When and where did when you start making knives?
I made my first knife in the mid-1970's when I was a student at what was then the most recognized and only, full contact fighting school in the world, the Filipino KALI Academy run by Bruce Lee's best friends and most senior Jeet Kune Do instructors, Dan Inosanto and Richard Bustillo. Part of our training curriculum included both edged weapon offensive and defensive skills. And because both Dan and Richard were Filipino, I was introduced to the Balisong (Butterfly) knife.
Being a "starving student" with barely enough money to pay my monthly dues at the school I could not afford to buy one of the butterfly knives, which were, ironically built by Pacific Cutlery, the precursor company which eventually became Benchmade Knives. So I asked Instructor Richard Bustillo if I could borrow his personal knife to see if I could build one. So he loaned me his and I built one with some aluminum, steel, a butane torch and a Sears hand drill. When I brought my Balisong into school, I Quickly found out that there were other "starving students" who also could not afford to buy one. So they asked me if I would build some for them. I did, just for the cost of the materials and one thing led to another, and you might say I became a knifemaker by necessity.
Can you talk about how you developed the CQC7, a knife that helped found the modern tactical knife movement? Can you tell us more about your involvement in making knives for Navy Seals,Special Forces and other elite military units and personnel?
During the late 1980's and early 1990's I was the lead Hand-to-Hand Combat instructor for a company named Global Studies Group International (GSGI) run by a group of U.S. Navy SEALs who were former members of SEAL Team Six. By that time, my knives had become well known among the Naval Special Warfare Community, Army Special Forces (Delta), The British SAS and various other Government agencies. In fact, the founder of the German GSG9 and also the 2nd in command of Scotland Yard carried Emerson Custom Knives. This knife, the CQC-6, became so sought after in the Special Operations community that owning an Emerson CQC-6 became a symbol of a "Made Man" in the SPEC OPS community and carried tremendous bragging rights among the operators that carried them. As a result I ended up working directly with a number of special groups and sub groups within the Naval Special Warfare Community, Army Special Forces and U.S. Government DoD branches along with several international and foreign agencies. My work included specialized combat weapons and of course hand-to-hand combat and edged weapons training. Benchmade Knives approached me to make a production version of the knife that I was building for all these world's elite operators, the Emerson CQC-6, the true father of the modern tactical folding knife. I told them no, but I had another design, the CQC-7 and that knife went on to become the most popular and sought after tactical folder of all time. In fact it created the genre of the Tactical Folding Knife. It was at the time the #1
How does martial arts influence your knifemaking and designs?
Of course my Marital Arts background has been a major influence in my knifemaking career and endeavors. It is after all the reason that I made my first knife as I said earlier. But that influence is not in the way that most might assume. Most would assume that as a martial artist I would design a knife to do "this technique or that technique" or a design that would facilitate a specific style of fighting for example. And believe me, I've seen them all. And at the risk of pissing off most of the martial arts community, I'll tell you that the wackiest, craziest and worst knife designs I've ever seen have come from Martial Artists who have designed the "ultimate fighting knife." I've been told (by them all) "Look you can trap, you can disarm, you can use it against a pressure point, you can do the ticky tacky packy technique, you can use this end to use it in an extended grip." Well, here's the deal, there is a big difference between martial arts and combat. And quite simply it is this: If I ever have to pull out my knife for any reason in a human conflict situation it is not so I can trap, pass, lock or execute a "technique." I don't think I need to explain further. I never trained for art's sake. I trained because I am a fighter and I only trained to learn how to fight better. And the only reason I would ever fight is if someone were going to bring violence or harm against me or my family. I guess that approach paid off for me at least as I became one of the few "Tier One" Hand-to-Hand and Edged Weapons Combat instructors in the world, teaching my brand of fighting all over the world to the most elite units that exist, in addition to being inducted into both the "Black Belt Hall of Fame" and the "Martial Arts Hall of Fame" along the way. So to get back to the original question about the martial arts influence, the influence is that I make weapons and making weapons is my forte. I know how it is in a life or death environment and I know what works and what does not. 99% of what you are taught doesn't work and 99% of the worlds experts could not do what they are teaching in a true deadly attack against an armed and determined opponent. It is exactly the same with knives. Just as an analogy to illustrate my point, how many fancy, intricate techniques do you see in any UFC fight? Basic fighting skills along with conditioning, violence of action, and ferocious resolve, are what wins the fight.
