Friday, December 2, 2016

Cold Steel Espada XL Review

BAD BEHAVIOR DISCLAIMER: If you pay attention at all to the knife world you know Cold Steel behaves like a bunch of jerks, from their suit against CRKT (my commentary here and here) to their threats to sue custom makers for the use of the San Mai designation (I think they were on good legal ground vis a vis the trademark but just because you have a right doesn't mean you need to enforce it--see Spyderco and the thumb hole for an example of a good corporate citizen on this front).  Calling Cold Steel repugnant is offensive to repugnant people everywhere.  You get the point though--their behavior is uninspiring.  Legal, but dreadful. And for those of us that like their knives, its something that is embarrassing (along with Lynn Thompson's Boop Your Dead video).   

Part of the difficulty in reviewing something is figuring out exactly how the maker of that item intends for it to be used. To a certain extent this doesn't matter--the Zebra F-701 is a pen that is great precisely because you can use it in a way that the manufacturer probably didn't intend. But, for the most part, if a maker puts out a flashlight as an EDC light, that is how I will review it. Its hardly fair to dock an EDC flashlight points because it doesn't throw well. So intended use and context matter.

With that as background, let me say that the review of the Espada XL has been very difficult. Not because I couldn't figure out its strengths and weaknesses, but because I am not sure what Cold Steel thinks is this product's intended use. If they think this is a serious knife that has high utility, they are wrong and if seen in that light the knife is an utter failure. But that seems like an improbable intended use for a knife with a 7 1/2 inch blade. If they view the knife as a folding fixed blade, a pocket chopper, if you will (said with a Dusty Rhodes voice), then, again, it is an utter failure. This is a knife that did not fair well in chopping tasks for a slew of reasons.

There are three other possible roles: 1) as compensation device; 2) as a weapon; and 3) as an emblem for the brand. In these three roles, only two of which I care about, I can see the Espada XL doing well. There is no question that, short of a Corvette or other sports car purchased in late mid-life, the Espada XL is a fabulous compensation device. Given its size and intimidating appearance, I would imagine that it would be successful as a weapon, but I have no expertise or concern for a knife as a weapon, so I will leave that function alone. But perhaps the best intended use (or reason for the Espada XL to exist) is as a emblem for Cold Steel itself. In that intended use, it hits a home run. The Espada XL is Cold Steel in a way that no other knife encapsulates a brand.

Why? Well, like Cold Steel the Espada XL is BIG, BOLD, and VICIOUS. It is also chocked full of flaws, flaws that indicate that Cold Steel, even to this day, does not understand what makes its brand and its blades liked among those that eschew the label and look of the Mall Ninja. And finally, and perhaps most sweetly for people that tire of Lynn Thompson's legal bullshit, it involves a bit of intellectual property scandal. Its not outright theft, but like many things Cold Steel does, the Espada XL makes a very bad impression, legally speaking.

Then there is a final possibility--this knife is designed for fun.  For all of the gory violence over on Cold Steel's video page, in the end I think Cold Steel is a company made of and for adult men that want to indulge their inner 12 year old boy.  Who doesn't want to see shit blow up?  Well, aside from adults and females.  So in that vain, the Espada XL is supposed to be fun and any utility you get out of it is a bonus.  In the end, this is the approach I chose.  Is it fun and is there a dollop of utility on the side?  

Finally, I think it is important for me to state by bias up front--I hate big, weapony knives. I would much prefer a small, quiet pocket companion that help with everyday chores. Big knives slow me down and make everyday life a bit more cumbersome. They also scare people, which, having long since left my teenage years in the past, I have no interest in doing. I am also not much of a fan of stabbing people. So the Espada XL as the biggest and most weapony knife in the world, starts out with a serious handicap.

Here is the product page (please ignore the obnoxious, breathless copy). The Espada XL costs $259.95. Here is a written review (for Dan, this is a normal sized knife--dude is giant). Here is a video review. Here is a link to Blade HQ, where you can find the Espada XL, and all proceeds benefit the site when you purchase things through this link:

Blade HQ

Here is my review sample:


Twitter Review Summary: Knife Jalopy.

Before I get started on the actual review, let me show you this little disclaimer that comes in the XL's box (which did not come in other Cold Steel boxes):

Um...remember when Cold Steel tried to sue CRKT?  For false advertising...yeah that's why Lynn Thompson has as many friends in the knife world as a leper does as at a wrestling match.  This is the very definition of hypocrisy.  

