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Tungsten is a very dense and robust metal that has the highest melting point and boiling point of any metal. This makes it very resilient in certain situations but also makes it hard to craft stuff with in a forge.

Let's say that in 1300 AD, every kingdom gains access to a magic wand. This wand can turn a steel weapon or steel armor into pure single-crystalline tungsten. The tungsten will be in the same shape as the steel was in. Will tungsten weapons and armors prove superior to steel ones now that production isn't an issue?

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  • $\begingroup$ Do bullets count as a medieval weapon for you? Because tungsten alloy bullets are actually possible and the chief weakness of tungsten (it’s brittleness) is mitigated. $\endgroup$
    – user71781
    Oct 28, 2022 at 0:34
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    $\begingroup$ You might have better luck with blunt weapons. A tungsten mace could pack a punch, for instance, and (with a wood or steel haft) wouldn't suffer so much from tungsten's brittleness. $\endgroup$ Oct 28, 2022 at 1:23
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    $\begingroup$ They would do much better with titanium. Same strength as steel (so maybe better strength than the steel they had back them) but much lighter. So the same armor could be much lighter and easier to carry and wear, or they could make a much thicker and stronger armor for the same weight. $\endgroup$
    – vsz
    Oct 28, 2022 at 5:55
  • $\begingroup$ Doesn't that boil down to "Is tungsten superior to steel"? $\endgroup$ Nov 2, 2022 at 21:20

9 Answers 9

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Crack!

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Tungsten is more brittle than iron or steel. The iron ring deformed nicely under 100kg of weight. The Tungsten ring of the same thickness (more that twice the weight) started cracking under the same weight. Tungsten carbide rings just explode.

The effect will be more pronounced with thin sheets of armor. I suspect a blow that would deform iron or steel armor will crack a hole in tungsten armor. Even worse, your tungsten plate is less than half as thick as the steel plate. Tungsten is heavy stuff.

The titanium rings do about as well as the iron or stainless steel rings under the hydraulic press. One difference is the more brittle stainless steel ring splits after getting flattened.

It seems Titanium might just work for armor. If only you can figure out how to work the dang stuff.

This wand can turn a steel weapon or steel armor into pure single-crystalline tungsten.

While not a great metal, this pure single-crystalline hocus-pocus might still be better than a sword made of impure iron or one that is poorly-forged.

I would line up five hundred apprentice blacksmiths. Whenever one makes a sword of inferior quality I would use the wand to correct their work.

It will be a very heavy sword. There is no way around that.

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    $\begingroup$ "It will be a very heavy sword. There is no way around that." I would imagine after the first sword was found to be too heavy all subsequent swords made to be processed by the wand would be made from less material. Smiths are not stupid. $\endgroup$ Oct 28, 2022 at 12:36
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    $\begingroup$ @PeteKirkham The idea is a single crystal of tungsten might be better in some ways than a poorly forged iron sword. You can recover some of the losses by turning the bad iron sword into a good tungsten one. $\endgroup$
    – Daron
    Oct 28, 2022 at 13:43
  • $\begingroup$ Using less material might translate into a less-stiff sword, i.e., a wobbly one unable to transmit forces effectively. Swords could be redesigned to have slots or holes, retaining stiffness with less material, at the expense of manufacturing time and ease. Without advanced manufacturing technology or rhenium alloy additions, there is no known way around the brittleness of tungsten. Its ductile-to-brittle transition temperature is just too high for humans to handle safely, near 300 to 400C. Steels are near -75C. sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0263436818300659 $\endgroup$ Oct 28, 2022 at 19:50
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Yes, as a cannonball or trebuchet counterweight

As other commenters here have noted, it's too dense and brittle for handheld weapons or armour. But a cannonball? Or even a trebuchet counterweight? That density is suddenly wonderful.

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  • $\begingroup$ Seems an awfully difficult and expensive way to do it...compared to lead. I guess if you're rich enough for luxury cannon balls that you can pay a lot more for the increase in density. $\endgroup$
    – DKNguyen
    Oct 28, 2022 at 4:09
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    $\begingroup$ @DKNguyen Why, is the magic wand gold coin operated? Make cannonball. Wave wand. Dense. $\endgroup$
    – user86462
    Oct 28, 2022 at 4:33
  • $\begingroup$ I missed that Hand of Midus part. $\endgroup$
    – DKNguyen
    Oct 28, 2022 at 4:51
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    $\begingroup$ @DarrelHoffman Just remember to specify an off-switch and an on/off indicator. You don't want to grab that thing by the wrong end. $\endgroup$
    – DKNguyen
    Oct 28, 2022 at 15:11
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    $\begingroup$ To be a bit imaginative: fire a cannonball. As soon as it exits the barrel, wand it off into tungsten. $\endgroup$
    – Nuclear241
    Oct 29, 2022 at 12:47
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Use those magic wands themselves on the battlefield, on the armor and weapons the enemy is using. With these suddenly weighing ~2.4 times as much, it will be relatively easy to defeat them.

Pure single-crystal tungsten is more ductile and less brittle than normal polycrystalline tungsten, but the density means that armor of the same weight will need to be very thin, thin enough that it may not actually provide as much protection as the same weight of good steel, especially if they have difficulty consistently making the original "template" armor to the required tolerances before transforming it into tungsten. Bladed weapons would face similar issues, and might be too prone to bending and losing their edges. It would be very good for weapons like hammers, axes, or maces, though.

