Beginner’s Guide for Choosing the Best Steel for Swords
What’s in this article?
If you want a sword forged in the style of a Japanese samurai or a European knight, but you want it to look and feel as realistic as possible, you should consider a steel sword. Then, however, comes the fundamental question that might keep you up at night wondering what the best steel for a sword may be, and the answer to that question is a little bit trickier than you might think.
The question of what is superior to a Ferrari and a Ford F250, two vehicles with distinct purposes and features, inevitably leads to various responses. Steel and swords are similar in that respect. In this article, we will keep it as simple as possible without going into detail about low carbon percentages or quenching procedures and give you the types of steel and their best uses.
What makes Steel good for Swords
Steel is an iron and carbon alloy that is stronger and more fracture resistant than other types of iron. It is the best metal that can be used for making swords, and this why steel swords have been used throughout history and evolving over the decades.
However, the steel we have today is far superior to what folks had fifty years ago, much alone a thousand years ago. Even the lowest current level of steel quality will outperform a Tamahagane Katana from Japan, or anything medieval for that matter. Choosing modern quality steel should satisfy these factors:
- Edge Holding
- Shock Resistance
There is no such thing as the best steel for a sword. There are many different types of steel when making swords because each one is more suitable for certain applications. An imperfect slash on a hard target will almost always result in a broken sword.
Best for Decorations: Stainless Steel
The stainless type is the best sword that can keep its look without much maintenance. It is unsuitable for cutting or testing out its edge because it has a very rigid structure, making it very brittle. These are two major flaws that prevent a sword from being truly effective, leading people not to consider them when buying a functional sword.
If we want to get technical, stainless steel gets its name from the high percentage of the element chromium it contains (typically 11% or higher). This works very well for knife-making with smaller blades. When we consider swords with blades longer than 12-13 inches (30-33 cm), the grain boundaries between both the chromium and the remainder of the steel begin to weaken, which might lead to the blade breaking.
That said, some expert swordsmiths know their way around these types of stainless steel swords and can produce a battle-ready blade with good edge retention. A considerable amount of work goes into making these types of swords, which makes them rather expensive.
Best for Functionality: (High) Carbon Steel
The best overall functional sword you can get as a beginner is made of high-carbon steel, and it serves the purpose of a flexible sword with a hard enough blade. Depending on the type, it will require adequate maintenance while keeping a sharp edge that won’t shatter easily.
Getting a Carbon Steel sword is an excellent choice for a beginner; you cannot go wrong whether you opt for Japanese or Medieval European swords. This explains why it was used so much in the past, and today, it is still the most popular modern steel used for blade making.
Here we will mention some of the most popular carbon steel swords you can use. To keep it simple, the more carbon content, the more the blade is prone to corrosion and needs more maintenance.
The cheapest type of carbon steel is 1045. This type of steel is relatively soft while also being able to function like a battle-ready sword. Even this amount of carbon can be highly useful if manufactured by a professional blacksmith with proper sword-making skills. However, the downsides are that they don’t retain their sharp edge as well as other types.
A more expensive but better option than 1045 overall carbon type is 1055. It does require a higher skill set of the swordsmith, which increases the price significantly. But 1055 has a much sharper edge that is more efficient for cutting. It is also tougher and more impact resistant, so it is a good choice if you can afford the higher price tag.
The most common carbon steel for making swords is 1060 because of its fair balance between flexibility and hardness. When manufactured with the correct tempering, it is the best carbon steel blade for a functional sword. It will keep its hard edge and a strong backbone and is flexible enough for a Katana blade.
However, the steel Katana is clay tempered when made with this carbon, which is hardened on the cutting edge but flexible on the core. It also gives the original shape of the hamon, the line on the blade. It is a massive upgrade from 1045, and with proper cleaning and maintenance skills, it is the best beginner sword to consider.
If you want a sword that keeps its edge but is more prone to corrosion and breakage due to the higher carbon content, 1075 is your best bet.
The last type of carbon steel with much manganese but the least corrosion resistance is 1095. With proper maintenance, it will remain a functional sword with an extremely sharp edge that is still stiff and brittle. That makes the durability of this steel low when compared to the other swords, especially if the blade’s edge alignment is not perfect.
