In my world the only available metal is copper and it is as rare as gold is for us. Other metals exist in salts and in rock, but ores and other common metal sources cannot be found for these elements. Noone can harvest metal from salts because reasons.

Due to the rarity of Copper, it would not be weaponised for the masses. It is plausible that a royal family or rich merchant may use copper for weapons, however my question is about the everyday soldier.

Up until the medieval era, weaponry would probably be accurate to on Earth. Knives and swords can be made from bone and wooden bows or crossbows would still exist. There could even be a cultural feature where people fashion new weapons from the bones of their enemies.

Siege warfare would be possible with siege machines, rams, and trebuchets all made from wood or similar. Even castles were built primarily from stone. Metal parts such as chains can be replaced with rope; portcullises can be made from treated wood.

My issue is advancing into projectile warfare and beyond. Gunpowder is possible, since the only metal it contains is in salt form (potassium).

Given that gunpowder and other explosives are possible using non-metal ingredients, I am allowing the use of explosives. Steam power is also feasible if a replacement for Iron can be found. Also, since copper magnets can be used to create motors and circuitry can be made using copper (or graphite?) it could be used in very small amounts to make computer systems.

what non-metal equivalents to real-world weapons are possible? Would there be any weapons that we don't have, but this world would?

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    $\begingroup$ Your humans would have some serious problems, as they'd miss some essential ingredients of the human body. $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 3, 2017 at 8:40
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    $\begingroup$ Are you aware that rocks are mostly made of oxydized metals? $\endgroup$
    – L.Dutch
    Commented Aug 3, 2017 at 8:40
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    $\begingroup$ Sorry, but without metals, it's actually harder to even reach something like the middle ages in the first place. Without metals, you also don't have the same tools. You cannot simply build a castle without proper tools and those tools are made from metal. The castle is made from stone, true, but to work with that stone effectively, you need tools that are harder than the stone itself. Some things can probably done without metals, but your society will NOT be something that look medieval, just without swords. $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 3, 2017 at 12:15
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    $\begingroup$ I do not doubt that, by investing ridiculous amounts of manpower and very inefficient, costly, etc. methods you can somehow form a rock, if your life depends on it. But since it normally doesn't, people will probably not start building huge stone buildings. But that's not a problem, since many of the things those huge stone buildings are supposed to protect you from also do not exist, so for most cases, wooden palisades will be good enough. Don't forget, armies don't even have horse shoes or really durable stirrups. All in all, you will not be medieval - or even antiquity. Stone age, mostly. $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 3, 2017 at 13:16
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    $\begingroup$ I'll be honest - you won't be able to reach anywhere nearby modern-day tech with your setting. Without steel you won't be able to have any sort of industrial revolution. You won't have cargo ships, trains, any sort of high-grade tool. You wont be able to make glass. You won't be able to have nails to build any sort of complex wooden structure that doesn't depend only on wedged connections. You'll have a hard time cutting wood. There is a lot of things that won't fly on this scenario... $\endgroup$
    – Mermaker
    Commented Aug 3, 2017 at 13:16

10 Answers 10


Many weapons made prior to the industrial revolution can be made out of organics. I will start at the bronze age and move forward as that is where metal really began to take hold in military use.

