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Emerson Knives History

Living History

History accounts for the names of many people who have become legendary due to their contribution to their field. In the field of weaponry this is no exception. Among them are such notable names as Masamune, Ingelri and Ulfberht, Claude-Etienne Minié, and John Browning, who have all left their mark on weapons and armor manufacturing.  Unlike masters of other artistic media, the creation of weapons is less attributed to the names of their innovators as they are to the function their creations fulfilled at the time.  At every moment in the history of arms and armor, something was a game changer and weapons and combat was never the same since.  Ernest Emerson, founder of Emerson knives might just be one such innovator when it comes to the creation and production of tactical knives.  The crazy part is he has only just begun to flex his muscles when it comes to the craft of knifemaking.  In just over 40 years, Ernest Emerson went from making his own balisong knife in his home with some scrap metal and simple tools to being the premier contractor for US Special Forces, SEAL teams, NASA, and first responders in the United States.

A lifetime student of martial arts

Ernest Emerson has been a practitioner of martial arts for nearly half a century.  He was born in 1955, in a log cabin his grandfather built.  His dad was a teacher, and so he was raised with an appreciation for education and hard work, fighting for everything he had. As a young man, his athleticism took him to the University of Wisconsin--LaCrosse in the 1970s, where he majored in Physical Education, and was even drafted by the St. Louis Cardinals to play baseball professionally. But perhaps his true passions lie in martial arts.  He got his start in 1971 with Yudo, a Korean method of fighting, incorporating throws and grappling.  At the time, Bruce Lee had made people with the right training look super-human in their ability to defend themselves, and Ernest Emerson was about to find himself at the epicenter of a time when many greats in the field of martial arts were also getting their beginning. 

Among others, these are some of the disciplines of martial arts Ernest Emerson has trained in:

  • Kyokushinkai karate (brown belt)
  • Shotokan karate (black belt)
  • Jeet Kune Do
  • Jun Fan Gung Fu. 
  • Escrima
  • Gracie Jiu Jitsu at the Gracie Academy from none other than Rorion and Royce Gracie themselves at their Torrence, CA school. 

Anyone who knows anything about martial arts understands that at this time, Ernest Emerson was standing on the shoulders of giants.  With a working knowledge of kinesiology, athleticism, and practical application through multifaceted disciplines of martial arts, Emerson would later be able to apply what he had learned to the utility of his future trade.  

They say that necessity is the mother of invention, and in Ernest Emerson's case, he needed a balisong knife for escrima class.  But in 1978, these were expensive pieces of equipment, so applying what he knew from his dayjob as an aerospace machinist, he made his own out of some aluminum and steel stock in his own home.  The other students in his class were so impressed with his handiwork that they started asking him to make balisongs for them as well, paying him for the cost of materials alone.  Eventually he started to charge for his craft and with the inclusion of fixed and folding linerlock blades, he was able to launch into knife making full-time. 

He and his wife Mary, a prominent student of Jiu Jitsu herself, started working together to make a tenuous dream into an empire.

Knifemaking to manufacturing

Like master swordmaker Masamune, it took knowing how to use a tool to create the best tool for the job.  Early tactical knives, especially folders, where still in their infancy in America, with bulky trench knives or switchblades being what people knew.  Locking mechanisms such as the linerlock were just coming into the mainstream, and Emerson jumped at the chance to use this technology in his own designs, seeing their practical application for not only fighting, but a variety of other uses as well.  Folding knives allowed a user to carry a legal folding knife for self-defense, with quick deployment and the strength for tactical use without stepping over the line when it came to legalities in a nation where switchblades were banned.

Emerson began knifemaking like many designers, with the artistic trade shows and competitions, which showcased knives more as works of art than combat ready tools of a martial artist.  With years long waiting lists for his creations, Ernest Emerson decided to take the next logical step and begin manufacturing his knives for a larger audience. 

