Kinda reminds me of a line out of "Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid", when they're on the run. Cassidy asks, "Who's the best lawman?" The Kid replies, "Best? You mean toughest...or easiest to bribe?"
Everything has a context. When assessing bladesmiths, one person's best might mean perfection in finish work. Another's might be original design--either in terms of aesthetics or in terms of function, or both. Then again, one might ask who forges the best steel, assuming that by bladesmith you mean someone who forges rather than creating by stock removal.
In the October 1997 issue of BLADE Magazine, Ed Fowler reported on a 52100 blade tested by Metallographic Laboratory Services in California. The owner of the lab stated that the sample had the finest grain structure in the cutting edge of any steel he had ever examined, with carbide size between 1/2 and 1 micron. As Mr. Fowler said in the article, "This is as fine as it gets," comparing it to D2 at 10-15 microns and CPM420V at 2-4 microns.
That blade was forged and heat treated by Rick Dunkerley. The same knife was later put through a flex test in which it was clamped in a vise, bent 90 degrees, then bent back 180 degrees, back again 180 degrees, back again 180 degrees, back again 180 degrees, back again 180 degrees and finally cracked at the edge on the next flex. In cutting tests a Dunkerley 52100 blade has made over 1000 cuts through rope without re-sharpening. With a few strokes on a fine Arkansas, that edge was restored to full sharpness. Both the flex test and cutting test were witnessed by other knife makers with national reputations, Phil Wilson on the flex test and Barry Gallagher on the rope cutting, I believe.
52100 is Rick's basic "using knife" steel, and he uses and tests his own hunting knives as a professional outfitter and elk hunting guide in Montana. He also does some of the most elaborate mosaic damascus to be found, having won national awards in many categories, and has even forged CPM steels--both from powder and from bar stock.
I’d have to put him on my short list.
For variety of experience with forging different kinds of blades and steel, and for innovation, I’d have to add Steve Schwarzer. He’s forged just about anything one can forge in the way of knife blades and steels, and was instrumental in the development of mosaic damascus as we know it today. He studied techniques from ancient Italian glassware artists and applied them to the forging of damascus steel, continuing its development and perfection until it now has become the standard for beauty and intricacy in forged blade steels.
So, there’s two I’d have to look at putting in the top ten or fewer—probably fewer as far as US bladesmiths go. I admit I’m not familiar with the talent worldwide.