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Edit: I am not looking for a specifically scientifically supportable answer. Rather, I am curious as to what characteristics of weapon metal lead to making them harder, and better at penetrating/destroying other weapons/armor.

Edit #2: The comments below this question may aid in shedding light on specifically what I am looking for, the necessary characteristics of an unnaturally strong metal. For even if not truly possible in our world, we can surmise what such a metal would hypothetically need to give up in order to gain higher toughness and strength.

(I have reviewed the questions regarding "Super Metal and Knights", but found them unsatisfactory for this specific query.)

First, I'd like to note that I understand that "Medieval-Tech" can cover a wide range of years and technological levels. For my purposes, I simply mean the general level that high-fantasy technology often exists at, e.g. Lord of the Rings, Eragon, etc.

In my world, there is a special sort of metal that is used for both weapons and armor, although it is extremely rare. This is metal is not capable of "slicing straight through my enemy's blade", because it isn't a lightsaber. However, it is of significantly higher strength, quality, durability, etc. It will hold its edge far longer than steel; it can cut a notch into a steel weapon if they are struck together in a sharp parry, while remaining itself largely unharmed; on a spearhead it is able to penetrate steel armor with much more ease than a steel or iron head would be able to. Likewise, when used in armor it is very hard to dent or scratch, and will turn away the toughest of spearheads/crossbow bolts/etc.

What would be the characteristics of a metal that is far harder/stronger/more durable than steel? At some level I assume this must be scientifically possible, as for example, steel can shred aluminum. I would like this super-metal to be to steel as steel is to aluminum. (I understand there's more to the science surrounding those two than my analogy, but the point regarding their relative toughness in a combat scenario remains.)

I have assumed that in order to have the characteristics I desire, it would have to be quite dense. Therefore I envision it being used as some sort of alloy, or even just to serve as the very tip of a stabbing spear or very edge of a sword, while the rest remains steel or iron. Note that I am not looking for real world elements that could be combined for this, but rather the basics of what a metal with this specifications would be like.

Most metals become more inflexible as they increase "hardness". Damascus or Wootz steel was rumored to be able to maintain an incredible edge while also being quite hard and extremely flexible, though through my research I understand some doubt has been cast on that in recent years.

I would like my metal to be incredibly hard, to hold an edge for an extended period of time, even if parrying with the edge, and to be capable of puncturing or otherwise damaging steel weapons when used against them.

I am not concerned about how difficult it may be to smelt/sharpen/work, as I'm comfortable with a degree of handwaving there. I'm simply curious as to whether a metal like this is theoretically possible, and if so, what would its characteristics be in regard to weight, flexibility, and so on.

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    $\begingroup$ Something like beskar that the Mandalorian race of Star Wars uses, maybe only sourced from one hard to access place or a place that one faction controls. $\endgroup$
    – Nate W
    Jun 19, 2023 at 23:27
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    $\begingroup$ To be fair to us, you appear to be asking for a scientifically supportable solution for a world that contains magic. Tolkien solved the problem (from a point of view) by introducing "Mithril," a super-light, super-strong material mastered only by the dwarves. Are you asking us to create a list of characteristics for your world's version of Mithril (which is OK!) or are you looking for a scientific solution (which probably isn't)? $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Jun 20, 2023 at 0:35
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    $\begingroup$ @JBH oh that's fair, thank you for helping me improve the question. I'm looking for what characteristics a metal of this sort would naturally have to have to be believable. $\endgroup$
    – LoganP98
    Jun 20, 2023 at 2:28
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    $\begingroup$ Mithril doesn't feel believable to most people under the age of 25 today. Science has become so much a part of our lives that it's getting harder to suspend our disbelief even with the classics. I'm a huge fan of 1950-1960 B-grade science fiction - but not because anything about it is in any way believable today. I have fun enjoying the creativity given the limited exposure of the writers and the quality (or lack thereof) of the stories. That's one reason why I made my point: the quest for "realistic" is often filled with potholes. Believable is better. Thanks! $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Jun 20, 2023 at 4:09
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    $\begingroup$ When talking about properties of metal, it's important to note that there are two opposing forces at play here: the harder a metal, the more brittle it is. Super-hard metals will hold their edge better but will fail catastrophically, while softer metals dull more readily but can withstand a lot of impacts without breaking. $\endgroup$
    – biziclop
    Jun 20, 2023 at 8:58

9 Answers 9

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Long answer warning: If you wish to skip all the context, just see last section about Mangalloy steel.

