Sunday, November 3, 2013

Hinderer XM-18 Review

I am going to tell you this up front: there is no way to be objective about this knife.  The amount of hype, the pricing on the secondary market, and the difficulty in obtaining one makes the Hinderer XM-18 virtually impossible to talk about objectively.  Going through all of those hoops will make you have one of two reactions--overjoyed that you finally landed the grail or pissed off that after all that effort all you have is this.  Fortunately, I had to go through a process to get my Hinderer and in that process I gained a bit of objectivity.  This just might be the only fair review of the XM-18 on the Internet.

I bought a knife off the USN.  It was listed as a Hinderer XM-18.  I asked if it was a 3 inch or a 3.5 inch.  I didn't get a response to that question, but I got a response to others.  With the deal lined up, I sent the money.  Only after that happened did I realize that I never got an answer to the 3 inch vs. 3.5 inch question.  The mix up was totally and completely my fault.  I should have insisted on the question being answered before the money was sent.  It was one of about a dozen, so an omission on the other guy's part, in the blizzard of inquires, can hardly be deemed his fault (though the thread heading should have specified size from the outset).  When the knife arrived it was a Gen 4 3.5 inch flipper with S35VN steel.  It was a gorgeous knife, but it was just too big for me to carry.  There was no way I would ever carry a knife that big or that heavy on a regular basis so I decided I would sell it.  I had a few buyers, but in the end, I thought it was just too cool to let go so I reversed my decision and decided to keep the knife.  Later a trade opportunity came up for a 3 inch model and I made the swap.  I didn't want the 3.5 inch.  I didn't really want to keep it.  But I did.  Then the 3 inch came up and I hemmed and hawed and finally pulled the trigger.  I might be the only person on Planet Earth to have "fallen into" a Hinderer XM-18.  But in all of that back and forth I grew less attached to the knife and I am glad I did.  I can now evaluate it in a much more objective light.     

Here is the product page. The Hinderer XM-18 costs $387 direct from Rick.  Only military, law enforcement, and emergency medical workers can order them from Rick.  Otherwise you have to resort to waiting for the few dealers that Hinderer supplies directly to get them or pay equally high prices on the secondary market.  There are a significant number of XM-18s being made and the market is wise to the flip aspect of the knife, as an EMS guy can buy one, flip it, and use that money to buy another and make a tidy profit.  I paid $636 shipped for my 3.5 inch and traded it for a 3 inch with two scales and a Hinderer patch.  Here is a written review from BladeForums.  Here is a video review.

Here is my review sample:

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Twitter Review Summary: Overbuilt, finely tuned, excellent knife with crazy secondary market prices.

Design: 2

While the Hummer overbuilt aesthetic has blessedly worked its way out of the automotive world where it was, quite frankly, ridiculous when seen in the Target parking lot, it has not worked its way out of the knife world and...I am glad.  That might surprise you as I typically eschew the overbuilt look.  Here, in perhaps the progenitor of the overbuilt look, it works.  All of the exposed construction elements and polished screwheads just work.  It also helps that while the knife undoubtedly overbuilt it is not fat.  At 3.6 ounces, the 3 inch Hinderer is roughly the size of a Spyderco Delica, perhaps a tad thicker and a tad shorter.  This is not overbuilt for its own sake and Hinderer did not ignore the need to actually carry the knife when making his beefy blade.

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Here is a shot of the XM-18 in my medium sized hand:

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Again, sorry for the lack of the Zippo, I was at Walden Pond (yep, THE Walden Pond) when I took these pictures.  The ratios are what you'd expect from a knife known for being overbuilt.  The blade:weight is .83, not too bad.  The blade:handle is .72 probably something like average but nothing approaching the Al Mar Hawk Ultralight.  

Fit and Finish: 2

This is where the XM-18 really pulls ahead of other knives.  Like my Sebenza and the Strider it has immaculate fit and finish, but unlike those other knives there is a bit something extra.  Everything seems to not just be well made but made to work well with other parts.  I know folks complain about the detent, but the 3.5 inch was perfect and the 3 inch Gen 2 is perfectly fine.  The lock bar snaps into place and has early lock up, but releases equally easy.  It is just tuned.  The clip has perfect tension on it.  Every edge is chamfered and comfortable except for one (you know which).  There is a poise and balance present in this knife that is different from anything I have encountered in other knives.  Its not quite the mechanical watch precision of my Gedraitis custom, but its close.  If there is one reason why folks get addicted to Hinderers, more so than beefy build and geared look, this is it.  This is a knife built like a rhino that flows like a ballerina.  

