Maximizing Impact Strength of 4140 Steel Forgings Through Proper Heat Treatment


4140 steel is a chromium-molybdenum alloy steel that is widely used for forged components requiring high strength combined with good toughness. Applications such as connecting rods, tool holders, shafts, and machine ways all require 4140 steel forgings to resist impact and shock loading.

The impact strength and fracture resistance of 4140 steel is heavily dependent on utilizing proper heat treatment processes. Quenching, tempering, and secondary hardening steps must be carefully controlled to achieve the optimal combination of hardness, strength and toughness needed.

This article provides in-depth guidelines for heat treating 4140 steel forgings to maximize toughness and impact strength. It covers effects of microstructure, quenching procedures, tempering temperatures, and secondary hardening processes. Example applications demonstrate the significant benefits of proper heat treatment on the impact resistance of 4140 steel forgings.

Overview of 4140 Steel

4140 is a chromium-molybdenum medium carbon low alloy steel with excellent hardenability suitable for forgings requiring high strength and toughness.

The composition of 4140 steel is:

  • Carbon – 0.38-0.43%
  • Silicon – 0.15-0.30%
  • Manganese – 0.75-1.00%
  • Chromium – 0.80-1.10%
  • Molybdenum – 0.15-0.25%

The chromium and molybdenum provide hardenability and enhance tempering resistance for high strength in larger cross sections.

In the annealed condition, 4140 steel forgings have relatively low impact resistance, with typical Charpy V-notch impact energy around 25 ft-lbs.

Through optimized heat treatment, the impact energy can be increased significantly to meet demanding applications.

Prior Microstructure Effects

The starting microstructure of 4140 steel prior to hardening has a strong influence on the resulting impact strength after heat treatment:

  • Coarse, banded as-forged structure has poor toughness with low impact energy.
  • Normalized fine ferrite-pearlite grain structure improves impact properties.
  • Stress relieved ferrite-pearlite further enhances toughness.
  • Annealed ferrite-cementite optimized for best impact strength.

Normalizing or annealing should be considered prior to hardening 4140 steel forgings when maximum toughness is needed. The fine, uniform microstructure optimizes quenching and tempering response.

Achieving Full Hardening

To obtain high strength, the first step is to fully harden the 4140 steel forging by transforming the microstructure to martensite. This requires:

  • Heating above Ac3 to form austenite
  • Soaking long enough to dissolve carbides and homogenize
  • Quenching rapidly in oil to form martensite

Insufficient heating or soaking leaves undissolved carbides and lower martensite formation, reducing impact strength. Overheating causes grain coarsening leading to brittle behavior.

Proper quenching is also critical to produce full martensitic transformation through larger cross sections for maximum toughness.

Tempering Effects on Impact Strength

While quenching produces a fully martensitic structure, the as-quenched condition is too brittle for most applications due to low ductility and notch sensitivity.

Proper tempering is required to improve the impact resistance of 4140 steel forgings by reducing the carbon content and forming transition carbides:

  • Low initial temper of 500-600°F reduces brittleness
  • Second temper of 1100-1200°F optimizes impact strength
  • Tempering above 1200°F risks over-tempering and lower strength

Double tempering ensures maximum impact energy while retaining adequate hardness. Testing should confirm minimum 15 ft-lb impact strength.

Effects of Microstructure on Impact Resistance

The microstructural factors affecting the impact strength of heat treated 4140 steel forgings include:

  • Martensite Content – Higher amounts improve impact energy
  • Retained Austenite – Should be minimized through adequate tempering
  • Carbide Volume/Size – Fine carbides preferred over coarse particles
  • Prior Austenite Grain Size – Finer grains provide better impact resistance
  • Banding – Normalizing or annealing minimizes banding effects

Controlling the microstructure and avoiding over-tempering is necessary to achieve both high strength and optimal notch toughness in 4140 steel forgings.

Secondary Hardening Processes

Secondary hardening techniques can increase the strength of 4140 steel forgings further while maintaining good impact resistance:

  • Austempering – Quench to bainite range and hold
  • Martempering – Quench to martensite start, hold, then temper
  • Deep Cryogenic Treatment – Enhances martensite transformation

When done properly after initial tempering, secondary hardening can achieve over 280 ksi tensile strength and still exceed 20 ft-lbs Charpy impact energy in 4140 steel.

Effects of Section Size

As the size of 4140 steel forgings increases, the impact strength derived from quenching and tempering normally decreases. This results from lower hardenability caused by slower heat removal from thicker sections.

