Cold Steel Tanto Series Fixed Blade Knives
Made in Japan

Cold Steel Tanto Series Fixed Blade Knives

Cold Steel is a Ventura California, USA based company founded in 1980. One of their most popular products has been and still is today, the Tanto series fixed blade knives. These knives are made in Japan (Seki City). Since the original Cold Steel Tanto arrived in 1981, many variations have been produced. Over the years, new models have been introduced. This article only addresses the models made in Japan. The Tanto knives made in Japan are the most sought after due to their craftsmanship and reputation. Today these knives are considered vintage Cold Steel Tantos.

Although based roughly on the Japanese samurai sword blade tip, the blade tip on the Cold Steel Tanto is different. Some call it the American Tanto or chisel tip.

San Mai III
Many of the Cold Steel (and Fallkniven) knives made in Japan are San Mai III meaning three layers of steel. A center layer of hard steel laminated between two side layers of softer steel. They are hammer forged together in a difficult and expensive process. The lamination line is visible and can be seen running the length of the blade just above the cutting edge and sometimes can be seen on the spine and the heel of the knife.

The Tanto is not the only model made this way. The Cold Steel SRK, Trail Master (16JSM), Peacekeeper, Tai Pan, and many other models have been made this way. The advantages of layered steel blades can be debated but the San Mai III blades are often valued more than non-San Mai knives. 

The original Cold Steel Tanto
Model: 13A

Cold Steel has always been a marketing company producing attention grabing advertising to sell product. The original tanto was marketed using magazine ads showing the tanto thrust through an automobile car door. The idea was to show the tip was not damaged as it penetrated the car door. Indeed this Japanese made tanto is tough as well as beautiful.

This knife features a tapered smooth polished brass pommel and polished brass guard. The pommel is shaped to focus power to a point to maximize offensive destruction. Sometimes called the skull crusher pommel. The pommel has a lanyard hole. The full knife length is 11 1/8 inches and the blade length is 5.75 inches. The blade width is 3/16 inch. From the guard to the pommel is a rubber-like diamond patterned handle covering called Pachmayr and later, Kraton which provides a good grip. On the top and bottom of the Kraton, rather than the diamond pattern, there are straight lines perpendicular to the blade. The handle is somewhat oval shaped to prevent the knife from rolling in the hand. 

The primary blade grind is hollow (concave or curved inward) from roughly the middle of the blade cheek to the blade edge giving the remaining blade spine the full 3/16 inch thickness. This knife is not San Mai III and therefore does not have the lamination line running the length of the blade. The blade's hollow grind has a high polish satin finish and is extremely smooth. The high cheek of the blade is line grain satin finish but not as polished and the top of the spine is flat with a high polish. The blade has a gradual upswept profile similar to the Japanese katana swords.

The 13A has a black leather sheath with four slits on the rear for belt wear. One set for high and one set for low vertical carry. The front has a velcro closure which if fastened not too tight will allow the knife to be drawn from the sheath very quickly, quick draw, without unfastening the velcro closure. The rear of the sheath is stamped JAPAN. The sheath has single stitch black thread and wood spacers. There is one rivet on the sheath at the top where the guard of the Tanto meets the sheath. This part of the sheath is designed to prevent the knife from penetrating too far into the sheath. In later years the black leather sheath has a belt loop instead of the four slits. As the transition was made to the snap closure and belt loop sheaths, some sheaths had the belt loop and the velcro closure.

The rectangular cardboard box for the 13A knife is black with large silver letters which spell out COLD STEEL with a T.M. at the end and four black lines running through the letters which are in a font like the logo on the knife blade which spells out TANTO. The box end has a white label which describes the knife model, 13A, new Tanto or just Tanto, 1 pc. and Made in Japan.

The black box with silver letters was used on Cold Steel Tantos until replaced years later with the blue box with a photo of the knife model.

The original 13A Tanto came with a folded paper flyer describing the knife and a warranty registration card. The original Cold Steel Tantos and the original Magnum Tantos came with a red silk bag with black ties in which the knife and sheath could be placed. This was in keeping with the Japanese swords however Cold Steel discontinued the bags in the 1980s.

Hoffritz stamped 13A Tanto - 5.75 inch blade with Hoffritz on the left side of the blade. Hoffritz cutlery ordered Cold Steel 13A model Tanto knives with their logo on them. All else was the same as the 13A model. Hoffritz has gone out of business but at one time had 200 stores in the USA.

