As a knife enthusiast, you may love Emerson or hate Emerson, but it’s at least a safe bet to say you know Emerson. It’s hard not to, what with the brand being the genesis of the tactical knife genre that so many other brands today are built around. In this round-up article we’ll be taking a look at Emerson’s history as well as some of the best knives they’ve ever produced.
Best Emerson Knives: Summary
Emerson has been hugely influential on the knife market over the past couple of decades or so. It’s tough to ascribe an entire concept to one person, but generally speaking, Ernest Emerson is thought of as the origin of tactical knives as a concept. Moreover, they invented the Wave opening mechanism, which allows the user to open and lock the blade while they’re pulling the knife out of their pocket, making it easily the fastest opening mechanism possible in terms of draw to open. The brand is also associated with their unusual decision to use chisel grind edges on their blades rather than a usual V-grind, with some models having chisel-ground primary bevels as well.
They’re known for a general no-nonsense approach to construction: usually G10, simple hardware, easy to service and maintain. Unlike a lot of brands, Emerson’s models are differentiated largely on design rather than materials, since they all use the same steel: 154CM. 154CM is a stainless steel made by Crucible in the US since 1970, an ingot-formed stainless that’s a modification of classic 440C stainless with the addition of molybdenum for better hardness and edge retention. Emerson has always used 154CM and seems uninterested in changing or messing with different steels because 154CM works great.
They also like their knives made one way – with blade textured G10 scales, a titanium liner lock, and a stainless-steel show-side liner. They use a combination of flat-head pivot screws and Phillips body screws to make the knives easier to work on with normal tools, a choice that not everyone may agree with. All Emersons since 2014 have upgraded from a solid plastic backspacer to a set of standoff spacers that allow easier cleaning and maintenance of their knives – full of dirt? Just blow it out with compressed air and get on your way! They all – other than the more recent flipper models – use Nylatron Teflon washers in the pivot. These knives are all very simple in construction, with a focus on toughness, usability, durability, and ease of service.
Emerson Knives was founded by its namesake, Ernest Emerson, in 1996. Ernest’s history with knives goes back much further than that, stretching all the way to his first custom knife in 1979 – a balisong he made in his garage from scrap metal. Through the 80’s, Emerson got into custom knifemaking, creating folding knives with the then-new Michael Walker-engineered liner lock, these “pre-tactical” folders having a bias towards art knives rather than usability. The introduction of the Viper line in the mid-80’s indicated a shift in focus to more usable designs and materials like G10 and titanium, with five separate models including the paired down MV-3 Viper fighting knife – the basis for the Zero Tolerance 0640 we reviewed just a few years ago!
As Emerson’s knives grew in popularity, they began to catch the eye of military members looking for a tough, dependable knife – something beyond the standard issue equipment – to use in the field. Enter the first CQC (close quarters combat) series knife, the SPECWAR CQC6. Short for ‘Special Warfare’ and ‘Close Quarters Combat’, the CQC-6 featured a tough chisel-ground American style Tanto blade, G10 scales and a simple liner lock. Demand for the CQC-6 eventually got so high that Emerson reached out to Oregon-based Benchmade Knives to collaborate on a production model, the sought-after Benchmade CQC-7.
The thing Emerson is most well-known for must be the Wave feature, which came about as a happy little accident. While designing a knife for a group of combat fighting course instructors (which would become the Commander) they requested the knife have a “blade catch” – a protrusion on top of the blade that prevents the opponent’s blade from sliding up and onto the handle to protect your hand. As it turns out, having a blade catch that’s angled away from the blade serves a double purpose – it catches the corner of your pocket as you pull it out, opening the blade into the fully locked position by the time the knife clears your pocket. This makes knives with the Wave the fastest opening folding knives in the world – faster than any automatic, flipper, thumb stud, gravity knife, balisong, or anything else. After all, those knives must be retrieved from your pocket, then opened. A knife with the Wave feature is already open and ready to go by the time it’s in your hand.
Emerson started his own production company in 1996 in Torrance, California to mass-produce his knives for a wider audience. Further milestones include the Commander in 1998, the first waved knife with its dramatic recurved blade, the SARK (search and rescue knife) in 1998, a knife designed and used by NASA for space missions (!) in 2000, the Roadhouse (which won Knives Illustrated “Best American Made Knife” in 2010), and the brand’s first flipper knife and bearing pivot knife – the Sheepdog – in 2017. Emerson has created production collaborations with a number of brands, including Zero Tolerance as well as Kershaw, Benchmade, Fox Knives, Timberline, and Pro-Tech.
