I am a skilled metallurgist and engineer and, like most well-educated people, I'm terrified by the possibility of an impending apocalypse. Let's not worry too much about what form it takes. Nuclear, ecological, cosmic - I mean we're spoiled for choice after all. The point is that it's going to be so catastrophic that civilization will collapse. Without systemic access to learning or the internet, people are going to be reduced to an iron age level of technology within a generation.

Now I want to prepare for this scenario not for myself or my family - no-one knows who's going to survive after all - but for humanity as a whole. I want to build and leave behind a whole bunch of stuff that we can make now, with modern technology, but which only requires a dark-age level of skill to operate. A basic example: an axe made of modern steel is going to be pretty valuable resource in a society that can only smelt crude iron.

Nowadays, we'd mostly rather use a chainsaw over an axe to cut wood on a grand scale. In the new iron age, though, that's not practical. Machines of any kind require a power source and/or have easily damaged moving parts. So we can't leave actual modern equipment like chainsaws behind for the survivors. Yet, surely, with all the skill and technology at our disposal, we can actually do better than a basic steel axe?

Of course I'm not really a skilled metallurgist or engineer. And this is my question: if you were going to re-design simple tools and weapons in this day and age to make them as useful and as long-lasting as possible, what would you do? What could be done with our titular axe to make it light and balanced, prevent rust, get (and keep) the keenest edge possible? What other sorts of tools might you leave, and what would you change to make them of maximum utility in our new iron age?

EDIT: I seem to have framed this question badly. My proposed metallurgist isn't in any way a protagonist in this scenario. It's just a framing device to ask the question of what objects might modern human purposefully leave for a future civilization rebuilding itself after total collapse. She will be long dead by the time people discover the things she has left for them.

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    $\begingroup$ "What could be done with our titular axe to make it light and balanced, prevent rust, get (and keep) the keenest edge possible? " Firstly with axes you can get a stainless blade or a keen edge. I use axes a lot and all my best axes are carbon steel which takes a very sharp lasting edge that will rust unless cared for and regularly cleaned and oiled. Stainless axes can handle neglect but do not hold good edge. As for light, you need an axe with some weight behind it for cutting, a light axe would not bite deep. You seems to have a very conflicted list of axe-requirements. $\endgroup$
    – AndyW
    Sep 6, 2016 at 12:57
  • $\begingroup$ Consider digging up an old copy of Farnham's Freehold by Heinlein: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Farnham%27s_Freehold $\endgroup$ Sep 7, 2016 at 7:12
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    $\begingroup$ Note that most materials stored in an oxygen and water free environment can theoretically last indefinitely (not taking molecular decay rates into account). As @AndyW said, carbon steel is amazing but can decay. so pack it in grease and submerge it in oil and then seal that in a waterproof case (likely a rubber sealed polymer case). That would keep your tools in great shape until someone finds them. Then the tools will have a caretaker. $\endgroup$ Mar 1, 2017 at 17:23

6 Answers 6


We will never have an iron age again

Even with the complete breakdown of society as we know it, we will never return to an "iron age" again. At the very worst, we will return to the 1830 to 1850's, i.e. just before the industrial revolution.

The reason for that is knowledge. School children know things today that a mere 100 years ago was a complete mystery to even the most learned and intelligent of scholars. A simple physics book, or a medicine book, or a book on modern nursing, contains so much knowledge that it is actually quite impossible to revert to an iron age. Just the fact that we know about germs and basic sanitation, or rudimentary nutrition, means such a great difference compared to the first iron age that the post-apocalypse can never compare to that.

Not only that but in the post-apocalypse world, we are starting with quite a lot of stuff left behind for us to use, especially in regards to refined metals. So rebuilding rebuilding a society as it was at the start of the industrial revolution will be quite easy compared to how hard it was the first time.

So I challenge your premise and say: no, we will not have an iron age again. The following premise...

a society that can only smelt crude iron

...is totally unrealistic because even the most basic of chemistry and metallurgy means we will be able to make steel quite soon.

So if your foresightful hero is in the least bit worried about the post-apocalypse, what they will do first is to stockpile knowledge in the form of books, because knowledge is the key to development and getting back to where we were.

And while she will surely store some basic tools for manufacturing, what is even more important is that she saves tools needed to restore engineering, for instance things made for measuring with great precision, like calipers and gauge block sets.

