Kershaw Knives: History, Innovations, and More
When it comes to innovation and craftsmanship, few brands match the acumen of Kershaw Knives. Since 1974, Kershaw has put out some of the most innovative and respected knives on the market. Models have come and gone, but Kershaw remains beloved for its collaborations, sleek designs, and game-changing features.
Because Kershaw has had such a huge impact on the knife world, we decided to give a breakdown of the brand for newcomers and fanatics alike. We'll go over some of the company's important designers, noteworthy innovations, and most iconic models.
Table of Contents
- Section 1: History of Kershaw Knives
- Section 2: Key Designers and Collaborators for Kershaw
- Section 3: Most Iconic Kershaw Knives
- Section 4: Important Kershaw Innovations
History of Kershaw Knives
Origin Story of the Company
Image of Pete Kershaw taken from his personal blog.
The story of Kershaw Knives begins with another knife brand. Back in 1967, Pete Gerber of Gerber Legendary Blades hired a 28-year-old man named Pete Kershaw. Kershaw served as the company's National Sales Manager from 1967 to 1974. While selling knives for the Oregon-based company, he immersed himself in the cutlery business and soaked up as much knowledge as possible.
Kershaw the man was always an outdoorsman. According to a post he wrote on his blog, he grew up on a pear orchard near Medford, Oregon, where he hunted, fished, and worked on equipment. So selling knives, attending trade shows, and talking to customers about the outdoors was appealing.
Despite the natural attraction to the job with Gerber, Pete was eager to develop a line of his own hunting and pocket knives. He had personally created original concepts that would become the first models, which included six fixed-blade knives and four folding knives.
With a solid foundation, he created Kershaw Knives with his wife Judy in Lake Oswego, Oregon, in April 1974.
The First Kershaw Knives Ever
There wasn't much information out there about the early days of the company, so I reached out to Kershaw Knives. A customer representative told me file keeping in the '70s and '80s was poor and the company didn't even have their own complete history.
So I contacted one of the only people who could give an accurate and firsthand account about what happened at the start of the company. Pete Kershaw, who is no longer part of the company, was more than happy to recount the early days to me.
While working at Gerber, Pete had gained knowledge about which Japanese and European knife manufacturers he could approach to make his knives. When he started his own company, he used those contacts to search for the right manufacturer.
By May 1974, Pete appointed Kai Cutlery to make Kershaw Knives. Within the Kai Group, Hattori Knife of Seki City made the six fixed-blade knives Pete made the concepts for. Sakurai Knife of Seki City made the four folders.
According to Pete, the first Kershaw knives ever were the six fixed-blade models: Field & Stream (1029), Camp & Field (1030), Camp & Stream (1031), Skinner (1032), Field (1034), and Heavy Duty Field (1035). These models were made by expert craftsman and knife maker Ichiro Hattori; the scabbards were made by Safariland Leather of Monrovia, CA.
You can view some of the early catalogs that display the first knives, generously provided by Pete Kershaw, below.
When the knives arrived in Oregon, Pete said they inspected the knives and shipped them to a dealership network he had established between May and November in 1974. The first shipments were made on Nov. 12, 1974.
By January 1975, the four folders became available. These were the Rogue (2000), Rustler (2010), Dude (2020), and Rancher (2050). Models 2040 and 2060 (Stag and Stockman, respectively) were originally slated to become available at the same time, but only 500 of each were made by January, so Kershaw didn't have enough to fill orders. By June, the backorders were filled. These six folders together would compose the Easy Rider series.
The Early Days
Pete wrote a little about the early days of the company at his blog. Here's an excerpt:
"My wife, and pal, Judy and I founded the company in Lake Oswego, Oregon in a rented warehouse in the midst of a cement plant. I used to check the edge holding ability of our knives by cutting open cement sacks. If they could hold an edge with that kind of punishment...well, I figured that was good enough for out in the field."
Pete wanted to create knives that would last a lifetime, knives that people would be proud to own, use, and carry. This founding mission—one that demands an unwavering dedication to intensive craftsmanship and quality craftsmanship—still influences the decisions of the company today.
Model 1030 was among the first Kershaw knives ever produced.
Between 1974 to 1980, Judy Kershaw oversaw the office and the staff grew to 25. The Kershaws traveled around the country to trade shows and established distribution in foreign countries. Needless to say, the strong footing, quality knives, and passion from the Kershaws helped the company grow exponentially.
