Interested in the Cold Steel Master Hunter fixed blade survival knife?
Wondering if this is the survival knife for you?
Check out our review below.
In previous articles, we discussed choosing a fixed blade survival knife. Check them out in the links below:
A knife is one of the more important pieces of equipment you can have with you in a survival situation. As such, a good, survival appropriate, fixed blade knife is your best choice for inclusion in a survival kit or BOB (Bug Out Bag) or equivalent, and/or to be strapped on when an emergency is likely. In this article, we will consider a contender for “Best Survival Knife”.
As mentioned in the general articles, there are two classes of fixed blade knife which can be appropriate for survival scenarios, the “bush” (medium) knife and the “field” (large) knife. This knife belongs to the bush class.
Why did I consider this knife?
It was a no-brainer; one of my current bush knifes is an original Cold Steel Master Hunter knife (the other is a Cold Steel SRK), from back when they were made of Carbon V steel, built in the USA, no less. These are no longer available from Cold Steel, but the company does still sell versions of the Master Hunter (and the SRK). I was hoping to be able to review the current models since it seemed likely they would still be an excellent choices for survival, but they are not cheap, and it took a while to find one in my price range.
Cold Steel started out in 1980, coming up with innovations such as checkered Kraton (rubber) grips and the “tanto” blade point, which were quickly adopted by the knife industry. President Lynn C Thompson is responsible for many of the Cold Steel designs, but several custom knife makers have collaborated on some models. The product line consists of a wide selection of knives as well as other martial arts related items and weapons. Their marketing style is heavy with videos displaying the abilities of their products, and many of their items have showed up in movies and TV shows due to their interesting and unique appearances.
|Blade Length||4.5″||Overall Length||9 1/4″|
|Blade Width||1 1/8″||Weight (Knife Only)||6.0 oz|
|Blade Steel||VG-1 San Mai III||Grip Material||Kray-Ex|
|Blade Shape||Drop Point||Guard Type||Half, Molded into the grip|
|Blade Grind||Flat||False Edge||No|
|Blade Thickness||3/16″||Spine “Jimping”||No|
Special Features: None
On the one hand, it is hard to consider this “initial” impressions, since I've had a version of this knife for well over a quarter century. From several feet away, they appear to be the same. Comparing them closer up, you can see some minor differences, but significant differences, if any, are not visible. What are the minor differences? The newer grip checkering is a bit courser and deeper, the finish on the blade is not quite as uniform, and the choil is not as wide. Looking at the back edges (spines), you can see there is now a noticeably more pronounced taper to the point, and the new grip is slightly thinner than the old one.
Simple is the word here. A basic drop point blade with a mostly straight grip. But what a grip; Cold Steel's signature Kraton/Kray-Ex checkered rubber grip, with one of the few molded in (bolster) guards I'm fully comfortable with. As far as I'm concerned, this is the grip all grips are measured against. It is incredibly slip resistant, with the hand wet, dry or even oily. There is no jimping, but with this grip material and design, that is not really necessary. It is totally comfortable and secure in all grips. except the sideways grip is a bit uncomfortable due to the square-ish edges of the pommel.
The knife comes really razor sharp. It is not the sharpest knife I've seen, but certainly a contender for second place. There did appear to be a very slight chip out of the edge, but since it came without the packaging, it is not clear whether this is a manufacturing defect or was introduced sometime between manufacture and me receiving it.
Balance is a bit behind the guard, very common in bush knives and not a problem for any task except possibly chopping.
The edges of the spine seem to be sharp enough to be useful.
The lanyard hole is excellent; big enough for paracord, with a rounded end tube through it. No worries about lanyard wear with this knife.
There is no blade coating; none is needed since the steel is “stainless”. The finish is rather “satin” so can't be effectively used as a mirror or signal.
The pommel is flat, but covered with the Kray-Ex, so probably won't work well as a hammer, and will likely suffer damage if so used.
The sheath is Cold Steel's Kydex like “Secure-Ex” and appears to be pretty decent. Retention is pretty good.
The original version of this knife seems to me to have been one of the ultimate survival bush knives; from the appearance, it seems likely that the current version(s) might also be a top choice.
San Mai III is a LAYERED (laminated) steel; that is, a number of sheets of different steels fastened together side to side. This is a relatively rare knife blade making process, because it is more difficult to do, but by intelligent choice of the layers, you can end up with a blade which is better than one made of any of the component steels. About the only better process is if layered steel is folded, the more times the better, which gives the benefit of more (with several folds, many, many more) layers. VG-1 San Mai III is a three layer laminate which is made in Japan only for Cold Steel. The core steel, which is used for the edge, is specified to be VG-1, a hard, high-carbon stainless, whose primary benefit is relative ease in sharpening and ability to be hardened to 61 which can support a wicked sharp edge, although there are some who claim it does not hold that edge for long. It is not quite as good as the more common VG-10, and seems to be a slight step up from AUS-8, The other two, outside, layers of the laminate are not specified; it is theorized they are 420J2 due to their softness and toughness. This means that the resulting blade can exhibit the sharpness and ease of sharpening of VG-1, as well as the toughness, flexibility and corrosion resistance of the 420J2. Note that although the VG-1 is a “stainless” steel, it is not as rust resistant as some (due to that high carbon content); you may want to dry it off to the degree practical when it gets wet, and perhaps even apply some rust preventative to the edge while in storage.
I did not try sharpening this, as the edge was already truly razor sharp.
During fifty slices through cardboard, it not only lost it's razor edge, but afterwards did only a fair job slicing paper and an acceptable job of slicing tomatoes. Attempting sharpening with a Smith's Pocket Pal did not seem to improve the sharpness significantly. A Vulkanus sharpener, packable although not quite “pocket sized”, did fix the chip in the edge and got it sharp enough to easily slice paper. Obviously, getting a razor edge is possible (it came that way), but restoring that in the field seems like it might not be practical.
To summarize, it appears that the steel has fair rust resistance (at the edge, superior elsewhere), moderate or better strength, superior edge capability, good ease of sharpening, fair resistance to chipping and fair edge holding capability. I'm beginning to wonder if this is a good steel for survival purposes.
- Cutting cord – This is often necessary during construction of shelter, fishing, sewing and making snares and traps, as well as other times. As the most commonly available to survivalists, I tried fish line and paracord, as well as 3/8″ Manila and 3/4″ Sisal, just because fish line and paracord would seem to be trivial for any knife worth having. Cutting the fish line was no problem, as was cutting paracord both under tension and laying on a flat surface. It went through the Manila fairly well, and did an adequate job cutting the Sisal; not the best I've tried, but by no means the worst.
- Making notches in branches – This could be required for shelter construction and making snares or traps, as well as other times. This knife did it, but slower and requiring more force than other knives tested, although sharpening it part way through helped significantly.
- Trimming/Sharpening/smoothing branches – This would be for shelter construction, as well as making arrows, spears, stakes, walking sticks and even bows. The knife did a fairly good job of this.
- Pounding in stakes – This could be required for making shelters, snares and traps. This knife may or may not be able to perform this function, but with a rubber covered pommel, it is not likely to be effective and is highly likely to result in damage to the knife, so I did not try it.
- Use with a magnesium bar or ferrocerium rod worked well using the edge of the spine.
- Making a “featherstick” with this knife was moderately easy; it made small curls and did not require a lot of control to keep the curls attached to the stick.
- Drilling a hole (for a fire drill) was fairly easy, although the result was a smaller and less smooth hole than some knives tested. The tip is quite hard stainless steel, so try to avoid extreme stress on the tip.
- Batoning for access to tinder or making kindling from logs was not tried. The blade is a bit short for that, but if I was going to keep this, I would have tried it anyway. But with the soft steel used for the sides of the blade, the odds of this task scratching the blade are quite high, which would make selling it off more difficult.
- Use as a throwing knife – A word to the wise, don't. If you throw your knife, you may not get it back, or it can be damaged, particularly if it is made of stainless steel which is a bit brittle. I did not try throwing this (probably not ANY stainless knife).
- Use as a spear – Turning your knife into a spear gives you additional reach, but throwing a spear made of a stainless steel knife is more susceptible to damage than is acceptable. Besides, the grip is one piec1e and not removable, so this will need to be lashed “to” the shaft, meaning it will be fairly off center and not throw well any way.