Those principles do not change in a real fight whether it is with guns, knives or bare fists and teeth. It is the same principle in all regardless of weapon and it applies the same in any form of combat except modern, ritualized, martial arts and combat sports. My knives are designed to work in that environment and take the abuse that goes along with a combat environment. When someone designs a knife that an individual takes into an environment where their life could depend on that tool, you better be sure that it is going to work and work well if it is ever called to task. Everyone who has ever carried an Emerson Knife into combat knows that Emerson Knives are 100% up to that task. That you may now see is the real influence Martial Arts have had upon my knifemaking.
A big feature of your knives is the patented wave blade opening design. Can you tell us how you developed this technology?
The Patented Emerson "wave shaped feature" or pocket deployment system actually came about almost by accident. I would like to tell you that I was smart enough to have invented it to do what it does, but I can't. Here is the real story. Sometime around 1996 I was working with a special unit in the US Navy SEALs and they told me they wanted a new type of fighting knife. They told me they wanted a knife a certain size, with a big belly forward on the blade, an ergonomic handle use-able in any grip, with a blade catcher on top of the blade so another blade could not slide up the knife and cut the frogman's hand. My liaise to the unit was a SEAL named Mike Ferguson. I told Mike that I was already working on a similar design for the guys down at Fort Bragg and that I would just add a hook on top of the blade and let them take a look at it. The hook looked like the profile of a breaking ocean wave.
When I completed the prototypes I called Mike and he came up from Coronado with a couple of team mates to pick them up. When they saw the Knives, Mike said "Ernie this is just what we wanted." A couple of Beers and a bunch of stories later, they left and headed back to Coronado with two of the three prototypes. It takes about 90 minutes to get from my house to the NSW Base. Since I kept one of the knives I had put it in my pocket, as I took it out of my pocket I noticed that the blade snagged on my pocket and pulled the blade partially open. I thought wow, that's not good. So I put it back in my pocket and tried again. Wham! It popped the blade into a fully opened condition as I drew it out of my pocket. I did it again, again and again. It worked every time. Oh My God, this knife opens....and my shop phone rang. It was Mike Fergeson. "Ernest do you know what this fxckin' knife does? It opens when you deploy it out of your pocket!"
"I know, it just happened to me a couple of minutes ago," I said. "This is fxckin' great!" Mike exclaimed. "And it opens Beer bottles too! Hooyah!" And that is the story of the Emerson Wave.
When you select an Emerson knife model to put in your pocket and carry, what are the features that you look for? Which knife model do you carry the most?
I'm a blue jeans guy so that's what I'm wearing most of the time. In fact when I get "dressed up" I just put on my newest pair. I'm not so concerned about carrying a small pocket knife in nice slacks for example, so I always carry a full size knife. I've switched it up over the years, but one thing that hasn't changed is this; I always carry a partially serrated knife. Which is also what I recommend for everyone. I've used my knives in at least 4 emergencies that we've come up on over the years and the serrations were vital in each case. I've carried a CQC-7, a CQC-12, a Commander, an OBS Folder and a Tiger which is the knife in my pocket right now. It would be a tossup between a Tiger and the Commander if I had to grab a knife as I ran out the door. Both are excellent tools and work equally as well in a utility role or as a weapon if I ever needed one. The Tiger is a badass knife.
As a family business, we strongly support American-made products. Can you talk to us about your emphasis and motivation for making American-made products as a family business?
I'm all about family and I'm all about American business. Family owned small businesses are the life's blood that courses through the veins of this country. Small businesses are what built this country and they are the backbone of our economy. I come from a farming background which is the epitome of the family run business, often passed down from generation to generation, father to son. Starting a family business is one of those great leaps of faith that only some are bold enough to take. Most family businesses are like this: There is no "half in" position. In almost every case, everything that a family owns is invested in the business and as a result if that business fails, the family will lose everything. That is a heavy responsibility and it requires a "whole in" commitment to make it work. There is no clocking out at the end of the day and there are no days off. But at the same time it can be one of the most rewarding experiences in life. Because if you make it, you know that you and your family made it happen. It is very rewarding to know that you are the captain of your own ship. But you need a rock solid, unshakable faith in both your idea and yourself, to carry you through to the end. And you also quickly realize that if you succeed, everyone wins, but if you fail you are all alone. Most are not willing to take that risk.
