EKI, also known as Emerson Knives Incorporated, has been making 100% American made knives for many decades. Ernie Emerson, the company’s founder, is still very active in the day-to-day business, as well as hand making some of their offerings. The Commander is a model that’s been on their folding knife lineup for many years, and with the exception to some minor changes over a decade ago, remain largely the same. It’s an old-school company, with an old-school list of materials on their knives, that touts hard use and heavy-duty components to accompany those who wish to use their knife like they mean it. After all, Emerson’s catch phrase is, “Famous in the worst places”. It’s a cool way to stay loosely tactical, with every day use in mind, and a name like the Commander tells the buyer or user what it intends to be. Coupled with a rugged look, the Commander is ready for work, and means business. But, with a fast accelerating world of manufacturing and upgrades to materials on a yearly basis, can Emerson Knives Command it’s price with yesteryear’s materials void of any evolution in design? Let’s get into it.
Key Specs: Emerson Commander
The blade of the Emerson Commander is, like nearly every production Emerson knife in the last 20+ years, comprised of 154CM steel, with a length of 3.75” and a thickness of 0.13”. The upgraded version to this steel, CPM-154, is a powdered metallurgy composition of the same elements, but with the added benefits of having a more well-rounded matrix of elements, as well as a slightly better chance at an optimized heat treat. Mr. Emerson still likes using the older version of this steel due to its toughness and ease of sharpening in the field. And, for those who use these knives the way they’re designed to be used, attest to these attributes being of importance to their needs. This is just one of many elements of Emerson knives that carries through to the Commander that adds up to a hard use knife that can take serious abuse and still be serviceable.
Now, for the fun part. The heavily recurved shape of the Commander blade is, in fact, quite commanding in nature. It looks menacing, and has advantages to its shape that we’ll delve into further in the field test section of the review. Along with the recurve shape, the Commander edge is only sharpened on one side. This, as Ernie calls the “chisel edge”, is coupled with a “V” grind, meaning the blade is ground symmetrically on both sides, but again, only sharpened on one side. Again, hinting back at a hard use tool with simplicity and serviceability in mind. Along the spine of the blade is the patented “Wave Feature” found on the majority of Emerson folders.
For brevity’s sake, and for those who don’t already know, it’s a small hook ground into the base of the blade to aid in deployment when pulling the knife from the pocket for a quick draw nature without the use of springs or automatic methodology. The lock side of the blade is void of text, but the show side of the blade reads the following – “Emerson Knives”, “Commander”, “Made in USA”, “Wave Feature”, “Reg. No. 4,879,356”, “16680”. It’s a cool looking logo with a lot of small text, that shows the sequential number of the knife (16,680 on this particular unit), and shows the user the model’s name in plain text. On a knife of this nature, it seems fitting to put the small, albeit lengthy text on all their folders. It gives the blade an even more “tactical” feel than without it.
Lockup / Deployment
To limit the possibility of a blade breakage near the heel, omitting an opening hole seems to be a good choice. So, in lieu of an opening hole on the Commander, is a thumb disc. This disc is round, and knurled along its entire edge, for assured purchase from the thumb, even with gloved hands, or wet environments. It works great, and is accompanied by the previously mentioned wave feature. The wave hook on the blade works really well, but should be practiced slowly for newer users. It can be dangerous to use, if you’ve never tried it on a knife. Keeping an eye out for other people and property is first, since the knife will come out swinging the blade to its deployed position quickly. And, if the handle isn’t gripped properly, the blade could potentially swipe the user’s hand in deployment. It’s not a difficult thing to learn and get accustomed to, but it should be used with caution.
Aside from the opening methods, the detent on the Commander could be improved. Quite honestly, almost all Emerson folders I’ve owned could have a better detent. There are two issues that could be addressed here in the detent department. One is the detent strength, which is quite weak for such a large blade. I’ve never had the blade deploy unintentionally, but it sure feels close with a very light shake of the knife when closed. And, with a caveat here, the stop pin situation is quite unique. I have read varying reports, but it seems that Emerson has decided to use a “floating” stop pin. Now, there is a reason for this to be built in to the knife’s design, but it comes with a price – the blade tends to move around in the closed position. The stop pin floats more from one side to the other than it does up or down, but there is enough movement to allow the blade to sometimes wiggle in place when closed. The reason for this feature is for the blade to always hit a different spot of the stop pin when deploying, or being used. And, with a blade that is slammed open frequently with the wave feature, this does make sense.
