Alternative metals for armor?

I'm researching for a fantasy I want to write. Looking for alternative sources of metal you could forge armor with. I'm afraid I don't know too much about metallurgy, so I'm turning to the research forum.

I'll start by listing some metals, and maybe you could tell me if they would have been practical, or workable enough. Since this would be in a fantasy world, let's assume there's enough quantity of the metal, and it can be easily enough mined for. Bonus points if someone can find me a metal that is naturally reflective or colorful. I will also take non-metal suggestions if you have them, as long as they weren't used historically, but theoretically could have been.

  • Rhenium
  • Rhodium
  • Nickel
  • Titanium
  • Tungsten
  • Iridium
  • Zirconium
  • Palladium


Fiery Keeper of the Hat
I haven't seen anything about armors, but I've seen some information about swords. And if you want a realistic metal alternative to iron, you're looking at an alloy, something that's still 90%+ iron and the rest a mixture of metals like chrome or titanium.

Metals have a bundle of properties, some of which complement each other and some of which are at odds. Iron is the one that has the right balance for weapons and armor. The others are going to be all wrong in terms of weight, hardness, flexibility or brittleness. The best you can do is create an iron-based alloy that shifts the properties of the armor in a subtle direction one way or another, making the armor a little more or less flexible, hard or brittle as suits your needs.

Which is more or less the same thing you're doing when you add carbon to iron to create steel.
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Meteoric iron has a pedigree in weapon creation. It was one of the few ways the inuit could get metal and I know that knives have been manufactured from it. Similaly there are other weapons around the world known to have been forged with meteoric metal.
metal, iron, & nickel in meteorites 1

Most effective armour would have been alloys rather than pure metals - and without a huge industrial base you're largely restricted to those metals that are commonest in the crust. So lumps of metal that have fallen from space would be a good way of getting a large nugget of something different as well.

But yes (as Lunaairis says) - why just metal for armour? You only have to look at Samauri armour to see good alternatives (such as bamboo). in fact any well laminated wood in thin layers works quite well and is much lighter than metal.
I thought about wood and paper armor after I wrote the post. It would be interesting to see armors based on that, maybe from a country that doesn't have a lot of metal. Or maybe more interestingly, they have some cultural or religious taboo against using metal.


Myth Weaver
I'm sure I've read that Baleen was used to give extra reinforcement and shape to leather armour [while letting it remain flexible I would guess]. I know it's used to add strength to some types of bow.


Queen of Titania
There is a wonderful, fascinating metal that apparently nobody has featured in a Fantasy story in our days, a metal that was the most important of the world for thousands of years but now has become almost forgotten: Bronze.

I am a great admirer of bronze, because there is something in this metal that makes it completely different to steel: Its beautiful golden color, its superb resistance to corrosion, the way that bronze is created and poured into clay molds to craft knives, swords, artwork and so many other things...

I know that many History books state confidently that bronze weapons were too soft to be used effectively. They sell the idea that a bronze sword would bend immediately in battle and would not hurt anyone, like it was made of cardboard or something... That is very far from the truth, because both weapons and armor made of bronze are very effective.

So if you are searching for alternative metals for Warfare purposes in your Fantasy stories, I would recommend bronze. You would need to have abundant Copper and Tin sources in your world instead of having abundant Iron, but that is easy to explain and very believable from a reader's point of view.

Mr. Steve

Just chiming in here with materials:

I was actually doing my own research on metallurgy for my own writing. Depending on the level of technology and/or magic in your world most of the metals listing in the OP would not be workable with medieval-era techniques and tools (for example, no medieval furnace could get hot enough to melt tungsten into workable ingots.)

One of the threads/articles I found actually detailed the specific problems of using titanium. Besides being essentially unworkable with medieval techniques, assuming it could be worked titanium would actually not be good for armor because, while stronger than steel, it is too light. Part of the protectiveness of armor is its mass and its ability to absorb and cushion the force of a blow. Lightweight, strong titanium gauntlets might prevent one from having their hand cleaved off in a fight, but the impact of the blow would almost certainly leave their hand little more than a useless bag of freshly-shattered bones.

Obviously, this is just my own .02 of research. It's fantasy, anything is possible. That's what I ultimately did when I essentially used titanium anyway in my own writing because its silvery luster is something fit for a nation's champion.
Too-light metal might still be best for making extra layers of armor work. Or for say a precision thrusting weapon, at least if you could fix titanium's problem of being soft, or a sword that wanted reach and speed more than power; otherwise weapons need some weight to hit hard.

Or, it might not have to be metal. Some of my favorite world ideas say that all the best enhanced materials are monsters' hides, bones, and fangs. (One beastie's jaw makes a whole quiver of super-arrowheads.)


Don't underestimate leather armor. It's surprisingly tough. I'll also add a vote for bronze. Greeks continued to use bronze armor once they started using iron bladed weapons. It's easier to work in large sections than iron and provided pretty good protection that, as has been pointed out, won't rust.


