One of the most overlooked elements of modern fantasy is that cold iron serves as either an effective shield or an effective weapon against supernatural creatures, like fairies or spirits.

With that in mind, let us say that elvish smiths have found use of an alloy without involving iron at all. The other materials used in regular alloys--carbon and nickel--will still be used, but now they come with palladium, phosphorus, silicon, germanium, and silver.

What will the elvish blades look like with those ingredients? Will they cut? More importantly, will they kill?

Sidenote--I don't care how rare or precious any of these elements are because this is a question about quality, not quantity.

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    $\begingroup$ they could just use bronze, it will be stronger and hold an edge better. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Jun 27, 2017 at 0:07
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    $\begingroup$ Steel is by definition an alloy of iron and carbon, plus possibly some other components. There is no such thing as a "regular alloy"; the word alloy means simply a mixture or solid solution of which at least one component is a metal. There are many alloys which don't include iron and have good properties for the intended use; for example, Titanium Beta C and other titanium alloys. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Jun 27, 2017 at 0:25
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    $\begingroup$ +1 for titanium alloys. However, manufacturing titanium blades in low-tech society would require magic. $\endgroup$
    – Alexander
    Jun 27, 2017 at 0:27
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    $\begingroup$ Another possibility: some silver-copper alloys can be hardened. astm.org/DATABASE.CART/HISTORICAL/B628-98.htm - hard, somewhat springy, corrision-resistant. Sounds like it would make a good light slashing and/or pointed weapon. $\endgroup$
    – pjc50
    Jun 27, 2017 at 9:06
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    $\begingroup$ Didn't you meant to say 'metal' or 'alloy' instead of 'steel'? Non-Iron steel is by definition not steel anymore. $\endgroup$
    – Mixxiphoid
    Jun 27, 2017 at 10:25

8 Answers 8


An Annoying, Pedantic Point

Steel without iron is, according to most engineer's idea of steel, 100% carbon (or very mostly carbon with a light sprinkling of other elements). Carbon tends to make steel brittle, so usually when people talk about steels, they talk about how little carbon (and other stuff) they put in.

This means you have a pure, or nearly pure, carbon blade. It could be:

  • a diamond blade, which is brittle, but holds an edge well due to its amazing hardness.
  • a graphite blade, which is very brittle, but not as hard as diamond. I do not recommend this for a weapon.
  • a carbon-fiber blade, which requires some resin to keep together, but may not be the best at holding an edge and certainly cannot be produced by a traditional blacksmith.

And all of these would qualify as a "steel without iron!"

Some Alternatives

We are looking for a material that can be shaped and hold an edge. Luckily for us, many materials are capable of this. (Blade flexibility is something that various styles disagree on. European swords tend to bend and flex to prevent breaking. Katanas, however, will stay bent where a European sword would snap back into place. Do elves care about the longevity of their blades or slipping through armor? I do not know. Finer points about blades can be quite important, and it depends on context. What are they fighting? What armors are they trying to get around? How do they fight? Etc.)

  • Flint can be broken apart (known as knapping) forming sharp edges. It is very brittle, however, and therefore not a good choice.
  • Jade can be used for weapons by the Maori people. Like the other kinds of stone and ceramic solutions, it would be more brittle than steel or iron.
  • Obsidian has also been used for blades the world over. Because it is a glass, it is also brittle.
  • Bronze, an alloy of copper and tin (and some other things, like nickel). It doesn't hold its shape like most steels do, but it's available and won't shatter like flint or obsidian will.
  • Cupronickel is a good alternative: it's silvery, and can be cold worked into a similar hardness as steel, but it's still not as strong. Additionally, it tends to not corrode in water, giving it a pleasing longevity to contrast it against human steel. There is also an historic precedent of using it as a weapon material.
  • Wooden weapons would not be as strong as steel, but certainly are in the running for a substitute. They are much less expensive, as well!
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    $\begingroup$ A great set of alternatives. Like the idea of silvery cupronickel swords, but wooden swords feels strangely right for elven swords. Both enjoyable and informative. Gave plus one. $\endgroup$
    – a4android
    Jun 27, 2017 at 6:18
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    $\begingroup$ Note Obsidian is also stupidly brittle and unfit for warfare if the enemy employs metal armor like mail or plate. $\endgroup$
    – Mormacil
    Jun 27, 2017 at 9:46
  • $\begingroup$ Would a diamond-edged weapon with a carbon fiber polymer core have any merit to it? $\endgroup$
    – Joren
    Jun 27, 2017 at 12:18
  • $\begingroup$ You have to keep in mind what kind of armour you want to defeat with it. As you mentioned japanese and european swords, you must also name the contemporary armours that these weapons are meant to combat since they are also different (and evolved over time just like the weapons). So it is not only the material the weapon is made from but also what it has to deal with. $\endgroup$
    – Adwaenyth
    Jun 27, 2017 at 14:46
  • $\begingroup$ @joren not really, diamonds are brittle and would fare about as well as flint. Diamond can't be made as sharp as flint so there is not much benefit to using them. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Jun 27, 2017 at 14:46

