What is the best steel for knives? That is a nearly impossible question to answer. A knife can serve many purposes, and only the owner can decide whether the blade metal is correct for his or her circumstances.
Do you want a blade that holds a sharp edge? How about one with a high resistance to corrosion? What about a blade so strong it can be used for prying?
There are literally dozens, if not hundreds, of steel alloys that have been used for making knives. The precise alloy used by a manufacturer will reflect their intention for that knife’s purpose.
A survival knife (like these examples), will not typically use the same kind of steel that a purpose-built tactical fighting knife will. Therefore, the purpose of the knife will dictate what steel is the best for any particular design.
What You Should Be Looking For in a Knife
When choosing an alloy, a knife maker will often consider the following properties of the steel:
- Ability to take an edge
- Edge retention
- Corrosion resistance
The ability to take an edge is what many people consider to be a defining aspect of how sharp a knife can be. However, blade construction as well as the angle of the blade grind also impact the perceived sharpness of a knife.
Edge retention tells one how long a knife can be used before being sharpened again. All knives dull with use. However, some will dull more rapidly than others. Often a knife that is more difficult to sharpen will hold an edge longer.
Toughness of the steel describes the metal’s ability to resist chipping and cracking from impacts. Strength, on the other hand, describes the resilience of a metal not to be permanently deformed when cutting hard objects.
While not absolute, toughness and strength tend to be inversely proportional. In other words, the stronger the steel, the more likely it will be to crack or chip. Likewise, a very tough steel will not be very strong. This correlation is not completely true in all cases, but it is a good rule of thumb.
Corrosion resistance is simply the metal’s ability to resist stains and rust.
In addition to the metals themselves, knife makers can apply treatments to improve some aspect of the metal’s performance. For example, an oxidation finish could be applied to the surface of a knife to increase resistance to corrosion.
Most Popular Steels
Most popular knife manufacturers are using several types of steels in their production. Most of those steels fall into three classes of steel: tool steel, stainless steel, and carbon steel. There are many other kids of steel, but they are used less frequently for blades.
Tool steel is a general steel product that ranges in quality from average to very good. While not as popular as stainless steel, tool steel is used in quite a few knife blades.
Stainless steel is probably the most popular kind of steel used in modern knife manufacturing. It will have a chromium content of at least 13%, which gives it a high degree of corrosion resistance. Stainless steel will not rust and discolor if left in a harsh environment. With normal care, SS should last a lifetime
There are many different stainless steel alloys, including the popular 420, 440, AUS-6, AUS-8, ATS-34 and others.
Carbon steel blades are popular with many people who need a durable knife. They are easy to sharpen and are very tough. Carbon steel was very popular in the production of knives in years past. However, carbon steel lacks minimal corrosion resistance. But it is lighter than stainless steel, which makes it great for backpacking, EDC, and bug-out scenarios.
Best Steels for Survival and Tactical Knives
The most popular steels used in survival and tactical knives are carbon steel (1095-HC) and stainless steal (AUS-8 and 154CM). But each have their pros and cons. The closest to perfection, though, is the 154CM.
1095-HC: This type of high-carbon steel is tough and has excellent edge retention. It can easily be resharpened very fast. The only downside is that it isn’t rust-resistant so you’ll need to take good care of it. Its cousin, the D2, is more rust-resistant but less durable, which is why D2 would make a great steel only for EDC knives.
AUS-8 is a type of tough low-carbon stainless steel developed by the Japanese at Aichi Steel. Due to its high chromium content, it is more rust-resistant than most blade steels out there. It is also a durable steel and can get a very sharp edge when sharpened properly. The only downside is the steel’s thickness which makes it very hard to sharpen. Some knife manufacturers heat-treat the blade or enrich it with vanadium to fix this inconvenience.
154CM is a special stainless steel with extra molybdenum content than a standard 440C steel that costs a lot more than the two previous steels on our list but it is worth every penny. The 154CM manages to combine all the strong points of both stainless steel and carbon steel: it is rust resistant, holds an edge longer, and is really tough.
The downsides: higher price and harder to resharpen. Other premium steels you should consider when buying a survival or tactical knife is VG-10 and 440V.
The Bottom Line
So, if you are still wondering what is the best steel for knives, the answer is “it depends.” It all depends on what performance you are looking for from your blade. Carefully examine the reviews on the knife you are considering purchasing and decide if that steel will meet your demands.
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