I'm writing a world where iron is incredibly rare and the technology to make more complex metals like steel was never developed. However, both lead and niter are incredibly common, so firearms were developed very early on and heavily influence the culture.

The current technological level is a cross between medieval and the american west. Basically, I want a world where melee weapons are either incredibly inefficient, or incredibly rare (only kings and warlords would have the resources for even a single sword or shield, maybe a handful if they are remarkably wealthy).

The problem I'm running into though, is that I don't know what people make the guns out of. I need a metal that is good enough to make firearms as complex as revolvers, but not good enough for blades or armor. I thought about pewter for a while, but I couldn't find enough information about its properties to know if it would work or not.

Anyone have another idea?

This is the best answer I have gotten so far, if anyone has anything to add to this, I would appreciate it.https://worldbuilding.stackexchange.com/a/79830/37754

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    $\begingroup$ I'm having trouble imagining a practical firearm design that uses metals that aren't strong enough for swords or knives. If anything, firearms have consistently required better metallurgy than primitive weapons. $\endgroup$ – Deolater May 2 '17 at 15:41
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    $\begingroup$ Any metal that can stand the breech pressure of black powder is going to be good enough to use for swords. $\endgroup$ – Jeff Zeitlin May 2 '17 at 15:41
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    $\begingroup$ I think you are overlooking how the simplest melee weapons i.e. clubs don't need any metal at all. You can also make knives and cutting weapons with sharpened stone. I think you are going to need social reasons rather than technological limitations. $\endgroup$ – Josh King May 2 '17 at 15:41
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    $\begingroup$ The existence of guns is mostly enough to make swords obsolete anyway... $\endgroup$ – Tim B May 2 '17 at 16:36
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    $\begingroup$ Gun barrels are made from steel, and before that, iron. So it looks like you're going to have to find a new explanation. Best bet is to stick to bows, crossbows, and spears+atlatls. $\endgroup$ – TylerH May 2 '17 at 20:03

36 Answers 36


How many swords are used in wars today? Why not?

Because guns are cheap, effective, and plentiful.

If you give them a process to make guns as cheaply as they could make a sword only a ludite would bother owning a sword. (or a Swiss voter)

If like Kirk the common people can build an effective weapon in an hour why bother digging iron and coal? You might need a better kind of bamboo to give it a reasonable chance of only killing people downrange.

If long ago a ban on arms for the people only meant melee weapons (making the newer technology something of a loophole) guns might quickly be too wide spread to correct the issue.

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    $\begingroup$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. $\endgroup$ – Serban Tanasa May 4 '17 at 18:25
  • $\begingroup$ @Catgut: That would be a better comparison. Quality knives can be mass-produced, but require forging rather than casting and machining. Swords are much larger than knives, however A sword that would be usable against a quality sword will require more high-quality forged metal than a firearm where only the barrel would need to be forged. $\endgroup$ – supercat May 4 '17 at 18:39
  • $\begingroup$ Guns are easy to use and can kill with almost no effort. Swords need training and physical strength. $\endgroup$ – T. Sar May 5 '17 at 13:04
  • $\begingroup$ Aside from your luddites, many martial artists train extensively with swords and other traditional weapons. $\endgroup$ – JohnP May 5 '17 at 13:57

Any metal strong enough to make a robust gun is going to be strong enough for melee weapons. Getting rid of iron is going to be a lot of handwaving because most of our planet is made of it.

However you could do away with metals and make your guns out of ceramics, first as grenade type weapons and then evolving into guns, cannon etc. We have pretty impressive ceramic technology now, but since you just handwaved away metals your societies would have concentrated on ceramics, you can handwave them to whatever degree of tech you need.

You'll have to get rid of trees as well, because melee weapons evolved out of wooden weapons, and until the last few hundred years whole armies were equipped with wood and stone weapons. Very very very lethal ones. Bone and stone were also widely used.

Wooden Polynesian weapons were designed to end a fight with one blow, stone weapons like the Maori patu were lethal, even whalebone taiaha (cross between a club and a spear) were used.

  • $\begingroup$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. $\endgroup$ – Monica Cellio May 5 '17 at 1:13

The only material I can think of that could reasonably be manufactured into a firearm better than a sword is some form of high-strength plastic. With proper engineering, plastic firearms are entirely possible - we've all heard about 3D-printed weapons. Granted, those are usually single-shot weapons, but they could be selectively reinforced with a much rarer material like steel or brass.

By this logic, only the very wealthy would be willing to waste enough metal to have a sword made.

How you managed to develop the manufacture of plastics without a material plentiful and strong enough to also be made into edged melee weapons is probably another post's worth of discussion, but necessity is the mother of invention.

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    $\begingroup$ I like this answer because of the fact that iron can be rare without being non-existant, so firearms would still have a cost associated because of the rare metal used to selectively reinforce them, but not the excessive cost of building a full sword out of it. Somewhat like how gold is used in our world. Maybe since it's an older setting, something like wood stocks with barrels made of a thin layer of iron jacketed with a thicker layer of bronze? $\endgroup$ – Ceshion May 2 '17 at 18:15
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    $\begingroup$ This is the best answer, resins and polymers could produce the desired effect, and unlike ceramics, don't make good blades. Also, the technological level can be mitigated by making things like amber and other natural resins more plentiful and accessible. With a century or so of alchemy you could easily say that they had reasonably strong plastic like substances $\endgroup$ – Devon Muraoka May 3 '17 at 20:43
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    $\begingroup$ I probably should have used the term "polymer" instead of "plastic". Plastic may connote petroleum-based polymers for too many people. $\endgroup$ – Chris M. May 3 '17 at 20:55

NOTE: I've posted another answer with another take: flintlocks are sufficient to render swords and armor obsolete.

This won't work with a conventional gun, the pressures are too high, but you might be able to make it work with some unconventional ones.

I need a metal that is good enough to make firearms as complex as revolvers, but not good enough for blades or armor.

Firearms, blades, and armor all have similar problems: they need to be very tough, a little bit flexible, and able to retain their shape after repeated blows. Steel is the obvious candidate.

Firearms in particular need to withstand the very high pressures of the gunpowder exploding. Modern bullets produce an over-pressure of 15,000 to 65,000 psi. To put that in perspective a 34,000 psi over-pressure will collapse a building. The barrel also must withstand high pressure, and if you want rifling that doesn't immediately wear out it has to be made of very tough stuff.

A Problem Of Pressure

The problem is finding something light enough that can withstand the pressure, but not suitable for making blades. Let's go through the materials...

Steel, Iron, Brass, Bronze

All have been used to make guns, cannons, and swords, so they're right out.


Ceramics can be used to make blades, so that's right out, but let's address this one because it's come up so many times in other answers.

AFAIK ceramic guns don't exist, they can't handle the pressures alone. Ceramics have very good compressive strength, but poor tensile and yield strength; gun chambers and barrels require tensile and yield strength. Ceramics need some sort of reinforcement for the pressure, thus "ceramic barrels" are metal barrels with a ceramic liner. Ceramics are also inflexible and have a tendency to crack and fracture, even if you can get a few shots out of a ceramic gun it will rapidly degrade under repeated use.

