All knife collectors know the difference between high-carbon and stainless steel knives. But the differences between steels go more in-depth than those two major groups. Within each category, there are a plethora of different steels with different properties.
When I first saw how many types of steel there are, I felt quite overwhelmed. How was I ever going to learn the differences between all those digits in steel names?
But slowly, I began to learn about the steel types. I learned their strengths and weaknesses and what they are suitable for. As I learned these, I got to appreciate my knives so much more.
This appreciation is what I hope to pass to you. Today, we’re going to look at a very common type of steel, 440 stainless steel. So without any further adieu, let’s get straight into it!
440 Steel Properties
To know the differences between steels, it’s essential to have a look at their properties. When you know what makes up steel, you’ll get a better idea of why it is the way it is.
For 440 steel, things can get confusing. This is because there is more than one way to get 440 steel. There’s 440A, 440B, 440C, and more. I’m going to focus on 440C because this is the one with the most carbon.
The chemical elements of 440C stainless steel are:
- 0.95-1.2% Carbon
- 1% Manganese
- 1% Silicon
- 18% Chromium
- 0.75% Molybdenum
- 0.04 Phosphorous
- 0.03 Sulfur
Together, these form 440 steel. But what are these chemical elements, and how exactly do they affect the steel? Let’s take a look
Carbon is the element that gives the steel its hardness. For knives, high carbon means a very hard and sharp blade.
A lot of people have a misconception that stainless steel knives don’t have a lot of carbon. I used to believe this myself. However, this is not true. Most stainless steels don’t have a lot, but this doesn’t mean they can’t have a lot.
At up to 1.2% carbon, 440C steel is very high-carbon steel. This makes it very hard and sharp, making it great for cutting.
Because of its high-carbon, this also makes the 440C knife more brittle. This is especially true when you compare it with other stainless steel knives. You may want to be careful when using a knife with this steel.
Another hardening element that you find in steel is manganese. Like carbon, manganese also hardens the steel. It does this to a lesser extent, then carbon does, but it has the same effect.
Manganese is added to help with the hardening when the steel is being formed. That’s why 1% of this steel is made up of this element.
Yet another hardening element found in 440 steel is silicon. Yes, it hardens the steel, but it does more than that. Otherwise, carbon and manganese would be enough already.
The reason why silicon is necessary is to deoxidize the blade. Forgers add silicon to prevent damages and decays in their finished product.
The main difference between carbon and stainless steel is the presence of chromium. This is the element that gives stainless steel its ability to resist corrosion.
At 18%, 440C steel has a lot of chromium. This is why this knife will stay nice and shiny even when you use it a lot.
Molybdenum, Phosphorous, and Sulfur
These three elements take up a very small percentage of 440 steel. None of them gets more than 1% of the pie. That said, they still do have an effect on your knife.
Molybdenum is another element that helps with corrosion resistance. It’s another material that puts the “stainless” in stainless steel.
Phosphorous adds some strength to the steel. Carbon and manganese harden a blade, making it brittle. Phosphorous provides some much-needed strength so that the blade won’t shatter on impact.
Finally, sulfur is an element that helps in the forging. With this around, it is much easier to cut and mold the steel into a blade.
Is 440 Steel Good for Knives and Katanas?
Given that 440 stainless steel is very common in knives, it must be good. And it is, 440 stainless steel is great for knives.
That said, there are some knife enthusiasts who look down on 440 steel. 440 has been around for a long time already. In its first days, everyone saw it as premium steel. Today, there are better steels around.
Because of this, some people avoid 440 steel. But this does not mean that it is bad steel in any way. Big Brown Bear explains more on this in his Youtube video here:
I agree with him completely. There is nothing wrong with 440 steel at all. If it is forged well, you get some excellent knives. The bad reputation that 440 steel sometimes gets is not based on facts.
When used for knives, 440 steel creates a hard, sharp, and long-lasting blade. Corrosion will not be a worry, unlike when you have carbon-steel blades.
Things are not the same when it comes to katanas, though. I generally tell people that if they want a katana, stainless steel isn’t the best choice. This is because of what katanas are used for.
Katanas are swords. In medieval times, the samurai used them as their primary weapon. This is why hardness and sharpness were very, very important. While 440 steel is hard and sharp compared to other stainless steel, it doesn’t come close to an authentic katana.
If you are getting a katana for display purposes only, 440 steel will do okay. Its stainless properties will preserve it for a long time on the shelf.
How Strong is 440 Steel?
The high carbon content of the 440 makes it stronger than most stainless steel knives. As also explained in the video above, the shape of the knife also matters a lot. The thickness and the shape all play a big part in the strength of a blade.
When it is forged well, 440 steel is very strong. You can hit it against concrete, and it won’t chip as seen in this video:
This gives you an idea of how good 440 steel can be. So don’t listen to the naysayers. 440 steel is a great strong steel for knives.
Will 440 Steel Rust?
One common misconception a lot of beginners have is that stainless steel will never rust. That’s why when rust starts appearing on their blades, they panic. They think that they’ve been scammed. They think that their blade isn’t stainless steel, after all.
This is not the case. Stainless steel prevents stains and rust, and it does not eliminate them completely. If you take your 440 steel knife fishing, for example, it will rust over time. The saltwater is going to be too much for the corrosion-resistant properties in the knife.
Also, 440C steel is not the best stainless steel either. Because of its high carbon content, this will rust faster than other types of stainless steel. It’s very difficult to get the perfect knife, because the more rust resistance you have, the less hardness and sharpness you get. On the flip side, harder and sharper blades are also less rust-resistant.
That said, it is still stainless steel. It can cut through the acids in foods without rusting one bit. This makes it an excellent knife for the kitchen.
Is it Easy to Sharpen 440 Steel Blades?
Yes. There is nothing particularly tricky about sharpening 440 steel blades. You sharpen it like you would any other knife you have around.
I’ve mentioned this in previous articles about 1095 steel, and I’ll say it again; high-carbon means a hard and sharp blade. This means that 440 steel can retain its sharpness for a long time. This is why, unlike other stainless steel knives, you don’t have to sharpen 440 very often.
What is the best sharpener for 440, you may ask? Anything will do. I always prefer to use my classic oilstone since, for me, this does the best job. But regardless of what you have around, you can get your 440 steel razor-sharp.
440 doesn’t get the credit that it deserves a lot of times. And if you are unaware of these things, you may be one of the ones who look down on this steel. That’s why I believe it is so important to know the details of this steel.
Now that you are well informed, you now know that this steel is not something to laugh at. It is a high-quality steel that can make excellent knives. It was a premium grade steel in days past, and today, it still holds its own. That’s why when you see 440 stainless steel on your knife, you know that it is good.