Consider first where faeries came from. Faeries are "The Other" and legends of a race of strange small people with strange customs probably originated with a race of strange small people with strange customs. These people were overwhelmed by the newcomers, driven into the forest, perhaps to some degree assimilated. Such a change of cultures must have happened many, many times in human history. Over time the older race of people became elves, dwarves, trolls - the stuff of stories told by the conquerors.

I used to think that the faeries hated iron because they did not have metal - a neolithic people, the makers of burial mounds and elf-shot. But the faeries only hate iron, not all metal. Between stone and iron there was a different metal and the fairies could make it. Faeries had bronze.

Like the other, smaller mines, the Great Orme got its start as a system of surface workings. Miners simply dug out the green and black veins of copper ore that they saw on the surface. But soon after, the miners decided to follow the veins of copper malachite both horizontally as well as down… and down, creating the winding, narrow tunnels that we see today. The most intensive period of production was for two or three centuries around 3,500 years ago, although radiocarbon dating shows that the mine kept operating for another millennium. http://www.bbc.com/earth/story/20160420-the-ancient-copper-mines-dug-by-bronze-age-children

Little people working under the earth...

enter image description here

Reading up on this I found this article on Racton Man and here his beautiful dagger. enter image description here

The faeries had Bronze Age technology, like the Fir Bolg and Tuatha de Danaan of the Irish Myth Cycle. They were supplanted by a civilization that had iron. They hate the iron.

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    $\begingroup$ I'll give this a +1. It's quite traditional in fantasy works (especially ones with e.g. a p-celtic flavour) to have the fair folk both a) allergic to iron, and b) using bronze weaponry. Depending on your jam it can be an allegory for progress or globalism, or a commentary on technology vs our connection to nature. $\endgroup$ Jun 27, 2017 at 9:05
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    $\begingroup$ Wait, wait, wait, wait, wait. So elves are people driven from their land by invading settlers (with better equipment), while dwarves are allegory for child labour? Whoa. This has some incredible implications. $\endgroup$
    – M i ech
    Jun 27, 2017 at 10:36
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    $\begingroup$ This is fanfiction, not an answer. $\endgroup$ Jun 27, 2017 at 12:44
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    $\begingroup$ Enthusiasm in the answer should not be grounds for a downvote. Is the question about what alloy the elves could use and how the blade would look? I have given you both. Or are you asking what a gemisch of carbon, nickel, palladium, phosphorus, silicon, germanium, and silver would look like? $\endgroup$
    – Willk
    Jun 27, 2017 at 14:22
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    $\begingroup$ @Will: And the invaders had steel, thus little use for bronze. Excalibur or Caladbolg, was almost certainly a captured steel sword $\endgroup$
    – nzaman
    Jun 27, 2017 at 14:41

Seeing as the Elves have access to 'regular alloying elements' and other interesting elements (someone mentioned Titanium) and that rarity was a non-issue, I'd recommend looking into Titanium Aluminide, it's an alloy of Titanium and Aluminium that's being looked into as a replacement for Nickel Superalloy jet engine blades (one of the most brutal applications possible for a metal). This means it has to be incredibly strong and stiff which is ideal for making swords.

