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The reason I'm asking is because I'm building a fantasy world where iron/steel is exceptionally poor and the materials necessary for bronze (copper, tin...etc) are super abundant and readily available just about everywhere.

Just how big of an advantage would an army with bronze weapons (spear, sword,shield, bronze tipped arrows) & armor have over another more primitive army armed with stone & bone made weapons ?

Could the army with bronze weapons & armor be expected to win easily ?

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  • $\begingroup$ This is entirely dependent on the specifics of the engagement which isn't a question of worldbuilding as much as a question about the story you're setting in the world. $\endgroup$
    – sphennings
    Aug 4 '20 at 19:12
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    $\begingroup$ I can't remember where I've read it, but there was the expectation that a "hero" in armor with sword was basically unstoppable until met by another equally equipped. He who wrote that wasn't be absurd, obviously if such a man were mobbed by 50 or 100 unarmored men who cared nothing for their lives... he'd be a goner. And likewise, after mowing down countless opponents, exhaustion itself must limit things. But if you're spoiling for an upset with this hypothetical, it would have be substantially unusual. $\endgroup$
    – John O
    Aug 4 '20 at 19:15
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    $\begingroup$ @sphennings I don't understand what you mean, this is especially related to worldbuilding since my world is one where iron/steel is rare and the materials necessary to make bronze (copper, tin...etc) are super abundant and available just about anywhere. $\endgroup$ Aug 4 '20 at 19:26
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    $\begingroup$ A big enough advantage that there is no recorded case where people did not abandon stone for bronze except when they could not obtain copper and tin to make it. $\endgroup$
    – Mary
    Aug 4 '20 at 22:21
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    $\begingroup$ bronze at least can be reforge or smelt back using the same one if broken meanwhile stone and bone need you to ditch and find new material and make it again if broken, it take more more time and effort too. but theres also composite bow which is quite better compare to other bow in the past, but regarding advantage it more depend on terrain, weather, or temperature they engage, one of the reasons why aztec can toe to toe with spaniard that has steel and gun is due to the damp climate require more maintenance and terrain familiarity for them to do ambush and guerilla warfare. $\endgroup$
    – Li Jun
    Aug 5 '20 at 4:28
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It all depends on the general and the state.

The thing is that, generally speaking, a state with access to more advanced weapons would ALSO have access to more advanced warfare theory and thus that turns into more success in every aspect.

Let me give you an example. In the Fallout universe a very well educated man was captured by a tribe of backwards people. However he was able to convince them to follow him and in no time he was their chief. He then used his knowledge to raid other tribes and expand his domain and finally he created what is called Caesars legion. Read the wiki for more.

So what he did was not provide them with cutting edge tech as much as small improvements in the overall society and the theory behind warfare.

So going back to your example. Would a state just possessing far superior weapons be able to translate that into the battlefield?

Depends on the general I say.

The historical examples of an army with superior number or tech that failed to wrestle an advantage from an inferior force, on paper, are far too many to start mentioning.

You see warfare is all about maximizing your advantage. You know what they say: if you ever send your soldiers into a fair fight, you are a bad general.

So you could actually incorporate that into the story. How? Well. Think of this as an admiral Yi or Sun Zu or a similar general who is really good in warfare and planning. Hannibal is that different as well.

So your general X is commanding a force of lesser technology and ever lesser numbers. Yet using the principles of warfare correctly and brilliant maneuvers and loads of deception...etc he is capable of beating the crap out of empire B with all their endless legions and superior tech.

So you have a scene where the "evil" generals are all setting around looking "evil" and bragging about their superior numbers. They even get bored of him and command a force that is 4:1 his army size. Now the rest is up to you I say.

And overzealous wing commander charges the enemy and ruins the battle plan, the cavalry excel and they win the day...etc.

Now that leads us into the obvious question. If 2 generals of comparable strength met, what will happen?

Well. History would also tell us that the experience of the soldiers and officers as much as anything is a far better weapon that mere weapons. Moral and maneuvers and all that are the actual critical elements in war. So even small differences in those things will lead to a huge advantage on the field of battle.

However if you build to a point where army A and army B are 100% equal in everything but army B has better weapons. Then, and only then, can you always expect army B to win.

So it's all about context and what you do with the story and how you set up the two conflicts.

Personally I think that capturing and trading equipment could help your bone and wood army. At least give the cavalry bronze headed weapons. More numbers is also an obvious point. So society will be impacted. You can also have "castles" but that will require special knowledge but it's your story.

So you can go far with that.

TL:DR it's all about context and the actual general in command of the army.