Your guy's role in this as a "skilled metallurgist and engineer" is that he is a walking library of knowledge and experience. He will be a scholar, a teacher, a tutor trying to spread this knowledge again.

EDIT: Even with the edit to the question, the answer remains the same: the most important thing to leave behind is knowledge. So your character will gather books of all sorts. Getting them to survive is an issue, but do note that this notion is not exactly novel.

Sure, your character may have metalworking and metallurgy close to heart but she would be — pardon the language — a bloody idiot if all she left behind was knowledge of that(!) and not things such as sanitation, nutrition, medicine, nursing, chemistry, cosmology, physics, maths, languages... there are just so many things that are of higher priority than metalworking / metallurgy.

EDIT 2: There is a way to make knowledge that has been found to be spotty and incomplete, and that is if you make knowledge-suppression part of your premise. If the effort to save knowledge until after the apocalypse is not a carefully planned and meticulously executed effort, but instead a hasty and panicked one, then you can end up with someone finding a cache of metallurgy knowledge without being made privy to all the basic background knowledge.

So how would that affect tools and weapons? And what can you leave behind to assist a future blacksmith?

As has been said in other answers: the difference would mostly be in quality. The manufacturing tools and knowledge will allow your future post-apocalyptic blacksmith to make tools and weapons of higher quality. They will last longer, be sharper/harder/tougher and they can also be made with higher precision.

But do note that while this is significant and most certainly valuable, this will not give the wielders any kind of definitive edge over their opponents. They will have an advantage, yes, but there are few such advantages that cannot be overcome by sheer numbers and stubbornness. Your future blacksmith will most likely become famous as the producer of exceptional weapons and tools, as has happened many times in real life human history.

  • $\begingroup$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. $\endgroup$ Sep 8, 2016 at 13:00

They would look just like modern tools do.

There is substantial professional market for axes and knives. And, especially in case of knives, cost was never the limit.

  1. Knives

    Look at modern hunting knives. Especially handmade, created in small batches. Modern hunters in first world countries are usually rich people. Best chiefs aren’t skimpy, either, not when it comes to tools they use. Knifemakers use that, by using best materials, best tools, best heat treatment for each job. No limits in time or cost means these are at the top of usability, if sometimes with a bit too decorative handles.

    Bushcraft knives, skinning knives, bowies, kukri, santoku, and many more - they all have their role, and their best examples are at the peak of our technology.

  2. Axes

    There is still quite big professional market for axes. If anyone could do better than that, it would replace common axes. And of course, we already developed various types of axes for various jobs. Talking about “basic steel axe” shows you are not appreciating these enough.

  3. Hunting bows and crossbows

    Yet again, sport for the rich, who want best tools and can pay for them. We can’t do better, because if we could, someone would - and sell it to rich guy who'd love to impress his friends and competitors.

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    $\begingroup$ As others have said, stainless blades are possible, but a really good blade will still rust. For information on what a really good blade can do, one need look no further than the criteria for achieving master bladesmith at the American Bladesmith Society. One needs to create a damascus-pattern blade of about bowie size, which can slice through a one inch free-hanging rope in one cut, then hack through a two-by-four, then still be sharp enough to shave with. Then, the blade is held in a vice and bent to ninety degrees, which it must accomplish without cracking, and spring back to straight. $\endgroup$ Sep 6, 2016 at 17:20
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    $\begingroup$ @DewiMorgan: "must not" or "need not"? $\endgroup$
    – TMN
    Sep 6, 2016 at 19:45
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    $\begingroup$ @TMN "Must". I'm not sure why this constraint exists, to be honest. But in the PDF of the testing rules on their website, it's put as: "Only forged blades may be tested. Applicants for Journeyman Smith must test with a carbon steel knife. Damascus or laminated blades are not allowed as test blades for those seeking the Journeyman Smith rating." - with bold and underlining and everything: americanbladesmith.com/uploads/file/Testing/… $\endgroup$ Sep 6, 2016 at 20:16
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    $\begingroup$ Safety maybe? Until you've shown you can do it safely with carbon steel, bending a blade at 90 degrees made of laminations that could explosively separate into a million razor-flechettes if you did it wrong, may be inadvisable. $\endgroup$ Sep 6, 2016 at 20:27
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    $\begingroup$ @DewiMorgan What about D2 steel, for example? Hardly rusts at all, and rolled & ground can do the cutting & shaving. Bending - who would need that in real life? There are many kinds of knives for many tasks and the one you describe is mostly showoff. Also, real damascus steel is not yet reproduced, and that feels my heart with sadness. $\endgroup$
    – Mołot
    Sep 7, 2016 at 7:51

We have to model the apocolypse.