The Problems with Tungsten

While tungsten is an incredibly hard metal often used in making tools designed to cut steel, it is not actually as tough as most grades of steel. It is also a much heavier metal than iron such that most weapons made of tungsten would be inherently too fragile and too heavy to be as good as steel. Its easiness to shatter would also make it a very bad armor material compared to steel. It's melting point is also so high that it would take a magic forge to even work with.

The only practical application of tungsten as a weapon making material would perhaps be in the formation of bimetallic blades made of tungsten carbide encased in a mild steel (like how the katana is made from a harder steel encased in a mild steel). This would in theory make a decent blade, but if you already allow for unlimited cost, magic smelting techniques, and metallurgical knowledge, then a better option for tungsten is to use a blue steel. Blue steel is a high end iron alloy made with small amounts of tungsten and chromium which is used in premium knife and sword making today for its combination of excellent edge retention, weight, and toughness.

The Problems with Titanium

Pure titanium is a much softer and all around weaker metal than steel. Much like pure iron, it is too soft, but unlike iron, it can't be easily alloyed with carbon until it reaches its desired hardness... or rather, it takes so little carbon to harden titanium that it very quickly becomes too hard, brittle, and useless; so, you cant make it with traditional forging techniques at all. For titanium to be at all useful, you will need magic to refine it, and you will also need other anachronistic metals like Aluminum and Vanadium. If you allow for all of this, titanium alloy CAN make a very good armor. It's weaker than most steels of a given thickness, but for its weight it is generally stronger. So, if you want a light weight armor that can stop most attacks, titanium alloy is a good choice.

However, it is not a good blade making material. Even a basic carbon steel makes for better blades than titanium alloy because, titanium can't hold a narrow edge as well. In order to make an equally tough blade out of titanium, it would need to be thicker, and thus not cut as well.

That said, titanium is still not the BEST material to make body armor out of. There are types of steel that are even stronger for their weight than any titanium alloy, and their higher density means that you could make a thinner suit of lightweight armor than a titanium alloy would allow which would not just offer great protection, but the thinner plates/smaller rings will allow better flexibility in your articulating sections.

Solution: Steel, but a better explanation than existing answers

The first important thing to understand is that steel is not one single alloy, but rather a general term meaning any iron based alloy... but all iron is an iron alloy, because it is practically impossible to make a truly pure iron. Some of the stuff we call iron actually has a lower iron content than the stuff we call steel and vise versa. Some of the stuff we call iron is even chemically identical to other stuff we call steel. In short, differentiating iron and steel in the modern context is pretty pointless.

The best way to understand what steel is is to look at the word's historical usage. The word steel is derived from the Old English word stēli which simply means "stay". In the medieval period, blacksmiths would often advertise their prices for "blaec" meaning "black" which we now call iron or "stēli blaec" meaning "stayed black" which later became "steeled iron" and then shortened to just steel. Simply put, steel or steeled iron just means that the blacksmith did something extra to it to make it "stay" or be stronger than other iron.

The second important thing to understand is that by the end of the Medieval Period, steel making was actually very good. Expert blacksmiths could make steels that were very comparable modern steel. No they weren't as well alloyed or refined as modern steel, but complex wroughting and tempering practices gave their steels the precisely desired qualities in the exact places where it mattered most in a way that you don't get from modern homogenized steels.

So, depending on what part of the medieval period you are talking about, the kind of "super metals" you are talking about already existed. A high quality, late medieval weapon/armor grade steel used by knights and kings was way more rare and expensive than the much cheaper steels used in peasant tools and levee weapons, and they could achieve all of the desired effects that you are asking for. To understand this, let's look at all the factors that determine how good your steel really is.

