5160 Stainless Steel: Is it Good for Knives?

Peter Stec
September 24, 2021

5160 is something of famous steel — many people who don’t know much of knives would have heard of 5160. That’s because 5160 is actually not a “knife steel” per se, it’s most commonly used in the construction of swords, daggers, and bigger tools. 

The reason for this is that 5160’s best capability is being able to be super flexible. 5160 has incredible toughness and flexibility, which is needed for longer swords. Somehow, it doesn’t compromise on hardness, however, making it special. 

The high-alloy steel 5160 is also commonly bought by home-knife makers who want to try their hand at creating the perfect knife/sword. Owning a sword in this day and age is cool enough, but being able to say you made the sword? Tough to beat that. 

If you’re interested in the process of manufacturing steel and how it comes to be what it is, you’ll definitely find 5160 interesting because it’s not your average steel. In this ultimate guide to 5160 steel, we’ll dive deep (very deep) into everything you need to know about 5160 steel.

What is 5160 Stainless Steel?

5160 is a high-carbon, high-chromium, high-alloy spring steel. Spring steel is one that has exceptional springing capabilities and lots of flexibility. It’s very difficult to manufacture 5160 steel since it needs to have the perfect amount of ductility. 5160 also has incredible toughness and is one of the most resilient stainless steels out there. 

Apart from being used in swords, katanas, daggers like we mentioned earlier, 5160 stainless spring steel is also used for automobile parts. That’s because steel parts for vehicles need to have great heat resistance and corrosion resistance so that they last forever. A part cannot rust inside the vehicle under any circumstances since it can cause a lot of damage to the surrounding parts and endanger the safety of driving in the vehicle. 

5160 steel has something called fatigue resistance — and this means exactly what you think it does! It quite literally doesn’t get tired and will snap or spring back into shape no matter what kind of force is applied on it, linear or rotational or deflective. 

Why does it work so well in swords? A sword has a really long blade and needs to have a lot of strength to ensure that the top half or top end doesn’t just break off when the sword comes in contact with harder substances than itself. By rule of thumb, the smaller knives and daggers (such as Tanto knives) are harder so that they could penetrate a rib cage or sternum when in combat. The long swords were softer so they could be lighter, more flexible, and better at the ‘slicing’ action. 

What is the Heat Treatment of 5160 Stainless Steel?

5160 has an extensive heat treatment. 

The first heat treatment is naturally the forging. The forging of 5160 occurs between a temperature range depending on minute difference in composition. 1149 and 1204°C (2100 and 2200°F). 

In order for 5160 to have enough hardness and not be too soft, it has been quenched. Quenching is a heat process where the steel is heated above the critical temperature when it demagnetizes and then is cooled down in a liquid instead of air cooling. This has a very different effect on the steel as compared to if it was simply air-cooled. 5160 is quenched in oil (instead of regular water or saline water brine) at around 1525°F for the optimal properties. 

It is also tempered after the quenching process between the temperature range of 800 and 1300°F.

There may be additional heat treatments done to 5160 steel to hone and retain its springy factor. 

What is the Composition of 5160 Stainless Steel?

5160 is a high-carbon, high-chromium alloy, spring steel. What are these alloying agents? What role do they play in making 5160 steel the metal that it is? Let’s find out by looking at all the materials and the percentages in which they are added in.