While Emerson has made a lot of knives over the years, these are our favorites. Note: while all of these are designed by Emerson, some of them are built by other brands in collaboration with Emerson to get a better spread since most of EKI’s knives are fairly pricey. Also of note: As of November 2021, all Emerson knives are sold exclusively through Emerson directly and not any retailers, so all links to EKI knives are directly to Emerson’s website.
Our favorite Emerson knives
Here are what we believe to be the most notable Emerson knives on the market today.
The Emerson A100 was the first thing that came to mind when writing this list, which is somewhat strange since it’s the least Emerson-like of all the knives on this list. It doesn’t have a Wave Opener, or complex ergonomic shapes in the handle, or a Tanto blade, or really anything dramatic.
The A100 is just a basic, simple, cleanly designed pocket knife. It has a 3.6” long drop point blade with a V-grind primary bevel and a chisel-ground edge made from 154CM, it uses a thumb disc as an opener, and has simple G10 scales. It’s elegant in its simplicity, weighs only 4.5 ounces in regular form, and like most Emersons it has a titanium liner lock. It’s designed as a do-everything EDC knife, and it’s a perennial favorite of Anthony Sculimbrene at Everyday Commentary who has now reviewed the knife three separate times. The A100 is available in the original 3.6” version, as well as a Mini A-100 with a 3” blade and 7.2” overall length, or a Super A-100 with a 3.7” blade and 8.7” overall. If you want some Emerson flavor in a straightforward EDC folding knife, the A-100 is it.
One thing you’ll quickly notice about Emerson knives is that they are expensive. That’s a fact of life for a small company making their products in-house in America, but for fans who don’t necessarily have the expendable income, it’s nice that Kershaw collaborated with Emerson to make a full line of CQC knives. The CQC-6K is the pick of the litter for me, featuring a 3.25” long drop point blade in D2 tool steel, with a contrasting stonewashed and satin finish blade. It features the Wave opener, a solid stainless framelock, a black G10 show scale, and Emerson-style hardware: a large straight head screw for the pivot and Phillips screws for the body. Despite the stainless framelock, it comes in at a reasonable 5.1 ounces, and it gives 90% of the experience for 25% of the cost. There are plenty of other Kershaw-Emerson knives to choose from that are all attractively priced as well.
The CQC-7 is the bread and butter of Emerson’s lineup, the distilled essence of Emerson Knives, if you will. It’s available in a dizzying array of combinations, but my pick of the litter is the CQC-7BW – the quintessential CQC-7 variant. It features an Americanized Tanto blade (that is, a tanto blade with a defined transition between the primary and secondary edge bevels) with a full chisel grind rather than the V-grind with a chisel edge like on the A-100, with a flat primary bevel on the show side.
The CQC-7BW features a thumb disc as well as the wave opener for deployment, with a titanium liner lock holding it open. Ergonomics on the CQC-7 are basic, with a double hand swell for grip and flat G10 scales. The CQC-7 is based off the original SPECWAR series of knives designed for use by Navy SEALS, meant to be tough as nails, easy to deploy in the field, and easy to service and sharpen – thus the chisel ground blade and super-basic hardware (flathead and Phillips screws for pivot and body.) Since the CQC-7 is the cornerstone of Emerson’s lineup, you can order one just about any way you could want – there are options for a spearpoint blade shape, a fixed blade, a thumb stud instead of a disc, a plus-sized Super, a flipper, or a 2.9” blade CQC-7 Mini, as well as some blade and handle color options.
The Sheepdog was quite a big deal for Emerson when it debuted in 2017. It brough several features to an EKI knife not previously seen, the biggest of which being flipper tab deployment. Along with the flipper, the Sheepdog also added a ball bearing pivot for smooth action, but it still offers the Wave as well as a thumb disc for deployment options – allowing the user as many options as possible for opening. The Sheepdog was designed in collaboration with Lt. Cononel Dave Grossman (whose name is etched on the blade) of Sheepdog Knife & Gun to be as easy as possible to open in a “gross motor skills situation” – similar to how the Spyderco Civilian is designed to be effective in use in an emergency when you can’t focus on technique.