Continued Expansion in the 1980s
In the early part of the '80s, changes were afoot for the company. In 1980, Kai Cutlery began the purchase of the still privately owned Kershaw Knives. Also in the early '80s, the brand expanded its line of folders and field knives. By the mid-'80s, Kershaw expanded into Europe. In 1985, the sale to Kai Cutlery was completed and the company moved to a new facility in Wilsonville, Oregon.
(Aside: In June 1977, Kai USA was founded and Pete Kershaw was appointed president. A commonly misstated fact is that Kershaw Knives became a subsidiary of Kai in 1977. However, Pete Kershaw contends that the two companies were run independently. The facts about the sale being completed in 1985 comes directly from Pete.)
Whereas many brands falter after being bought by another company, Kershaw Knives only got better. Kai has been a producer of blades in Japan for more than 100 years, so Kershaw benefited from Kai's shared approach toward innovative product development and marketing. Another important fact was that Pete Kershaw stayed with the company and helped maintain the core values of quality and craftsmanship he established at the start.
The Ken Onion Era
Kershaw Knives kept chugging along—putting out quality knives and keeping its strong reputation—in the early '90s, but the company was on the precipice of a new era. In 1996, Doug Flagg, the director of sales and marketing for Kershaw from 1994 to 2004, reached out to a custom knife maker named Ken Onion about an assisted-opening mechanism for Kershaw. Shortly after, Pete Kershaw and Jack Igarashi signed him to a contract.
Ken Onion invented one of the first assisted-opening mechanisms and called it the SpeedSafe Assisted Opening. The knife world would never be the same. In 1998, the Ken Onion-designed Random Task was released as the first Kershaw to use the SpeedSafe mechanism. It won Blade Magazine's American Made Knife of the Year Award that year.
Onion's designs were hugely popular and Kershaw became associated with fast, reliable pocket knives. As a direct result, the Wilsonville facility was expanded to include manufacturing, marketing, and warehousing in 1997. The A100C multi-tool was the first Kershaw to be manufactured in the USA.
The Black Chive, with its curves and sleek design, is indicative of the direction Kershaw went in the Ken Onion Era.
During Onion's 2008 induction into the Cutlery Hall of Fame, knifemaker Frank Centofante highlighted Onion's importance to Kershaw. Here's an excerpt from Blade Magazine's October 2008 edition:
"Back then, Kershaw was small with a vast majority of its knives made out of house, Centofante noted. Over the next five years the company would grow to well over 100 employees, and the number of high-quality knives would skyrocket inside a manufacturing facility that became one of the most modern in the industry."
Ken Onion helped spearhead a brand new era for Kershaw Knives, but the '90s was also the end of another era for the company. On June 1, 1998, Pete Kershaw retired as president of Kai USA and Kershaw Knives (though he continued to be a part-time advisor for two more years until June 1, 2000). Here's what Pete said to me about why he decided to retire:
"It was a great run for over twenty five years, working with fine colleagues and customers, but, at 61 and enjoying good health, Judy and I were anxious for a change and retirement."
Even though Pete was no longer with the company, it steadfastly held to the original mission and vision of Kershaw. Meanwhile, Onion, who would eventually become the Premier Knife Designer for Kershaw, was putting out revolutionary and popular designs like the Leek, Blur, Chive, Offset, and more. The meteoric rise of these sleek and quick folders meant the demise of its classic field knives and a move away from fixed blades.
By 2004, Kershaw and Kai USA moved to new headquarters and production had increased so much that the manufacturing facilities were expanded in Tualatin, Oregon (where they now have a yearly Warehouse Sale).
In 2010, after 15 years of establishing the look and feel of the brand, Onion parted ways with Kershaw in order to start his own company and work on designs for CRKT.
Celebrating the 40-Year Anniversary
In celebration of its 40th anniversary, Kershaw updated its logo with a more streamlined look.
In 2014, Kershaw Knives went all out for its anniversary. After 40 years with the same iconic logo, the brand unveiled a new logo to replace the dated typography. The sleeker, more modern logo kept the same recognizable "k" and red colors but made things tighter.
Kershaw also celebrated the milestone with the release of the limited edition Kershaw Ruby Model 4040, which featured an amalgamation of all the innovations Kershaw pioneered over the years, such as the KVT pivot and frame lock insert. The knife sold out in 1 minute and 3 seconds.
