As many of you know, I’m not only a blade enthusiast, but also a trained Bladesmith and member of the American Bladesmith Society. Incidentally, if you haven’t seen it, we shot a little trailer for a show we were pitching called American Bladesmith.
But I digress… this setup is merely to establish the fact that I know a little about knives, and today we’re going to discuss one of the finest examples that is commercially available – the Cold Steel San Mai Laredo Bowie.
What is a Bowie Knife
There are a number of different kinds of knives, designed for different purposes, but the Bowie knife is a design whose sole intention is fighting. It was named after James Bowie, though it was originally created by James Black, a bladesmith from Washington, Arkansas.
A traditional Bowie has a long blade, a clip point, and a guard. The long edge is obviously designed for slashing, while the clip point is designed for stabbing and the guard protects against opponent blades sliding down towards the hand wielding the knife.
What’s the Difference Between Knives
Rather than answering the obvious part of this question which is apparent in terms of style, lets talk about functionality. The main job of a knife is to SAFELY cut things. In the case of a Bowie, the knife must be designed to withstand extreme abuse and still function. For example, a knife fight would include the clashing of blades, and potentially the cutting of flesh and bone. And with life and death on the line, a quality knife should hold up to the rigors of the task. Namely, the blade should not break – and the guard should be tough enough to hold up to impacts.
Several factors affect the performance of a knife, and since each type of knife has a different purpose there is not one “right” way to build one. But there are definitely some wrong ways.
Since a Bowie knife needs to remain sharp, and intact, the blade needs to have good edge retention through repeated use, and it needs to have a high level of shock resistance when it comes in contact with other hard materials. For this reason, material choice and heat treatment are important.
We often see cheap, and impressive looking knives proudly described as being made of “Stainless Steel”. Although this material is good for some blades which require extreme corrosion resistance, it is terrible for blades which need to hold an edge or take a beating. Stainless steel replaces carbon for other rust-resistant materials in the steel composition to protect it from water. But in doing so, it sacrifices potential hardness.
The Cold Steel San Mai Bowie uses a very high grade of high-carbon steel called VG-1 at the core, and it is welded between two lower carbon pieces of stainless steel to give it greater surface corrosion resistance, while still remaining hard and sharp along the edge. To be exact, VG-1 contains approximately 1% of carbon.
By comparison a cheap stainless steel blade (440 steel), such as this $13 Bowie Knife from Amazon, has at most .65-.75% carbon in the steel – which only qualifies it as a medium-carbon blade. These blades are very rust resistant, but they won’t hold an edge very well through sustained use, and they are less durable when abused.
As important as material choice is, it pales in comparison to the way steel is heated, and then cooled, when it comes to how the final product turns out. Many of the cheaper knives have undergone extremely poor heat treatment processes – if they have even been heat treated at all.
These heat treatment processes actually change the physical structure of the material, and when done correctly can impart strength; however, it can be extremely costly to heat treat blades, especially in mass manufacturing processes.
When not performed correctly, even with proper material choices, the steel in a knife blade can be brittle and subject to breaking under pressure. When metal fragments go flying through the air at high speed, things can be very dangerous. Think bullets!!!
You might just think a handle is a handle, but it’s arguably the most important part of the knife! Because if it doesn’t fit the hand properly, or is subject to slippage, or worst of all – if it breaks – the handle will render a blade not only useless, but dangerous.
Cheap knives tend to have handles made from very porous, inexpensive materials such as pine or other inexpensive woods. These handles will degrade over time, and will also absorb moisture and oils meaning they are subject to greater expansion and contraction in extremes and more likely to fail.
The Cold Steel San Mai Bowie comes with a a black linen Micarta handle, which is actually a fabric that has been injected with a high pressure industrial laminate.
Essentially, imagine stacking many sheets of linen on top of one another, then putting them in a pressure cooker filled with melted plastic. The laminate material fills every pore and gap in the linen, and changes it into a non-porous, non-slip material that can be shaped to fit the hand while retaining extreme durability over time.
It is simultaneously one of the most beautiful, and functional, handle materials ever created.
The Verdict – How the Cold Steel San Mai Bowie Stacks Up
Cold Steel regularly puts out videos demonstrating the capabilities of their products, and their Bowie is no exception. Here you can see a variety of torture tests taking place.
While I certainly have trust, I also like to verify. So I contacted Cold Steel and asked them to provide me with two samples so I could independently test and evaluate the product. Amazingly, they agreed and sent them, knowing full well I was going to do testing to complete failure. That takes incredible faith in your products, and I give the Cold Steel team full credit for allowing this extremely rare demonstration.
In the VERY near future I’m going to be publishing a video review demonstrating the destruction of this fantastic blade, and also comparing it with a cheap knife that looks similar, but really isn’t.
If you haven’t seen the little American Bladesmith show we produced a while back, here’s a little taste of what a properly made and heat treated blade should do. Skip to the 1:55 marker in this video…
At the very beginning of this review I mentioned that the Cold Steel Bowie was one of the finest commercially available products of its kind. That’s because typically in order to get a knife of this quality you would need to visit a custom bladesmith and commission the creation of knife made to your specifications.
You would then likely have to wait months or sometimes years, and pay many times the price of the Cold Steel Bowie. What you would get would be a highly individualized one of a kind blade, likely with a more decorative finish, guard and handle, but one which would technically perform no better – and potentially even perform worse due to the variability in custom manufacturing processes.