We know of the metal iron, and alloys bronze and steel, used as armor and weaponry in the Medieval ages.

Is there another metal alloy that could be used for armor or weapons in the Medieval era?

  • $\begingroup$ Aluminum is very common but hard to smelt. Titanium (mithril?) smelts just a little hotter than iron, but you have to smelt a LOT of ore to get any $\endgroup$
    – pojo-guy
    Oct 9, 2018 at 3:32
  • $\begingroup$ Iron is not an alloy. Its a chemical element. $\endgroup$
    – TCAT117
    Oct 9, 2018 at 3:32
  • $\begingroup$ Are you asking about other metals and alloys in the Medieval era, or at any time? $\endgroup$
    – RonJohn
    Oct 9, 2018 at 3:45
  • $\begingroup$ @RonJohn Sorry - I meant Medieval era. $\endgroup$
    – Dan
    Oct 9, 2018 at 3:49
  • 5
    $\begingroup$ Relevant: xkcd.com/1114 $\endgroup$ Oct 9, 2018 at 21:51

3 Answers 3




Humans have been using nickel for about as long as they have been producing metal wares. A relatively plentiful element — the 24th most abundant on earth — nickel is found in metal ore deposits throughout the world. The ancients prized these ores as a source of metals with desirable properties, such as strength and flexibility, and used them to make everything from coins to knives, axes and weapons. However, the desirable traits of these metal alloys were often attributed to the presence of copper or iron. In fact, archaeologists have discerned from ancient metal artifacts that the 'iron' of early metal-using societies was actually a mixture containing from 5 to 26 percent nickel.

Long before nickel was isolated, the ancient Chinese developed a material called paitung (also called paktong or tutenag) that was prized for its silvery luster and strength. According to Chinese manuscripts, paitung was used as early as the third century A.D. in weapons, coins and works of art. Paitung is believed to have contained mainly copper and nickel with small amounts of zinc and tin.

Meteoric iron is usually nickel and iron, and has been used since ancient times. A nickel iron alloy was developed for battleship plate armor in WW1 and nickel hardened steel has been used ever since. The Chrysler building is clad sun nickel chromium steel. The paitung alloy described above I would classify as a sort of bronze; nickel with copper.

The fact that the medievals did not know nickel was its own thing does not mean that they would not prize nickel containing alloys - or that in an alternate world the identity of nickel might not have been discovered by alchemists.

  • $\begingroup$ Interesting. Today I learned something. It seems that Nickle is in the same range of hardness (4.0) in the Mohs scale of mineral hardness. $\endgroup$
    – Dan
    Oct 9, 2018 at 21:03
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Nickel was used in battleship armor before the Twentieth Century. For a while, the best armor was the US-invented Harvey Nickel, being replaced as the best by Krupp face-hardened armor. $\endgroup$ Oct 10, 2018 at 17:00

There were exactly seven pure metals known between Antiquity and the Late Middle Ages

Because seven is a "magical" number, they were often associated with other seven-fold phenomena, such as the seven Classical Planets of astrology. Sometimes called the seven "Roman" metals, because they are the ones whose chemical symbols are derived from their Latin names, instead of from a modern language:

The following often or always occur natively, and so have been known since prehistory:

  • Gold (Au: aurum)

  • Silver (Ag: argentum)

  • Copper (Cu: cuprum)

The following can be smelted from their ores by simply placing it in a fire, at which molten metal emerges. They have probably also been known since prehistory:

  • Mercury (Hg: hydrargyrum)

  • Lead (Pb: plumbum)

  • Tin (Sn: stannum)

The last one is a bit of an exception. Although it does occur natively in meteorites, that is the only native source, and is far rarer than native sources of any of the others. It is also harder to smelt the others. Hence it was historically the last to be exploited:

  • Iron (Fe: ferrum)

Possibly excepting mercury (which has relatively exotic technical applications because it is a liquid at room temperature), few of these are ever used pure -- not even gold and silver. Pure metals are too soft. Creation of many basic alloys can easily occur even by accident. For example, many common ores of gold are already technically "electrum": a natural alloy of gold and silver that is much harder than either, but nearly as incorruptible as gold.

