The Ultimate Guide To Choosing The Best Knife Steel

blacksmith making knife

The looming question is: what is the best knife steel?

I'm sure you already know this...

Knives are one of the most versatile tools that someone can have on their person for any day-to-day projects. They are especially critical in survival situations.

In fact, there has probably never been a time where you were relieved to not have your knife on you.

Depending on your situation and task, some knives might be better suited than others for the job.

Here's the thing:

One of the most important, and often-ignored, qualities to look for in a knife is the type of the steel that is used to form the blade.

While knives are one of the most useful tools, having a knife with poor steel or steel not best suited for the types of jobs you plan on doing can be a headache.

And that's not all...

It’s near impossible to label the best steel.

Why you ask?

Because each type has their own unique and useful qualities.

However, we can definitely separate the numerous types into various tiers of overall quality and group them by the unique qualities they possess.

And that's exactly what we are going to do in this guide.

As we go through the different types of steel, we will grade them on several different properties based on their elemental composition.

Be aware as you navigate through the guide that a lot more goes into how the blade will perform for each specific knife maker.

A lot depends on how the manufacturer uses the particular steel to make the knife. How is the edge and blade designed and how well did the manufacturer heat-treat the steel?

These variables have tremendous impact on the quality of the blade. Steel not ranked high could be made great in the right hands and high-ranking steel can be turned into garbage in the wrong hands.

Top 5 Knife Steel Table

For your convenience, we gathered the top 5 steels from this guide, based on a total overall score as well as popularity out of all of the ones that we will cover in detail. The highest possible score is 60.

 Knife

Example

Steel

Type

Pro

Con

Score

Price

benchmade 765

M390

Retains Edge

Expensive

42

$$$$

firstedge 5150

Elmax

Wear Resistant

Expensive

40

$$$$

TAC Force TF-705

440c

Corrosion Resistant

Not As Tough

28

$

Buck 119 Special

420 HC

Easy To Sharpen

Wears Out Easily

26

$$

ESEE 5P

1095

Very Rigid

Corrodes Easily

22

$$$

There is a more detailed and sortable table further down below with all of the steels included based on individual properties.

Before we move into how steel type pertains to knives and their qualities, lets take a look at the two main categories of steel.

Carbon Steel vs Stainless Steel

A frequent question is what is steel made of?

The easiest answer is iron and typically carbon. However, other elements can be added in for different properties that may be desired in the end result.

what is steel made of

We can break down different knife metals into two major categories of carbon steel and stainless steel. We should note that stainless steel also contains carbon.

In the case of carbon steel the two main ingredients are iron and carbon.

Most carbon steels have other trace elements as well such as manganese, sulfur, and phosphorus.

Generally, carbon steel knives are harder and maintain an edge better than stainless steel.

As we will see, the amount of carbon that is added can vary and change the composition and properties of the steel such as the hardness, toughness, wear resistance, and edge retention.

Stainless steel is an alloy of iron, carbon, and chromium. Like carbon steel, other trace metals can be added to give a blade different qualities.

Other common elements found in stainless steel include vanadium, molybdenum, and tungsten.

Stainless steel blades have excellent corrosion resistance and are generally easier to sharpen than carbon steel blades.

Technological advances in metallurgy have provided new steels that take the best properties of carbon and stainless steel to produce incredible blades that deserve to be placed in a category of their own.

Rating Explanation Guide

So we just threw a lot of steel terms and elements your way and they are going to continue to be used. Here is a basic guide to what these terms mean and how the different elements impact steel properties.

Terms and Scoring

Holding an edge

After sharpening, how well does the blade stay sharp.

Corrosion Resistance

How well the blade resists rusting and other fouling.

Wear Resistance

How long will the blade remains usable and resists chipping and other abrasions.

Sharpening

How easy is it to get a uniform, fine edge on the blade after dulling has occurred.

Hardness

How well the blade can resist permanent changes in its shape. Too much hardness can lead to a brittle blade.

Toughness

How much energy the blade can absorb before fracturing. Too much toughness can lead to a blade easily warped.

Elements

Carbon

Carbon is included in all steel types. It is the main hardening ingredient. The higher the carbon content, the higher the hardness and wear resistance. Higher carbon also results in a less tough blade.

Chromium

Chromium alloyed with iron and carbon increases corrosion resistance. It also adds strength to the blade and in high enough levels decreases the toughness of the steel.

Manganese

This element alloyed with iron and carbon will increase the blades hardness and wear resistance.

Nickel

Adds toughness to the knife blade.

Silicon

Increases the strength of the blade.

Tungsten

Increases the blades wear resistance.

