Weapons of the Bronze Age: An Expanding Arsenal

Yetholm Bronze Shield | 1200-700 BCE | Courtesy of the British Museum

The Bronze age was a time of change in terms of warfare; however, what changed was not necessarily tactics or how wars were fought, but instead a change of arsenal. In this period of human history, we see the creation of new a weapon, the use of bronze to enhance weapons that already existed. In terms of the additions, the newest weapon that was added to humanity’s arsenal in the Bronze age was the sword.

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Bronze sword collection | Courtesy of the Museum of Scotland

The first swords began to emerge around 1600 BCE, and many bronze age swords that have been recovered have a similar story to tell; one that speaks of heavy use in combat as seen by the damages in the blade and hilts as well as evidence of much resharpening and repair.1 In fact, one interesting discovery, which at first was rather strange, is that it has often been found that the damage on many of the swords that have been recovered typically have damage on only one side of the weapon; however, it was found that this was a shared trait among the many recovered swords. The answer to this mystery was not a hard one to find. Take for example a pencil; one will typically, without even noticing it, hold a pencil the same way every time one picks it up. After a while one may come to discover that the pencil will become dull, requiring it to be sharpened. The same thing will happen when using a sword; out of habit, the wielder will hold his sword the same way when striking or blocking while in combat, which will result in the dulling of the blade as well as the one-sided damage to the weapon requiring constant upkeep.2

All weapons share one thing in common: they are an extension of the human body. To elaborate, take for example the sword. A sword would be an extension of the arm allowing for a much greater attacking reach through slashing and thrusting movements. There is also one thing that swords, spears, and axes have in common. They can be used with one hand, and the obvious tool for the other hand would be a shield. It is understandable that one might just consider a shield as a piece of armor; but on the contrary, a shield is actually a defensive weapon, and when paired with a one-handed offensive weapon, the wielder could repeat a series of attack and defense maneuvers, such as slash and thrust then block or side step to avoid a blow, and repeat. One weapon by itself already enhances the human body’s capacity for combat, but add another, and at that one with defensive capabilities, and a skilled soldier becomes a one man army.

Shields came in many different shapes, sizes, and forms; the shield made of wood, for example was capable of taking hits and had a good resistance to blades. The leather shield was not much different from its wood counterpart though it was very light and more flexible; however, shields made of bronze had a much higher rate of survival than their organic made counterparts. They had much higher resistance to damage and breakage, ultimately leading to the wielder being in slightly less danger than if he were using lesser shields. Yet with the defensive advantage that bronze shields had over wood or leather came a slight drawback, a shared trait with any bronze weapon; they had additional weight to them.3 This additional weight would have hindered mobility just a bit compared to weapons not made of bronze, but that was a fair price to pay for a better defense and survival rate in the long run.

The bronze age would eventually come to an end, and weapons would be made of iron as the following era’s name suggests, the Iron Age. From this point on weapons would continue to evolve, warfare would be revolutionized by the Assyrians, the Greeks, and the Romans in the following age. However, one thing will always stay the same; that is that war would be a constant occurrence throughout human history for many reasons, and humanity’s ever growing arsenal would continue to expand.

  1. Barry Molloy, “For Gods or Men? A Reappraisal of the Function of European Bronze Age Shields,” Antiquity 83, no. 322 (December 2009): 1053.
  2. K. Kristiansen, “The Tale of the Sword – Swords and Swordfighters in Bronze Age Europe,” Oxford Journal of Archaeology 21, no. 4 (November 2002): 323.
  3. Barry Molloy, “For Gods or Men? A Reappraisal of the Function of European Bronze Age Shields,” Antiquity 83, no. 322 (December 2009): 1053-1055.
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32 Comments

  • This is a really neat read overall and although these topics tend to bore me, this one stood out. Looking at how far technology has come, and especially warfare technology, we have reach scary heights with how we kill each other. While the use of bronze was a giant leap, it seems very primitive compared to weapons that we have now. Thanks for informing us on the topic!

  • No matter what time humans are in, and what weaponry they are using, there is always a drive to find the next tactical advantage. From musket to modern semi-automatic firearms and to the next and so on; there is always improvement. Bronze took over the world when it was first put into place, and it was a revolutionary discovery. Military advantages have so many things involved in them, and more advanced weaponry is a key component. As you said, iron soon took over as the dominant weapon of the world. Bronze had an important part in human and military history.

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