Various reports have been made about a plastic or ceramic gun that is undetectable on an X-Ray. These never existed, though there were several investment scams claiming they could make one. What did exist are handguns that use a lot of plastics and ceramics, but the chamber and barrel are still metal. Disassembled, they're were difficult to spot on an X-Ray. Modern scanners have higher fidelity.

This the best our modern, high tech society can do with modern, high-tech ceramics. Medieval/old-west material science would not come close. You cannot make a gun out of pottery or a sea shell.

Plastics & Polymers

Plastic handguns do exist, but they're tiny, smoothbores of dubious value and quality. These are, at best, for extremely close range self defense. They're the sort of things you press to someone's chest, pull the trigger, and pray it doesn't blow up in your hand. These are not weapons of war.

While there are now 3D printed plastic rifle lower receivers, a critical and complex part of a self-loading rifle, even they still use metal for their chamber and barrel.

And, again, this the best our modern, high tech society can do with modern, high-tech plastic and high-tech, computer controlled 3D printers. Medieval/old-west material science would not come close. Anything resembling modern plastic would not even be invented until the late 1800s.


Mythbusters showed you can make a cannon from a very big log, though they did use iron reinforcing bands. It worked, but its not terribly practical, and cannot be scaled down to a handgun.

Wood doesn't make a very good blade, but it does make a good handle for sticking blades onto, like obsidian flints to make a macuahuitl.


While some stone will keep a very sharp edge, it does not have the flexibility to withstand high pressures. With enough stone, and low enough pressure, you could make a large stone cannon, but not a handheld weapon.

Obviously the problem is one of pressure. What if we could have a gun that didn't need to withstand extreme pressures? We can! There's two options, the Recoilless Rifle and little rockets.

The Recoilless Rifle!

Your basic gun is a tube sealed at one end. The gunpowder explodes building up high pressure behind the projectile. Since one end is sealed, it forces the projectile out the other end. Because its sealed it can develop very high pressures and very high velocities. It also protects the shooter from backblast.

But you don't need to seal the other end. When that happens, half the energy goes out either end of the barrel. You lose a lot of oomph, and there's a backblast to deal with, but the pressure is much, much lower. This is the principle behind the recoilless rifle.

On the upside, the barrels and chambers can be made of much lighter and inferior material.

On the downside, there's that backblast. There are various ways to reduce the backblast, but it will always be a problem. In your world, your guns might have to be fired from the shoulder, or tucked under the arm like a Panzerfaust.

enter image description here

The other downside is the low pressure means low velocity. If it's a kinetic weapon, like a bullet, it needs a very large mass to compensate for the low velocity. Since kinetic energy increases with the square of velocity, but linearly with mass, the reduced velocity cannot be fully compensated for. Instead, you want a projectile that damages by some other means: high explosive, shrapnel, or shaped charge are usual... though putting that in an anti-personnel round is pretty grim.

The low velocity also means the bullet will arc, making aiming difficult, especially at a distant moving target. Good rangefinding is essential, which is difficult given the medieval/old west level of technology.

Rifling will still be a problem, any material which can retain its rifling over more than a few shots will be able to retain an edge. So likely you'd make a smoothbore recoilless gun. Accuracy will suffer. This can be dealt with by using fin stabilized ammo (basically, a tiny arrow), but it's remarkably finicky, even with modern technology. Medieval/old west tech would not be able to produce fin stabilized ammo.

So you're left with, basically, a kind of recoilless shotgun. Short range, not terribly accurate, with a fearsome backblast.

The Rocket Round!

Perhaps a better option is the rocket round, exemplified by the Gyrojet. This is very much like a normal gun, but instead of all its gunpowder exploding in one great high pressure bang, its a tiny rocket that smoothly burns its propellant even after leaving the barrel. The barrel contains vents to further reduce the pressure.

enter image description here


The projectile leaves the barrel still accelerating. As a result, the chamber and pressure are very low while the projectile velocity is... eventually... good. When it leaves the barrel it's going just 10 fs/s, but after about 20-30 feet it's going at a good 1000-1200 ft/s. That's about the kinetic energy of a .45 ACP.

The barrel is smooth. The rocket is spin-stabilized, the rocket vents are at an angle to produce spin.

The advantages over a recoilless gun is it works very much like a normal gun: fired like a gun, no backblast, good velocity. And a medieval/old-west tech could produce the gun, in a more primitive form.

The problem is the rounds, especially that careful venting, are probably beyond your tech. Black powder would also easily foul those tiny vents, so you'd need smokeless powder early.

It's also not very accurate. Here's Ian McCollum of Forgotten Weapons and his comments on the Gyrojet Pistol.

MB Associates claimed that they would get a 30" group at 100 yards. Elsewhere it's more like 7 feet at 100 yards. During some testing that Small Arms Review did a number of years ago [prior to 2014] they found that they could get about 50% of their shots to stay on paper on a 9-foot target at 100 yards.

Maybe, with no other options for firearms available, the Gyrojet concept would be further developed and its flaws fixed.

Here's Forgotten Weapons on the Gyrojet Rocket Pistol and the Gyrojet Carbine.

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    $\begingroup$ This is good, but as mentioned, it involves high levels of precision manufacturing. Plus you run into the issue where the ammo quickly costs more than the gun firing them $\endgroup$ – Devon Muraoka May 3 '17 at 20:46
  • $\begingroup$ @ChuckFulminata Certainly the Gyrojet does, though its simpler if you exclude the spin stabilization, and that was one of its many flaws. OTOH a recoilless rifle in its most basic form, a tube open at both ends, is very simple. $\endgroup$ – Schwern May 3 '17 at 21:44
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    $\begingroup$ And the rounds are made out of ... metal. They need to contain the pressure of burning propellant, and restrict it to going out of the small, canted vents, and that means metal. $\endgroup$ – John Dallman May 3 '17 at 22:21
  • $\begingroup$ @JohnDallman Not necessarily. The ceramics everyone's been mentioning would work here. Anything that can resist the heat of a tiny rocket jet for a fraction of a second will do. Or possibly holes drilled in the propellant itself, like with a model rocket motor. You probably can't make a medieval spin-stabilized Gyrojet, it's just too finicky, but you could make a medieval low-pressure, smooth bore rocket musket out of inferior materials. $\endgroup$ – Schwern May 3 '17 at 22:29
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    $\begingroup$ It's important to note that the Gyrojet wasn't inaccurate as a design; there was a manufacturing issue in some runs of the ammunition that caused it to spin off-course. Ammunition without that issue I've seen described as being quite accurate, comparable to standard ammunition. See deathwind.com/cause.htm for the short version. $\endgroup$ – Elia May 4 '17 at 22:38

Use naturally occurring gun chambers

Your planet is sparse with metals suitable for forging swords, and, as other answers have pointed out, wood and bone may also need to be made rare, but it would be OK for guns to occur in nature, so long as engineers are unable to work the material.

Other answers say to use ceramics. Your planet could be home to a crustacean with a ceramic shell that's conveniently shaped like a gun chamber. Your people are unaware that they can craft ceramics, so they can't make other ceramic weapons.

As indicated in the comments below, an animal that needs to evolve a shell capable of withstanding explosions probably lives in a high pressure environment such as at the bottom of the Mariana Trench. This leaves the problem of retrieving it using Medieval technology. Perhaps the animal floats to the surface when it dies.