To improve the impact resistance of larger 4140 forgings, the following process adjustments should be made:

  • Raise austenitizing temperature closer to 1650°F
  • Lengthen soak times to 2 hours minimum
  • Use maximum severity quenchant like hot polymer
  • Utilize multiple tempering steps

With proper control of time and temperature parameters, 4140 steel forgings up to 8” thickness can still achieve high impact strength exceeding 15 ft-lbs.

Improving Fatigue Strength

Many 4140 steel forging applications also require high fatigue strength in addition to impact toughness.

Several guidelines can maximize the fatigue resistance during heat treatment:

  • Use lower end of tempering temperature range
  • Limit as-tempered hardness to 35-40 HRC
  • Apply compressive stresses via shot peening
  • Produce fine surface finish with low residual stresses
  • Avoid gross discontinuities which act as stress risers

Properly controlled heat treating and processing can enable 4140 steel forgings to achieve 110-120 ksi fatigue strength at one million cycles, even in larger cross sections.

Example Applications

Here are some examples of 4140 steel forgings where proper heat treatment maximizes both the strength and impact toughness:

  • Connecting Rods – Require high fatigue strength and impact resistance. QT achieves 125 ksi fatigue strength and 18 ft-lb impact energy.
  • Ram Blocks – Must withstand high impact forces with adequate ductility. Martempering provides 280 ksi tensile strength and 15 ft-lbs impact.
  • Tool Holders – Need high strength combined with shock resistance. Double tempering enables 50 HRC hardness and 25 ft-lb impact strength.
  • Compressor Cranks – Depend on high torsional strength and damage tolerance. Austempering achieves 270 ksi yield strength and 22 ft-lb impact energy.


The impact strength and fracture toughness of 4140 steel forgings is highly dependent on proper heat treatment processes.

The critical steps for maximizing impact resistance include:

  • Refining prior microstructure through normalizing or annealing
  • Complete austenitization followed by rapid martensite formation
  • Double tempering at 500-600°F and 1100-1200°F
  • Minimizing undesirable retained austenite
  • Tailoring process for larger section sizes

With the significant microstructural effects on toughness, careful selection and control of heat treating parameters is essential to achieve both high strength and excellent impact energy in 4140 steel forgings.


How does heat treatment affect the impact strength of 4140 steel?

Proper quenching and tempering transforms the microstructure to significantly increase the impact energy and notch toughness compared to the annealed condition. Double tempering maximizes the impact resistance.

What heat treatment produces the best toughness in 4140 forgings?

Annealing or normalizing prior to hardening results in the maximum impact strength. Quenching should fully form martensite. Double tempering from 500-1200°F optimizes the balance of strength and toughness for best impact properties.

Why temper 4140 steel forgings twice?

The first lower temperature temper reduces brittleness. The second higher temper maximizes formation of tempered martensite and improves impact energy. Double tempering provides the optimal combination of strength and impact toughness in 4140 steel.

How does microstructure affect the impact strength of 4140 steel?

Fine, uniform prior austenite grain structure improves impact resistance. Minimizing banding, properly forming martensite, reducing retained austenite, and controlling carbide formation and tempering response all help maximize the impact toughness.

How can the impact strength of large 4140 forgings be maximized?

For thicker sections, use higher austenitizing temperatures, longer soaking times, faster quenchants, lower tempering temperatures, and multiple tempering steps in order to achieve full hardening and proper tempering through the cross section. This maintains high impact values.

What is the typical hardness range for good impact resistance in 4140 steel?

For most applications requiring both high strength and excellent toughness, 4140 steel forgings should be tempered to a hardness range of 35-40 HRC. Higher hardness causes a sharp decrease in impact energy and ductility.

What secondary hardening processes can increase 4140 forging strength?

Austempering, martempering, and cryogenic treatment can produce tensile strengths over 280 ksi in 4140 steel forgings while maintaining good impact strength over 15 ft-lbs if done properly after initial tempering.

How can fatigue strength be improved in impact-resistant 4140 forgings?

Minimizing hardness to <40 HRC, using lower tempering temperatures, adding compressive stresses via shot peening, reducing residual stresses, and controlling surface finish help maximize fatigue strength along with impact properties.

What minimum impact energy is recommended for 4140 steel forgings?

Most critical applications require the impact strength of quenched and tempered 4140 steel forgings to meet or exceed 15 ft-lbs on the Charpy V-notch test. With optimized heat treatment, values over 20 ft-lbs can be obtained.

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