  1. Contamination: Throughout ancient history, sulfur and phosphorous contamination were major issues in the iron industry. These contaminants would make iron alloys significantly more brittle without adding significant hardness; so, it was common for blades to shatter if they were made from a contaminated ore. During the early parts of the medieval period, many blacksmiths learned to cook their ore at a lower temperature before they would smelt it. This burned away most of the contamination and lead to a much more pure steel. So, if your setting represents the early medieval period, a smith could add to the price, quality, and rarity of his steel just by pre-cooking his ore. This step was often skipped when making budget steel or tools where shattering was not a major concern. It was also not commonly done in Middle-Eastern blacksmithing; so, depending on where you are, decontaminated steel could be rare. So, a cheap levee's blade might shatter, even in the late medieval period whereas a knight's blade would be far less likely to be contaminated.
  2. Carbon Content: When smelting iron ore, the iron always absorbs a certain amount of carbon from the kiln. The more carbon it has, the harder and more brittle your steel. Then as you hammer your steel into shape, you press out some of the carbon making it softer. The ideal weapon/armor grade steel is a medium carbon alloy (about .3% to .5% percent depending on what you are making). The problem most early blacksmiths ran into was that they had to be careful not to add too much carbon to their steel or it would crumble when they would try to hammer it out, or they would over hammer it making it too soft. So getting a good, medium carbon steel was almost impossible. By the high medieval period, you start to see finery forges that could take higher carbon steels and reduce the carbon until it was ideal for forging. It took a LOT of extra charcoal, time, and equipment to make finery steel. In fact, finery steel was about 10 times as expensive as traditional bloomery steel in many places where you saw them both as options, but it made a big difference between being able to make the short swords and chain armor of the early medieval period and the longer swords and partial plate armor of the high medieval period.
  3. Tempering: The way you cool your steel also impacts how good it is. If you cool steel too slowly it anneals meaning that it will bend if you flex it and then stay bent. If you cool it too quickly then it hardens meaning that it will be harder but break if you flex it. If you cool it at just the right speed for the amount of carbon in it, it tempers meaning that if you flex it, it will spring back into its original shape. A good temper can make any blade or armor several times as difficult to damage. In the early-to-high medieval period most blades were either made of a lower carbon steel that was quenched in water, medium carbon 1/2 tempered steel which is where you used a higher carbon steel and water quench just the edge letting the core slow cool, or higher carbon air cooled steel. In the late medieval period, smiths got a lot better at tempering medium carbon steels by using oil instead of water. This was what made it possible to fully replace chain armor with articulating plate armor because it meant that moderate impacts would not dent the armor and lock up your joints. It's also what made longswords and rapiers possible because you could make a long thin blade that could flex and spring back into shape without breaking. When you combine oil tempering, pre-cooking, and finery forging and all the mastery it takes to do those things right, you get a very expensive steel that was practically indestructible when used as armor or weapons in melee combat.

There were of course other trends that came and went like pattern welding, bi-metallic layering, and Damascus alloys which were different ways of alternating high and low carbon steels to make a ridged blade that is both hard and tough, but these methods tend to suffer from delamination under too many impacts and largely fell out of use by the mid-to-late medieval period when homogenized steels got good enough that the trade-off stopped being worth while.

There was also a huge difference in sharpening techniques. For example, Eastern swords were often made out of worse steels than Western swords, but their culture treated sharpening and polishing as its own specialized profession; so, their swords tended to be much sharper. This leads to the general perception that Eastern steel was better, even though they were actually centuries behind in metallurgy.

The actual best metal: Mangalloy Steel

Okay, so what if you wanted to pull out all of the stops, allow magic and modern alloying, and just make the best possible metal. What do you do?

Well, the answer is still steel, but it is a very specific type of steel called Mangalloy Steel. The addition of Manganese to steel is the biggest difference between modern steel and most historical steels. The ancient Spartans technically made their own version of Manganese steel which contributed significantly to their military superiority, but they never shared the secrete of their steel, and its use died out with their civilization, not to be rediscovered until MUCH later. But Mangalloy Steel is very special, even among steels. Most modern steels contain 0.15 to 0.8% manganese which makes it both harder and tougher than carbon steels, but still keeping the steel soft and ductile enough to be grinded, shaped, and generally worked into its final needed form. More than 0.8% manganese ruins your steel... that is until you add enough that something neat happens.

Mangalloy Steel has about 12% Manganese. At this concentration, the steel stops becoming brittle, and instead becomes a work-hardening alloy meaning that the more you try to shape it, the harder and more difficult to shape it becomes as opposed to other steels that loose hardness as you work it. However, everything about it makes it almost impossible to make anything but very basic shapes out of, even using the best of modern technology. Once work hardened, it becomes about 5-10x as strong as most other steels making it even stronger for its weight that titanium, and able to be used to make extremally sharp and durable edges and amazingly durable armor... except that it can't be tooled to make particularly sharp edges or complex armor.

This is where magic comes in. If you could magically shape and sharpen Mangalloy steel, then you could make highly durable, razor sharp swords that exceed even our modern blade making abilities, and complex armor that is thinner and lighter than historical plate armor, while also being several times stronger.

So your rare super metal is actually Manganese, but it has to be mixed with iron to achieve the desired result.

