Is Spending More on a Knife Worth It?

Maybe.

While I’m no knife expert, I’ve handled a few more knives than usual as a result of getting into hunting over this past year. Some knives were old ones that I can’t recall how I obtained. Others have been new investments. One thing I’ve noticed is “higher quality” knives do seem to be worth the investment. At least, to a point.

Price of knives vary quite a bit. Some can be had for under $15. While others may require an investment measured in the hundreds of dollars or more. While the cost is driven by manufacturing costs or brand recognition, blade steel quality and quantity play a significant roll in the overall cost. I’ve come to believe that spending a bit more to get a higher quality steel is a worthy investment. Let me explain.

Through a lot of research (and some very limited experience), it seems steel can be lumped into a four distinct categories: budget steel, mid-range steel, high-end steel, and premium steel. While I have no experience with premium steels, I’ve been exposed enough to the other types that I feel confident enough to share a few thoughts.

Budget steels are just that. The material cost is inexpensive and is commonly found in many knives that just work. In fact, I’ve recommended a few knives with budget steels that fall into this category including the Morakniv and an Esee Izula. The blades on these knives are made from Sandvik steel and 440C Stainless respectively.

TypeEdge RetentionEase of SharpeningToughnessCorrosion Resistance
Sandvik SteelBelow averageAbove averageAbove averageBelow average
400 Series SteelBelow averageAbove averageAverageBelow average

Generally speaking, knives using budget steels have average qualities that work. These are great options for getting the job done on a budget. There is an abundance of different knives with varying lengths, thickness, and shapes made with this steel which can be purchased for less than $100. Some of these knives, like the Morakniv, come in under $20.

While budget steel blades will work just fine, they will tend to require more frequent sharpening than higher quality steels. However, they tend to be fairly easy to sharpen.

But the question was, is it worth spending extra money on better knives?Well if the knife has better steel, then the answer is likely yes.

A few knives that I own have blade steels composed of 154CM and 1095, which are mid-range steels. These are high carbon steels and offer a few advantages over budget steels.

TypeEdge RetentionEase of SharpeningToughnessCorrosion Resistance
1095AverageGoodGoodVery bad
154CMAverageAverageBelow averageAverage

Knives with these types of steel usually offer an advantage in one or two blade qualities while sacrificing other qualities. For example, 1095 steel offers better edge retention and ease of sharpening while sacrificing toughness and corrosion resistance. Other steels in this category just raise the bar slightly over budget steels like 154CM. Mass produced knives with steels in this category come at a slightly higher price point – some where around $100 give or take a Jackson or two.

Depending on the task, knives blades with mid-range steel can offer an advantage over those with budget steel blades. For example, both of the steels I’ve described offer improved edge retention over budget steel blades. This means the mid-range steel blades will stay sharp longer and require similar effort to sharpen. These qualities makes mid-range steel blades great options for survival and outdoor knives. On the other hand, more attention will be required to keep the knives dry and clean to avoid corrosion.

Stepping up to the high-end steel is where I tend to see the most bang for the buck. Most of my favorite knives have blades with steel in this category like the Buck Knives 537 Open Season Pro made from S35VN steel and the Zero Tolerance 0350 made from S30VN steel.

TypeEdge RetentionEase of SharpeningToughnessCorrosion Resistance
S30VNVery goodAverageAverageGood
S35VNVery goodAverageAbove averageGood

The steels in this category raise the bar consistently all the way around compared to budget steels. Of course that comes at a price. Expect to pay, on average about $200 for a knife with high-end blade steel plus or minus a Grant or a Jackson depending on active sales.

Knives using high-end blade steels tend to be work horses that handle heavy use with very little maintenance. However, they may require a bit more elbow grease to sharpen (but still remain field serviceable) compared to mid-range and budget steels when sharpening is required. In my opinion, these sorts of knives are ideal for hunting or tactical use. They are the knives you can count on.

In my opinion, the Buck Knives 537 Open Season Pro, made from S35VN, performs as well (or even better than) the 6 or 7 Morakniv knives it’s worth. This opinion was formed from first hand experience in the field where I witnessed the S35VN steel stay sharp while breaking down deer after deer. Whereas budget steel blades required resharpening after every deer if not more often.

Frankly, I’d rather carry one high-end steel blade than half a dozen budget blades. On the other hand, I have no qualms tossing a budget blade in a vehicle or go bag either to compliment or serve as a redundancy to higher quality blade. Not because the higher quality blade might fail, but because it maybe misplaced or perhaps because another companion requires another sharp blade.

I’ll share my thoughts on premium steel blades if, and when, I get some experience with them. However at this point, it seems like return on investment just isn’t there yet. Premium steel blades seem to be better suited for safe queens to me. I don’t see anything wrong with that. It just isn’t my thing. At least, not yet.

TypeEdge RetentionEase of SharpeningToughnessCorrosion Resistance
M390ExcellentVery badAbove averageGood
M4ExcellentBadGoodVery bad
ElmaxExcellentBelow averageAbove averageAverage

I’ve included qualities of a couple of premium steels for comparison. One thing is certain, premium steels tend to offer the best edge retention compared to the other steels. However, they also tend to be significantly more difficult to sharpen and perhaps don’t lend themselves well to field sharpening. I’m not convinced that trade off is worth it. Especially, when considering mass produced knives using premium blade steels will also cost more than blades using high-end steels. However, I’ll reserve judgement until I actually get an opportunity to handle a premium steel blade in the field.

After all is said and done, I have no issues using a budget blade. Truth is they work. However, given a bit more budget a high-end steel seems to be a good investment in my book. Especially when they are on sale.

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Author: Uncle Zo

Just an average Joe who loves to geek out on firearm mechanics and ballistics.

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