Rick Hinderer’s XM-18 is a very well known folding knife, with many years of evolution and innovation built in. It’s also the most popular pocket knife from the Hinderer factory. But, ironically, it’s not his oldest design. That particular title goes to the Firetac. Being Rick’s first main stream folder, it started out as a custom-only knife, much more in the high end scene, contrary to it’s current production status. Of course, it’s still somewhat high-end in terms of pricing and quality, but not the same status as it’s origination as a custom.
Key Specs: Hinderer Firetac
At the heart of every folding knife, is a sharpened blade. It’s shape, grind, finish, length, and composition are a direct indication of the designer and maker’s idea of what makes a good blade. And the Firetac has a very well done blade, in all these aspects. At 3.6”, it’s very usable for EDC situations, and can be pushed into light field work tasks. Unfortunately, in many legal jurisdictions, 3” or 3.5” is the legal limit for blade length on a folding knife. I always have the desire to question the maker in this aspect; is it worth 0.125” to potentially lose out on a particular portion of the target market? But I digress, it’s not something I think many people worry about too much, or if they do, there’s always the 3” XM-18, if someone is looking to stay within the Hinderer line.
It’s steel composition, CPM-20CV, is well balanced for pocket knife life, with very good corrosion resistance, very high edge retention, and decent toughness to resist chipping and breakage under normal use. With a blade stock thickness of 0.14”, it’s thick enough to take some heavier cutting and remain durable, but not so overly thick that it hinders itself in slicing cuts. As with most Hinderers, the show side of the blade carries Rick’s makers mark, laser etched near the thumb disk. The lock side of the blade shows “USA” near the thumb disk, and “CPM-20CV” under the USA marking. The blade matches the finish on the lock side scale, being either stonewashed or “working finish”, a slightly darker stonewash. There’s also some mild, smoothed jimping at the base of the blade, for thumb traction in a standard grip.
The blade’s sharpened edge has quite a long flat to it’s initial jut away from the handle, with a small section of belly near the tip, terminating in a fine point. Mr. Hinderer has made use of his upper swedge in the available spanto ground blade (a hybrid between tanto and spear point), but the more traditional spear point blade is much more subdued in its profile. The spear point on our review unit has a feel and look similar to a full flat grind, with a high saber spine. It’s ground fairly thick behind the edge, which has it’s pros and cons, and we’ll elaborate on that in the field test segment of the review. The blade is a little on the narrow side, though, giving it a stout feel, but also holding it back just a little in terms of cutting performance.
Deployment / Lockup
If I had to choose one deployment method to use for all of my knives, I’d be hard pressed to choose anything aside from an opening hole, in some form or another. Thumb studs are good, too, depending on how they’re implemented. But the thumb disk found on the Firetac proved itself to be quite the alternative. The Emerson A100 uses a very similar disk, and I’d say it works quite well. In the little details of a $425 pocket knife is where you find it’s price justification. And the stippling on the thumb disk is one of those little details. It’s done so meticulously, and so precisely, it almost looks like something that belongs on jewelry rather than a knife. Not that it’s overly gaudy, it just has some machining and precision to it that takes it a step further than just cutting a circle out of some metal and screwing it into the blade. It lends itself to a solid purchase from the thumb or middle finger, and keeps itself almost completely out of the cutting path.
Hinderer has faced some questionable detent situations in their history. The Firetac, from what I’ve gathered from other owners, is hit or miss in the detent category. It was fairly light, if I’m being honest. Simulating shaking out a blade while it’s in the closed position doesn’t always translate to an unsafe detent in the pocket, but it does translate to a blade that doesn’t fully deploy without some forethought. And, back to justifying the purchase of a $425 pocket knife, why is the detent tuned so differently on other examples of the same model?
This is a frustrating situation to be in, once you learn that Rick Hinderer Knives explicitly says on their website that they do not take warranty work in to their shop for detent complaints. I could understand that business motto if the consistency of detent strength was there between multiple units of the same knife, but it’s not. This is a problem in my eyes, and should be more open to tuning at the request of the customer, or at least have the same detent strength on a consistent basis. Here’s a direct quote from the Hinderer Knives website, in the warranty section –
“***A side note for those of you who can’t flip your knife open to your liking, this is not a warranty or service issue. There are plenty of threads on the subject in our online forums at bladeforums.com and usualsuspects.net as well as youtube videos that can help you. Oil, pivot adjustments, and technique is where you will find your answers….The same goes for blade centering, lots of threads and info on the forums to help you out”
I understand end users potentially being so picky that nobody will every be totally satisfied, at some level in regard to consumable products. But this seems a bit strange, to just plain say “sorry, if that part of the folding knife isn’t the way you want, just deal with it yourself”. And, if you modify the factory detent ball or detent hole in the blade, you lose your warranty.
