How Chromium and Molybdenum Improve Strength and Wear Resistance of 4140 Alloy Steel


4140 steel is widely used for components requiring high strength, fatigue resistance, and wear resistance such as gears, shafts, axles, and hydraulic cylinders. The properties of 4140 are largely derived from its alloying additions of chromium and molybdenum.

Chromium and molybdenum significantly enhance the performance capability of 4140 alloy steel. These alloying elements improve hardenability for greater strength through thicker sections, increase tensile and yield strengths, and provide substantial improvements in wear resistance and fatigue life.

This article explains the key effects of chromium and molybdenum on the properties of 4140 steel. It covers the microstructural mechanisms, heat treatment response, strength and hardness contributions, and wear resistance benefits. Recommended levels are provided to optimize specific performance requirements.

Overview of 4140 Alloy Steel

1018 Steel Tensile Strength

4140 is a low alloy chromium-molybdenum steel designed for parts requiring high strength and toughness plus good wear resistance. The composition is:

  • Carbon – 0.38-0.43%
  • Chromium – 0.8-1.1%
  • Molybdenum – 0.15-0.25%
  • Manganese – 0.75-1.0%
  • Silicon – 0.15-0.30%

The chromium and molybdenum additions make 4140 much stronger than plain carbon steels while retaining good ductility and toughness. Nitriding or carburizing surface treatments can further enhance wear life.

Let’s look at the specific effects of chromium and molybdenum in more detail.

Purpose of Chromium

The main benefits provided by chromium in 4140 steel are:

  • Increases hardenability and tempering resistance for greater strength
  • Improves tensile strength and toughness
  • Enhances wear and abrasion resistance at the surface
  • Contributes to scale resistance at high temperatures

Chromium is a strong carbide former which makes 4140 more capable of being hardened to high strength levels. It expands the hardening range and facilitates air hardening.

A minimum of 0.8% Cr is needed in 4140 steel to provide sufficient response to heat treating. Optimal effects are achieved in the range of 1.0-1.2% chromium.

Effect of Chromium on Hardenability

Chromium is very effective at improving the hardenability of 4140 steel. The chromium combines with carbon to form hard, stable chromium carbides that restrict the growth of ferrite and pearlite during cooling.

This results in an increased ability to form martensite at slower cooling rates and through larger cross section sizes. For example, 4140 with 1.1% Cr may fully harden up to 2.5” diameter, versus only 1.5” diameter without the chromium.

Strength Effects of Chromium

The chromium additions increase the achievable tensile and yield strength levels of 4140 steel after heat treating:

  • Every 0.1% increase in chromium raises the tensile strength by approximately 3-4 ksi
  • Chromium levels above 1.0% enable tensile strengths over 200 ksi
  • The yield strength shows similar proportional improvements

Chromium provides solid solution strengthening plus forms hard carbides to restrict dislocation movement, increasing strength. This allows the desired 45-50 HRC hardness range to be reached in 4140.

However, excessive chromium over 1.2% makes 4140 increasingly difficult to machine. 1.0-1.1% Cr provides the best combination of hardenability, strength and machinability.

Wear Resistance Effects

Chromium substantially improves the wear resistance of 4140 steel, especially at the surface. The main mechanisms include:

  • Forms hard, abrasion-resistant chromium carbides
  • Provides solid solution strengthening to resist wear
  • Promotes formation of hard, wear-resistant oxides during heat treating
  • Enhances surface hardening treatments like nitriding and carburizing

Chromium levels of at least 0.8% are needed for sufficient wear improvement in 4140 steel. Optimal surface wear life is achieved with Cr in the 1.0-1.2% range.

Purpose of Molybdenum

Molybdenum is added to 4140 steel primarily for:

  • Increased hardenability for larger section sizes
  • Higher strength capability through precipitation hardening
  • Enhanced creep resistance at elevated temperatures
  • Improved machinability versus higher chromium levels

Like chromium, molybdenum promotes martensite formation for greater through-hardness. It also allows higher tempering temperatures to be used for maximum strength levels.