Some other notable alloys are Nickel Aluminide, a curious compound that not only is really strong (also used in making jet engine parts) but has a rather unique property that it actually gets stronger as you heat it (at least until ~800°C where it starts behaving like normal metals again). It's because of this that it's sometimes used for making rollers for the steel industry for hot working red hot steel.

Stellite is another candidate, an alloy primarily of Cobalt and Chromium with a bit of tungsten and carbon thrown in (typically has 1% Iron, but you could probably leave the Iron out altogether without much trouble). Stellite is primarily used for making cutting tools (saws for cutting steel) and valve parts for car engines.

You may even be able to use Tungsten Carbide tips for things like arrows (Tungsten Carbide is used for making rock drills). It's very dense but extremely hard, I pretty much use carbide bits for all my metalworking because carbide bits shred through steel like butter (imagine arrow heads that can easily puncture everything including quality Iron armor...)

You could even use Silicon Carbide tips/edging, seeing as both are some of the most abundant elements in the world, it could be a very cheap way to add a much needed edge to an otherwise inferior blade. SiC is used for making steel cut-off disks for angle grinders. Not to mention it has a really bad-ass black-glass appearance.

Just because you can't use Iron doesn't put you at a disadvantage at all provided you've got some advanced metallurgical know-how. If anything, some of the strongest alloys and ceramics (technically Carbides are ceramics) either use relatively little Iron or don't use it at all.

Addendum: If you want to get really 'out there' with regards to your material selection, check out depleted Uranium. Because, according to everyone's favorite encyclopedia: "Depleted uranium is favored for the penetrator because it is self-sharpening and flammable. On impact with a hard target, such as an armored vehicle, the nose of the rod fractures in such a way that it remains sharp." The catch? It's flammable, poisonous and mildly radioactive... which I suppose is fine if it's going to end up embedded in someone you don't like anyway.

  • $\begingroup$ +1 for naming actually usable alloys. However, I was wondering about the tensile strength of some of these materials: For a sword, it's not enough that the material is hard, it must also be robust against breakage, and that means that it must have very significant tensile strength as well as hardness. Hardness alone would give a sword that's sharp and mean, and can cut super well, but that's too brittle to withstand a single clash against another sword or shield... $\endgroup$ Jun 28, 2017 at 6:27
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    $\begingroup$ @cmaster You'll be wanting the jet blade alloys then, the average turbine blade (the ones inside the engine) are only about the size of your hand but have to survive a) 10-20 tonnes of tensile load, b) must not stretch at all and c) they must do this at >1000'C. When you move into aerospace metallurgy, regular steel starts looking like play doh in comparison... some of these compounds are just so ridiculously strong that unless you're the Hulk, you'd be hard pressed to break them by hand, the only catch is they tend to be really dense (lead is a featherweight next to tungsten) $\endgroup$
    – Samwise
    Jun 28, 2017 at 23:49
  • $\begingroup$ Yeah, that was my hunch too. So either Titanium Aluminide or Nickel Superalloy. $\endgroup$ Jun 29, 2017 at 7:51
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    $\begingroup$ Let's be fair - carrying around a depleted uranium sword for an extended amount of time is going to get uncomfortable rather quickly. I guess we could speculate about fairies being immune to radiation or whether a lead scabbard could help, but in the end it's probably also far too heavy to make for good melee weapons. $\endgroup$
    – Pahlavan
    Jul 20, 2017 at 5:17
  • $\begingroup$ @Pahlavan, yeah I wouldn't make swords out of it, but D.U. arrow heads would do some serious damage. $\endgroup$
    – Samwise
    Jul 21, 2017 at 6:10

Steel is by definition an alloy of iron and carbon. So, no iron, no steel.

However for a silvery metal alloy with properties that make it suitable material for armour and weapons there are many choices subject to the sophistication of the available metallurgy if availabulity of raw material is not an issue.

The four that present immediately are aluminium, magnesium, tungsten and titanium. Before anyone starts screaming about Al and Mg being too ductile, yes in their pure state but correctly alloyed and treated significant hardness and toughness can be achieved. The main problem is density. Not all swordfighting is about sharpness. Momentum plays an important part. Difficult to achieve with a low density material.