  • Bow and Arrows - bows are wood and string. Going to Longbows, or Composite bows just requires animal materials
  • Shields - wood, just use pegs, glue, and leather. Like the ancient Egyptians
  • Swords - These are probably not possible except from Macuahuitl
  • Spears - all we need is the tip, which can be stone, glass, or ceramic.
  • Armor - early forms of leather armor are still viable. You could make Lamellar Armor from wood or ceramics.
  • cross bows - already given, but will reiterate.
  • cannons - early ones in china were made of paper and bamboo. There is even an entire page made for wooden cannons, the shot can be ceramic as it is easy to make a ball.
  • guns - Online there are how-to guides for making wooden guns. I would assume if wooden cannons were possible handheld guns would also be. Rifling may not be possible though.
  • Modern Armor(Bullet proof vests) - these are being made with silk, kevlar, and ceramics.
  • Ships - until the 1850's, all were wooden. Most will be more fragile as you will need to replace nails for wood pegs and glue.
  • Trains - Not possible to utilize the steam engine without steel.
  • Hot Air Balloons - possible, Unmanned balloons are easy, just the manned ones require storage for the fuel, this would be costly.
  • Planes - without aluminum powered flight is not possible, Gliders are available by replacing the frame with bamboo.
  • Modern Armour(Tanks) - Combustion engine is needed, not possible.
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    $\begingroup$ glass blowing was started in the Roman Empire. The OP mentioned copper (melting point of 1900C) was available, so while not ideal glass blowing would be possible. $\endgroup$
    – Reed
    Commented Aug 3, 2017 at 13:31
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    $\begingroup$ Wood-and-cloth aircraft are fine, it's just the engine that needs to be made of advanced metals. $\endgroup$
    – pjc50
    Commented Aug 3, 2017 at 14:42
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    $\begingroup$ @AricFowler You seem to be forgetting about obsidian. Which was used for arrow heads, axes, and spears for a very long time (and the aforementioned Macuahuitl). Or does your world not have lava? $\endgroup$
    – Samuel
    Commented Aug 3, 2017 at 18:13
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    $\begingroup$ @AricFowler you can and people do make glass inside stone ovens. Since you didn't include hard-science, I think a boiler made of stone could also act as a steam engine alternative. $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 4, 2017 at 10:59
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    $\begingroup$ @Reed copper melts at 1090°, not 1900°. $\endgroup$
    – user38304
    Commented Aug 4, 2017 at 11:06

I am assuming you're not really meaning "all metals" because they compose the vast majority of the Periodic Table; I assume there's scarcity of some metals, namely: Al Fe Cu Zn Sn Pb.

Most likely technical history of a world with low metal resources would diverge right at "bronze age".

It is very difficult to guess what "would have happened" with any degree of confidence, but I can give a few ideas:

  • Wood and brick technology would proceed as in our world, possibly with some boost due to lack of alternatives.
  • Glass technology would start as soon as in our world (it doesn't really need metal tools, they were used because available), but would have more push, so it's likely that it would have grown to overcome some of its "implicit" deficiencies (i.e.: fragility) developing glass foams and tempered glass much earlier, possibly to the point to implement glass weapons (surely for arrow and javelin heads, but probably also for swords (yes! a glass dagger!).
  • Similar fate would have ceramic; probably it would become the main material for pipes of all dimensions. Tools made from ceramic would be more fragile, but almost as useful as cast-iron ones.
  • Natural resins cements and the like would, probably, have a larger use and development because composite materials would be necessary much earlier to make up for the lack of metals.
  • Industrial chemistry would have had a different development due to lack of high pressure containers (easier to produce with metal, but not impossible by other means).
  • Electricity and all related technologies would be very difficult to obtain due to lack of ready-made conductors; carbon sticks (graphite) would be closest available.
  • Using animals and plants to produce useful compounds (by hybridization at first, with genetic engineering if/when available) would be much more advanced due to (relative) unavailability of "traditional" methods.
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    $\begingroup$ This question brought to mind Daughter of the Empire. The Empire arises on a world poor in surface metals (they've already been mined out), Iron and other metals are incredibly rare. Their medieval technology has advanced the capabilities of laminates and resins, making usable swords, armor and arrowheads. Nice to see you reference resins in your answer, + from me :) $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 3, 2017 at 17:31
  • $\begingroup$ Can you make ceramic firearms? $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 3, 2017 at 19:04
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    $\begingroup$ To an astrophysicist, anything heavier than helium is a metal. $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 3, 2017 at 21:50
  • $\begingroup$ @Shufflepants: I know (I am an astrophysicist, even if I work as a SW Engineer since 1981). They tend to have a somewhat "detached" view of the universe; Their influence in weaponry and warfare, before Manhattan Project, has been limited (with the possible exception of Archimedes from Syracuse). I was speaking about what chemists consider "metal". Metallurgist view is even more limited. $\endgroup$
    – ZioByte
    Commented Aug 4, 2017 at 7:21

While this isn’t much I do have a couple of examples of weapons without metals in them:

As you already mention crossbows will still be available but it would be possible to have some other firearms. In the 1993 movie “In the Line of Fire”, the bad guy played by John Malkovich attempted to assassinate the president with a composite plastic gun (SPOILER!). This gun came in four parts (to sneak past security) and consisted entirely of composite plastic apart from 2 high tensile springs because of this the gun was only effective at close range.