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  • $\begingroup$ Comments have been moved to chat; please do not continue the discussion here. Before posting a comment below this one, please review the purposes of comments. Comments that do not request clarification or suggest improvements usually belong as an answer, on Worldbuilding Meta, or in Worldbuilding Chat. Comments continuing discussion may be removed. $\endgroup$
    – L.Dutch
    Jun 22, 2023 at 19:50
  • $\begingroup$ We do have this sought-after material called Damascus steel though. It is essentially the "medival super metal":en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Damascus_steel $\endgroup$
    – Faito Dayo
    Jun 27, 2023 at 1:59
  • $\begingroup$ @FaitoDayo yes, I did mention it, but as it turns out, it was not actually that good of a metal. Its composition and structure makes in comparable to early medieval pattern welded steels, but overall it was actually pretty brittle and prone to delamination if struck with any significant force. The main reason Eastern swords had such extreme curves was because they could not survive the impact of a cleave, so they instead specialized at draw cutting. It was the sharpening techniques, and not the metallurgy of Eastern swords that was actually impressive. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Jun 27, 2023 at 16:35
  • $\begingroup$ The US government funded a bunch of research into the use of Damascus steel in the late 1800s and early 1900s and found that it was much worse than homogenized steel in most applications. That is when the science of Damascus steel was actually "lost" because no serious technical manual writer wanted to include it once the myth was dispelled, but then by the late-1900s the myth re-emerged once all the people who still knew better aged out. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Jun 27, 2023 at 16:35
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There is a famous story about Saladin meeting King Richard I "the Lionhearted" of England.

The two heroes compare the qualities of their swords. Saladin demonstrates how sharp is his Damascus steel sword by cutting a feather-light silk veil; King Richard demonstrates what a good broadsword can do by cutting a steel mace with a mighty blow, or, in other tellings, by cleaving a stone boulder.

This is how that particular episode is described by Sir Walter Scott in chapter XXVII of his novel The Talisman (1825), which as it happens, it available online at Project Gutenberg:

[Saladin] led the way accordingly to a splendid pavilion, where was everything that royal luxury could devise. De Vaux, who was in attendance, then removed the chappe, or long riding-cloak, which Richard wore, and he stood before Saladin in the close dress which showed to advantage the strength and symmetry of his person, while it bore a strong contrast to the flowing robes which disguised the thin frame. of the Eastern monarch. It was Richard's two-handed sword that chiefly attracted the attention of the Saracen—a broad, straight blade, the seemingly unwieldy length of which extended well-nigh from the shoulder to the heel of the wearer.

“Had I not,” said Saladin, “seen this brand flaming in the front of battle, like that of Azrael, I had scarce believed that human arm could wield it. Might I request to see the Melech Ric strike one blow with it in peace, and in pure trial of strength?”

“Willingly, noble Saladin,” answered Richard; and looking around for something whereon to exercise his strength, he saw a steel mace held by one of the attendants, the handle being of the same metal, and about an inch and a half in diameter. This he placed on a block of wood.

The anxiety of De Vaux for his master's honour led him to whisper in English, “For the blessed Virgin's sake, beware what you attempt, my liege! Your full strength is not as yet returned—give no triumph to the infidel.”

“Peace, fool!” said Richard, standing firm on his ground, and casting a fierce glance around; “thinkest thou that I can fail in his presence?”

The glittering broadsword, wielded by both his hands, rose aloft to the King's left shoulder, circled round his head, descended with the sway of some terrific engine, and the bar of iron rolled on the ground in two pieces, as a woodsman would sever a sapling with a hedging-bill.

“By the head of the Prophet, a most wonderful blow!” said the Soldan, critically and accurately examining the iron bar which had been cut asunder; and the blade of the sword was so well tempered as to exhibit not the least token of having suffered by the feat it had performed. He then took the King's hand, and looking on the size and muscular strength which it exhibited, laughed as he placed it beside his own, so lank and thin, so inferior in brawn and sinew.

“Ay, look well,” said De Vaux in English, “it will be long ere your long jackanape's fingers do such a feat with your fine gilded reaping-hook there.”

“Silence, De Vaux,” said Richard; “by Our Lady, he understands or guesses thy meaning—be not so broad, I pray thee.”

The Soldan, indeed, presently said, “Something I would fain attempt—though wherefore should the weak show their inferiority in presence of the strong? Yet each land hath its own exercises, and this may be new to the Melech Ric.” So saying, he took from the floor a cushion of silk and down, and placed it upright on one end. “Can thy weapon, my brother, sever that cushion?” he said to King Richard.

