The Cold Steel 97SMBWZ Black Bear Bowie Knife is a Great Compact Machete, But Not A Great Knife
Before I begin a review of a new knife I usually spend some time online finding out what people smarter than myself have to say about it. Unfortunately it was really difficult to find much in the way of informative reviews on the Cold Steel Black Bear Bowie, possibly because smarter people don’t buy it.
This meant I had to develop opinions on this knife based almost entirely on my experience of using it in the field. When reading the small amount of information I could find online about this knife I noticed the word tactical was used several times by people when describing the Black Bear Bowie.
This seemed really inaccurate to me when I actually used this Bowie/ machete hybrid, because nothing about the feel of it made it seem like it should ever be described as a tactical knife. The handle is boxy and a little slippery. The knife has a cumbersome balance to it that makes it a bit unwieldy and the constraints of the handle design make changing grips difficult.
In spite of my initial assessment of the Black Bear Bowie knife’s lack of tactical capabilities I figured I should withhold my judgment until after some comprehensive testing. I decided the initial test should take the form of challenging my neighbor, Bill, to a knife fight.
This seemed like a pretty safe test, because I have never seen Bill with a knife. As it turned out my assumption about the safety of my scientific test was incorrect, but my low expectations of the Black Bear Bowie from a tactical standpoint were spot on. Bill beat the crap out of me with his red and white cane. Then for good measure he ran me over a few times with his wheelchair.
I would understand if after reading this you assumed I made up a ridiculous story to take up space due to the fact that I could not find much information to plagiarize when researching this knife, and you might be right, but you’re probably scrolling past all this anyway. However, I can say with a fair amount of certainty that the Black Bear Bowie may not be a good tactical knife, but it is a decent compact machete.
|Steel||1055 Carbon Steel|
|Made in||South Africa (Sheath Made in China)|
|A very practical mini machete|
|Handle feels a bit slippery|
|Poor quality assurance from a cosmetic standpoint|
Build Quality – It Aint Pretty, But It Is Tough
Cold Steel has made a name for itself by manufacturing relatively well designed, good quality knives at a low price, and then creating ridiculous but thoroughly entertaining videos about them. The Black Bear Bowie continues the low price with decent build quality tradition, but it looks like Cold Steel didn’t bother to make a ridiculous video about it. Bummer.
The Quality Assurance Department at the South Africa factory where this knife is made definitely does not care about cosmetic issues. The knife I received had random paint marks and a slightly uneven edge grind. However it seemed to be tough enough to tackle everything I threw at it. The blade spine is only 2.8mm thick, so I would be a little hesitant to use it for batoning. This knife was designed to chop through brush, and it held up really well when used for that task.
My initial thought when unboxing the Black Bear Bowie and taking a few practice swings through the air was that the polypropylene handle was a little too wide and a little too slippery. I also felt like the finger guards were mostly useless and made this knife less versatile.
However, once I started using the Black Bear Bowie to clear a trail most of my initial negative feelings about the handle disappeared. I never dropped the knife or felt like it was gonna get knocked from my hand when tackling hard wood are large branches. In short, as long as this knife is used for chopping, the handle performs nicely, but for any other type of knife-related task the boxiness of the handle and the ridiculous finger guards will make you reach for a different knife.
The blade is made of 1095 carbon steel which I think is a good choice for a budget machete. It is softer than a lot steels used on high-end bush craft knives, but 1095 is easier to sharpen in the field with less than ideal lighting. As I mentioned before, the Black Bear Bowie I received had a little bit of an uneven grind, but it still cut through brush better than expected. As I use and sharpen it more I will even it up a bit.
The feature of this blade that sets it apart from most other compact machetes is the Bowie style clip point. My initial thought was that this is a silly feature on a knife that is primarily designed for chopping and trail clearing. However, I found myself stabbing the knife into branches, tree trunks and stumps when I needed both hands to drag branches from the trail I was clearing. This was faster than re-sheathing the knife since the knife blade is huge, and the sheath tends to catch onto it when you try to put it back too fast.
I am still confused about the Cold Steel’s decision to sharpen the back of the clip point, though. Maybe they had some tactical idea behind it, but that back edge did not do me any favors when I used it.
The Black Bear Bowie In The Field
As I mentioned above, the Black Bear Bowie really shines when it is chopping through brush, branches or tree limbs.
It is a great little machete, but that is all it is. For me that is enough, because I do a fair amount of trail clearing to get to photogenic locations for my other job. Actually, I don’t personally do a lot of trail clearing, because that is a lot of work, and my brother Andrew, who’s pictured above, is usually happy to handle that task, because he is a certified knife nerd with a fair amount of pent up aggression due to the fact that he always has to do the trail clearing. (Editor’s note: I prefer the term Master Knife-ist, but he always laughs when I correct him).
The first trail we cleared using this knife had a combination of blackberry bushes, vines and overgrown branches obscuring a seasonal trail we use a few times a year. The Black Bear Bowie handled all of these quickly and fairly effortlessly.
Well, effortlessly for me, because Andrew was the one doing the trail clearing. I was just taking pictures. After the trail was clear we decided to tackles some larger branches on a fallen tree. The Black Bear Bowie handled these branches with a bit of hacking. A hatchet would have done a better job, but this isn’t a hatchet review. After clearing the bigger branches off the tree trunk we checked the blade and for rolls or chips, but it was almost as inconsistently sharp as when we started. I still would not be in a rush to use this knife for batoning, but I think you could if you had to. (Editor’s note: Secretly, he means I could if I had to while he sits back with his camera saying “This will be great for the blog”).
The heavy duty nylon Core-Ex sheath that ships with the Black Bear Bowie is serviceable, but certainly not anything special. One of the most useful features of this sheath is that the knife can be carried facing forward or backwards.
This gives the user a few more options based on their personal preference for drawing the knife. Unfortunately, there are no leg tie-down holes at the bottom of the sheath, so it flops around a fair amount and gets in the way a bit while hiking. I personally would have liked the sheath to have leg tie downs, because it would have made it easier to attach to a backpack.
The overall quality of the sheath is about what you would expect on a small budget machete. It should last for a few years of semi-regular use, but I doubt if it will last as long as the knife it holds. For most of us the sheath is good enough, but it wouldn’t be my first choice if I was planning a multi-week jungle excursion.
If you actually took the time to read this whole article you can probably skip this paragraph, because you know what I am going to say. However, if you just jumped straight to this paragraph I commend your laziness, and I will reward you by using as few words as possible to convey my opinion of this Bowie knife / machete hybrid.
It is a practical and fun compact, budget machete, but it is pretty much only good at chopping and clearing brush. If you are looking for a compact machete that can handle bushcraft or many camping type tasks, well, this is not a great choice due to the blocky handle, annoying finger guards and relatively thin blade. However, if you want a compact, budget machete that can stab stuff (Editor’s note: I’m 90% sure he doesn’t mean people. Please don’t stab people with this), the Cold Steel Black Bear Bowie may be your best choice.
Personally, I prefer the Cold Steel Tanto Machete over the Black Bear Bowie, but your needs and preferences may be different than mine. Overall the Black Bear Bowie is a great compact, trail-clearing machete that is surprisingly well priced.
If you are looking for a budget Bowie Knife that is a little more versatile check out our article on The Best Cheap Bowie Knives Under $50.