Sword steel

Aug 15, 1999
I just had a guy ask me to make a katana for him. I usually work with ats-34, and some 440c for hunting and tactical knives. I favor ats-34. Which would be better for the sword?
Neither. A stainless sword is too brittle for actual use.

Katanas can only take so much bashing around anyway, so if it's just gonna be a wallhanger, stainless is passable. In that case pick the cheapest.
What type of steel would be best then? If not stainless.
I have no idea of his plans for it but I am assuming a wall hanger.
I would prefer to make it a sword that could be used, even if he only plans on hanging it on the wall
5160 is commonly used, and is probably as good as any.

Stainless will require even less than the minimal maintainence 5160 will as a wallhanger, and 440C will last long enough to give an intruder a good whack or two.

The problem with stainless steels being too brittle for a blade of this size is mostly a pain for dedicated swordsmen/women who are going to be doing a lot of test cutting and going after pells, maybe even a few sword feats.

But if you might at some point get serious about swords, I'd reccomend against using stainless.
I have to agree with Snick on 5160. Other suitable steels would be 1075, 1080, or 1095.

Heat treating a blade of sword length can be tricky. But the carbon steels are more forgiving of mistakes.

Consider having him buy a carbon steel blade from somewhere else like Alanta Cutlery, and you can hilt and sharpen it for the intended purpose. -Brian
What about D2 for s shorter sword, say a 24" blade. I am not arguing against anything else, just posing a question.
You can buy 5160 (spring steel) in flat stock
that is annealed and grind it Stock removal as in any stain-resistant steel and have a decient piece if heat treated correct as far as being able to come up with the correct size and as snick said it will hold an edge and will be tough.


Don't walk in tradition just because it feels good!!!!!
Romans 10:9,10
Psalm 91

I'm not sure I agree that stainless is unsuitable, though I feel that steel that stresses toughness (as few stainless types do) would be better.

A few years back I read a review of a Katana-like "Combat Sword" in tactical knives. The blade was ATS-34 and held up nicely to the reviewer's abuse. This convinced me to use the same ATS-34 I'd used in smaller blades for a pattern of "Combat Machete" I had been working on. This is the result:


The blade is 15", not quite sword length, and fully flat-ground from 3/16" stock because I wanted to balance strength and weight with a machete's handling and geometry (as much as possible, anyhow). The idea was to make a tool that would serve as heavy but tough machete 99% of the time, but should the user ever (for some bizarre reason) find himself in a close engagement where a firearm was unavailable or inappropriate, would give a massive advantage versus the average "combat" knife.

Anyhow, I tested this blade by hacking down several saplings, chopping through a hardwood 4"x4", cutting stacks of coins (6 pennies was my record, but I'll bet someone with better control could do 10 - it's hard for me to swing hard and hit a penny squarely!), and finally chopping into aluminum barstock. The barstock caused edge deformation but no chipping. The other tests only caused some dulling. The heat-treatment was by Texas Knifemaker's Supply, who seem to treat ATS-34 a little softer than the factory standard (60-61Rc), which probably accounts for this performance.

Now, that's not quite sword length, and I never parried another piece of steel with it, but I do feel from my experience that ATS-34 is not "too brittle" to be used in a sword (especially at greater thickness than my fully-ground 3/16"). Not as good a choice as 5160, to be sure, but if it's what you have on hand and are comfortable with, I think it should do fine.

-Drew Gleason
Little Bear Knives
A-2 would be my choice. It dosent warp like crazy because it is an air quench steel. You can take it out of the furnace and clamp it in a jig and it will come out straight as an arrow, and tempered back to 58-59 rc is a wicked cutter.

I'm not familiar with D2, as in I've never actualy used it to my knowledge, I am familiar with the spec sheet, bu that's different.

Anyway, I would guess if you're talking about a truly sword-length blade that it wouldn't be what you'd want.

Knife guys and sword guys are different people, some people are both, but what you know about one only goes so far with the other.

A big knife isn't really a sword, even if it does have the longest blade you've ever seen. A swordsman uses his weapon differently than a knifesman uses his tool. Until you actualy start practicing swordsmanship, and I mean sparring with steel and train with pells not just katas in the dojo, it's hard to see the differences.

I don't believe in holding on to stuff just `cause they're old, if it works that's one thing, but if it's just old it's got nothing for me. This isn't a case of clinginess, it's pratical evaluation.

Anyway, ATS-34 is fine for a big knife, maybe even a blade up to around 18 inches, but when you start talking two feet, three feet, and using it like a sword, you're talking a carbon steel.

I'm a big fan of A2, it's in my Project 1 and that's one of my favorite knives yet, I'd agree you can make a good big knife from it, but I have serious doubts about it as a sword steel. Especialy at such a high hardness.

However, katanas have always had harder, and hence more brittle, blades than our Western tools; so it just might work for a katman. Just keep the spine soft because that's what those guys have to parry with.

Actualy I think that rules out A2, I hear that stuff can't be differentialy tempered.

Check out this link:

This is a forum visited by many prominent swordmakers.

I take it a hamon would not be required? In anycase, 5160 is a great choice. The only complaints I've heard were quality control problems because so much of this stuff is made. If you can get your hands on military grade 5160, that'll be ideal.

I've heard of great swords made with the following steels:

5160, 6150, 9260, W1, W2, 1050/60/70/75/84/86, L6, S5, EN44, EN45.