The bullets fired from the gun could also be plastic or wooden, as long as they were well treated so were light and effective.
The gun could then be made of wood as it relies on a spring not explosive material!

This could be fairly faithfully recreated (indeed is has been) with plastic springs however due to short range of effectiveness it would be more effective in a small shotgun style firearm. The potential energy of a spring when fully compressed is 0.5kx^2 (where k is the spring constant) which would be translated into kinetic energy of the bullet: 0.5mv^2.

However the momentum provided by the bullet is fairly small because of its weight and it would require a lot more force behind to improve the bullet momentum a small amount. Getting a spring that’s got double the constant of a previous spring would double its potential energy. So therefore the kinetic energy is double but if the mass is constant then the v^2 would be doubled meaning velocity would only be √2*v and as momentum (p=mv) is mass by velocity then it would only increase to √2*p also.

Petrol Bombs:
While petroleum usually contains trace amounts of metal it can be made without it, for the majority of petroleum is made of hydrocarbons.

The chemical breakdown of petroleum is as follows:
- carbon (93% – 97%)
- hydrogen (10% - 14%)
- nitrogen (0.1% - 2%)
- oxygen (0.1% - 1.5%)
- sulphur (0.5% - 6%)
- with a few trace metals

It would be possible to scale up the size of these bombs however the amount of petroleum needed would provide the greatest challenge for this world.
The container for these bombs would be largely irrelevant.
To launch these you would have to use catapults or such and the fuse would need to be well calculated for them to explode at roughly the right time.

  • $\begingroup$ how about a stone bullet? or bone? $\endgroup$
    – Aric
    Commented Aug 3, 2017 at 9:28
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    $\begingroup$ how would you dig / drill for petrol without metal drills/ $\endgroup$
    – Mołot
    Commented Aug 3, 2017 at 9:35
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    $\begingroup$ @Molot get your spade out XD, it is possible to use wooden or stone drills also precious minerals aren't out of the question, diamond tipped drills could do the trick whether they are real or man-made carbon based. $\endgroup$
    – BMS21
    Commented Aug 3, 2017 at 9:44
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    $\begingroup$ Diamonds are pretty rare even though we have metals to mine them... if we had to wait a river to erode the rocks and bring them ashore a diamond spade would be worth a kingdom $\endgroup$
    – L.Dutch
    Commented Aug 3, 2017 at 9:45
  • $\begingroup$ @AricFowler Heavier materials are possible but the better springs are then needed to keep the moving with enough velocity. Muskets originally were less guns and more mini-cannons. If you can think of a way to use gunpowder with destroying the firearm in the process then that would still be more effective. $\endgroup$
    – BMS21
    Commented Aug 3, 2017 at 9:46

There is a lot of focus in the answers about a chemical explosion projectile thrower. In our world, this is common because it's relatively easy and seriously effective, but it requires metals.

There are so many other lethal possibilities out there that don't require metals though.

The lack of metal necessitates that your people will be in the stone age for a very, very long time. In those days, the club was king. Just a good ol length of wood with a knob on the end. Lash a stone to the end, you get the primitive mace. Don't underestimate the mace. The kingly scepter, when you get down to it, is really just a shiny mace. Anyway, there are all kinds of things you can do with rocks to make them sharp.

Ranged weapons are easy. the bow, the sling, the Atl Atl, just picking up a rock and throwing it hard. These are going to be the weapon of choice pretty much forever, or until your people figure out how to refine the ores and metal salts.

Now we come to chemical propelled missiles. Why rely on throwing a lump of something faster than the speed of sound? Volatile substances are dangerous for many more reasons than that. If something can go Boom it can be weaponized. Clay pot grenades. Other kinds of bombs. A cloud of flour dust creates an absolutely terrifying explosion. Flamethrowers are very easy.

If you must absolutely have something menacing that uses gunpowder, Check out the Korean Hwacha.