If it's possible for a creature to have metallic organs, then you could have naturally occurring metal guns without ever discovering metallurgy. (I have no idea how feasible this is. Maybe they build up mineral deposits on the outside of their livers rather than excreting them?)

Numerous problems have been pointed out with the above approach, so this answer probably isn't good for a hard-science setting.

  • $\begingroup$ Ceramics cannot retain the pressures of anything but the most anemic round. Wood will work, but you need a lot of it. Mythbusters successfully tested a tree cannon. $\endgroup$ – Schwern May 2 '17 at 19:50
  • $\begingroup$ @Schwern According to the other answers, ceramics that can withstand explosions exist in the real world $\endgroup$ – aebabis May 2 '17 at 20:36
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    $\begingroup$ @Schwern Maybe on the OP's planet, the water level lowered several miles millions of years ago and the fossils of giant extinct crustaceans are abundant. $\endgroup$ – aebabis May 2 '17 at 22:11
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    $\begingroup$ Not a bad idea ...except fossils are not the original material and would not retain their original properties. Still, it's worth expanding your answer with the necessary parameters for seashell chambers to be viable. There's still the small problem of a barrel... $\endgroup$ – Schwern May 2 '17 at 22:17
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    $\begingroup$ @Schwern Fair enough. Another thing to consider is that if the animal in question can handle 15kpsi sustained, it's instantaneous pressure resistance could be considerably higher. $\endgroup$ – aebabis May 2 '17 at 22:28

I'm convinced there is a good, physical solution to your problem:

If your people are giants, it solves most (all?) identified issues.

1) For giants of sufficient size, truly effective melee weapons would be extremely hard to come by. Larger bodies encounter physical limits on blood pressure/vasculature that make it impossible to accelerate a heavy, bulky melee weapon quickly. So contrary to much existing giant lore, real giants could not kill each other in skilled combat simply by swinging trees around or by incorporating giant boulders into hand-to-hand techniques -- this is simply incompatible with anatomy and physics.

2) Therefore, for real melee dominance, a sword would be required -- yet not just any sword. A razor-sharp and long yet incredibly strong blade would not even be sufficient. You'd also need lightweight, space-age materials to ensure that the blade could be accelerated by large giants up to hand-to-hand combat speeds, using the same kinetic chain motions (hip -> shoulder -> elbow -> wrist) common to golf and tennis swings. Only then, with 20th-21st century technology, would a truly effective close quarters weapon dominate over the putatively traditional wrestling-style combat techniques. Well, but for one major exception...

3) Enter guns: As soon as primitive metallurgy is developed, the resulting heavy materials are no better than fists for the slow, lumbering grip/takedown based wrestling presumably dominating pitched combat encounters between members of the giant species. A massive hunk of metal is even worse for this purpose than the near-useless tree or boulder; small metal spears/atlatls simply can't be accelerated quickly enough to develop primitive ranged weapons, only brass knuckles gain any popularity. But with only a little further technological development, guns quickly become the common soldier's weapon. Finally, the physical constraints on the giant's body are sidestepped via the chemistry of explosives. Giants can carry handcannons to devastating effect.

4) Yet the space-age technology that eventually makes truly effective giant swords a reality has a clear upper hand over the older, widespread giant-sized guns. To propel a projectile large enough to kill a giant, and with the gun's chamber being subject to quadratic forces, the chamber must be reinforced to a proportionally much greater degree than the small guns we know. This means they are extremely heavy, even for giants. They can't be aimed quickly, so there is no giant equivalent of the carbine or assault rifle. A futuristic, strong/lightweight/long blade in the hand of a well-trained king/queen would allow them to waltz into a room full of armed guards and summarily dispense cold justice before the guards had properly trained their sights (remember, in close quarters guns need not only to pivot/rotate, but also to translate so that the chamber can properly align with a moving point-blank target -- easier said than done when your gun is a 3000 lb chunk of metal).

5) Worth noting: It's possible that in a world with much higher gravity than Earth, normal human sized people would face these same physical constraints that giants would on Earth. Though it's difficult to deeply extrapolate how an extreme gravity condition might have impacted the evolution of life. But such a factor is much more easily handwaved away than lots of the showstopping issues so elaborately discussed in other answers.


The current technological level is a cross between medieval and the american west. Basically, I want a world where melee weapons are either incredibly inefficient, or incredibly rare (only kings and warlords would have the resources for even a single sword or shield, maybe a handful if they are remarkably wealthy).

I'm going to focus on the goal of medieval gunslingers, rather than the suggested solution of making good metal scarce. I already have an answer about making low pressure guns from inferior materials, but @not store bought dirt's answer about making swords and armor obsolete with better guns earlier is very compelling. I'm going to expand on it.

How much history and technology has to change to have medieval gunslingers? Not much.

Flintlock Muskets Made Swords, Pikes, and Armor Obsolete

Certainly by the time of the Seven Year's War, 1754 - 1763, possibly earlier, armor and melee weapons were obsolete. The gun was supreme, at least in Europe. The melee weapon's last hurrah was the bayonet to repel charges, turning your musket into a makeshift pike.

The guns of this era were black powder, muzzle-loading, flintlocks, sometimes rifled, sometimes not. They were sufficient to render swords, pikes, arrows, and armor obsolete. The British Brown Bess is a fine example.

enter image description here

Black powder, as opposed to modern smokeless powder, burned slower, developed less pressure, and left a lot of residue fouling the barrel and needing a lot of cleaning. Still, it worked, and it would be the powder of choice until the late 1800s. The low pressure required long barrels to build up velocity.

Muzzle-loading meant a laborious process of dropping powder and ball down the barrel and packing it in. For single shot rifles, this was a 15-20 second process. Revolvers and multi-barrelled weapons dealt with this problem by providing multiple pre-loaded chambers.

A flintlock is the mechanism by which the powder is ignited. A piece of flint strikes a piece of steel creating sparks that fly into a pan of powder which ignites the full charge. This was a great advance over the previous unreliable matchlock, a slow burning rope and not so good in the damp, and cheaper than the more reliable but expensive wheellock. The flintlock meant your gun would be ready to fire in any weather condition, at a moment's notice, and at a reasonable price.

Medieval Flintlock Muskets and Revolvers

True flintlocks appeared in Europe in the early 1600s, but as far as I can tell, there's nothing technologically insurmountable about a medieval flintlock. Simple springs were available, and the idea of flint striking steel to make a spark was ubiquitous. Perhaps an improvement in metallurgy and spring steel.

Black powder was known in China since the 10th century, and news reached Europe by the 13th century. The secret of black powder could have arrived in Europe earlier, or it could have been invented by some European alchemist. Having black powder in an alternate medieval setting is not a problem.

Smooth bore barrels and chambers for black powder were far easier to make than rifled barrels and chambers withstanding the high pressures of smokeless powder.

Your medieval gunslingers might be carrying something like these Collier Flintlock Revolvers. Each chamber of the revolver would be loaded just like a little muzzle loader, and it would be fired just like a flintlock.

enter image description here

There's no need to exclude metal, flintlock muskets and revolvers are enough to explain why your medieval knights don't wear armor and carry swords. And they can be made available to a medieval society without much change. You can go further down this road, but it pushes into places with broader effects on technology and society.

