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The first known knockers were made out of wrought iron. These simple ornaments consisted of a thick ring and a plate which were used in the 17th and 18th centuries throughout North America and Europe. Human faces (not ghastly like Jacob Marley) an animal faces were popular designs that are still used today. The craftsmanship on some of these knockers was elaborate enough to compare to the most-polished sculpture. Basically the purpose is to save the knuckles of visitors. Although they mainly serve as decoration they are still made of brass pewter iron or stainless steel to be durable enough to withstand outdoor elements. Plus they must be heavy enough to make a sound when they are tapped against a door. Cast iron styles have been favorites for a long time for their simplicity and sturdiness. They are also good for complimenting a Western theme. Pewter is another popular material.
The holes being small due to smaller diameter mounting hardware is easily fixed with a drill. If the holes are to far apart or to close this is another matter. The distance between the holes is called the Bolt Center or BC dimension. There is a reason for this seemingly odd name. You want the bolt to go through the center of the hole so this is the point that you would mark the door to be drilled. The problem you run into when replacing an existing door knocker is the holes are already drilled through your door. On the outside the holes can be covered by the knocker itself but on the inside they are exposed.
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Origins of door knockers A door knocker is an item of door furniture that allows people outside a house to alert those inside to their presence. It has a part fixed to the door and a part (usually metal) which is attached to the door by a hinge that is lifted and used to strike a plate fitted to the door making a noise. The strike plate if present would be supplied and fitted with the knocker. Door knockers are often ornate but may be no more than a simple fitting with a metal bob or ring. Many older period houses and mansions often have intricate knockers in the shape of human heads or mythical beasts. The earlier designs were based on statues that would stand in front of ancient Greek houses. These statues were created with distorted grotesque features and were thought to be used to ward of malignant spirits and witches.