A titanium / tungsten alloy of about 6:1 would give the right density and be extremely hard and tough. It would be frightful to work. Ordinary tools would not touch it and forging temps probably around 2700° C.

Once worked into a sword it would not appear that different from steel but,

  • would not corrode

  • would hold a diabolical edge much less subject to dulling and chipping

  • would shear through bronze like a hot knife through butter

For plate material I'd suggest Al/Mg alloy, light and relatively easy to work.

For swords and axes W/Ti. Difficult to work(laser milling / tungsten carbide grinding) but very durable.

  • $\begingroup$ How heavy is a W/Ti sword?! $\endgroup$
    – JDługosz
    Jun 29, 2017 at 7:49
  • $\begingroup$ For 6:1 roughly the same density as steel. With Ti less dense & W more than Fe proportions can be adjusted to suit. $\endgroup$
    – pHred
    Jun 29, 2017 at 7:53
  • $\begingroup$ So the W is there for weight, not a specific alloy with desired properties? $\endgroup$
    – JDługosz
    Jun 29, 2017 at 7:58
  • $\begingroup$ Both. As mentioned by Shalvenay and Samwise tungsten carbides are some of the toughest compounds. I'm not for a straight Ti alloy because too light. I've done a fair bit of backsword, cutlass and some longsword. A light alloy is ok for pointwork like rapier but these are not military weapons. Unless your weapon has some mass a heavier weapon will blow right through a guard. Inertia can be your friend. $\endgroup$
    – pHred
    Jun 29, 2017 at 12:10
  • $\begingroup$ For skyscraper framing, what would you suggest? $\endgroup$ Mar 13, 2018 at 14:31

I think, what you really want is some alloy of titanium. The strongest titanium alloys can compete with a number of steels in tensile strengths (though not with the strongest, heat treated steels).

I believe, titanium based weapons would go quite well with elves, as the wikipedia article describes titanium as a light metal, which is "lustrous, and metallic-white in color". Should make for perfect elvish style weapons...

Comparing titanium alloy swords with their steel counterparts, I see three relevant points:

  1. Pro steel: The material strength of titanium is less than that of steel. This means that it would be the titanium sword that gets the dent when it clashes with a steel sword. After a fight, the elves would need to remake the edges of their titanium swords.

  2. Pro titanium: The lower weight of the material would allow for greater length of the swords than steel, allowing the elvish fighters to score hits before their opponents can even reach them.

  3. Pro titanium: The lower material weight would also allow the swords to be thicker than their steel counterparts, actually allowing the titanium swords to be stronger against breakage than their steel counterparts. So, while it would be the titanium swords that gets the dent, it would be the steel sword that breaks. Which one do you prefer?

All in all, there's a reason why they use titanium in aircrafts: Its performance surpasses that of steel when its put in relation to its weight. And swords do put their material strength in relation to their weight. The elves could thus use that exact same property to make for some extra long, strong, shiny looking swords.

If you want the elvish swords to be really bad-ass weapons, you can say that their edges are encrusted with some magic crystal coating (= a diamond layer on top of the edge), which allows them to dent steel swords, turning point 1 above in favor for the elves. But I guess, that would overpower the elves.


Cemented carbides are an elf's best friend

The reason why steel is so darn good as a tooling alloy is because it is hardenable in a very controllable way by manipulating the presence of carbide particles in the iron matrix. Iron-carbon alloys form this type of structure natively to some degree, although the inclusion of a carbide-forming alloying element such as vanadium, chromium, or molybdenum promote the formation of harder alloy carbides, giving increased hardness over plain carbon steel.

Most other metals don't harden as well or as controllably when alloyed as iron does, making them less suitable for tools; those that are hard by default have other undesirable properties (rarity, density/weight, ductility or lack thereof). However, the nonreactivity and hardness of refractory carbides (such as tungsten or zirconium carbide) means that they can be mechanically mixed with a molten metal to produce a structure similar in nature to modern-day cemented carbide.

