"A GOOD KNIFE CAN SAVE A LIFE" — John Ek, 1941
Considering the important 20th century American knife designers and makers, the name John Ek stands out with as much mystery as respect.
In a sense, he was the Jim Bowie of the 20th century. As time passes and more is written about this man and his knives, his fame as a pioneer in American knife-making will continue to spread. Like Bowie, John Ek pioneered a classic design unlike any other. And his knives were made for fighting -- by American military personnel. One newspaper article indicated that Ek knives "became surrounded almost immediately by an aura of fame and invincibility." John Ek has even been referred to as "the Stradivarius of the blade."
John Ek knives are in that highly restricted category of knives that have been battle tested and battle proven by Americans in five wars -- World War II, Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf War and Iraq. As he said in the mid-1970's: "There's been hardly a break without some kind of military involvement since 1941, so we've been busy with knives ever since." He called his knives "Ek Commando Knives." This was a reference to World War II Allied Commando-type units (such as the U.S. Marine Raiders, Rangers, First Special Service Force, and British Commandos), who were highly respected for their knife-fighting abilities. Ek often met with military personnel to discuss knife design and close-combat fighting. Company reports indicate that he requested -- and received -- permission from the British War Office to use the term "Commando."
This sketch of John Ek, when he was young, was made by his brother.
It is reported that President Franklin D. Roosevelt kept a John Ek Commando Knife on his desk in the White House until the time of his death. This certainly seems possible, as photographs exist of John Ek with a large display of Ek Commando Knives on exhibit in the White House in 1944.
General George S. Patton, Jr. also owned a John Ek Commando Knife (as did several of his subordinates). John Ek even named his Model No. 6 the "Patton Knife." Captain Clark Gable, while not necessarily expecting to see combat, was none-the-less a customer of John Ek -- thinking that if the situation took him in harm's way, he would have a dependable knife.
MILITARY FIGHTING KNIVES
The recorded information in our registry files shows that Ek knives were and are owned by men of all ranks in every branch of service -- Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps, Coast Guard, and Merchant Marine. Their mailing addresses prove that Ek knives were used in every theater of operation around the world. In fact, Ek knives probably hold the record for being the leading privately-purchased military knives in American history.
During World War II, John Ek had very strong feelings about restricting his knives to active-duty servicemen. He did not want his knives to fall into the wrong hands. Ek felt his knives were the finest made and that they gave the user an advantage over any adversary. His philosophy was "A knife is more deadly than a gun. A gun will run out of ammunition, but as long as a person is behind a knife, it can kill."
For this reason, during WWII each knife was individually serially numbered and registered in the owner's name. The purchaser had to fill out a registration card certifying that the owner was a member of the armed forces, giving his name, rank, and service serial number. This strict screening procedure also applied where knives were purchased by military men or individuals through dealers. Before the knife would be made available, the individual had to fill out the same form, and it had to be returned to the company. If a dealer failed to return a registration card, future orders were cut by the number of missing registrations until the missing card was returned.
John Ek could certainly have sold far more knives had he not been concerned about the strict registration procedure. But he was a strongly patriotic American, a newspaper headline once calling him a "Modern Day Thomas Paine."
During a time of steel shortages, the U.S. Government War Production Board tested and approved the designs of the Ek knives and authorized John Ek continued availability of the high-quality, nickel-chrome-moly steel. As a strategic materiel, this was scarce. It speaks well of the John Ek knife that the government wanted him to continue production and that he was admitted to the Army Ordnance Association.
Ek selected nickel-chrome-moly steel for his blades. He found this material to be extremely strong, yet to have some degree of stain and rust resistance. Of Swedish ancestry, Ek in later years would also use Swedish Sandvik stainless steel, upon request. In April or May of 1939 John Ek designed the first John Ek Commando Knife which he named, appropriately, the Model No. 1. Actually, he thought that one model would be all that would be needed. The Model No. 1 had a single-edged blade of spearpoint design, with a sharpened false edge extending approximately three inches along the back edge of the blade.
