19
$\begingroup$

In my fantasy setting in development,tin is significantly more common than in our world, leading to bronze armour and weapons being much cheaper. Due to metallurgy not being as advanced, iron is still not commonly used in armour, being too difficult to work with much as it was in our own history for quite some time.

However,due to the threats faced by the peoples of this era and their natural desire to provide further protection to their elite warriors;full plate harnesses were created.

My question is how good would quality bronze be for this purpose, and would it be as widespread as normal plate armour was in our own history as a result?

Edit:Requested since people may not see the comments.

As many people have pointed out,the Dendra Panoply was indeed bronze plate armour. I am also aware of the use of bronze for breastplates & helms well into the early medieval period. Keep in mind I am asking asking IF given how common tin is in setting (directly lowering the price of bronze & its value substantially) bronze would be a good alternative to cheap iron for use in a full plate harness. These people may not have metallurgy as advanced,but that does not mean they are exactly like our bronze age. They are closer to the Early Medieval era but their metallurgy lags behind comparatively

As such they can and do create chainmail. With bronze and even iron being used. The main issue is that they cannot properly forge large plates of iron. Limiting the usefulness of it for use in plate or segmented plate. Hence bronze is used instead due to its abundance.

The knights in question can serve both on foot (as foot knights) or as heavy cavalry. This does not mean they wear the same armour for both,much like in our own history. However I will mention that most knights could and would fight on foot even if unhorsed. For it was only post-gunpowder that armour began to get extremely heavy in an attempt to proof armour versus firearms. (which had varied results and proved overly encumbering for a full set of armour)

The knights here use bronze plate much in the style of the Early Medieval period. (A time where most plate was bronze and not iron in history)

$\endgroup$
18
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Do you have the knowledge in your world to make chain mail $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 13, 2019 at 12:40
  • 11
    $\begingroup$ Bronze is expensive. Very much more expensive than iron; think one hundred times more expensive. (Hint: bronze is valuable enough to make small denominations coins with intrinsic value.) There is no way for bronze armor to be "widespread". Iron replaced bronze not because it was better (it isn't better), but because it was cheap. Moreover, to make bronze one needs a source of tin, and tin deposits are rare. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Commented Dec 13, 2019 at 13:52
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ @DKNguyen: Iron and steel are sort-of synonymous in casual speech, mostly because nowaday actual iron is very seldom used. (It does have its uses, but most people rarely come in contact with it.) But for a very long time steel was either unknown or simply not available in any quantity larger than a dagger. Most certainly, throughout the antiquity, iron swords and iron pots and iron helmets were actual iron, not steel. It is said that after a battle, a Roman camp was full with the clanging of hammers straightening the bent iron swords... $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Commented Dec 13, 2019 at 14:37
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @AlexP Slightly off the mark with regards to my intentions: many think iron is "better" than bronze because steel is stronger than bronze. $\endgroup$
    – DKNguyen
    Commented Dec 13, 2019 at 14:39
  • 5
    $\begingroup$ @AlexP regarding cost/tin rarity: did you miss the first sentences of the question where it is stated in this world tin is much more common resulting in bronze being cheaper? $\endgroup$
    – Mr.Mindor
    Commented Dec 13, 2019 at 23:08

6 Answers 6

16
$\begingroup$

However,due to the threats faced by the peoples of this era and their natural desire to provide further protection to their elite warriors;full plate harnesses were created.

Bronze plate armour did exist... have a look at the Dendra Panoply:

The original (photo from wikipedia) and an artistic impression of unknown origin (appears all over the place with no source information):

Dendra Panoply Panoply artistic impression

Whilst it might not have looked as neat as fancy modern plate does, it wasn't particularly restrictive and would have worked OK (right up until someone stabbed you in the knees, presumably).

would it be as widespread as normal plate armour was in our own history as a result?

Note that this stuff was expensive. Really expensive, and hence somewhat unusual. Upper class nobles would have used it, which isn't quite the same as "elite warrior" (though you can handwave that detail in your story, I'm sure). Less elaborate and all-covering getups would have been used by less wealthy combatants. Note also that this is an infantry outfit; cavalry would wear equipment that was even lighter and less restrictive... no equivalent of medieval knights on horseback (if nothing else, the horses would probably not be strong enough!).

