Stainless Steel vs. High Carbon SteelThere are two broad categories of steel: stainless and high-carbon. Stainless steel resists rust very well but it can dull easily. High-Carbon steel keeps an edge really well but it rusts easily. Another comparison would be that stainless would have a tendency for sharp edges to curl, bend or warp under pressure, while high-carbon steel would chip or splinter. Most mass-produced steels are somewhere in between.
Rewind a decade and a half and ask the question, “What is the best stainless steel for knives?” An overwhelming majority would have sung the praises of 440C. Arguably the most famous folding knife in American history, the Buck 110, was made of 440C prior to 1981. On the other hand, 440C has been judged, loved, hated, belied, cursed, and praised more than almost any other metal to have found itself the recipient of the bladesmith’s hammer. Why does this particular stainless steel incur such a wide-ranging response from those who know it best? The answer is trickier than it may seem.
440C stainless steel is a Martensitic steel with a composition of:
- Iron – 79.15%
- Chromium – 17%
- Carbon – 1.1%
- Manganese – 1%
- Silicon – 1%
- Molybdenum – .75%
This stainless steel has a Rockwell hardness of 57-60 HRC. Lying somewhere between AUS8 and VG-10, 440C provides an excellent all-around steel for many types of industrial applications such as surgical instruments, bearing races, and quality kitchen cutlery. The key to stainless steel is the balance between carbon and chromium. The higher the carbon, the more wear resistant, yet lower corrosion resistance. The higher the chromium content, the higher the corrosion resistance, but lower the wear resistance. Because of this balancing act, and the fact that it cannot be worked in the plastic temperature range using an open-air forge, small-shop bladesmiths simply do not have the equipment necessary to work this steel. As a result, 440C is a bit more expensive and takes a backseat to other steels. Many bladesmiths, due to an inability to work with it, call it an “inferior” steel. Nothing could be further from the truth. Most metallurgists consider 440C to be standard by which all other stainless steels are measured. In turn, some of the most celebrated knives throughout modern history are made with this excellent material.
Favorites Using 440C Stainless Steel
My favorite knife in 440C stainless steel is hands down the ESEE-4 with a 4-1/2″stonewashed, flat ground .19″ blade. This full-tang, triple-riveted 9″ tactical knife features OD green Micarta handle scales and a molded plastic M.O.L.L.E. compatible sheath. The ergonomics of the ESEE-4 lends itself to be used for long periods of time with no hot spots or fatigue. You have the ability to chop and baton with it, yet you are also able to choke up further on the handle for carving tasks and for making feather sticks. The blade is a drop point and holds an edge well, typically only requiring a leather strop with jewelers rouge. It is also extremely corrosion resistant, thanks to it being the ubiquitous 440C! One drawback that I would like to have seen on the ESEE-4 would have been a spine ground at 90 degrees to throw sparks from a ferro rod. Though it’s not impossible to spark a rod, it doesn’t shower the sparks in the way that some of ESEE’s outdoor knives can do. However, to be fair, this model is classified as a tactical knife, not a bushcraft knife.
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Given the breadth of stainless steels available on the market today, it’s no wonder 440C has been labeled “old-fashioned” and “boring.” Many small-shop bladesmiths have completely forgone stainless steels altogether, as the demand for carbon steel knife blades have enjoyed a resurgence of late. There are many reasons for this, such as ease of working the steel, less expensive materials, availability of stock, and the current market for outdoor and tactical knives. So the question we are again faced with is, why does 440C evoke such passionate discussions between bladesmiths and knife collectors? The gulf that exists between the two camps seems wide, but at the end of the day, 440C is a very stable and reliable stainless steel that can hold its own with a great many of the new “super steel’s” of today. The choice, it seems, belongs to the one who wields the blade.