What is the Best Type of Steel for a Survival Knife?

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If you spend a lot of time out in nature, you probably know that there are specific tools that you should have on your person at all times.

One of the most essential tools you will ever take with you is a good quality survival knife.

Most people think that if they spend a lot of money on a survival knife, they get one made of the highest quality steel. This is not always the case.

The type of steel should depend on what the knife will be used for and the blade design. It isn’t always best to buy the most expensive knife.

In fact, the best knife could be one of the cheaper that would be best for what you need it for. It all depends on the steel used to make the blade and what purposes the blade will be used for.

Let’s look at the different types of steel used to make survival knives and how to treat the steel once you have your knife.

Best Steel for Survival Knives

For centuries, people have been working with various steel types to create the best steel for knives. It can be an exact science.

Several formulas are used to make alloys that each have their own very specific properties. These manufacturing specifications have certain designations, but unless you are into metallurgy, it isn’t likely that you’ll recognize more than a couple of these designations.

The two main types of steel used for survival knives (and most other knives) are stainless steel and carbon steel.

There are many arguments as to which is best for survival knives since each steel type’s properties can affect a knife’s performance, depending on what you need it for.

The knife’s use will be the best way to decide which type of steel your knife blade should be made from.

Carbon Steel

Basically, carbon steel has more carbon in it than a knife made with regular steel. There may be other alloys in carbon steel, but the carbon should be between 0.5% and 1.5% of the total metal for it to be deemed a carbon steel blade.

Many people prefer blades made with carbon steel because it can be sharpened to a really keen edge.

There are different ways that carbon steel can be treated. The type of treatment can play a huge role in the quality and characteristics of the metal.

One thing to take note of is if you are on a budget, carbon steel knives are cheaper than those made with stainless steel.

If you don’t want to have to do a lot of maintenance on your blade, carbon steel may not be your best option.

A blade made with carbon steel is more prone to corrosion than stainless steel, and it will be more likely to rust. A carbon steel blade needs to be oiled and honed regularly to keep it in working condition.

Stainless Steel

Many people think it will never rust or get stained because it is called stainless steel. This is actually not quite the truth. Yes, there is little work involved in cleaning a stainless steel blade, but it will rust if not correctly taken care of.

In most cases, steel contains 12.5% to 13.5% chromium. Because of the complex alloys, these knives have most of the same characteristics as those with blades made from carbon steel.

There is one exception, and that is sharpening. It is a lot easier to sharpen a carbon steel blade, especially when you are in the field.

Something else to consider is the fact that stainless steel blade knives are often much less expensive than those made with carbon steel. The most recommended stainless steels for knives are S60V, VG-10, BG-42, S90V, CPM S35VN, CPM 154, and AUS-8.

Best Type of Steel for a Survival Knife

Other Things to Look For

Not only should you consider the type of steel that the blade of your survival knife is made with, but there are also other things you should be looking for.

For instance, how is the steel treated? How is the blade finished? What is the blade coated with? These are all questions you need to look at when choosing your needs’ best survival knife.

Steel Treatment

Most knife manufacturers purchase untreated steel for their blades. This means that there has been no type of heat treatment done to the steel.

Heat treatment can alter the steel’s molecular structure; it can determine your knife’s hardness, strength, wear resistance, and durability. There are often several steps in the process of heat treating steel.


The first step in the heat treating process is pre-heating. The steel needs to be heated to 1,400 to 1,500° Fahrenheit for approximately half an hour. It requires a second heating at 1,850° to 1,950° Fahrenheit for half an hour to an hour.


Otherwise known as rapid cooling, quenching can range from changes in air temperature to cryogenic cooling. This is what is going to harden the carbide crystals in the steel.


Once the steel is quenched, it needs to be re-heated to a specific tempering temperature around 400° to 950° Fahrenheit. This is held for up to an hour, and it is done twice.

Blade Finish and Coating

One thing you really shouldn’t be concerned about is the blade finish. It doesn’t really matter if your knife is ugly. It’s how it works that really counts.

But, if you want an attractive knife, stainless steel is better looking than carbon steel.

Finally, we come to the blade coating. All knives can rust, particularly carbon steel, so they are coated. The coating can be blade oil, or in some cases, it is a silicon or polymer coating.

The coating should be periodically reapplied as it is not permanent.

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