Tell me about San-Mai...

Nov 12, 1998
Should I care to get a CS Master Tanto over an "original" tanto because of its San-Mai III composition?

Can you see the line where it shifts from one metal to the other? If so, is it attractive?
Does it hold an edge longer?

Thanks for any/all answers provided!

=- Craig
CS's San Mai, according to recent posts here,
is made up of a mediocre stainless steel (probably AUS8A) sandwiched between two layers of a lesser stainless (forget which one),
So, it will cut like a fairly good SS and might make a slightly better prybar than "usual" AUS8A knives.
Of course, Cold Steel will tell you that AUS8A is a marvellous steel.......better than ATS34. Yeah, right.
Personally, I cannot understand why CS would go to all that trouble and ,still, use a mediocre edge steel. If you are going to do a laminate, why not do it right ?

Brian W E
ICQ #21525343

I agree with Brian. If it were a Carbon V/8A laminate....

Clay Fleischer

"10,000 Lemmings Can't Be Wrong!"

I was examining the San Mai III Master Tanto at a store, and yes, you can easily see where the laminated 420 stops and the 8A starts -- it looks like one piece of paper was layed on top and glued to another -- it's not flush, and almost seems like you could get a blade under the border and pull it apart. I didn't like it at all. I would think it would create drag when trying to cut or slash...
So sandwiching lame steel in between two layers of even more lame steel makes it better? The Mind Boggles......



"No, it's a Vaquero Grande in my pocket, but I am happy to see you!"
MegaFolderians Unite!!


(Stolen from Cold Steel)
San Mai means "three layers". It is the term given to the traditional laminated blades used by the Japanese for swords and daggers. Laminated construction is important because it allows different grades of steel to be combined in a single blade. This allows the bladesmith to make a blade that more exactly matches the performance characteristics he needs. A simple way to think of this type of construction is to imagine a sandwich: The meat center is hard, high carbon steel and the pieces of bread on either side are the lower-carbon, tough side panels. Generally the edge of the blade should be hard to maximize edge holding ability, but if the entire blade was hard it could be damaged during the rigors of battle. For ultimate toughness the body of the blade must be able to withstand impact and lateral stresses. Toughness is generally associated with "softness" and "flexibility" in steel, so that surprisingly, if an entire blade was made "tough" the edge would not be hard enough to offer superior edge holding. San Mai III® provides a superior blade with hard (higher carbon) steel in the middle for a keen, long lasting edge and tougher (lower-carbon) steel along the sides for flexibility.

Lamination line...

The San Mai III® lamination line marks the junction between two types of steel. This laminate is over 25% stronger than the incredibly tough AUS 8A stainless in the Tanto.

Best Regards,
Mike Turber
BladeForums Site Owner and Administrator
Do it! Do it right! Do it right NOW!

In summary it is safe to say that the edgeholding of San Mai is not better than AUS8 alone but laminating it with AUS6 (or whatever lower carbon steel) increases the ability to withstand lateral stress. If that's what you want, go for it. There is probably no other stainless production tanto on the market right now which gives you equally good value for the money.
Well, the san mai knives are not exactly cheap and they border on the custom knife prices. If they would have used ATS-34 in the center or better they would have something. There is no boubt as to the toughness, but the edge holding won't be any better than regular aus-8 which is average to below average in comparison to todays better steels. I think I would still go for their knife in Carbon V than San Mai.
Hmmmmm. I would spend my $150 on a Rob Simonich out of ATS-34 or carbon steel, or a Mark Boyer, differentially hardened 1095, or a Rob Criswell out of 5160. All are in about the same price range as the CS Master Tanto. I have to think they would all be better blades.

Let me start off by saying,I'am no steel expert.However;I keep reading about how this knife or that knife would be better if it were ats-34 instead of aus-8 etc.If the stories I hear about ats-34 are true,like it being brittle and blades breaking by dropping the knife on the floor.I can't understand why the big following,surely it must be better to give up a little bit of an advantage of edge retention over an issue of whether or not your blade is going to chip because you hit a staple or break because it fell out of your hand and hit the floor.I've owned the tanto with sai mai and the regular tanto,both are nice blades.Thats just my two cents.RS
I can't believe it. I am not a Cold Steel fan, so have not seen their literature on this knife, but having read it now, I am truly apalled. They have it completely backwards!