“No, surely,” replied the King; “no sword on earth, were it the Excalibur of King Arthur, can cut that which opposes no steady resistance to the blow.” “Mark, then,” said Saladin; and tucking up the sleeve of his gown, showed his arm, thin indeed and spare, but which constant exercise had hardened into a mass consisting of nought but bone, brawn, and sinew. He unsheathed his scimitar, a curved and narrow blade, which glittered not like the swords of the Franks, but was, on the contrary, of a dull blue colour, marked with ten millions of meandering lines, which showed how anxiously the metal had been welded by the armourer. Wielding this weapon, apparently so inefficient when compared to that of Richard, the Soldan stood resting his weight upon his left foot, which was slightly advanced; he balanced himself a little, as if to steady his aim; then stepping at once forward, drew the scimitar across the cushion, applying the edge so dexterously, and with so little apparent effort, that the cushion seemed rather to fall asunder than to be divided by violence.

“It is a juggler's trick,” said De Vaux, darting forward and snatching up the portion of the cushion which had been cut off, as if to assure himself of the reality of the feat; “there is gramarye in this.”

The Soldan seemed to comprehend him, for he undid the sort of veil which he had hitherto worn, laid it double along the edge of his sabre, extended the weapon edgeways in the air, and drawing it suddenly through the veil, although it hung on the blade entirely loose, severed that also into two parts, which floated to different sides of the tent, equally displaying the extreme temper and sharpness of the weapon, and the exquisite dexterity of him who used it.

The key take-away is that how believable is the presentation of an element of the story depends mainly on the art of the storyteller; a skilled storyteller will make even the most fantastic story element seem plausible and indeed perfectly natural in the context of the story.

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    $\begingroup$ Not every broad sword is a broadsword ;) $\endgroup$ Jun 20, 2023 at 10:14
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    $\begingroup$ Richard: "See that boulder, there?" Saladin: "Yes..." Richard: (cleaves the boulder in two with his sword) Saladin: "Impressive!...See that fly, buzzing about there?" Richard: "Yes..." Saladin: (unsheathes his scimitar and swishes it in a complex pattern around the fly) Richard: "Aha! It's still flying, I can see it!" Saladin: "Yes. But it will never reproduce." $\endgroup$
    – Qami
    Jun 20, 2023 at 13:08
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    $\begingroup$ While Sir Walter Scott's story is highly dramatized, and a bit ignorant, it actually does a good job of underling the fundamental difference between Eastern and Western swords in the high-medieval period. Western steel was much better than Eastern steel; so, a typical high-end western sword could cleave through things that would shatter a high-end eastern sword, but Eastern swordsmiths took sharpening and edge geometry much more seriously; so, their swords were generally better cutters. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Jun 27, 2023 at 16:47
  • $\begingroup$ Because the focus of Western sword making was metallurgical, when they saw the unfamiliar patterned steel, and how well the swords cut, it created the legend that it was the steel itself of Eastern Swords that was so great. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Jun 27, 2023 at 16:47
  • $\begingroup$ @Nosajimiki: What I tried to do is answer the question what would a sword made of some awesome super-metal "look like"; this is what the question asked. I did not try to answer the question what such a super-metal would be. I have upvoted your excellent answer, although I am of the opinion that it answers a different question. Maybe Sir Walter Scott knew his rudiments of metallurgy, maybe he didn't: but he certainly did not care about metallurgy when creating this scene. The purpose of the scene is to contrast western straightforward strength and eastern devious subtlety. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Jun 27, 2023 at 18:48
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Steel

How about something very simple and actually quite realistic (def. for early medieval period) - steel vs. iron? IIRC, they knew steel, but didn't actually know how to reliably make it, so steel weapons/armour were quite expensive and a common soldier would just use wrought iron.

You could use something of that sort, the "mundane" weapons are made out of crude iron (nor all that much better than bronze, actually, just easier to get), while whoever is able to wield the right sort of magic can tweak the trace element content and heat treatment to get a much superior blade/armour.

In comparison you get virtually the same density and resistance to heat&magic, however one will behave like a spring (hard yet flexible, possibly even stainless!) while the other one will feel like made of mud compared to it.