Next Step: Percussion Caps

The next step in the firearms progression is the percussion cap. This replaces the flintlock with a little button of contact explosive, like fulminate of mercury. You pull the trigger, a spring loaded hammer smacks into the cap, it goes bang and ignites the powder. Far, far, far more reliable than a flintlock. We use the same basic idea today, except it's built into the cartridge and called a "primer".

The problem is, fulminate of mercury wasn't invented until 1800. It requires a model of chemistry and a chemical industry to produce pure chemicals that would radically alter a medieval setting. I'd be wary of going down this road.

Instead use the unreliability of flintlocks as a plot device. Percussion caps might be an expensive secret known only to a few alchemists who stumbled upon it, but have difficulty reproducing it because of the impure chemicals they're using and lack of understanding of chemistry.

Next Step: Breech Loaders

Breech-loading guns, like all modern guns, greatly speed loading by loading from the chamber instead of from the end of the barrel. It allowed the next big innovation, cartridges.

While they were around since the 14th century, breech-loaders didn't really catch on until the 19th. The problem is sealing the breech reliably against very high pressures. Until the invention of the metallic cartridge (see below) this required careful machining and excellent metallurgy.

In your setting, breech-loaders could be expensive, exotic items.

Next Step: Paper Cartridges

Once you have a breech loader, you can wrap your powder and ball in paper, seal it with wax, and have an all-in-one package to stuff into the chamber: a paper cartridge.

enter image description here


These effectively work like modern bullets, but they don't seal the breech like a metallic cartridge does.

There's no special technology required, once you have breech loaders you can have paper cartridges. They were used in at least the late 1500s, probably earlier.

Next Step: Metallic Cartridges

Once you have paper cartridges and percussion caps, the next step is metallic cartridges with a built in cap (the primer) resembling modern bullets.

enter image description here

.50-90 Sharps, a black powder metallic cartridge

They're more reliable and resilient than a paper cartridge, but much more important, they solved the problem of sealing the breech. Bullet cases are made out of brass because brass expands slightly under the pressure of the gunpowder. This expansion seals the breech without requiring extremely fine machining. It allows higher pressure loads, and larger, higher velocity projectiles with better range, accuracy, and stopping power.

The metallic cartridge also allows magazines; now you can have multiple rounds, stacked and ready, and fed into the gun by a spring like a modern firearm.

Up to you whether you want to introduce metallic cartridges. It requires percussion caps, with their aforementioned chemical consequences, and breech loaders.

Next Step: Smokeless Powder

As mentioned, black powder burned relatively slowly requiring a long barrel for the projectile to take full advantage It produced a lot of smoke, making it difficult to see what you're shooting at after a few shots. And it left a lot of residue, fouling the gun requiring frequent cleaning, affecting accuracy, and causing malfunctions.

Smokeless powder fixed all that. It burns extremely fast developing high pressure, and thus high velocity, very quickly. It leaves little smoke or residue, allowing for continuous, accurate fire.

Smokeless powder wasn't invented until the mid-1800s. Like percussion caps, it required an existing chemical industry that would radically transform a medieval society. I'd leave this one out.

HOWEVER! Firearms Radically Changed and Expanded Warfare

Good firearms made war cheaper and more lethal, especially the development of drill and volley fire. Instead of the strength of a soldier coming from their own muscle and years of careful training, it comes from the barrel of a gun. Now some peasant with a musket can take down your best trained swordsman. Its cheaper and more effective to give some peasants muskets, drill them for a little while, and call them an army than it is to spend years training swordsmen.

Pikes and crossbows has a similar effect of making warfare cheaper. With a little training, pikes turn a mob of poorly trained troops into a pointy wall. Crossbows give you instant archers without the years of careful training to pull a bowstring. But they're not necessarily more lethal.

Melee warfare was usually less about killing the other guy and more about breaking their morale and formation. Once they broke and ran, then the killing started. Prolonged fights in close combat were more like a tug-of-war, the push of pike, than a Hollywood melee. Muskets and cannon suddenly ramp up the sustained lethality of warfare.

Muskets and cannon meant you could deliver a killing blow from beyond arms reach of the enemy. Everyone, not matter their skill, was now vulnerable. And gunpowder meant you could sustain this fire for as long as the powder and shot held out, no longer would warfare be limited by the physical exhaustion of the troops. Cannons could destroy city walls and mow down lines of infantry throwing city defenses into turmoil.

Once you introduce ubiquitous firearms into your medieval setting, you'll have to deal with this problem. You could take a page from Japanese history: show initial great enthusiasm for the gun with a period of great expansion and great warfare, then retreat from the gun and large-scale warfare with a more isolationist mindset. Perhaps a series of peasant revolts used cheap firearms to attack the heavily armored but less numerous nobility.

Your society and culture, after experiencing a few generations of the ravages of warfare with large armies equipped with firearms, decides to fall back on a more chivalrous, ritualized, small-scale approach to warfare. This still involves firearms, but warfare is a game of the nobility. Gentleman's agreements, like medieval arms treaties, limit the size of standing armies and number of guns to prevent all-out-war or a peasant revolt.


Steel has been the go to metal for guns since their invention. Copper alloys like brass and bronze have also been used for larger guns and cannons.

All these metals can also produce an effective sword.

The metallurgical requirements for sustaining the pressure of a firearm are much higher than those required to make a sword.

  • $\begingroup$ And yet, you can probably cast a cannon from iron, while a cast-iron sword is going to be too brittle. The same goes for bronze. Therefore, if metallurgy isn't sufficiently advanced, while organic chemistry is, cannons could well be more common than swords. $\endgroup$ – Rick Moritz May 4 '17 at 12:43
  • $\begingroup$ Here are examples of both iron swords and bronze swords. If the metals were so brittle why did people make swords out of them? $\endgroup$ – sphennings May 4 '17 at 12:59
  • $\begingroup$ I quote from your iron-swords link : " This meant that they could still be bent out of shape during use." and from the bronze-swords link: "Also unique for Chinese bronzes is the consistent use of high tin bronze (17-21% tin) which is very hard and breaks if stressed too far, whereas other cultures preferred lower tin bronze (usually 10%), which bends if stressed too far". Steel is what made swords popular in the middle ages, since it is much more resilient, can be used for a longer time, maintains an edge more readily and can be made lighter than a large iron sword. $\endgroup$ – Rick Moritz May 5 '17 at 14:30
  • $\begingroup$ And yet they still are swords. Steel is obviously a better choice but if no-one has it no-one is at a real disadvantage. $\endgroup$ – sphennings May 5 '17 at 14:42
  • $\begingroup$ Ah, but my argument is that it doesn't make sense to make mediocre swords when you can make decent artillery. It might still make sense to use daggers, pole-arms etc., but people probably won't come up with the idea of swords, if their smithing is bad, but their casting is good. $\endgroup$ – Rick Moritz May 8 '17 at 5:17

To understand how to make guns available but not swords, first you have to figure out why we got them in the first place.

Poky sticks are a force multiplier. They allowed our relatively hairless ancestors the ability to defend and defeat other mammals with sharper teeth, claws, and thicker fur. How? By providing a longer reach, and the ability to narrowly focus our force.

But you needed sticks that were strong, and could break to form a point.

