Thursday, November 14, 2013

Cold Steel Recon Scout Review

If Cold Steel had sleek packaging and an understated marketing presence, their customers would probably be equally loyal, but very different.  You see, the quality of Cold Steel's products is almost always above average and in the case of the Recon Scout, it is well above average.  But Cold Steel is a company where the products rarely do the talking.  Instead someone else does, usually by stabbing quarters, chopping up blue jeans full of beef, or plunging a knife through a car hood.  All of these ridiculous tasks are something that Cold Steel blades seem imminently capable of doing, at least in my experience, but really, why not show us knives doing things people do with their blades?  The marketing is laughable, but the designs are capable.  Its an odd juxtaposition in a world where the opposite is almost always the case.

I have reviewed three Cold Steel products thus far and all have been capable cutters, but none had that extra level of attention that sent it to the top of the scoring scale.  The Recon Scout proves just how good Cold Steel's stuff can be and it is one of the best choppers I have had the fortunate to use.  One slight drawback keeps it from getting a perfect score, but make no mistake--you will be very happy with the Recon Scout.  It blew away my current big chopper, the Ontario RD-7, by a wide margin.  It was better than the Spyderco Rock I had in for review over the summer.

Here is the product page. There is a high end version of this knife with San Mai VG-1 steel.  This version of the Recon Scout, with a black blade and SK-5, costs around $117. Here is a written review. Here is a video review (an old Nutnfancy video, back when he talked for 10 gloriously focused and rant-free minutes). Here is a link to Blade HQ, where you can find the Recon Scout, and all proceeds benefit the site when you purchase things through this link:

Blade HQ

Here is my review sample:


Twitter Review Summary:  A knife by and for cavemen--smart cavemen.  Great blade.

Design: 1

Put aside the axe v. knife v. saw debate for a second and look within the realm of choppers.  You'll be impressed at how well the Recon Scout stacks up even against much more expensive choppers.  The blade shape and handle design are dead simple and dead effective.  The weight and balance are great.  The guard is very sturdy.  The sheath is amazing.  So why the 1 instead of a 2?  Here is why:


There is thick and then there is overbuilt and then there is the Recon Scout.  5/16 inch thick is quite a slab of steel and something that does effect performance.  There is never a second, not even a second, when you will think the knife will bend or break even in the hardest chopping tasks, but stock this thick does impact your ability to cut.  This is a knife and not a pry bar, but in some tasks, such as batonning I found it to be too brutishly thick.  It seems to me that 1/8 inch is a little too thin and 5/16 is too thick.  Perhaps 3/16 or 1/4 inch is just right.  My RD-7 is 3/16 and it chops quite well.  Ultimately, the Recon Scout is a bit too thick. 


Fit and Finish: 2

For a knife so brutal, the finish is quite impressive.  The black coating, which I hate, was even and thick.  The kraton handle was well made.  The piped lanyard hole is a nice touch, something a bit more than what you'd expect from a knife in this range.  The sheath is immaculate.  Even the guard, which is often chintzy, was well done here.  There is not a lot to do on a fixed blade, but what there is was done well here, surprisingly well given the intended task.   

Handle Design: 2

If you listen to the Knife Journal podcast you get a lesson in handle design.  One of the cohosts, Kyle, is a hand surgeon so naturally he is a little fixated on handles.  He often describes just how lacking the "slab handled" knives are in the chopper category.  Until I handled the Recon I didn't get what he meant.  My RD-7 is a slab handled knife.  There is a thick piece of steel sandwiched between two micarta slabs.  The slabs are nominally contoured but that is about it.  The Recon Scout misses the palm swell that Kyle talks about but its rounded shape is quite comfortable in the handle.  I think the kraton is overrated but it is very high traction.  This is not a knife that will slip out of your sweaty mitts. 


Steel: 2

SK-5 is a Japanese steel that is equivalent to a grade down from 1095, roughly equal to something like 1085.  It is a carbon steel, not a stainless steel.  It is often used is axe heads and other high impact tools because of its high toughness and impact resistance.  While it can be hardened to a very high level, in the chopping role it is often left in the mid 50s HRc.

I abused this knife.  I beat on it.  I delimbed pretty big branches and I processed my firewood for the winter.  Typically in late fall and early spring I will get a load of firewood, usually about a half a cord. We don't need it for heat, but its hard to resist the appeal of a real burning fireplace (those propane ones seem so sad or kind of delusional, like being attracted to a mannequin).  I go down the road to a site processing company and pick up the wood.  They have a splitter and chop it down considerably, but even then it is still quite big.  When I haul it home I bust up the big chunks, usually two or three times, with a maul.  I got a new maul this year as my old one was just a piece of junk.  The new one is not a super high end model, but it works very well and is very forgiving.  I don't split wood often so my technique is not perfect and my new maul shrugs off my neophyte mistakes with ease.  It also happens to be a Fiskars/Gerber product (yes, I CAN like their stuff, it just doesn't happen often).

