The Inspiring story of Ernest Emerson and the company he built from the ground up
In the current knife world, where fall-shut action, super steels, and thin behind the edge are considered prerequisites to EDC folding knife superiority, Emerson Knives delivers a slow and steady rebuttal. An Emerson knife has action that must be broken in, a blade of the same old 154CM, a black G10 liner lock handle, and an often stout behind the chisel edge blade.
Some knife connoisseurs shudder at such a coarse assemblage of materials, but this tried-and-true recipe, along with the company’s quiet defiance of design trends, is what gives Emerson knives their raw charm and brutish strength. This make them much sought after by both elite military operators and weekend warriors alike.
The story of the man behind the knife is one of the American dream: A person from humble beginnings develops a vision, works hard toward it, and is rewarded with the success of a company he built from the ground up.
Ernest Emerson grew up in rural Wisconsin where he was a star wrestler and baseball player, but all he really wanted to do was learn how to be a great fighter. In fact, as a teen, he would drive for hours, twice per week, to get to a Korean Judo class (called Yudo) in Minnesota.
This dedication to become an ever-better fighter continued into his college days at the University of Wisconsin, where he got his black belt in Shotokan Karate and competed on the university karate team.
But when he graduated, Emerson headed to the US mecca of martial arts, Southern California, to train at the Filipino Kali Academy with some of the biggest legends in the game: Bruce Lee proteges Dan Inosanto and Richard Bustillo (after whom he’d later name his Iron Dragon model.)
Kali and the First Emerson Knives
Kali is an ancient Filipino martial art that focuses primarily on the use of bladed and impact weapons in combat. It is generally thought of as a very effective style of hand-to-hand combat with weapons (or without) and is taught heavily in specialized law enforcement and military outfits around the world.
With its integration into JeetKune Do, Bruce Lee’s highly evolved and malleable training philosophy, Kali has kept pace with modernization and remained relevant, a feat not all martial arts can boast.
“Do you know what this knife does? It opens up when you pull it out of your pocket! … Oh yeah and it opens beer bottles too!”
As a student training at the Filipino Kali Academy, Emerson found himself in need of a balisong knife that he could not afford. As a machine operator and design engineer at Hughes Aircraft, he decided he would make his own.
He milled and drilled the handles out of aluminum, cut and filed the blade out of a steel blank, and heat treated it right there in his kitchen with a blowtorch.
And so, the first Emerson knife was made on a kitchen table in Southern California. Soon his fellow students were commissioning knives from him and Emerson was selling handmade balisongs for $50.
His appetite whet for knifemaking, Emerson attended a California knife show where he saw the work of legendary knife maker Michael Walker, who had just modernized the sort-of obtrusive and awkward liner lock seen for years on some traditional folding pocketknives.
With Walker’s work as an inspiration, Emerson decided to devote his knifemaking to folders—beautiful, fancy, liner-lock folders, using bright colorful anodization and exotic materials. In other words, he was making art knives to be sold for lots of money to collectors at knife shows.
These pre-tactical models, or “Pre-Tacs” as hardcore collectors call them, were beautiful and offered echoes of future designs, but in hindsight, were an order of magnitude removed from the knives Emerson is known for today.
At about this time, Emerson discovered a serious disconnect between his Kali classroom training and how reality was likely to present itself if a knife fight occurred in the street. Mainly, that disconnect was about deployment.
In class, the students practiced techniques with fixed-blade trainers, but when class was over, they all left with some sort of folding knife in their pockets. Recognizing that you fight how you train, Emerson realized what was needed was a durable folding knife intended above all for combat.
He began to pare back the materials he used on his folders, trading in some of the more exotic stuff for Micarta and G10, and blasted, subdued titanium. For this new line he called Viper Knives, he designed five new models as field-grade weapons for people with tough jobs, jobs that may require a readily accessible but discreetly carried combat knife.
Two of the Viper knives were intended for police backup weapons, and one was specifically designed for maritime work, while the Viper 3 was a born-n-bred fighter and is offered in a production version currently in the Zero Tolerance 0640.
Chisel Grind, CQC-6, and Specwar
For a bit of context: In the mid-’80s, some West Coast Navy SEALS were taking it upon themselves to buy custom, handmade fixed-blade knives from Phill Hartsfield instead of settling for the standard issue MK 3 Navy knife.
They were going to Hartsfield because his knives were robust and the blades were chisel-ground, meaning the bevel was on one side of the blade, while the other side was flat, like a chisel.
SEAL team members liked this grind because a chisel has a large cross-sectional mass, is extremely sharp (having half the material at the edge), and is half as difficult to sharpen in the field as it has only one side to hone.
“Ernest Emerson had just created the CQC-6 for the SEALS and hardened his legacy as a pioneer of the tactical folding knife.”
There he was, in 1986, minding his business at a California knife show when Ernest Emerson was approached by a few scraggly looking dudes who identified themselves as “underwater welders” who were interested in having Emerson design a folding knife that could withstand hard use and the elements, a knife that was strong, sharp, and chisel-ground. This would change the legacy of Emerson Knives forever.
So, Emerson got to work on the new folder for these “underwater welders,” settling on an Americanized tanto (for its two distinct cutting surfaces) with a chisel grind and a neutral, versatile handle of titanium and Micarta.
After nearly a year of design, redesign, review and revision, and six versions of the knife, they came clean: They weren’t actually “underwater welders” at all, but SEAL Team 6 members. Ernest Emerson had just created the CQC-6 for the SEALS and hardened his legacy as a pioneer of the tactical folding knife. He called these first purpose-driven fighting folders the Specwar Line, due to their lineage with the Special Warfare community.