Go to this link and check it out:

The Nihonto ('Samauri Sword') swordsmiths put SOFTER steel 'Tama Hagane' ('jewel of the iron') in the CENTER of the sword; it had been folded several times. The much harder pieces of Tama Hagane that were placed on either side of the softer steel were folded more times (folding makes the steel harder). The pieces on the outside, however, were then entirely wrapped around the softer steel core (imagine a doughnut flattened into an elipse; the 'hole' is the softer steel, the eliptical 'doughnut' of harder steel completely surrounds the softer inner core. There is an excellent diagram of the cross section of a Nihonto on the above site.

The line visible on the 'ha' (edge) of the 'Nihonto' (sword) is the 'hamon'; it is a temper line; it has absolutely nothing to do with the different types of Tama Hagane contained within the sword. It is created by differential tempering; clay is placed on the spine of the blade 'mune' extending down to near the edge. This is called 'Tsuchi Oki'.

When heated, and then quenched, the differential temper creates the beautiful 'hamon' on the outside, harder layer of Tama-Hagane. This causes the mune and upper part of the blade to be softer and more flexible, while allowing an extremely hard edge.

The kami of the Nihonto swordsmiths are NOT amused. I can provide many more Nihonto sites if any are interested. Walt Welch

[This message has been edited by Walt Welch (edited 11 February 1999).]

[This message has been edited by Walt Welch (edited 11 February 1999).]
Tombstone, If an ATS-34 blade shattered as it hit the floor , then someone did a poor heat treating job on it. ATS-34 is about as far above aus-8 as BG-42 is over ats. The point is that cold steel should have used a harder steel in their sandwich instead of aus-8. This would have given them performance comparable to the best steels out there plus the lateral strength of a laminate. This was not done. I have both san mai master tanto and a carbon V recon tanto. My carbon V tanto holds an edge considerably longer than the san mai tanto. I'm sure the san mai tanto is much tougher(I've never used them as pry bars) but I also could have bought 3 or 4 recon tanto's for the price of the master tanto.

Walt, that's pretty funny if they did that. Maybe thats the polish sword technique.
Right on, Dr. Walt! Laminated steel was originally invented to stretch what little good steel could be had back in the days when good steel was as rare as truth in advertising is today.

AUS6/8 stainless tougher than Carbon V? Hmmmmmm again. Toughness is the ability to absorb shock and deform without breaking or taking a permanent bend. AUS 6 and AUS 8 are big grained, high-allow stainless steels with lots of big Chrome and Vanadium carbides. Carbon V would have to be tempered pretty hard not to be tougher. The most reliable rumors I have heard is that Carbon V is most likely 0170-6, which has about the same carbon content as AUS-8A. AUS-6 should be less hardenable, but I don't know about tougher.

Then there is the matter of de-lamintions under stress. And if the AUS-8A core wanders off-center, an occurance that I hear is not too uncommon with San Mai III, then you wind up with an AUS-6 edge! Doh!


[This message has been edited by Steve Harvey (edited 11 February 1999).]

