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Cold Steel San Mai III Master Hunter Review

MasterHunter-003cThere’s an old expression that “You can never go home again.”  Recently, we decided to test that notion and rounded up the new model Master Hunter in laminated VG-1 from Cold Steel.  I have a Carbon V Master Hunter that I’ve had for about ten years now, so I wanted to see how their newer model fares by comparison.




MasterHunter-010aIt was about ten years ago when I picked up my Master Hunter in Carbon V steel (picture to right), but it wasn’t my first Cold Steel knife.  I’d had their Recon Tanto, Trailmaster, Recon Scout, a Safe Keeper, and an SRK as well.  One thing I always felt about the Carbon V blades is that they provided a lot of value for the money.  As most are aware, Cold Steel has changed over their steel types because of changes in the industry and they moved on from Carbon V to SK-5 as the high carbon replacement.  I only tried one knife in SK-5, and though I don’t have anything negative to say about its performance, I wasn’t exactly wowed by it like I was with Carbon V.  So, I left home (so to speak) and didn’t acquire any new CS products for a while.  But, over the past couple of years, Cold Steel has been bringing out more of their models in their San Mai III versions.  Basically, San Mail III is a lamination process where a harder inner steel is sandwiched between steels that are a bit softer and more flexible.  This helps bring a good compromise by having the core steel be harder for longer edge retention while the outer layers help with flexibility of the overall blade.

MasterHunter-009aThere are a few companies that have this kind of process in one fashion or another, and it’s good to see Cold Steel start bringing out their older models in this configuration.  2010 is seeing a lot of their established models being constructed with the laminated blades, but we’re taking a look at their Master Hunter which has been out in San Mai III for a couple of years, so there’s been plenty of time to work out any initial production kinks.  At first glance, the new Master Hunter looks pretty much like the old one did (new version on right in picture).  There are a few slight differences (aside from blade construction) including the lack of the brass ferrule in the lanyard hole and a slightly different pattern on the Kraton handle.  Also, the edge profile on the older model has more of a curve to it leading all the way to the hilt where the newer model has more of a straight edge to it for about two-thirds of the blade.  The new model is also about a quarter inch longer overall though the blade lengths are identical–so the extra length is going into the handle.  Aside from those differences, Cold Steel has stayed pretty true to the original design.

MasterHunter-001aOne difference in the overall package is the new Concealex sheath that’s being shipped with the Master Hunter instead of the old leather one that the original had.  While I’m partial to leather for most holsters and sheaths, I do like the new sheath design a lot.  First, it locks the knife in snugly without being too aggressive on the snap.  You don’t have to go through a lot of yanking contortions to get it out of the sheath.  Second, the sheath has a nice thumb rest along the side so you can push against the sheath with your thumb to break the soft lock and extract the knife.  A lot of sheath makers don’t keep this in mind when they make Kydex/Concealex sheaths, but to me it’s a must-have to easily extract the knife, especially when you don’t have a tie-down to keep the sheath in place while extracting the knife.  Finally, the loop has a Velcro and a snap closure that lets you put on or take off the sheath without undoing your belt.  That’s an extra little touch I like a lot.  Normally, it’s not too big of an issue, but when I’m outside, I’ve usually got other things on the belt like a Leatherman, a holster, and maybe some spare ammunition as well.  To add the knife to the mix–well, that’s a pain to have to take everything off and get it re-situated.  So, this little extra thought is something I appreciate.

MasterHunter-002aBut, there’s one piece of the sheath I didn’t care for too much, and that’s the retaining strap at the top of the loop.  Maybe I’m the only one out there who doesn’t like this since companies have been making this style of strap for years, even decades.  But, for me, that retaining strap is a pain to try and use and it keeps the handle tucked in too tight to the body.  It’s easy to get gouged by it from time to time, but maybe that’s just me.  I’d prefer the strap somewhere around the mouth of the sheath.  I know there aren’t too many ways to do it, but there has to be a better way to get that secondary retention.  To be honest, I’m probably just going to cut off the retaining strap to get it out of the way.  The Concealex sheath does a good job with positive retention.  In fact, it does just a little bit better than the leather sheaths I have for my Finnish Puukkos that I picked up recently, and they don’t have retaining straps.  But, aside from this little quibble, the sheath is a pretty good design overall.  There are some extra holes along the side for lashing to a pack or other gear, and if you’re creating, you can find a way to attach a small pouch for little tools like a firestarter, a sharpening stone, or other survival gear.

MasterHunter-004aSpeaking of little quibbles, I debated on whether or not to bring up this point, but decided I should to get everything out in the open.  My original Master Hunter has a brass ferrule in the lanyard hold to finish it off with a nice clean look and with a bit of contrast.  The newer version looks to use some other kind of metal with what appears to be a painted surface.  I might be wrong with that observation, but the new one is already show either chips or some other kind of wear that makes the lanyard hole area look a little sloppy.  It doesn’t have that clean, finished look that my original had.   This doesn’t really bear on the knife’s performance and probably won’t matter much after all of it has worn off over time, but out of the box, it just looks less than 100% for my taste.  Plus, I think the brass accent of the original is a nice touch and gets that old-style patina to it after a good bit of time and use.