Later, a double-edged version of this (the Model No. 2) was developed. Then crossguards were added to these versions, making them the Model No. 6 and No. 7 respectively (today called the No. 3 and No. 4).
RUGGED DESIGN - FULL TANG
Several aspects of his design made his knives distinctive and rugged. First of all, the knife was of full-width, full-length tang construction. Not only did the tang (the extension of the blade which runs through the grips) run the entire length of the grips, but the tang was also the full width of the grips. In other words, the grips were about one inch wide and five inches long -- and so was that portion of the steel blade. This provided maximum strength. By comparison, most knives of the day (even ones made today) had narrow "rat-tail" tangs -- many running only one-third the length of the grip.
Also unusual was the extended butt, a direct extension of the blade and the blade tang itself. Depending upon the year of manufacture, the butt could vary in length anywhere from nearly one inch to approximately one-half inch beyond the grip. It could also be used as a pry bar for opening ammunition crates or, according to Ek's 1944 manual, Your Silent Partner, for "an upstroke to lay your opponent out." Another use of this extension was to protect both the hand and wooden grips when the butt was used as a hammer.
The extended butt of the Ek Commando Knife may possibly have inspired the design of the "skullcrusher" pommel on the First Special Service Force V-42 Stiletto, which was designed in 1942.
The grips were of Rock Maple, selected for a number of reasons. John Ek preferred wood to leather, as the latter rotted, particularly under tropical conditions. He also chose it over the brass/alloy grips of the British Fairbairn-Sykes Fighting Knife, finding it to be more comfortable and to provide better gripping power, especially when the hand was wet with perspiration. This also allowed the owner to custom fit the grip, by sanding, to the exact contour of his hand. For a number of years the company included a piece of flint paper with each knife for this purpose.
The grips on his more-popular knives had eight scallops -- four on each of two grips. The gripping power was so good that John Ek found that a crossguard was not necessary to prevent the hand from slipping. When questioned about this by the War Production Board, Ek greased his hand and plunged one of his knives into the wooden floor with such force that no one was able to pull it out. This dramatically demonstrated that the crossguard was not necessary to keep the hand from sliding onto the blade.
He preferred his knives without crossguards for ease of concealment and for quick withdrawal (no crossguard to snag on clothes). In fact, when his range of knives was finally expanded to 10 different models, only three of these had crossguards. Evidently, military men agreed with him, as his Model No. 1 and Model No. 2 (single-edge and double-edge, respectively) were always his most popular knives, and neither of these had guards. (Note: The Model No. 1 and Model No. 2 were discontinued in the late 1980's but, popular with jujitsu-trained knife fighters, brought back in 1997.)
Also unusual and distinctive were the "Poured-Lead" Rivets which were used to affix the two wooden grips to the blade tang. Most knives at the time used standard cutlery rivets or pins, or they were simply driven onto the rat-tail tang. The Poured-Lead Rivets had the advantage that, if the grips ever became loose, they could be tightened in the field without any tools. All the owner needed to do was take a heavy object, such as a rock, and pound the lead rivets to tighten them. Another advantage of the Poured-Lead Rivets was the extra weight which made the knife balance far better than most, as it added weight to the hilt. This caused it to fall into the hand, rather than fall out of the hand. (Note: The present "X-Head Fastener System" enhances both of these benefits).
In January 1941, John Ek started producing knives in quantity in Hamden, Connecticut near Lake Whitney (he had started making knives in 1939). By 1943 he had put six different styles of knives into production, and the quantity of production increased. By August 1944, demand for his knives had grown to the point where three shifts worked around the clock seven days a week, producing 10 different models.
In 1949 John Ek moved to Miami, Florida where he continued production of his famous knives. From here he provided knives to American forces during the Korean and Vietnam wars. Miami-produced knives were marked "John Ek Knives, Miami, Fla.", whereas earlier knives bore the "Hamden, Conn." identification.
