Q&A: More Bronze

I saw that recent ask about materials and it made me wonder… how much of a difference does the material of equipment make? Bronze versus steel, for example. Would having better materials convey any measurable advantage in a fight?

It’s significant.

There are a couple big things that happen when you’re switching materials, and jumping from bronze to steel is probably the best way to illustrate them.

First: Steel will hold an edge. You can sharpen bronze. Hell, you can sharpen silver, and some do still use silver cutlery. However, when you sharpen steel, that edge will stay much longer.

Second: Steel allows for much more mechanically demanding designs. The big thing here is armor, but this is also true with weapons as well. (Even if this isn’t what you’re thinking of when someone calls a weapon, “mechanically demanding.”)

Creating a structurally stable blade out of bronze is limited to a fairly short blade. I forget the exact length, but it’s somewhere around 24-36 inches. In modern terms, this is a shortsword. While the Celts tried to make bronze swords much longer, the result was not ideal, and the weapons would, “collapse.” in combat. A lot of this comes down to, bronze is a much softer metal. In contrast, early modern steel swords, like the Zweihander could exceed seven feet.

We’ve talked about combat range before, and how having a longer melee weapon is a significant advantage. In comparing bronze blades to steel ones, we have a return to the daggers vs longswords scenario. Someone with a bronze weapon can’t get close enough to stab someone defending themselves with a steel blade.

There is a major element here I’m skimming over. The predominant infantry weapon of the bronze age was the spear. So this isn’t quite as one sided as it looks. But, the advantage still stays with steel, as the sheer variety of polearms would explode with evolving smithing techniques.

Armor is a, mostly similar story. Bronze armor cannot replicate the mechanical complexity of articulated steel plate, and then take it into combat. Bronze being softer, the armor will wear and deform faster, and suddenly those articulated joints will jam. I’m making an assumption here, but I suspect the sophistication of armor designs advanced in step with the advancement of armor materials. This was true with weapons, and just looking at what you can do with bronze vs with steel, you can’t engineer that down to lower quality materials in most cases.

So, the end result is, you can make significantly better weapons and armor out of steel. Even when you’re replicating bronze weapons in steel, the result will be a more durable and effective.

The bronze to steel thing is a bit of an extreme example. You can see this more granularity when you’re looking armor and weapon advancement as the quality of the steel alloys improved.

To be clear, would a copper or bronze weapon BREAK from a single strike of a steel weapon? Or would the copper and bronze weapons/armor just need to be replaced more often than steel ones?

Probably not in a single strike, but there’s a few things I should address here:

First: You never want to parry blade to blade. Doesn’t matter what your weapons are, you’re going to risk damaging, or breaking, your own weapon.

Similarly, you don’t just hack away at someone’s armor; that’s also destructive to your weapon. Instead you’re looking for ways you can get your blade into vulnerable parts of their armor. So, joints for example. (There’s an exception here: If you have a hammer, just pound on them.)

Second: Weapons aren’t really disposable. You don’t travel around with a golf bag of blades and just swap to new ones as the old ones shatter. Historically, soldiers would carry a few backup weapons. A sidearm (usually a sword, or a handaxe), and a dagger, in addition to their primary weapon (usually a polearm), but people didn’t walk around with five or six swords strapped to them.

Most combatants would maintain their weapons, so it’s not like you’d just take a sword and keep using it until it broke. (At least, not if you knew what you were doing.) You’d be careful with its use to minimize the damage it suffered. You’d want to make sure that any minor damage was repaired to the best of your ability. That blade was kept clean and sharp. You never want to run a weapon until it’s destroyed.

Third: Bronze will not hold up in combat against steel weapons. That goes for both the armor and the weapons. I’m not sure a single strike would mangle a bronze weapon to uselessness, but it would not be in a good state, and a few solid hits would probably destroy it. (I’m a little fuzzy on exactly how much abuse it can take, because I don’t have a lot of experience working with bronze.

Ironically, that first point isn’t completely true if you’ve got steel weapons and going up against someone with copper (and possibly bronze), you might get some minor nicking along the blade, but it’s going to hold up far better than your experience would suggest.

Now, as I said, I don’t have a lot of hands-on experience with bronze, so I’m not 100% sure how durable it is, beyond, “not very.” I’m familiar with the history, but this specific match up never happened, which is part of why I’m shying away from saying, “yeah, it’ll take X number of hits.”

The thing to remember is that there’s a huge technological advantage in the materials your smiths can work with. This is at least as significant as the kinds of weapons you have access to. Also, the kinds of weapons and armor you can produces are, functionally, “gated,” by the materials available. The reason no one in 5AD had a greatsword isn’t because they couldn’t imagine the weapon, they couldn’t make with the materials available.

-Starke

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