“There never was a good knife made of bad steel.” – Benjamin Franklin
After having indulged in my own love affair with knife making, this was perhaps the single most important lesson I learned about the art: A knife’s steel will define its application and determine its quality.
Not all knife steels are created equally, because different types of steel will come with different advantages, weaknesses, quirks and nuances. Whether you’d like to get into the art of knife making, or you’re simply shopping around for a survival/bushcraft knife, the metal that makes your knife is going to have a major influence on your expectations and your experiences with it in the field.
With that said, here are three of the most common types of steel that you’ll find when in search of a good knife to have with you at camp.
1. 440A: stainless and cheap, but always faithful
It’s been called “no-name steel” due to the fact that most of your cheaper survival application knives will be made of this stainless variant. Usually, if you find a blade that was made overseas (and I’m not talking about Sweden), then there’s a chance that you won’t even find any markings or indications on what kind of steel this thing is — but quite frankly, nine times out of 10, it will be 440C.
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However, it’s not because it’s necessarily a bad type of steel. 440A has quite a great deal of advantages to offer. If anything, 440A is just extremely common, thereby driving down its price point, making it the best option for overseas manufacturers. This gives the blade an additional advantage in a way because it provides an excellent choice if you aren’t looking to purchase that really, really good one on your shopping list just yet. At the same time, you’ll be able to expect your knife to be …
- Super easy to sharpen
- Relatively resistant to corrosion
- Capable of holding its own in the field (provided you’re not trying to chop limbs off an oak tree).
At the same time, you shouldn’t expect the knife itself to do what a Ka-Bar might be capable of, especially if you only purchased it for $15 at a gun show. The steel itself will most likely hold, but the el-cheapo plastic handle could potentially give you problems.
2. 154CM: the do-it-all (fairly well) knife steel
It’s one of the reasons why I decided on purchasing my Leatherman Rebar in the first place. It’s made of 154CM steel alloy. If anything, I’ve been nothing but impressed by the multi-tool, not only because of its functionality but also because I’ve come to the conclusion that I have to sharpen it twice a year … whether it needs it or not.
154CM is an alloy that’s achieved a fairly prestigious reputation among knife lovers. The only reason why craft knife makers aren’t usually too fond of it is because the stuff is just too darn difficult to work with. However, that’s not necessarily a bad thing, because its metallurgical properties keep its edge extremely sharp for a very, very long time. Simply put, 154CM does not wear down easily.
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It’s likely for that reason why the American-made Ontario SK-5 Blackbird is made of 154CM specifically for survival applications, because not only will it hold an edge through unforgiving conditions, but it’s also more corrosion-resistant than its high carbon steel alloy counterparts. So in summary, here are its three basic strengths …
- Holds its edge EXTREMELY well
- Relatively corrosion-resistant
- Fairly durable overall
Aside from being somewhat tough to sharpen, 154CM makes for a great knife. But that now leaves us with the granddaddy of popular manufactured survival knife steels …
3. 1095 High Carbon: the knife steel that never quits
This particular type of knife steel is, perhaps, the most loved by the survival/bushcraft community, as it’s basically the workhorse of knife steel alloys. This type of steel is just not going to give up its edge or structural integrity without taking a massive beating in the process.
It’s the reason why knife companies, such as ESEE, TOPS, Schrade and Ontario have used 1095-HC in their manufacturing process for a huge number of their knife product lines. Also, this is going to be your most common steel alloy that is found in your high-grade/price “tactical” knives as well.
However, the only reason why I might not select a high-carbon 10-series alloy knife would be due to the fact that its corrosion resistance is … well … not so good. This is the reason why most knives made of 1095-HC (or even the metallurgically reinforced 1095-Cro Van) are going to come with some type of coating, whether Duracoat or something else. These suckers will rust if they’re exposed to the elements for even a relatively short period of time.
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However, this happens to be one of the most well-loved alloys for knife making — at least, if you’re cutting it from barstock. In addition, it’s got another interesting advantage: Because it’s a high-carbon alloy, you can use it to start a fire as you would with a flint-steel striker kit. If you’ve sanded off the coating near the blade’s point on the spine, you can take a piece of flint rock or churt to it … and viola … you’ve got sparks to light your charcloth. So to break it down for 1095-HC:
- Incredibly tough (making it ideal for survival applications)
- Holds its edge … like a boss
- Can double as a flint striker
So, if you’re looking for a high-end survival/bushcraft/tactical knife, which comes paired with a sheath that will protect it from the elements, then 1095-HC steel would be a fantastic choice that won’t give you problems. Let’s face it: All knives need love, so just keep it oiled and happily in its sheath, and it will love you back.
Different Steel, Different Applications
While the knife you decide to purchase might have a design that triggers your interest, it’s important to identify its steel beforehand (if possible). The steel alloy that makes up the knife is going to determine how it behaves in the field, and this should influence your expectations of what the blade will and will not offer.
With that being said, you should also consider that a blade’s toughness can also be affected by how it was made, so keep that in mind.
The point is (pun intended), with different steels, you will have different applications. It’s why a search-and-rescue operator won’t carry a chef’s knife, and a chef wouldn’t be caught dead with a Cold Steel SRK either.
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