Vanadium

Increases the blades wear resistance and hardness.

Detailed Knife Steel Chart

The purpose of this table is to give you the opportunity to sort all of the steels based on whichever property you desire.

Reminder: from the criteria covered before, higher numbers means better performance for each category.

Click on the arrows above a column to sort. Numbers are: 0 = worst, 10 = best for the categories. The total max is 60.

Steel

Edge

Corr-

osion

Wear

Sharp-

ening

Hard-

ness

Tough-

ness

Total

S30V

7

7

7

3

7

2

33

440c

5

8

5

3

5

2

28

Elmax

8

9

9

3

8

3

40

D2

8

5

7

1

8

3

32

VG-10

8

8

8

6

7

3

40

1095

5

0

4

5

5

3

22

1095 Cro Van

6

1

5

3

5

3

23

Aus8

3

6

5

6

4

3

27

154CM

6

5

4

3

4

3

25

7cr17

3

3

3

3

4

3

19

440a

2

7

3

2

4

3

21

M390

9

9

9

3

8

4

42

S14c28n

5

6

5

5

4

4

29

8cr13mov

2

5

4

5

4

4

24

1075

4

0

3

5

4

4

20

420 HC

4

5

3

5

4

5

26

1050

3

1

2

7

3

6

22

1060

3

0

2

6

3

6

20

5160

4

2

3

2

3

6

20

420 SS

2

5

2

6

2

6

23

4034

2

4

2

4

3

7

22

Steel Type Details

Here we have the different types of steels and their details in numerical and alphabetical order.

1050 Steel

Holding an Edge: 3

Corrosion resistance: 1

Wear Resistance: 2

Sharpening: 7

Hardness: 3

Toughness: 6

Components: 0.50% carbon, 0.60%-0.90% manganese

1050 steel is used quite often in swords and other steel products that will be required to absorb lots of impact. 1050 is not normally used for knife blades, as the properties do not fit well with practical knife uses.

This type of steel is extremely easy to re-sharpen, but does not retain its edge well.

There is really no corrosion resistance, but we have given it one star compared to the other 10 series because of the lower carbon content.

If you need a knife that will be able to resist breaking from constant jarring impacts than this carbon steel might be beneficial, but for most knife uses this is not the steel to go with.

1060 Steel

Holding an Edge: 3

Corrosion resistance: 0

Wear Resistance: 2

Sharpening: 6

Hardness: 3

Toughness: 6

Components: 0.60% carbon, 0.60%- 0.90% manganese

1060 steel is also in the 10 series of carbon steels and contains a slight higher carbon content than the 1050. The increased carbon gives 1060 carbon steel a little more hardness than 1050.

This type is also found more in swords and machetes, but can also be found in some knives.

This steel is easy to sharpen and holds a decent edge, slightly better than 1050, but still lacks any corrosion resistance making upkeep essential.

1060 has it’s uses, but for a knife blade it is not the even in the top of the 10 series.

1075 Steel

Holding an Edge: 4

Corrosion resistance: 0

Wear Resistance: 3

Sharpening: 5

Hardness: 4

Toughness: 4

Components: 0.75% carbon, 0.40%- 0.70% manganese

Condor Bushlore

Examples: Condor Bushlore

1075 steel provides a nice balance in hardness and toughness and is also easy to sharpen, even in the field. 1075 steel holds an edge well and is cost efficient.

Like all the 10 series of carbon steel, there is no corrosion resistance.

For the price of knives made with this steel and the performance 1075 high carbon steel is a good knife blade steel general-purpose use, but other steels are better adapted for specific jobs.

1095 Cro Van Steel

Holding an Edge: 6

Corrosion resistance: 1

Wear resistance: 5

Sharpening: 3

Hardness: 5

Toughness: 3

Components: 0.95%-1.1% carbon, 0.30%- 0.60% manganese, 0.40%- 0.60% chromium, 0.25% nickel, 0.161% vanadium, 0.06% molybdenum

Examples: Becker BK2, KA-BAR USMC

This steel is similar to the 1095 series with the addition of chromium and vanadium providing this steel with extra hardness, wear resistance, and corrosion resistance.

Ka-bar Becker BK2

The addition of nickel provides the steel with extra toughness. It is definitely a popular favorite.

This steel is found in modern KA-BAR knives . The blades will often be powder coated for added corrosion resistance, which makes it much better.

The added hardness of this blade does make it slightly tougher to sharpen, but 1095 Cro Van holds an edge extremely well.

While this steel does contain chromium, it is still at a low enough percentage that care must be taken to prevent rusting.

This is a favorite steel blade for many hunters given the edge retention and hardness. It is also a great steal for fighting knives.

