A few days ago, my friend and I were discussing Valyrian steel from Game of Thrones. It was the strongest sword material in the series’ Universe. Valyrian swords are magical blades that cut through anything and keep a sharp edge, without any need of honing. They are lightweight and strong, and they remain the first choice of any warrior that can get a hand on them.
We were wondering if there is any real-life equivalent to Valyrian steel. I mean if there is something worthy enough to be called the strongest sword metal in the world.
A tremendous amount of research has been conducted in the fields of metallurgy and manufacturing. We can use a combination of pure metals, alloys, ceramics, and polymers to produce any type of material that we may need.
Before looking into materials, we must define a set of characteristics that we want in a modern tactical sword. Nowadays, swords aren’t our first weapons of choice. However, if a zombie apocalypse were to happen tomorrow, what kind of blade would you want by your side, against the undead hordes?
In Game of Thrones, Valyrian steel could defeat the wraiths and even the immortal White Walkers. I would like something like then in the real-world scenario.
Personally, I want my sword to stay sharp and do my bidding until the very end. In material terms, it means that the blade should be hard, tough and fatigue resistant. Otherwise, it may snap and break in the middle of a battle. I wouldn’t last much longer after that. I’d be as dead as my sword.
Materials to Consider
Lots of tough metallic alloys and compounds come to mind. Steel, diamond, tungsten and Damascus steel are just some of them. I had my own share of thoughts about titanium swords too.
So, let’s talk about these materials individually, their strengths and weakness and how they stand out. By the end of this article, you will know what kind of sword you need to go juggernaut in a zombie apocalypse.
Stainless steel may seem a good choice. It is moderately tough and resistant against corrosion. It doesn’t rust so it is low maintenance, you don’t need to oil it or store it away safely. That should make it the best choice for a humid environment, like a swamp or a rain-forest.
But is it the strongest sword material? Definitely no. It is decidedly not the strongest, perhaps the weakest.
Stainless steel seems strong and tough. However, there is a catch. Stainless steel is a nickel-chromium alloy. It works incredibly well for small blades. For blades longer than 12 inches, however, the grain boundaries between the chromium content and the rest of the sword may weaken. That results in stress points, in which the blade might break or shatter.
The stress points make it difficult to forge a functional sword from stainless steel. However, it is cheap and easy to work with.
That is what professional blacksmiths told me. Now, my experience with stainless was quite good. I rarely got disappointed with a well-made stainless blade. In fact, I even recommended a few of them to my friends, and on this site.
There are decorative katana and functional machetes that I have worked with and it was amazing. The lower tier steel performed well in my experience.
I did buy lots of machetes made from stainless steel (INOX), and they lasted for years. I even used one this Spring to cut branches and grape vines. For home and garden chores, they are excellent, but if you hit another piece of metal or stone, there is no telling what might happen.
High Carbon Steel
If you want a functional, battle-ready sword, then high carbon steel (CS) is what you need at the very least.
High carbon steel gets its name from the fact that it has a carbon content of more than 0.3%. Before discussing any specific carbon steels, the prevalent standard for steel blades among sword manufacturers comes from the American Iron and Steel Institute (AISI).
According to their scale, there is a four-digit alpha-numerical representation for every kind of steel. The first two digits give you the core chemical composition of the alloy while the last two digits show the carbon content present.
Here is an example: 1045 is the most common carbon steel. Prefix number 10 means plain carbon while the 45 means there is 0.45% carbon content. Common CS in sword-smiting include 1050, 1060, 1065, 1075, 1080, 1085 and 1095. Among these, 1045, 1060 and 1095 are the most popular.
The higher the number, the more carbon there is in the steel. The harder it becomes, but proportionally weaker against shock.
You need a carbon content of at least .40% to be able to temper the alloy. With tempering, the strength of the steel is improved. If you want a functional sword, then tempering is vital.
So, 1045 is basically the lowest functional sword that you can find. However, it is quite soft, and it will dull pretty fast since 0.40% carbon content is rather low.
An unprocessed 1045 sword would lose its blade after some decent cutting and chopping. Modern techniques of hardening and tempering, however, improve what the blade can do. They enable it to outperform medieval swords by a considerable margin.
The increase in carbon content makes the steel harder, in exchange for flexibility. The more carbon it has, the less it can bend and absorb shock.
