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


The problem here is that good armor doesn't require iron, neither do good melee weapons (great ones do). They also do not require outstanding craftsmanship - any tailor should be able to create decent armor.

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My point is, it's impossible to make it hard to create weapons by limiting materials. If you want to make it hard to create weapons, make it hard by law. Make it such that there is an imperial decree that bans swords in the Holy Roman Empire, or one that bans armor in the English colonies, or have the pope disallow killing fellow humans by the blade.

You could even decide in your world a human killing another is socially unacceptable even in war, but with a gun your people argue that it's the bullet that kills, not the holder of the gun.


You don't need swords that are hard/impossible to make, they could be simply made redundant for combat before they were existent. Think nomadic nation that hunts and fights from horseback using powerful bows/crossbows. No real walls and few small-ish shields as there is not enough stone or large trees to build them.

(walls, towers etc demand short-range combat, making swords useful. Unless poison, in which case short range would likely use throwing spear or some other cheap thing with pointy end to apply poison)

This setting could be quite realistic - terrain there is mostly grassland, with bushes and stuff which make for good bows and poor walls/shields.

Sword-like stuff would obviously remain and be used in kitchen or to stab someone, so you can have semi-normal society - no need for a bunch of weird gatherers that never invented agriculture or killing people nearby. It just wouldn't be really useful for combat.

Now the question is how to make guns appear to take over bows. The most reasonable thing I could think of: Kings had bronze/iron organ for music (peasants would be using bone flutes), and by accident it was figured out stuff can be thrown out of these pipes quite fast if you fill them with then newly developed explosive. Single use though. Boom, tons of research how to make a good cannon, which will outrange those ballistae or whatever was the large weapon of choice in your setting (if there even was one - without big trees you aren't making a big ballista or catapult). Now with cannon developed, you can obviously imagine people will want to make it portable and invent guns that are better than bows. Even though you would end up with good enough steel for swords before you had guns, you would still lack reason to actually use them in combat as bows would be still better than swords.

Alternatively, you need to invent some event that makes bows unsuitable and leads to extremely rapid development of swords, which are nearly instantly replaced by guns. Perhaps all arrows were poisonous (using some plant or animal), but antidote was finally found by royal alchemists. Or good enough armor was found. Or something else. But all I could imagine smells too much like hand-wavium and I would avoid it.

  • $\begingroup$ Welcome to WorldBuilding! If you have a moment please take the tour and visit the help center to learn more about the site. Have fun! $\endgroup$ – Secespitus May 4 '17 at 12:25

First gunpowder weapons involved rockets or flame - either made from bamboo or shot from a bamboo tube. Or paper. Then it evolved to bronze, and eventually iron and steel, but only after upgrading from flame-thrower to missile-thrower. So you could have gunpowder weapons without steel, but they definitely would not be small enough nor durable enough to be cheap and/or widely available.

But do not forget the main problem: stinting the blade weapons development by making iron rare and expensive you actually halt the technological progress. Without metallurgy, the development of which was for a long time associated exclusively with bladed weapons and armor, you won't get to even steam power level. Without iron to experiment on, eventually no development anywhere sets in.


OK, I got a ton of great answers that solve my problem in a range of ways, and I think the best way to apply them to my world is to use several of them in conjunction.

  1. Iron isn't as rare as I initially wanted it to be, but it is still remarkably inefficient to be used in swords, or plate armor. It is instead used in tiny quantities to reinforce guns made primarily of other materials. There is no reason to make a long sword when the same amount of iron can be used to make 20 guns.

  2. As the setting is mostly arid, and barren, the components of ceramics are plentiful, leading to increased technological development in that area. This means that gun firing chambers are often made of a tungsten like ceramic compound, limitedly reinforced with iron.

  3. These two factors lead to guns with bodies made primarily of softer metals, like copper, and brass, with the internal components that would be put under the most pressure being made of the tougher rarer materials listed above.

  4. Though swords are very inefficient to make, and less effective than guns, they are widely feared, and coveted as there is a common belief that the only honorable way to die, and thus the only way to enter heaven, is by firearm. This means that suicide is common if someone has a disease, or other severe injury. It also means that minor crimes incur death by firing squad, but those who commit the worst crimes are beheaded. Warlords wield terror as people believe the warlord can literally send them to hell by killing them. This also makes inferior melee weapons like clubs, and shivs not uncommon, but they tend to be ineffective against even the most basic of guns, so they are usually only carried as backup. Groups who have access to many effective melee weapons, and the armor to get close enough to use them, are universally feared (it would be like the all women fighting forces that fight Isis).