I suspect that as you civilization advances, you are going to see a different track in warfare than our own. Yes, hand to hand weapons will be there, but you are probably going to get a lot of developments in poisons and flammables. I would also suspect a greater degree of sophistication in Animal breeding and training. We might actually see a ride-able combat bear.

Could be fun


Would there be any weapons that we don't have, but this world would?

Let's consider one of the greatest weapons of the bronze age that was overshadowed by the later invention of gunpowder: Greek Fire.

Some of the greatest advancements in weapon technology are based on potential energy storage beyond just the high ground and stronger warriors. The crossbow, Greek fire, the air rifle and gunpowder allowed a warrior of lesser strength and skill to overcome warriors of greater skill, but lesser numbers.

With an extreme lack metal tools, most structures and forts would be made of wood and not cut stone. Thus Greek Fire would be as, if not more, devastating than gunpowder grenades.

To counter Greek Fire people would experiment with fireproofing, such as armor made from Asbestos, wool, oak, plaster and later Nomex.

Military tactics could evolve quickly. The bronze age phalanx formation, which continued to Napoleon and the American Civil Wars, used masses of soldiers working close together, and when one falls another takes their place. With Greek Fire, the fallen warrior is on fire. Also Greek fire can splash and is sticky. Thus the tight formations of a hundred or more men would be abandoned for trench warfare and squad tactics.


What time are we thinking about?

My thoughts regarding weaponry would be the following, as you move through history:

The bow and arrow (and related weapons) would be king for much longer than in our world. Artillery would probably consist of large bows and catapults; the catapults would become increasingly deadly with the advent of explosive payloads. Rockets would likely develop a little faster as weapons due to a lack cannons.

The really big revolution though would come with the advent of higher-technology plastics. With the likes of carbon fibre and kevlar, guns as we know them (albeit rather more expensive) would start to become possible - and probably create a sudden leap in lethality, as any civilisation able to make such plastics wouldn't be starting at the musket but straight in at modern weapons.

However, how long it would take humanity to successfully make plastics in the absence of metals is a much more complex question, I'd certainly imagine that it would be a lot slower. Could the industrial revolution happen at all without metal?

  • $\begingroup$ I will consider anything progressing up to current day technology, if plausible. $\endgroup$
    – Aric
    Commented Aug 3, 2017 at 11:31
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    $\begingroup$ remember it wouldn't be easy to make "carbon fibre and kevlar" without metal tools and machinery. Raymond E. Feist Tsurani world has a low metal content and adapted to it (but it is not very hard science ;) ). It's very likely development would not be somewhat parallel to ours. $\endgroup$
    – ZioByte
    Commented Aug 3, 2017 at 12:07
  • $\begingroup$ Yes, that was the point I was making in my third paragraph $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 3, 2017 at 12:08
  • $\begingroup$ One wonders how you will refine plastics without metals or petroleum products where most plastics originate. I know you can make them organically, but the kind you're talking about generally come from refined petroleum. $\endgroup$
    – gwally
    Commented Aug 3, 2017 at 17:12

Force trauma is how most wars are fought in our world, but in yours I believe an emphasis on organics would come into play. Poisons, venoms, and diseases would prove relatively easy to make, and fairly effective for some protection, battles, and wars.

This style of combat, however, is slow. Force trauma can disable an active attacker, but poisons take time to act.

Therefore the style of warring might be more akin to cloak and dagger arrangements - spying, slowly poisoning, injecting poisons from afar using arrows, spears,or other ranged weapons.

People would still use wood and stone for close combat, but I suspect an emphasis on poisons would come into play much more than we have seen in our society.


You have calculated things ghastly incorrectly. The technological development of these people would never reach the medieval era. Metal has been the primary fuel driving the technological evolution. Without metal, these people would be stuck in something between the dark and neolithic ages.

You are right that battering rams can be built with wood and stone. But how are you going to cut the wood so precisely? With obsidian knives and axes, right? Yes you can, but obsidian blades get blunt very quickly and you have to chip them off again and again very soon until they get too thin to be useful anymore. Plus, obsidian is a rare substance, found only in volcanic regions. Read about the technological level of the Aztecs and Mayans. That should give you some insight into how advanced (or not) a civilization can get without metal. And then again, Aztecs and Mayans did have pure gold and silver to use, and in the past, had evolved Asian people no farther back in time than 12000 years ago or so.