With that in mind, 1060 steel sits right in the middle as a compromise between hardness and toughness. It is hard enough for the blade to stay sharp for a long time. And it is not that brittle to snap or break if struck against a solid surface. While still allowing significant bending and flexing, it seems a decent sword material.
As the name shows, this alloy contains 0.95% carbon, making it very hard. A 1095 sword made would have its blade sharp without any of maintenance. But it would be quite brittle. Thus, you would risk shattering the blade when cutting or chopping.
Now, there is a catch. Blade geometry matters just as much as the metal that composes it. For instance, I would never trust a 1095 katana. That type of sword is too nimble for ultra-hard steel. It may break easily. But a 1095 machete or kukri would be a superb tool… Especially if it’s thick and sturdy. Machetes are much more functional for hard-core home and gardening work.
Why Carbon Steel?
Is CS the strongest sword material? No, there are better options, but still… Carbon steel offers various beneficial properties for a sword. 1045 steel provides a strong body, but the edge wants to dull.
On the other hand, you will find that a 1095 sword will be exceptionally sharp, but vulnerable to being chipped. Just to be clear, you can chip the edge when you hit a hard object, and you lose a small portion of the edge. It kind of looks the sword has a missing tooth.
So, 1060 is a good compromise. In my opinion, 1060 steel is a moderately good material for making a sword. It offers a decently durable blade, an edge that stays pretty sharp, and is resistant to chipping.
But it is not the strongest sword material. Carbon steel swords may outperform their medieval counterparts. But with tons of options from the modern tech industry, carbon steel swords are not the best ones out there.
Spring steels (SS) are a relatively recent development in Metallurgy. As you may have guessed from the name, spring steel is commonly used for car spring bumpers. You know… The coil above the wheel axle, that absorbs shock when you hit a hole in the ground.
These alloys, aside from being comparatively harder than carbon steel, are also incredibly tough and durable. They have the ability to retain their original shape after significant bending and twisting.
Two most common types of spring steel that we will talk about are 5160 and 9260 SS. These alloys are best for long, nimble swords like rapiers, katanas, scimitars. Because of their enormous length, they will bend on impact, and we need a material that can take that kind of abuse.
5160 Spring Steel
5160 spring steel is a carbon-chromium alloy. The chromium content is significantly smaller compared to stainless steel, so it doesn’t risk creating stress-sensible sections in the sword.
Here is a demo about how good spring steel is when tempered and treated properly:
Moreover, it has 0.2% silicon which greatly increases its toughness and durability. All in all, this steel is hard, tough and fatigue resistant – which makes it a remarkable material for making swords. One additional bonus: Chromium, even though present in small quantity, makes it resistant to corrosion.
9260 Spring Steel
9260 is another SS variant that we should consider. It is a silicon manganese alloy. Manganese makes it even more durable, while the 2% silicon present in it makes it resilient against lateral bends.
The swords made by this material are flexible enough to spring back to their original shape even after 90° bends. The version allows for more bending than 5160.
Why You Should Consider Spring Steel
It is one of the strongest sword materials on the market. You can find online cheap, affordable blades made from spring steel. So, it has many advantageous.
The 5160 and 9260 steel materials are very strong alloys, exceptional for making swords. These are durable and tough. The blades made from these steels retain their sharpness and don’t need frequent maintenance.
To give you an image of how good spring steel swords are: a Nepalese kukri (5160 model) has been used to cut through a buffalo head in a single blow.
Because of their toughness, flexibility, and durability, spring steel swords are go-to weapons for aikido and backyard cutting of bamboo and tatami mats. They excel in those scenarios.
It might be rare, but you may hear about spring steel swords breaking or chipping after a hit against big, solid objects. So, I recommend these kinds of blades for all needs and requirements.
Despite being one of my favorites, spring steel is not the strongest sword material. It is close but not up to the mark.
As the name suggests, these alloys are commonly used for making mighty industrial tools. These need to bear great physical stress, high pressure, temperature and impact load.
Industrial tools function in extremely demanding conditions and environments, in a never-ending 24-hour shift. Seven days a week, no breaks and no time off. They need to last for years on end.
Imagine having a blade that can do all of them. Seeing that these are the ideal characteristics for a sword, I feel that a sword made from this material would be just what we wanted.
There are various kinds of tool steels. The most common in the blade-smiting industry are T10 steel and L6 Bainite.
