According to Stein, “A rose is a rose is a rose.” Or, “things are what they are.”
Nothing is truer than of tactical gear, especially knives.
We obviously understand that certain components make or break a knife. Certainly, the locking mechanism in a folding knife is critical. As is the handle, shape, and size. But probably the most important component is the steel used to fashion the blade.
Now, I'm not a metallurgist, and my knowledge is based on research and my own experience. It will be instructive and helpful, however, to understand what different steels are used in the construction of a knife, and relate that to some of the best knife examples of each steel.
Properties of Steel
Steel is essentially an alloy of carbon and iron which is enriched with other materials, such as chromium, molybdenum, nickel, and vanadium, and processed (heated and rolled etc.,) to create a knife blade that exhibits five key properties in varying degrees.
Understand that there is no perfect steel and that different steel configurations may be more adept in one environment vs another.
For example, resistance to corrosion may be more important than other factors to a knife used by ocean sailors. Additionally, the ease of sharpening may be more important to someone who is in an environment where access to sharpening is more limited.
That's not to say, however, that there are premium steels that are superior in a number of the steel properties.
The following is a list of some of the more important steel properties:
- Hardness – This is the ability to resist deforming when subject to stress. Hardness is related to strength and measured using the Rockwell C scale (HRC).
- Toughness – Toughness is the ability to resist impact damage like cracks and chips. Counterintuitively, the harder the steel, the less resistant to impact damage.
- Wear Resistance – This is simply the ability to resist wear and abrasion during use.
- Edge Retention – This simply relates to how well the blade will keep sharp when subject to use.
- Corrosion Resistance – How well the steel resists deterioration as a result of the steel's reaction to the environment.
Popular super steels and related knives
Please understand that is the knife steels and related popular knives presented below is not an all-inclusive list. Granted, there may even exist better knife steel, however, the intent is to rate some of the more common and available super steel knives so you can compare and select a knife that may be useful and practical for your needs.
The steel and knives below are generally listed in terms of quality.
CPM S110V and the Spyderco ParaMilitary
Considered by many to be the ultimate in edge retention. More than adequate in corrosion resistance, even if the ability to sharpen is difficult. This, however, is the tradeoff one deals with in owning super edge retention. The quality of the Spyderco ParaMilitary is excellent and carries a lifetime warranty. This is like the Military, only in a slightly more compact size. The blade is opened with the opening on the steel, and a clip on the back is press to retract it.
Hey, this is Spyderco's answer to the question, “If your son were going into the military, what folding knife would you send him with?” That's pretty impressive. What more can you say?
CPM S90V and the Benchmade 940-1 Reverse Tanto
The S90V is only slightly less corrosive resistant and holds an edge almost as good as the S110V above. Again, it is definitely harder to sharpen but worth the efforts. The Benchmade 940-1 is an excellent EDC knife and has an excellent carbon fiber handle. Like the Spyderco, the Benchmade carries a lifetime warranty.
Here's my YouTube review of these top two knives.
M390 and the Benchmade 581 Barrage
One of the new super steels, the M390 has been developed for knives requiring excellent corrosion resistance and hardness necessary for wear resistance and edge sharpness. The Benchmade 581 Barrage continues the AXIS Assist lock and opens and closes easily with one hand. This knife features a drop point blade and is an excellent EDC knife.
ZDP-189 and Spyderco's Dragonfly 2
Another super steel containing high amounts of carbon and chromium the ZDP-189 has great edge retention but is not as immune to corrosion as some of the other steels. Spyderco's Dragonfly 2 is yet another great example of a smaller EDC knife at 4 inches and 1.6 ounces.
Elmax and the Zero Tolerance 0562
Elmax is another super steel with a high chromium-vanadium-molybdenum alloyed powdered steel and boasts a high wear resistance and corrosion resistance while retaining a great edge retention. The Zero Tolerance is another high-quality line of folding knives which has been met with acceptance. Designed by custom knifemaker Rick Hinderer the knife is 6 inches and weighs in at 7.2 ounces.
CPM-20CV and the Benchmade Griptilian 556-1
Yet another popular super steel is the CPM-20V again with super wear resistance, edge retention, and corrosion resistant. Supposively, Benchmade claims their M390, used in the 581 Barrage, is marginally tougher but that the 20CV has better edge retention. The Griptilian 556-1 is an example of an excellent EDC knife and has been one of the most popular models – for good reason.
The CPM S30V is a common and popular knife blade steel with a great balance of edge retention, hardness, and toughness. The Benchmade Freek 560 typifies the use of this steel in a great every day carry knife. The Benchmade Bugout 535 (pictured above) is a brand new offering from Benchmade and is a great EDC with the right size and the right price point.
154CM and the Benchmade Griptilian 556
The 154CM is a relatively hard steel which achieved superior edge retention and excellent levels of corrosion resistance and toughness. It's also much easier to sharpen than many of the other super steels. The Benchmade Griptilian 556 has become an extremely popular EDC with a great price point and almost perfect size.
D2 and the William Henry E6 10
Talk about super steel, often referred to as “semi-stainless” it falls just short of the required amount of chromium (135) to qualify as full stainless yet still provides great resistance to corrosion. Much harder than other steels in this category, such as 154CM, it holds its edge much better. It's not as tough as other steels, and more difficult to sharpen, but what a beauty. William Henry, which is a super priced knife company, uses this steel in their models, and the E6 10 is a super example of a “gentlemen's” EDC. Again, what a beauty.
VG-10 and Spyderco Endura4 Lightweight knives
The VG-10 is similar to 154CM with slightly better corrosion resistance and even a marginally tougher property. It sports a great edge sharpness retention and is relatively easy to sharpen. Manufactures like Spyderco have been introducing VG-10 into the market with products like the Spyderco Endura4 which is a 3.75-inch blade at only 5.6 ounces. The Endura4 has become one of Spyderco's most popular knives due to its quality and price point.
O1 Tool Steel and the Spyderco Bushcraft G-10
The O1 tool steel is not a super steel but an example of steel being utilized for a specific purpose. The Spyderco Bushcraft G-10 is a non-folding 8.75-inch knife with a 4-inch blade and is specifically designed for heavy outdoor use and designed by tactical bushcraft expert Chris Claycombe. As such the steel's high carbon content holds a sharp edge over time and heavy use but is also easily sharpened. Just a great example of steel being used for a specific purpose.
Check out my recommendations for best outdoor knives here.
Just as an aside, check out Patriot Leather Company for a custom sheath for this knife. Super quality and customization.
There are, of course, other steels and you can Google the steel in your desired knife to learn about the various characteristics, but the above steels really cover a majority of the EDC knives that you will be considering for your tactical and everyday use.
Remember, like all tactical products, the technology continues to advance almost daily and manufacturers are constantly looking for better and better quality products that are easier to manufacture and less expensive.
So, keep looking and enjoy the journey.