This material has the advantage that the matrix and carbide materials can be chosen separately to tailor the properties of the resulting material, in addition to being able to vary the carbide concentrations in the matrix. Modern-day cemented carbide tools use tungsten or tantalum carbides in a cobalt matrix -- this gives them hardness superior to any steel, but at the price of being somewhat brittle. A more suitable material for bladework for your elves would likely be zirconium carbide in a titanium matrix -- this takes advantage of the superior resiliency of titanium along with the hardness and aggressive cutting abilities provided by the embedded carbide particles.


What about obsidian?

It can be sharper than steel, is resistant, and with some magic handwavium you could make away with the problem of brittleness.

By a pure lore standpoint I would recommend against any alloy or metal at all, the point of the cold iron was that it hurt fey because it was something removed from the natural realm.

It don't matter if it is iron, platinum, or aluminum, what hurts the fae is the fact that it has been removed from nature and refined to the point it's not "natural" anymore. Back then it was iron, these days it probably would be plastics.

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    $\begingroup$ Obsidian is brittle, and iron is not the only metal on this planet. $\endgroup$ Jun 27, 2017 at 2:56
  • $\begingroup$ That why I said you could use some magic handwaviun to circumvent that. And the problem is not the metal, it's the act of taking the metal out of the earth and refining it. $\endgroup$
    – Sasha
    Jun 27, 2017 at 3:05
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    $\begingroup$ Magic handwavium is generally not appropriate when answering science-based questions. $\endgroup$
    – Mark
    May 12, 2019 at 5:02

First, we have know what the problem with cold iron actually is. In Mercedes Lackey's books, plain old iron was poisonous because it disrupted fae magic. Some other fiction says it poisonous just because. Some use it as an allegory for why the Celts weren't able to repel the Romans in Hadrian's time. The reason why the Fae don't like cold iron is key to resolving this particular armorers dilemma.

I like the Mercedes Lackey version best, so I'm going to use that. I'm also going to use some of her solutions as well. Fae can't actually touch iron because it acts as a lens to magical energies and direct contact causes severe burns. In one of the books, elves figured out that the effect could be measured, and therefore compensated for. That gives you the option for Fae weaponry actually using iron. They would just need to coat a steel blade with some other metal. I have a pocket knife that has a steel blade that has been coated with titanium for corrosion protection. The elvish blade could have a steel core and edge with other metals to make up the mass of the blade. That fae and his companions would just have to learn to compensate and use the magic distortion. This will help them take on and kill other Fae as well as Humans.

If you want to keep it to "Iron is poison and that's just that" well you have to look for alternatives then. It would come back to tactics over materials. Keep in mind that you can kill someone with a chunk of wood, or a guy in armor with a lead topped club. I don't care how fancy the steelwork is and how much iron is in a sword, A 20lb lead sledge hammer is going to cave in your helmet. A wooden stick, deftly handled, will cave in the human skull. So you have to fight in ways that take advantage of your enemies weakness.

The long and the short is that you just have to pay more attention to tactics. Good materials help a lot and steel is really advantageous, but it is not something that will guarantee a victory.

  • $\begingroup$ That does not answer the question. $\endgroup$ Jun 29, 2017 at 0:37
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    $\begingroup$ Maybe you can reorganize to bring the points in the 3rd paragraph first and emphasize that; then go on with story ideas. $\endgroup$
    – JDługosz
    Jun 29, 2017 at 7:47
  • $\begingroup$ Your answer is currently in the low-quality review queue. But I think JD is right. The answer is okay, as teh third paragraph looks helpful for users reading this question. It just feels like the points that answer the question get kind of "lost" in the other stuff that might be helpful for further considerations in this genre, but not for the exact question. I'll say "Looks OK", but you should think about going with the approach JD proposed. $\endgroup$
    – Secespitus
    Jun 29, 2017 at 9:18
  • $\begingroup$ After re-reading my answer I'm still honestly a bit flummoxed about what the kerfuffle is. My understanding of the question was lethality without iron. Why no iron actually plays into how you approach the problem. It may be a difficulty rather than outright prohibition. Either way though, lethality when you are limited by materials can be compensated for with tactics. Did I miss the actual point of the question somewhere? Was it just amount the material science and not how to cope with a prohibition of iron $\endgroup$
    – Paul TIKI
    Jun 30, 2017 at 14:07

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