The name is significantly different from the previously presented alloys. It doesn’t follow the AISI grading system. You might be wondering what it means then… The letter “T” shows this is a tungsten alloy and “10” indicates the carbon content (of 1.00% percentage).
Engineers often call this material “High Speed Steel”. Even though T10 has more carbon than most CS, this material is the pinnacle of toughness and strength.
It contains tungsten, one of the hardest metals. It is resistant to scratches and abrasions. A small amount of silicon (not more than 0.35%) makes T10 even tougher. What is even more surprising is that you can heat-treat and temper the steel to enhance its already impressive properties!
This steel is one of the strongest on the market. T10 swords, known as tungsten swords, exhibit excellent blade retention and are very durable.
L6 Bainite is relatively new in the sword industry. A cooler name for this material is “Band Saw Steel”.
It is a low-alloy high-carbon steel. Low-alloy means they added very small amounts of rare metals (chromium, vanadium, nickel, molybdenum, etc). L6 has roughly the same amount of carbon as 1060 / 1075.
L6 Bainite is among the toughest steel alloys ever. It has exceptional flexibility and shock absorption. However, it is prone to corrosion, rust and needs extra maintenance. Plus, it is very difficult to heat-treat, and that is necessary to create exceptional swords. Because of this impediment, only the top manufacturers use this material to create the best products. If you don’t mind the cost.
With proper heat treatment, it may become the toughest sword material ever. It has exceptional strength, remarkable flexibility, and it absorbs shock superbly. I consider this metallic compound a real-life equivalent of Valyrian Steel.
Is Tool Steel the Best Option?
I believe that Tool steel is the strongest sword material ever. But before I give my final verdict, we shall research a couple of more traditional / historical alternatives.
Tool steels provide everything you want in a sword. These blades are incredibly strong, durable and flexible. I have seen people experimenting with these, and my jaw dropped when I saw what they could do. These sharp swords can cut or break (even metallic targets) like a hot knife through butter.
Having researched and read whatever I could find, my thoughts are these: I feel that L6 Bainite is the best steel for katanas right now. Moreover, such a katana would be the best modern tactical sword. If a zombie apocalypse goes down tomorrow, I would pick an L6 sword without a second thought.
Centuries ago, the range of options was limited. So, let’s look at what they used in the good old days.
You might be thinking that with the advancement of technology, the traditional methods of sword making would be considered unsatisfactory as that is what happened to the various fields of industries after the industrial revolution. However, that is not entirely the case with sword making.
Some traditional swords are amazing, even in the scope of modern technology. In fact, many people think they might even be better and stronger than modern swords. Obviously, that’s not true. What does a 15th-century blacksmith have that a modern, hi-tech, cutting-edge steel processing factory doesn’t? But people will believe what makes them feel good.
Let’s check out the two traditional sword materials that were amazing in forging battle-ready blades.
Damascus steel is highly acclaimed. The most flexible, durable, and sharp swords in medieval history were Damascus blades. However, let me tell you something you may not know:
This alloy is not entirely different compared to the previous steels, at least chemically. In fact, any steel can be classified as Damascus if the blacksmith folds it using a specific technique or pattern. So, our typical carbon or spring steel would be folded several times, while the material is red-hot and malleable.
You can easily recognize this Damascus (Wootz) steel by its unique, wavy patterns:
You might be thinking: Why go through all the trouble? Why bring the steel so close to its melting point, fold, twist, and cool it down – And then repeat that process several times? Are multi-folds really that beneficial?
The answer is yes. Additional work for astonishing properties. Historical Damascus swords were rare and expensive. Kings, commanders, and high-ranking war-lords could afford such weapons. The price was worth the effort for the blacksmith.
Folding steel is challenging. It needs to be done with care and skill. There is a risk of air pockets, weak points, and inclusions. It may render a strong material weak if not done correctly.
The process of folding drives out the impurities present in iron ore and resulted in a better-quality sword. However, with improved techniques of metallurgy and widespread availability of pure metals, there is little need for steel folding nowadays.
Is the Damascus Steel As Strong As They Say?
Yes, it is. According to historical standards, I think Damascus steel was by far the best material for making swords, until the 20th century. It provides a tough body and a sharp edge for the blades.
But it still does not compete with cutting-edge technology. The toughness of Damascus steel is incomparable to that of tool steels.