Some of this stuff is available in rod stock only and isn't very user friendly to stock removal folks.

For all out strength, Howard Clark can HT a L6 blade in to all banite for you.
A2 and D2 are both air hardening steels and are generally thorough hardened. I've heard Randal Graham mention D2 being better than A2 for katanas. But he himself only work with water hardening steels.

I have to respectfully disagree with Snickersnee on katana's brittleness. A properly constructed katana is not at all brittle. Hard edges are not automatically brittle. So long as your heat treat is right (the grain structure very fine etc).

I love katanas as well as European swords. Japanese swords tend to hold a better edge, but will bend easier. But so far as cracking and breaking, I believe a well made katana can take the same abuse as any well made European sword of the same size.
I base my comment about edge brittleness, which I should have said specificaly, based on observations in sparring with steel swords.

When a kat man failed to catch my sword on his spine, pieces of his edge invariably nicked out.

When I caught his edge on my edge, my edge nicked and his cracked.

A katana can take enough abuse to make it a functional weapon, but it is not as tough all around.

As for edge retention, those double edged European swords have a reload; in addition to a stronger thrusting profile and the ability to make false edge attacks.

I'm not trying to bash anybody, just establish the reasons for my preference.
I believe it. I assume you were both using a modern reproduction of the two weapons? A lot has to do with who made the sword as and not to what kind of a sword it was.

If you take a reinactment sword from Starfire (unrealistically heavy, thick edge etc) and pit it against an antique Euro sword, that antique is going to get destroyed in no time.

D-2 better than A-2 for a Katana? That doesn't sound right, but if Randal Graham said it...

Ernie Mayer has made a bunch of his Short Swords - 15 to 18 inch blades - out of ATS-34, uniformly tempered to 61 RcH. If you cryo treat ATS-34 and temper it right, it comes out pretty tough.

Barry Dawson is another guy who has made probably hundreds of katanas and wakizashis out of differentially tempered 440C, and his pieces have very good reputations.


Goat, if we're just talking patterns, yeah I tend to agree with what you're saying. If you're talking historical weaponry, it's another matter.

The pattern of blade itself isn't neccesarily any weaker, but there was a significant difference in the way a traditional "broadsword" was made and how a katana was built. They are also products of metalurgies of differing levels of sophistication.

The two swords in question however were a traditonaly made broadsword vs. a differnetialy tempered katana of carbon steel, but not made of the traditional laminated and folded stuff.

If the katana had been made in the traditional manner the outcome would have been the same because that edge is just too hard for taking hits from those Western shearing swords. Now if you did a differential temper in the traditional folded and laminated steel, but kept the edge a bit softer than typical; then it could probably take a smack from a longsword without too much damage.

As for a stage combat sword vs. an actual antique, yeah it'd probably smash up that antique. Unless is was very well preserved. However, a modern piece made in the traditional manner would fair pretty well, as it is a weapon that's designed and built for heavy combat. A stage piece like a Starfire can take more bashing, but then again it's practicaly useless as a weapon.

You can make a stong and tough katana with modern methods and materials, as long as you know how to make swords instead of big knives.

Here's where I read Randal's comments:


I agree with what you say. European swords in the late Middle Ages were tougher than Japanese swords of the same era. They had to put up with a more demanding competition with armor.

But, I still say a properlly heat treated katana. Even with the harder edge, wouldn't suffer a fatal crack that easily. When you stike swords edge to edge, damage is inevitable. But it shouldn't be catastrophic and irrepairible. But I guess we'll never know short of bashing a couple of antiques together.

If you're into industuctible swords, look into Howard Clark's L6 blades. Banite body with a matensite edge. Tested to 160 degree flex. Too bad it's only availible for katanas, but I've interested Howard to experiment with Western blades. . . someday.
Also, it's my understanding that many western swords were differentially tempered. I know Michael "Tinker" Pearce gives his blades a 59 hrc edge and 45-48 body. Does anyone know how common was differential tempering in Medival Europe?
I'm not too familiar with Tinker's work, I keep trying to decide wether I'm going to get another sword or not; but the differential tempering thing is new to me.

Unless you're talking tang and blade. I know those are tempered differently, and possibly some of the single-edged swords; maybe the early slashing sabers(the later examples were thrusters and spring tempered so they could be bent into nearly a circle to gaurd against impact from a full gallop on horseback).

The pattern welded blades of the Dark Ages would have had harder edges then centers by the nature of the material.

Note: "Damascus" isn't pattern welded. Just because some modern smiths see a pattern or can produce on in it does mean it's pattern welded. This is a term that is used to describe swords constucted with a core of high and low carbon(or iron) bars twisted and forged together, and then a seperate high carbon edge was welded on. This is not wootz either. Wootz has a high cabon edge, but that's because the carbon core is sandwiched between two layers of some other steel. Wholey different from pattern welded blades which only have the cutting edge of high carbon around a core of "damascus", and nothing is sandwiched between anything else. this is not debatable. The historical swords have been x-rayed and magnafluxed and thoroughly documented. The confusion is another example of knife guys thinking they're sword guys.

I'll have to go check out Tinker's website.

Thanks for posting that link. I think I see what Randal was saying, basicly that only steels that lend themselves to differential hardening are the best for traditional katanas, and of the two, D-2 seems to lend itself better to that than A-2.

Anything Randal says is fine with me.