Welcome to Sword Steel – a Complete guide
When choosing a sword, many people may ask, “What is the best sword steel?”. This question is a very complicated answer because choice of sword steel depends on what the sword will be used for. If you are looking for a decorative sword, you would want a steel that requires little maintenance and will be shiny for years to come. Stainless steels usually fit this bill, but the sword will not be usable for anything other than hanging on your wall. If you want a battle ready or real sword, steel choice becomes a little trickier. Then we also have different types of temper on a sword. We will go over in depth into sword steels, tempering and so on below.
A sword first starts as a billet of steel and is then heated and formed into a rough sword like shape. Depending on the type and length of sword, this may take a few hours or many. After the sword is shaped to its final form, the sword will be tempered. Tempering a sword is very technical and probably one of the most crucial parts of making a battle ready functional sword. The sword will be heated to a temperature that will achieve the desired temper and then quenched or “dunked” into water or oil to rapidly (But not too rapidly) cool the blade. This will harden and toughen the blade but if cooled too quickly, the blade will crack. Many blades may be destroyed during this process. Sword tempering is just as if not more important than choosing a steel type when buying a sword.
Swords are usually either mono hardened or differentially hardened. Mono hardening is when the entire blade is heated to the same temperature and cooled all at once. In differential hardening, clay or a similar material is added to a portion of the blade to keep it from heating up as much as the rest of the blade. The reason for this is to give the cutting edge (the uncovered part) more hardness and the covered part will not be as hard but will be able to absorb shock as it will be more pliable. This is most often seen in Samurai swords and can create a hamon or “temper line”. This is the line that is seen separating the two hardness levels of the steel. A hard cutting edge will be able to hold an edge better and cut through harder materials. The softer spine of the sword will be able to absorb the shock of the cutting blow and allow the sword to flex rather than break.
We typically think that mono hardened blades are best for beginners as they will take more abuse and are less apt to chip if a misdirected cut occurs. Cold steel has made there legendary tough sword blades from mono hardened steel. Today, there are a lot of reasons to choose an expertly mono hardened blade over the traditional differential temper. Most medieval and European style swords are mono hardened since they are made more for slashing blows against shields and usually take more abuse in their style of use.
We recommend a differentially tempered blade to someone that has experience cutting as these blades are more likely to chip on the edge of a misdirected cut or with improper technique cutting hard targets.
Most sword makers today have perfected their art of tempering and as long as you buy from a trusted brand, you can simply choose what type of temper you prefer.
Now that we got tempering out of the way, we can concentrate on sword steels. Choosing a sword by its steel is most important when choosing a battle ready sword. For decorative swords, most are made of some blend of stainless steel which requires little maintenance but is not good for cutting substantial targets. This does not mean that all swords made of stainless steel are junk or unusable, but we would not recommend cutting 3 inch thick bamboo with it. We will discuss this more in-depth in our upcoming sword buying guide.
So this leaves us with carbon steel. Carbon steel is used in all battle ready swords, and typically starts at 1045. In the number of a carbon steel, you can tell how much carbon is in it. 1045 is a medium carbon steel that has .45% of carbon makeup. Likewise a 1060 High carbon steel blade has .60% carbon and so on. Typically, the most commonly used sword steels are 1045, 1060, and 1095. Many smiths are now using other steels like 9260 and other spring steels where silicon is added to make the blade tougher. As you can see, the first 2 numbers have changed. The 92 in 9260 means that Silicon Manganese has been added to the steel. Below is a chart showing the different types of steels. (Not all are used to make swords though)