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    $\begingroup$ They knew steel, they knew how to make it, they just couldn't make it very fast. A good smith could produce forge steel at a rate of a kilogram or two a day; compare to the Bessemer process at rates in excess of 30 tons an hour. $\endgroup$
    – Mark
    Jun 21, 2023 at 1:01
  • $\begingroup$ "Steel" covers an enormous range of ferrous alloys, and while some steels could be produced in antiquity, any unusually high-quality products were largely an accident of starting materials or random variations in the process. Also, the useful properties of some steels aren't just a matter of alloy content, but of processing afterward. Perhaps it's just a matter of reliably producing high-grade steel, knowledge of how to produce and work with certain specific alloys, or knowledge of how to remove things like excessive sulfur or phosphorus that might contaminate available ores and fuels. $\endgroup$ Jun 22, 2023 at 20:13
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Smiths of the medieval period had no idea specifically why one sword cut better than the last one they made. They knew the process and intuitively were able to do incredible works. They had no concept of atoms or molecules. They did know it was far better to quench a sword in oil than water. You could make copper harder just by hammering on it, that heating an ingot where it glowed a certain color when it was ready to be worked.

Others have pointed out that it is not a matter of a metals "strength" but how it balances hardness with ductility. In Game of thrones Valyrian Steel was a superior steel. No one was able to reproduce it. Best they could do was recast it (which was weird but beside the point).

Equally important to how its made is what it is made from. The smelting process and the source of the ore used. For instance, Japanese sword making has been inflated far a reasonable assessment of their actual characteristics. Tamahagane (the steel used to the making of Katana) is folded hundreds of times in a ritualistic manor, not because it is a superior technique. But because it is necessary since it is a poor quality ore and must be done to impart carbon into the steel to make it useful. Additionally I would look up, Wootz steel, or Seric steel,crucible steel or "true" Damascus Steel.

The point I think is, what you are looking for, were it possible, it would have been already done, and we would know. So, what it would look like has to be invented... fabricated, its up to you. My suggestion would be take a few hours and watch some of the earlier episodes of Forged in Fire. Look up blacksmithing on YouTube, and get a feel for what actually goes into forging a blade, armor or tool. How many different ways it has been done. Forge Welding, casting, cold hardening. Then inject your own substance, process, ritual to elevate the creation. Or, just leave it an enigma to the reader. Which can be more interesting than revealing how the magic trick is done.

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A medieval smith knows a sword is a composite structure. A Norman light whacks their broadsword against the other guy's broadsword until one of them becomes too tired or too numb to parry any more. The winner then uses the edge to cut the other guy. He could then go back to the smith and ask "Why does the edge get all notched? Can't you make it out of something harder?"

The smith probably does not have the formula for Fracture Toughness but they may instinctively understand what is needed. The strength of metals comes from their ability to fail and still remain in one useable piece. If they used a ceramic blade then it would shatter. The could make a knife with a low-carbon steel body for toughness, with a high-carbon layer at the very edge for cutting. The high-carbon edge might lose chunks, but it would still have enough sharp edge to be unpleasant for the other guy.

"Not a good sword, milord? You carried it back here, so it must have been good enough in a fight. How was the other guy's sword then? Does he still have both arms? I can take out those notches, easy."

It would be nice if we could cut things by just severing a single layer of atomic bonds. Machine shops would use this everywhere if they could: it would take almost no energy. A medieval philosopher might imagine such a sword as an ideal. If they could come up with the sharpest, hardest material, then it would cut effortlessly though things. Unfortunately, there is no 'hardest metal' - or rather the hardest metals become more ceramic-like, and can break. Make it harder, and it becomes less brittle. Make it lighter and you have less weight to swing. The craft is balancing all these properties in a single device, rather than using material X.

You can have your 'subtle knife' that cuts anything in your world, and not explain it. But if you want to make something that feels like real stuff (a worthy aim IMHO) then you are going to need some other trick.

Electrify the blade, perhaps? Combination broadsword and taser?

PS: The low-carbon, high-carbon steel combo is a very good solution for traditional blades. There are lots of new alloys and techniques these days, but they don't really add much. If you want to be fancy, add beryllium to a bronze sword for a copper-beryllium hard edge. But I doubt if it would be anything special.

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    $\begingroup$ people basically never block swords with other swords outside Hollywood. If edge is meeting a edge during a parry you are doing it wrong. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Jun 22, 2023 at 18:26
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    $\begingroup$ @John No... but edges do meet shields, armor, and such. If you aim for a guy's neck and instead strike gorget, you can expect the quality of your sword to matter... which is ironically a thing you ONLY seem to see outside of Hollywood since every movie ever would have you believe that you can just drive a sword through a tempered steel breast plate. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Jun 27, 2023 at 17:01
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Many of the answers provided here have good information about real materials that we currently know about and their properties, but as a fantasy material we're not limited by real world materials or things like the periodic table. On the other hand, we want to take advantage of some of the depth that exists in the real world to give more verisimilitude to our ideas.