Grip: 2 

The choil on the XM-18 is something of a controversy, as some really like it and others don't.  In actuality it is not as great as, say, the choil on the Strider PT.  But just because it is not the best doesn't mean that its bad.  In fact I liked it quite a bit.  Thus there are two legitimate forward positions.  The knife also feels very good in the reverse grip.  Here is the knife with my finger behind the choil (and Walden Pond behind my hand).  

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The jimping is very sharply cut and at the beginning it was too much.  Now that my fingers have gotten used to how sharply it is cut its not that bad. The knife does lock in to your and and the texture on the scales is quite nice.

Carry: 2 

Its surprising how nice the 3 inch carries as the 3.5 inch and the related ZT056X were really tough to carry in your pocket inconspicuously.  The chamfering allows for smooth extraction and the knife, despite it Hummer aesthetic, is actually pretty thin.  The pocket clip also positions the knife nicely:

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There is literally nothing to complain about regarding the 3 inch XM-18.  This is an excellent pocket knife.

Steel: 2 

Latrobe's Duratech 20CV (data sheet here) is very similar to M390.  Both are high hardness, high toughness steels with absolutely tons of chromium for excellent corrosion resistance.  It also happens to polish very, very well.  

In use over three weeks, the steel has cut exceptionally well, as good both M4 and ZDP-189.  I am not 100% sure this is the steel or the grind (more on this below).  It handled food prep, including apple slicing well.  High acid foods like oranges did not give rise to a patina or staining like they did on the bead blasted 8Cr13MoV on the Kershaw Injection 3.0.  It did very well in whittling and with fire prep chores like making tinder.  There was no real damage to the edge even when plowing through true hardwoods like maple.  Finally, it worked well breaking down lots of cardboard boxes.  Even after about 6 boxes of high thickness cardboard, it was still shaving sharp.  

Again, for reasons discussed below, I am not sure if this is the steel or the grind, but either way, its promising to know that when done well, 20CV can hang with any steel on the market today.  

Blade Shape: 2

The slicer grind is really an excellent blade shape, much simpler than the spanto tip.  Here is the blade shape:

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It acts much like a drop point, especially with the very curved arc that make up the spine of the blade.  Its much simpler than the spanto tip and I found it worked well. 

Grind: 2 

This knife came from a trade with Jared, who runs the sheath shop, Paw Paw's Knife Shop.  Not only does he make great sheathes but also put a beautiful, positively razor edge on the knife.  It was a mirror polish convex grind.  This complemented the already excellent factory slicer grind and it was a persuasive piece of evidence in the "convex is best" argument.  The end result is a grind that cuts like nothing I have ever used.  It is incredibly stable, brushing off dings and knocks that would damage lesser edges and yet it still parted material like a laser.  This grind with this edge and this steel makes the XM-18 the best overall cutter I have owned or used.  

Deployment Method: 2

I am sure this is going to generate some feedback, but I can't slight the knife.  The detent is not the best in the world.  It doesn't snap open like my Gedraitis custom, but it works and works well.  In a scale with more points I would probably give this something like an 8 out of 10.  Its still well above average.

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It large part the beauty of the XM-18's deployment method comes from the elegance of the flipper.  It is perfectly sized and shaped and makes flicking the XM-18 open incredibly fun.  

Retention Method: 2 

This is one place where the XM-18 kills the ZT Hinderer.  The clip is really well made and keeps the knife in place.  It also is perfectly tensioned with just enough spring to really lock on to your pocket.  

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Despite its size, which is a bit larger than average, the clip is not a paint scrapper.  This is an excellent clip and like the rest of the knife, beautifully stonewashed to hide scratches and knicks.