Moving into the lockup department, the floating stop pin is relevant once again. Lockup on the Commander is quite solid, and very strong. It has no side-to-side play, or back to front flex when opened. But with the slight movement in the stop pin, the blade can be locked open slightly further in some instances than others. Which, in turn, creates inevitable lock stick, but only sometimes. And in comes a bit of the raw natured finish to Emerson knives. Yes, they’re designed to be used hard, relied on in bad situations, and serviceable with simple tools. But, some of these features come with a less-than-premium feel in some ways.
Features, Fit and Finish
Using some of my favorite materials in a folder for a heavy-duty EDC knife, the Commander keeps the Emerson lineage by using G10 handle scales, a titanium liner on the lock side, a stainless-steel show side liner, and the utmost simple hardware available. Emerson folders are well known to have an extreme texture to the G 10, which can be polarizing, but gives some sure handed feedback to the user in any situation. I like to knock down the texture with some sandpaper, just to limit the shredding to the jeans with lots of carry and use, but the stock texturing is very usable and grippy in its original form. It’s a bit of a heavy knife, too, at 5.8 ounces, and has an overall length of 8.75”. It carries decently for how large it is, even with it’s ½” thick handle.
And, although there are a lot of screws and standoffs on Emerson knives, the body screws are always phillips head, and the pivot is a slotted head screw. The Commander has 4 standoffs, with a phillips screw in each side of the handle scale, for extreme rigidity and simplicity in servicing. And the pivot screw being a slot allows the user to tighten or loosed if needed with a coin. It’s so refreshing to not have to grab the Torx set just to make a quick adjustment if I notice the pivot is a touch loose, or even for a full disassembly. And, the female side of the pivot is “D” shaped, removing doubt from it ever spinning in place, no matter how generous one may be with loctite (although little to none is needed on Emerson’s). Even the pocket clip, with some extreme tension to keep the knife in place while pocketed, is installed with 3 small phillips head screws. Unfortunately, the only way an Emerson folder comes with screw holes for left-handed carry is if it is specified in the original purchase, or sent in for drilling and tapping for left-hand carry. It should be noted here that Emerson does make left-handed models (with the lock side flipped and the pocket clip switched over, as well as the grind of the blade mirrored), but the options are few and far between in comparison to the standard right-handed models.
The finish of the Commander is decent. Not bad, not great, but good. Fitment of screws into scales, screw heads all being countersunk with the exception of the oversized pivot, and chamfered edges on the scales and blade spine all equate to a good feel in hand. And speaking of the knife in hand, the Commander features a very large handle with a large blade guard built into the upper portion to limit the ability of accidentally slipping the hand up onto the sharpened portion of the blade. It looks tough, feels good in the hand, and locks in to a tight grip no matter the conditions.
I truly enjoy using knives. Sometimes it’s tough to get a brand new blade dull, or put the first scratches in it. But for this one, I was ready. With the black coated blade, I knew I’d see scratches and marks early on in the use of the knife, so I didn’t mind going forward with testing. To start off, as I do with many knives, I grabbed some scrap wood from the garage. Shaving down some heavy, thick chunks, as well as making some smaller feather sticks, the ergonomics of the large, curvy handle gave feedback for real world use. First things first though, that chisel edge. It’s on the wrong side. Just about everyone agrees, even Ernie himself, as he makes most custom folders with the chisel edge or chisel grind on the opposite side as the standard production knives. And again, I’ll list it as a down side to this knife, just as we discussed in the A-100 review. Tasks like wood shaving are much more difficult with the chisel edge being on the wrong side of the blade, but it still works in a pinch. And, back to the ergos on this test. They’re good, with a strong choked-up grip, and a large, thick handle. There is jimping along the back of the handle near the top, around the base of the handle on the inner edge, and on the lock bar for disengagement. The Wave tab does protrude enough to be felt in some grips, but it’s far enough forward on the blade that it keeps itself out of the way for the most part.
As much as I know a folding knife isn’t made for chopping, with a knife this size and blade this tough, I figured I’d give it a go. Of course, it’s not great for this use, but it can be done without worry. The lockup did move further along the blade tang for this test, but was far from any type of failing or causing lock issues. Disengaging the lock at this point became much more difficult, as is expected from a titanium lock face riding further down the hardened steel blade tang than it should in normal use. But again, not a problem, just a minor inconvenience for a heavy-duty tool.