Quite how common medieval full plate armour was is perhaps something for a different question, but remember that it, too, was very expensive and far from commonplace.

My question is how good would quality bronze be for this purpose

Good enough I'm sure, given that it would be facing brozen weaponry. Imperfect, as armour designs were still very much in their infancy (check those knees!) but fine, until your neighbours started deploying iron, or merely very large armies.

$\endgroup$
9
  • $\begingroup$ as far as i know this is not for infantry its for charioteer or at least not full infantry, because this thing is heavier and cumbersome. $\endgroup$
    – Li Jun
    Commented Dec 13, 2019 at 13:33
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ @LiJun no more than 18kg, and it is reasonably flexible and balanced; it would have been fine for combat on foot. People have made reconstructions to see what it was like. The Ancient Greeks weren't that keen on chariots in warfare (they had lots of chariot-hostile terrain), though they did have regular cavalry. $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 13, 2019 at 14:02
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Attacking the knee is actually rather difficult in a melee, it only becomes popular once you have more fighting on horseback. Armor with no gaps is a very very late invention. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Commented Dec 13, 2019 at 14:55
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @LiJun that specific example is Mycenaean, and is principally interesting in that it dates back to the 15th century BCE, eg. the ability to produce and use substantial plate armour dates back at least that far. Substantial bronze panoplies were certainly used elsewhere in Greece but postdated that particular example. Furthermore, wearing 18kg of gear is not unnecessarily restricting, and walking around with it would be straightfoward for a fit soldier. $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 13, 2019 at 15:52
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ It should be noted that the iron that started to replace bronze was by and large of inferior quality. For quite some time in the early iron age, bronze equipment was superior. Iron's main advantage was that it was readily available and thus cheap. Damn near all of the tin for bronze in this side of eurasia came from Cornwall, and all that distance added a lot of cost. Iron could be sourced locally, so could be the difference between 20 people with spears vs 500. $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 28, 2020 at 18:27
19
$\begingroup$

Bronze Plate Armor Existed

Platearmor was common in the late bronze age. Greek nobility often wore plate armor that was in many ways very comparable to the the steel transitional-plate later worn by 14th century knights. While ancient Greek armor had more exposed gaps than medieval platearmor, one can see that the metal could be formed into all the same complex shapes as steel plate.

enter image description here

While it is true, that bronze was replaced by iron, this actually had very little to do with its quality as an alloy. Contrary to popular belief, the work hardened tin bronze armor used in the late bronze age was in many ways superior to what you could achieve prior to the invention of the finery process: a method for creating medium carbon steel. However, tin and copper are really hard to come by in the same regions meaning long trade routes made it very expensive. Most modern recreations of bronze weapons and armor use un-hardened bronze which makes bronze seem deceptively soft; however, those modern recreations made using proper work hardening techniques show that ancient bronze had properties very close to the quality of the steels typically used up into the high medieval period.

The biggest advantage of iron prior to the late medieval period is that iron ore can be found basically anywhere. In most parts of the world, throughout most of history, the rarity of copper and tin compared to iron has made the average cost of bronze about 10-20 times that of iron. So, the end of the bronze age had way more to do with economics than quality.

Could it be used to make the full coverage plate armor?

It depends... transitional plate armor and tin bronze plate armor were generally not spring alloys. While both kinds of armor were strong enough to stop virtually any manually powered weapon, they could be dented or deformed by the strike. Later tempered steel plate armor that could articulate around your joints were made from spring steel. A type of steel that did not become widely used until the late medieval period. When this steel was struck, it would deform and then spring back to its original shape. This meant you could make closely articulating plates that would not lock up when struck.

That said, if your civilization never had its bronze age interrupted the way that we did, then it is far more likely that they would have invented phosphor bronze way before we did as an iron based civilization. While phosphor bronze was invented in our timeline in the 1600s, the first use of phosphorus in iron working dates all the way back to ~650 BCE Sparta. So, if the bronze age collapse never happened, then it is very likely that the Spartans would have been using phosphor bronze nearly 2700 years ago. This is important because phosphor bronze is a spring alloy very similar to tempered steel meaning you could make closely articulated joints with it that will not easily lock up when struck.

What if your civilization does not have access to phosphorous oxide?