On to the lockup. The Firetac locks up extremely solidly. I’ll go as far as saying it easily beats the Sebenza 31, which is supposed to be the bar in terms of a “fixed blade lockup”. I really enjoy the use of a folder when the lockup is this solid. Stabbing the tip of the blade into a piece of wood, and rocking the blade back and forth, usually gives some audible feedback, or at least a little wiggle. The Firetac had no perceptible blade play even in this extreme example. Which is even more impressive, considering how freely the action allows the blade to flow once the knife is out of the closed position. Unlocking the Firetac is very easy, with an easy to reach lock bar cutout, and very slick action with the Teflon washers. Tolerances are tight, but still allow free flowing movement of the blade. This knife is built very well.
Features, Fit and Finish
Teflon washers are often looked down on, in today’s world of folders. I guess, technically, they’re plastic. But, how often do you break your Tupperware? Or drop a thick plastic cup and it breaks? Teflon is extremely tough, and the Firetac features Teflon washers in it’s pivot assembly. With this knife, and the use I put on the XM-18, I’ve grown to absolutely love Teflon washers, now as my first choice in folders for pivots. They’re slick without lubricating, resist dirt and oil, and don’t deform as easily as phosphor bronze washers can. And they’re nearly as slick as bearings in deployment. Why isn’t this more frequently used? I really don’t know, but I’m glad RHK still uses them.
Another feature that I really love about the Firetac, as well as most of Hinderer’s knives, is the simple construction and hardware choices. With the removal of a pivot screw, and two standoff screws, the knife is apart for servicing. And, all the hardware is Allen screw heads. So simple, so easy to service. And on the lock side, the pocket clip and filler tab are Phillips head. Moving to the center of the lock side, is the lock bar stabilizer, or over travel stop. It’s also removable via Allen key, and is replaceable with any of the available aftermarket replacements for customization. But, that’s almost the end of the road for customization with the Firetac.
The XM series of knives has almost a limitless supply of Titanium, G10, or Micarta scale replacements. And the XM series also has replacement liners of different color and material, and screws of any color are available too. But the Firetac sits on the sideline for customization, with a more “you get what you get, and that’s it” kind of situation. I’m perfectly fine with that, I like to keep things stock most the time anyway. But to some users, it’s a big part of owning a knife.
The Firetac comes in a variety of G10 color options, but most are sold out at any given time. The black and OD green seem to be more widely available, and either come with the stone washed or working finish blade and lock side scale. The blade options are not as diverse as the XM series either, with only two choices between the spanto and spear point. With a 4.2 ounce weight, the Firetac feels solid in the hand, but not too weighty in the pocket. It’s a simply designed handle, but still has good ergonomics. The lock bar also has a steel insert, to mate up to the blade, in the lock interface. This was not used in the earlier generations of the XM18 line, but is used in them now, as well as the Firetac. The bare Titanium can wear down faster than a hardened steel insert, and could potentially shear off in an extreme situation without the insert.
It’s always a joy to me, to get to review a knife both in it’s resting state, as well as in it’s actual use. There are so many videos out there of “tabletop reviews”, or “unboxing reviews”, I really don’t understand how anyone gives a serious opinion of a cutting tool without actually cutting various test mediums. The knife in use can be completely different than the knife “in hand”, or just fiddling with it in front of a camera. So, I tested out the Firetac with everything I’d imagine it was designed to potentially do.
First, I tried out some standard cardboard cutting. I’ll make no mistake in translation here; the Firetac is not the epitome of cardboard slicing. It’ll do fine, to open a box here or there, but I absolutely wouldn’t put it to long periods of use in this regard. The factory edge wasn’t dull after a couple solid minutes of cutting, but it was far from shaving sharp at this point. The blade geometry has come into play already, with a thick edge losing out on performance. That’s not inherently bad, though. A thicker grind behind the edge is also more durable, so it’s a matter of trade-offs, rather than black and white, good or bad.