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    $\begingroup$ Thank you, this is a very insightful post ! $\endgroup$ Aug 4 '20 at 20:42
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Two Very Big Ones

So leaving aside the technological sophistication of the combatants (just because you use stone doesn't mean you're bad generals/soldiers, and just because you have lots of copper and tin in your region doesn't mean you're more advanced in other ways than the poor SOBs without) there are two BIG advantages I see for bronze warriors over stone ones.

The first is Protection. Sure there are cloth armors that are surprisingly good, but you said stone and bone so I'm assuming that's the top military tech for that civilization. A bronze-faced shield, helmet, or breastplate is essentially invulnerable to stone-tipped spears and arrows. The enemy goes to stab you, hits the metal, the tip shatters, and your Bronze Age Hero (BAH) can dispatch his now-disarmed enemy with ease! You can make an effective mace and even a slashing sword of sorts(macuahuitl) but those weapons are comparatively short-ranged and have their own problems I'll get into in a bit. Meanwhile stone just isn't usable as armor in any meaningful way (I guess you could have stone pauldrons or helmets but they'd be REAL heavy and prone to breaking and as I've never seen a historical example I can only assume not actually worth it). Bone armor is better than nothing against cutting attacks like those from a swung sword or ax, but have so many gaps that they're not much use against thrusting weapons. You could of course have some specially hard/weirdly shaped bone from a local animal to improve their armor, but in general it's not going to cut it against a bronze spear.

The second big advantage is Attacking Quality in the form of a bronze-tipped spear. The metal-tipped spear/pike was THE weapon of war (with few exceptions like the roman legionnaire) for millennia for a reason. It lets you fight effectively in tight formations because it takes less room to jab a spear than swing an ax/mace/sword. Plus you don't have to worry about being disarmed via point-breakage like your Stone and Bone using opponents. It lets you hit your enemy Over There, making it harder to be hit back. Bronze spears are great! Now let's go back to those stone mace/swords. Your Stone and Bone Warrior (SBW) has a spear, because he's no dummy and wants to kill his enemy Over There too, a stone mace, and a stone-edged sword. Well against bronze armor he knows the spear is a one-shot thing, more likely to get him killed than do good work. So he leaves that at home, or maybe flings it like a javelin before the hand to hand starts. Next up, his stone mace. It's GREAT. Big o'le rock, can kill even a guy wearing bronze armor via crush injury. His "sword" is a little less good, the cutting edges suffer like the spear did, reducing it to a less-effective mace. No matter, a stone mace was good enough for SBW's ancestor's so it's good enough for him! At least until he gets to the battlefield. Takes a bit of room to swing a mace around you see. Also while SBW can swing it at our Bronze Age Hero, SBW's buddy behind him CAN'T because a mace doesn't have great reach. Meanwhile BAH's buddies 2, 3, 4 ranks behind him can jab with their spears against their one opponent capable of causing them harm. Provided dude with stone club even gets close enough to hit a person with his mace rather than just bat at spear tips. So even in a battle with equal numbers or Stone & Bone having an advantage, at the point of contact the bronze spearmen in a phalanx will ALWAYS have a numerical advantage of 3-4 to 1. Maybe more depending on the length of their spears! Then of course the guys to either side going back those 3-4 ranks can ALSO kill our poor SBW, via a strike to their side (maybe only one side depending on if the bronze dudes have large shields etc) which means SBW has to keep track of 6ish spearpoints to stay alive, while the one guy he may or may not be able to reach with his mace only has to keep track of 1 thing capable of killing him.

The effectiveness of a metal spear and armor combo allows for denser formations which in turn mean deadlier ones. Even if both sides know all the Art of War, your stone age dudes just can't form a phalanx or a shieldwall to match, and they'll come off worse in a battle where all other things are equal. Theoretically your stone and bone warriors will be more maneuverable with less armor to lug around, but that only helps but so much in a war where people still need to come in arm's reach to kill each other.

As for ranged weapons like bows and slings, I think they matter less and differ only slightly from what I've written above. In practice hordes of archers just weren't much of a thing in the bronze age, and if you want them to be the differences between stone arrows v bronze armor and bronze arrows v bone armor would be about the same as their spear equivalents. Though perhaps if your Stone & Bone guys have horn bows they'd have a slight range advantage over pure wood bronze guy bows. (which matters less than Total War would have you believe, and anyway there are so many design considerations it's impossible to say one is always going to be better than the other.) Slingers were more important, and here to Bronze will likely have a slight advantage in both offense and defense. The Defense is obvious and we've already talked about it. Offensively lead shot for slings is better than stone (more regular in shape for accuracy, more dense for lethality). It seems to me a culture mining tin and copper also would have a supply of lead, but if you'd rather they didn't use lead slingshot (or maybe the stone&bone guys use lead too) the difference is only defensibly. But in the end both bows and slings were skirmishing weapons in the bronze age, not weapons of decision. That's gonna come down to men with hand weapons murdering each other, and barring miracles or crippling incompetence bronze has a decisive advantage.