MasterHunter-012aHowever, where the new Master Hunter does stay very true to the original design is that very sharp cutting edge.  This is where that harder, inner steel (VG-1) comes into play.  I was impressed by the sharpness of the San Mai III version straight of the box.  I won’t say it was the sharpest edge I’ve encountered in a production model, but it was good enough that it only took a few passes on my own kit to bring the edge where I wanted it.  Even so, the edge out of the box was good enough to get paper thin shavings as I attempted to make some tinder to start a fire for another review.  I won’t claim to be a “bushcrafter”, but I know what my needs are outside and the Master Hunter did just fine in this regard.  Because that inner steel is harder and is what constitutes the blade edge, it will hold that edge longer than a softer steel.  But, that means it’ll be a little tougher to bring back once it starts losing sharpness, but I’m sharpening challenged and didn’t have any problems get it back to snuff.  After my primary touch-up out of the box, the edge lasted a good while with a number of different tasks outside.  I’d estimate that I took the Master Hunter out on about six occasions where it got a lot of use before I felt like it needed to be touched up again.  I know the adage about touching up your knife every time you use it, but it’s not one of my favorite tasks, so that’s the benefit for me of having an edge that last a little bit longer.  As always, your mileage may vary.

During the course of this review, I did a little research and there seems to be mixed opinions about the VG-1 steel used as the core steel in the lamination process.  Some people debate whether it’s better or worse than VG-10, and others argue about it’s fitness in comparison to AUS-8.  I’m not an engineer or a metallurgist, so I won’t be able to say definitively one way or the other.  But, just from my experience, most of the stainless steels in this price range all seem to work equally well for me.  There’s an expression for photographers that blow up their pictures at 200%, 300%, and even 400% resolution to study every little pixel in the picture, and that’s expression is “pixel peepers”.  Sometimes we can get so caught up in the minutia of certain subjects that we forget about the actual user experience and the realm of practicality.  The important questions (for me) to ask are “Does it do what I need to do?” and “Do I trust it to perform its job?”.  That said, I can answer yes to both questions for the Master Hunter.

MasterHunter-005aAnother popular area of debate is that of handle material choice.  Cold Steel uses their Kraton material for the handle, and Kraton has been around a good long time, so there must be something to it.  I have an older Cold Steel LTC Khukri that’s been in my possession for about 12 years or maybe even longer.  The Kraton handle on it has stood up very well as has the handle of my old Master Hunter that you see in the pictures.  Say what you will, Kraton does have the advantage of giving a positive grip on the handle of the knife, especially where conditions are wet and slippery.  Cleaning game is certainly one of those occasions and expressly the role the Master Hunter was intended to fill.  Unfortunately, hunting season is out so we don’t have any game to clean to try out the Master Hunter.  But, from the blade profile and keen edge, I’m sure it will have just as good a time with game as my original version did.

MasterHunter-011aHowever, I did try it out with some basic outdoors tasks like I mentioned above with making tinder for a fire.  I also thought I’d give it a try to see how it does as a chopper.  With a knife of this size and light weight, it’s primary role is not going to be as a chopper.  But, there are times when you have to make do with what you have, so I wanted to see how it performed in this role.  I picked out a decent sized, young tree to do the chopping test and I gave myself 1 minute to chop as much as I could.  For that amount of time, I think the Master Hunter did okay, given the size of the tree.  If you were trying to build a simple shelter or needed saplings for other tasks, you wouldn’t choose one the size I did.  You’d go smaller, so I’d say there’d be no issue using the Master Hunter as a light chopper for smaller diameter limbs and saplings.  This was done without the benefit of a lanyard allowing me to move further back on the handle, so all in all, the Master Hunter held its own.  I did notice the Kraton handle starting to create a hot spot on one of my fingers as I was doing the chopping, but that’s pretty typical with those kinds of handles.  Since this knife won’t be used in that fashion the vast majority of the time, it’s pretty much a non-issue.  Suffice to say, if you needed to build a temporary shelter or needed an expedient fishing pole or spear, then you won’t have any problems using the Master Hunter for that purpose.  If you need firewood, find a better tool.

MasterHunter-008aNo, we didn’t run the Master Hunter through any torture tests to see how it withstands impact or incredible flexing.  Honestly, I don’t have the time nor the inclination.  I don’t use knives to that extreme unless they are specifically designed for heavy duty work, so the point is moot.  I tested this as I do with most knives I receive for review, by simply going about my day and doing the things that I normally do in the field.  Overall, I was pretty pleased with this new version of the Master Hunter.  The performance is right up there with the older model (with the caveat of longer sharpening time) and I don’t have to worry about corrosion as much with the new version as I did the old one.  Most of it is going to come down to taste and personal preference with things like choice of steel, handle material, and so forth.

With the corrosion resistant stainless steel, Concealex sheath, and the Kraton handle, the Master Hunter is one of those knives that doesn’t have to be pampered as much.  You can throw it into a kit or a pack and have it waiting on you when you’re ready to go.  The Master Hunter MSRP’s for about $130, but you can find them all over the net for around $80-$85.00.  The entire package is actually a pretty good value considering a similar knife from another major company using laminated steel is asking about $40 more on the street.  So, if you’re looking for a knife that’s intended for use in harsh environments like wet conditions and on game, offers strong performance at a reasonable price, then this might be one that you want to look at up close and personal!


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