Gothic Shield Shapes – There is no such thing as a Gothic ‘Coffin’ Shield

The wargaming community is full of myths that seem to perpetuate through the generations. Previously I poked at the the unconvincing myth about Visigothic Gardingi being unarmoured skirmishing cavalry, today I look at the ‘coffin’ shaped shield of the Goths. Early Gothic, specifically Visigothic, warriors are believed by some to have carried an odd ‘coffin’ shaped shield. It isn’t true. Germanic warriors only carried round, oval and hexagonal shields. Shapes that were used from the 1st century through the Fall of Rome. Round and oval shields continued in use into the dark ages.

Gothic wargaming figures with ‘coffin’ shields

Figure 111 in Phil Barker’s (1981) book The Armies and Enemies of Imperial Rome 150 BC to 600 AD [4th Ed.] is a Visigoth with a coffin shield. Barker says, “the peculiar coffin shaped shield was traditional, but most likely outnumbered by round or oval types like those of 109 and 110 [who are Saxons]” (Barker, p. 128).

Various wargaming manufacturers have latched onto the “traditional” part of that and ignored the “outnumbered”. For example I have quite a few 15mm Essex Miniatures AA2 Visigoth: Infantry with spear & [‘coffin’] shield. But there are others: Alternative Armies G1 Goth with Coffin Shield; Chariot Miniatures / Magister Militum DARK6 Goth or Visigoth Warband Foot Warriors [with ‘coffin’ shield]; Forged in Battle WE-GG02 Visigoth/Vandal Foot [with ‘coffin’ shield]. And this is just the 15mm ones.

But is there any evidence for ‘coffin’ shields?

Evidence for Gothic ‘Coffin’ shields

Ian Hughes (2010, p. 72) says “no”, there is no evidence for the Gothic ‘coffin’ shield:

In the mid-to-late twentieth century and earlier there was a form of shield known as the ‘coffin’ shield that was traditionally assigned to the Goths. Although this is now firmly fixed, it has proved impossible to find any examples in either the sculptural or archaeological record. It is possible that some of the monumental evidence was interpreted as proof of the existence of these shields but that these examples have since been re-interpreted as stylistic conventions caused by the problem of perspective. As a result, although it has proved impossible to determine whether these forms actually existed, the likelihood is that they did not.

In a online discussion on the ‘coffin’ shield (TMP: Visigoth ‘coffin’ shields. A dead issue?), Simon MacDowall (smacdowall), who I consider the main modern authority on the Goths and Vandals, says “I have searched and the only reference I have ever found is in Phil Barker’s Armies and Enemies of Imperial Rome. In typical fashion he does not reveal his sources.” That is probably why MacDowall does even mention the ‘coffin’ shield in his three books on Goths (MacDowall, 1990, 1996, 2017).

In the same on-line discussion Roy Boss (Lewisgunner), another authority on the barbarian migration period, sheds some light:

Its based on an illustration in the Funcken book on Ancient warriors. Back in the sixties I wrote to the Funckens and asked their source. I got a reply that it was based on archaeological evidence, but nothing more specific. The likelihood is that it is a reconstruction of a shield from the Crimea, that is a hexagonal shield and that it was originally reconstructed wrongly into the coffin shield that has become associated with the Visigoths.

The reconstruction error would be because only the metalwork of the boss and the rim reinforcement survived and the rim was damaged.

So the ‘coffin’ shield did not exist. Any evidence is a misinterpretation of a hexagonal shield.

Gothic Shield Shapes
Gothic Shield Shapes

Gothic shields were mainly round or oval

MacDowall’s three books (MacDowall, 1990, 1996, 2017) on the Goths only show round shields. Boss (1993) also only shows round shields for the Goths.

Phil Barker said “round or oval types” were the majority (Barker, 1981, p. 128).

In his books on Stilcho and Aetius (Hughes, 2010, 2012), Ian Hughes specifies round shields but also mentions oval shields and says the older style hexagonal shields were still in use:

The shields used by the German tribes appear to have been mainly round or oval in shape and could be anywhere from around sixty centimetres to one metre in height (two to three feet), probably based on personal preference. The traditional hexagonal shape associated with the German cavalry employed with the Empire during the first centuries BC and AD was still in use, but this was to a lesser degree than the other styles. Although other styles of shield are depicted on monuments, in general they appear to be variants of the oval or octagonal styles and may have been relatively uncommon. (Hughes, 2010, p. 72)

Good enough for me. I think the summary is: mostly round, some oval while fighting the Romans, and hexagonal hanging on but increasingly rare.