At the end, there are a ton of massive chunks that have knots in them or are two narrow at the top and bottom to stand for splitting.  In those cases I usually either let them be or try to baton them apart.  Its a lot of work and something I wouldn't do in a critical situation, but when you have a knife like the Recon it seems like a shame not to test it out. The wood is generally relatively green oak.  Lots of dirt and grime (after all this is wood from a site processing place, not the home store) coat each piece.  This is tough stuff.  

The SK-5 came very sharp out of the box.  Not sharp enough to cut paper, but that's like criticizing a fighter plane for uncomfortable seats.  It was vastly sharper than an axe.  After a significant amount of chopping and batonning, the edge finally gave out.  By the last piece, which did not split either by maul or knife, the edge was done.  It was dull enough to grab bear handed and manipulate with force.  I was worried that I had pushed the SK-5 beyond the point of repair.

After the wood processing I went down to my workshop (where all my videos are filmed, usually) and did routine maintenance.  I resharpened the maul and coated it in WD-40 and did the same with the RD-7.  I then started work on the Recon Scout.  After some close work on the Sharpmaker, the SK-5 didn't just come back, it became better.  After the chopping and batonning, I was able to not just restore the edge, but improve it.  The knife was now able to slice paper.

This is really a commentary on the steel.  I am not a whiz at sharpening.  I am probably adequate.  I did not get lucky or have especially great technique this time around.  This is just a very good steel for a big chopper.  I like it better than the 5160 on my RD-7 and that is with a lot of experience on the RD-7's steel.  It may not be the most high tech, but the SK-5 did quite well in real world circumstances and for that, I can't give it less than a 2. 

Blade Shape: 2

I have said it perhaps a hundred times, but when it comes to blade shapes simplest is best and the Recon Scout is dead simple:


Unlike in other knives the swedge here is probably essential.  That much steel that far forward would make this a horrible stabber (its actually quite good a piercing) and would make the knife weigh probably 3 ounces more (it already weighs a good deal 15 ounces). 

Grind: 2

Normally I don't really think the difference between a hollow grind and a full flat grind is that big a deal.  In an EDC folder there aren't that many times when it will matter, but in a chopper, especially one with steel this thick, a full flat grind CAN and will make a difference.  The grind on the Recon Scout is not only the right choice, it is also expertly done.  


As you can see, the main grind is quite flat.  Additionally the swedge is even and again important here.  Lastly, the cutting bevel is even (or even enough given the task) AND very wide.  This gives you plenty of room to sharpen and makes registering the edge on the stones very easy.  With this big a blade it can be hard to do that, but the wide cutting bevel makes it a cinch.  It also gives you a very nice and sharp edge.  Overall, exceptionally well done and another indication that the Recon Scout is not just hype.  

Sheath Carry: 2

If you accept that the basic physics of the situation are going to be an issue, namely that your dealing with a long, heavy blade, the sheath carry is quite good.  The blade hangs in just the right spot and it is easy to pop the knife in and out of the sheath (please excuse the weirdo pose here, it is hard to get a picture of this, especially when I am not able to take that picture).  


The real test was when I was loading the wood in and out of my SUV and again into its final resting place near the house.  There was lots of carrying and bending, lots of rotating and lifting, with a healthy amount of squatting and side to side movement.  Never once did the sheath get in my way.  None of the other choppers I have used can say the same thing.  This is a superior sheath on your body.  Finally, the sheath was 100% silent with no blade rattle or snaps or noise of any kind.

Sheath Accessibility: 2

The sheath is not just perfectly placed on the body, it is very secure.  The knife could not drop out via gravity or even some aggressive shaking.  Only a quick and purposeful tug in the right place can dislodge it.   Getting the knife in, however, is simple.  Put the tip in the opening of the sheath and drop the blade--the weight of the knife is enough to overcome the detents and lock the blade in place.  BRILLIANT.  


I did not attach the knife to MOLLE but there are plenty of attachment points.  Additionally, the strap over the handle is a nice snap that can be opened and closed (with some finger yoga) with one hand.  There was literally nothing I could complain about regarding the sheath.  Okay I wish it had a drain hole, but that is it.  Nothing else.

Useability: 2

I am still not sold on a guard.  I suppose a knife this size is almost certainly going to be used by folks in combat and it serves a role there, but as a chopper I don't get it.  That one small issue aside, in the hand during hard use I have zero complaints. 