You could still make mail to fill in the gaps much like you see in transitional plate armor. The only reason we did not see mail made out of bronze is that the riveting technology required to make mail worth using was not invented until well after the bronze age collapse. Mail was rarely used before the riveting process was invented because butted mail was just plain not that good.

Although bronze mail was not that common, it was effective and did still see some use, particularly among the Moro, Romans, and certain Greek civilizations.

So what should your civilization's armor look like?

As such they can and do create chainmail. With bronze and even iron being used. The main issue is that they cannot properly forge large plates of iron. Limiting the usefulness of it for use in plate or segmented plate. Hence bronze is used instead due to its abundance.

Based on your description, I would suggest you look at the armor of the Moro civilization. They used relatively small bronze plates held together by bronze mail.

enter image description here

$\endgroup$
6
  • $\begingroup$ Ooooooh. :D I like! $\endgroup$
    – Obelisk
    Commented Dec 14, 2019 at 5:59
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ the other big upside iron had for armor was mail one of the few things you can't make well with bronze. we even see combinations of iron chain and bronze plate. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Commented Dec 14, 2019 at 7:16
  • $\begingroup$ @John That makes me curious - Do you know what made bronze impractical for chain mail? $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 14, 2019 at 21:07
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Its just not workable enough, it does not bend and stretch as well as steel, so making the rings is much harder. this is were the difference in properties starts to matter. bronze mail did exist but always as butted mail which is largely worthless. bronze is also expensive so if you are going to spend the money on bronze you use it were it works best as plates and use something else for flexible sections like scale or layer cloth. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Commented Dec 14, 2019 at 22:06
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @cmaster Iron has a wide temperature range between when it become hot enough to manipulate and so hot that it becomes molten. Bronze, however goes from rigid to molten very quickly. This makes forging iron easier whereas bronze is easier to cast. Casting chainmail is not very practical but casting platemail and scale mail is. That said... chainmail was pretty bad armor all things considered. It sacrifices a lot of piercing resistance in exchange for simplifying how to armor joints. But again, this points back to how iron won at being more economical. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Commented Dec 15, 2019 at 6:43
7
$\begingroup$

A poster pointed out the Dendra armour, which is provides pretty comprehensive protection. High quality reproductions show it is a very effective suit, even to the point of having asymmetric arm holes so the weapons arm has more freedom of movement. While there are some opinions that this was designed for a person fighting from a chariot, tests with high quality reproductions indicate it is easy to us fighting dismounted as well. If the Iliad is any indication, chariots seem to be more a method of getting around the battlefield rather than a fighting platform in that particular place and time, but that neither negates or supports the idea of the Dendra armour being "chariot" armour or infantry armour.

enter image description here

Dendra armour

A second way to look at how effective bronze armour is would be to look at weapons of the period, since they are specifically designed to defeat armour.

Both historic descriptions and depictions of weapons and archaeological finds show that weapons were already highly evolved, with multiple choices for the warriors from long rapier like swords (evidently to go through joints in the armour or seek out weak points like striking at the neck area with a downward thrust), long thrusting spears, axes, maces and so on, most of which would be recognizable to knights in the middle ages. Projectile weapons like javelins, slings and bows were also available. This comprehensive weapons load out suggests that warriors knew they were up against well protected opponents, and needed multiple tools to achieve their goal of killing or disabling an opponent.

Taken together, all these things should establish that bronze armour was very effective at protecting people. A full suit of bronze armour would be very expensive, and the Dendra armour was likely for a very high ranking person, but most war leaders, nobles, personal retainers etc. would be able to have a fairly effective level of protection, even if not an entire suit like the Dendra armour.

$\endgroup$
4
$\begingroup$

In our history we have a period called bronze age for the very reason that the leading civilization of those time were those mastering bronze production, since it was better than any other available material.

Then it came the iron age, where people mastering iron manufacturing could easily defeat the bronze equipped enemies.

Since you state that iron is not common you are in the same scenario as our bronze age, with bronze being the best choice among the available materials.