At least as far back as Ancient Egypt, copper was used primarily as an alloy: originally, "arsenical bronze" was created accidentally, and is possibly the source of the classical mythic image of the lame/dwarven smith (due to the toxic effects of low grade arsenic fumes.) However it was soon discovered that actual bronze (the alloy of tin and copper) is an almost perfect alloy: extremely tough, extremely hard, easy to cast, highly corrosion resistant. The only problem is that tin was rare; the development of bronze motivated the development of long distance international trade, driven by the exchange of tin.

By the middle of Classical Antiquity, the idea that alloys were mixtures of metals was fairly well understood, but the exact ingredients in the mixture was not always known. For example, crude brasses -- alloys of copper and zinc -- are known from even the 3rd millennium BC, but there is no indisputable evidence of the discovery of zinc as a distinct metal until the Late Middle Ages (making it the eighth metal, and the first to be discovered since prehistory.)

The number of practical technical alloys known is Classical Antiquity or the Middle Ages is considerable, but difficult to evaluate. Most available sources do not go into sufficient technical detail. However, European, Chinese and Indian classics refer to many obscure alloys with special properties, and modern historians often struggle to reconstruct exactly what was meant.

As one prime example, black Corinthian bronze was an alloy, presumably copper based, but of uncertain composition, that was highly valued in Ancient Greece. It had an extraordinarily beautiful purplish-black colour, highly resistant to corrosion, and very tough. There is little certainty of the exact composition today, although East Asia also produced purplish copper alloys that are better known.

How did such bronzes compare to steel? There is a widespread misconception that the Iron Age overtook the Bronze Age because steel is a superior alloy. This is not at all true; until the late nineteenth century, the best bronze alloys were both tougher and harder than steel as well as more corrosion resistant -- but they were also far, far, more expensive! Iron ores and carbon are found everywhere; tin is rare.

Long story short, there are literally scores of alloys known at one time or another, and many could probably serve for weapons; you can find quite a few by going to that Corinthian bronze link and fanning your way outwards.

  • $\begingroup$ Awesome answer! $\endgroup$
    – Paul TIKI
    Oct 18, 2018 at 20:12

We know of the metal iron, and alloys bronze and steel, used as armor and weaponry in the Medieval ages.

Is there another metal alloy that could be used for armor or weapons in the Medieval era?

There was copper, but copper was replaced by bronze. And neither titanium nor aluminum were available then. Lead, of course, was available, but way too soft and heavy to be used as armor or a weapon. Men knew of and used tin and zinc, but they didn't exist in sufficient quantity and weren't as strong as iron anyway.

So... no. If there had been any metals and alloys besides iron/steel and bronze with practical use to the military, they would have been used. But they weren't, because they didn't exist (or, like copper, zinc, and tin, they were inferior).

  • $\begingroup$ So Iron it was back in the day, eh. Thank you. $\endgroup$
    – Dan
    Oct 9, 2018 at 21:05
  • $\begingroup$ @DanJasnowski humans have been smelting iron for 3200 years. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Iron_Age $\endgroup$
    – RonJohn
    Oct 9, 2018 at 22:05
  • $\begingroup$ Copper and zinc make brass, and that's harder and stronger than bronze, but much easier to produce than iron. There are considerable zinc deposits in Iran, and it's anybody's guess why Iranian zinc did not become a widely-traded commodity like British tin. $\endgroup$ Oct 10, 2018 at 3:19
  • $\begingroup$ @WhatRoughBeast and Arkansas had a lot of bauxite. That doesn't mean the aboriginal Americans had a thriving aluminum smelting industry... $\endgroup$
    – RonJohn
    Oct 10, 2018 at 3:34
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ That is not exactly a germane criticism unless you are implying that making brass was as difficult as smelting aluminum. (Hint - it's not any more difficult than making bronze.) $\endgroup$ Oct 10, 2018 at 3:36

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