Fixed Blades

Knife Review: Cold Steel ‘Kobun’ Tanto

Image: Chris Dumm for TTAK

The Cold Steel ‘Kobun’ is a lightweight, concealable combat knife with a nearly-indestructible blade and an almost-unbelievable price point. I won’t make you wait for the big reveal here: it’s not a very good general-purpose knife (because it’s a tanto), but for what it is, it’s freaking awesome. If you want a midsized fixed-blade tanto, Cold Steel really nails it here.

Image: Chris Dumm

The Tanto

The designers at Cold Steel are particularly fond of tanto blades. A quick peek around their online store shows at least fifteen different fixed-blade tantos in their catalog, not including plastic training knives. This makes sense, because it was Cold Steel that helped popularize the tanto design here in the 1980s.

Image: Chris Dumm for TTAK

Go ahead and laugh, but I’m proving a point here.

The tanto blade, Japanese in origin, evolved as a secondary stabbing weapon able to penetrate laminated armor. I don’t have any laminated armor lying around, so I tested this by stabbing through an old shoe whose multiple layers of leather, textile and rubber are surprisingly tough. The Kobun nailed this shoe to the deck with minimal effort, with about a half-inch of tip stabbing into the planking.

This modern ‘American’ form of the tanto features a thick spine and typically a deep hollow grind, a heavily reinforced tip, and a sharply angled secondary tip where the blade bevel meets the tip bevel.

We don’t need to stab through laminated armor very often these days, but the tanto design still excels as a combat knife: the plain handle is comfortable with all forward and reverse knife grips, and the reinforced tip is almost impossible to snap off. This is why it remains popular among combat-knife makers like Emerson Knives and Ka-Bar.

Overview

Image: Chris Dumm for TTAK

The Cold Steel Kobun has a 5.5″ blade made from hollow-ground Japanese AUS-8A stainless with a hardness of RHC 57-59. The spine of the blade is .125″ thick, and this thickness extends forward almost all the way to the tip. Beneath the molded Kraton grip, the tang narrows slightly toward the pommel. It’s not quite a ‘full tang’ but it’s far too thick to be called a rat-tail.

The whole knife is 9 7/8″ long, but at only 4.3 ounces it’s lighter than many 3-inch tactical folders. The molded polymer sheath (included) adds only 2.5 ounces, making the entire kit extremely lightweight. It’s also very slim: even the hilt is only 5/8″ wide, and the sheath is barely an inch thick at its thickest point which is the belt/boot clip.

The sheath deserves extra mention. It’s designed for right-side carry, inside your boot or inside your belt; if you want to carry on your left side you’ll have to improvise. It holds the knife very firmly by gripping the rubbery hilt, and the belt/boot clip is detachable if you prefer to secure the sheath to your gear with paracord or 100-mph tape.

Many knife makers (cough SOG cough) give you a reinforced Nylon belt sheath, but make you pay extra for a good rigid one like this. Cheers to Cold Steel for giving you the right sheath up-front.

Carry Comfort

I didn’t have many opportunities to wear this knife for extended periods, since my jurisdiction doesn’t allow fixed-blade EDC. I did get to wear it all day during a few shooting and hiking outings in a neighboring state with more reasonable knife laws. Here’s what I noticed:

  • It’s so light I never noticed the weight at all.
  • The sheath never shifted around or fell out, and neither did the knife: both were extremely secure.
  • I’m a pretty fit guy (no muffin-top here) but when I wore it inside my belt at four o’clock  the long handle still jabbed me in the kidney.
  • Boot carry with any of my footwear was impossible, because I don’t own any cowboy or engineer boots.
  • Drawing this knife from high on your hip is fairly simple (although a bit awkward) but you’ll have to be very careful re-sheathing it.

Cutting Tests

Image: Chris Dumm for TTAK

Newsprint: Slicing hanging newsprint is a good test of a blade’s sharpness. The Kobun had a very good factory edge, and it sliced hanging newsprint right out of the box. It sliced even better after a quick strop, but the fairly obtuse edge angle (no sharper than 40 degrees) never got quite as sharp as our benchmark Mora knives. It’s no disgrace that the Kobun couldn’t slice hanging Shotgun News crepe paper; this requires extreme sharpness, which a stabbing blade isn’t primarily engineered for.

The Kobun did a bang-up job as a field chisel, however, when I needed to bevel the corners of a 2×4 to stick it into my steel silhouette target.

I have little doubt that the Kobun would have conquered the Shotgun Newsprint if I had reprofiled the edge to 30 degrees, but I decided not to do this. Tantos are meant to be rugged (and AUS-8A isn’t a supersteel) so I left the grind at 40 degrees and didn’t look back because the Kobun already earns an A– as it is.