So, some ideas about material properties and creating an ideal material.

Density

The density and weight of a material on their own contribute to the use of a material. A dense material like tungsten, depleted uranium, or lead is often ideal for bludgeoning weapons like maces. Density also allows for more energy to be imparted on a projectile as it travels down the length of a barrel and reduces the effect of things like drag. A dense material might make for good armor, as the extra weight can allow more momentum at a given speed, though it will be harder to build up to that speed.

A low density material can be great for weapons that rely on finesse. Low density allows for rapid changes in direction and speed with less effort. This means that a club made of something with low density will not carry as much momentum and will be easier to deflect, but it also means something like a rapier would be extremely easy to move around and navigate to vital places that you might want to poke. Low density can be good for armor, as the purpose of armor is typically to spread out the force of an impact over a large area, which the low-density armor could do while tiring out the wearer minimally.

Hardness

In the real world, hardness and brittleness generally have a positive correlation. In steel, hard steel has a dense, messy crystalline structure that ensures that crystals can't slide over one another easily. Soft steel has large crystals that are more easily able to find lines that allow them to slide.

The tradeoff is that in a hard steel, when the crystals are forced to slide, they're more likely to push against each other in such a way that gaps are created, which creates a fracture.

The solution historically here has been to make implements that use both types of steel. There are a handful of processes to do this, but your fantasy material could be a metal that is otherwise accessible but uses a special technique to weave together different properties of the same metal in different conditions.

Structure

This is where being able to handwave the manufacturing process could have the biggest payoff. The crystalline structure and the binding properties of the molecules that make up that material are the main things that influence the properties of that material.

Diamonds, carbon nanotubes, carbon fiber, graphite. These materials have significantly different physical properties; however, they're all based on arranging carbon in different ways. Diamond is extremely hard, carbon nanotubes are extremely strong, graphite is not either of those things. They are all the same element as ash. Your super material could be a special treatment of something relatively mundane.

Conclusion

A true one size fits all super material could be based on ash-forging or something like that. Using different treatment processes could result in high or low density, a diamond-hard edge, point, or case backed or interweaved with an extremely strong phase of the same material. The equipment could have a very thin, clear case filled with pitch black. Armor could use only carbon nanotube-like material to create something akin to modern Kevlar (but stronger) or a mixture of diamond-like and nanotube-like materials in configurations like plate, scale, lamellar, chain, etc. You could also take some of the downsides to these materials such as in the right conditions they can be flammable, or cause cancer.

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I mean... Titanium would be an option.

Especially if you handwaive the smelting problems away. You've mentioned LoTR, so we could even assume Magic is involved in the refining process from Ore to useable metal.

Either that or something involving Tungsten - like Tungsten Carbide for a blade edge or Tungsten tipped arrows (Low-tech equivalent of the modern Tank APFS-DS round)

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    $\begingroup$ Titanium is a terrible option for swords. It’s as soft as copper, for plastic deformation. OP wants something harder than steel. $\endgroup$
    – Daniel B
    Jun 19, 2023 at 23:38
  • $\begingroup$ What are the characteristics of Tungsten that allow it to be a low tech armor piercing weapon? That type of thing is specifically what I am looking for. $\endgroup$
    – LoganP98
    Jun 20, 2023 at 2:33
  • $\begingroup$ @LoganP98 - the same properties that make it good at being armor piercing in a High-tech setting - it's hard and dense. Meaning the projectile, for a given size has more mass, therefore more kinetic energy at the business end and the hardness means it's able to punch through whatever it's facing. $\endgroup$ Jun 20, 2023 at 3:33
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    $\begingroup$ Hi Demon, the OP made an edit to clarify that he/she is looking for characteristics, not really an elemental (scienfitic) replacement. Given the existence of LoganP98inium, what characteristics must that fictional element have to be a better choice than steel in a medieval setting? $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Jun 20, 2023 at 4:11
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    $\begingroup$ I thought so, too, so I posted my comment. Logan edited the post with a paragraph at the beginning stressing he/she's not looking for a scientific solution, but a list of characteristics. "Real worldy" characteristics need not reflect a single real-worldy element or alloy. I suspect that's how a number of elements on the Periodic Table were first anticipated. $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Jun 20, 2023 at 5:14
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HSS steel. I have HSS steel bits that can open holes in construction grade steel as if it is made out of wood. They are sharp and they keep that sharpness under heavy stress a lot longer than regular tool steel. Even the thin ones do not snap easily. Their only weakness is temperature but it can survive up to 400C which is better than most steel variants. HSS steel contains tungsten, molybdenum, chromium and vanadium so I am not sure how feasible it is to manifacture at your time setting. But a variant of it was discovered 1800s so it is not new. It can be air cooled for hardening. There are also subvariants of HSS steel that are more (M1) or less flexible (M7 or M35), allowing compound weapons like katana or kilij.