Lock: 2 

Ho...LEE...SMOKES.  This lock is awesome.  Early lock up is great.  The overtravel stop is nice.  It is stable and engages and disengages with ease.  But the thing that I cannot get over is just how nicely tuned it is.  Its like it can read your mind--if you want to disengage the lock, it happens, if not it stays put.  That subtle balance is like nothing I have seen before.  This is part of reason why this knife feels so well tuned.  It is never sticky, never wobbles, never moves...until you want it to.  This is perhaps the best implementation of the framelock I have ever seen.

Overall Score: 20 out of 20

Its not the beefiness that makes the XM-18 so amazing.  It also not is refined feel.  Its the fact that you get both in one knife.  There is really nothing else out there like it.  It is unquestionably worth the price it will cost you from Rick, but the secondary prices are insane right now, even as production ramps up and more are available on the market.  I feel like it is probably not as good a value at $626 as my Gedraitis custom was at $500.  I can see how folks would think it is worth that price, I can see that quite easily.  Once it gets to $700 or more, the value proposition is increasingly poor.  You definitely get more than what you pay for at retail.  On the secondary market, its more of a personal call.  I am glad I bought one, even if I didn't intend to.

BONUS

The process of acquiring the XM-18 3 inch as well as the process of reviewing knives for two and half years allows me to compare the 3 inch model with the 3.5 inch model and compare both to the production version, the ZT 56X.  I know a lot of folks are debating between these three choices, so I hope this helps.  Also, there is a shootout coming between the Small Sebenza 21, the Strider PT CC, and the XM-18 3 inch.  Hang in there.

3 inch or 3.5 inch?

I found both knives to be solid, overbuilt blades.  The 3.5 inch was a Gen 4 model and because of the improved detent and larger blade it flipped better.  My Gen 2 blade flips regularly and consistent without wrist action, but the 3.5 inch Gen 4 was a real gymnast--flipping with ease and grace.  There is a level of focus required for the 3 inch is just different.  That said, the difference in size is pretty substantial.  There is no comfortable way for someone of a medium build to carry the 3.5 inch thoughtlessly.  The 3 inch is actually smaller than a Spyderco Delica when closed and at 3.6 ounces it CAN be carried without thought.  The 3.5 inch felt amazing in a reverse grip and slightly too wide and long in a forward grip, especially when you choke up and use the nice choil.  The 3 inch feels superb in a forward grip both choked up and in a standard grip.  For me this is not a tough call, the 3 inch is the model to get.  I cannot even imagine how big the XM-24 is.  All of this is ignoring the legality issues associated with blades bigger than 3 inches, which could make your decision for you.  Check your local knife laws.   
 
XM-18 or ZT056X?

So there is a pretty big size difference between the 3 inch and the ZT056X series of knives.  The 056X series has a 3 7/8 inch blade putting it between the XM-18 3.5 inch and the XM-24.  So to that extent, I would always side with the 3 inch XM-18 for the reasons I prefer it to the 3.5 inch.  The upcoming 3.25 inch ZT is not in the same class as either the XM-18 or the 056X because of the materials used--a stainless steel lock and an assisted opener.

The ZT056X knives are clearly some of the finest production folders ever made in large batches.  They have a deep carry clip that the XM-18s lack, but I really did not care for the clip on that knife.  It was too small and made the ZT56X a pocket pendulum.  The ZT056X knives have convex handles, something the XM-18s also lack and unlike with the clip, this is a big deal.  They afford a great deal of grip and they are a show off piece for KAI's machining abilities.  But this makes the ZT056X knives fatter than their XM-18 cousins.  I also think the XM-18s have a bit more tuning and better steel.  The Elmax on the ZT560 I tested was fine but the complaints have been to widespread to ignore.  Cliff Stamp did good work on this issue, found here.  I also find the curvier handle shape and choil a big plus for the XM-18s.

The ZT056X knives are an achievement, no doubt, but I still give the edge to the XM-18, even at Rick's direct price.  However, if you factor in the secondary prices, the ZT056X wins hands down when compared to the large XM-18.  There is nothing in KAI's line up that compares to the 3 inch model.  If size is an issue, you can't beat the 3 inch model, even when comparing it to the best ZT (or any other large company) makes.  