|10XX||Carbon steels||Plain carbon, Mn 1.00% max|
|11XX||Resulfurized free machining|
|12XX||Resulfurized / rephosphorized free machining|
|15XX||Plain carbon, Mn 1.00-1.65%|
|13XX||Manganese steel||Mn 1.75%|
|23XX||Nickel steels||Ni 3.50%|
|31XX||Nickel-chromium steels||Ni 1.25%, Cr 0.65-0.80%|
|32XX||Ni 1.75%, Cr 1.07%|
|33XX||Ni 3.50%, Cr 1.50-1.57%|
|34XX||Ni 3.00%, Cr 0.77%|
|40XX||Molybdenum steels||Mo 0.20-0.25%|
|41XX||Chromium-molybdenum steels||Cr 0.50-0.95%, Mo 0.12-0.30%|
|43XX||Nickel-chromium-molybdenum steels||Ni 1.82%, Cr 0.50-0.80%, Mo 0.25%|
|47XX||Ni 1.05%, Cr 0.45%, Mo 0.20-0.35%|
|46XX||Nickel-molybdenum steels||Ni 0.85-1.82%, Mo 0.20-0.25%|
|48XX||Ni 3.50%, Mo 0.25%|
|50XX||Chromium steels||Cr 0.27-0.65%|
|50XXX||Cr 0.50%, C 1.00% min|
|51XXX||Cr 1.02%, C 1.00% min|
|52XXX||Cr 1.45%, C 1.00% min|
|61XX||Chromium-vanadium steels||Cr 0.60-0.95%, V 0.10-0.15%|
|72XX||Tungsten-chromium steels||W 1.75%, Cr 0.75%|
|81XX||Nickel-chromium-molybdenum steels||Ni .30%, Cr 0.40%, Mo 0.12%|
|86XX||Ni .55%, Cr 0.50%, Mo 0.20%|
|87XX||Ni .55%, Cr 0.50%, Mo 0.25%|
|88XX||Ni .55%, Cr 0.50%, Mo 0.35%|
|92XX||Silicon-manganese steels||Si 1.40-2.00%, Mn 0.65-0.85%, Cr 0-0.65%|
|93XX||Nickel-chromium-molybdenum steels||Ni 3.25%, Cr 1.20%, Mo 0.12%|
|94XX||Ni 0.45%, Cr 0.40%, Mo 0.12%|
|97XX||Ni 0.55%, Cr 0.20%, Mo 0.20%|
|98XX||Ni 1.00%, Cr 0.80%, Mo 0.25%|
So again, the first 2 numbers are the type of steel, and the last 2 numbers are the carbon content. It can get a little confusing right? Well thankfully most swords today are made of 1045-1095 high carbon steel, with a few exceptions. Below, we will go over all of the sword steels used today and what they mean to you when buying a sword.
Sword Steels by Type (Click to view available items with that steel)
1045 carbon steel has less carbon (.45%), where higher carbon steels like 1095 has more (.95%), inversely 1095 has less manganese and 1045 has more. So in essence, 1095 steel would have more wear resistance, but would also be less tough. 1045 carbon steel holds an okay edge, 1095 steel holds an edge great, and is easy to sharpen. We recommend 1045 carbon steel for beginners as it may put up with more abuse than a higher carbon steel and is typically the cheapest steel used in a battle ready sword.
1050 Carbon steel is a very tough medium-high carbon steel. As the name suggests, it has .50% carbon and is great for use in swords, hatchets and any weapon that needs toughness.
1055 carbon steel is right on the border between a medium and a high carbon steel, with a carbon content between 0.50%-0.60% and with manganese between 0.60%-0.90% as the only other component. The carbon content and lean alloy make this a shallow hardening steel with a quenched hardness between Rc 60-64 depending on exact carbon content. These combination of factors make this one of the toughest steels available because, when quenched, it produces a near saturated lathe martensite with no excess carbides, avoiding the brittleness of higher carbon materials. 1055 carbon steel is particularly suited to applications where strength and impact resistance is valued above all other considerations and will produce blades of almost legendary toughness.
1060 and 1065 carbon steel is a fairly basic steel with only Carbon and Manganese added to the Iron. The second pair of Numbers in the 10xx naming convention refers to the amount of Carbon in the steel. 1095 would have .95%, 1060 would have .60% and so on.
1095 tends to be the most commonly used steel for knives out of the bunch, with some of the lower carbon varieties like 1060 more common in swords. These steels are very good for differentially tempering and can have a visible temper line (hamon). 1095 can be hardened extremely high at RC66, though at that hardness, impact toughness would be severely weakened.
1075 carbon steel is a high carbon steel like 1095 steel with less carbon. 1075 carbon steel makes for a very tough blade that is easy to sharpen and will keep a nice sharp edge. It is great for swords, knives, axes and machetes due to its resilient toughness.
1095 Carbon steel is a plain carbon steel, which means it has low resistance to corrosion, and low to medium edge retention. The benefit of this steel is it’s easy to sharpen, will take an extremely sharp edge and is generally available at a low cost. When tempered properly, 1095 steel is great for swords as when it is tempered properly, can have and keep a great edge. For swords, this steel is not recommended for beginners.
