In this study, boron carbide thin films were deposited on AISI M2 grade high-speed steel substrates by plasma-enhanced DC magnetron sputtering of an ‘in-house’ produced boron carbide target material. Tribological properties of the coatings have been evaluated by a ‘pin-on-disc’ tribometer. Wear tracks on boron carbide thin films were investigated by scanning electron microscopy-energy dispersive spectroscopy, electron probe microanalysis and secondary ion mass spectrometry (SIMS) elemental ion imaging. The results of analyses provided information about the reliability of the SIMS ion imaging compared to the other investigation techniques on nano-layers and nano-sized thin films. Copyright © 2012 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.