although, when you get a show like Vikings you don’t want to get any of the weaponry wrong and its important to be as historically accurate as possible. There is a lot of research involved up front and then as the series progresses he was able to introduce different weapons. The research is to see what’s out there to use and then you can get a little creative. Furthermore, the items that may be correct for the period may not be necessarily appealing to the eye. The design and art team may want to glamorize the item because someone is more important or regal. For example, a weapon might just be a knife with a bone handle, but if a main character carries this then they would make it special so it can stand out for the individual. In McKenna’s research he found the ax to be the most extraordinary. It started off as a simple farm tool that was used for boat building, or their connection with timber and trees and then became this iconic war tool for the Vikings. Also, the amount of different types from size to style shows they had a true love affair with the ax.
The business has changed over his 33-year career. Since 2003, when he was doing King Arthur, most of the sword blades were made of aluminum, aircraft grade, and would be substantially heavier. Although, in the past five years the industry has moved to bamboo, which has allowed cast members to literally work away all day on their routines without tiring them out.
The hard part about the series now is that the world of Vikings is so large. They are not just dealing with designing for the Vikings but also the English and Parisians. They wanted to customize a style for the French. The crossbow was chosen. They are a more sophisticated people so they needed to stand out.
The show has grown tremendously from the first season. McKenna looked back at the first season and remembers having 30 Vikings and 40 Saxons and two boats. Now one of the sets on Kattegat in the studio has 10 boats in the water and there are five times more warriors. When the Vikings go out to battle, they show up in strength with about 250 Vikings. They only have four to five weeks between seasons to get everything ready and that can be stressful because there are a lot of moving parts involved.
Season four will involve several good battles and there are some fantastic set pieces to be seen. Vikings airs Thursday nights on History Channel.