Model: 13CS
This Tanto model is the Cutlery Shoppe of Idaho Cold Steel “Special Ops” Tanto, which was a Cutlery Shoppe exclusive back in the late 1980’s/early 1990’s. At that time, the standard Cold Steel Tantos had brass guards and pommels. Jeff Loffer at Cutlery Shoppe had Cold Steel make a special limited run of Tantos and Master Tantos with stainless guards and pommels. Unlike the standard brass Tanto, the 13CS and CSMPS were serial numbered, and Cutlery Shoppe included a kydex Pull-Dot sheath in addition to the standard leather sheath. These Tantos were called “Special Ops”, and the Master Tantos (San Mai III) were called “Master Ops”. Cold Steel later changed from brass to stainless guards and pommels on their Tanto knives in 1993. The 13CS Tantos have a 5.75 inch blade.

This stainless Tanto came with the same box as the 13A but had the white label with the model described.

Model: 13R
Recon Tanto
The original Recon Tanto was very similar to the 13A but had a stone washed or bead blasted finished blade, guard and dome pommel, also bead blasted. The different pommel shape is a way to tell the difference right away from the 13A model. This knife sold for much less than the 13A and it was made in the USA as well as Japan. It did have the same sheath as the 13A and the same box. The 13R is harder to find than the 13A as not as many were made. This Recon Tanto was not San Mai III. In later years the Recon Tanto was redesigned completely with San Mai III blade and Kraton handle, and no pommel, model 13RTSM.

Model: 13B
This knife features a brass pommel and brass guard but has the San Mai III blade. Early models of the San Mai III blade had Tanto on them just like the 13A model but later, Cold Steel designated the 13B model as the Master Tanto and the logo on the blades changed to Master Tanto San Mai III.

Model: 13AN
This knife features a stainless steel pommel and guard. The 13AN is not San Mai III so it has no lamination line. All else is the same as the 13A model.

Model: 13BN
This knife was the current model Tanto up until 2015 when it was discontinued. It features a stainless steel (and in later years, chrome) pommel and guard and has the VG-1 San Mai III blade. Blade length is 6 inches. Weight is 9.5 oz. The finger guard has been redesigned for slightly better finger protection. The black leather sheath has a belt loop rather than the 4 slits for attaching for vertical carry. Also the velcro was replaced with a metal snap closure. The black and silver box was replaced with a blue box with a photo of the knife on it. This model is the Master Tanto. In the few years just before this knife was discontinued, Cold Steel redesigned the blade from the smooth curve cutting edge at the forward belly (where the primary bevel meets the secondary bevel) to a sharp tip, giving the blade a secondary point. The idea is to give the blade a cutting advantage by a chop or snap cut as well as a thrust. Also the Magnum Tantos were redesigned this way. This change in blade design is one way to tell the relative age or era of the knife, as the smooth curve edge is older.

Model: 15
The Imperial Tanto has a Damascus steel blade. Less than 1,000 were made. They were serial numbered. Total length is 11.75 inches. Blade length is 5.75 inches. Made mid to late 1980s, early 1990s. These are prized for the superb damascus steel blade and the handle wrap which is like the Japanese katana swords. Had four slit black leather sheath. Stamped Imperial Tanto.

Model: 13E

The Emperor Tanto, serial numbered, San Mai III
sold as a set included mini-tanto, original Tanto and Magnum Tanto II  in San Mai III with brass guards and pommels and stamped Emperor Collection. A Cold Steel certificate of authenticity was issued for this series, signed by Lynn C. Thompson, president of Cold Steel. Limited edition of 500 sets makes this a hard to find collector item. A wooden stand for displaying the three knives made this a unique set.

Model: 13AS and 13ASG
Cold Steel Mini-Tanto
The mini-Tanto is a smaller version of the regular 13A Tanto, roughly a 3/4 size knife. Knife length is 8 1/4 inches and blade length is 4 1/4 inches. The original mini-Tanto has a polished brass guard and pommel, 4 slit black leather sheath like the 13A Tanto, only smaller. There was a Metal belt clip sheath also.

There is jimping on the blade spine of the brass model.
Brass models had various logos on each side of the knife.
Some had mini Tanto on the left side and Cold Steel Ventura Calif Made in Japan on the right side. Others had Cold Steel INC. Ventura Calif. on the left side and Made in Japan on the right side without mini Tanto at all.

The mini-Tanto has the same black box style with silver letters and the white label on the end.
Stainless oval guard mini-Tanto model
The model 13ASG has a stainless steel oval guard like the larger Magnum Tanto knives and a stainless pommel.

Cold Steel Mini Tanto 13ASG

Magnum Tanto II (Magnum Tanto two)
model 13M-II not San Mai III steel.
Knife length is 13.25 inches and blade length 7.5 inches.
stainless steel oval guard.

Magnum Tanto II San Mai III model
model 13MBII VG-1 with lamination line and snap closure black leather sheath. Oval guard, kraton grip, chrome tapered pommel, blade length is 7.5 inches. Except for the guard and blade length, the 13MBII is almost exactly the same knife as the 13BN Master Tanto.