Using sisal rope for the test of the knife on a flat surface, the Commander wasn’t God’s gift to slicing, but it works. The edge on Emerson knives come quite coarse, which aids in cutting materials like rope. In this test, the blade shape proves to be less-than-perfect, mostly because the belly of the blade is very close to the tip, which translates to very far from the handle. And, with the large index finger cutout in the handle, the user’s hand is far from the cutting edge to begin with. This distant tip makes cutting a little more difficult on a flat surface. Where the recurve blade does excel, is in cutting held material. When the blade is put in a loop of rope, the recurve portion grabs the rope in the under swept portion of the blade and slices through the material with ease. And, for a little added torture, I grabbed an empty aluminum can and cut it up. The lid, the sides, the bottom… pierced and sliced it up into a pile of pieces. Then I nailed together two 2×4’s, and pried apart the pieces of wood. I used an open palm to lightly hammer the blade between the two wood pieces, and pried them apart. Using the thick teflon washers in the pivot, a large pivot diameter, and heavy duty materials, this kind of test is honestly not all that abusive to the knife.
Sharpening a chisel-edge, recurve blade is not for the feint of heart. So I decided to go ahead and give it a try. The edge, at this point, had a couple minor chips in it from daily carry aside from the listed testing. And, using a KME sharpener, I had a bit of confidence in going forward with the reprofiling of the Commander. After a couple clamp adjustments, I was able to get the bevel nearly perfectly even along the entire edge. Using more of the side of the stone than the flat, I was able to get the entire edge to form a burr, flip it from side to side multiple times, and use Spyderco Sharpmaker rods to finish the deburring. Then using a hand strop to finish the edge, it came out shaving sharp with no evidence of previous use. It did take more time than typical sharpening, mostly because of the recurve edge, but it came out well and is repeatable.
All these knives available at BladeHQ.The Emerson Commander is currently only available directly from Emerson knives website, and runs at a price of ~$260. That is admittedly a pretty penny for a knife with antiquated steel composition, and some common screws with a titanium liner. And, so, there are other comparable knives that are probably as good or better for the same or lesser price. So, let’s discuss a couple.
Benchmade, also an American brand like Emerson, recently came out with an updated version of it’s Adamas folder. And it is awesome. With CPM Cruwear steel, 2 colorways, and one of the best warranties in the business, the new Adamas is a contender to the Commander in every way. At a ~$22 lesser price point, the Adamas is 0.14” thick to the Commander’s 0.13”, a much better steel in the blade composition, a 3.8” blade to the Commander’s 3.75”, and a weight of 6.4 ounces vs the Commander’s 5.8 ounces, these knives are very similar in every dimension. The lock on the Adamas is, of course, Benchmade’s infamous Axis lock, which is very strong, durable, and quick to deploy and unlock. This knife also has a mini version available, as does the Commander, with the Adamas being the smaller of the two in that particular category. This makes the Commander a bit of a tough sell here in 2021, with the Adamas being quite a bit cheaper, and similar in materials, but with a much better steel composition.
And, for an even steeper discount, the Spydero Shaman could arguably be another alternative to the Commander. The Shaman, in it’s base form (although it’s been released in tons of colors and blade steel options), comes with S30V blade steel, G10 handle scales, stainless steel liners, and drops the price down to $210. It uses a 3.6” blade with 0.15” thick steel blade stock, has an overall length of 8”, and is a bit lighter at 5.2 ounces. Spyderco has run into the issue of not having many of their common production knives in stock at any given time, and tends to run sprint runs and exclusives frequently, but when the Shaman is available, it’s a good runner up to the Commander.
It’s a tough call, whether or not Emerson is falling behind. On one hand, we have a huge cult following that loves the products he makes, follows the brand without much question, and relies on the strong warranty offered to the knives. Ernie has a long background in military training and making knives for military use, which gives him clout in that arena. He does make hard use, heavy duty tools that stand up to abuse without much question. But with an antiquated blade steel composition, a lock that tends to wear quickly with raw, thin titanium against hardened steel, and plenty of options from other manufacturers, the lineup can feel stale when looking at the big picture of the folding knife world. They haven’t upgraded or changed anything in many years, and it’s starting to show. I would trust an Emerson to serve me, if I were to rely on it in a survival situation, or for someone looking to take a folding knife as a backup option in military use. But for common EDC users, aside from those who appreciate the brand as a whole, the Commander is becoming tougher to recommend as the years pass by.
- Very tough, reliable, comfortable to use, great warranty, simple construction
- Pricey for the sum of materials, variable lockup, antiquated blade steel, raw fit and finish