Then someone got a stone stuck in their stick and noticed that it was easier to kill with. So they invented duct tape so they could better fasten the stones to the sticks. Eventually sticks couldn't reach long enough so in desperation and possibly disgust, someone threw their pointy stick at their prey, and as luck would have it, they had dinner that night. So they kept improving how to to throw their pointy sticks. This trend continued, with others finding better and faster ways to throw sticks.

Eventually we discovered explosions, and thought, "Hey, what if I use explosions to throw sticks??"

His assistant didn't survive the first test, and so he thought, "Wait, what if I put the explosion inside something?" The next assistant was a bit luckier.

And thus we have firearms. What you need to do is go back to the beginning and take away the stick as an effective force multiplier. How do you do that? Well, I can think of two easy options:


Nerf the sticks. Either make them too brittle to stand the force, or too weak. There's a reason that we don't go around slapping people with grass and leafs. If you make stuff more brittle, or in some other way less desirable, then your ancestors are going to have to use something else to survive.


If you make extremely toxic elements readily available, that means I'm going to have to spend less effort defending myself/hunting, which means that I'm going to be able to spend more time eating, relaxing, and inventing guns.

If you build reed-like plants and poison blowdarts into your environment in such a way that they are readily apparent and easily acquired, they're going to be the force multiplier of choice. They'll come up with phrases like, "Don't bring a pointed stick to a poison dart fight." And then eventually people will figure out how to store compressed air and make airguns with flechettes that are tipped with poison and have an effective range of hundreds of yards, and bypass pointy sticks altogether.

Provide high-quality/strength ceramics in the environment as well (or at least inspiration for them) and you'll come up with some awesome guns. For bonus points you could make it so that using metal as the storage mechanism offers such an offset that any kind of metal should be hoarded for use as air cylinders.

Bonus - scarce metals

Oh, and I just thought of this - make some kind of bacteria that consumes certain metals in nature to help make them more rare and subject to corrosion if not carefully maintained.


Forgive me for not being as verbose as some of these other ladies and gents. But, I think the main consideration is around the human anatomy that led to the sword. The sword extended the reach and deadliness of what? the arm? But, really swung by the shoulder.

So, perhaps these beings have no rotating shoulders, much like a T-Rex. So, if they had tiny little hands, then they would have developed projectiles sooner.

Hope that helps. It's my first post I ever read on this cool forum I just found.

  • $\begingroup$ Welcome to WorldBuilding! Interesting point. If you have a moment please take the tour and visit the help center to learn more about the site. Looking forward to your contributions. Have fun! $\endgroup$ – Sec SE - clear Monica's name May 3 '17 at 20:51
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    $\begingroup$ Or they have weak (but capable of fine manipulation) hands, or resistant skin (or both). Something like multiple boneless tentacles and resistant hide makes meele weapons irrelevant, since they would not be able to deliver a significant blow/cut. $\endgroup$ – Radovan Garabík May 4 '17 at 14:08
  • $\begingroup$ Oh, I like that. So they hide from a distance. But, humans are like that already though. Skin and bones can be crushed and ripped easily. Though, the sword was used exactly for that reason when we fight against other humans. That's the dual nature of weapons. $\endgroup$ – ModelTester May 4 '17 at 14:28

Edged weapons are subject to religious prohibition. Sharp edges are holy and only to be used in ritual and food preparation. (This may have been cooked up by a bygone priest who didn't foresee the development of firearms, in an attempt to ban war.)


Bronze cannon were historically used before iron. From what I can find online, bronze cannon were lighter than iron cannon and could be cast thinner than iron. They apparently tended to split instead of shatter, if they failed catastrophically. (From this source, for whatever it may be worth.) But I think iron became cheaper and therefore won out over bronze.

There is historical evidence for "hand cannon" (precursors to handguns) in bronze.

So that metal could be used, though I don't know how well it would stand up to iron weapons and is inferior to steel, I'm sure.

Not all societies developed swords, but all societies came from roots that included simple melee and ranged weapons. Bow and arrow and spears date back long before recorded history on multiple continents. Clubs, too. The Mesoamericans had a non-metallic sword, the Macuahuitl. It's obsidian edge theoretically could be sharper than that of steel swords.

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    $\begingroup$ Bronze armour and weapons built the Roman empire in the beginning. It was actually superior to early iron. $\endgroup$ – Kilisi May 2 '17 at 16:03
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    $\begingroup$ The only reason people transitioned to early iron weapons was because they were easier to manufacture. $\endgroup$ – sphennings May 2 '17 at 16:04
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    $\begingroup$ @sphennings: People transitioned to early iron weapons because, at the collapse of the Bronze Age, tin commerce stopped, and thus bronze supply strangulated. the Ancient Near East civs then moved to iron, which even then was better than unalloyed copper. Iron weapons were hardly easier to manufacture than bronze ones, seeing as they couldn't be cast and had to be painstakingly wrought. $\endgroup$ – Wtrmute May 2 '17 at 17:09

Even though the "process" for making firearms heavily influenced the culture, the knowledge of the process is not trivial, so only the elite artisans can manufacture and distribute weapons, most likely they are the most intelligent and with strong connections with positions of power, or they are powerful individuals themselves, maybe royal scientists and/or warfare ministry.

These firearms creators DO have the knowledge to make melee weapons and other metal objects with their expertise, but since war is profitable and they're the only ones that can create weapons that are better than bare fists, they just don't ever make anything but firearms.

From what you said about the world, firearms are the most cost-efficient weapon to produce. The ones with the knowledge will mass produce weapons while obtaining a huge profit by selling them to warring states and self-defence.

Bullets are also a good source of profit.

The material for the firearms can be even be made from common metal. If the knowledge is kept between the right people and there's a good population manipulation, no one would ever be able to craft a stick with chunks of metal and try to use it against a revolver.

  • $\begingroup$ I think this is the best answer I've gotten so far. I didn't even think about who in society would be making all the guns, and what the ramifications of that would be. This would make it so complex guns are prevalent, and the only melee weapons available are crude and made of poor materials, like wooden spears or glass/scrap metal shivs, while still allowing the incredible wealthy/powerful access to high quality blades and armor because they can just pay (or threaten) the weapon smiths for them. Thank you so much! <3 $\endgroup$ – highpriestofpie May 2 '17 at 18:51
  • $\begingroup$ It was only in the last 100 years that the firearm has been able to fully replace the sword on the battlefield. Without the materials to produce structurally sound barrels the risks of the chamber rupturing are going to dissuade people from using them. Swords and spears on the other hand don't blow up in your face. $\endgroup$ – sphennings May 2 '17 at 19:20
  • $\begingroup$ The guns are roughly equivelent to civil war era revolvers and rifles, with larger cannons, and a few more exotic firearms, so for the most part, missfires arnt super common. $\endgroup$ – highpriestofpie May 2 '17 at 19:38

You can use treated wood barrels. There are real life cannons made out of logs. It wouldn't be unbelievable to make rifles out of a treated wood.

You could just straight up make up a fictional metal. Give it the similar properties to diamonds. Very strong and hard, but can easily be shattered. That way they can't be directly struck like a melee, but they can withstand the heat and sudden pressure of being parts of a firearm?

There is also nothing stopping someone from using a wooden sword or shiv, So it would be difficult to out rule melee even in a world of common firearms.