  5. In places where the iron to reinforce guns is less common, more creative methods are employed. Recoil-less rifles, and rudimentary rocket rounds are used to lessen the pressure put on firing chambers. In other places, a native species of small crab is farmed for its incredibly tough shells, which are then used as firing chambers for guns.

  6. Lastly, though guns are common, those with the knowledge and resources to make them are rare, and highly valued, often being priests in various local religions, or if they belong to a warlord, a prized slave. These gunsmiths end up with almost all of the iron, ceramic, shells, and any other material that would be used in gunsmithing. Because guns are the most cost effective way to arm a great many people, and are often held as divine in form, these smiths rarely make blades or armor out of the material they have, despite being able to. This means that only those with ludicrous wealth, can obtain a blade as gunsmiths must be bribed to make them.


aboriginal australians and rabbits

this culture may not be iron deficit, but it may be that meelee is actually useless: group of hunter gatherers chasing fast game is not going to hunt with swords, any time soon.

imagine an alternate timeline, where the first tribes to arrive in australia, brought rabbits to the continent from mongolia or asia, like how they brought dogs there.

now, because rabbits do well in australia, it will mutiply like rabbits, colonizing the continent and turning it into a heaven for rabbit hunters, who needs to hunt them with ranged weapons: bows, boomerangs, slingshots, etc.

as rabbits are nearly impossible to bring down or hunt to extinction, it will become the main diet of the settlers, no comcern needed whatsover, and whoever invented a better way to hunt the rabbits gets better food, more food, therefor more chance of survival. trapping may work, but is essentialy useless for food production at large scale. partition of hunting grounds will create th needed social competition, and technological advancementt follows suit.


bog iron is common in australia, but iron meelee weapon for rabbit hunting is essentially useless, and it would likely be undiscovered for ages to come.


when wars have became common, weapons would become important. the traditional weapon fot the aboriginals, bows, slongshots, boomerangs, will be improved upon. stones would become larger, and arrows woud become sharper. bushfires will be important in sieges, and a need to spread flames will become important. charcoal burn well when powdered, and will shoot out fireballs if mixed with saltpeter, sulfur makes the whole thing explosive, enabling the blasting of rocks for more stone ammunition.

one man, when blasting rocks, plugged the hole too lightly, an instead of blowing the stone apart, it shoots out the plug at high velocity, enough to kill rabbits, or smash through armour designed to stop arrows.

after discovering this, wooden or bamboo guns become common in warfare, and for hunting more rabbits, which is not exhaustible even with this stage. stone cannons that shoots stone balls quickly replaces whatever slingshot the tribes originally used, and whatever form of rocketry will develop soon.

back to iron: iron for tools likely exist, for chopping, etc. with firearms, iron will be forged into gun barrels, instead of swords, as the latter would never develop, if at all, in a culture that uses almost exclusively ranged weapons from the start: the concept of blades for warfare is alien to them, exactly as the concept of using catapults to hunt is alien to us.

result: in a culture that favors ranged, instead of melee warfare, swords nay not develop at all, and if gunpowder is discovered sooner than high quality (modern) blades, this culture would likely skip swords altogether, due to the limited range being unweldy for the fast moving warfare style of said cultures.


Suppose they naturally get rocks with a single hole dug in them. There could be some geological phenomenon that produces such rocks. But they don't have the technological know-how to alter the shape of these hard rocks.

So they can simply fill the hole with some gunpowder or other explosive material and then place another small rock inside, then light the gunpowder.

Naturally occuring rocks will not always have the perfect shape and geometry for such a contraption, so majority of the time is spent searching for them. So assume they're abundant.

This is still a primitive weapon but a large version of it would be significantly more powerful and cost-effective than beating each other to death with weirdly shaped rocks. At this point it would be more of a cannon than a gun, but if the material is light enough one could also carry or at least drag around their own personal "firing rocks".


protected by Serban Tanasa May 4 '17 at 18:24

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