Another vote for bronze here.

Nonetheless I wonder if there's much point to searching for alternative metals to begin with. Unless it's critical to the plot that someone has stronger armor or weapons than the tried-and-true classic metals, I don't see why it would make a dramatic difference story-wise if people in this setting work with titanium instead of iron. I'm guessing the OP's interest in this topic has to do with choosing something that sounds more exotic than the norm.

Not to mention, most fancy metal names (e.g. all those ending with -ium) sound incongruously modern to my ears.

Whatever you decide on should be an alloy as they are superior to the base metals in most cases. Traditionally these would be alloys with the largest proportion being iron (makes wrought iron and steel, and stainless if you can find chromium), copper (makes bronze with tin and other trace metals or arsenic) or zinc (makes brass with copper added.)

Probably the important thing to realise is that none of these alloys were consistent. Each smithy would have made it's own metal based on the skill / knowledge of the smith and whatever minerals were available. Often you would get alloys with half a dozen different metals mixed together. The recipe is going to vary and they were often fairly well protected - like the secret herbs and spices in chicken.

Instead of worrying about the specific details, I'd leave it more general, and look instead at naming the alloy whatever it happens to be, after the smithy or the region. E.g. Wintergreen bronze or Toledo Steel. And if you want colour I'd add some copper - it doesn't have to be much. Silver will add some shine and sparkle. But most of the minerals are dull grey. Aluminium is a good additive if you want to save weight, and bauxite is relatively common. Chromium was sometimes used, the ore chromite was found in some places, and together with carbon you could get a reasonably good quality stainless steel.

The other minerals you mentioned are mostly very rare and some like titanium, very hard for a middle age smithy to smelt.

As to the value of bronze I'd say yes. It's actually a good alloy for armour and weapons, if mixed with tin and not an arsenic or phospheric bronze. Brass is probably in many ways superior but heavier. However the iron alloys ie. steels won out historically because of availability of the mineral iron.

Cheers, Greg.


Armor needs to be considered in partnership with the weapons being used. Some materials are better protection against blows from blunt weapons, others are better at protection from sharp weapons made of particular materials (e.g., sharp fire-hardened pointed stick v. sharp Toledo steel rapier.) But generally, your choices for pre-high-tech manufacture are fabric (silk, felt, etc.) leather, leather & fabric, wood or bamboo (with or without a metal, leather, or fabric component), copper, bronze (alloy of copper & tin), iron, and steel. The metal can be formed of scales attached to a foundation of leather or fabric (scale mail), chainmail, plates attached to a foundation of leather or fabric, or single plates covering larger portions of the body. The cost and difficulty of manufacture of the various types means that it's perfectly reasonable to have more than one kind of armor in the same region at the same time. Armor must not only protect the wearer, but allow the wearer to move enough to wield his/her own weapon and continue to do so for the length of a typical engagement. Heavier attached metal pieces require a sturdier foundation...and they weigh more and tire out the fighter faster.

For colored armor, there are techniques of coloring the common "armor" metals (it's not the metal's base color, but a treatment of the surface, which may be a combination of a coating and fire, or paint. Shininess of metal armor isn't a problem--you just polish it.


Macrame. Not good at absorbing blunt trauma, but just try cutting through it. ;)

Titanium actually makes pretty good armor, even if it lacks the inertia of steel or bronze: there's a lot to be said for spreading out the blow over a large impenetrable surface area (heh). (In case anyone was wondering: yes, I've worn armor made from it. Specifically, gauntlets. Worked just fine for me in SCA combat. With a thinner gauge than we usually use in steel ones, no less.) The problem with titanium–or aluminum, not mentioned by the OP–is the extraction processes far exceed anything available in a pre-industrial setting… barring magical ones, at least. Tungsten faces similar though possibly slightly more surmountable difficulties–all [sic] you need is to be able to produce pure fluorine gas, and you're set. Until you try to make use of the stuff and discover your forges are nowhere near hot enough, at least. :p

Nearly all the other elements are too soft and/or brittle by themselves, though some are useful in alloying–here, again, assuming the setting's alchemical practices are up to the task of even identifying them in the first place, let alone of extracting them and then creating consistent alloys with them. Also, most of them are spectacularly rare, at least on Earth: four are significantly rarer than gold–their combined annual global production is only 1/10th that of gold–and unlike gold don't occur in neatly-differentiated (and thus easily noticed) veins. Your world, of course, may differ.

As for the names: just change 'em. I've made use of an alloy called "titan bronze," for instance, leaving the composition unspecified, allowing the reader to draw whatever conclusions seemed appropriate. Or, since many elements were named for the regions they were initially discovered in (a common practice to this day for minerals), call them "X steel." Your world's inhabitants probably don't know the stuff ain't iron anyway, so why not?
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