Evolution of the Emerson knife

  • 1978, Machined at home balisong blades
  • 1980s, Collaboration with Michael Walker to incorporate Walker Linerlock in pieces
  • 1980s Ernest Emerson begins working full-time as knifemaker.
    • Upscale Damascus steel and custom showpieces.  Knives made from titanium, carbon fiber, meteorite, semi-precious materials.  
    • These knives can sell for upwards of $2,000 each to collectors
    • from "Bowie" logo to the half-moon Emerson logo
  • 1985, first folding, mass-produced tactical knife: Viper.
  • 1986 Specwar knives made for Navy SEALs.  Stripped down version of Viper designs.
  • 1990 "SPECWAR" is company designation for field ready folding combat knives made by Emerson
    • CQC or "Close Quarters Combat" knife.  The CQC-6 was a Viper 6 designated for use by Navy SEAL teams.
    • Other CQC variants soon followed.
  • Feb 1996, Emerson Knives, Inc. With help from his wife, Mary, EKI comes into being, shifting from crafted custom blades to manufactured knives for a larger audience.
    • The "Specwar" knife is the first produced under EKI moniker. Tanto and spearpoint variants
    • The Specwar CQC-6 was the first of Emerson's blades to be chosen for the U.S. Navy SEALs, U.S. Army Special Forces, and other Special Forces units worldwide.
  • 1997, the "Raven" is introduced with titanium or Kraydon scales, with tanto or spearpoint blade.
  • 1997, the CQC-7 continues SPECWAR's line into EKI.
  • 1998, the "Commander": the game-changer of the Emerson brand, where one hand meets fast draw! (see the patent here!).
    • Featuring a recurve blade and "Wave" feature thumb stop.
  • 1998, the SARK is introduced as Search and Rescue knife featuring a blunt tip for ease in cutting webbing during extractions.
    • Other blunt tip rescue knives soon follow, such as the La Briffe WWR for white water rafting
  • BLADE Magazine--the "Commander" wins Overall Knife of the Year Award 1999. 
  • 2000, Work with NASA to build the first space ready tactical knife, best suited for environments where special attention is required for a sharp blade and careful attention to what its user does with it.
  •  2003, the CQC-8 is issued and quickly becomes one of the most coveted tactical knives available.  Built in collaboration with SureFire Flashlights
  • 2003, the CQC-10, a bull-nosed fighting knife made in collaboration with Heckler & Koch firearms. 
  • 2003-2010, more improvements to the CQC and Raven designs, utilizing different blade shapes and tool steel variants.
  • 2010 the Roadhouse wins Knives Illustrated "Best American Made Knife," award 

A trendsetter

Ernest Emerson was a pioneer when it came to features you see on most tactical knives today:

  • Blasted canvas micarta handles
  • G-10 Handles (tactical color and sure grip).  First seen on the Commander
  • Blasted titanium bolsters and liners
  • Satin finished blades (for moisture and corrosion resistance)

Working well with others

Ernest Emerson has plied his trade in collaborations with other companies as well:

  • Benchmade
  • Timberline
  • Zero Tolerance
  • Kershaw
  • Protech

Not Just for Our Special Forces Anymore

Not just weapons on the battle field, their versatility, strength and design apply to various niches of  search and rescue as well, and tactical design which make them as essential as a fork or spoon at the dinner table when it comes to tactical use. 

  • The Emerson SARK (Search And Rescue Knife) with a blunt point and karambit style curve that cuts through webbing like butter
  • The Emerson NSAR (Navy Search and Rescue)
  • The NASA knife (trusted rescue and utility knife on NASA flights and research missions).  Useful in cutting through webbing, aluminum, and has a notch for unzipping MRE's for mealtime

What he is doing now

Ernest Emerson lives with his wife, a lifelong student of martial arts herself, Mary Emerson, in California.  He has been a technical consultant for a variety of television programs on weapon systems, and has a podcast. He is also a purveyor of tactical wear, flashlights, and collaborator with Andy Prisco, in making tactical tomahawks, worthy of the Emerson moniker. 

Continuing to strive for his ultimate best, Ernest Emerson has gone on to manufacture blades on his own with Emerson Knives, INC (EKI).  Not sacrificing any of the quality of his previous endeavors, he now works independently to product some of the best tactical knives in the business.

An enduring legacy among collectors

Not just a go-to knife for Special Forces operators world wide, Emerson Knives are also prized possessions of knife enthusiasts and collectors.  After 40+ years of knife making, Ernest Emerson has decided to spend more time with family and less time in the shop making custom knives.  He only attends two knife shows a year now.  The Blade Show in Atlanta and the USN convention in Las Vegas.  Two virtual custom shows and lotteries are held each year (Christmas Show and Spring Show) as well, where lotteries are held now instead of orders for his custom blades.

This has set another trend for other knife makers as well, who are also offering custom knives through a lottery only.  But it doesn't mean that the crowds don't gather just to purchase a knife from his inventory. At these knife shows, buyers flock to the Emerson tables to buy what is available.

Collectors often spend upwards of $1200-2000 on an Emerson custom hand-made knife, even through a secondary market.  They don't last long on the shelf either, being sold quickly.

Relationship with

Emerson Knives, Inc. blades are made in Harbor City, CA and held to such rigorous standards of workmanship that they come with a lifetime guarantee for manufacture and materials. sells only the best curated knives and are so confident you will love your purchase that we will not charge a restocking fee if you don't think it is the best thing since sliced bread.  Just send it back, no questions asked.  There are so many Emerson Knives to choose from, you'll have to see for yourself, and priced right so you can order more than one!