Friday, December 27, 2013

High End EDC Knife Shootout

There is a space between production and custom where a few makers claim to live, but really it comes down to three (with Jason Brous waiting in the wings).  Reeve, Strider, and Hinderer--knives so iconic their creators names' are brands.  If you want the best you can buy without wasting money on bullshit like jeweled thumbstuds and ridiculous inserts, these are the alpha and omega of choices.  I'd not complain if a LionSteel TiSpine fell into my pocket, but like Brous, it has a few years to go before it enters this echelon.  Men and women of the gearhead world this is the place where three men have leveraged the power of mass production with the touch and pure tuned feel of handmade goods to produce three ethereal blades--the Small Sebenza, the PT, and the XM-18 3 inch.  In particular I will be comparing the Strider PT CC in S35VN, the Small Sebenza 21 in S30V,  and the XM-18 3 inch Gen 2 with flipper, slicer grind, and Duratech 20CV steel. 

You can find all three knives at (though the availability of the PT is limited and the XM-18s are usually of the 3.5 inch variety)

Blade HQ


and all proceeds benefit the site when you purchase things through above link. 

Here is the PT CC:

P1000820


Here is the Sebenza:

IMG_0018

Here is the XM-18:

P1010117

The question is simple, but the answer is not.  Which of these three amazing blades should you buy?  One thing you don't have to worry about is getting a stinker.  A blind pick among these three will satisfy even the most stringent demands of the world's most finnicky gear geek.  There is no BAD choice here.  All are stupendously great.  All could easily be your favorite pocket knife ever.  But only one will win this shootout.

So let's do this.

Methodology

The rules are simple.  I will use the standard ten category scoring system.  Instead of awarding 0, 1, or 2 points per category, I am using a weighted system.  Among the three knives, the best blade will get a score of 5, the second best, a score of 3, and the worst, 1.  After that I will tally up points each blade earned and then divide by price.  The blade with the most points per dollar will win.  If there is a tie somehow I will break the tie.  There will be a winner here folks, no wussing out and giving you caveats and hedges.

Design 


The Sebenza would win more points if this was a ranking of their historical importance because without it, the other two would not be possible, but stripped of history, the PT comes out just a bit ahead of the XM-18.  The PT is a marvel with a large working choil and a great blade shape.  The handle is contoured and that is worth a lot to me.  I like the XM-18 too, but not quite as much.  I thought the Sebenza's ergo-free look would afford a variety of grips, and it does, but none are as good as either the forward or reverse grip on the PT.

P1010065

PT: 5
Sebenza: 1
XM-18: 3

Fit and Finish

Funny thing is that none of these knives are truly perfect.  On every knife the pivot came loose over time.  In took the Sebenz about a year, while the other two took about six months.  All of them could use some Loc-Tite.  The need for Loc-Tite itself is not unacceptable, but the fact that none of them came that way is.  Additionally, the PT and the XM-18 need a specialized driver bit, which, as I have discussed many times before, is perhaps the most annoying thing in the knife world.  Only the Sebenza used commonly available fastners and that is why it got the 5.  The PT's pivot slightly worse than the XM-18's.  This is not a big deal, but given the price, I expected perfection.  

The Sebenza's mythical perfect fit and finish is just that--a myth.  My sub-$100 Spyderco Zulu had better fit and finish than all three of these knives.  Its pivot has remained in place the entire time I have owned it.  There are quite a few knives in the production world that are consistently as good or better.  Virtually all of Taichung, Taiwan Spydercos can be superior (excepting the CF versions of the Cat and the Chicago).  Every Al Mar product I have handled, including my Hawk, was better finished.  The TAD Dauntless I handled was much better.  Brous's fit and finish on the model I handled was also better--tighter and more precise.  All three knives are very good, but not the best production knives I have seen in terms of fit and finish.  Hate to burst folks bubble, but I feel confident in this assessment given the number of blades I have reviewed and my long term use of all three of these knives.

PT: 1
Sebenza: 5
XM-18: 3 
 
Grip

There is really no question about which knife has the best grip.  The PT's choil, shape, and convex handle scales makes it not just a good knife in the hand, but perhaps the best knife I have ever held in my hand in terms of grip.  The XM-18 is very good too, but not in the same league.  The Sebenza is better in the hand than it looks, but that's not saying much.