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There are modern examples of exactly what you're looking for.

The fist example is simply steel but modern. With modern understanding of metallurgy and modern processes, you can get off the shelf steel with the specific characteristics you want to best suit your needs. The steel used in pots, in knives and in armour production is not the same steel. Because of the advancements, the modern steel you would use to make weapons and armour for a Medieval battlefield will not only be better suited, it would also be of better quality with less defects. Which means that if an old steel sword hits a modern steel sword hard enough, 99 of 100 times the old sword would break. Add some shock absorbtion to the knights with modern steel, and their tactic can be just get in and bash the oponent as hard as possible until their armour or weapon gives in. This is what happened with the move from bronze to iron weapons. The slight advantage of iron caused eventualy for iron to be adopted over bronze. With a naked eye, you will probably not see many differences between the swords only under a microscope the diferences will emarge and when the bad quality steel breaks.

Then you have modern composite armour, which uses layers of steel and other materials to achieve comparable stopping power to steel with less weight (but at the cost of being thicker). As the outer most layer is steel, it also looks and feels the same as steel, only thicker and lighter. It isn't very practical for weapons, nor for personal armour. But with some magic and hand waving you could say that it's as thick as normal armour but lighter and still gives considerable armor and is used by recon or other troops that utilize the added mobility to get an advantage against a slower but better protected enemy.

Then you have modern metals and alloys used today exactly for the purpose that you specified. Specifically, depleted uranium, which is used by militaries both for strong armour and for creation of armour piercing ammo, but has a considerable drawback of being radioactive, so you don't want to use it as the kit of a soldier, if you don't want them to get cancer. Or tungsten which is used in the creation of kinetic armour piercing rounds where DP can't be used because of its radioactivity.

For body armour you have modern materials which are used today, Kevlar and ceramics which offer better protection than still and are able to withstand modern firearms, they are able to stop a sword. I don't think that you can make a full set of armour from them, but you can make from them modern protective gear. Body armour, helmets and ballistic shields. With some magic and what not it isn't unreasonable to say that a full body ceramic armour is created.

As to the reasons of why only one group has access to the super steel could be that the knowledge was lost but only one facility that is able to create or extract it still exists and so only the function that controls that facility has access to the technology or material. Another option is that of the depleted uranium, the super steel is better but is also toxic to the user, and only the function that has immunity to the toxicity of the metal can use it, think of cockroaches using depleted uranium because those doses of radiation are safe for them, but humans can't use the same gear.

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    $\begingroup$ depleted uranium and tungsten are both extremally worse than steel for mediaeval arms or armor. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Jun 20, 2023 at 23:40
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    $\begingroup$ With regards to depleted uranium, see this answer. $\endgroup$
    – Mark
    Jun 21, 2023 at 1:12
  • $\begingroup$ @Mark, FWIU OP are looking for examples to take insperation from, not literal plans for medieval weapons from modern material. Take the example of using DU on modern tanks add magic and apply it to medieval combat. A super metal which is better by all measurs except for its toxicity. Or tangsten which is better but harder to use and manipulate so you have your super metal but only the single best blacksmith of the land can form it into usable forms. Take their charectaristcs and apply them to your magicaly infused super-steel. $\endgroup$
    – SIMEL
    Jun 21, 2023 at 13:31
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    $\begingroup$ @Mark, your answer accepts that DU maces would be better than steel maces, so just have this. A culture that has access to a metal that is extremely better but only in a specific use case and make them incorporate it into their strategy. So their main weapon is not the sword, but a mace, a morning star or a war hammer. And just have them bash in their way to victory. $\endgroup$
    – SIMEL
    Jun 21, 2023 at 13:36
  • $\begingroup$ If a medieval fighter wanted a heavier mace, they could get one pretty easily by just making it bigger. But they didn't do that. A heavier mace is much more tiring, harder to carry on a long march, harder to avoid over-swinging which leaves you vulnerable to a counter-attack, and so on. It's also fairly clear that it just wasn't necessary either-existing maces did a good enough job armor and killing people without being stupidly heavy. Depleted uranium would let you get a heavier mace with a smaller size, but it's not clear why that's actually an advantage. $\endgroup$ Jun 21, 2023 at 16:35

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