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    $\begingroup$ If a material cannot take the stress of hitting a blade it certainly would shatter (diamond as your example) when put under the stress of a firearm. The measures you want to compare are hardness (diamond is super hard) and toughness (steel is very tough). $\endgroup$ – James May 2 '17 at 18:36
  • $\begingroup$ Also, welcome to the site, check out the help center and tour to familiarize yourself with the site. Happy world building. $\endgroup$ – James May 2 '17 at 18:36
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    $\begingroup$ While wooden cannons work, if you thin the barrel down to something man-portable it will not withstand the pressure. It also cannot be rifled, the rifling would be ripped apart by the first shot. $\endgroup$ – Schwern May 2 '17 at 19:52

The scarcity of Iron could be explained by the lack of plate tectonics and volcanic activity on the planet, there could still be iron dissolved in the water and available for biological activity, but getting iron ore out of the ground can be difficult. Iron and relatively heavy metals are also important for planetary mass, as its gravity helps keep the atmosphere where it is supposed to be.

If Iron is rare at the surface, you can generally assume that Nickel/Copper is also rare. Ideally you want a metal sword to be a certain weight, any more so and it becomes difficult or impossible to use. A greater availability of Nickel and Copper at the surface allows for a typical bronze age to occur, and still allow advanced alloys to be made. They should be rare enough so that making a sword from them would be expensive, but common enough that alloys requiring them could still be made. Bronze is not ideal for long swords.

In a world where those metals are less common, it is possible that advanced composites may be common. Plastic type materials can be made from plants and insect protein fibers, and with appropriate processing can be made into strong composites similar to carbon fiber and glass reinforced nylon, which use used in modern polymer pistol frames, as well as components of long guns. It may also be possible to make certain jewels such as ruby and sapphire more common, as they can be used as precision bearings, and jadeite can be used as an impact striker.

The bulk of metals must then be either much lighter and less durable, such as Aluminium, Magnesium, and Zinc, or substantially heavier, such as Gold, Lead, Tungsten, Iridium, and Osmium. Easily accessible deposits of the lighter metals are generally in the crust, and abundant deposits of the heavier metals could be provided by primordial bombardment.

None of those metals are appropriate to make weapons such as swords and axes, but can be made into components for firearms. Lead is used to make primers and projectiles. Copper and Zinc are used to make projectile casings. Aluminum is used to make supporting frames and barrel coolers. Tungsten and Osmium alloys can be used for hard impact items such as hammers and firing pins. Heavy metals make excellent projectiles, as they retain energy throughout their flight path, and are less affected by wind drift. Polymers and non-iron metals such as Titanium and Copper can be used to produce springs. Alloys of Nickel, Copper, and Chromium can be used for many internal components of firearms, possibly even the barrel. A barrel capable of high pressures can be made out of thin metal sleeve, such as chrome plated Nickel alloy, and then wrapped in a composite of polymer and carbon fibers, and finally held in place in a larger Aluminium sleeve to protect the composite from damage and aid cooling.

Making swords out of the heavier metals would not be appropriate, as they are more brittle than bronze, and would weight too much for even a large warrior to control. An adversary with a simple firearm would be victorious. If the historical conditions were right (early research into explosives), it is quite probable that blunt force weapons quickly lost their appeal once projectile weapons became common.


You have options

Firstly, as other pointed out, if you can make a firearm you can make a sword. However, you could make it so that using melee weapons was not a practical means of warfare. For example, in the modern warfare, a firearm is more useful in combat because they are efficient, reliable, and carry plenty of bullets. If the guns in your story are more similar to modern firearms then melee weapons will not be the goto. Only in close quarters does the firearm loose its practicality. This is more cultural than technological.

If you are willing to make the leap to a world lacking in Iron having other unusual properties, then naturally occurring ceramics could work. For example, a large deposit of Cubic Boron Nitride, for it has been found in nature, could be an analog for gun chambers. It would make a decent blade, but not a great sword. Similarly, a large deposit of say fist-sized diamonds from your local kimberlite pipe or swamp that got hit by a meteorite, would make good parts for a revolver. Assuming for some reason that diamonds are not valuable.

  • $\begingroup$ And how did they acquire the technology to case/sinter/machine boron nitride without first having decent metallurgy? $\endgroup$ – AlexP May 2 '17 at 16:50
  • $\begingroup$ @AlexP The cubic boron nitride is naturally occurring. It cannot be machined, but it can be carved/abraded into shape. $\endgroup$ – Joe Kissling May 2 '17 at 17:08
  • $\begingroup$ They have some level of metallurgy, and access to copper and tin for the production of bullets. $\endgroup$ – highpriestofpie May 2 '17 at 17:17
  • $\begingroup$ @highpriestofpie neither is suitable for casting/or sintering the material I described. It could potentially aid in abrading and carving, however. $\endgroup$ – Joe Kissling May 2 '17 at 17:19

You can get guns without high-grade steel -- but you won't get a lot of the things that made guns dominant

It's possible to make gunbarrels out of a variety of materials -- basically, anything that's tough enough to handle the chamber pressures involved and doesn't get destroyed too badly by propellant residues (which are particularly nasty for black powder). However, rifling requires an interference fit of sorts between the bullet and the rifling, which creates wear on the barrel and requires the barrel material to be both hard and tough, which means that in practice, rifle barrels were made of the best metallurgy for the task available at the time.

Furthermore, breechloading, repeating firearm actions, and interchangeable parts all require relatively tightly toleranced machining to work. This means that you need machine tools that can work high-toughness materials at decent speeds and feeds, which again puts you in the position of having materials that are good enough to make usable blades. However, this can be explained away by iron and steel being rationed for toolmaking, making them too valuable to waste on a bladed weapon that's not going to last nearly as long. Cemented carbides are another option for a tool material, if you wish your society to figure that out early on that is.

So, in short, I'd expect such a society to figure out an alternate strong, tough, but not very hard (yet harder than a lead bullet) metal early on, develop muzzleloaders and blackpowder quickly, then stagnate quickly, perhaps developing loose percussion caps, but never developing breechloading firearms of any sort. The idea of accurate shooting would not exist either as the rifling necessary to develop a long-range firearm would cause the barrel to wear excessively if used with anything resembling a Minie ball.

Socially speaking, this means that blunt-force melee weapons (such as clubs and hammers) would still be commonplace as they can do good damage even if made from a relatively soft metal. Firearms would be common especially in cities and towns, but self bows would also be seen, especially in rural areas where accuracy for hunting is needed.


A few points need to be addressed.

I'm writing a world where iron is incredibly rare

Basically, I want a world where melee weapons are either incredibly inefficient, or incredibly rare (only kings and warlords would have the resources for even a single sword or shield, maybe a handful if they are remarkably wealthy).

The way you describe this is extremely unlikely from a physical sciences point of view.

Iron is a relatively abundant metal in a cosmic sense and it's extremely doubtful a planet could form without it being relatively abundant. It's hard to imagine a star forming a system with life bearing planets which had not formed from a nebula with a relatively high iron content. Indeed it's hard to replace blood with an equivalent fluid that does a similar task for another life form without using iron, which you're trying to do without.

No iron is a huge problem for your concept, I think.

You should also note that copper was commonly used in weapons before iron.

The natural development from copper is brass (that's basically copper with zinc).

This page on metals used historically in firearms might give you some ideas.

