In our modern information age, people are much more educated about little things than they used to be. There was a time when buying a knife was largely about the design, the shape of the blade and the blade’s aesthetics.
Now, knife enthusiasts have many more considerations to bear in mind when choosing a knife, and one of the main ones is the steel of the blade. We live in an age of branding and marketing, and steels have become brands unto themselves, often commanding top dollar for a new “super steel.”
But how much do these designations relate to actual quality, and how much is just clever marketing? One of the largest and most popular categories of knife steel today is known as “carbon steel,” but what does this really mean and why is it such a big deal for knives these days?
That’s exactly what we’re going to get to the bottom of in this article.
But first, please take a moment to compare some of the knives on the market, and see how well they compare to the knives we discuss throughout this article:
|ESEE Knives 3P||$$$|
|SOG Flash II||$$|
|Ka-Bar Fighting Knife||$$|
|Kershaw Shuffle II||$|
|Spyderco Paramilitary 2||$$$|
Basics of Steel
Steel is a man made product, not a naturally occurring metal, and so without going into an entire course in metallurgy, it is still useful to understand some of the basic concepts of steel making to get a feel for what knife manufacturers are talking about when they tell you how great their blade metal is.
First of all, all steel contains carbon. That’s what makes it steel. Steel is really just iron with carbon in it. Iron is an extremely common product and has been used from deep antiquity to create tools and weapons and all sorts of useful things.
It started with getting a glob of the stuff as hot as you could, then pulling it out of the furnace and hammering on it to get rid of the junk and charcoal and make it workable. This is called wrought iron because it has been worked, or wrought.
As furnace technology improved we could make the stuff hot enough to melt and then cast, hence the phrase cast iron. This stuff had lots of carbon in it, which helped make it easier to melt and made it extremely hard, because carbon makes the iron crystal structure more rigid, but too brittle to hammer and work.
Next came mixing the stuff while molten to add oxygen, reducing the carbon content. Now all it takes is even more heat and some knowledge of how different types of heating and cooling effect the crystalline structure of the iron and carbon, and we start getting modern steel.
If you want to go in depth in the history, check out The World Steel Association’s history page.
So long story short, all steel is “carbon” steel, the question is just how much carbon, and how is it treated. The more carbon, the harder the steel, but the harder the steel, the more brittle—like the difference between a cracker and a tortilla.
So good knife steel is about a balance between enough hardness to allow for a very sharp edge and the retention of that edge, with enough tensility so the blade doesn’t crack or chip.
Below, please take a moment to view some of the best-selling pocket knives currently for sale on Amazon:
|1) Spyderco Tenacious|
|2) Kershaw Cryo II|
|3) Opinel No.7|
|4) Gerber Paraframe|
|5) Kershaw Knockout|
What is Carbon Steel?
The designation of carbon steel means the steel has anywhere from 0.05% to 2.1% carbon, and usually will also have small amounts of manganese, silicon and copper, but does not contain other metals like tungsten, chromium or molybdenum.
It’s a strong hard steel, but can be susceptible to corrosion and staining. Bear in mind that carbon and mineral content alone is far from the whole story with steels. The way in which the material is handle has as much or more effect on the characteristics of the final product as does the metallurgic content. The making of steel is a multifaceted science that has been evolving for literally thousands of years.
The properties of steel are very much determined by how the carbon is incorporated through the metal, the formation of very hard carbides vs. the uniform distribution of carbon. But as a knife enthusiast, all you really need to know about carbon steel is this: it’s hard, sharp, and can corrode.
Many knives are made from stainless steel instead, which contains other metals and will not corrode. So which is best for you?
Carbon Steel vs. Stainless Steel
There is actually no real debate between carbon steel and stainless steel for knives, as both are quite different and therefore would be ideally used for for different tasks. So it really comes down to just a couple of issues: are you willing to give your blade regular care (stropping, cleaning and oiling etc.), and how important is it that it holds a really really sharp edge with use?
Stainless blades are rather carefree, but not designed for as heavy use as carbon steel blades. Stainless is great for an occasional use knife you can just keep in your pocket, but if you’re doing serious bush crafting or field dressing large game, the edge on a stainless blade might leave you sad partway through your job, whereas the carbon steel is more likely to see you through — and then rust if you don’t take care of it!
The real issue between carbon steel and stainless steel is that carbon steel blades can achieve levels of performance a stainless blade simply never could. That doesn’t mean they always (or even often) have achieved such levels of performance — that depends on the blade smith! It just means you CAN get a much tougher harder blade with carbon steel.
The American Bladesmith Society tests applicants for the title of Master Bladesmith by having them make a knife that can chop through a 2 x 4s twice, and then shave hairs off their arm! But more than that, the blade must be able to be bent 90 without breaking!
Stainless steel just can’t ever achieve results like this.
What makes a great steel knife blade:
- high carbon content
- wear resisting alloys
- proper quenching
- proper tempering
- proper edge grinding
Some Great Carbon Steel Blades
So since this is an article about carbon steel knives, lets assume you’re opting for a carbon steel blade — whether a hunter, a bush crafter, tactical or EDC. You’ve got hundreds, maybe thousands, to choose from. And lots of them are really good knives!
So lets see if I can help you decide.
If you want a blade that can handle the kind of damage described above, you are going to have to do some digging and be ready to spend some serious money. To achieve that level of performance from even the best carbon steel requires careful and precise differential heating and special techniques that are difficult, time consuming and expensive, and so they simply do not exist in mass produced knives.