Additions of 0.15-0.25% molybdenum are typical for 4140 steel depending on hardenability requirements. Higher levels up to 0.35% Mo can provide further gains in elevated temperature strength.

Effect of Molybdenum on Hardenability

Molybdenum significantly enhances the hardenability of 4140 steel, allowing larger sections to be fully hardened.

Some effects of molybdenum on the hardening behavior include:

  • Widens temperature range for martensitic transformation
  • Shifts the continuous cooling curve to slower critical cooling rates
  • Restricts formation of ferrite allowing martensite at slower cooling
  • Reduces tempering temperature resulting in greater tempering resistance

Strength Effects of Molybdenum

Molybdenum increases the strength of 4140 steel by:

  • Providing solid solution strengthening
  • Forming hard precipitate particles during tempering
  • Allowing higher tempering temperatures while maintaining hardness

Additions above 0.20% Mo can increase tempered tensile strength by 15-25 ksi and raise attainable hardness levels. This precipitation hardening effect contributes significantly to the high strength capability of 4140 steel.

Molybdenum also enhances creep resistance which maintains strength during prolonged exposure to elevated temperatures. It increases load carrying capacity of parts operating at temperatures over 500°F.

Wear Resistance Effects

The primary benefits of molybdenum for improving wear life include:

  • Contributes to solid solution strengthening for better abrasion resistance
  • Forms hard complex carbides providing enhanced wear resistance
  • Maintains high hardness capability during tempering for better wear performance
  • Provides creep strengthening at elevated temperatures

While less effective than chromium at the surface, molybdenum improves bulk wear properties throughout the section thickness. Molybdenum levels from 0.20-0.25% optimize wear resistance balanced with machinability.

Optimal Levels of Chromium and Molybdenum

The typical range of chromium and molybdenum used in 4140 steel is:

  • Chromium – 0.8-1.1%
  • Molybdenum – 0.15-0.25%

To summarize typical effects on properties:

  • 0.8% Cr + 0.15% Mo – Minimum for basic response, tensile strength ~180 ksi
  • 1.0% Cr + 0.20% Mo – Optimal balance of properties and cost, tensile strength ~200 ksi
  • 1.1% Cr + 0.25% Mo – Maximum hardness and strength, tensile strength >210 ksi

The higher additions of chromium and molybdenum allow 4140 steel to achieve tensile strengths over 220 ksi. However, machining becomes more difficult.

Matching alloy content to the specific strength, wear resistance, and cost requirements is important to effectively utilize 4140 steel.

Effect on Prior Microstructure

Chromium has a strong grain refining effect in 4140 steel. Higher chromium results in finer as-rolled ferrite grains. For example, 1.1% Cr refines grain size down to ASTM 7-8 versus ASTM 8-9 for 0.8% Cr steel.

The finer grains provide increased strength and toughness in the annealed condition. They also improve hardening response. Normalizing further refines the grains for optimal heat treat results.

Effect on Tempering Response

Molybdenum reduces the tempering temperature of 4140 steel by delaying formation of ferrite and cementite during heating. This tempering resistance effect enables higher tempering temperatures up to 1200°F to be used while still maintaining 36-40 HRC hardness.

Chromium also enhances tempering resistance but to a lesser degree. Combining 1.0% Cr with 0.2% Mo significantly improves the tempering characteristics of 4140 for easier processing and higher attainable strength levels.

Effect on Machinability

Molybdenum has less negative impact on machinability versus chromium. Replace some chromium with molybdenum if machinability of 4140 steel is critical. For example 1.0% Cr + 0.2% Mo machines easier than 1.2% Cr alone.

However, total alloy levels over 1.35% will adversely affect machining parameters. Close control of alloy content based on required properties is needed to optimize machinability and performance.