65Mn steel is a readily-available Chinese steel that is formulated to provide good wear resistance and hardness. The medium-high carbon content makes for a high degree of toughness and resilience, while the manganese, in addition to improving these properties, improves the hot-working characteristics of the steel, making it an excellent candidate for forged sword blades and hard use knives and machetes.
1566 Spring Steel is a high-carbon and manganese spring steel used by Hanwei in many of their differentially hardened Japanese swords and through-hardened medieval swords. This deep hardening steel provides a consistent microstructure ensuring a long life and excellent edge holding in demanding applications.
T-10 tool steel is basically the Chinese equivalent of our 1095, but it has silicon added as an alloying element to improve the steel’s strength and wear resistance (edge-holding) properties. T-10 steel sword blades can be tempered to a high hardness and hold an edge well. As with 1095, rust resistance is low, and T-10 blades must be carefully maintained.
5160 carbon steel is a steel popular with forgers, it is extremely popular now and a very high-end steel. It is essentially a simple spring steel with chromium added for hardness. 5160 steel has good edge holding, but is known especially for its outstanding toughness (like L-6). Often used for swords (hardened in the low 50s Rc) because of its toughness, and is also used for hard use knives and tomahawks (hardened up near the 60s Rc).
440 stainless steel is a higher grade of cutlery steel, with more carbon, allowing for much better edge retention when properly heat-treated. It can be hardened to approximately Rockwell 58 hardness, making it one of the hardest stainless steels. Due to its toughness and relatively low cost, most display-only and replica swords or knives are made of 440 stainless. 440 stainless steel is Available in four grades: Type 440A—has the least amount of carbon making this the most stain-resistant. Type 440B—slightly more carbon than 440A. Type 440C—has the greatest amount of carbon of the Type 440 variants. Strongest and considered more desirable in knifemaking than the Type 440A variant, except for diving or other salt-water applications. This variant is also more readily available than other variants of Type 440. Type 440F—a free-machining variant. Contains the same high carbon content as Type 440C.
While usually used for knives, 3CR13 steel is a Chinese Stainless steel that is similar in quality to 420J2 (AUS 4) stainless steel.
L6 steel is a fantastic all-purpose knife steel, that can be used for both knives as well as swords. L6 is famous for it’s use as sword steel heat treated until a Bainite microstructure is formed, which is not an easy process. This is extremely popular in the Japanese Katana right now and is starting to become more widespread as production companies learn easier and more efficient processes for harnessing the potential of L6 Bainite. This process was pioneered by Howard Clark, but is now L6/Bainite is produced by Hanwei Paul Chen as well.
In knives, it is common to see L6 used in larger custom fixed blade knives as well as used in combination with other steels such as O-1 in Damascus, but it is almost never seen in production knives. L6 is not an easy steel to work with and is relatively difficult to grind and heat treat in general compared with other steels.
HWS-1s and HWS-2S steel is a proprietary steel made by Hanwei. According to the manufacturer, HWS-1S Steel combines superior performance with an outstanding O-choji hamon. This steel offers the best edge-holding capability and resilience of any blade ever produced by Hanwei. The outstanding performance characteristics of blades forged from HWS-1S steel derive from a combination of the careful selection of alloying elements and a complex processing procedure, basically involving the manipulation of the steel’s carbon content across the blade section. This results in a very tough and resilient blade with a hard, highly abrasion-resistant edge.
HWS-2S steel may be either the same basic steel with a slight difference, but exact specs are not listed. Customers who have purchased the swords made of this steel report excellent cutting ability and edge toughness.
Damascus steel swords are highly sought after for their beauty and functionality. Modern Damascus steel is made from several types of steel and iron slices welded together to form a billet and thus the awesome pattern seen in the finished blade.
Folded steel swords are very sought after for the traditional look and beauty that a folded steel blade brings. The best known part of the of the Japanese sword making process is the folding of the steel, where the swords are made by repeatedly heating, hammering and folding the metal. The process of folding metal to improve strength and remove impurities is frequently attributed to specific Japanese smiths in legend. Today, it is more for aesthetics and traditional appeal as metals are pure today.
ASSAB K120C steel is a powder steel, made in Japan under license from SSAB of Sweden. It is similar to Uddeholm UHB 20. UHB 20 and K120C powder steel is typically considered the same as 1095 high carbon steel.
Did we forget any? Let us know in the comments section below!