Our Experience with Cold Steel SK-5 Trail Master

Cold Steel, Inc. was founded in 1980 as a company dedicated to making the strongest, sharpest, knives in the world. Over the last three decades, Cold Steel has been at the forefront of the many innovations that have helped to define the knife industry as a whole.

Progressive accomplishment, including the introduction of the checked Kraton handles and the American Tanto point blade styles have gone from curiously interesting features to industry-wide hallmarks of quality and sophistication.

New ground was also broken with the introduction of unique new blade steels like San Mai III as well as the “Tri-Ad Lock” locking mechanism for folding knives. In fact, the Tri-Ad Lock has never been equaled by any of Cold Steel’s competitors and nothing they have produced yet has been proven to outperform it.

Therefore, Cold Steel has remained true to their core philosophy of constantly striving to make the world’s strongest, sharpest, knives and the Cold Steel SRK is a prime example of this advanced technology. Thus, when Cold Steel designed and introduced the Trail Master, they did so with this design philosophy in mind.

Consequently, the Cold Steel Trail Master is a large, heavy duty, knife with a very versatile blade shape that is specifically designed to withstand the most extreme abuse in the most extreme conditions combined with a handle design that is specifically constructed to absorb the shock generated when chopping trees.

Therefore, since it was designed to be a dedicated outdoor survival knife, the Trail Master features an overall length of 14 1/2″ with a clip point blade shape measuring 9 1/2″ in length. In addition, this knife is made from 5/16″ thick steel that is available in your choice of either SK-5 high carbon steel or VG-1 San Mai III stainless steel; each of which has different properties (please note: since the VG-1 San Mai III version has a more expensive cost than the SK-5 version, in this article I am going to focus on the less expensive version).

Plus, this knife also features a flat ground bevel, a deeply checkered Kray-Ex grip with short, double, quillions made from a single brass oval, and full tang construction. In addition, the knife includes an extremely well designed Secure-Ex sheath. In fact, Cold Steel says “These very popular, time tested, knives have been in our line for many years and are ideal for just about any mission.

Made out of SK-5 High Carbon Steel, they are precision ground, heat-treated and Mar Tempered in our state of the art factory in Taiwan to rival the strength, toughness, and edge retention of our famous Japanese swords. Check out their absolute superior fit, finish and above all sharpness and then put them to work and we are sure you’ll agree they are an incredible bargain”.

As for my opinion of this knife as an outdoor survival tool, I believe that I have mentioned previously my fondness for the clip point Bowie blade shape for this particular purpose since I believe it to be the most versatile blade shape I have used in the field to date (I have yet to try a fixed blade spear point shape).

Also, I tend to have a particular fondness for long, slim, Bowie style blades and thus, the Cold Steel Tail Master REALLY trips my trigger! Not only is it a very pretty and gracefully designed knife, it displays excellent craftsmanship in both the choice of materials and its construction (However, it is my understanding that there are a considerable number of counterfeiters out there who produce and market fake versions of this knife. So, always buy your Cold Steel knife from a reputable dealer).

In fact, if I didn’t already have an A.G. Russell Camp Knife with a drop point blade and a re-curved edge that I like even better (oddly enough), the Cold Steel Trail Master would be my number one choice for a large, fixed blade, outdoor survival knife. In addition, the SK-5 steel (a Japanese equivalent of American 1080 steel) used in this version of the Tail Master, and hardened to 57-58 RC, is somewhat similar to the AUS 8A that my Russell Camp Knife is constructed from. FYI, 1080 steel is a high carbon steel with a Carbon content of 0.81% and with a Manganese content of 0.75% as the only other component.

The carbon content and lean alloy make this a shallow hardening steel with a quenched hardness between RC 60-64 depending on exact carbon content. This combination of factors makes this one of the toughest steels available because, when quenched properly, it produces a near saturated lathe Martensite with no excess Carbides, avoiding the brittleness of higher carbon materials.

Therefore, this steel is particularly well suited to applications where strength and impact resistance is valued above all other considerations and will produce blades of almost legendary toughness. However, according to the Cold Steel web site and as per quenched by Cold Steel, SK-5 steel has a Rockwell hardness near RC 57-58 and produces a mixture of carbon rich Martensite with some small un-dissolved carbides and the excess carbide increases abrasion resistance and allows the steel to achieve an ideal balance of very good blade toughness with superior edge holding ability.

In addition, the 9 1/2″ blade length combined with the very thick 5/16″ spine and the flat ground bevel along with the long, straight, edge and very small ricasso make this blade design an excellent choice for both light chopping tasks and fine carving tasks. In addition, the sweep at the tip of the blade is also very well designed with just enough belly to make it an efficient skinning tool in situations where a smaller knife is not available.

Last, the deeply checkered Kray-Ex handle material is very comfortable to hold, provides a positive grip when wet, and absorbs shock with chopping with the knife. In addition, this knife includes a Secure-Ex (Kydex) sheath which, like the handle material, is impervious to water and is very tough.  In fact, my only complaint with this knife is actually a very small issue in that Cold Steel incorporated a brass quillion instead of stainless steel one and, while it is true that brass will not rust, it will tarnish. So, unless it has a very high tin content (brass is made from alloying copper and tin), you will have to polish it often to keep it from turning green.

Therefore, out of all of the numerous outdoor survival knives I have looked at and used in the field over the years, in my opinion, the Cold Steel SK-5 Tail Master is one of the best I have yet encountered. Not only does it meet my ideal for a long, slim, clip point, Bowie style, knife, it incorporates a really tough steel and a shock absorbing, non-slip, handle material that is impervious to water, cracking, chipping, and abrasion. Thus, I know without a doubt that when I am in the field, I can count on this knife to perform and keep on performing until I get back home again.

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