When the U.S. entered and fought the Vietnam War, Ek Commando Knives received acclaim from owners -- such as this letter from a helicopter gunship crew chief, received in 1965: "When your ship is shot down in VC territory, your rifle or pistol is of no use to you if you have to walk back to friendly lines. You can't afford that much noise, so your knife and knowing how to use it are your best weapons. The only knives suitable for this type of war and for survival use are your Commando knives."
Another trooper from the 101st Airborne wrote: "I don't know where we all will be going, but I'm sure it's back to the boonies again. I hope to have one of your knives when I return to the jungle. I heard about your unique knives from a friend back in the world who said they were the best in the world and made specially for combat fighting."
John Ek died on 21 October 1976, but the business was continued by his family. Due to the growing crime rate in Miami, the Ek family decided to relocate the operation to St. Augustine until 1982, when they moved it to Richmond, Virginia -- halfway between the earlier Connecticut and Florida locations. Most St. Augustine Knives have shorter, smaller cross-section grips. Most are three Poured Lead Rivets, but a few are seen with two such rivets and a few are seen with four such rivets.
RICHMOND: 1982 to Today
In 1982, the Ek family moved the operation to Richmond, Virginia, then tranferred the direction and ownership of it to Robert A. Buerlein. The Ek motto became "Constant Improvement," and changes made over the years help identify the date of origin. Efforts concentrated on developing tighter technical specifications for the knives for higher and consistent quality. They were made sharper (razor sharp) and more robust, with state-of-the-art materials. Locations for the grip fastener system were moved for greater strength, and a new crossguard was developed. This latter was thicker with quillons that curved forward slightly, to prevent jamming the thumb. Poured-Lead Rivets were initially used in all production for the first several years, but this gave way to the newly-developed "X-Head Fastener System." These were solid-brass precision-made screw fasteners which provided the desired weight of lead (for proper knife balance). Yet, they also allowed quick removal and easy replacement of grips, if the owner desired. Sturdy and split-proof Pakkawood and, later, Micarta, grips replaced the maple and, later, walnut grips of earlier knives. Different sheath configurations were also developed, including the utilization of brown leather, black leather and later, olive drab, black, tan and ACU Mil-Spec web material.
In 1993 Blackjack Knives, Ltd. of Effingham, Illinois, became involved with manufacture of "production" knives (for two years), while Ek Commando Knife Co. in Richmond continued primarily with custom commando knife-making and sales. In the mid-1990's, the making of production knives returned to the Richmond operation, but back to its benchmaking approach, with emphasis on quality, not quantity. The Model No. 1 (edge-and-a-half, without crossguard) and Model No. 2, (double-edge, without crossguard), which had been discontinued in the late 1980's, were re-introduced in 1997, and in mid-1997, leather sheaths were discontinued, replaced by the military-style web sheaths.
In 2004, the Marine Raider/MCMAP Knife was introduced, authorized by the U.S. Marine Raider Association. Four per year are presented, in walnut-and-glass display cases, at MACE (Martial Arts Center of Excellence) at Raider Hall, Quantico MCB, to outstanding Black Belt Instructor/Trainers in the graduating class. This is the Dunham-Wetherbee Award (Corporal Jason Dunham, USMC, was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor in 2007 by President George W. Bush).
In 2004, the Marine Raider Stiletto MkII™ was also introduced -- authorized by the U.S. Marine Raider Association and inspired by their WWII Stiletto. Also in 2004, Checkered Walnut grips were offered as available on a regular, on-going basis.
In January, 2005, the Ek Bowie (Model 5) was re-introduced.
In the spring of 2006, the new Army Combat Uniform (ACU) Universal Camouflage pattern was made available for Ek sheaths and with a new Paragrip® knife, the ACU Ranger. In September, 2006, the new "military-lug-pattern" wider Gripping Grooves™ were introduced on the Micarta grips. They were modified, starting in March, 2007, by also running the Gripping Grooves over two of the three fastener grip flats.
In late 2007, sheaths started being produced with the lash-down cord on the tip wrapped around a toggle, to facilitate unwrapping and re-wrapping by the knife's owner.
In January, 2008, Ivory Micarta (IM) grips were introduced, on a special-order basis. In February, 2008, the Fairbairn-Sykes MkII™ was introduced, an Ek improvement over the knife made famous in WWII by various elite Allied units.