Anyway, that was a tangential discussion about how advanced your people can get. Now back to the topic of warfare without metal.

Melee Weapons

Talk about wooden clubs. The royals and officers would have their clubs spiked with obsidian and rock. That is going to be your primary war weapon at close range.

Another weapon would be short leather whip, with shards of sharp rock and obsidian glued to it.

Ranged Weapons

Atlatls would be very common for launching javelins. While atlatls usually tend to decrease the accuracy when used for maximum range, a whole legion of atlatl throwers would do devastating damage as hundreds of atlatls are launched from distances of about 100 - 150 meters from both sides.

Also, there might be legions of people adept in throwing knives. While the range of throwing knives is far restricted than those of javelins, they would still be used for sudden hit and run tactics and guerilla attacks.

Yet another weapon which would get a lot of importance is the blowpipe and dart. Accurate, but having short range, it would be another weapon of choice for guerilla attacks and diversion tactics.

The bow and arrow would (obviously) be the most powerful and accurate weapon. It would obviously be impossible to develop the powerful modern composite bows, but classical composite bows such as Mongolian and Turkish would be possible. These would require a lot of time and effort to build, but would be highly prized weapons of choice in a war. Considering that metal is not available, arrowheads would be either made of hardwood, horn, thick plant thorns or carefully chipped rock.


Poison would be the secret to winning wars. Fast acting, debilitating (in a battle, fast action is more important than lethality) poison recipies (such as those incorporating aconite and strychnine) would be kept secret and highly prized.

Poison would be applied to all types of range weapons, javelin and arrow heads and on the ends of darts. Wars might be decided not on the basis of numbers, but on the basis of which party has faster acting poisons.


I don't think your people would be able to make clean, factory grade gunpowder, because of the requirement of hydraulic press, which can practically only be made with metal. Your folk could concoct a crude mixture of black powder (potash nitrate and coal), but the type required for use in canons would be impossible.

It might be possible to make some type of a very crude (and extremely short lived) canon or matchlock guns, but that too, is extremely unlikely as making smooth holes in long, thick logs is extremely difficult and error-prone effort in a metal-less world. Those people would not have the pipes available easily to start experimenting with them in the first place, to invent canon.

Black powder would be quite useful in bringing down fortifications though. And in guerilla attacks where it would be used as distraction device and to blow up enemies in ambush attacks.


I think that without metal you get tech levels similar to aztecs and Mayans. There is one material that would do wonders for your world: nanocellulose

The properties of nanocellulose are listed below: • Lightweight • Stiffer than Kevlar® • Electrically conductive • Non-toxic • The crystalline form is transparent, and gas impermeable • It can be produced in large quantities in a cost-effective manner • It has a very high tensile strength - 8 times that of steel • It is highly absorbent when used as a basis for aerogels or foams. • The raw material - cellulose - is the most abundant polymer on earth


it's production process, as described in the article is quite easy and it's highly cheap, with at modern currency values it being only a few dollars per pound, cheaper than steel.

Your people could make light, efficient body armor that would be able to withstand nearly any weapon an enemy can throw at it including even firearms.

It is transparent so you can create windows and doors that are nearly impervious. It can even possibly make optics and telescopes.

You could create a tissue like film and use it to dress wounds.

You could make a form of paper.

versions of it are edible.

If you look at this wikepedia article and go to the applications section it will show you hundreds of other uses: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nanocellulose#Applications


The Māori people of New Zealand used non-metal weapons prior to the arrival of European settlers.

They used wood, stone, bone and other materials to form various weapons.

The Taiaha (fighting staff) and the Patu (club) are probably the most well known, but there are others.

I don't believe the Māori used archery though it would certainly be possible to make arrowheads using stone, bone or teeth.

This link should give you a little more information: https://teara.govt.nz/en/riri-traditional-maori-warfare/page-3

It might be possible to carve small cannons out of rock but I doubt they would withstand much explosive force without failing.

There may be some way to use weights and pulleys to increase distance and power of ranged siege weaponry, but I've no idea how this could be accomplished.

Perhaps balloons could be used somehow.


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