As a long-time folding knife enthusiast, I tend to collect innovative models and like to compare the features of popular designs. I’m also a daily knife user who appreciates a good combination of practical, everyday functionality and just-in-case self-defense potential. Cold Steel’s Recon 1 tactical folder series offers all of this at a competitive price, with only a few minor drawbacks.
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Cold Steel was founded in 1980 and is best known for knives like the Recon 1, that is to say, mass-market models inspired by classic tactical design but with cutting-edge features. The company is based in California and has a showroom in Ventura that I was once able to swing by on a family vacation. I was like a kid in a candy store!
Make no mistake, Cold Steel knows their stuff and is generally praised by the knife community. Their website claims that they popularized tanto-point blades and other tactical-type features. True or not, they’re definitely one of those most consistent, reliable producers of quality mid-level knives in this category, particularly portable folding models that allow users to access both self-defense potential and everyday utility functions.
- Blade length: 2″ (micro), 3″ (mini), 4″ (standard), 5.5″ (XL)
- Overall length: 4.3″ (micro), 7.1″ (mini), 9.3″ (standard), 12.25″ (XL)
- Closed length: 2.3″ (micro), 4.1″ (mini), 5.3″ (standard), 6.75″ (XL)
- Weight: 1.2 oz (micro), 3.6 oz (mini), 5.3 oz (standard), 8 oz (XL)
- Blade material: AUS-8A stainless steel
- Country of origin: Taiwan
- Price range: About $60
On the surface, the Recon 1 models resemble many other folding knives of this type, but Cold Steel has outfitted this series with a number of unique features that separate them from the pack of similar models. The blades are fairly standard, made from AUS-8A stainless steel with advanced heat-treating and quenching. This isn’t the best material on the market, but still good for this price point and adequate for most people’s needs. [UPDATE: Cold Steel now makes the Recon 1 in the superior CTS-XHP steel]. I certainly haven’t read any reports of the Recon 1’s blade buckling under normal conditions. The non-slip grip is well-designed, with G-10 laminate scales that give a lot of stability during most utility tasks (although I personally can’t testify to the grip’s effectiveness during a knife-fight!). High-strength, heat-treated mechanical spacers and fasteners give the Recon 1 models an overall solid feel; my knife has already been extensively used and shows no signs of loosening or slippage of parts.
Two unique features from Cold Steel seen on the Recon 1 are the Tri-Ad locking system and the black Tuff-Ex finish on the blade. The Tri-Ad system resembles the locking mechanisms on other folders, but utilizes a special stop-pin device that redistributes force and a pressure-dampening tang, which Cold Steel claims make lock failure almost impossible. In my experience, the lock works flawlessly and holds the blade in place exactly as expected, at least under normal conditions and everyday use. I should also point out there is zero blade play in my knife. However, the firm hold comes at a price: the lock can be somewhat difficult to disengage, although this problem did seem to improve after extensive use.
The Tuff-Ex finish adds a high-tech, military look to the knife and, according to the company, helps to prevent rust and provides lubrication when cutting tough materials. It supposedly also cuts down on glare, although I imagine this is more important to a soldier in the field than to an average user. An ambidextrous clip and small but functional thumb-stud round out the Recon 1’s basic package. The clip was easy to remove and replace, so lefties should have no problem using this knife normally. Note also that this clip is pretty thick and really tight so you can be assured it’s going to grip to your pants or belt without fear of falling off.
The Recon 1 series includes the standard model with a 4″ blade, as well as micro (2″), mini (3″) and XL (5.5″) models. The standard-sized blade’s edge is available in plain or 50/50 (plain and serrated) styles; the other sizes are only available with the plain blade. I own the standard model, which has a total length when open of about 9 3/8″ and weighs around 5.2 ounces. All versions of the Recon 1 are available with either clip, spear or tanto points. The tanto is Cold Steel’s specialty and the more tactical-style option, but I opted for the clip-point for practical reasons. The conventional wisdom here is that self-defense users should choose the tanto point, while utility-focused users ought to go with the clip version. In my experience, the clip-point has been perfect for all of my needs, while I imagine Cold Steel’s tanto might be a bit harder to sharpen. Your mileage may vary.
I’m not sure that the smallest Recon 1 sizes would be of much use for self-defense, but they make cool-looking utility knives and might be a good “first knife” for a younger person. They might also be useful for someone who likes the Recon 1 design but needs something extremely compact and concealable.
The only major flaw worth mentioning in the Recon 1 series is the tendency of the Tuff-Ex finish to flake off after a long period of heavy use. My knife (over a year of moderate use so far) has only shown the slightest beginnings of this, but I’ve seen it mentioned by other users. From my observations and other reviews I’ve read, this appears to be more of a cosmetic issue than anything else, and I’ve yet to see anyone complain of corrosion or other problems in this regard.
Note due to the popularity and prestige of this knife you should beware of cheap imitations. I’ve stumbled across far too many fakes on eBay and other auction sites so please proceed with caution.
Overall, the Recon 1 is a good attempt to combine tactical, self-defense features in an everyday-use folder design. The build and materials are of moderate-to-high quality, and the locking mechanism is as strong and effective as Cold Steel’s advertising claims it is. I’ve put my Recon 1 through a good period of moderate use, and I’m very satisfied with its performance so far. I can’t comment on the Recon 1’s suitability for self-defense, but it’s definitely a classic tactical design and easy to carry and quickly open. The issue with the flaking finish seems relatively unimportant, especially with all of the other quality features you’re getting at this price. If you can afford it I still recommend the Spyderco Paramilitary 2 or ZT 0350 over this but if not then it’s a good choice. For mid-level knives with a good across-the-board set of features, you can’t do much better than the Recon 1 series at this price.
The Good: Well built, functional, extremely sturdy. Large variety of sizes and blade types. Solid, comfortable handle. Reliable lock up.
The Bad: Somewhat difficult to disengage lock. Average finish. Steel is OK but not as good as 154CM or S30V.
Bottom Line: Tough to pass up at this price point. A very good performer for the money.