Design: 0

There is no question that you will smile as this thing slides out of the box.  It is positively huge.  Not just long (okay...there will be one million and one "That's what she said..." jokes in this review) but really tall as well.  This thing is easily two inches wide.

But once the glee wears off you are stuck with a blade, even for an object of pure cutting joy, is impractical.  The handle is a mess.  There is no chance you can get this open with one hand (unless you Wave it out), and the blade is impractical for anything other than running through the forest delimbing saplings like a jackass.  Oh, and in an odd twist, it was a fantastic pizza cutter.  I would love to see that in a Cold Steel promotional video.  

The blade to hand--screw this--the knife weighs more than a pound and has a 7 1/2 inch blade.  Its not even worth busting out a calculator for the performance ratios.  Even if they are good, the knife is just too big to take seriously.  

Fit and Finish: 0

Here is where I was truly surprised.  I expected this to be a design I didn't like.  But Cold Steel has sneakily done very well in terms of fit and finish in the last three years.  Even their cheap stuff, like the Mini Tuff Lite was solid, centered, and sturdy.  What you get here is a clicking, clacking, crunching mess.  After even a few minutes of use the leverage put on the handle basically does in the knife, but for the Tri-Ad lock.  The side to side blade play after some use was incredible--enough you can see the blade wiggle in the air as you wave it back and forth.

And I don't think this is a fluke or a bad egg.  The physics here are terrible for a knife handle.  Cold Steel has torqued way down on the blade with the Tri-Ad lock so that there is very little up and down blade play.  The spring here is tremendously strong.  But all of that force, generated by a boom arm of 7 1/2 inches of steel, has to go somewhere and here it goes out into the sides of the handles resulting a staggeringly sloppy knife.

I would be willing to concede that even this error is not fatal given that it is all but required by the design (this is one of a million reasons why a 7 1/2 inch blade is impractical), if the rest of the knife was good.  But it wasn't.  As you can see below, even before use the blade was out of alignment.  Out of the box it rubbed the handles.  After some tweaking of the pivot, it was better, but the instant I used the knife it returned.  


If you suspend your prejudice against Mall Ninja gear and trying out something like the Mini Recon 1, you will see that this knife, with the identical materials, is far below what it could be, simply because folders shouldn't be this big. 

Grip: 0

There are about seven different grips that this beast of a handle can accommodate, unfortunately none of them are good.  Aside from the issue of a handle like this telling you where to put your hands, which is a problem to begin with there are three other issues here.  First, because of where the liners are, when you strike something you intend to cut with force that force is transferred through the handle to your hand in way that is surprisingly painful.  If the liners were fully nested like they are on the Paramilitary 2, for example, this wouldn't be an issue.  As it is, steel on flesh and bone is no fun. 


Second, the G10, even though is tamed down from what Cold Steel used to issue, is still to rough.  As the overview showed, its just too rough to be used by non-gloved hands.  I suppose if you are the biker gang enforcer type, gloves are a necessity for fingerprint concealment reasons, but for the rest of us, gloves are a sometimes thing and so sometimes this knife is just AWFUL in the hand.

Third, and finally, because the handle and the knife are so long and so thin, regardless of what you do you will experience fatigue quicker than you would if the knife were a fixed blade with a nicer, fuller handle. 

Carry: 1

This knife is really, really wide in the pocket.  Its as wide as an iPhone and twice as long.  But really, the width is the only issue.  The knife's thin shape, and curved spine allows it to play nicely in your pocket and not stick out so much. 


For its size, it is surprisingly easy to carry and that's pretty impressive given that this knife, even when closed, is longer than a football.

Steel: 2

XHP rocks.  I wish it wasn't coated, but that is not XHP's fault.  This is a very good all around steel.

Blade Shape: 0

Bowies look OK and that's about it.  On some fancy art knife I guess they are better than that, but on this knife they are incredibly impractical.  It was darn near impossible to do any practical tasks.  Opening boxes was possible, but getting a blister pack open was a dangerous and terribly unpleasant task.  


The tip was very fragile, and I was always worried about breaking it off, but it survived some serious chopping.  The pronounced and exaggerated belly made this a world class pizza cutter.  In the end, a nice drop point would be better, even for pure fun.  