An Award-Winning Brand Continues
It's clear that Kershaw has been a commercial success. The brand is highly appreciated by knife enthusiasts around the world and consistently finds its knives on Best Of lists. In recent years, Kershaw's also become the big winner of Blade Magazine's coveted Knife of the Year awards, which consist of things like Overall Knife of the Year, Best Buy Knife of the Year, and more.
Here's a partial list of some of the awards won by Kershaw at the BLADE Show. (Even though Zero Tolerance, Shun Cutlery, and Kershaw are usually lumped together because they're all brands under Kai USA Ltd, we're only focusing on Kershaw).
1985: Kershaw Old World Style Dagger - Imported Design of the Year
1986: Kershaw Model 1005 - Imported Knife of the Year
1998: Kershaw/Ken Onion 1510 Random Task - American Made Knife of the Year
1999: Kershaw Blackout - Best Buy of the Year
2001: Kershaw/Onion Black Chive - American Made Knife of the Year
2002: Kershaw Rainbow Leek - Overall Knife of the Year
2003: Kershaw Carabiner Tool - Most Innovative Imported Design of the Year
2005: Kershaw/Grant & Gavin Hawk E.T. - Most Innovative American-Made Design of the Year
2005: Kershaw/Onion Offset - Overall Knife of the Year
2007: Kershaw Tyrade - Overall Knife of the Year
2009: Kershaw SpeedForm - American Made Knife Of the Year
2010: Kershaw Tilt - American Made Knife Of the Year
2012: Kershaw Cryo 1555Ti - Best Buy Knife of the Year
2014: Kershaw/Emerson CQC - Best Buy Knife Of The Year
Many of these knives are now out of production, but the simple fact that Kershaw has been repeatedly honored is a great indication that the tradition and mission Pete Kershaw laid out back in 1974 is still alive and well.
When it comes to high-quality knives and revolutionary innovations, Kershaw is one of the few brands out there that constantly aims to get better and better. The best part is that Kershaw shows no signs of relenting.
A knife brand is only as good as its designers. That's what makes knives put out by Kershaw such coveted possessions. Kershaw has collaborated with tons of highly respected designers, including guys like Frank Centofante (Centofante-Onion), Lee Williams (OD-2), Tim Galyean (Junkyard Dog II), and more.
We could devote a whole article just to the designers, but we decided to pick a few important collaborators that helped shape or define the brand.
Rick Hinderer started his knifemaking career creating interesting art knives in a chicken coop in the '80s. Now, his name is synonymous with tactical knives specially made for first responders. Hinderer teamed up with Kershaw to create a low-cost Hinderer design for the everyday man in the Cryo. Needless to say, it was a huge hit and became one of Kershaw's best-selling knives. It even won the 2012 Best Buy of the Year Award from Blade Magazine.
Hinderer has now teamed up with other brands like KA-BAR and Zero Tolerance, but his success with Kershaw should not be understated. Three of the Kershaw/Hinderer knives are the Ember, Thermite, and Cryo II.
You know you've made it when your name becomes associated with a lifestyle. Ernest Emerson probably didn't envision that when he started creating knives with a focus on martial arts in the late '70s. He's since become known as one of the fathers of the modern tactical knife (along with Bob Terzuola and Sal Glesser). That's why his relationship with Kershaw Knives is so noteworthy.
Emerson is the first to tell you that this isn't a collaboration with Kershaw, it's a partnership. In a long letter to his customers, he wrote that he didn't just want to submit a design to a company, he wanted it to be much more. At the time of the agreement with Kershaw in 2014, Emerson had a two-year backlog of custom knife orders, so this was a way to bring his knives to the masses.
Many people reached out to Emerson for a partnership, but he only agreed with Kershaw for a few reasons. Here's what he wrote:
"First and foremost, because they are honest. Second, Kershaw makes a tremendous product regardless of where they are manufactured and they are big enough to handle the volumes we anticipate. Third, they showed me the respect that I have earned. And, again, they are honest."
Thanks to the partnership, coveted and revered knives like the CQC-6K, CQC-1K, and CQC-8K are now widely available at reasonable prices.