Popping a few zip ties took more effort than I expected. Again, it’ll do, but with much more force than I’d expect with CPM-20CV steel and a high end folder. The edge felt a bit slippery in use at this point, having lost much of its initial sharpness without a ton of use. I blame the edge geometry in this test as well, although there could be room for improvement on the heat treat side as well. Without putting the knife to a Rockwell tester, we’ll stick with assumption of thick edge geometry. Cutting some sisal rope on a wood work bench was a joke. I literally could not cut it. The blade just slipped over the material back and forth, with almost no fibers being separated. Would a re-profiling of the edge help? Probably, but that’s a timely process that I didn’t want to venture into.
Shaving down some wood on a 2×4 wasn’t as easy as it should’ve been. When the edge thickness is too extreme, the apex has a hard time reaching the material in an angled orientation to the respective medium. Basically, you have to turn the blade much more perpendicular to the wood than with most knives, making much deeper cuts in the wood. So making some light feather sticks wasn’t so simple, but again, trade offs. Maybe taking out bigger chunks is better for your personal use. But, if that’s the case, I have a little problem with the ergonomics. Going back to the tabletop review standpoint, the ergos are good on the Firetac with a normal grip, not using the knife, but just holding it.
The problem for me, was the handle forcing my grip too far toward the butt of the handle. This effectively causes the blade to be too far from my hand to push down hard on material for cutting, as the blade geometry has forced me to do in this situation. So you see, the ergonomics can change drastically between handling and using a knife. And the Firetac is decent in cutting, but not great. So, what’s it good for? Well, its durable, somewhat light for it’s size, and has a stout blade. This is a knife that can take some light prying and maybe a little abuse, in the folding knife spectrum anyway. So I went ahead and stabbed and pried out some wood off the face of the 2×4. The knife didn’t complain, and felt like it could continue for quite a while. This knife’s intended use is apparent, and cutting doesn’t feel like the primary design philosophy.
All these knives available at BladeHQ.It may seem redundant to bring the Chris Reeve Knives Sebenza into the mix again, but it really is a very close competitor to the Firetac in many ways. They’re both listed as a 3.625” blade, and are very close in price ($425 for the Firetac, and $450 for the Sebenza). The Firetac is a touch lighter, at 4.19 oz, versus the Sebenza’s 4.7 ounces. They’re both titanium frame lock knives, and both come from a manufacturer with decades of production and experience behind their knives. The Sebenza does have far more offerings in terms of custom graphics on the handle scales, and Damascus patterned blades, but the Firetac does have an edge in terms of blade composition. Of course that gap may close in the near future, with the implementation of S45VN coming to all of the CRK lineup, but for now, the S35VN does have a lower grade of edge retention and stainlessness in comparison to the Firetac.
A far more modern alternative to the Firetac is the Demko Knives AD20. This may look like a completely different type of knife, but it has some comparable qualities to the Firetac, and I’d bet that it appeals to the same crowd of potential buyers. The AD20 also comes (in it’s base form) with CPM20VC blade steel. It retails for the same $425 as the Firetac, too. And it’s based on the “hard use” theory, meaning it can take a beating and keep showing up to work every day. Of course, with the AD20 running on a bearing pivot system, and using a proprietary “shark lock”, it does have a very different feel in deployment and lockup. But it uses G10 scales, like the show side of the Firetac, and has an overall feel of strength and quality found in Hinderer’s offerings.
Hinderer undoubtedly knows how to produce a quality folding knife. He and his crew make well built knives with longevity and durability at the forefront. Using premium build materials, the Firetac is made to please anyone with modern folding knife spec knowledge. But that doesn’t always translate to a knife that’s a pleasure to use. Having a knife that feels odd in the hand when using moderate force, goes against it’s own design philosophy. Having a blade that looks like it’s meant to slice well through material, but is thick behind the edge, leaves something to be desired in EDC cutting tasks.
Having a detent that’s inconsistent and can’t be altered or changed in the warranty department may be frustrating for more picky users. But, it’s a smooth opener, can take some abuse in light prying, and with a reprofiled edge, can be a good cutter, too. I’d choose the Firetac over the XM series myself, having a slimmer profile and lighter weight makes it a good alternative. But, it’s tough to throw over $400 on a knife that needs a little work to make it pleasurable to use is frustrating.
- Smooth opening, solid lockup, slim profile, great build materials.
- Thick factory edge, inconsistent detent across multiple examples, ergonomics are not bad in harder use.