1095 Steel

Holding an Edge: 5

Corrosion resistance: 0

Wear resistance: 4

Sharpening: 5

Hardness: 5

Toughness: 3

Components: 0.90% carbon, 0.30%- 0.50% manganese

Examples: ESEE 5P, Ontario 499

For the 10 series carbon steel, 1095 is the best steel for knives.

ESEE 5P

Out of the 10 series, 1095 carbon steel will hold an edge for the longest period. Like other blades in this series proper care must be used to keep the blade from rusting.

This steel is also known for its hardness so if you plan on using the knife in abusive situations, it might be a knife blade that you consider.

This steel is often found in top of the line machetes.

1095 high carbon steel blades make excellent survival knives because of their hardness and durability.

These blades, when properly cared for can last a lifetime.

154CM Steel

Holding an Edge: 6

Corrosion resistance: 5

Wear resistance: 4

Sharpening: 3

Hardness: 4

Toughness: 3

Components: 1.05% carbon, 14.00% chromium, 0.50% manganese, 0.40%- 0.55% molybdenum

Examples: Ontario Black Bird SK-5

This is all-around good steel for knives, although it is beaten in each specific category by at least one different stainless steel.

Ontario Black Bird SK-5

Benchmade 154CM is used quite regularly in many knives produced by US manufactures.

154 CM can be difficult to get a good, uniform edge, but it does have excellent edge retention qualities and hardness.

If you expect high usage while in the field, the edge retention and durability make this an attractive knife blade.

It is important to note that there is a powder made form of this steel termed CPM 154. Powder formed steels usually give you an increase in attributes, but will be much more pricey.

4034 Steel

Holding an Edge: 2

Corrosion resistance: 4

Wear resistance: 2

Sharpening: 4

Hardness: 3

Toughness: 7

Components: 0.43%- 0.50% carbon, 12.50%- 14.50% chromium, 1.00% manganese

4034 stainless steel is low alloy steel. It is slightly resistant to corrosion, but has little to no hardness, wear resistance, or edge retention.

This steel is not preferred for quality knives.

420 Stainless Steel

Holding an Edge: 2

Corrosion resistance: 5

Wear resistance: 2

Sharpening: 6

Hardness: 2

Toughness: 6

Components: 0.15% carbon, 12.0%- 15.0% chromium, 1% manganese, 1% silicon

We will just come out and say it. Don’t look to 420 steel for a reliable knife blade.

It’s soft steel that has decent corrosion resistance and toughness, but traits to make it a good knife blade are lacking.

Its edge holding ability is low, but this type of blade is very cost efficient. One pro to this steel is it is easier to sharpen than a lot of other stainless steel used in knives although you will be doing a lot of sharpening.

420HC Stainless Steel

Holding an Edge: 4

Corrosion resistance: 5

Wear resistance: 3

Sharpening: 5

Hardness: 4

Toughness: 5

Components: 0.45% carbon, 0.80% manganese, 13.00% chromium, 0.80% silicon, <0.50% nickel

Examples: Buck 119, Gerber LMF II

This version of 420 stainless steel has a higher carbon (hc) content. Blades made with this steel will be harder to sharpen compared to the 420, but it will hold its edge for a longer period of time.

Buck 119 Special

The higher carbon content gives this blade increased hardness and wear resistance.

These characteristics, and the reasonable price, have made 420hc one of the more popular steels used for blades commercially.

420hc makes a decent knife blade, but just as a run-of-the-mill pocket knife. If hard and consistent use will be needed this blade comes up short.

440 Stainless Steel

There are two popular types covered next.

440a Stainless Steel

Holding an Edge: 2

Corrosion resistance: 7

Wear resistance: 3

Sharpening: 2

Hardness: 4

Toughness: 3

Components: 0.60%- 0.75% carbon, 16.0%-18.0% chromium, 1.0% manganese, 0.75% molybdenum, 1.0% silicon

440a steel is one of the most common steels used in cutlery. A steel snob will look down on this steel with disdain, but honestly, for the price it’s not a bad steel for casual use.

If you plan on using your knife extensively, you might want to look elsewhere on this list.

The blade doesn’t hold an edge very well and sharpening can be difficult without a high-end knife sharpener. It does exhibit excellent corrosion resistance and is a moderately hard blade.

440c Stainless Steel

Holding an Edge: 5

Corrosion resistance: 8

Wear resistance: 5

Sharpening: 3

Hardness: 5

Toughness: 2

Components: 0.95%-1.2% carbon, 16.0%-18.0% chromium, 1.0% manganese, 0.75% molybdenum, 1.0% silicon

Not too many years ago, 440 c steel was considered top of the line for knives. It is still excellent steel and provides a lot of qualities wanted in a durable knife.

