Abstract 12Cr–Ni stainless steels containing different carbon contents from 0.004 wt.% to 0.034 wt.% were hot-rolled and air-cooled. Their corresponding microstructures were observed with optical microscope and transmission electron microscope, and the Vickers hardness, tensile and impact tests were also carried out. It was found that the martensitic morphology was significantly influenced by carbon content. The as-received ultra low carbon martensite in the steel containing 0.004 wt.% C is characterized by dislocation cells substructure. The formation of dislocation cells is attributed to high martensite finishing point (above 400 °C) and low interstitial atoms content. On the other hand, the martensite in the steel containing 0.034 wt.% C consists mainly of typical martensite laths because of low martensite finishing point and high interstitial atoms content which hinder dislocation motion. Furthermore, carbon content has an evident effect on the mechanical properties of 12Cr–Ni steels. The hardness and strength of the as-received steels increase with an increase in carbon content, but their elongation and impact toughness decrease with the carbon content. The steel containing 0.004 wt.% C has excellent impact toughness due to the ultra low carbon content in the martensite composed of dislocation cells.