$\endgroup$
4
  • 13
    $\begingroup$ Iron is in no way intrinsically better than bronze. In fact, for most purpose, it is decidedly worse. (Steel is indeed better than bronze. But steel was not available until much later.) The advantage of iron is that it is one hundred times cheaper; an iron-age king could equip one hundred times more soldiers than a bronze-age king, and numbers matter. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Commented Dec 13, 2019 at 13:46
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ @AlexP I think you need to clarify that iron replaced bronze because it was more abundant (cheaper), not because it was better. Then later we learned how to make steel which was better in various ways. Iron is synonymous with steel for many. $\endgroup$
    – DKNguyen
    Commented Dec 13, 2019 at 14:26
  • $\begingroup$ @DKNguyen That is just a result of our western historic bias. Traditional Japanese sword smithing was already based on steel. That steel was rather expensive, which is probably why they didn't use it it make full plate armor, but they definitely had the knowledge to make it. And they used it because it's the best material they had to make swords. $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 14, 2019 at 20:59
  • $\begingroup$ To reinforce what AlexP said here, iron goes back WAY further than most ppl realize. There are iron and steel artifacts dating back to the very beginning of the bronze age. Archaeology suggests that early man discovered iron and bronze working at about the same time but had a preference for bronze weapons and armor for nearly 3000 years before iron phased it out. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Commented Feb 28, 2020 at 19:48
4
$\begingroup$

First, since your society has limited access to iron for making armour, they also have limited access to iron for making weapons, so you're talking about bronze swords/spears, stone and obsidian spears/axes, and various projectile weapons. The fact that a bronze plate would be easily penetrated by an iron sword is no more relevant than that a steel plate would be easily penetrated by a lead shot.

Standard tin/copper bronze is a similar density to steel, so plate armour of similar thickness would weigh similarly to steel plate. Bronze is easier to work by hammering and casting than steel, so your armourers would be able to make plate thinner (hence lighter) if appropriate, and also to vary the thickness across the plate more carefully.

Bronze is not as hard as steel, which means it won't hold an edge as easily, but is also more ductile, which means it will deform under stress (like being hit) more easily. So a clash of a bronze sword vs a bronze plate is going to be more like a clash between a very dense piece of hardwood and a steel plate: unlikely to cut through, but probably quite a lot of deformation damage. A bronze sword is at a disadvantage compared to a common-or-garden club here because bronze is also quite brittle, so the chance of the sword shattering against plate (of any material) is quite high.

As such, bronze plate would be quite effective against bronze (or obsidian/flint/etc) edged weapons such as swords or spears, and would confer a tactical advantage in melee combat. It would be of limited utility against blunt impact weapons like clubs and maces (better than nothing, but probably not much better) and next to useless against projectile weapons like slings and arrows, which would penetrate with ease unless the plate was made impracticably thick.

$\endgroup$
2
  • 9
    $\begingroup$ I think you overestimate how soft bronze is, bronze plate will deflect a clubs and arrows just fine, it is bronze not copper. bronze has a modulus of rupture similar to low carbon steel. bronze makes for a poorer weapon but comparable armor, if a bit heavier $\endgroup$
    – John
    Commented Dec 13, 2019 at 15:18
  • $\begingroup$ Make the spikes of a bronze mace from steel, eh? $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 28, 2020 at 9:52
0
$\begingroup$

It doesn't matter how common tin is, bronze plate will still be really expensive.

You're missing a couple key points here.

First: The expense of armor isn't based on the raw materials at all, really. It's all about the armorer's TIME. It isn't going to be significantly quicker and easier for someone to make a suit of plate out of bronze than it would be out of steel, it's just going to be heavier and/or less protective.

Second: The other important element of full plate armor is that it only started really becoming worth the trouble of making it when you had horses that could carry a guy wearing it in battle so, metallurgy aside, neither bronze NOR steel plate are going to be worth the trouble and expense of making it unless the civilizations doing so ALSO have advanced far enough in horse-related technology to have developed the stirrup and bred stronger horse.

$\endgroup$
2
  • $\begingroup$ You could make a lot of bronze armor cheaply and quickly if you cast most of the pieces instead of forging them. $\endgroup$
    – Marbrand
    Commented Dec 14, 2019 at 6:57
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ "neither bronze NOR steel plate are going to be worth the trouble and expense of making it unless the civilizations doing so ALSO have advanced far enough in horse-related technology to have developed the stirrup and bred stronger horse." Chariots were a thing that existed. $\endgroup$
    – nick012000
    Commented Dec 14, 2019 at 7:18

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .