What you think of Cold Steel depends entirely on your perspective. For some people, Cold Steel is the brand that sells ninja stars and spikes at the medieval blade store in the mall. For other people, Cold Steel is – and will always be – Lynn Thompson, wearing a plaid shirt, swinging a long sword at a piece of an animal hanging from a rope on YouTube. But beyond all the histrionics, Cold Steel was – and is – a brand that has produced some truly high-quality knives over the years, mall ninja stigma aside.
Best Cold Steel Knives: Summary
Cold Steel’s history dates back 41 years at the time of writing, to 1980 when the company was founded in California by Lynn Thompson. According to an interview Lynn did with Deathwish Coffee in 2018, he started the company after breaking two competitor’s knives in a row and thinking “I could do a better job, and I must do a better job.” Over the decades between now and then, Cold Steel has brought a lot of innovations to the market – the popularization of the American Tanto blade shape, laminated steel (San Mai III), Kraton handles, and the production integration of the Tri-Ad lock – arguably the strongest lock in the world.
In recent years, CS started working with acclaimed custom knifemaker Andrew Demko to design a lot of their knives, and while Andrew has since moved on to start his own production knife line, a lot of his designs and influence still remain in the lineup. Cold Steel was sold to GSM (Good Sportsman Marketing, LLC), a conglomerate of outdoor sporting and hunting brands, at the end of 2020, and their headquarters moved to Irving, Texas along with the rest of GSM’s brands.
Here we highlight some of our favorite Cold Steel knives and what we like about them.
When it comes to Cold Steel folders, the thing they’re most known for is the Tri-Ad lock – a modification of a traditional back lock which puts a stop pin between the blade tang and the lock bar. This distributes the load through the pin and into the handles rather than focusing it on the mating surface of the blade and the lock bar, which makes the knife much stronger and longer lasting. It was originally designed by Demko and implemented by Cold Steel.
The AD-10 is a production version of Demko’s custom AD-10, and it is VERY similar to the original high-dollar custom. Like most of Demko’s knives, it includes the Tri-Ad lock, and the blade is a big (3.625”) drop point, made from CPM S35VN. It measures 8.5” open and weighs a considerable 6.8 ounces. Dual thumb stud deployment pops the big blade out, and the AD-10 features contoured G10 scales cover aluminum liners, with an ergonomic grip including a forward finger guard and a flared tail for a secure grip. The AD-10 is an ergonomic home run, and it can be considered either a larger version of the acclaimed Ultimate Hunter or a smaller version of the insane 4-Max. For a high-end production folder, it’s a uniquely Cold Steel take that combines high end materials and build quality with the insanely overbuilt nature that CS is known for. It also comes with dual pocket clips depending on which side you’re going to carry it on.
The Code 4 is probably the most underrated Cold Steel knife, a really excellent EDC option that combines tough-as-nails materials and construction in a super lightweight, pocketable format. Those anodized aluminum handles are super thin, only 0.35” across, housing Demko’s Tri-Ad lock (a phrase you’ll read quite a lot in this article, for good reason) but only weighing 4.15 ounces. The Code 4 comes with a choice in blade shapes – a 3.5” clip point, spear point, or tanto – all at the same price and weight, so it’s a matter of blade shape preference. The knife has gone through an evolution of steel selection, originally coming in AUS-8A, before being upgraded to CTS-XHP and finally CPM S35VN currently.
The Code 4 isn’t the best choice if you’re working in a slippery environment or with gloves, but it combines a very slim light carry with a serious blade and lock for when the need arises. My preference between the three blades is probably the clip point because it’s got more of a useful belly and a more acute tip for piercing than the spear point, but they’re all very good.
The Recon 1 series has been a mainstay of the CS lineup for a long time, spawning a broad array of models and evolutions. While there are three sizes of Recon 1 – regular (4”) and micro (2”) we’ve picked the Mini Recon 1 for our list, the mid-sized 3” blade model, the just-right goldilocks model, a knife that lifts two palms upward in a look of confusion when people say that Cold Steel makes nothing but ridiculous over the top knives. The Mini Recon 1 is the model of practicality.
At only ~$68, it’s affordable. With G10 scales and AUS-10A steel, it’s durable and serviceable. It stretches 7.125” open and offers a full four finger grip, but it only weighs a scant 3.6 ounces. It has ergonomic finger grooves, ambidextrous thumb studs, and of course it features the super-strong Tri-Ad lock for safety. The pocket clip is configurable for right or left hand tip up carry. And like the Code 4 above, you have your choice of a spear point, an American Tanto, or a clip point. I’d probably go spear point for the narrower profile in pocket, but Cold Steel’s clip points are just so good looking.
Remember how we said two paragraphs ago that some people think Cold Steel makes “nothing but ridiculous over the top knives?” Well, this is why.
Cold steel refers to the Espada family as “folding swords” – and they’re not wrong. Espada is Spanish for Sword, a name it shares with my favorite classic Lamborghini – a front engined, V12 powered, low-slow 2+2 GT coupe that’s also quite large by Lambo standards. And the Espada XL is quite large by sane people standards, featuring a 7.5” blade length. Which means the blade itself is longer than an entire Mini Recon 1 when it’s open. The whole thing stretches out 16.75” from tip to butt when open, meaning you grip the handle with both hands.
The fancier Espada XL – because why do you want a plain one? – features a polished satin CPM S35VN steel blade, with a hollow grind and a dramatic trailing point blade shape. Handle frames and bolsters are integral slabs of 7075 aluminum polished till they shine, dovetailed with contoured G10 scales. The handles feature finger grooves and a pronounced sub-hilt for various grips. The Espada XL weighs a little over a pound, which is impressive – because it looks like it would weigh more. It uses a traditional lockback, and as proof that CS never lost their sense of humor, this knife has a pocket clip. Not sure what pocket it will fit in, guys!
Another absolute master class in practical EDC knives had to bookend the Espada XL in this list to balance out the universe. The American Lawman is a truly excellent daily carry knife, and having had personal experience with one in the past I can say the only downside is that the pocket clip and G10 scales will destroy your pockets. Like the Code 4, the American Lawman has changed from AUS-8 to CTS-XHP and finally to CPM S35VN steel, offered in one variety: a 3.5” drop point in black DLC.
Why is the American Lawman so perfect? Well, the blade shape: a neutral drop point with a deep hollow grind means that it cuts like a lightsaber, also thanks to relatively thin 0.13” blade stock. The knife is also very thin in the pocket, with linerless G10 scales that measure only 0.39” across. So it’s light: just under four ounces. It also has top-notch ergonomics, with a well-defined forward finger choil, a rearward finger groove with a guard for a rear grip, a nice palm swell, and contoured edges to the G10. It uses the super tough Tri-Ad lock, and is configured for ambidextrous tip-up carry with mirrored pocket clips. If you think that CS only makes meme knives, three seconds holding the American Lawman will help you figure it out. An absolutely top notch user knife.
Now for a fixed blade, the Master Hunter is designed to be a no-nonsense hunting knife that will stand up to any task you throw at it in the field. The blade measures 4.5” long with the whole knife clocking in at a sizable 9.125”, and it features a shock absorbing Kray-Ex rubber checkered handle for a solid, comfortable grip with a pronounced finger guard for protection.
The blade shape is a drop point, with a continuous curve to the edge for lots of belly – what you want for slicing cuts – and its thick (0.19” wide) but full flat ground to maximize cutting ability. The original Master Hunter used the VG-1 San Mai III laminate steel (a layer of high carbon steel sandwiched in between two layers of tougher low-carbon steel) to provide good edge retention with high toughness. With an upgrade to Crucible CPM 3V, you get both properties (and then some) in one steel. 3V is a pretty rare steel, a high carbon tool steel (low chromium content, not stainless) that’s designed to be very impact resistant while offering better edge retention than traditional tool steels like A2 or D2. This means that the edge resists chipping better than most other tool steels without the tradeoff of poor edge retention. It’s cool stuff.
The Master Hunter also comes with a kydex sheath that can be configured a number of ways to fit whatever belt or pack it’s attaching to, and secures the blade with a snap fit sheath as well as a loop around the handle.
Another Andrew Demko design, the AD-15 at first glance looks similar to the AD-10 mentioned earlier in this list. Like the AD-10, it’s a production version of one of Andrew’s customs, offering similar functionality at a fraction of the price. It has similar dimensions and a similar footprint, too: 3.625” drop point in CPM S35VN, 8.50” long, weighs a hefty 6.57 ounces. But the lock is obviously different, using Demko’s unique Scorpion Lock.
The lower handle has textured G10 scales over stainless liners, while the upper handle – which they call a “yoke” – is anodized 6061 aluminum, housing a backspring which applies downward pressure. Open the blade using the ambidextrous thumbstuds and the yoke pops up, all the way open and it pops back down into a slot in the tang securing the blade in place. It works similarly to the SLS lock that G&G Hawk designed for the Buck Marksman I reviewed several years ago, but different in a few ways (it pivots, not bends, it drops into the tang rather than vice versa). Another benefit of this design is that while it is locked when open, your hand gripping the handle increases the force holding the lock closed. It also keeps your fingers out of the path of the blade when closing. While this uplevel S35V model costs $215, Cold Steel has also come out with an AD-15 Lite which drops the price down to $135 by using AUS-10A steel and injection molded Griv-Ex scales instead of CNC machined G10.
Man, you can’t help but love the Tuff Lite. It’s the peak of function over form, a knife so goofy looking it can’t possibly work, except it works amazingly. The Tuff Lite, which packs a 2.5” blade, and the Mini Tuff Lite with its 2” blade, are what would happen if you zapped a box cutter with an evolution ray. Both feature a wharncliffe blade with a hollow sabre grind, putting the tip down very low making it a natural for cutting open boxes. While the dimensions are small – the Tuff Lite is 6” open, the Mini 5” open – a deep finger groove and a forward 50/50 finger choil make it secure in the hand.
AUS-8A steel is a blessing considering the price point, as is the super-strong Tri-Ad lock. Injection molded textured handles provide a solid grip. Both models are very light – 1.7 ounces for the mini and still only 2.5 for the regular. Deployment is via an oblong thumb hole for one handed use. They’re both available in a variety of bright colors as well as black, and the full sized also has an option for a serrated blade. Cheap, tough, useful – hard to pass up.
Another fixed blade hunting knife, this time smaller and more of a viable EDC option. The Pendleton Mini Hunter is a custom collaboration with Lloyd Pendleton, long-time friend of found Lynn Thompson. The Mini Hunter packs a lot of performance into a lightweight package, with a 2.875” full flat ground drop point blade, and 6.625” overall length being making the 2.08 ounce weight seem very light. The blade is fairly thin at 0.13” across, and with the full flat grind it makes it a mean slicer.
Kray-Ex rubberized polymer handles include a lanyard hole as well as a lower finger guard, and the whole thing slides into a kydex sheath with a snap loop around the handle. Blade steel on the regular version is AUS-10A, which is quite good for $35, while the nicer model uses CPM-3V tool steel with a black DLC coating to protect it from corrosion, since it’s not stainless.
Air Lite – $85
Somehow the Air Lite has gone virtually unnoticed in the EDC community in the last few years. Maybe we’re overwhelmed with options at reasonable mid-range prices. Maybe people still have a hard time taking Cold Steel seriously. Whatever it is, this knife has somehow escaped attention. Hard to understand, considering it offers an 8” overall length with a super strong lock but only weighs 3.6 ounces.
Available in either a flat sabre ground drop point or a tanto, both Air Lite models have 3.5” long blades made from AUS-10A, cut thin at 0.12” wide, and both lock open with the super strong Tri-Ad lock. Linerless G10 scales (with a checkered pattern milled into the outside) keep the width way down to only 0.35” wide, and the Air Lite comes with a bent steel pocket clip that’s set up for ambidextrous tip up carry. A refined lightweight EDC from Cold Steel? Who knew?
Bonus: 4-Max – $425
Originally I was going to list the truly excellent Ultimate Hunter, which is still a fantastic EDC folder, but I decided it was pretty similar to some other knives on this list, so instead went with the absolute bonkers 4-Max Elite. Also designed by Andrew Demko, the 4-Max is intended as the halo folding knife of the brand, featuring a thick (0.18”) drop point measuring in at 4” long from CPM-S35VN steel, with thumb studs and the Tri-Ad lock. Handles are two-tone contoured G10. Readers with a sharp memory will recall this is different than the original 4-Max, which was made by an OEM in Italy and had a CPM-20CV blade, but QC issues forced the brand to move production to Taiwan. They also make a “Scout” version of the 4-Max, with molded Griv-Ex handles and an AUS-10A blade, if the $425 retail price of the 4-Max is too much.
It’s hard to point to brands that Cold Steel competes directly with, because their folding knives run the gamut from the $7 Kudu to the $425 4-Max Elite. Not only that, but they also make a full line of fixed blades with a huge range in price (from $8 to $699, no kidding) as well as a whole slew of other things we don’t get into – baseball bats, spetnaz shovels, throwing stars, etc. Then there are the patently absurd huge folding knives – or folding swords – like the Espada, Voyager XL, and Spartan Kopis.
Gerber does have some variety to their lineup, as they also make a full catalog of multitools in addition to folding and fixed knives, but most of their folding knives land at a lower price point. SOG is also making more knives in the mid-level tier that a lot of Cold Steels exist in (around $80-$100 for folders.) And of course few production brands can match the stunning catalog spread available from WE/Civivi currently, who probably makes knives they forgot they were still making. But everything from a folding bush knife to a baseball bat to a high end folder to a sword to the Espada XL? That’s only Cold Steel, baby.
If you’ve though of Cold Steel as the brand that only makes goofy stuff for the mall ninja crowd, you really owe it to yourself to try out one of their nicer models with the Tri-Ad lock. If products that put a large emphasis on function over form appeal to you, there’s bound to be something in the Cold Steel catalog that will tickle your fancy.