Discontinued in 2015

Magnum Tanto 
The original 13M model has a raised spine and black leather sheath. This knife is not made with the San Mai III steel blade. Marked Made in Japan on one side and Cold Steel on other side. Oval stainless guard and tapered stainless pommel. Black box with silver letters. Black leather sheath had a 4 rivet flat belt loop for vertical carry. This is a beautiful knife with 9 inch blade. Same length as Magnum Tanto IX. First models came with the red bag with black ties.

Cold Steel Magnum Tanto

Cold Steel Magnum Tanto - Raised spine

Magnum Tanto IX San Mai III  model (Magnum Tanto nine)
Model 13MBIX
Does not have raised spine, it is flat like the 13A Tanto and had 9 inch blade which is San Mai III steel with lamination line. This knife is 14 and 5/8 inches overall. Weight 11.9 ounces. 3/16 inch blade width. Chrome tapered pommel and chrome oval guard. Black diamond patterned Kraton grip handle. Black leather sheath with snap closure and belt loop.

Magnum Tanto XII (Magnum Tanto twelve)
Model 13MBXII
12 inch blade length, 3/16 inch thick, oval guard. San Mai III. Black leather sheath. This model is the longest of the Tanto series and is relatively rare. It was discontinued in 2014.

Cold Steel Magnum Tanto XII

Buying Cold Steel vintage Tantos

The original Cold Steel Tanto has been around for over three decades. Buying one of these knives in mint condition is possible but unlikely. The original owner and time have typically put some mileage on these knives and sheaths. Some owners have kept their tanto in pristine condition and if you can find one of these, consider yourself really lucky. Most will have at least some wear and many will have some damage or cosmetic scratches.

Determine Condition - what to look for

Some knives are used by the owner and some are kept unused for possible resale in mint condition. Some owners will pull out the knife every year to take a look, clean and oil and put back in storage. It depends on what you want, a mint display piece or a work horse. Most buyers want a knife in very good condition. Some buyers want a collector item in pristine condition.

Brass pommel and guard - brass will tarnish over time if exposed to air. Air is nitrogen, oxygen and many other gases plus water vapor and impurities. A chemical reaction between the metal and air will produce a darker surface layer and if really left exposed, a green layer on brass. A metal polish can be used to clean it up but be careful not to damage the brass. Baking soda and lemon juice can help but will only remove a fraction of a badly tarnished pommel or guard. Unless the owner has kept the tanto in a safe or kept it wrapped up, the brass will tarnish. Ideally the brass should look highly polished and be almost a mirror. The pommel and guard can also be physically damaged, scratched, pitted, dented, or worse. Touching the brass can leave oils from your skin on the brass. Some owners use cotton gloves like coin examiners gloves to reduce skin oil on the metal.

The blade - Check the tip for damage such as a fold over or chip or breakage. Check the cutting edge. Does it look like the edge is even, with the factory sharpening or does it look uneven with marks where the edge was badly sharpened. Check the sides of the blade for scratches, marks, or other damage. Is the blade straight and aligned with the handle. Check the logos (TANTO and COLD STEEL) also Made in Japan. Are they clearly visible or rubbed out.

The handle - Check the Kraton for damage or heavy use. The diamond pattern should be sharp and clear. Check the Kraton at the guard and pommel. Under heavy use the Kraton becomes smooth and loses the diamond pattern.

The Sheath - The black leather sheath can be in any condition from mint to trash. Check the leather. It should be smooth polished black on the outside. Check for dents, scratches, cuts or other damage. Check the thread. There should not be any tears, gaps, rips, fray or loose ends. Check the wood and check the overall look. Usually you see brown where the sheath has seen some use. This can be stained with black shoe polish if not damaged too badly. Check the velcro on the old style sheaths. It should be sewn all the way around. Check the inside of the sheath for cuts.

The Box - If you are really lucky, you get the original box the knife came in from Cold Steel. Some of these are in bad shape. After all it is only thin cardboard and all the handling and moving around usually crushes the ends. Sometimes the box flaps are missing or torn. If the owner was careful, the box will be in almost new condition but this is extremely rare. The box adds some value.

Metal will oxidize over time. Even stainless steel will eventually rust. Pitting occurs when the metal changes chemically and this is usually permanent. Sometimes, if caught early, you can use "Bar Keepers Friend" powder to remove small spots on the blade. To help prevent rust, use mineral oil to clean the knife blade. Never store the knife in the leather sheath for long periods of time as leather will absorb moisture from the air and where the blade touches the leather, you have trouble.

Long term storage - Vaseline or similar products may help to prevent rust. The best way to prevent rust is to check the knife regularly, oil, clean and wrap up.

Cold Steel Trail Master