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John Ek Commando Knives (1941-1976)

Started by gunbarrel , Aug 01 2012 05:34 PM

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#1 gunbarrel

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Posted 01 August 2012 - 05:34 PM

What did General George S. Patton, Jr., President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Clark Gable and a number of members of the Assault Brigade 2506 (of Bay of Pigs fame) all have in common? As you can probably guess from the subject, they all owned Ek Commando knives. It is said that President Roosevelt kept one in his desk at the White House, while Army Air Corps Major Gable carried one with him when flying combat missions behind German lines.

The story begins in 1939 at the Whitney Machine Shop at 1242 Whitney Avenue in Hamden Connecticut in what is now a “cake design studio.” That is the year that John Ek, a machinist who had been in the boat business, developed a prototype of the knife that would make him legendary among American military men who appreciated a good fighting blade. Intensively patriotic Mr. Ek, who could not qualify for military service due to injuries received in an auto accident in 1936 (a crushed hand), began producing his “Commando” knives in 1941. His Company motto was “Made in America, By Americans, For Americans.” Interestingly, he not only employed Americans, but he specifically, employed disabled Americans, a practice he continued while he lived and ran the company. He started out with a few employees producing about 40 knives a week, but by 1944 he had as many as 37 men working around the clock, seven days a week. It was around this time that he began marking his knives with serial numbers using an unusual system; before that time, the knives were not marked with serial numbers.

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#2 gunbarrel

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Posted 01 August 2012 - 05:44 PM

The Ek Knives Serial Numbering System

The first number identified the model (or, “Style” number as Mr. Ek called it). A knife that is marked “2 B929” is a Model No. 2 knife. The letter prefix indicated the “thousands” (“A” = 1,000, “B” = 2,000, “C” = 3,000, etc.); so, B929 would be knife no. 2,929. While some collectors believe that each model had its own series of numbers, I agree with Mr. Mike Silvey who believes that all the models were in a common number sequence. A photo (No. 215) in Mr. Robert Buerlin’s book shows a Model No. 7 and a Model No. 6, which he describes as “two consecutively serially numbered, D237 and D236.” This strongly suggests that two different models were in the same series. The concept brings further implications.

The lack of an abundance of Hamden Ek Commando knives in today’s collectors market has been a subject of debate. Writer Steven Dick in a 1986 article on National Knife Magazine (“Where are all the John Ek Commando Knives?”) theorized that since they were not fancy knives in the style of the Randalls, when the GI’s came home they used them in their shops and tackle boxes until they were eventually discarded when they became ratty.

While that may be true in many instances, I believe that Mr. Silvey has the answer (see “Numbering System” above). It is widely repeated and generally accepted that John Ek Industries produced about 100,000 knives during WWII; however if you believe that the serial numbers were all models inclusive, like Mr. Silvey says on his subject article, the number would be closer to 30,000. While this production figure is still very impressive statistics for a small shop producing hand-made knives, it would help explain why there aren’t as many Ek knives around as you would think there would be.

Ten different Ek Commando knife models were produced in Hamden by hand. They all had rock maple grips attached to the tang with poured and hammered led rivets. The one piece blade, tang and butt was made from nickel-chrome moly steel, a very strong alloy that was made available to Mr. Ek when the availability of such alloy was highly controlled by the government due to being considered a strategic metal. This illustrates the importance that the U.S. government placed on the manufacture of quality military fighting knives in the same manner that the British government allowed the private sale of Wilkinson Sword Fairbairn Sykes knives. The quality was comparable to a custom knife and Mr. Ek made sure of that; I understand that one of his inspectors in Hamden was blind and he used his sense of touch for locating imperfections on the finished blades! And while it is true that they may not have the flair of a Randall, they are some of the WWII fighting knives most sought-after by collectors.

In 1949, four years after the end of the war, John Ek relocated the company to Florida. There he went back in the boat business, but not long afterwards he became the owner and operator of the Seminole Gun Shop in Miami along with his wife, Mrs. Elsa Ek, who had been in U.S. Navy Intelligence. He continued to supply knives to GI’s during the Korean War and later on during the Vietnam War. According to his son, Mr. Gary W. Ek, after some colleagues convinced his father to start making Commando knives again, at first Mr. John Ek only made these two models:

1. What used to be the Hamden No. 7 Jungle knife, which he renamed the Model No. 4 in Miami and…
2. A “Secret Agent” pen knife which had folding aluminum butterfly-type grips, later to be referred to as a Model No. 12.