Comparison to Other Alloys

Here is how 4140 steel compares to other low alloy steels:

  • 4340 – 1.8-2.1% Ni for increased toughness but lower wear resistance
  • 5140 – 0.75-1.0% Cr-Mo-V for improved wear resistance
  • 8620 – 1.0% Ni + 0.5% Mo provides good toughness and some wear resistance
  • 9310 – Higher 1.2-1.4% Cr + 0.12% Mo for maximum hardness and wear performance but lower toughness

4140 provides the optimal combination of strength, toughness, wear resistance, and cost effectiveness required in most applications. The chromium and molybdenum contents are balanced to achieve this.

Effects on Heat Treating and Processing

Proper heat treating is essential to utilize the full capabilities of 4140 steel:

  • Annealing may require higher temperatures up to 1675°F for full carbide dissolution
  • Rapid oil quenching is necessary to form martensite in sections over 2” diameter
  • Double tempering maximizes strength and toughness
  • Tempering required above 1000°F to fully precipitate carbides
  • Nitriding and carburizing response is excellent for enhanced surface properties

The alloy additions facilitate hardening of medium to large sections if proper control of heat treating process parameters is exercised.


Chromium and molybdenum alloying additions are essential for providing the performance capabilities of 4140 alloy steel:

  • Chromium increases hardenability, tensile strength, toughness, and wear resistance
  • Molybdenum enhances hardenability, strength through precipitation hardening, and creep resistance
  • 1.0-1.1% Cr and 0.2-0.25% Mo offer the optimal combination of properties
  • Proper heat treating is required to take full advantage of these alloying elements

By controlling the chromium and molybdenum contents, the properties of 4140 steel can be tailored to meet the requirements of high strength, wear resistance, toughness, and cost effectiveness for specific applications.


How do chromium and molybdenum enhance 4140 steel properties?

Chromium improves hardenability, strength, toughness, tempering response, and wear resistance. Molybdenum increases hardenability, strength via precipitation hardening, creep resistance, and machinability. Together they provide the optimal combination of capabilities.

What are the purposes of chromium in 4140 alloy steel?

The main benefits of chromium are increased hardenability for greater through-thickness strength, higher attainable tensile and yield strengths, improved wear resistance at the surface, better high temperature properties, and enhanced nitriding/carburizing response.

What are the purposes of molybdenum in 4140 alloy steel?

Molybdenum improves hardenability for larger section sizes, increases high temperature strength via precipitate hardening, provides creep resistance at elevated temperatures, and offers better machinability versus higher chromium levels.

What are the recommended levels of chromium and molybdenum?

Typical recommendations are 0.8-1.1% chromium to balance hardenability and machinability, with 0.15-0.25% molybdenum for combined effects of strength, temper resistance, and wear life. 1.0% Cr + 0.2% Mo offers the best all-round properties.

How does chromium affect the hardenability of 4140 steel?

Chromium forms hard carbides that restrict soft phases, expanding martensite formation to lower cooling rates and larger cross sections. This increases hardenability and allows higher strength after quenching.

What strength levels can 4140 achieve with optimal chromium and molybdenum?

With proper heat treating, 4140 steel containing 1.0-1.1% Cr and 0.2-0.25% Mo can attain tensile strengths over 220 ksi, yield strengths above 200 ksi, and surface hardness up to 52 HRC.

Why is chromium beneficial for wear resistance in 4140 steel?

Chromium forms hard, abrasion-resistant chromium carbides at the surface. It also enhances surface hardening treatments like carburizing and nitriding. Chromium in solid solution increases bulk wear properties.

How does molybdenum improve creep resistance of 4140 steel?

The precipitate particles formed during tempering help resist dislocation movement under sustained loads at higher temperatures above 500°F. This improves creep strength and structural stability under long-term elevated temperature exposure.

Does higher chromium or molybdenum improve machinability?

Higher molybdenum levels up to 0.25% maintain machinability better than increasing chromium, which significantly lowers speeds/feeds. Replacing some chromium with molybdenum improves machinability response.

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