Rope Cutting: This tests the knife’s ability to power through tough, resistant materials. The Kobun’s sharp blade and solid grip allowed it to pull through a loop of 3/4″ Manila in a single determined stroke, and the cut was almost laserlike in its precision.

When I laid the rope on a cutting board, the results weren’t as good. I blame the blade geometry. Tantos have almost no belly and this one has no serrations, so sawing flat down into the rope is not a very efficient cutting technique here.

This kind of blade can only be pushed downward through the rope like a guillotine blade, and the Kobun was sharp enough that this would have been fairly easy if the handle were offset like a Santoku or a chef’s knife. As it was, however, the tanto’s straight-line handle crushed my knuckles into the cutting board, and I ended up doing most of the cutting with the angled secondary tip. Grade: B.

Cardboard

Image: Chris Dumm for TTAK

Box cardboard tests the knife’s ability to hold its edge while cutting through a tough, abrasive medium, and the Kobun excelled at it. Hollow grinds are usually somewhat tedious to pull through cardboard, but the Kobun’s long, sharp blade and grippy handle made it easy. The cuts were clean and controllable; the edge didn’t wander through the cardboard until my hands started to get tired after the 100-foot mark.

After slicing about 100 feet of corrugated box cardboard across the grain, the edge had picked up some slight abrasions that you could just feel with a fingernail. It didn’t slice newsprint cleanly at this point, and I had to put a lot more muscle into the cutting. My left hand was getting pretty tired of holding the cardboard, but my right hand was still going strong until the blade finally began catching and plowing through the cardboard at almost 130 feet.

130 feet is astoundingly good for an ‘upper-midgrade’ steel like AUS-8A. Grade: A+.

Ease Of Sharpening

The Kobun’s AUS-8A held its edge like a supersteel, but still lived up to its reputation for easy sharpening. It was newsprint-slicing sharp again after about ninety seconds of gentle edge-polishing on the Sharpmaker and a few strokes on the strop. Grade: A.

Ergonomics

Image: Chris Dumm

The Kobun has an extremely slender grip, but it does have a slight palm swell and the excellent texture of the Kraton keeps it very secure in your hand whether wet or dry. It’s so thin it looks like it has to be uncomfortable, but I really had no problems with it at all.

It was only when I compared it to the handles of other mid-sized sheath knives that I noted the difference. The SOG Seal Pup‘s sculpted finger grooves, the Mora Bushcraft’s perfectly-molded rubber, and the hand-filling mass of the Robson X-46 all provided better blade control and leverage with less effort.

If the Kobun’s slender grip were made of anything but Kraton, it would probably be terrible. The Kraton gives it pretty good handling, but not as good as a general-purpose hunting-survival knife.

Image: Chris Dumm for TTAK

Here’s one final safety note you should pay attention to: the Kobun has no jimping on the spine and no choil or ricasso on the front of the blade, so there’s no reason to choke up on the handle. The rubbery hilt is there to remind you to keep your fingers and thumbs firmly seated and buckled until the ride has come to a complete and final stop, and this picture shows why.

The grip has no curve or molding or finger grooves to tell your hand if the blade is facing forwards or backwards, and if you grab it the wrong way and reach for the non-existent jimping you’ll end up doing this. It’s sharp enough that you’ll have to be lucky to avoid getting cut.

Grade: B-. As long as you keep your fingers behind the hilt.

Conclusion

Image: Chris Dumm for TTAK

Favorite Features

  • Steel performance (sharpness, edge retention, ease of sharpening).
  • Strength.
  • Value for money.

Least Favorite Features

  • The tanto blade design has almost no belly, and is mediocre for many real-world knife tasks.

Conclusion

The Cold Steel Kobun has a lot of great things going for it: light weight, comfort, easy concealment, a good sheath, great sharpness and amazing edge retention. It has one other feature I alluded to earlier: an incredible street price of only $30.

It may not be an ideal general-purpose knife because it’s a tanto, but as a tanto it’s an amazing value for the money. It might be to combat knives what the Mora is to bushcraft knives: sharp and sturdy and mind-bogglingly inexpensive. You could even round off the secondary tip and make yourself a custom spear-point, if the tanto point was a deal-killer.

Specifications

Type: fixed-blade boot/combat knife. Modified full tang construction.
Blade style: hollow ground tanto.
Blade: 5.5″ long by 1/8″ thick.
Steel: Japanese AUS-8A stainless, 57-59 RHC.
Grip: Kraton.
Overall length: 9 7/8″
Weight: 4.3 ounces (6.5 ounces with sheath)
Sheath: Molded polymer w/right hand inside belt/boot clip.
Price: $60 MSRP, street price $30.
Origin: Taiwan.
Manufacturer’s link here.

