I was excited when Cold Steel announced the Pro-Lite. I like good knives, and I like cheap knives, and the Pro-Lite looked like it might check both boxes. And while there’s definitely a lot to say about Cold Steel’s behavior in the last few years, it’s nice to see a genuinely interesting budget knife from a company other than Kershaw.
People talk about the Hinderer/KAI collaborations a lot but, really, the partnership between Cold Steel and Demko is where it’s at. Cold Steel’s affordability, competent machining, and quality materials complement the utility-driven Demko style perfectly. This harmonious pairing has allowed Cold Steel to first reinvent itself as a maker of reliable tools and not just oversized Mall Ninja props, and to move upmarket with compelling offerings in the mid-priced knife bracket.
That move meant there wasn’t really an entry-level Cold Steel knife anymore. Sure, there were a few cheap knives in the lineup, but they were all a little too corner case or niche to be representative of the brand. With the Pro-Lite, Cold Steel brings out a true modern CS design, at a low price. This is the Cold Steel budget flagship we were waiting for.
General Dimensions and Blade Details
The Pro-Lite has a blade length of 3 5/16”, a handle length of 4 ½”, and an overall length of almost exactly 8”. It is very light for its size, weighing only 3.2 oz, and is made in Taiwan.
Andrew Demko’s style is particularly adaptable to production knives. I think this is because his design philosophy is so practical. His blades are stylish, but that style derives from a commitment to utility. Every custom maker I’ve ever spoken to says they want their knives to be used, but few make this as obvious as Demko does. It also helps that his signature design element, the Tri-Ad Lock, is easy to implement in production knives.
Generally, I prefer smaller knives. I’ve been trying to carry more larger knives to get a feel for the advantages they offer. For what it’s worth, I think the Pro-Lite’s size is part of its charm. This wouldn’t work as a smaller knife. The incredible ergonomics would be compromised, and the very nice blade shape would be altered, likely for the worse.
My Pro-Lite has a clip point blade, long and low-slung, similar to the Buck 110’s blade. I think I’m still a drop point boy at heart, but the clip point is growing on me. The Pro-Lite’s tip is just south of the pivot, and the blade is ground thin enough that you get a lot of a control. The hollow grind starts fairly low, but given the thinnish initial stock you have a good combination of sliciness and stability. This is a burly blade I can get behind.
Steel is interesting. As much as I would have loved to see Cold Steel’s erstwhile standby, AUS-8A, on the Pro-Lite, what we have instead is Krupps 4116. A less common steel, seen on a few of Cold Steel’s previous super-budget options like the Pocket Bushman. I’ve never had a knife with 4116 before, and my experience with it on the Pro-Lite has left me ambivalent. Edge retention seems to be below AUS-8A, and while it is rust-resistant, it has a splotchy finish that just looks weird. Even in the glamour pics on retail sites it looks bad. In the end though 4116 is serviceable and easy to sharpen, which is tantamount in an ‘everyman’ blade, as the Pro-Lite is designed to be.
Handle, Ergonomics, and Carry
Word on the street is that Andrew Demko was particularly fond of the Pro-Lite’s handle, and he has every reason to be. The ergos here are excellent. The bi-level sculpting puts your fore- and middle finger at a lower level than your ring finger and pinky, letting you pinch around the pivot for superlative control. The guard is pronounced enough to keep your hand from going forward, but shallow enough not to interfere with cutting. The beak at the back keeps your rear two fingers situated. This is one of the nimblest-feeling medium-sized blades I’ve ever handled.
Other nice things: there is a slight contour to the scales. The orange peel finish is positive-feeling, but not Cold Steel Classic abrasive. The extra-large jimping on the spine of the knife is great for indexing. Overall proportions for a medium-sized knife are spot on. The Pro-Lite feels hardy and dependable without feeling comically overbuilt, and it has a rugged, Jean Claude Van Dammian swagger that some of the more cerebral heavy-duty knives lack.
The Pro-Lite is a little wide in the pocket, but it’s nothing catastrophic. At its widest point it’s still narrower than a PM2, and it’s nice and thin compared to something like a Voyager. I also heartily approve of the clip. Angled clips are one of my pet peeves, and I’m hoping that Cold Steel is moving towards straight, unadorned clips like this one in the future. Tension is perfect, length is just right, and it seems durable. I have no complaints here. It may not be a revelation in the pocket as it was in the hand, but the Pro-Lite still carries damn good.
Deployment and Lockup
Cold Steel cheaped out big time on the washers: big plastic affairs. The pivot feels cottony, and deployment is very slow. A lockback isn’t ever going to be the fastest opener in the world, but these cheap washers really gunk it up. Once the knife is broken in they’re serviceable, and I can just about flick it open now, but really, phosphor bronze washers would be perfect here, and even at $30 that isn’t asking for the moon.
The Tri-Ad lock is here, and completely serviceable. I get the slightest amount of vertical play if I really wrench on the Pro-Lite, but it’s nothing to get upset about. For a working knife, the Tri-Ad lock is such a good choice. It’s dead simple to operate, requires no real maintenance, and is as unfinicky as they come. Worth noting, however, is that there are degrees of quality in Tri-Ad locks. This is a workmanlike variation, less tuned than the one on my Large Espada. If I flick open the Pro-Lite really hard the lockbar travels deeper into the notch on the tang and it takes some doing to unstick it. It doesn’t feel as dialed in as on a higher-end offering, but I don’t think it affects performance in the least.
Cold Steel Pro-Lite – Final Thoughts
The Pro-Lite makes a lot of sense for Cold Steel 2016: when most of their line was in the $40-60 range, they would undercut themselves with something like this. Now that they’ve moved upmarket, they can introduce a blade for somebody interested in their design ethos and the Tri-Ad lock, but without the money to spend on higher-end options. And, in the budget knife world, I think the Pro-Lite can compete with the all-time greats in the price bracket: the Drifter, the Tenacious, the Cryo.
If they made a Pro-Lite with contoured G-10 scales, CTS-XHP steel, and tighter fit and finish, I would gladly pay $120 for it. And you can’t always say that you’d be interested in higher-end versions of budget knives. A Drifter wouldn’t be all that interesting against more the diverse competition in the high-end market. It’s too generic. The Tenacious fails to impress next to the Native 5, or even the Delica. But I like the Pro-Lite design better than the Voyager or the Recon 1.
There is no dearth of cheap knives in the world, but there are precious few that we will remember in five years. There are budget knives that are good budget knives, and budget knives that are good knives. The Pro-Lite falls into this second, much smaller category. This is a great design, full stop. It is quite an accomplishment, and even amongst the string of great knives Cold Steel has been releasing, it stands out. Its own flaws can’t stop the design from shining through either. For $30 this is an easy, easy recommendation.
If you are considering buying a Cold Steel Pro-Lite, I recommend purchasing it at Amazon