Copper is particularly useful as a conductor, and I'd suggest that while iron might be rare, an available source of copper would at least allow your world to develop basic electrical science and engineering.

I'm not personally aware of any strong alloy made primarily of lead that could replace iron or copper in an industrial setting, let alone a in an firearm. However I'm no expert in metallurgy and perhaps if you want to pursue this idea you need to seek out an expert in lead alloys and see if they have any ideas.

I'd offer the thought that a society that could at least develop skills with electricity and magnetism could develop the tools and chemical engineering required to make other developments.

and the technology to make more complex metals like steel was never developed.

Not making steel does not mean you can't make other alloys. I think you need to widen the scope of your thinking here.

However, both lead and niter are incredibly common, so firearms were developed very early on and heavily influence the culture.

Niter is not a problem. It's a relatively simple set of organic compounds and making gunpowder is almost an inevitability once you have people doing alchemy and the development of basic chemical science.

  • $\begingroup$ There's a number of creatures around that don't use iron in their blood. But I think they all use SOME metal to bind the oxygen. $\endgroup$ – Erik May 3 '17 at 15:14
  • $\begingroup$ Iron is certainly present, and still forms the core of my world, there is just very little of it near the surface, making it incredibly difficult to access. $\endgroup$ – highpriestofpie May 3 '17 at 17:27
  • $\begingroup$ @Erik : I'd be personally interested in a link to some info on creatures that don't use Iron in their blood - sounds intriguing. $\endgroup$ – StephenG May 3 '17 at 20:23
  • $\begingroup$ @highpriestofpie : I'd still have doubts about the likelihood of Iron remaining rare in the crust while being present in anything approaching normal abundancies in the interior. I'd expect normal processes (e.g. vulcanism and the flow of hot material to the surface ) to lead to higher levels of Iron in the crust than you are outlining. Of course that's a gut instinct - I'm no expert on this. Again maybe consulting a real expert on such matters would be more useful than even this forum. $\endgroup$ – StephenG May 3 '17 at 20:28
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    $\begingroup$ @StephenG en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hemocyanin ; most famous user is en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Horseshoe_crab $\endgroup$ – Erik May 3 '17 at 20:33

Deprive your world of hard stone. Marble, granite, etc are all even rarer than iron. In their place, there's coal and lots and lots of clay.

What does this achieve? Well, you can't sharpen a knife on clay. Coal and clay lend themselves really well to metal casting, so metal isn't worthless, but the fact that metal casting was so easy meant that the technology to make sharp metal (grinding) lagged way behind. Even if you did go to the trouble of casting a sharp sword, it would be useless once it lost its edge.

Today, people understand that you can sharpen metal with a stone, but it's a painstaking process - you're basically rubbing a rock on metal for days. There's no such thing as a grinding wheel (clay doesn't work for handwavy reasons, maybe it's too impure and would just shatter), so swords can't be mass produced. Serrated knives are possible, but a proper sword is just too much work to be worth it.


You make no mention of whether you are allowing magic or not. It is plausible that, if you allow magic and spells, you can create a body shield that will block a blade or melee attack, but not be able to overcome a small, fast-moving object. This is the inverse of the Dune "The slow blade penetrates the shield" setup. Maybe tuning the shield to block bullets interferes with the movement of air across the barrier and your user chokes.

This does require active magic, but at this point, rule-bending is the only way I can think of to get to where you want to be.


/Anyone have another idea?/ Josh King had it. @Josh King "I think you are going to need social reasons rather than technological limitations.

I propose your people are unable or unwilling to mix it up hand to hand. They could be very weak, cowardly or both. Maybe they are inbred and diseased, fragile folk who are lucky to be able to walk. Maybe they are all extremely old which would make for an interesting story. Maybe the air is so thin that physical exertion of any sort can be sustained for only seconds at a time.

Or they could be so gentle and peaceable that the idea of hitting someone the stuff of nightmares. Shooting people from a distance through a scope is much more palatable.

These people would be descended from vegetarian ancestors who did not fight each other and dealt with predators via immense bulk and malodorous skin. Or possibly they are descended from bonobos, the gentle primates who settle disputes by having sex. Can it be both?

I am loving the thought of your medieval / western adventure with this society. It would be so different.

  • $\begingroup$ I think the idea of social reasons is probably the easiest fix, but i want high quality metal armor and weapons to be present in extraordinary circumstances (the equivalent of magic items in other settings), so i don't want to make them totally ineffective. Though a weak/malnourished people might work, because anyone rich enough to own a sword and armor, is rich enough to be well fed. $\endgroup$ – highpriestofpie May 2 '17 at 17:25

An easy approach would be to have the ruling classes treat the sword as a weapon of high class. Nobody except the rulers are permitted to have one. Similar rules have been put in place in the past in feudal eras.

This, combined with the presence of firearms which are substantially better in virtually every combat situation guarantees the average person isn't going to want a sword.

However, I would give a word of caution. A gun is a melee weapon. You will be incapable of making a piece of metal that withstands the brutal forces involved in firing a projectile but which cannot be turned around and used to club someone over the head.


I'm in the middle of creating a world where ancient advanced civilizations rose and collapsed so I think this answer is very heavily influenced by that, but heres an idea for a work around:

A long dead race of technologically advanced inhabitants of the world created guns. The current inhabitants found the guns early in development, and with the efficiency of guns, there was never any reason for them to develop sword-like weapons more deadly than say, a paring knife.

Another general note is because of the difficulty in making a civilization advance forward without something like metals, I'd see a cultural explanation being the easiest way to make this work.

  • $\begingroup$ A slight variation on this idea may work, as the first gun was a divine gift according to the legends of my world. $\endgroup$ – highpriestofpie May 3 '17 at 17:31

This is categorically not possible. It's really that simple. More than that, it's not even slightly plausible, and that will (not "may") destroy a reader's ability to get into your world.

You mention "swords" casually as if the cavalry sabre came from nowhere, fully formed. It didn't. Weaponry started with sticks, bones and stones. There are many areas of the world where metals were in short supply, and those places continued to use sticks, bones and stones until Europeans arrived. This didn't mean those weapons were primitive - they'd had the benefit of thousands of years of evolution through warfare as well. South American civilisations had "swords" consisting of stone shards embedded in wood, which in their own context were very effective (although less so than metal, of course).

You don't need to be restricted to edged weapons either - most foot-soldiers historically used spears, not swords, because a rank of spearmen can stick them with the pointy end from much further away. Even at close range, bludgeoning weapons remained popular in Europe, because good armour always makes swords ineffective. Away from Europe, the Maoris had some truly horrible spiked bludgeoning weapons involving sharks' teeth.

You also mention "guns" as if the steel revolver came out of nowhere and is the only way to do it. Guns were originally made from bronze (copper, tin and later added zinc) and this remained effective. But if you have the raw materials to make bronze, you can equally well use those materials to make bronze weapons. The Bronze Age is called the Bronze Age because that's when bronze refining became widespread, and the primary purpose of developing bronze was in an arms race to get better quality swords and armour. Bronze never stopped being a good material for weapons - it was purely that iron and steel were better. If you don't have iron and steel available, then development stops there.

I'm really sorry, but you need to do so much more work on this concept.