Ratings (out of five stars)

Styling ***
Simple but attractive.

Blade ***1/2
Good sharpness and outstanding edge retention with easy sharpening. It’s the blade design, not the steel or execution, that hold it back.

Ergonomics ***
A handle this thin should be really uncomfortable, but it’s not.

Ruggedness/Durability ****
Don’t worry about this knife.

Overall Rating ****
An amazing value for a $30 knife.

Discussion

16 responses to ‘Knife Review: Cold Steel ‘Kobun’ Tanto

  1. The tanto blade is to single purpose. Carry it and you need at least one other blade to handle mundane chores. Unless “The Bride” asks me for backup, I’ll forego the tanto.

  2. I thought about buying one of these for $40, which wouldn’t have been a bad deal. The only thing that kills if for me on the Kobun is the tiny guards. They are almost an afterthought. The mediocre ergonomics and teensy guard make for a meh knife.

  3. It’s a good looking stabby-slashy piece. I don’t have one but my father does and I liked it in the brief time I played around with it.

    -D

  4. Because Cold Steel is not Mall Ninja enough – Budk has a similar tanto in AUS-8. It’s larger and the price is only around $10. Although I am sure the quality is not the same. But a decent blade for the price.

  5. I’d just like to note that it’s a class 1 misdemeanor to conceal this in Virginia. I’d imagine it’s the same or worse in most other places. Open carry it and you’re good but you’d look like a huge tool if you open carried something like this.

    Just get a folder and give up on your retarded knife-fighting fantasies. The fact is that unless you’re a trained martial artist, pulling out your sick cold steel tanto knife in a fight is probably going to result in your knife getting used against you. Life isn’t a Jackie Chan flick. Want to win the fight? Bring a gun and be trained on how to use it.

  6. This is a very informative “user knife” review. I have several Cold Steel products, including a Recon Tanto, and for the street price at which they can be found, they offer very decent quality and reliability. The nice thing about the Kobun Tanto, is that you can buy one, use it in time of need (even abuse it), and for $30 dollars, no tears are shed because you damaged or lost your $300 Uber-Knife with an 8 month waiting list. I really like that. I mean, you can attach one to your favorite hiking pack (laws in your area permitting), and it is always there when you need it. Same thing for a bugout bag in your car trunk. The authors comparison to a Mora is really on-point, as Moras deliver the same price / performace capabilities to avid bushcrafters.

  7. I agree with Mr. Flournoy up until the comment about the gun. Total avoidance is the best method. Carrying a knife in the woods makes better sense than carrying a concealed one in the city. I suggest to all viewers to check with your local laws when it comes to carrying any weapons of this nature. Now! As for the review, I would say this was probably one of the best reviews I have read on a knife in a long time. My hat comes off to you, Sir!

  8. The Kobun is too big for a boot knife and not big enough for a heavy duty combat knife.Even with high riding boots that come close to your knees the Kobun is not concealable.Covering with a pants leg defeats the purpose of a boot knife to begin with.The ergonomics are poor to average,the handle is too short,too thin,and needs better finger protection.Unless you plan on stabbing something,you will never really use this knife as it’s basically useless for real world use,and is the typical mall-ninja knife.The truth is,is that a $15 Mora Companion HD will run circles around the Kobun and will be a MUCH more useful knife to you.The knife industry is flooded with knives like the Kobun,knives that are only suited for stabbing,but would struggle cutting their way out of a paper bag..

  9. I could, most definitely, cut my way out of a paper bag with a Kobun, they’re darn sharp.

    The reason to choose the Kobun over something like the Tanto Lite is that the sheath provides retention on any axis, and its thinness makes it unobtrusive. I made up a little 550 harness that allows me to carry it inverted under my arm. Easy access, and it doesn’t dig into my side when I bend or twist.

    Folding knives are good, and Cold Steel makes some very good ones, but the fixed blade is still good for some purposes.

    Good review, thank you.

    • Jason, I would love to see the rig you made for underarm wear. Not only do I have this Kobun, but I have been looking for a setup for my Damascus Scottish armpit knife for use with my Kilt etc. for the Highland games. Would be great if you wouldn’t mind emailing me a photo to my attached address. I have been trying for 2 years and nothing really good has come to me.
      Thanks for any help.

  10. No worries, your hand isn’t riding anywhere near the blade once your thumb caps the pommel. I also had to re shingle my dad’s shed, lost the cutter however this blade since it’s so cheap etched the shingles deeply, it’s like dragging a blade across gravel, 10 min with stone and ceramic and we’re back on duty.. Super buy for the price but if you still aren’t satisfied with sheath carry then mold one out of Kydex.

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