A modest apocolypse that simply wipes out 99% of the population uniformly or in clumps won't reduce us to the iron age.

You'd probably be forced to do either a single event that wipes us down to a few thousand survivors, or successive winnowing of a similar scale. There is evidence that humanity can survive such a genetic narrowing (in our genes).

Those humans would also be somehow forced to bend all their effort into survival. A successive winnowing makes this more likely (with every clump of humanity which fail to go all-out in pure short-term survival dying off).

Such a period has to last long enough that the artifacts of knowledge are lost. Books must rot, data must be destroyed, stone must fail. Leftover supplies, like chromium steel and aluminium, must rust (which could take a long time) for your tools to be exceedingly useful (using high quality pre-apocolypse metal to make tools gets you 99% of the way to making them out of the same materials before the apocolypse in many cases).

The artifacts produced by this metalworker must still remain, be found by this massively reduced population, and be useful. Not only that, they must be important enough to make a difference. Suppose you made the worlds best armor axe and sword: in a civilization of millions, there is only so much it could do. In a civilization of a billion, you'd almost need to have millions of your artifacts to make a serious dent in the productive capacity of the civilization.

And until you hit millions or billions, how would the new civilization find your artifacts?

The multiplicative power of knowledge is not to be underestimated. Instead of making millions of high-quality iron age tools and caching them throughout the world, do the same with knowledge. Instructions on how to do metallergy, build clocks, scientific knowledge, etc. For a fictional description, see Footfall by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, where the aliens are a legacy species after their on-planet precursors died to some apocolypse. Instead of materials, instructions on how to rebuild civilization where provided in increasingly difficult to reach places (with the idea that as the civilization mastered the previous tier, they would get the technology to reach the next tier of instructions).

Engineering and materials science would be needed in the form of making monoliths that could survive a near-geological time period and carry knowledge into the future. The knowledge encoded wouldn't just be engineering and materials science however.

  • $\begingroup$ Speaking of Niven and Pournelle, their novel Lucifer's Hammer deals with this same subject (the apocalypse in that case being delivered by a meteor). $\endgroup$
    – TMN
    Sep 6, 2016 at 19:49
  • $\begingroup$ @TMN My understanding was that Lucifer's Hammer and Footfall were originally the same book until it got too large. (Spoiler alert: check the rock that the aliens drop on us in the latter.) That's why so many of the characters/concepts parallel each other. $\endgroup$
    – Ghotir
    Sep 6, 2016 at 20:33
  • $\begingroup$ @TMN Lucifer's Hammer has the resistance of the descent to the iron age (or lower) using fragments of surviving knowledge (including people); Footfall covers a case where the civilization fell to the iron age (or lower in that case), then used knowledge stored over the apocolypse to recover. The OP's question was about an apocolypse that does reduce civilization to the iron age. One point I tried to make above is to actually drop to the iron age (or below), you need something worse than the hammer in a sense. See Dies the Fire. $\endgroup$
    – Yakk
    Sep 6, 2016 at 20:54
  • $\begingroup$ If they were the same creative work divided up, why wait 8 years between publishing? $\endgroup$
    – JDługosz
    Sep 7, 2016 at 3:52

There are some interesting answers already, but they seem predicated upon a common assumption: a very optimistic view of what people will be like/doing after the apocalypse.

Playing devil's advocate here, I would say that it is at least as likely that post-apocalypse will revert humankind far, far worse than the rosier scenarios. So much of what we take for granted right now in the first world especially is sustained by a massive yet barely noticed infrastructure: courts, police, international trade, cheap transportation, manufacturing, high literacy / general education, leisure time, etc. Then there's the synergistic effect of the common knowledge/background assumption of all of these things. All of these are subject to network effects, a house of cards waiting to be toppled.

That may sound overly dire, so let me qualify it. Some of those things are taking hits all the time, but in general the system is pretty robust to these fluctuations. We have periods of unrest where law and order is temporarily abandoned like the LA riots or the gulf shore hurricanes, but these situations are not long or widespread enough to cause a general collapse of the system. We have periods where transportation in and out of certain areas becomes problematic and disrupts trade (oil shortages in Canada when waterways freeze or pipes are broken for example) but these are not all over the world, all at once. This seeming stability gives us an overconfident view of the 'stickiness' of modern civilization.