[This message has been edited by Steve Harvey (edited 11 February 1999).]
Walter, Walter, you are unfair. How can you dare to compare a handmade Tachi with a CS tanto? That's the same as comparing a Ferrari with a Fiat just because both are made in Italy ;-)
Sandwiching higher carbon steels between lower carbon sides has been done for a while. Famous are the Finnish Puukos. The idea is to get the harder material in the middle for edgeholding and the softer steel on the outside for impact resistance. Even the Japanese swords have an ultra hard edge made of high carbon steel. They are usually compounded of four pieces. Soft center, harder sides and hardest edge. This combination might be ideal, but not everybody can afford a knife or sword for the price of mid-class car.
Damascus in general is done the same way. You always try to combine hard and brittle with soft and tough materials to get the advantage of both in one blade. And how can you say they got it backwards? Would you put the softer steel in the middle with the harder parts on the outside? What kind of edgeholding would you get in that case?
San Mai is an attempt to increase the properties of an AUS8 blade. I believe their claim that San Mai is 20% tougher than AUS8 alone. That of course doesn't mean much and it especially doesn't say a San Mai blade is better than one made of Carbon V (or other tool steels), BG42 or CPMXXXV.
Ralf, my dear and close friend. I DID NOT compare the Cold Steel product with Nihonto. COLD STEEL DID
quote outlined in stars)
San Mai means "three layers". It is the term given to the traditional laminated blades used by the Japanese for swords and daggers.
I am aware of the Scandanavian practice of hard steel being placed between outer layers of softer steel (I seem to even recall many years ago a tungsten carbide center).
Whether or not this has value is not relevent; Cold Steel said their San Mai was based on the design of Nihonto. Nothing can be further from the truth. It borders on false advertising.

I think further that you seem to contradict yourself in your post. You say first:
Even the Japanese swords have an ultra hard edge made of high carbon steel. They are usually compounded of four pieces. Soft center, harder sides and hardest edge.

Then you say:
And how can you say they got it backwards? Would you put the softer steel in the middle with the harder parts on the outside? What kind of edgeholding would you get in that case?

Well, Ralf, I think that you got it right both times. The soft steel goes inside, and the hard steel on the outside. That is the way the Japanese sword smiths did it, and it has worked for 1200 years.

Perhaps you would benefit from perusal of the site I listed above. I can give you several other sites, which also have pictures of construction of Nihonto.

The motherboard site, which lists several links is:

Hope this helps, Walt
I realize I'm opening myself up to some potshots here, what with Cold Steel bashing coming into fashion and all, but so be it.

Cold Steel has pioneered the knife industry with quality knives for what, almost 20 years, now, I suppose. I remember a time when Kabars and Gerbers were just about the only thing in the tactical line you could find either at a shop or a show ... and the Cold Steel tanto suddenly appeared, putting a custom quality knife into the hands of the consumer at a decent price. For years mine was an expendable alternative to carrying my Randall #1 on overseas deployments.

Say what you want, but a CS tanto had, well, still HAS, actually, features that were hard to find on anything other than a quality custom knife. They looked pretty AND they worked. What more do you want?

In the matter of steels, I seriously doubt that the average user can tell the difference between a AUS-8A tanto and a San Mai .. or an ATS-34, for that matter. I've got a couple of San Mai and I've a couple of standard AUS-8A blades ... I have to admit that I haven't tried pullups on them or levering a car door open, but short of that, they BOTH perform with no complaint.

I've used my San Mai tanto to clear brush, set up camp sites, cut tarps, line, wire, wood, heavy plastic drums and metal cans. Even used it to pull the back window out of a Jeep Cherokee when a friend locked his keys inside.

When we bugged out of our forward deployment site in northern Arabia at the end of the last war, I cut hundreds of sandbags open, which didn't do the edge much good; a touch up with a DMT sharpener put me back into business with little effort or concern.

I've beat the hell out of that San Mai kife and it's done everything as advertised and more. The only problems I've encountered had to do with the Kraton handle eventually deteriorating and the brass guard being knocked out of alignment (whacking on the pommel with a hammer while using the knife as a wood chisel to build a bunker).

I think Cold Steel is probably due for a change in strategy in the metallurgical area ... sure, I'd like to see a flat ground 7" tanto in M-2 or BG-42, replacing the Kraton with a G-10-type handle, but who else is carrying such a thing except a custom maker?

[This message has been edited by DW Altom (edited 12 February 1999).]
Oh, I remember, I DO have a knife like that ... it's called a Mad Dog Taiho, which costs $300, more than three times what I paid for my first two San Mai tanto. At this point, though, I concede that we're talking apples and kiwi fruit ... (I like my tanto ... but I LOVE my Taiho..!)