The increased carbon content really sets this steel apart from the 440a. This blade exhibits excellent edge retention, corrosion resistance, and hardness.

440 c is still difficult to sharpen because of the high levels of chromium, but in general this is a great all purpose steel blade.

5160 Steel

Holding an Edge: 4

Corrosion resistance: 2

Wear resistance: 3

Sharpening: 2

Hardness: 3

Toughness: 6

Components: 0.56%- 0.64% carbon, 0.70%- 0.90% chromium, 0.15%- 0.3% silicon, 0.75%- 1.0% manganese

5160 steel is mainly used to make large knives and swords and other chopping blades. It is often used in a lot of springs that need to absorb a lot of impact.

For a knife blade, 5160 is similar to the qualities of a 1060 blade with a little extra wear resistance and hardness from the silicone and manganese and corrosion resistance from the chromium.

If you need a knife blade that will stand up to a lot of hacking and chopping, 5160 should do the trick.

7cr17 Steel

Holding an Edge: 3

Corrosion resistance: 3

Wear resistance: 3

Sharpening: 3

Hardness: 4

Toughness: 3

Components: 0.60%- 0.75% carbon, 7.0% chromium, 0.17% vanadium, 0.17% molybdenum

Examples: Smith and Wesson Border Guard 2 Rescue

7cr17 is Chinese produced and common steel used in several “budget blades”. Its composition is similar to 440a steel as we described earlier with a lot less chromium, making sharpening a little easier but less corrosion resistant.

If you're looking for a expendable pocket knife there is nothing wrong with 7cr17 steel, but you get what you pay for.

8cr13mov Steel

Holding an Edge: 2

Corrosion resistance: 5

Wear resistance: 4

Sharpening: 5

Hardness: 4

Toughness: 4

Components: 0.80% carbon, 13.00%- 14.5% chromium, 0.15% molybdenum, 0.10% vanadium, 0.20% nickel, 1.00% manganese, 1.00% silicon

Examples: Cryo and Cryo II

It is produced in China and is similar to the Japanese Aus8 stainless steel, although most knife enthusiasts will tell you the performance of this steel does not match up with Aus8 product.

Though it might fall short of the higher end steels, it’s a decent blade for the price and is a tough blade with decent corrosion resistance.

Aus 8 Steel

Holding an Edge: 3

Corrosion resistance: 6

Wear resistance: 5

Sharpening: 6

Hardness: 4

Toughness: 3

Components: 0.70%- 0.75% carbon, 13.0%-14.5% chromium, 0.10%- 0.26% vanadium, 0.49% nickel, 1.00% silicon, 0.5% manganese, 0.10%- 0.30% molybdenum

Examples: SOG Seal Pup

Aus 8 stainless steel is Japanese produced steel that is similar to the 440 series with performance and 8cr13mov with composition. It does not hold an edge well, despite the added vanadium, but it is extremely easy to sharpen.

SOG Seal Pup

Vanadium and nickel give blades made from this steel extra wear resistance and toughness compared to the 440 series.

Aus8 is well-rounded steel for knives giving you an easy to sharpen and rust resistant knife.

It will not compete with the higher end powder metal blades discussed later, but it’s a great pocket knife blade material for the price.

D2 Steel

Holding an Edge: 8

Corrosion resistance: 5

Wear resistance: 7

Sharpening: 1

Hardness: 8

Toughness: 3

Components: 1.5%- 1.6% carbon, 0.60% manganese, 11.0%- 13.0% chromium, 0.30% nickel, 1.10% vanadium, 0.70%- 1.20% molybdenum

The level of chromium in this blade is on the edge of carbon vs. stainless steel. D2 steel knives are not seen very often.

The problem is producing a decent edge on blades made of this material. D2 tool steel is also available.

The amount of carbon and vanadium makes this an extremely hard blade and the addition of nickel adds more toughness that would otherwise be lost due to the high carbon content.

This steel holds an edge well, but it is the most difficult steel to sharpen on this list. High levels of chromium provides good corrosion resistance, but not at the levels of the some other steels on the list.

Elmax Steel

Holding an Edge: 8

Corrosion resistance: 9

Wear resistance: 9

Sharpening: 3

Hardness: 8

Toughness: 3

Components: 1.7% carbon, 18.00% chromium, 0.30% manganese, 1.00% molybdenum, 0.80% silicon, 3.00% vanadium

Examples: FirstEdge 5150

The Elmax powdered steel, produced by Bohler-Uddenholm, is heralded as the best knife making steel available today.

firstedge 5150

There is no doubt it is a high quality stainless steel with incredible corrosion resistance.