ElementsPercentage (%)
Carbon (C)0.64
Chromium (Cr)0.9
Manganese (Mn)1
Silicon (Si)0.3
Phosphorus (P)0.035
Sulfur (S)z0.04
  • Carbon 0.64% – The moderately high amounts of carbon in 5160 stainless steel contribute towards hardness, but not to a great extent. For carbon to be a major contributor to hardness, it would need to be of a higher percentage in 5160. However, it does contribute a lot to the edge retention properties of the 5160 steel. 
  • Chromium 0.9% – 0.9% is a very high percentage of Chromium and this adds a lot of hardness as well as corrosion resistance. Chromium is actually the second hardest metal on earth, and it definitely contributes to the hardness of 5160. 
  • Manganese 1% –  Manganese is a common alloy that is added to most steels. That’s because Manganese immediately improves the hardness of the steel and adds a good dose of brittleness. We tend to think that brittleness is undesirable, but this isn’t the case. Brittleness actually contributes to edge retention, helping the knife stay sharper for a longer time. 
  • Silicon 0.3% –  Silicon is another common and important alloying agent. This helps greatly in the deoxidizing of steel during the heat process (particularly the smelting process). 
  • Phosphorus 0.035% – While you might think 0.2% is too less for phosphorus to do anything, it actually contributes greatly towards toughness and internal strength of the steel. 
  • Sulfur 0.04% – Sulfur also increases the toughness of steel, by decreasing its hardness. In 15n20, the addition of sulfur boosts the tensile strength of 15n20 steel. Sulfur also contributes to the machinability factor.

How Hard is 5160 Stainless Steel? 

5160 is quite hard but it is not its defining characteristic. Since 5160 is spring steel, the toughness and flexibility are much more important. 5160 receives a score of 58 HRC in the Rockwell Hardness Scale. This makes it decently hard. 58 HRC is more than enough for culinary and kitchen applications. 

For use in automobiles and vehicles, 58 HRC is also sufficient. The same goes for swords made out of 5160 steel. 

What are the Properties of 5160 Stainless Steel? 

5160 has a lot of unique properties and is definitely different from regular affordable stainless steel options in the market. That’s because 5160 stainless steel also springs steel and has slightly different applications. You won’t generally find a pocket knife that’s made out of 5160 steel, since it would be a waste of its dexterity and flexibility in such a short blade. 

5160 Hardness

We’ve touched upon this earlier — 5160 has pretty decent hardness considering all other factors. Usually, a steel with this much toughness and flexibility must be really soft, but 5160 is able to do well on the Hardness front as well. 5160 stainless steel scores 58 HRC on the Rockwell Hardness Scale. 

5160 Toughness

5160 is known for good toughness. It’s extremely resilient steel and that’s thanks to it being low-carbide in nature. Too much carbon always gets in the way of good toughness from the steel. Many people who’ve used 5160 outdoor knives or daggers will testify that 5160 is a tough blade to chip. It can handle exposure to really hard substances such as trees, stone, and hunting. Batoning and chopping are a piece of cake for this tough steel. 

5160 Edge Retention

We’re giving 5160 a modest score when it comes to edge retention. Due to its low carbon content, it’s almost impossible for stainless steel to have good edge retention. That being said, it’s not terrible. You can use it for quite a while before the blade gets dull — as long as you’re not constantly exposing it to harder mediums than itself. If you’re planning to take your 5160 knives outside with you on an adventure, remember to think about sharpening as well — because you absolutely have to. 

5160’s average edge retention is also a reason why it’s not used in blades as often as it is used in vehicle parts, springs, and other mechanical parts that require flexibility. 

5160 Ease of Sharpening

Here’s the good news: while 5160 blades can’t keep an edge very well, they can be sharpened in a few seconds. Yes, 5160 is very easy to sharpen on account of its non-intimidating hardness degree. So while you might have to constantly sharpen your 5160 knives, it might not bother you because it happens so easily. 

I prefer a knife that can be sharpened easily vs. one that has good edge retention but can’t be sharpened quickly. Let us know your thoughts. Most knives offer either one — edge retention or ease of sharpening. Which do you prefer?

5160 Corrosion Resistance

5160 has great corrosion resistance. Thanks to the decently high amount of Chromium in 5160, it’s going to be difficult for it to actually catch rust and corrosion, even if kept in humid conditions. 5160 is used for vehicle parts, and it can get quite moist and hot inside of a car! It’s specially designed for withstanding these kinds of conditions. 

However, we don’t recommend that you get careless with your 5160 swords or knife. Don’t store it wet (we don’t know why you would, but it’s worth mentioning!)

Is 5160 Stainless Steel Good for Knives? 