Grind: 2

I can't complain about the simple, flat grind.  There is a small sharpening choil, everything was clean and even.  In short, it was quite good.  

Deployment Method: 1

I am not going to subtract a point from the knife, but it bears mentioning that the thumb plate acting like a Wave hook is awfully close to just stealing Ernie Emerson's idea.  The legal issue is a bit murky, but the moral one is not--this is crass theft, if not under the letter of the law, then in principle.  Boo on Cold Steel.  I'd be more forgiving if they weren't the knife world equivalent of Legal Trolls, suing and threatening to sue everyone and their mother.

But aside from the shameless, yet effective Wave/thumb stud, this knife is a beast to open and close.  The size makes anything but two handed opening an exercise in Cirque Du Soleil-level finger gymnastics.  And closing this knife is a harrowing act, especially if you like your digits intact.  You can't even gravity snap this knife open, the spring is too strong.

Retention Method: 0

Cold Steel's clips are so terrible they are in a class all by themselves.  There is remedial design, such as some of the crappy Benchmade numbers and then there is this.  Its not just that they cause hotspots, which they do, but the fact that Cold Steel, unlike EVERY OTHER MAKER ON THE PLANET, has yet to figure out how to do reversible pocket clips.  These things are just impossible not to lose.  For the review I taped the spare one into the box (which is something Cold Steel should do) just so I wouldn't lose it.    


Its a small point, but this sort of pathetic design kills me.  If the clip was good, I'd put the two clips per knife thing aside, but its crappy, pokey and ugly.  

Lock: 2

Tri-Ad lock rocks.  This knife stinks.  Even a great lock can't save it, especially when the spring on this thing requires a ton of pressure to disengage the lock.  I am not even going to bother taking the point off for that because the fact that the Tri-Ad lock keeps this thing held open (even if there is a price to pay for that) is a miracle.

Overall Score: 8 out of 20

If you want to have fun with a big ole hunk o' steel, get a Becker BK-9 from Kabar.  That thing is bigger, badder, and bolder than the Espada XL.   Once the gleeful novelty of a 7 1/2 inch folder wears off, which it will in about five minutes, you are left with a mess of a knife.  It does quite well as a pizza cutter and I would imagine it is all kinds of stabby.  But this is not a fun knife, not a good knife, hell its barely a knife.  Its either a sword that is broken in the middle or a collection of knife pieces that at one time formed as solidly-built folder.  After even a modicum of hard use, the Espada XL was like a totaled car--more useful for its pieces than as the thing it used to be.  Skip.

And no, RD, no amount of reasoning will convince me otherwise--even as a fun knife, a ridiculous spectacle of blade this thing is still the knife equivalent of dog shit on your manicured front lawn.     


  1. This knife is a great example of why I am in no way interested in Cold Steel's products, even if they appealed to me aesthetically (which they do not). What a pile of useless.

    Also you have some repeated text under Grip. :)

  2. Its such a weird reality that we live in for the same company that makes this, to put out such incredibly good stuff as the Tuff Lite and Ultimate Hunter. They are really understated, well executed designs that do what they do really well.

    Then they have a whole category of ridiculous pocket swords that no one in their right mind would see as reasonable for EDC. I just don't get it.

  3. I have owned several Cold Steel knives. Most I sold within a day or two of receiving them. I was impressed with three inch recon as the handle seemed to be a natural extension of my hand. The mini lite was also a useful if fat little knife. However, both had awful pocket clips.
    At the end of the day, there are too many other companies offering knives that equal or surpass what I considered the best Cold Steel offerings at or near the same price point. While the upgrade to CTS-XHP steel was welcome, their prices now put them in direct competition with knives like the Benchmade Griptilian and some very nice Spydercos.

  4. I understand a variety of products to appeal to multiple markets, but not sure why anyone would want this ergonomic mess.
    I have to agree with poorly designed pocket clips. They were so frustrating on my mini recon AUS8 (a reasonably priced and useful knife), that I eventually got rid of it. While some may see the upgrade to CTS-XHP as an improvement by Cold Steel, the corresponding significant price increases now put them in direct competition with knives such as the Benchmade Griptilians and Spyderco Delicas and Native 5s. Not sure that is a market environment Cold Steel can thrive in.