IMG_0065
  
PT: 5
Sebenza: 1
XM-18: 3
 
Carry

The Sebenza is really great in the pocket.  It is thin and narrow, cramming a ton of blade into a very small footprint.  That, plus the perfect clip AND clip placement, make the Sebenza about as good as you can get in terms of carry.  The PT is way, way behind, but still very good.  Its lack of clip is an issue, but I like it.  The XM-18 is actually quite good too, but not even close to the other two.  Its quite wide and the jimping can snag, but nothing crazy.

IMG_0021
  
PT: 3
Sebenza: 5
XM-18: 1
 
Steel 

Its hard for me to know if this is the really good polish and sharpening job on the XM-18, but the Duratech has been incredible.  The S35VN and S30V are pretty difficult to differentiate in use, but when sharpening I like the S35VN better.  I think it is probably worth the upgrade, but if you have a knife you like in S30V, don't worry seeking out S35VN, especially if you can sharpen S30V better than I can.   

PT: 3
Sebenza: 1
XM-18: 5

Blade Shape

The classic is the best.  Blade shapes are always best when simplest (unless designed by Anso).  The classic drop point on the Sebenza is truly awesome and perfect.  The slicer grind on the XM-18 is pretty good, but not close to the Sebenza.  The spear point on the PT is also good, but really also well behind the Sebenza.

IMG_0025

PT: 1
Sebenza: 5
XM-18: 3
 
Grind

Again, the classic grind is best.  I don't get the whole full flat grind only thing, as hollow grinds are incredible at biting into material and getting a bunch of stuff out of the knife.  There the Sebenza is so much better than the other two.  The full flat grind on the XM-18 is good, much, much better than PT's grind.  The reason why is that the PT's cutting bevel is too thin.  This is, undoubtedly, because of the PT's hard use heritage where a very thin bevel lasts longer, but in the EDC/pocket knife role, I'd like something that can do detail work.  The thin bevel also makes the PT a poorer slicer than you'd expect for a knife like the PT.  

PT: 1
Sebenza: 5
XM-18: 3
 
Deployment Method

There is a reason Ti framelock flippers are so popular--they are incredibly easy to use.  Additionally there is a reason why the XM-18 is so popular--it is the progenitor of the entire Ti framelock flipper trend.  Even for all of the bitching, it still really, really works well.  It is an excellent flipper (not as good as the very best out there, but very, very good).  The PT's thumb hole is good, but not as good as a Spyderco thumb hole.  Finally, the Sebenza's thumb stud is a good thumb stud, but that's like saying someone is the smartest Hilton sister.  Its a complement only in context.  The Sebenza really requires  a perfect approach and without that approach, you get nothing.  With the right approach it is quite good.   

P1010187

PT: 3
Sebenza: 1
XM-18: 5
  
Retention Method

The Sebenza's clip is great, one of my favorites.  The XM-18's clip is good, but a bit of a paint scrapper.  Obviously the PT has no clip and I wish it did.  You have a choice, absent a MSC, with the PT.  You can get a great knife in the hand, the CC, or a great knife in the pocket, the regular PT.  Personally, I'd take a great knife in the hand.  Still, I'd like a clip (and I am having one made still). 

PT: 1
Sebenza: 5
XM-18: 3
 
Lock

All of the locks are good.  One is amazing.  It is almost as if the XM-18 can read your mind.  You want to disengage the lock and it glides open.  If you don't want it open, it stays closed.  Pretty incredible.  The Sebenza lock is definitely tight and bank vault-y, but still not as tuned as the XM-18.  The PT is a bit stickier and harder to disengage.  Really this is the XM-18 with only a bit of spacing between the other two. 

P1010125
 
PT: 1
Sebenza: 3
XM-18: 5

Total Points:

PT: 24
Sebenza: 30
XM-18: 36

Value Calculations

Okay, pricing the XM-18 is tough.  First, there are not a lot of 3 inch models out there.  Very, very few of the recent waves of XM-18s were 3 inch.  Almost all of them were 3.5 inch.  Then there is the price issue.  Directly from Rick they are $387.  No one, none of his retailers, sell them for that.  A good estimate is $600.  If you pay attention you can land one for that price, occasionally less.  I am going to use $600 for the value calculations. 