5160 is a great choice for swords and long knives. It also makes great fixed blade survival knives. We don’t fully recommend using 5160 stainless spring steel for an application like a pocket knife: but there’s no reason why this would go wrong, it just wouldn’t highlight the maximum capabilities of the 5160 Stainless Steel. 

Is 5160 a Stainless Steel Blade?

Yes, since 5160 has a high chromium content in its composition, it is categorized as a stainless steel blade. 5160 steel doesn’t catch rust easily and will be a great option for a long knife or sword. You should still take care of your 5160 blades by keeping them clean and dry at all times, and oiling it if you live in a particularly humid climate (such as by the beach!) 

How Does 5160 Steel Compare to Other Steels? 

We know that 5160 steel can offer something that not many other sheets of steel can – flexibility, toughness, and springiness. Let’s look at how it compares to some of the other affordable steels in the market. 

5160 Steel vs. 1095

5160 vs 1095 Steel Comparison Chart
Properties51601095
Edge Retention2/103/10
Ease of Sharpening 9/107/10
Corrosion Resistance 6/103/10
Toughness10/108/10
Hardness5/107/10

Steels 5160 and 1095 have very different properties to offer. 5160 is better for toughness, corrosion resistance, and ease of sharpening, while 1095 is able to offer much more hardness. 1095 is prone to rust, however, unless it has an anti-corrosion finish.

5160 vs. D2

5160 vs D2 Steel Comparison Chart
Properties5160D2
Edge Retention2/105/10
Ease of Sharpening9/102/10
Corrosion Resistance6/107/10
Toughness 10/105/10
Hardness5/108/10

5160 is much tougher steel than the D2. 

Best 5160 Steel Options in the Market

You’ve probably gathered through this article that 5160 steel is not as commonly made into knives. When they are, they’re generally made into long fixed-blade knives. Since it’s difficult to find the perfect 5160 knife, it’s actually recommended that you make your own. 

Making your own knife doesn’t have to be daunting — and 5160 is a relatively uncomplicated steel to work with. You can create the knife that you desire, with all the design specifications that suit your needs!

Best 5160 Steel Bar: 5160 Alloy Steel Flat Bar Stock.214

This 5160 flat steel bar is great for making your own knife at home. You would need to have a basic home forge set-up. If you’re interested in setting up a small furnace for lots of knife-making projects, consider this forge set-up. 

This steel bar is made out of pure 5160 alloy steel. It’s hot rolled and can be used for a variety of applications. 

Get it on Amazon here.

Best 5160 Weapon: Spyderco Genzow Hatchet Hawk Utility Tomahawk

  • 5160 isn’t just great for knives, it can be used for conceivably any weapon. This utility tomahawk is no exception. Made by Spyderco, one of the most trusted brands out there, this tomahawk is one of the best that money can buy. 
  • The 5160 blade has incredible toughness, ensuring that the tomahawk can stand up to any challenge or surface. If you go on a lot of outdoor adventures, this tomahawk is one that you’d want by your side all the time. 

Fitted with a strong polypropylene aluminum handle with a leather sheath, this one will last you on all your adventures. 

Get it on Amazon here.

Conclusion

5160 is a unique steel in its spring abilities, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not high-performing as regular steel as well. It quite literally does not get tougher than the 5160 steel.

Get a slab of 5160 to do what you will with it, (we’re excited to see what kind of knives you’re able to forge from 5160), or stick with a strong tomahawk or dagger that really highlights the exceptional toughness of the 5160. Good luck!

About The Author
Hey Knife Up gang! I'm Pete, and I'm just another man like you in a small rural town who loves the outdoors as much as the other million internet users that cruise sites like KnifeUp.com every day. The difference is that I like to share what I know and research what I don't totally know so that YOU can have all the info you need to feel confident and prepared for all things outdoors-related! And, for those who care, I have 42 years of wilderness canoeing and bushcraft experience in Northern Ontario and spend most of my Summers covered in mosquitos and fish slime, but hey, it's a lifestyle choice, eh?

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