#3 gunbarrel

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Posted 01 August 2012 - 05:52 PM

However, not long after the Vietnam War began, Ek Commando knives went back in full production. Below, please, find a chart that lists the different models:

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#4 gunbarrel

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Posted 01 August 2012 - 05:55 PM

As stated on the chart, Bolo handle knives (with the exception of the Floating Knife) were discontinued after WWII. Here we have Models Nos. 3, 4, 5, and the Floating Knife along with the proper sheath:

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#5 gunbarrel

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Posted 01 August 2012 - 05:56 PM

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#6 gunbarrel

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Posted 01 August 2012 - 05:58 PM

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#7 gunbarrel

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Posted 01 August 2012 - 06:01 PM

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#8 gunbarrel

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Posted 01 August 2012 - 06:03 PM

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#9 gunbarrel

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Posted 01 August 2012 - 06:03 PM

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#10 gunbarrel

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Posted 01 August 2012 - 06:04 PM

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#11 gunbarrel

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Posted 01 August 2012 - 06:10 PM

In 1971 15-year old Gary W. Ek, became the youngest maker in the American Knifemakers Guild. After his father passed away in 1976, young Mr. Ek moved to St. Augustine with a knife store and began making knives again. In 1985 the American Historical Foundation bought Ek knives and acquired everything that went with it, including the Ek Commando Knife records. While it doesn’t appear that the records are readily accessible, it’s good to know that all that history was not destroyed in a flood in Miami in the 1970’s, as it has been rumored. I got this information directly from Mr. Ek, when I contacted recently about a Miami Ek Commando knife in my collection signed by him. Mr. Ek graciously confirmed that he made my knife in 1974 while working for his father, and answered another question that I had about the marks on the Miami Ek knives. He explained that the earliest markings were rubber stamped with ink. These early Miami knives often appear unmarked, but what happened is that the ink was easily erased. Next they tried acid ink and finally they went back to engraving using a New Hermes Engraver.

Miami ink markings:


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#12 gunbarrel

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Posted 01 August 2012 - 06:13 PM

Other Miami Sheaths

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#13 gunbarrel

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Posted 01 August 2012 - 06:14 PM

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#14 gunbarrel

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Posted 01 August 2012 - 06:17 PM

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#15 gunbarrel

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Posted 01 August 2012 - 06:19 PM

Production of the Miami Ek knives was a fraction of the Hamden Ek knife production; supposedly only about 1,000 were made, which accounts for their scarcity. Of course, this adds to the mystique of the Ek Commando knives, one of which in perfect condition recently went for about $1,200 in an auction.

Rare Miami Model No. 11:

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#16 gunbarrel

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Posted 01 August 2012 - 06:22 PM

Mr. John Ek died relatively young in October 1976 at the age of 61. His wife, Mrs. Elsa Ek passed away in May 2008. Their son, Mr. Gary Whitney Ek, went into the sound and video field and currently resides in Key West, FL where he is also in the custom knife and cutlery sharpening business.

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#17 gunbarrel

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Posted 01 August 2012 - 06:32 PM

References

- The Gun Digest Book of Knives, p. 275-277, B.R. Hughes & Jack Lewis, 1973

- Allied Military Fighting Knives And the Men Who made Them Famous, Chapter V (“John Ek Commando Knives”), Robert A. Buerlin, 1984 & 2001

- The National Knife Magazine, p.22-23, “Where are all the John Ek Commando Knives?” by Steven Dick, August 1986 issue

- Military Knives—A Reference Book, “Knives of John Ek, p147-150,” November 1996 article on Knife World by Michael W. Silvey

- Theater made Military Knives of World War II, p. 152, by Bill & Debbie Wright, 2001

- OKC December 2005 Knewsletter article by Frank Trzaska on p. 2 (Knotes on United States Military Edged Cutlery – The John Ek Knife Company).

- Photographs of Mr. John Gibson and Mr. Gary Ruleford knives for sale.


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#18 gunbarrel

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Posted 01 August 2012 - 06:35 PM

Pictures of My Collection (begging forgiveness for my lack of photographic skills)

S/N 1-G375 – Early Hamden production

• 6½” blade ground with a greater taper
• 4¼” (shorter) grip
• 1” L extended butt
• Early Hamden knives did not have thong holes. This one was drilled professionally on the extended butt either at the factory (special order) or added by the owner later on.


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#19 gunbarrel

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Posted 01 August 2012 - 06:37 PM

S/N 1-I777 – Later Hamden production

• 6¾” blade ground with a greater taper
• 4⅞” (longer) grip
• ⅝” shorter extended butt
• Thong hole drilled through grip

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#20 gunbarrel

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Posted 01 August 2012 - 06:39 PM

S/N B251 – Very early Hamden production Model No. 2. This was the 2,251 knife produced after knife serialization began. No company logo; it is simply inscribed “John Ek Knife” on the ricasso. Serial number is on the opposite side. Note the thin grip and square, short butt extended ½”

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