Because of the success of Emerson Knives Inc, we put Americans to work. We provide them with a living and enable them to buy homes and put their children through school. I am proud that we are doing our small part to help Americans and the American Economy. In fact all the materials and parts of an Emerson Knife, right down to the last screw come from American companies and businesses. We are known as "Americas Knife Company" and we are very proud of that fact.
Can you talk about how you moved from primarily making custom knives into growing into a leader in American-made production knives?
I had gotten to the point in my knife making career where the demand for Ernest Emerson handmade custom knives was becoming overwhelming along with a decade long waiting list for orders. At the same time I had licensed several knife designs to production companies that were extremely successful. The Benchmade Emerson CQC-7 Knife was the #1 selling tactical knife in the world. I had many new designs that needed to be built and we knew that there was a worldwide demand for Emerson knives. So my wife Mary and I had a very long discussion and we decided to start a production knife company. She is the driving force behind the decision to start the company and she ran the entire business by herself for many years, which allowed me to do what I do best - make knives. Without her, none of this would have been possible. She had the faith that what we were doing could be a success and it paid off. She watched me spend every penny, including all our retirement savings and pour it into the company and she never faltered even when I needed to borrow money to make payroll. Without that unshakeable faith and support we could not have succeeded. It allowed Emerson Knives to produce the best and most recognized tactical knives in history and we're not done yet.
Emerson Knives have been featured in many movies, books and TV-series. Can you briefly go over some of the highlights of these appearances? What has been the most popular mention that you hear about regarding your knives?
We are very lucky in that our knives have been prominently featured in movies, T.V. shows and books over the years. Of course the use of our knives in Dick Marcinko's books, The Rogue Warrior Series was a big deal. After all Dick was the founder of SEAL Team Six. I've also had the opportunity to work as an advisor on several movies, big movies, where our knives were used which was always a lot of fun. And of course, David Morrell, the author of First Blood (Rambo) featured our knives prominently in his books, even putting one on the cover. And I'll never get over making some knives for Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones. I'm a huge Rolling Stones fan.
But putting all this aside, the real highlights of my career come down to these 5 words; Your knife saved my life. How could anything ever be more important or more rewarding than that? And it has happened dozens of times. We have been blessed with the opportunity to do something that has brought fathers back to be daddies to their families. There is nothing higher than that.
Outside of knives, what other areas of interest do you have?
Most people know me as a knifemaker or the owner of Emerson Knives. But the truth is that's not really who I am. I am a fighter. I just happen to own a knife company. If that were not the fact, there would be no Emerson Knives. I was a fighter long before I was anything else. I started training when I was 16 years old in the woods of Northern Wisconsin. My entire life has revolved around training, fighting, and instructing since that time over 40 years ago and it is what I still do to this day 5 days a week. I have had the privilege, honor, and luck to train with the world's foremost authorities in human combat over the years in hand-to-hand combat, edged weapons, boxing, grappling, and gun fighting. What I do is not an interest or a hobby. It is a way of life. As a result, as an instructor, author, and lecturer I've had the honor, privilege and luck to instruct and train some of the world's most elite warriors, all over the world. I've carried a top secret clearance for over 15 years and have worked in environments that people read about in Tom Clancy Novels.
Now at this point in my life it's all about giving back some of what I have been fortunate enough to learn over all these years. I now am very involved in writing, doing seminars, and lectures to schools, teachers, Police Departments, and other community organizations regarding anti-bullying, personal security and safety, counter terrorism, and countermeasures against violent attacks at schools and other targets. I also give seminars and teach at our own school that we run; "Royce Gracie Jiu Jitsu South Bay" located adjacent to our knife company headquarters. So as you might guess, we are all pretty busy, all of the time, but as I was once told "If you find a job you love, you'll never work another day in your life." I believe we've found it.