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All else being equal, the Bronze Army will wipe the floor with the stone- and- leather army.

(1) There is the widespread misconception that iron displaced bronze as the material for weapons because it is harder. This is not true. While modern steel, and late-medieval steel, is certainly far superior to bronze, the same is not true of the kind of iron that was available in ancient times.
Iron became prevalent because it was much easier to procure (getting both copper and tin was much more difficult, especially after the breakdown of multiple empires and the corresponding trade routes about 1200 BC.) Bronze was still used for armor deep into the iron age and Classical antiquity, for example for hoplite armor and helmets.

(2) Effects of weapons vs Armor: (source for this section: https://acoup.blog/2019/06/21/collections-punching-through-some-armor-myths/ ) (a) Bronze armor will reliably prevent cutting, even from heavy hits with other bronze weapons, let alone stone. Leather armor will prevent light cutting hits, but not heavy cutting hits. (b) Metal Armor is pretty good against piercing attacks, though a really powerful blow can get through (not sure how a stone tip will fare in comparison to a bronze). Leather Armor is rather easily penetrated by piercing attacks.

(3) Someone above mentioned the atztec Macuahuitl as example of a stone weapon that was equal to the metal weapons of the conquistadores. Wikipedia comes to a different conclusion (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Macuahuitl) :

The macuahuitl had many drawbacks in combat versus European steel swords. Despite being sharper, prismatic obsidian is also considerably more brittle than steel; obsidian blades of the type used on the macuahuitl tended to shatter on impact with other obsidian blades, steel swords or plate armour. Obsidian blades also have difficulty penetrating European mail. The thin, replaceable blades used on the macuahuitl were easily dulled or chipped by repeated impacts on bone or wood, making artful use of the weapon critical. It takes more time to lift and swing a club than it does to thrust with a sword. More space is needed as well, so warriors advanced in loose formations and fought in single combat.

While Bronze is certainly weaker than steel, the fact that even bone could break them indicates that they wouldn't do especially well against bronze.

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Technology is technology:

The fact of bronze isn't so much the key here as the reasons WHY one side has bronze and the other doesn't. Having bronze armor and bronze weapons means your state is backed by commerce and industry, logistics and technology. A sophisticated government provides for their army well, and this is reflected in a thousand small, subtle ways.

There were some extremely sophisticated military technologies that didn't involve metal. The macuahuitl ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Macuahuitl ) was a very effective and deadly sword used by the Aztecs, who had virtually no military use for bronze or iron, for that matter. It was used to great effect against the Spaniards who had guns and steel (The Aztecs lost the war for lots of reasons).

Linen laminate armor (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Linothorax) replaced bronze armor in Greek warfare, likely due to it's light weight, coolness and low cost. It is likely this armor was augmented with metal plates in vulnerable areas, but it was principally a non-metal armor, and it is likely you could use a cuir bouilli (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boiled_leather) technique to completely replace metal in armor.

I suspect making bronze arrowheads and spear tips might be more efficient for an army than stone, but stone weapons are extremely sharp and deadly (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stone_tool). A good crushing club with a heavy rock on the end is going to be about as effective as a mace.

A sophisticated society with good stone weapons can be extremely competitive with a society with lots of bronze, if the social and organizational skills backing up the army are competitive with the rival society. A culture with a little bronze to augment their army could be in many ways superior to a bronze-dependent culture that doesn't need to be as sophisticated to field their main-line soldiers.

Aztec weapons and armor

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  • $\begingroup$ even hannibal barca bring sling unit to crush rome troops $\endgroup$
    – Li Jun
    Aug 5 '20 at 4:21
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I'm going to skirt the obvious, in that this is pretty much the way it went in our own past - You know the outcome. Put it into a different perspective with the ideas of 'Army' size, add the variables of improved and advanced training, tactical strategy, and ability to withstand a battle where attrition is a co-equal foe. "The Art of War" has been around a very long time, but holds principles still true today. It seems likely that the stone-weilders will not have these advantages, which is likely why we don't use stone in our battles anymore.

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  • $\begingroup$ Thanks, I just wanted confirmation. The reason I'm asking is because I'm building a fantasy world where iron/steel is exceptionally poor and bronze (copper, tin...etc) are super abundant and available just about anywhere. $\endgroup$ Aug 4 '20 at 19:13
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The weapon technology makes minimal difference.

Training, discipline and morale will be the decisive factors in ancient battles, as well as generalship and strategy. A disciplined force with stone-tipped spears and hide shields will massacre a rabble with bronze equipment.

Numbers count for something too, but with halfway decent generalship they are not a decisive factor.

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