Yes, nowadays the prices are a bit high, but (here I go again) compared to what? A factory knife? You couldn't pay me to carry an SOG Seal 2000 (though I did give my son a Seal Pup to play with .. just gotta sand down that silly needle sharp checkering a bit). Oh, and try and buy an Al Mar for less than a Cold Steel tanto series knife.

For comparison sake, a Randall is about $235 .. good knife (I like all three of mine ... a lot!), but in essence a factory/benchmade knife, not a custom one. I don't consider it an affront to compare a CS tanto with a Randall.

Now that I'm a little older and wiser and have a bit more money to spend, I've caught the Mad Dog bug and am assembling a nice collection of Dogs which I carry and use daily. Yes, I've put away my Cold Steels, but I had to go to a custom, SELECTIVELY tempered, nearly indestructible knife before abandoning my old friends.

My CS tanto knives are now in a locked box awaiting a cabinet for display, along with my old Gerber MkII and my old Morseth and Puma and Pacific Cutlery and Al Mar and Black Jack knives. I sometimes think about selling off my original, mint Master Tanto, or maybe my 12" San Mai Magnum to raise more money for another Dog, but I figure if I wait another month or so I can raise the extra hundred and get my Dog AND keep my old friends.

In short, it doesn't matter which you get; the San Mai is a neat, but mostly cosmetic offering. No, the lamination line does NOT create friction and no, I haven't seen any with the grind so far off that the center layer was not the cutting layer. And no, the lamination doesn't peel away. Nor do I doubt that you could break either knife with your bare hands ... unless you REALLY tried, say with a piece of pipe over the handle.

If you want one, get it. It'll work just great. If you want the other, get it, and it'll do fine, too. You could do a lot worse, that's for sure.

I don't think many of us, here, think CS knives are poor tools. I have a few and they are fine.
Cold Steel knives CAN be criticized if you compare them with the knives CS tells us they sell.
The problem some of us have with CS is that they tend to be a bit careless with the facts.
I think it is generally accepted ,here, that the comparison of the structure of San Mai with traditional Japanese blades is either in ignorance or dishonesty.
The claim that AUS8a is a better blade steel than ATS34 flies in the face of reason.
And their continual insistence that Carbon V steel is a magic alloy available only to them is laughable.
They are entitled to use hype in their advertising. But they do have to be prepared to be called on it.
At least, their advertising no longer refers to a Cold Steel factory.

Brian W E
ICQ #21525343
Brian, you are absolutely right. I think their products are excellent for the money, especially their carbon V products. Nothing special about this steel except that it is a good tool steel. As far as their claims go,well, I think they get quite creative although the video is impressive. As far as aus-8 is concerned, the only advantage it has over ats-34 is corrosion resistance. ATS-34 is far better. Didn't they recently make a claim about aus-10 being as good or better than 440V. Maybe that was my imagination, since I don't think anyone would be that blatantly rediculous.
Good point, guys.

I won't even TRY to be an apologist for the sales/advertising end of the Cold Steel operation. All I know is that their stuff works for me and for those whom I've recommended use it.

I guess the reason I'm sensitive to this issue is that people often lose sight of Cold Steel's contributions and innovations in the midst of the obvious hype.

Regarding ATS-34 vs. AUS8A ... I haven't found a comparable fixed blade in ATS-34 with which to compare an 8A tanto. I do have an Al Mar Warrior and a Timberline SpecWar, but both of those are of such eccentric design (to me, at least) as to be little more than curios, not tools.

Carbon V (whatever that is ...) may or may not be the magic alloy, but again .. it works quite well and (again) look at the competition in the price range we're talking about. I've a Recon Tanto, an SRK and a couple of Trailmasters that I got pretty cheap ... there's nothing lacking in their performance and in my humble opinion, you have to go to a Randall or a Mad Dog to go to the next level. Try and buy either one of those for less than $100.

I just think that for the money, the combinaiton of material + design + manufacturing puts Cold Steel stuff in the forefront. They ain't the best, sure .. shoot, that's subjective anyway (What IS the best ...?) I just think they're overlooked much too often.

Oh, well, that's enough from me, I guess.