Damascus and tamahagane aren’t the strongest blade materials. Despite that, these swords have an interesting surface pattern. They have historical value and for that reason, they are expensive and impractical for combat and daily use.
Who hasn’t heard about the Japanese samurai sword? It appears in countless old legends and it became a modern cultural symbol. The steel used in forging the samurai katanas in the traditional techniques was the tamahagane “jewel” steel.
Tamahagane is distinct from the other steels because it can only be made from the iron sand found in northern Japan. That is mainly because the iron sand in northern Japan contains traces of alloying elements and carbon in an amount that are suitable for making an excellent sword.
The process of making tamahagane involved fusing and folding, but this is an entirely different method than Damascus folding.
While Damascus blacksmiths folded the steel onto itself, the Japanese create several pieces of steels, of varying hardness and toughness. They then proceeded to fold and fuse them under heat.
This was a way of making the best use of poor mineral material. Folding helped make swords more durable and less likely to dull out.
The modern technology hasn’t just blessed us with new and better materials. In fact, none of the steel alloys discussed above would be able to survive for long and stay in one piece without the enhancing processes the industrial revolution has given us.
This may seem straightforward for those of you who studied materials in the past. However, for those who have not: Everything you see is made up of small particles: atoms and molecules. We don’t need to go any deeper than that.
The way these atoms and molecules interact and make bonds with each other (chemically and physically) will determine the properties of the material: Will it be light or heavy? Liquid or solid? Inert or reactive? etc.
You might be wondering why I am telling you all this? Alloys are composed of atoms, arranged in certain microstructures running throughout the material. The size, shape and various other feature of these microstructures determine the major properties of our steel: toughness, hardness, flexibility, ductility.
One of the ways we influence the formation of micro-structural patterns in steel is by adding small amounts of elements. So, we can encourage certain atomic structures and discourage others – depending on the properties we want. We discussed this previously in high carbon, spring and tool steels.
A second way of enhancing atomic microstructures is heat treatment. If we produce a change in the microstructures, the steel properties would also change. That is exactly what we do in heat-treating the alloy. We put it under the stress of very fast heating and cooling. We can control the amount of heat and the method of cooling.
Heat-treatment makes your steel stronger and more flexible – it makes it much less likely to chip, break or shatter. There are numerous methods of heat-treating metal, but since I am talking about enhancing material for making swords, I am not going deeper than necessary. Here is a very good video on the subject:
Let us go through the other processes: quenching, differential hardening, and tempering.
As we heat the alloy, microstructures relax and destabilize – good for us since we want to change their arrangements. If we were to allow the metal to cool by itself over a lengthy period, then little to no change will occur. The atomic matrices would return to their original forms.
Through quenching, we don’t give the microstructures enough time to adjust themselves. Rather we cool the steel down rapidly, by submerging it in oil or water.
As a result, the atoms rearrange themselves in a way that gets rid of micro-cracks and imperfections. So, we get a much tougher material.
As I have told before, a functional blade needs a hard blade and tough body. Hard means it won’t dull. Tough means it won’t break.
Differential hardening is a method of forging such a blade. It boils down to unequally heat-treating the blade versus the spine.
We can make a sword out of high-carbon steel. High-carbon is hard but not as tough. No problem! We can coat the edge with clay – that way it won’t get too much heat. Then we put the blade in the furnace. The spine gets extra-heat, as opposed to the edge. Quenching only affects the spine, making it super-tough.
Japanese blacksmiths used this method to forge samurai swords. Clay covers the edge, while the blade is left bare. Quenching results in differential hardening. By the way, katana curvature is due to unequal heat dilation of the metal.
The last two treatment methods make brittle steel tougher. With tempering, we can make it tougher but softer.
To temper the steel means to bring it to a specific temperature (below the melting point) and keep it there for a specific amount of time.
There are many options for materials to consider when you buy a sword. All blades are made of steel but the chemical composition is just as important as the enhancing processes it underwent.
So, make sure you read the specs. Make sure the blade is heat-treated, possibly even differentially hardened / tempered. We have a vetted list of machete reviews for outdoor camping, as well a list of best katanas.
If you can find Spring or tool steel that satisfies those criteria, then you won the lottery. Otherwise, a properly treated 1060 / 1070 carbon steel sword is a perfect choice!