But you are talking about mankind being, at least temporarily, reduced to subsistence agriculture. Working fields, all day every day (when not fighting for their lives/livelihoods/womenfolk against raiders). When are the kids going to learn to read? Stockpiled knowledge in the form of books is a snapshot of a language frozen in time, but languages change all the time.

Not to mention the implicit cultural assumptions. Just look at how many misunderstandings surround the Bible. Was Jesus a carpenter? Probably not. Are Christians supposed to be totally passive and 'turn the other cheek'? At the time that was actually a form of civil protest, Roman soldiers were only allowed to strike an individual once by law, turning the other cheek was daring them to break the rules. And that's the Bible. Regardless of whether you believe in Christianity, its a compendium of the most widely studied documents in existence, targets for professional scholars for over a thousand years, the holy document of one of the world's largest religions.

How well understood are books written in 20th century English going to be 100 years post-apocalypse? 500 yrs? How intelligible is the original Canterbury Tales to us despite the fact that it has been studied and preserved by a stable civilization that cares about such things? So books are out as a plan A. Simply stockpiling artifacts like your steel axe makes the survivors and their descendants mere scavengers living off the dwindling remains of the precursor civilization. They won't last forever.

In the Sword of Shannara series by Terry Brooks, the answer is basically that an order gets founded that's dedicated to the preservation of knowledge. A similar trope is used in the film Book of Eli. If you really want society to recover as quickly as possible, focus on a group of people dedicated to gathering knowledge in book form at first, then converting it to oral tradition/re-translation. It won't be perfect (see my comments on the Bible above) but to think that 'regular' people will somehow see the need to preserve/recapture the past in the face of the immediate survival pressures strikes me as naive. Which is presumably why you asked the question in the first place.

  • $\begingroup$ Small nitpicks: The Middle East is not a mono-environment. It has a lot of not-desert, including a very green northern Israel, right around Nazareth, where Jesus is supposed to have grown up. $\endgroup$
    – 8bittree
    Sep 9, 2016 at 15:29
  • $\begingroup$ @8bittree point conceded, but still pretty sure Jesus was not a 'carpenter' by any modern definition. $\endgroup$ Sep 9, 2016 at 15:35
  • $\begingroup$ Well, if you've got better reasons for believing he wasn't a carpenter, it might be worth using one of those instead. $\endgroup$
    – 8bittree
    Sep 9, 2016 at 15:46
  • $\begingroup$ @8bittree edited. $\endgroup$ Sep 9, 2016 at 18:04

There seem to be many answers challenging the premise: that a complete reversion to the iron age is even a possibility, no matter the form of the apocolypse. I agree that physical destruction on any scale that still leaves "humanity" intact shouldn't revert us to the iron age, but I'd like to examine a scenario where a return such as the one you've described is possible.

If you look at the Tower of Babel from the book of Genesis, you have a pretty good starting point for your apocalypse. Due to an angry god/alien invaders/evil scientist technology/etc., humanity near instantaneously loses the capacity to understand any languages that exist today. They might still have all their memories intact and can reason using their own personal language, which includes the ability to read and write, but not in a manner others can (initially) understand.

We still have videos and pictures, but it is not a stretch to think that (regardless of the true cause of the loss of language abilities) a significant portion of the Christian population recalls the story of the book of Genesis and believes this is divine punishment, and this becomes the basis for a widespread and instantly popular knowledge suppression sect.

They might restrict technology artificially, or might restrict flow/re-use of knowledge artificially.

In such a scenario, having high quality, basic, intuitive to use items (axe, sword, fork?) could actually be a strong differentiator between those that survive in the new world and those that don't.


The simple answer can be found by going into a hardware or outdoor store - I can't think of a single iron-age tool that isn't still in widespread use, so it's fair to assume that the best possible version that can be made within economical reason of any given tool already exists.

  • $\begingroup$ I'm not sure that assumption is true. The cost-benefit analysis might make the slight improvements gained beyond simply producing it in high-grade steel prohibitively expensive. I was interested to learn what improvements might be possible if they were felt to be valuable enough. $\endgroup$
    – Bob Tway
    Sep 7, 2016 at 16:30

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