I'm not a maker, just a user. For me throw away the stainless and give me HC,any Hc steel that is done right. I take care of my blades so stainlessness is of no import to me, I'm not in a corrosive environment so there is no need for stainless. If I do want a stainless it is for a "wallhanger" as long as it is polished up, I don't care what kind of edge it holds, It's an ornament. Never had one as good as HC steel. O-1, W-2, 1095, 5160 D-2 you get the idea. Just do it like it should be done according to it's type/classification.
If I had to choose just one I would have to flip a coin between 1095 and 154CM.
I like a thin 1095 blade for a little whittlin', and 154CM gets real sharp while being very tough, and pretty stain resistant.
right now i am really loving the SR-77 on my SOD. i can chop a small tree down with it and the edge stays nice and sharp. with a little sand paper and a strop i can get it back to shaving sharp in no time.
i also really like 1095 and O-1, just because most of my blades are made of this and i know how to take care of them and sharpen them.
I don't have much experience making knives with a lot of different steels, I have only been making knives for a little over a year. But since this is in the production knives section, I assume that the question was aimed more at using knives, instead of making them. I use production knives a on a reguar basis, everyday. Sometimes only for opening an envelope, sometimes for chopping down small trees and pretty much everything in between. I use S30V, ATS-34, 154CM, AUS-8A, 440C, 420HC, VG-10 and probably a couple more. To be completely honest, I can't really tell much difference between any of them. One may stay sharp a bit longer than another, but other than that, there is not much difference at all. As long as they have a good heat treat, they all work quite well. I sharpen my knives VERY often, I like to keep them sharp rather than let them get really dull and have to put a new edge on them. I don't think that there are really any bad production steels these days, except for maybe the mystery alloy on the Frost Cutlery knives that you can buy for a dollar.
As a user, my favorite blade material is Stellite 6K, even though it is not technically a steel. It's virtually corrosion proof, it holds an edge great due to its high wear resistance, it's non-magnetic, and it is inherently very slippery, which makes it cut through stuff with less drag and easier to clean than steel is.
It is softer and not as tough as steel, but under normal use, I've never had any problems with it at all.
I work with both 1095 & 01. I like Carbon Steel. I built a knife out of D2 once & sent it to D'Holder To heat treat for me. That was the only D2 so far I have worked with but like it. As for production knives ATS 34 for stainless, & I really like Case's CV. I care a mini Copperlock in that steel & love the sharp edge. Surprising it hold pretty well for a carbon steel. But I also keep my knives tuned up on a regular basis.
As a user and not a maker I find that it is the sum total of all the parts working in harmony that is important. Focussing just on the steel used without taking everything else into consideration is not all that meaningful. A knife in D2 by DBK will be very different from a Bob D. but both use steels of the same name. I use a variety of cutting tools (not just knives) and my favourite steel is whatever I can afford that works best at the application it's designed for. I have a preference for zone hardened and/or laminated blades and in most applications I find it's one of the high carbon steels rather than a stainless that works best for me but not always.
I agree that geometry is the biggest factor, followed by accepting that proper HT is essential, followed by choosing an alloy that gives what you want in terms of edge-holding, toughness, corrosion-resistance etc. A well-ground blade of Home-Depot "welding steel" will out-cut a clunky obtuse blade made from the newest super-steel. Not for long, but it will.
All factors being equal, 420HC? No thanks. I agree that Buck makes the most of it, with keen geometry and high-quality HT. It's actually pretty decent at resisting corrosion and reasonably easy to sharpen. For many many people who field-dress one deer a year, a Buck 110 for $30 is a great choice. But never forget that mass-production facilities choose alloys like 420HC, AUS6/8 etc because they are cheap, easy to stamp out in vast quantities, and machine very easily. NOT because they're truly superior performers.
All you folder makers, please offer your favorite models with carbon steel blades. I can't tell you how many times I've read posts and articles from folks who love carbon steel, want a light, handy folder, and can't find one with O1 or 1095 blade(s).
Damascus of course. 1095 and 15n20 is my preferred combination. it hardens great and takes a great edge. its easy to resharpen when needed. It etches great.. 440C is the go to stainless choice.. And as stated O1 is exceptional blade steel and in my top 3
A few days ago I tested a thin (1/8" stock) blade I made of CPM-154 at Rc59 (GP-4 model, seen in my avatar, link to the test results in my sig line). I expected it to keep a good edge and already knew it took a very nice finish. I didn't expect it to cut/chop and then dig/pry through a 2x4 with ZERO chipping or bending of the edge or tip. This was meant to be a destruction test but the knife is still in excellent shape after a slight touch-up honing. Yes, you can break such a blade if you clamp the first 1/2" in a vise and crank on it, and throw the un-handled blade flat on a concrete floor as hard as you can. I know because I did just that with a blade with the same grind and HT as the one in the link. I did not shoot it out of a cannon or try to chop through cinder blocks with it
I will definitely continue to use CPM-154. Frankly I think its toughness and durability is underrated. I also look forward to working with similar, newer steels like Carpenter's XHP and Crucible's S35VN, they sure look good on paper.