The high carbon content makes this blade durable and holds an edge with the best steel blades on the market, but sharpening can be difficult for novices.

The powder process of producing this steel allows it to hold an edge well even with the high chromium content.

This is expensive steel and knives with Elmax blades are going to be up in the price range.

We discussed how it is near impossible to pick the best steel for knife blades, but if we were forced to, it would be a toss up between Elmax and M390.

M390 Steel

Holding an Edge: 9

Corrosion resistance: 9

Wear resistance: 9

Sharpening: 3

Hardness: 8

Toughness: 4

Components: 1.9% carbon, 20.0% chromium, 4.00% vanadium, 1.00% molybdenum, 0.70% silicon, 0.60% tungsten, 0.30% manganese

Examples: Benchmade 765

M390 steel is powdered metal with a large amount of carbon added into it giving the blade increased hardness as well as great edge keeping ability.

benchmade 765

M390 is also highly resistant to corrosion.

This steel is highly sought after in knives because of the ability to hold a sharp edge as well as the high wear and corrosion resistance.

The high level of vanadium provides increased hardness for this type of steel.

Of course with increased hardness you get a trade off in toughness, but depending on the use that shouldn’t be much of an issue.

In terms of a knife blade, M390 is top of the line and beats out other blades in nearly every category.

S30V Steel

Holding an Edge: 7

Corrosion resistance: 7

Wear resistance: 7

Sharpening: 3

Hardness: 7

Toughness: 2

Components: 1.45% carbon, 14.00% chromium, 4.00% vanadium, 2.00% molybdenum

kershaw s30v blur folding knife

Examples: Kershaw S30V Blur

S30V steel is regarded as one of the more premium knife grade steels. It is powder made giving it excellent hardness and edge retention.

It also usually comes out of the box with a wicked edge, though it loses it fairly quickly.

The high amount carbon and vanadium makes this one of the harder stainless steel blades and will hold up well even during extended use.

Those same components mean it will take some skill to get a uniformed, sharp edge.

Sandvik 14c28n Steel

Holding an Edge: 5

Corrosion resistance: 6

Wear resistance: 5

Sharpening: 5

Hardness: 4

Toughness: 4

Components: 0.62% carbon, 14.0% chromium, 0.20% silicon, 0.60% manganese, 0.11% nitrogen

Examples: Kershaw Leek

14c28n stainless steel is produced by Sandvik out of Sweden. The nitrogen added really allows this blade to be honed into an extremely sharp edge that has decent retention properties.

The uniform sharpening and corrosion resistance provided by the chromium make this an excellent blade for hunting and fishing purposes.

VG-10 Steel

Holding an Edge: 8

Corrosion resistance: 8

Wear resistance: 8

Sharpening: 6

Hardness: 7

Toughness: 3

Components: 1% carbon, 15% chromium, 1% molybdenum, 0.2% vanadium, 1.5% cobalt, 0.5% manganese

Examples: Spyderco Delica 4

spyderco delica4

VG10 is contains a relatively large amount a carbon, in the context of stainless steel.

Because of the carbon content, this blade holds an edge better than most stainless steel blades while being moderately easy to sharpen. This makes it an extremely popular steel for knives.

The cobalt added in this steel is interesting as it is thought that cobalt helps accentuate other components within the steel.

The amount of chromium also provides excellent corrosion resistance. The vanadium included also provides increased hardness in this steel.

These properties make VG10 steel excellent for use in kitchen cutlery and also in game harvesting.

Final Thoughts

Whether you are hunting, fishing, or in some type of survival situation, having a knife that can hold up over an extended period is an invaluable tool.

Knowing the properties of the different types of steel will also let you pick out a knife that will suit your specific needs.

This guide to the most popular steel for knives focuses on the chemistry of the steel and how this would impact the blades qualities.

You should pick based on the type of qualities you want in your knife.

As we stated earlier, each knife manufacturer will also have a large impact on the performance of the blade based on their heat treatment, blade design, and quenching methods.

It’s impossible to tell you the absolute best steel for knives, but hopefully we have given a detailed guide of the various steels most often found in knives and their properties.

Using this guide, you should have a great foundation to picking out the perfect knife to fit your needs.

Have an awesome experience with your favorite steel? Tell us about it in the comments below!

About the Author: Huston

Huston

Huston has spent over 18 years chasing trout, deer, turkey, and game birds across the Southeast and Midwest United States.

As the founder of ​Discovery & Learning Writing Service, he enjoys helping businesses generate trustworthy and quality material in the outdoor, science, and education fields.

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