There is a lot of talk, books, and science about the development of iron into increasing qualities and types of steel, but I do not see the same attention given to bronze. This is not counting the development from copper into bronze near the start of the bronze age, as that is commonly taught in some detail. However, such articles often stop at the point of the development of bronze, and so give the impression that once they had bronze, it never got better. Or at least, it is left rather mysterious as to how much better it got through history.

By the end of the bronze age, around 500 to 300 BC, did bronze metallurgical quality peak (assuming it did not reach peak quality earlier)? Or did bronze continue to get better and stronger, even in the iron age?

As an example, was bronze of a far higher quality in the modern era, with fewer impurities, and higher strengths and tolerances? Or was it very similar to ancient examples of the metal?

  • 4
    I'm not really able to write a proper answer right now, but there are far fewer impurities in modern bronze alloys, and the alloy composition is much more tightly controlled than they were in the Bronze Age. Those impurities are one of the ways we can identify where Bronze artefacts were made. You may find Metallurgy in Bronze Age archaeology of interest. Commented Mar 18, 2019 at 1:46
  • There are also a lot of bronze alloys developed for specalized applications, especially where corrosion is a problem. For instance, the phosphor bronze alloys used in ship propellors: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phosphor_bronze
    – jamesqf
    Commented Mar 18, 2019 at 5:20
  • Because bronze for practical purposes of the time didn't really get better. Bronze was expensive, but the only metal/alloy that could be used for hard tool/weapons. The metallurgy of iron had a much bigger improvement (due to several unique properties of iron), from an essentially useless metal to a highly practical, cheap material.
    – Greg
    Commented Mar 20, 2019 at 9:32
  • That appears to contradict @sempaiscuba 's comment, Greg. Thanks to sempaiscuba for the article, by the way, it seems to be just what I was looking for. Would love to see an answer if you feel like posting one. Commented Mar 22, 2019 at 3:43

2 Answers 2


Not an expert, but the main improvements were in the forge and specially, the fundition process. Making big swords requires much more molten material than a small knife, so the ancient metallurgists worked specially in improving these. At the end the forges became large enough and, critically, hot enough to melt iron minerals, and thus bronze was abandoned for iron and steel.

Remember: iron replaced bronze not because it was better but because it was cheaper. Bronze swords were still used by the upper-class for several centuries well into the iron age - until steel was perfected enough. First iron swords were brittle, while good bronze ones (the ones properly aloyed with tin) were not. The biblical giant Goliath used a bronze armor and an iron sword, which states clearly which metal was thought to be better to protect your life, and which was cheap and easily replaceable*.

(*) To be more precise, making thin flat layers of iron to make an armor was a technique not yet mastered in the early iron age. Doing that with bronze isn't easier, but bronze works were a mature technology by then.

  • 1
    You can see the same "iron is cheap, bronze is better" progression in the development of cannons: up until the mid-1800s, high-quality cannons were made of bronze, while iron cannons were the cheap substitute. (In the mid-1800s, people developed ways to cast large pieces of steel, rendering both bronze and iron cannons obsolete.)
    – Mark
    Commented Mar 22, 2019 at 0:31

Let's start with your last question:

was bronze of a far higher quality in the modern era

Of course, and you answered it yourself

with fewer impurities, and higher strengths and tolerances

you can add to that: and much better temperature control.

Metallurgists may not agree with me, but the difference between ancient bronze and modern bronze is not that big, for all practical purposes.

The difference between iron and steel is big. A steel sword is stronger and certainly less brittle than an iron sword. A modern bronze sword can be somewhat sharper/stronger than an ancient bronze sword, but you need an expert to tell the difference.

  • 1
    But the difference is that in the modern world (and leaving out historical recreations &c) we don't use bronze for swords - or for other applications where steel (or aluminum, titanium, composites &c) work better. We engineer it for specific uses like bushings, ship propellors, spark-free tools, musical instruments where its properties are superior.
    – jamesqf
    Commented Mar 20, 2019 at 17:05

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