- This chops veggies pretty well and the blade shape should be very good for skinning and butchering. It is likely to be decent for filleting as well. Although all these tasks will be enhanced if you have a way to rapidly restore the razor edge.
- Digging for grubs and bait. It is hard to imagine anything which can dull or damage a knife quicker than digging with it, and stainless is at risk of chipping if it hits a rock, so I don't recommend using this knife for digging.
- Sticks or fronds – For shelter and other construction, splints and firewood. This knife is just too light and wrongly balanced to chop well; I got bored and gave up before even getting through a three quarter inch branch. This is not unacceptable in a bush knife, but does make also having a good field knife a useful choice.
- The grip and point are not the best possible for combat, but they are quite decent. The blade length is too short to be exceptional, but is adequate in many cases. There is, of course, little protection from your opponents blade, but it is better at preventing your hand from sliding onto your own blade than many knives of this design. I would say this knife could almost be considered a “combat” knife.
The sheath is pretty good. It is a well formed, Kydex like, sheath, with clip retention of the front of the grip, and a good selection of grommets and slots around the edges, for a wide range of attachment and accessory possibilities. The belt loop is bolted on, and can be bolted on the other side allowing true left hand carry. The belt loop is closed with Velcro and a snap, allowing it to be added or removed from your belt without disturbing anything else on the belt. It is just 2″ webbing, so is a bit more floppy than I like, but is tolerable, and there are grommets at the bottom for a leg tie if you need one. A snap fastened grip strap adds to the adequate retention provided by the sheath, plus stiffens the belt loop when fastened.
It appears only custom sheaths are available specifically for this knife. With the slots and grommets of the standard sheath, a number of generic mounting options and accessories should be available.
Price and Availability
The list price of the Master Hunter at this point in time is $159.99. You can usually find them new on eBay for $95 or so.
It is listed as being in stock at the company, and there are a bunch of people selling it new and used on eBay, as auctions (perhaps cheaper) and Buy It Now (quicker). Make sure you are getting the version you actually want; sometimes the discontinued Carbon V version or the original San Mai III version using something else (such as AUS-8) as the core steel show up, as well as the current VG-1 San Mai III version. There is also the current “Plus” version which has a gut hook (better for skinning and field dressing, lousy for combat and batoning) and the 3V version made of CPM 3-V carbon steel with an anti-corrosion coating.
Amazon seems to have a competitive price (for the standard version at least), and it is on the Prime program, but tax will be added.
I was really prepared for this to be my bush knife of choice, but the steel just did not live up to my expectations. The knife and grip design is, as it was originally, exceptional; perhaps the 3V version would be superior or at least equal to my old Carbon V version. But the San Mai version does not appear to be a top choice due to not holding an edge well or being easily able to get a razor edge back with a pocket sharpener (or at least one that I have, although the Vulkanus comes close). There are those who call this steel a “gimmick” and after this test, I'm not as sure as I used to be that they are incorrect.
Sadly, I do not recommend this for survival, although it might be quite decent as a “hunting” knife. In any case, this knife should never go anywhere without a sharpener close at hand.
One oddity. Most major knife companies seem to offer a well publicized “lifetime” warranty. Cold Steel's warranty is more difficult to decipher. Here is what is stated on the web site:
“We stand behind our knives and swords 100%. We subject them to the highest standards in the industry and strive to make each as perfect as possible. We warrant that our folding knives, fixed blade sheath knives, and swords are free from defects in workmanship and materials.”
Sounds good, but it is not clear for how long this is good for or the definition of “defect”. I have two recent Cold Steel fixed blade boxes with the warranty details on the bottom; one has no limit stated and the other says five years. And I have two recent Cold Steel folding knife boxes; again one has no limit stated and the other says only one year. So whenever buying a Cold Steel knife, find out how long the warranty on THAT particular knife is, and make sure you keep the receipt and warranty documentation.
I still think Cold Steel has some of the best designs out there, but at this point in time I don't think I'll be recommending any VG-1 San Mai blades for survival purposes, although they do have high potential for more short term uses.
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