At this point shown above, the blade got stuck.  A maul couldn't split this piece and neither could the Recon Scout.  Nothing I had could.  But the knife was not just lodged in there, it was jammed.  Tugging and pulling and using my whole body for leverage eventually got it out and not once did I get a hot spot.  I was wearing outdoor gloves, but that hasn't stopped the RD-7 from giving me blisters.  Limbing trees was easy and fluid.  The handle is so good, so amazingly good.  Its narrow cross section gives you an excellent purchase and makes the beefy blade feel almost nimble during use.  AWESOME.  I loved using this knife, so much so that I sent Blade HQ an email after some heavy chopping.  GREAT, GREAT, GREAT. 

Durability: 2

Drop this knife into a stump tip down and you will hear an authoritative thwack.  This is a club, a beast, a pry bar, whatever you want to say.  If you break this knife during use you had to have fought Thor.  Seriously the slab of steel was stiff enough to resist a massive amount of torque used while dislodging the blade. 


If there is a spectrum of use it could go something like this: use--> hard use --> abuse --> gross abuse --> purposeful destruction.  Short of that last thing, I think the Recon Scout will be fine.  Romans figured out how to blow up mountains 2,000 years ago so nothing can withstand the glee and will of man to destroy things.  Not even this knife.

After all of the bludgeoning and prying I was, as I recounted above, able to restore the edge.  After some cleaning and lube here was the damage:


That's it.  A little marking on the paint.  The paint itself was fine.  The handle had no chips or rips in the kraton.  I think eventually both of these things will go and I wish Cold Steel would use better blade coatings, but if your worried about the blade coating on your Recon Scout you have missed the point.  

Overall Score: 19 out 20

Choppers with blades over 7 inches are, in my opinion, to unwieldy for true use.  6 to 7 inches seems to be a sweet spot and in that sweet spot I have found nothing I like more than the Recon Scout.  It is a beast.  I wish the blade was thinner but a hair, but I am not going to get hung up on that.  I could easily buy this knife and never need another fixed blade chopper again (but when has NEED limited our purchases?).  Honestly, I could save up and get a Busse, but having used this knife I am not sure that would be the best way for me to spent my very little fun money.  I see the value in the better steel, but I am not sure that value would mean that much to me.  This is a great fixed blade.  Screw the ridiculous marketing.  This is one product that under promises and over delivers even with the ludicrous stuff Lynn and Co. put out.  Don't let them fool you.  Don't let them lead you to believe they are a bunch of know-nothing cavemen.  They are very good fixed blade designers and the Recon Scout proves that.  They are knowledgeable cavemen and using the Recon Scout very hard for a few days makes me want to join that clan.    

If I were king of the world, I would make three minor tweaks.  First I would swap out the kraton for a smooth and shaped micarta or G-10 handle.  Second, I would drop the blade thickness down to 1/4" from 5/16".  Third I would use 3V steel.  This is very close to what the War Hammer line of Cold Steel knives is, but that line has a tanto only.  A drop or clip point in the War Hammer line would sell like gang busters. 

The Competition

Its not easy to find an openly comparable (same size same price) knife that is just superior.  I think I'd prefer the 1/4 inch stock on both the Ka Bar BK7 and the ESEE 6, but I think the Recon has a better sheath than the BK7 and a better handle than the ESEE 6 (plus a bit more length, which is crucial at this size; its also about $25 cheaper).   The Ontario knives I have used aren't nearly as a easy to sharpen as the Recon Scout.  My RD-7's very thin cutting bevel made it hard to sharpen after it went head to head with the Recon Scout.  The Spyderco Rock is quite a bit more and its sheath, especially where it sits on your hip, is terrible.  If I were in the market it would probably be the Recon Scout, the ESEE 6, then the BK7, then the Rock, and finally the RD-7.   I'd love to do a shootout with the Recon Scout, the BK-7 and the ESEE 6.  Maybe I can get around to it... 


  1. Hmmm...a Recon Scout review that didn't even mention the highly sought after vintage versions made of Carbon V steel. I have friends that will show off their latest blade (forged in a mythical fire, under moonlight, with Thor's Hammer, etc...), while waxing nostalgic about the old steel Cold Steel used - and how nothing will ever match its specific characteristics - no matter what any metallurgical knife freak will say about it. It wasn't the "best" steel available in the 80's - but it definitely has a legion of fans...even those who aren't fond of CS marketing style.

  2. As for the competition you mention, the Kabar/Becker/Esee families all three will have a legion of fans that should be able to expound on the SK5/SanMai/Carbon V stories. Most people that love those knives, love the Recon Scout (or Trailmaster or similar) and should be familiar with the legends surrounding Carbon V.

    If you dig far enough into the internet (I dont have a link handy) you should be able to track down a good idea of what it was metallurgically (rather than as a marketing term) and probably figure out where the steel was most likely sourced from and who most likely forged it.