That means we get this:

PT CC: $300
Sebenza: $330
XM-18: $600

Sebenza wins.

We don't even have to add them up.  With a huge difference in price between the Sebenza and the XM-18, the XM-18's 6 points aren't enough to make up for the price difference.  The data shows and my sentiments agree--the XM-18 is not TWICE the knife the Sebenza is.  It is better.  Clearly better, in my mind, but not twice as good.

Here are the values:

PT: .08 points per dollar
Sebenza: .09 points per dollar
XM-18: .06 points per dollar

As you can see, this is close between the PT and the Sebenza.  The PT and the Sebenza are, as the scores reflect, very close in my mind in terms of value, with the XM-18 far, far behind.  The secondary market prices are just insane.   

But watch what happens if you change the price to the direct retail price on the XM-18 (roughly $387):

Sebenza: .090
XM-18: .093

In that situation, the value calculations comes out correctly again.  The XM-18 IS a better knife, in large part because of the effortless flipping deployment method.  The Sebenza is close, even with the adjusted amount, but it comes in second place.

While the PT's score really suffers in three areas, but it is actually a very close call between it and the other two knives.  The scoring system I chose to use for shoot outs is designed to create differentiation between the competitors, but here it is a bit unrepresentative.  Coming in last is a big penalty, even if the difference between second and third is very small, such as the difference between the Sebenza and the PT in terms of lock.  The PT is an excellent knife.  Personally I like it just as much as the Sebenza (maybe even a bit more), but I recognize that the Sebenza has a broader more universal appeal, hence the higher score.   

The places where the PT meaningfully falls behind is pretty straightforward.  First the lack of a clip is a real shame.  I am working with a machinist to get one made, but I can tell you it has been a chore.  With a good clip, the knife would be better.  Second, and perhaps most difficult to tell absent a direct comparison like this, the cutting bevel on the PT CC needs to wider.  As it is, it is too shallow and the approach to material is difficult, especially in hard mediums like wood.  The PT has a strong tendency to glance in low angle slicing cuts.  Finally, I really dislike the pivot on the PT.  This has been a constant source of problems for Strider and the model I have is either the third or fourth iteration of the knife with a different pivot at least two of those three or four revisions.  Its time to stop screwing around (ha, ha) with proprietary fasteners and just go with a flathead or torx bit.  I like the flathead fastener in a pivot as it allows for field adjustments, but anything is better than what they have now.  This leads me to a rant.

Here goes:

Somehow, in knives the proprietary fasteners are seen as cool, while in EVERY OTHER WALK OF LIFE THEY ARE AN UNMITIGATED DISASTER.  Let me be blunt--proprietary fasteners are nothing more than an naked money grab by the maker, hoping to sell you a multitool or a bit driver for some extra money.  Its like Rick Hinderer or Mick Strider first took money of out your wallet for their knives then decided to go back in for no reason whatsoever.  No thank you.  If it was really about performance--i.e. no cam out--they would opt for something like the Spax or a Torx head.  These proprietary fasteners are a money grab, plain and simple.  Do you hear me Microtech, Hinderer, and Strider?  NO MORE PROPRIETARY FASTENERS....whew.  I got that out of my system.

Sorry.          

Conclusion 

If you want the best EDC knife out there under $600 get the XM-18 3 inch.  If you want the best value, get the Sebenza.  The Sebenza wins and should win because again you are getting near custom quality at a high production price.  Its not a question--the Sebenza is, was, and always will be a benchmark blade.  The XM-18 is the new kid on the block, comparatively speaking, but the Sebenza is just sooooooo good. The PT is also a great choice, it has a bit more flavor than the vanilla Sebenza, and I kinda like it better, but in the end, the golden oldie wins again.  Now, if TAD ever releases a production Mini Dauntless, watch out...

19 comments:

  1. Since the Sebbie and XM won, just let me know if the loser needs a new "forever home," I'd gladly pay an adoption fee for a Strider. :-)

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  2. I'd love to see this same shoutout with a Spyderco from Taiwan, like the Sage 2, thrown in. The more I handle knives, the more I am convinced that the Taiwan Spydies are as good or better than the mid techs.

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    1. Having used and handled the Zulu for about 6 months and just receiving the Techno for Christmas, I tend to agree. These are the best knives out there in terms of fit and finish. They are simply amazing. Huge values.