Kershaw Emerson CQC-6K
Unless you're really into Kershaw, you've probably never heard of this guy, which is a damn shame. Tommie Lucas is an in-house designer over at Kershaw. In-house designers rarely get the credit they deserve for creating some of our favorite knives, so we're giving a nod to Lucas. You may not be familiar with Lucas, but you may be familiar with his (and one of Kershaw's) greatest creation—the Kershaw Skyline.
The Skyline is hailed as one of the greatest budget EDC knives for its simplicity and thorough design. In-house designers, unlike freelance designers and collaborators, don't get their names on their knives, but they should. He's done some work with Zero Tolerance, but people are still eagerly awaiting some more designs from Lucas.
Yet another big name in the tactical knife game is RJ Martin—some of his custom knives go for big money. Martin teamed up with Kershaw to design an array of tactical folders. These include the Chill, Scrambler, RJ Tactical 3.0, Volt II, and more. All of these knives have contributed to the current sensibilities of Kershaw.
Any conversation about Kershaw and designers isn't complete without its most influential designer—Ken Onion. For those who don't know, Onion is an award-winning custom knifemaker who built his first knife in 1991. Between 1996 and 2010, Onion was on staff at Kershaw and worked his up to become the Premier Knife Designer.
To call Onion's stint with Kershaw a smashing success is an understatement. Kershaw had to expand its factory and hire more employees to keep up with the demand for his Kershaw knives. His knives weren't just extremely popular, they were also groundbreaking. In the mid-'90s, he invented the patented SpeedSafe assisted-opening mechanism.
His Kershaw designs typically make the lists of best knives of all time. Just some of them are the Leek, Blur, Scallion, Shallot, and Blackout.
Most Iconic Kershaw Knives
Selecting the most iconic anything is typically arbitrary and capricious. Even though these lists end in disagreements, we decided to name the most iconic Kershaw Knives.
We have a few rules when picking the knives. These are the most popular, widely recognized, and/or most game-changing knives Kershaw has ever put out.
We're kicking things off with two knives that altered the landscape and captivated the knife world. The first is the Kershaw 1660 Leek. This Ken Onion design is slim, sleek, and considered the ideal EDC. Featuring a flipper mechanism and SpeedSafe, the Leek flicks open quickly and effortlessly when you need it most. It uses a frame lock to keep the 3-inch blade made from bead-blasted Sandvik 14C28N steel locked in place. The blade complements the 410 stainless steel handle—also with a bead-blasted finish.
The popularity of the Leek wasn't lost on Kershaw. You can now get the Leek in various handle colors and blade materials.
The second iconic knife that truly morphed Kershaw into what it is today is the Kershaw 1670 Blur. Yet another Ken Onion design, the Blur shares two features with the Leek—SpeedSafe and Sandvik 14C28N steel—but the similarities stop there. The Blur has a hefty 3.4-inch recurved blade that's been coated with DLC (Diamond-Like Carbon) for increased corrosion resistance and a cohesive look.
Whereas the Leek is light in color, the Blur is dark. The black Trac-Tec grip-tape handle inserts provide a reliable grip and understated look. Onion put other knifemakers on notice with what an EDC should offer. The Blur, along with the Leek, helped make assisted-opening knives popular.
The Skyline is the epitome of Kershaw—understated, durable, affordable, and honest. Over the years, the Kershaw 1670 Skyline has become hailed as one of the greatest EDC knives ever made. (That title gets bestowed to countless knives, but the thousands of reviews can't be wrong.) From a quick glance, the Skyline looks like a standard Kershaw, but it's much more than that.
The Tommie Lucas design is lightweight and streamlined, from the drop point Sandvik 14C28N blade to the textured G-10 handle scales. Eschewing some of the modern features like assisted opening, the Skyline instead opens the old-fashioned way with a thumb stud. (A convenient flipper also engages the blade.)
For a knife that's made in the USA, weighs 2.5 ounces, and has a workhorse 3.1-inch blade made from quality steel, the Skyline is surprisingly inexpensive. It's no wonder the knife is one of the top searched Kershaw's on the Internet.
When it comes to best-selling Kershaw knives, the Blackout is certainly near the top. It's not so surprising when you realize it was named Blade Magazine's Best Buy of the Year in 1999. The all-black Kershaw 1550 Blackout has made fans of all types—from construction workers and law enforcement officers to casual knife users and businessmen.
The blade is a 3.25 inches and uses SpeedSafe to open quickly with the push of a thumb stud. It also has a comfortable glass-filled nylon handle. Although it's gotten some mixed reviews from Kershaw superfans, the knife remains popular. Because it's what so many people picture when Kershaw is mentioned, it makes the list.