Best for Toughness: Tool Steel
The use of tool steels is growing in the swordmaking business. Swords made from such steels are formidable in combat because of their exceptional toughness, ability to retain an edge and resilience. So if you want a sword that can keep its shape and power, consider these.
Sword blades with tool steel are best for enduring high levels of pressure. They are constructed to withstand repeated blows without compromising durability and will hold their edge well enough. They work very well for broad types of blades but would also work great for a Katana sword.
Like there are different types of Carbon steels, there’s a variety in the tool steel section. Here, however, we will stick to the most important ones you can use as a beginner that will be sufficient.
A blade made from T10 tool steel is very tough, even stronger than one made from 1095 carbon. It has a relatively high amount of carbon, making it very powerful and resistant to many surfaces you may strike it against. While it does need proper maintenance, it is very resistant to scratches, scuffs, and abrasions due to the tungsten. This also means it comes at a much higher price.
L6 Bainite Steel
Bainite is created by repeatedly heating L6 or low alloy steel. The microstructure of bainite in steel resembles flat plates. It is complex, harder to construct and expensive. Because of the Bainite, the steel should keep its extreme hardness and edge longer than usual. It is known to be the toughest steel blade type to consider. If you aren’t concerned about price and want the sturdiness of a sword that could last a lifetime, L6 is a perfect choice.
S7 Shock Steel
The S7 is seen as an upgrade of the L6, with many of the same characteristics. It is incredibly shock resistant and tough and has a lower carbon and chromium content. The manufacturing and design processes are more complex, making it one of the rarest types of steel swords and one of the most expensive. It is one of the most desired types of steel, so if price is not a factor, it’s well worth considering.
Best for Flexibility: Spring Steel
Although more types of spring or alloy steel are available for making swords, only two can fit the right amount of maintenance to make a proper sword for a beginner. Usually, the other types are custom ordered. These types have the same amount of carbon as the 1060 steel blade but with a certain kind of twist and flexibility that can allow the blade to bend and return to its original shape.
This makes spring steel very popular and useful for making rapiers, scimitars, and even samurai swords. If you are a beginner, they are worth looking into.
5160 is possibly the most popular spring steel blade used to make medieval swords and large knives. Wear resistance is their strong suit. When made by a professional blacksmith with proper differential hardening, which means making different parts of the blade stronger or flexible, it becomes an extremely tough and bendable sword that excels in any cutting scenario.
The type of steel with the least chance of breaking is the 9260, although it is not a guarantee. They have a well-known reputation for durability as they can bend and, with time, possibly be fixed to their original form. 9280 can be considered an even stronger type of steel than 5160 due to its hardness, which can withstand a good amount of cutting.
Best for Looks: Damascus Steel (Folded Steel)
Damascus swords are created by folding any type of steel into a distinctive, wavy, rippling, or rain-like pattern. Originally developed in Ancient India, the technique of making what is now known as Damascus Steel was brought to Europe through the Silk Road, a trade route spanning and connecting everything from Asia to the east and Europe to the west.
This steel was the predecessor to the current steel we use today, which is iron that has been melted down to a liquid state and then has carbon incorporated into it. Because it has been improved upon, this steel isn’t the strongest, sharpest, or lightest. When compared to any other type of modern steel, it falls flat.
It is considered one of the best-looking types of steel for a sword that can be made, but it comes with a high price tag. It is less functional than the other types of steel because making the repeated welds filled with impurities make it inferior to others.
Is the Type of Steel More Important Than the Blacksmith?
The most crucial point regarding all types of cutting tools that determines what type of steel sword you will have, along with its quality, longevity, and effectiveness, is heat treatment. This factor alone means that the blacksmith is more important, no matter the type of metal you work with.
With a combination of heating and cooling, the steel can be made hard or soft, bouncy or brittle. When manufactured with a proper blade geometry, you can see some remarkable aspects of the blades that, based on their steel, should not have held up. But simultaneously, you can see quite the opposite, so blacksmiths are truly important.