You’re talking custom jobs from a Master Bladesmith. So for our purposes, we will stick with more readily available carbon steel knives that still do a great job of making one heck of a serious, tough knife.
Here are our favorite carbon steel blades on the market today, all of which we will discuss in-depth below:
- Ka-bar Becker Campanion
- Blackjack Model 125 Classic
- Esee 6
- TOPS Silent Hero
- SOG Flash 1
The Ka-bar brand is forever associated with the US military, having produced their iconic USMC fighting knife. The Becker 22 (or BK2, and called either “Campanion” or “Companion” depending on where you look—on their web site it’s Campanion and BK2 but on others this knife is called 22 Companion—go figure) is a great heavy duty carbon steel monster blade.
The scales over the full tang are robust rounds of a glass reinforced nylon. The blade is 5 1/4” long and a whopping 1/4” thick, making this knife come in at a full 1 lb. of weight, which some folks can find to be a bit much — maybe not the one to take on a 20 day mountain trek. But being burly is what it’s all about.
It sports a 20 degree angle flat grind which makes it fairly versatile — great for separating joints on large game, ok at wood working (a slightly lower angle would be preferable for serious wood work) and just a good all around blade.
It’s a drop point with enough choil to be workable on a stone if needed. The blade is of coated 1095 Cro-Van, so though it is in the carbon steel family, it is something of a crossover — adding a little Chromium and Vanadium to help up the corrosion resistance, and adding a slightly “toothier” edge in the process.
Hefty, well built, good steel just looks rather badass. And for a piece of serious steel, the price is right too, coming in online at around $76!
- You can read our article entitled What’s the Best Ka-Bar Knife here.
This Blackjack is a beauty, and as the name suggests, a classic carbon steel knife! A hunting-style knife with a guard and butt of polished aluminum and micarta handle, with a blade of A-2 steel, which is a high quality tool steel with a little chromium, but not enough to make it “stainless”. The design is an elegant drop point with quite a wide blade at over 0.2” with a heavy spine and plenty of choil. The edge is convex ground. The lines and balance of this knife are just fantastic, as is the fit and finish. It’s a tool that show pride of craftsmanship.
The Esee 6 is a great chopper and hunting knife, with a 6 1/2” blade of good old 1095 carbon steel., black coated. The handle is fairly basic micarta scales on a full tang that extends nicely from the butt end for smashing and pounding. The spine thickness is 0.187”, thinning toward the drop point. There is a choil for choking up on the huge blade, but be aware that the sharp edge runs right to the inset choil, so if you’re going to use it as a finger placement, you might want to dull that first.
This is a sturdy reliable tool that is big enough for just about any task, but not clunky, and in fact is well proportioned and balanced enough for finer work too.
The TOPS brand specializes in tactical knives, and the Silent Hero certainly fits that bill (no surprise from the name) but is also an extremely practical outdoors tool. The blade is 5 5/8” at 3/16” thick with a full tang, saber ground from 1095 high carbon steel. Though some users dislike the relatively thin “Rocky Mountain Style” handle scales, a majority of users find them to really fit the overall balance and usage of the knife. It is a big serious blade, but one that can accomplish can accomplish tasks in hunting and bush craft in addition to Rambo missions.
This one too features a deep finger choil to make the blade easier to apply to smaller tasks, and behind that is a finger guard with a lashing loop. There’s a jumped ramp on top to further support more precision work, and the drop point end is well placed for control and power. Yes, the think handle will likely lead to hot spots after prolonged heavy use, but it is a good grip for exploiting the versatility of this blade.
That extremely wide range of function, quality of design and craftsmanship and impressive appearance are what got it to this list, but one last thing not to be overlooked… the knife was actually designed by the chief os the Special Interdictions unit of the Silent Heroes Foundation, and a portion of the proceeds go to fund their important and often dangerous work on wildlife conservation in Africa.
Where else are you going to get a kick ass knife while supporting a worthy cause?
SOG Flash 1
The SOG Flash 1 is another knife that might be categorized more as a tactical knife, but is likewise versatile in being able to perform non-lethal functions as well. The only folder in this set, (as so many top folders these days are going for fancy hybrid steels that I can’t specifically call “carbon steel” because of their alloy structures) this one makes a great EDC.
The blade is 2 1/2” of AUS-8 steel, which is carbon steel that can take a really razor sharp edge. It may not hold that edge as well as some other steels, but it is easy to keep very sharp. The FLASH 1 is a great piece of SOG tactical gear with an assisted open for quick one-handed release of the blade, but with powerful locking to ensure it stays during use, and stays closed in the pocket. The clip is designed for a very low, discreet pocket carry.
The blade is full flat ground with a slight drop point. The handle is glass-reinforced nylon. Ease of carry and use, overall quality and accessible cost combined with appealing design and a well-made blade got this great little piece of carbon steel to top of the list.
- You may want to read our review of the SOG Flash I here.
Remember, the qualities of a knife blade will almost always be more dependent on the skill of the craftsmanship than the particular steel. Whenever you’re buying a production model knife, there will be uncertainty and inconsistency in the handling of production. These are some suggestions that have historically performed well. Take care of your carbon steel blade and it will always be there for you — razor sharp and ready for anything! Give it a stropping and a light rub with oil after use and you will get a lifetime of pleasure from these blades, and maybe even pass them on to the next generation.
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