  • $\begingroup$ The number of other, quite helpful answers i received that either partialy, or fully fixed the problem show that it is possible with some creativity. $\endgroup$ – highpriestofpie May 4 '17 at 15:01
  • $\begingroup$ @highpriestofpie I'm happy to be downvoted for not being helpful, but as far as I'm concerned "XYZ will make this impossible" is still constructive if you haven't addressed XYZ. I've just gone down all the other answers. The only answer that could possibly work was "religious reasons". There were other answers which gave possible gun construction, and other answers which gave reasons for there being no metal ores, but not one single answer whatsoever which identified physical reasons for there being no close-combat weapons. $\endgroup$ – Graham May 4 '17 at 18:34
  • $\begingroup$ Off the top of my head, the people being giants, and deep sea creature shells evolved into the shape of firing chambers where both answers that i got that make close combat weapons less effective. your criticism seems to just say, "this wont work" when there are a ton of people finding ways it can work. if you think those ways wouldn't work either, a more productive way of communicating that would be to comment how they wouldn't on the individual answers. $\endgroup$ – highpriestofpie May 4 '17 at 19:33

Slingshots and Grenades

If you are not too attached to the idea of guns, but still want a gunslinging setting, consider slingshots and grenades.

If metal is scarce or of poor-quality, then swords and metal axes will have been historically rare. However, heavy armour will also have been rare or non-existent. The armour of choice would be heavy, padded clothing - protective against stone axes, hammers, and maces. This would protect well against stones (the traditional ammo or slings and slingshots) but not against fire or poison.

A sling or slingshot throwing burning oil flasks would be the ranged weapon of choice. As technology advanced, the oil flasks would be replaced by grenades containing a variety of payloads (fire, acid, toxins).

Perhaps a naturally-occurring plant has the tensile properties of rubber and latex, allowing for modern handheld slingshots?

If technology somehow allows for glass production then gunslingers might have slingshots tucked into speed-draw holsters and glass beads in bandoleers across their chests.


If gunpowder is well known then rockets will be the ranged weapons of choice. Imagine all the research effort that would have gone into steelsmithing going into rocketry instead. Person-portable rocket launchers with the accuracy of a rifled firearm? Rocket pistols carrying a wide variety of warheads?


Not easily you need a lot more Copper and Tin in the world for a start, modern Bronzes, particularly those using small amounts of Cobalt, are superior to most Iron alloys for pressure applications like firing chambers but still bend when used in thin blades, which is unfortunate because in other ways (like edge retention) they make blades that are also superior to steel. So that could be starting point, it's not that Bronze can't be used for swords it's just that the swords you can make out of it are pretty bad. Bronze also has the advantage that it can be cast relatively easily at relatively low temperatures to a high standard, that means that smelter technology need not be so advanced, which is a mixed blessing when it comes to the chemical sciences.

There are some other issues around technological progression that you'll need to look closely at too, the general availability of Iron as a working metal has spurred a lot of technological progress for a very long time, some of that progress would have been virtually impossible without easy access to ferric materials. Nickel and Cobalt are both magnetic elements but neither one forms a native mineral with the physical properties of Magnetite (Fe3O4) so natural magnetism becomes a nonstarter with Iron so rare. Metallurgy becomes a bit of a strange one because while there's a lot you can do with Bronze and other Copper alloys the materials you need are relatively rare in an Earth-like Geological setting and some of the very best Bronzes are the ultra modern Aluminium Bronzes and Aluminium is very hard to extract without electricity, not impossible but awkward and dangerous which is why it was one of the last metals to be isolated. Iron plows allowed farmers to break ground that couldn't previously be farmed as well, Bronze was traditionally too expensive for plows though so there's some wiggle room there if you build a world with far greater reserves of the raw materials.

Bronze's low working temperature is actually an excuse to have an Iron rich world in which Steel isn't much used, if Copper and Tin are abundant and widely distributed enough that Bronze is as accessible as Iron and Copper-alloy metallurgy is advanced enough that early Iron is inferior for most applications then Iron would never catch on, Iron's accessibility made it much cheaper than Bronze or even Copper on earth which is the main reason it came into common usage not any material superiority of early ironwork over the Bronzes of the era. Assuming equal availability of elemental raw materials Iron is much more expensive than Bronze because of the thermal inputs needed to smelt, refine, alloy, and work it. This is especially true when smelting the Oxide-type Iron ores that we find the largest deposits of, they require vast amounts of heat (up to 2300C) and Carbon Monoxide to reduce them to primary metal. Sulfurous compounds make up the majority of Copper ores which makes them much cheaper to smelt, they require only moderate heat (1200C) and Oxygen to break them down.


A lot of modern firearms use carbon fiber as the base for a lot of firearm's structure, such as for stocks and such, though it is a relatively modern material and you may have trouble explaining where they conjured the ability to manufacture it.

As for a straight replacement of iron, the closest bets are materials that are also within whats called the "Iron Triad", namely Nickle and Cobalt, because they're minerals that closely resemble iron in their qualities. These materials wouldn't function as well as steel in regards to being weapons parts (after all, steels are used generally because they work the best), though they could still probably accomplish similar functions in a world where iron is extremely rare. Of the two, nickle looks like it would be the better option, as it has the benefit of being very heat-resistant, which would be essential in firearm construction.

  • $\begingroup$ You'll have to explain why this Nickel/Cobalt metal that can withstand the pressures and stresses of a gun chamber and barrel can't also be used to make blades and armor. $\endgroup$ – Schwern May 3 '17 at 20:21

How about ceramics? IRL ceramics can be extremely strong and tough (and light); in fact experimental engine blocks have been made entirely of ceramic, and those are withstanding hundreds of explosions per second. It seems reasonable a gun could be devised from some high-pressure ceramic material, and in the absence of iron on your world, perhaps the evolution of technology took this direction instead of developing these exotic high-pressure, high temperature, high strength ceramics. Including for channelling the explosion of black powder for accelerating a projectile.

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    $\begingroup$ Ceramics have already been discussed, at length, in other answers and comments. We can't currently produce a ceramic gun, so Medieval/Old West tech can't. Also they make good blades. $\endgroup$ – Schwern May 3 '17 at 20:20

If you don't have metallurgy, you don't get reliable firearms, or at least ones that last very long or have anything approaching a decent range. That doesn't meant you can't have gunpowder based weaponry.

Ceramic pot grenades, bamboo encased explosives, and rocket propelled...anything are options for you. The Korean Hwacha is one of my favorites ever since I saw it on Mythbusters.

One small thing I find odd is that your society has drifted away from melee weapons. Melee weapons have existed since the first time someone picked up a rock and clonked someone else over the head with it. Metals just made those melee weapons last longer and kill more effectively. This is some pretty significant history to over come. Other answers have mentioned that a radical change like this would probably come from either societal pressure rather than some sort of lack of available metals. Will has got some great ideas for this.

Have fun with the Medieval Western, sounds cool


What if current people's don't have the ability to smelt metal at all - all their weapon stock is from past ages and guns were simply more commonly made back then because the age of the sword had passed?

If swords/armor are very rare (as they are now, to be honest) then they'd be expensive.

Going with some form of cultural/historic reason will definitely make more sense than just eliminating melee weapons due to scarcity of ingredients but still having guns. It'd be like having high-compression combustion engines be readily available but steam engines are impossible to make, just too backwards to be feasible.


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