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  3. The Hinderer knives do use standard bits on the pivot. On one side you use a standard flat head screwdriver, on the other side you use a spanner bit which you can get at Fastenal for like $4. I even made my own spanner by just grinding away the middle of a standard flat head bit. Yes, Hinderer does make a fancy little titanium tool that's all self contained but it;s not a requirement.

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  4. This was well done! It must have cost you a lot of time and cogitation, even though I bet the R&D was enjoyable...

    I don't own any of the three blades (my priciest knife is a Caly 3.5), but this was a good read. You clearly strove to be fair to each contestant.

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  5. I've been waiting for this one for a while now and was not disappointed. Thanks for the great review.

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  6. Love the Shootouts. How bout a flashlight shootout next?....
    Nice work on this one.

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  7. Thanks for the review, I've been waiting for it.
    I have no interest for the XM-18, because it is basically unavailable to "regular folks".
    I have the PT "lego" version, and I like it a lot, especially the ergos.
    I was hoping this review would cool down my interest for the Sebenza, and in a way it actually did. For me, some points are more important than others, it's not the end result that matters.

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  8. Very nice, thank you. I kept wondering why TAD was left out but you answered that question.

    +1 to the Sage 2, massive points per dollar I imagine. Also, +1 about high end flashlights

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  9. There are some discrepancies here and there but I agree with your outcome. I once bought a 3.5" xm18 for $650 and sold it. I recently managed to get another for $387, it's like a while different knife at that price. I would take it any day over the other two and I've owned several Sebenza's and a newer SNG

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  10. Why do some folders, such as the XM-18, come equipped with both a flipper and thumb studs? I don't necessarily prefer one over the other but having the two on one knife seems like overkill. Do the stubs serve a more discrete purpose such as preventing the blade from overextending?

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    Replies
    1. Both the PT and the XM-18 have external blade stops that sub optimally function as thumb studs.

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  11. Thanks as always. So much for my not "needing" a Sebenza. Maybe between the Sage1 and the Maxpedition Excelsa I have on the way I'll be able to put it off another few months. Enjoy the Techno. If you are like me, you will quickly fall in love with the stumpy ugly knife and it will kick everything else out of your EDC rotation. It is one of those few knifes that have to be held and used to understand its genius. Much like a Small Sebenza, I understand....

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  12. What happened to the pocket clips for the PT CC you posted about?

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    1. Ahh just reread and saw you're still working it out :-)

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  13. Hi Tony, I'm a long time reader, but this is my first comment. Overall, I think you do a bang-up job on your reviews, they are very informative and objective. They've helped me make a lot of gear decisions. I do think you sort of did the Sebenza a disservice in the Design section. You pretty much only discussed the grip of the 3 knives in the Design section, when you have Grip section just below it. I wish you had discussed actual design features of each of the 3 knives in that first section, maybe bringing up topics like the Sebenza pivot bushing, the Strider hole, and the PT 3D machined scales. Design features that affect the knives' ease of dis-assembly, adjustment, cleaning, etc. My only other critique is on the Blade Steel section. I know your Sebenza is an older model, but all the CRK's in the last few years have S35VN, so that even's up with the Strider (although you could still bring heat-treat into it).

    Again, I love your site and your reviews. Keep up the good work! Thanks!

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  14. Interesting shoot-out, and as one who previously stated my preference/comment for the Techno over the PT, I look forward your review of the Techno (on deck) in comparison to the knives in this review...

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  15. I think I'm not alone in this request, but when you do your review of the Techno can you comment on where you think it might fit into this shootout. I don't own Techno (yet) but I've handled one at my local knife store and was really impressed with fit and finish. I had my small Sebenza in pocket at the time and was wowed that I could really actually compare these two on many levels with equal footing. I also have Zulu, have tried to sell it twice without success and that has actually brought me relief, I think something is telling me I need to keep it. It's such a cool knife!

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  16. Thanks for the review. Having had all three myself, I'd pick the Sebenza over the other two simply because I hate Ti/G10 handles and really don't care for large choils that eat cutting edge. Any of the three would be a good choice, though(Hinderer simply not worth the inflated prices, IMO).

    The Techno is an arse-kicker and I'd pick it over any of the Big Three(been in my pocket every day, both on and off-duty since August, 2012!)

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