In September 2008, sheaths started working their way in with the Ek website address printed on the label on the back of the sheath.
Ek knives continue their time-honored tradition of being battle-proven in combat, having distinguished themselves in the Gulf War and, now, in the Iraq War and in Afghanistan.
Over these many years, the Ek Commando Knife Co. has continued catering to requests from military men, special operators, law enforcement personnel, professional adventurers and collectors the world over, most of whom have been Ek Commando Knife owners for many decades. The tradition continues, always influenced by the words of John Ek: "A good knife can save a life."
Many an American life was saved in six wars by John Ek's Commando Knives. The thousands of letters he received during his lifetime from satisfied Soldiers, Marines, Sailors and Airmen were the ultimate satisfaction for this patriotic American. His name, his knives, and the Ek Commando Knife Co. live on today as a legacy of his ideas, his skills and his patriotism.
Continue the mission...
IDENTIFICATION OF EK COMMANDO KNIVES
Ek Commando Knives are nearly always marked with the location of the company at that time. Richmond-marked knives can be dated as below:
Lower banner etched "Commando": 1982-1991
Lower banner etched "Gulf War": 1991-2004 (Sept.)
"Iraqi War" banner added in lower right: 2004 (Oct.) - 2008 (Aug.)
"Afghanistan" banner added to center bottom: 2008 (Sept.) -
Some knives made in Richmond in the late 1980's did not have the Richmond, Va. address on them.
Model numbers have changed over the years. Ever since 1982 model designations have been:
Model 1: Edge-and-a-half, w/o crossguard
Model 2: Double edge, w/o crossguard
Model 3: Edge-and-a-half, with crossguard
Model 4: Double edge, with crossguard
Model 5: Bowie, with crossguard
The model prefix describes the grip. Current grips are Micarta (M), Checkered Walnut (CW) and parachute cord (in four colors/patterns of camouflage). For example, an M4 has Micarta grips, double-edge blade and a crossguard.
SERIAL NUMBERING SYSTEM
Virtually all of the Ek knives made in Connecticut and in Florida were numbered. The first number on the blade is the model number; the subsequent numbers are the serial number, preceded by a letter of the alphabet. Starting with the 1000th knife, the letter A preceded the serial number. Serial numbers following the alphabetical prefix went up to 999 prior to shifting over to the next letter of the alphabet. For example, a knife numbered 1B299 means this is a Model 1, serial number B299. The Ek family recalled that numbering of the Conneticut knives was kept separate for each model. However, it is now believed that the numbering system ran through all models as a group, rather than through each model, separately.
Ek serially numbered these knives to help the owners keep track of them if they were lost, and also because he guaranteed each knife for the lifetime of the original owner. By keeping the original owner's name on record, he could follow up his lifetime guarantee system.
Always interested in improving quality control, his lifetime guarantee increased the probability that he would learn of any mistakes he made. He received back very few of his knives, because they were so rugged; there was very little to break or go wrong with them.
As for the numbering system on the Florida (Miami and St. Augustine) knives, leading Ek collector, Richard Schechner, reports the following information:
- There are three series of these knives. With all three series, the first number, usually atop the serial number, is the knife model number; e.g., a 1 indicates this is a Model 1. This is as with the Connecticut knives.
- Unlike now believed for the Connecticut knives, the numbers were sequential within each model of knife (rather than thoughout all models taken as one large group).
- The numbers in Series One are small in size, three digits, and begin with serial number 100 for each Model. The highest number seen is 175, and that was on a Model 1 or Model 2.
- The numbers in Series Two are three digits, big in size, and begin at 200 for each model. The highest number reported is about 575 and that was on a Model 1 or Model 2.
- The numbers in Series Three are big in size, four digits, beginning with 0400. The highest number seen is around 0575, on a Model 2.
FOR MORE HISTORY...
For more history about Ek Commando Knives, see the two military knife books on our webiste, written or co-authored by Ek's president, Bob Buerlein.