Update: Score 19 out of 20

Over time I have come to appreciate the benefits of a thinly ground blade.  It might not be the beast that the XM-18, but even the slicer grind is still too chunky to really do slicing work.  Trying to exercise some skill at shaving a featherstick is, essentially, impossible.  For that, I am taking a point off the Hinderer's score.  

10 comments:

  1. My buddy has a 3inch XM18 non-flipper with a slicer grind and it is a fantastic knife. I don't really see any benefit in going up to the 3.5 other than they are more readily available.

    He also had a XM-24 and it is a way too chunky for what it is. Very blocky.

    Hopefully the secondary prices soften considering there are SO MANY out there for sale. It's borderline price fixing.

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  2. I can't help but see a pattern with your reviews; very, very expensive knives get perfect scores. Same story with the sebenza. I have no doubt this is a great knife, but the fact that you can get 6 or 7 really, really good new knives for the price of one used XM18 absolutely drops the score below perfect for me. Perhaps a new system of scoring is called for? Price is always mentioned but rarely factors in. I'd like to see how the knife holds up once you consider that you could get two awesome customs for that price? 20 CRKT Drifters? 20 Kershaw Chill's? 10 Case or Queen traditionals. Hell, even 2 sebenzas, which i personally consider way over priced? If that comparison is made, could this really be considered a perfect knife?

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    1. You are wrong on two accounts. First, the XM-18 got an 20/20 but I do not consider it perfect. Second, the two knives I have awarded a perfect score to were both under $100, the DF2 and the Manix2 Lightweight.

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    2. I am well aware that you have given lower priced knives 20/20. I have frequented this site for almost 2 years. That was not my arguement. I would argue that a $20 17/20 beats a $600 20/20 almost every time. You current reviews (due to the scoring criteria) do not take this into account. I would like to understand your take on pricing, and to see how this would effect the score of various products.

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    3. First, thanks for coming back for two years.

      I have written about price before and how it works into a review, but as I have said elsewhere, it is very difficult to compare things based on price. Someone that brings home $20 million a year is going to have a different budget than I do. To them a $3,000 custom Rexford is affordable. To me, its not. I don't know people's budget so I can't really say.

      I do take price into consideration though. In shooutouts where the products are all roughly the same price, there are explicit value calculations. Additionally, a knife like the Drifter gets a 18/20 as a $25 knife. That exact same knife at $50 would get a worse score. It seems only fair. There were some fit and finish issues on the Drifter, but it was better than anything else I had seen (or have seen since) in that price range. In my head and many times explicitly in the review I am thinking about the knife against its competition. Comparing the Drifter and the Sebenza is just not fair.

      Finally, this idea that you can simply add up X number of cheap knives to equal one expensive knife is both untrue and universally disproven across many facets of human life. It has to do with the idea of commodities versus non-commodities. Milk, for example, is a commodity. 100 1 bottle gallons of milk are identical to 1 100 gallon bottle of milk. They are exactly interchangeable.

      But knives, even cheap ones, aren't generally so similar as to be commodities. A Drifter is not 1/20th a Hinderer or whatever the price difference would suggest. It is a different thing. This is proven over and over again. Would you, for example, take a fleet of Yugos or a single high end Mercedes? Put another way would you trade 100 paintings from the mall for a single Picasso? No. No one would make these deals ever. Its not simply a matter of adding things up. Knives, especially in the price range of the XM-18, aren't commodities.

      You might object and say that the utility these knives provide are commodities. To a certain extent this is true, but if you are in the market for an XM-18 utility is but one of your concerns.

      I hope that provides a better response to both objections. I will be more explicit about the price comparisons in the future.

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  3. I don't really understand why you immediately claim the 0566 doesn't stack up. I pulled the assist out of mine and it's very smooth, so the only complaint would be the steel framelock right? It's slightly heavier but doesn't wear in and doesn't stick. I think it might be worth a look to people who like the design of the hinderer but not the price. Don't let the assist turn you off of the knife, it works great without it.