Barker, P. (1981). The Armies and Enemies of Imperial Rome 150 BC to 600 AD [4th Ed.]. Wargames Research Group.

Boss, R. (1993). Justinian’s Wars: Belisarius, Narses and the Reconquest of the West. Montvert Publications.

Hughes, I. (2010). Stilicho: The Vandal who saved Rome. Pen & Sword Military.

Hughes, I. (2012). Aetius: Attilia’s Nemesis. Pen & Sword Military.

MacDowall, S. (1990). Wargaming in History: Goths, Huns and Romans. Argus Books.

MacDowall, S. (1996). Germanic Warrior AD 236-568 [Warrior 17]. Osprey.

MacDowall, S. (2017). The Goths: Conquerors of the Roman Empire. Pen & Sword Military.

TMP: Visigoth ‘coffin’ shields. A dead issue?

8 thoughts on “Gothic Shield Shapes – There is no such thing as a Gothic ‘Coffin’ Shield”

  1. I wanted my hairy barbarians to be as generic Germans as possible, so never purchased any with coffin shields. Good thing, it turns out. On the other hand, my Seven Years War converged grenadiers sport flags since standard bearers were included. And my AWI British grenadiers and fusiliers wear bearskin caps.

    • re “generic Germans
      Very sensible Vincent.

      By the way, you are to blame for new recent focus on the Fall of Rome.

  2. Very interesting. I don’t know much about Gothic warriors, which is probably why I never came across this particular mistake.

    Wargaming myths seem to be pervasive. I’m no expert on any military history topic, but one myth I found recently (in debunked form) was the one about medieval armies divided into “units” according to “types”, such as “a unit of longbow”, “a unit of pike”, etc. In reality (apparently) medieval armies fought in shapeless blobs grouped not by type but by which lord they were raised by. Less interesting for wargaming purposes, which is why this myth exists I suppose.

    The other myth that irks me is the one about the Soviet army fighting in human wave attacks, or that they lacked weapons at Stalingrad, or that their secret police mowed down their own retreating troops in close sight of their German enemies. Most of these myths can be traced to the awful movie Enemy at the Gates.

    • Andres, I’d like to know where you found the medieval units debunked. That would be interesting to read.

      Regarding Soviets human wave attacks, troops lacking weapons and blocking detachments … these stories were in circulation amongst wargamers before Enemy at the Gates. Personally I’m sure all happened historically. What bugs me is that those relatively few incidents shape wargamer views of the Soviets for the entire war. In contrast, I can show you incidents were the Germans also used human wave attacks, lacked appropriate weapons, and had troops stationed behind the line to shoot those less willing to face the advancing Soviets. But these historical facts don’t overcome wargaming perceptions of the invincible German landser storm trooping over the eastern foe armed with an MG42 which never runs out of bullets nor has a barrel that needs replacing due to over heating – Terminator style.

      Personally I like Enemy at the Gates because I’m a romantic. But this film is just a Hollywood film and must not be used to influence wargaming rules or tactics.

      • Human wave attacks: infantry attacks without armored support. Like most everyone did 1914-1916 and often beyond. Only done by one’s opponent, never by our guys.

        There was a tale that the Red Chinese attacked in Korea while chained together. A friend and I once posited that squad leaders must have carried bolt cutters to cut loose the dead/badly wounded before the squad became immobile. Platoon leaders had larger bolt cutters to cut loose squads that were mostly dead, company commanders even larger bolt cutters to cut looose moribund platoons, etc. Imagine the size of the battalion CO’s cutters.

        Or perhaps the tale was just a tale. My father-in-law, who fought in Korea didn’t see any chained enemy troops. He did lay down flanking fire on one Chinese offensive.

  3. I was told in one history class about Central American militia in the early 20th century being tied together so they couldn’t run away. I suspect these stories get re-purposed when new enemies come to the fore.


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