The Sheepdog is available as either a spearpoint or bowie blade shape, as well as a Mini Sheepdog (3” blade, 7.1” overall) in either a stonewashed or “thunderstorm” finish. The Sheepdog has a V-ground blade with a chisel-ground edge from 154CM, and a deeply sculpted ergonomic handle with a steep finger guard for a solid grip. These knives sell out quickly due to the combination of features, but they’re arguably the most modern design Emerson offers.
The list wouldn’t be complete without the Commander, the dramatic-looking tactical folder that was the origin of the Wave feature. This fighting knife, with its long, recurved blade profile, is equally adept at close-up combat as it is as a hunting knife or utility knife. It features a V-ground blade with a chisel tip made from 154CM stainless steel, G10 handles with flow-through standoff construction, and deployment via the wave feature or a knurled thumb disc. Like all Emerson folders, it uses a titanium liner lock with a stainless liner on the opposite side for strength and light weight.
Similar to other anchor lines in the Emerson lineup, the Commander is also available in a Mini size – with a slightly smaller 3.4” blade and 8” overall length, or a Super Commander with a 4” blade and 9.5” overall length. All of the Commander series are relatively hefty knives, with the regular (medium) size weighing in at 5.5 ounces, the Mini 4.5 ounces, and the Super Commander a full 6.0 ounces. Regardless of which size, you can option the Commander with either a stonewash or black coated blade finish, and all of them use Emerson’s standard slotted screwdriver pivot head and Phillips body screws for ease of maintenance.
The Gentleman Jim is a slimmed-down, smaller and lighter-duty folding knife – well, at least as far as Emersons are concerned. Packing a 3.75” long drop point that measures 0.12” across the spine, this model features a primary V-grind with a chisel-ground edge, and weighs only 4.0 ounces despite stretching more than 8.5” from tip to tail. The blade shape is a long and narrow clip point with a false swedge along the spine, creating better piercing geometry at the tip of the blade. The Gentleman Jim might be a big knife but it’s still pocketable, thanks to its narrow top to bottom profile when folded. The handles have a pronounced forward finger guard, a cutout for the lockbar release, and a full-length palm swell for a comfortable grip.
Deployment on the Gentleman Jim is via the Wave opener or a textured thumb disc depending on your preference, and like all almost all other Emersons it offers the standard eccentricities – titanium liner lock, steel liner, a mix of flathead and Phillips hardware, barrel spacer standoffs, and a lanyard hole if you’re so inclined. The uncoated version comes with the grinder satin bevel and stonewashed flats that’s the trademark of Emerson blades, but you do also have the option of a coated blade as well as serrations. It’s big for a gentleman’s knife, but it’s the “gentleman’s knife” of Emersons.
Emerson describes the EX100 as the knife he always wanted to build, and finally figured out how. It’s the simple, distilled vision of what the perfect pocket knife is to Ernest Emerson, and when you step back and look at it, it’s delightfully simple.
The EX100 uses 154CM stainless steel like every other Emerson, with a V-grind primary bevel and a chisel ground edge. The blade is a 3.5” long clip point, with a deep stonewash finish on the flats and grinder satin on both the primary bevel as well as the false swedge along the spine. Deployment is via knurled thumb disc only – no wave opener on the EX100. The handle is grey peel-ply G10, with a double finger swell and a relatively flat spine, traction being aided by a row of jimping along the front of the spine for your thumb to rest on.
On the EX100, the standard pivot and body hardware are polished instead of black-coated, as is the pocket clip, ditching the low-viz looks of most Emerson folders. The EX100 is a standard mid-sized pocketknife whose sole purpose is just to be a good pocketknife, not rescue stranded sailors or fight ISIS insurgents or take it on the space station and to the moon. That’s honestly refreshing from an industry that puts a lot of stock into selling a lifestyle that its customers mostly don’t participate in, and for me the EX100 is the pick of the litter for Emerson’s folders. It’s pricey and basic but beautiful despite that – or maybe because of it.
