About every 5 years, the ‘best’ readily available knife steel changes. This means that it is about time to cast our sights out to the bleeding edge of metallurgy and see what is coming next.
We’re about 4 years and 11 months into the reign of the M390 family of steels. So, the calendar on best knife steel is about to turn over and, with it, all new technologies in steel, corrosion resistance, edge retention, toughness, hardness — brands are constantly refining the magic cocktail of elements that can offer up the best of it all.
We researched some of the top outlets and minds in the knife space to pull together this preview of the next generation of best knife steels. An important note for diehards: If you need in-depth information on steels, Knife Steel Nerds (KSN) is a terrific resource. Run by Larrin Thomas, an actual metallurgist, KSN is the go-to place for deep dives on steel. But don’t be surprised if about 40% of every article has you going to Wikipedia to figure out what is being discussed.
Here is the rundown of the upcoming class of best knife steels.
The Best Upcoming Knife Steels
It used to be that steel was like a medicine: There was no best steel, just good steel for a given job.
That is no longer true. Vanax and Magnacut represent steels that perform well in every way with no meaningful drawbacks anywhere. The fact that these steels are available on relatively inexpensive knives is very exciting.
So below, I break down the details on the most exciting new knife steels emerging as we enter 2022. The future of knife-making is indeed bright! Read on to learn, and watch for reviews on knives made with these steels in the coming year.
Lots of the steels on this list are so exotic they aren’t even out of the lab yet. But this steel, which is a sequel to S35VN and a grandchild of S30V, is out in force. Spyderco updated many evergreen models to run S45VN as a base steel, and the results are great.
It’s more corrosion-resistant than S30V is, and it performs quite well compared to Elmax, S35VN, and even M390.
The lead picture is a knife with S45VN, and it has functioned as promised. Even after a few months of tough carry, including a few camping trips and about 150 boxes being broken down, it is still sharp. Chris Reeve Knives and Spyderco have heavily invested in S45VN, and that is a good sign of things to come.
Bohler capitalizing on the brand recognition of its M390 steel isn’t a bad thing. Modifying the formula to make it a bit harder and less corrosion-resistant is downright splendid.
This is Bohler’s answer to S90V, with better edge retention than the current king of edge retention.
Personally, I like the balance that M390 represents, but the market is always looking for new stuff and this is, technically, new.
The only company making knives in significant numbers with this steel is Shirogorov, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see a Spyderco Mule using M390.
Cromax is actually a family of steels designed for industrial use, primarily in pistons for hydraulic systems. As a result, it is very tough and machines uniformly.
Currently, only Shirogorov uses the steel, labeled as “Cromax PM” on its Urusus model. The range of Cromax steels makes the possibilities tantalizing, as some are exceedingly corrosion-resistant and some are very tough.
Now, we just need to know which version Shiro is using.
It is a sign of the health of the knife market that in 2021 people are releasing steel formulations designed specifically for forging. If you haven’t had the pleasure of owning and using a forged knife, you should change that.
The hand-hewn look and feel are noticeably different than the CNC-ified perfection that you get in production blades.
Developed by two bladesmiths, Tobias Hangler and Marco Guldimann — after consultation with KSN’s Larrin Thomas — this steel is designed to make forging steels perform more like modern steels, with high edge-retention and hardness thanks to the inclusion of Tungsten (W).
One remarkable thing is that Apex Ultra maintains incredible toughness all the way up to around 67-68 HRc. Even modern PM steels have a hard time doing that.
This steel is finishing lab testing and should be available soon. Given that it is designed for forging, it is unlikely to show up on a production knife, which means only well-heeled folks who dabble in custom forged knives will get to experience Apex Ultra.
One of a new generation of “nitro swap” steels, where nitrogen is used as a hardening element instead of carbon, so as to increase corrosion resistance.
Shirogorov has a few Vanax blades in various models, but the easiest way to find a knife with this steel is to go to Quiet Carry. The Drift G10 is a $250 knife with absolutely perfect dimensions.
This steel is really a do-everything steel, as it is plenty hard (a usual stumbling block for nitro-steels) and still virtually rustproof. Like LC200N, this is a steel you can recommend to anyone doing anything.
No list of cutting-edge steels would be complete without Magnacut. Designed by KSN’s Larrin Thomas, this is another steel that tries to do everything well.
Based on early feedback from custom makers and a few reviewers that had special runs of famous knives with Magnacut, the results are stunning. In fact, Spyderco just announced that its new Salt knives will sport Magnacut. Not bad for a knife that was not aiming for ultra-high corrosion resistance.
I am stoked to get a Magnacut version of a favorite in hand as soon as possible.