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  4. Great review!!! I think you nailed it! :) I have both the 3.5" and a 3" and love both! I don't necessarily share your view on smaller is better as I slightly prefer the 3.5" size (but I've been reading your blog for quite a while and know you favor smaller blades and totally expected you to want/prefer the 3" and indeed would have recommended the 3" to you if we'd been talking and you asked). Regardless though, I LOVE my 3" too. It's a slicer flipper in 20CV just like yours and I can't see myself EVER getting rid of it (or my 3.5"). :) Hinderers *are* that good. :)

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  5. Any chance of including your Steve Carroll EDWM in the Small Sebenza/XM-18/PT-CC shootout? Similar in feature and price(ish) and it'd give some insight into how blade length plays into EDC utility (or how it doesn't).

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  6. I am not going to for a few reasons. First, the Karroll is a custom and is not readily available. The XM-18 is hard to land, but not impossible. Customs are a different beast entirely. Second, it was significantly smaller than even the PT the smallest of the three knives. Finally, the three knives, the PT, the Sebenza, and the XM-18 are really the three lots and lots of folks focus on so I think they will make the most sense to compare.

    Personally, I like the size of the Karroll better than the Sebenza and the XM-18. The Strider PT is most similar to the Karroll but even it is significantly larger.

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  7. I have had the 3.5 inch spanto blade for two years. I carried it every other day. It is big, and built like a hummer. It is not easily carried in the pocket. I slide it inside the waistband of my pants. I recently acquired the 3 inch, and I agree, it is much more easily carried in pocket because it is much lighter, and much thinner. It doesn't seem like that much thinner on paper, but it is.

    The clip on both, is interchangeable. It is the same physical part. If you look at the above photo of the clip, it extends past the over-travel button in the middle. That is the 3 inch XM-18. Instead of extending past it, the clip stops on the same button/disk on the 3.5 inch.

    The 3 inch is much more diminutive. It is very comparable in size to the small Sebenza. I do not own one, but I have handled my co-workers. Both the small Sebenza and the 3 inch Hinderer make great EDC knives. The XM-18 3.5 inch with a spanto blade, is perfect for a tactical blade, and a mediocre EDC blade. It just isn't a slicer, by design. The spanto tip is very thick, and not well suited to small blade tasks. I have no idea how the 3 inch spanto would do, but I would definitely recommend the slicer blade on that one. My perfect example is, cutting down a mouthguard for one of the young players on the team I coach. The 3.5 inch spanto, just is too large, and awkward for the task. The rubber is also challenging. The 3 inch slicer grind, is well suited, even without the concave grind. It is just the right size, and blade shape.

    I agree with the review, the flipping action is much better on the 3.5 inch, but I attribute it to the extra mass of the larger blade. The momentum carries it forward. In either case, you really do need to break the flipper in on Hinderers. I was frustrated for the first three months when I got my 3.5 inch. I had heard that the flipper needs to be "Broken in," in several YouTube videos, but I was losing faith. When it finally broke in, it was much more satisfying. I have not owned my 3 inch Hinderer long enough, but I did back the hinge out 1/8 of a turn when it first arrived, to make the flipping easier. But it still shows that it needs some break in time.

    Lastly, if you are confused which one to buy, my advice is the following. I have both the Ontario RAT 1, and Ontario RAT 2. The sizes and dimensions correspond really nicely to the XM-18 3.5 inch and 3 inch, respectively. Buy both RAT knives at ~$30 each. Use both regularly while you sort out what you really need. The RAT 2 slices like the slicer grind 3 inch XM-18. The RAT 1 slices similar to the 3.5 inch spanto, if not a little better. Figure out which one is more comfortable for your usage, then buy the XM-18 in the size you actually need. My pocket shared time with the RAT 2 and the XM-18 3.5 inch over the last two years. I like both, for different reasons. Going forward, I do not intend to carry either RAT going forward, unless It is a work week that I'm expecting air travel. I prefer to keep the Hinderers very far from TSA hands. I don't trust that they would ever mail it back to me, even if I paid them to do so. Any way, yes I realize the RAT flipping action is very different, and much more snappy than the Hinderers, but that is due to slightly better geometry and lighter blade weight. How they handle in cutting tasks, and how they carry is what you are trying to assess.

    Best of luck to those of you on the fence of what to do. I hope my opinions and suggestions help. - Shakyone.

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