The SEAX is Emerson’s interpretation of the ancient Viking Seax design, a historical weapon that many today recognize as what we call a Wharncliffe blade. The profile of the blade is modified Wharncliffe, with a slight upward curve to the sharpened edge to give it some belly for roll cuts, and a swedge along the leading edge of the spine to narrow the angle at the tip for better piercing abilities. The original Viking Seax (or Scramasax) was pretty intimidating to behold, and this 4” long hunk of steel is too.
The SEAX is available in a grinder satin/stonewash contrast finish and you can add serrations (although why would you want to?). There is also a SEAX Mini, which brings the dimensions down to a more manageable 3.3” blade and 7.5” overall length, although no weight is listed so it’s safe to assume it’s somewhere south of the full sized model’s 5.0 ounce weight. Deployment is via Wave opener or thumb disc on both full sized and Mini SEAX models.
I’ve listed the ZT 0630 as a bonus because it’s no longer in production (it was discontinued in 2017) and thus you’ll have to either seek it out on the secondary market or hope that a lower-volume dealer still has one in new old stock that they forgot about on a shelf. If you do, you’re in luck – because the 0630 is both an Emerson in all the best ways, but also a Zero Tolerance in all the best ways.
The profile of the 0630 is similar to the CQC-8 model from Emerson: it has a unique upswept clip point blade shape with a swedge on the leading edge of the spine, and the combo stonewashed flat/grinder satin bevels that Emerson favors. Unlike Emersons, the 0630’s blade is made from Crucible CPM-S35VN powdered metallurgy steel, which was considered top of the line when the knife debuted in 2014, and is still an excellent steel for EDC use today despite having been superseded by S45VN in recent years.
More differences from a regular Emerson abound, and they’re all things that appeal to people who like the concept of Emerson knives but not the execution: the primary grind and edge grind are both V-shaped so the blade is symmetrical. The 0630 uses a titanium frame-lock instead of a liner lock, but it adds in a stainless steel lockbar stabilizer which eliminates the problem of lock-stick that many Emersons experience – since they use titanium liner locks, which experience galling when contacting hardened stainless steel because titanium is a softer material. While the 0630 retains standard G10 on the show-side scale, it drops the Emerson body hardware in favor of a ZT’s chunk 3/8” hex head pivot and Torx body and clip fasteners, which are the standard in the industry these days.
Like regular Emersons, the 0630 gives you the option between Wave or thumb disc deployment, but it also upgrades to phosphor bronze washers in favor of the Nylatron washers that Emerson uses. So it’s an Emerson built like an old-school ZT, which is a combination so amazing they had to stop and never do it again, I suppose. They also made an upgraded 0630CF, with a peel-ply carbon fiber front scale and a Bohler M390 blade. ZT also collaborated with Emerson on the tanto-blade 0620, as well as the 0640 we reviewed years ago which was inspired by the Viper 3 knife, but for me the pick of the litter was the 0630 – the best Emerson that Emerson never made.
Emerson Knives is a wholly unique concept – they don’t care about making the most fidget-friendly titanium art knives for Instagram, they make tough functional tools with materials they know and trust, and you get the impression that if you don’t like that, they’re fine if you don’t buy one. Other functionality-driven brands include:
- Zero Tolerance Knives : ZT is the Lexus to Kershaw’s Toyota, the upscale cutlery division of KAI with a focus on hard-use heavy duty knives. They’ve strayed away from that in recent years with a lot of design-focused high end offerings, but they do still have the chunky 0308 folder, as well as several Rick Hinderer designed models.
- Extrema Ratio : This Italian brand isn’t heard about much in US knife circles, but they have a focus on high-quality heavy duty service knives, including the RAO heavy duty folder with a secondary locking pin that’s inserted through the handles to prevent it from closing.
- Benchmade Knives : Benchmade makes a much broader variety of products than Emerson, but their Black Class Knives are oriented towards LEO and First Responders and are tough, dependable knives
Emerson Knives are certainly not for everyone. If you’re looking for the latest and greatest materials and technology, these knives are probably not for you. But their focus on ease of maintenance and simple materials as well as solid ergonomics are big positives for fans of the brand, and Emerson has no trouble selling their knives. Even if the aesthetics or materials aren’t your thing, Emersons are the sort of knife you have to at least try once – they’re an acquired taste, but I’ve heard the same thing about coffee and whiskey, and those both have a lot of fans. Maybe they’re your taste too.