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  • $\begingroup$ Problem is with the "every kingdom gains access to a magic wand" part. $\endgroup$
    – Martha
    Oct 28, 2022 at 17:09
  • $\begingroup$ @Martha that's the case regardless of the advantage provided by the wands. Or do you mean the problem is the fact they each get only one wand? Obviously the effect needs to be long range or wide spread enough to affect the enemy in a battle for this to work. $\endgroup$ Oct 28, 2022 at 20:04
  • $\begingroup$ The problem is with the "every". Making your opponents' armor heavy doesn't provide much of an advantage if they do the same thing to you. $\endgroup$
    – Martha
    Oct 28, 2022 at 21:22
  • $\begingroup$ @Martha And if tungsten made super-good armor and swords, turning your own side's armor and weapon into tungsten wouldn't provide much of an advantage if the opponents did the same with theirs. The only way it provides an advantage is if someone finds a non-obvious use that the others can't immediately replicate, or if someone captures or destroys someone else's wand. $\endgroup$ Oct 28, 2022 at 22:37
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    $\begingroup$ @ReubenMallaby Because it would render the city, castle, fort, or battlefield uninhabitable or impassable which is usually not what you want. $\endgroup$
    – DKNguyen
    Oct 29, 2022 at 21:06
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Tungsten is a terrible material for making weapons. If you have ever handled a filament lightbulb, you should know that any vigorous shaking would break the filament, because tungsten is very brittle.

Having a sword or an armor which shatters at the first blow is the dream of every warrior who wants to die ingloriously on the battle field.

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    $\begingroup$ Gen. George Patton: "No bastard ever won a war by dying for his country. He won it by making the other poor dumb bastard die for his country." $\endgroup$
    – Tom
    Oct 27, 2022 at 23:18
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    $\begingroup$ So, use the wand to turn into tungsten the weapons and armor of the opposing army. $\endgroup$
    – Vorbis
    Oct 28, 2022 at 7:51
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    $\begingroup$ Though, part of the reason that a tungsten light bulb filament is so delicate is that it's so thin, which swords and shields generally are not. $\endgroup$
    – dan04
    Oct 28, 2022 at 18:27
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As others have said, pure tungsten is not the best metal for weapons. But it could be used for arrow-points. There the brittleness wouldn't pose such an issue, and hardness would help with armor penetration. And since it is heavier than iron, you would need less iron to make arrow-points, as your magic wand would increase it's weight (which is needed for a proper arrow balance).

But if you could get a magic wand to turn other stuff into tungsten, things could get interesting. Castle walls made out of tungsten would be something to watch for.

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    $\begingroup$ "Castle walls made out of tungsten would be something to watch for." The foundations would need to have been significantly strengthened. $\endgroup$
    – RonJohn
    Oct 28, 2022 at 20:18
  • $\begingroup$ @RonJohn Just turn the ground into tungsten, too. It's not like the ground itself could sink, right? Right? $\endgroup$ Oct 30, 2022 at 1:28
  • $\begingroup$ @ChristopherJamesHuff ground absolutely does sink. The technical word is subsidence. Even bedrock subsidies when enough weight is put on it, since the continental plates float on liquid rock. For example, some areas up north which were covered by ice sheets are STILL rebounding 12000 years later because they sank so much. $\endgroup$
    – RonJohn
    Oct 30, 2022 at 2:30
  • $\begingroup$ @RonJohn I know. Salt domes are another example. And converting a castle's foundations to tungsten would probably lead to a demonstration of rock plasticity on human-relevant timescales. Depending on how enthusiastic they were with the depth, the effects could be fairly immediate... $\endgroup$ Oct 30, 2022 at 4:21
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Use the wand sparingly. Then melt down the first 'pure' tungsten sword you produce (if you can) and add the % of tungsten required to your next batch of steel (about 10% ?? * Note: the exact % will vary depending on the intended end use in a modern context) to make a good tungsten/steel alloy. That way you get much more bang for each use of the wand.

The only problem? You'll also need molybdenum, chromium, vanadium, and cobalt wands because for the best results they need to be added to the alloy as well. So order those wands asap.

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    $\begingroup$ Be extremely careful not to order the cobalt-60 wand by mistake. It has very different military applications. $\endgroup$
    – cobbal
    Oct 28, 2022 at 19:54
  • $\begingroup$ Yes, collide it with cesium-137 to make Lead-197. Then stick it in a warehouse for 5 years. In that time, it turns into something all by itself. Use that something to buy weapons. $\endgroup$ Oct 30, 2022 at 21:38
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Tungsten is dense. That makes it useful for blunt weapons. So for example a mace with a tungsten core and a steel shell should work pretty well. Similarly, a morning star or warhammer with tungsten cores should deal a lot of damage.

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You got a mass-changing device??

Seems pretty game-changing to me. A tungsten weight can lift a steel weight twice the size. Then the newly-converted 2x weight can lift a steel weight 4x the size (of the original), and so on. You've got infinite energy. Nice.

Now you can have artillery (think trebuchet), and the only constraint is how much force the machinery can handle before it breaks.

You can also build your cities at the top of mountains, since it's very easy to make a elevators with (somewhat) infinite lifting capability. Picture a fortress at the top of the dolomites. Can't get better defence than sheer unreachability.

As for weapons, a mace with a tungsten core could be fun (basically a smaller headed mace with the same weight), but other than that not so useful. As others have pointed out, magicking a bunch of mounted knights to have their armor suddenly weigh 2.5x as much would be a good strategy. To counter, nobody would fight in steel anymore, maybe back to leather or bronze.

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    $\begingroup$ I don't see how infinite energy is possible. The conversion only works one way; and you still need to mine and refine steel first. You can increase mass but mass is still finite. $\endgroup$
    – ITM_Coder
    Oct 31, 2022 at 4:03
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Arrowheads with a tungsten core sheathed in more durable steel are going to penetrate quite well if you can find a way to shoot them.

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