Kershaw Folding Field Knife
We typically reserve the most iconic knives for those still in production, but we're making an exception with the 1050 Folding Field Knife. As one of the earliest Kershaw models, the Kershaw 1050 Folding Field Knife was sold for decades before finally being retired. This isn't the typical tactical folder Kershaw has become known for, but anyone who's owned a Kershaw prior to the '90s will automatically picture this classic knife.
Much to the dismay of fans, the Folding Field Knife was finally discontinued, but due to its popularity, it's highly probable we'll see some special releases or maybe a rerelease. The Folding Field Knife will forever be associated with the craftsmanship, quality, and honesty associated with Kershaw.
Important Kershaw Inventions & Innovations
One of the appeals of Kershaw is the fact that it never rests on its laurels. It could have ridden the coattails of any of the following inventions without thinking of anything else. But it didn't. Kershaw kept, and keeps, on innovating with things like the Blade Trader line and more. Here are some of the most noteworthy Kershaw inventions so far.
SpeedSafe Assisted-Opening Mechanism
Random Task II
When Ken Onion was recovering from back surgery in 1996, he decided to design a folder that was easy to open but not quite a switchblade. That's when he created his first assisted-opening knife, which he called SpeedSafe. The knife world would never be the same.
Ken Onion was working with Kershaw at the time and released the first Kershaw SpeedSafe knife in 1998. The Random Task won that year's Blade Magazine award for American Made Knife of the Year. It was an instant hit.
To be clear, the SpeedSafe wasn't the first assisted opener. Black Collins developed the first assisted-opening knife in 1995, but the SpeedSafe helped popularized assisted openers and remains a highly respected mechanism today.
So why was the SpeedSafe such a revolutionary invention? It allows for smooth and quick one-handed opening without being a switchblade. A torsion bar keeps the blade closed. Once the blade is manually pushed open to a certain point, the torsion bar takes over and opens the blade. A switchblade, on the other hand, is always inclined to open. (For more on the differences, see our switchblade and assisted opener comparison.)
The SpeedSafe is now an industry standard and nearly all of Kershaw's most highly rated knives boast the mechanism.
Kershaw Junkyard Dog II
Composites, which bind two materials together, are nothing new, but Kershaw found a way to successfully create composite blades using two different steels and created a new category of blade materials. Composite blades create the ultimate blade—unmatched edge retention along the cutting edge and superior strength along the spine.
Here's more about how it works from Kershaw:
"Kershaw laser cuts complex interlocking blade components from two different types of steel—like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Then we permanently join them into a single blade through a metallurgical process known as brazing. Brazing uses a third metal, a braze alloy, to join the two parts being brazed together; in this case, the two interlocking pieces of the knife blade."
Some of the models with composite blades include the Junkyard Dog II and Leek Composite, which both use high-carbon high-chromium D2 steel for the edge and Sandvik 14C28N stainless steel for the spine.
Since Kershaw first released composite blades in 2007, other companies have also ventured into the composite-blade realm, including Spyderco and Fox Knives.
Kershaw Velocity Technology (KVT)
When you need a knife to open quickly without much help, Kershaw has the SpeedSafe mechanism. But if you want the same smooth and quick deployment on your manual-opening blade, Kershaw has the KVT ball-bearing system. Secured ball bearings surround the knife's pivot and roll into place when the blade comes out of the handle.
The KVT ball-bearing system makes deployment of the blade exceptionally fast and smooth as silk. A limited number of knives with KVT technology are available, but the Tilt and the Nura 3.0 feature the ball-bearing system. It's also found on select Zero Tolerance knives.
Kershaw Sub-Frame Lock
Kershaw has essentially upgraded every aspect of the knife with the other innovations, so Kershaw went after the lock with its patented Sub-Frame Lock technology. This is basically a new take on the traditional frame lock.
Whereas a traditional frame lock would use whatever material the frame is made out of to lock the knife in place, the Sub-Frame Lock knocks out a piece of the frame and replaces it with a stainless steel plate. This is best seen on the Kershaw Knockout. This new take on an old lock allows a knife to cut down on its weight while providing a strong and durable frame lock.
Special thanks to Pete Kershaw and Dave Anderson of kershawguy.com for providing additional information.