Word sped through the ranks about the Emerson CQC-6, this new status symbol of specialized service, and soon Emerson’s knives were featured in the Rogue Warrior book series authored by Richard Marcinko, the man who started SEAL Team 6.
This made demand for Emerson’s new brand of tactical knife overwhelming for the budding outfit still operating out of the Emerson home. It was time to collaborate with a knife manufacturer who could keep up quality while keeping up with demand.
Enter Les DeAsis and Benchmade knives with the collaboration that gave birth to the first waveless, tip-down, G10, ATS-34 production CQC-7. This would become one of Benchmade’s most popular knives to this point and solidify the Emerson Knives Inc. legacy as we know it today.
The Legend of the Wave
Perhaps the most prominent design signature of an Emerson knife is the wave-shaped opening feature known simply as the Wave, a hook on the spine-side of the blade ricasso that snags on your pocket upon drawing the knife, automatically opening the blade.
A folding knife with a Wave opens more quickly than any other folder, even an automatic, as it is fully deployed as it clears the pocket seam. This game-changing innovation must have been a great stroke of genius, but if you ask Emerson himself, he’ll tell you, not so much.
The Legend of the Wave goes like this: Emerson was designing a folding knife for a group of combat fighting course instructors, guys he described as having the “dream job” of traveling the world to assess and assimilate fighting styles and weapons from other cultures and militaries.
The knife he was designing for them was (the author’s first and favorite EKI knife) the Commander, a menacing, ergonomic dream with a heavily recurved blade.
One of the design requirements of the new knife stipulated by this group was the addition of a blade catch to arrest an opponent’s blade from sliding onto the handle, thus protecting the hand. This feature, borrowed from parrying daggers and other larger knives of bygone eras, seemed antiquated on a modern folder, but Emerson added one, nonetheless.
Upon completing the prototypes of the Commander, Emerson had the instructors to his house to pick up the knives and have a few beers. After the group left, Emerson pulled his own prototype Commander from his pocket and the “blade catch” caught on his pocket and deployed the blade.
At first, he thought this was a fluke and a hazard, so he tried it again, and again, and again, and realized, this is not a dangerous design flaw, but a very happy accident of an innovation. “Every time the knife was drawn it was immediately ready and in the right position for use,” Emerson recalls.
As he tells it, it was at the exact moment he reached for the phone to tell the combat fighting course instructors of the dual purpose for the blade catch/Wave, that one of the instructors called him. “Ernie what the ****? Do you know what this knife does? It opens up when you pull it out of your pocket! … Oh yeah and it opens beer bottles too!” And with those words, a knife legend was born.
Now the Wave Opening Feature can be seen licensed on numerous production knives (from Spyderco to Fox), mimicked on other knives (like Cold Steel), and even sold as aftermarket add-ons to existing knives (SnaggletoothMF and 5X5 Combat Solutions) because whether you are a hardcore operator or a softcore suburban dad, sometimes it is awfully handy to “wave open” your knife. Knowing a good thing when he saw it, Emerson Knives Inc. patented the Wave in 1999 and never looked back.
Emerson Knives Inc. Today
Fast forward two decades later and Emerson knives are as sought-after as ever. They have gone to space and back with a special folder designed for NASA astronauts, and they’ve been to hell and back, accompanying countless military and law enforcement personnel on missions from the mundane to the deadly. There was even a CQC-7 on the raid to capture or kill Osama Bin Laden. It was auctioned off for $34,500.
With manufacturing capacity able to keep up with demand, EKI can release new models with greater frequency as well as offer special signature editions and customs, which can only be purchased at knife shows, after winning a lottery.
Most of the knives stick to the recipe that has always worked—black G10, liner lock, 154CM—though in recent years EKI designers have introduced a limited palate of G10 colors and alternate steels on a limited selection of knives.
Recent collaborations with Kershaw and Zero Tolerance as well as Pro-tech have been very successful and have put Ernest Emerson’s iconic design language within reach for a larger slice of the knife buying market.
“Ernest Emerson has said that he’d like his gravestone to say, ‘He was a fighter’… but looking back at his life’s work … you could also call him an innovator …”
In keeping up with the expectations of knife buyers, Emerson began tweaking a few key design features found in most of its folders. In 2013, designers phased out the usual G10 backspacer for barrel spacers on all their models, offering greater frame rigidity and easier access to the blade well for maintenance and field cleaning.
Perhaps the most noticeable change in Emersons made since 2015, is in the deployment action. For much of EKI’s history, its folders used a double detent system (one detent ball on the lock bar and one on the opposing side blade tang) to aid in blade retention and side-to-side stability.
With the single detent now used in Emerson folders, today’s knife buyer gets what they’ve come to expect, flickability, figitability, no-wrist fly-out action… whatever you want to call it, the deployment experience has changed and feels updated.
Ernest Emerson has said that he’d like his gravestone to say, “He was a fighter”. This is accurate, just watch a video of him teaching karambit techniques to LEOs or just check out his 65th birthday workout video (it will, no doubt, put you to shame).
But looking back at his life’s work so far, you could also call him an innovator and a leader, quietly making lasting, meaningful changes in modern knife design and usage. He is unabashed in the position that he makes fighting knives, and who better to do so?
But the author suggests that in the case of Emerson knives, the term “fighting” could refer to what you do with an unwilling opponent with bad intent. Or it might mean fighting the elements in a survival situation, or it might mean fighting your way out of a post-crash seatbelt.
With an Emerson knife in hand, you’ve got a much better handle on the situation, no matter what your “fight.”
Emerson Knives, Inc.
Location: Harbor City, CA 90710