Friday, January 16, 2015

Emerson Mini A-100 Review

If you haven't heard the Utility Talk interview with Ernie Emerson, stop reading this review and take a listen right now. Ernie comes off, as usual, as a thoughtful, creative guy.  His  notion that he thinks of himself first and foremost as a fighter is truly interesting and makes me want to read an autobiography of his.  Going from broke kid in California to maker of some of the most highly prized knives in the world (including this amazing blade) is a story any knife knut would read.  But that notion of fighter first really has no impact on the design and implementation of what is unquestionably my favorite Emerson knife--the Mini A-100.  Shorn of the Wave, it is the least Emerson of Emersons (the Mini CQC-7 being its polar opposite in this regard) and it is a splendid EDC blade.

The basis of the Mini A-100's greatness is its simplicity.  This is a knife that is so basic it seems as though anyone, from Tabitha Babbit (inventor of the circular saw) to Ernie Emerson, could design and make.  But Ernie made it first, another sign that he is quite the designer, despite his claim that he is a fighter first and foremost.  In many ways the Mini A-100 is the distilled essence of the modern folder--one handed opening, excellent pocket clip, good liner lock, excellent in the hand and excellent in the pocket.  It is the Platonic form of modern pocket knife and after using it (thanks to a generous reader) for a month and half I am convinced that it is not just a good design, but, Justin Laffer has contended, one of the very few unalterably great designs.  Nothing can be taken away without removing its superb design, and nothing could be added to it to make it better. I have two small critiques, one common to all Emersons, but beyond that this is damn good knife.  

Here is the product page. The Emerson Mini A-100 costs $180 street price.  There is a larger version, the A-100 and the Mini comes in two variants--this one and one with a black coated blade. Here is a written review. Here is a video review. Here is a link to Blade HQ, where you can find the Emerson Mini A-100 (note that like many Emerson's the Mini A-100 is not an evergreen product, it comes in and out of production, and availability can be spotty), and all proceeds benefit the site when you purchase things through this link:

Blade HQ

Here is my review sample (sent to me for review by a reader):


Twitter Review Summary:  Damn solid.

Here is my video overview:

Design: 2

The overall size and feel of the Mini A-100 is just about perfect.  There is solidity and heft to the design, but at the same time it doesn't come across like the Emerson Roadhouse or Super Commander--boat anchors with cutting edges.  The vast majority of Emersons are too big for true EDC use, and the interview explains why--Ernie sees himself as a fighter, but even fighters have to open packages, slice apples, and look nice every once in a while.  The  entire thing is just simple, like a modern folder designed by a Shaker (hence the Babbitt reference above).  I would have liked all one kind of fastener, as a very small quibble, but that would be it from a design perspective. Simple, durable, and discrete.


The size of the Mini A-100 is only mini compared to the larger A-100 or the rest of Emerson's line up, which aside from the Mini CQC7 and the Micro Commander, tends to be beefy. 


The blade:handle is a very respectable .71.  The blade:weight is .81 (the knife weighs 3.7 ounces, a spec not found on the Emerson site for some strange reason).  Both numbers are quite good.  

Fit and Finish: 2

Emersons are never going to be confused with Mcustas.  Their materials are simple and basic, some might say crude, and their designs are pretty straightforward.  They basically all work exactly the same way with the same three materials (titanium, 154CM, and G10) and variations in blade and handle shape.  But with a limited set of materials, you can really focus on fit and finish.  In my experience, Emerson has done that.  Here is a good shot of the centering:


The knife's owner told me there were problems with the pivot/lock up out of the box and that he sent it back to Emerson and they fixed it promptly.  He told me to watch for problems during the course of the review.  Nothing emerged.  I know there were issues with Emersons in the past, but this knife, the Horseman I had, and the Mini CQC7 I reviewed point to the fact that those issues are behind them.  Out of curiosity I'd love to see what Emerson would do with different materials--what would a 3V carbon fiber Horseman feel like?  

Grip: 2

Its basically a stick.  There is nothing wrong with that though because there are plenty of grip enhancers, all of which were tastefully implemented.  There is jimping on the front and back of the handle.  The G10 is grippy (just a smidge less pocket shreddy than Cold Steel's G10).  The size of the knife also helps:


If this were a big blade there would considerably more difficulties holding on to the knife.  But here, its just right.  I would note, as the picture above shows, the thumb disk is a good place to put your thumb in high pressure cuts.  

Carry: 2

Aside from the shreddy G10 (which wasn't all that shreddy), this knife is a great in the pocket knife.  Its thin (for an Emerson) profile and simple shape do well in the pocket.  The size of the clip also helps keep the knife put. It feels not unlike a Kershaw Skyline in the pocket, which is high praise because this knife is substantially beefier.

Steel: 2

154CM is definitely a good steel.  Its probably right at the lower end of the "2" range, but it works and works well in Emerson knives.  That said, I'd love to see an Emerson with 3V or CTS-XHP.  Both are noticeably better than 154CM in terms of edge holding and 3V fits the hard use ethos of the Emerson brand quite well.  As for the steel in this particular knife, well, its 154CM and everyone knows how that works.  Other interesting steels for an Emerson--S7 would be cool, M4 would be fun to play with and has proven it can handle high impact cutting tasks, and geez wouldn't you like to see an SM100 bladed EKI knife?  We can dream right?

Blade Shape: 2


Dead simple and dead perfect.  It can even be sharpened all the way to the edge.  In stropping, the blade shape was wonderful.  Love this knife's blade shape.  Simple is best.

Grind: 1 

While the Mini A-100 doesn't have a full chisel grind like the Mini CQC6 I reviewed did, but it does have a chisel ground cutting bevel.  You can see this in the blade centering shot under fit and finish.  Basically the actual cutting bevel is only ground on one side. Unforunately like the full chisel grind, it is ground on the wrong side.  

I have received a great deal of feedback on this point and I will advance the argument here again and add two points.  Ernie claims on the EKI site that the chisel grind is both easier to maintain and gets sharper (as you have one perpendicular edge and one angled edge, essentially halving the grind angle).  These are both true.  He also references a wood chisel as an amazing cutter.  Also 100% true. But the problem is that Emersons, thanks to the clip placement and the Wave feature, are clearly handed knives.  And with that, the chisel is ground on the WRONG side. In both the Mini CQC6 and the Mini A-100 the "flat" side is on the right of the blade, looking down on to the spine.  This means that to register a cut, that is, place the edge precisely on the line you wish to cut, you have the flat grind on top.  In a wood chisel, you register the cut with the flat portion on the bottom.  Its a small thing, but if you have ever tried to make precise cuts with an Emerson you know how challenging this can be, especially for the full chisel grind.  Here, with the chisel ground cutting bevel it is still unnecessarily hard, but not impossible. 

Some people have pointed out that in woodworking there are bevel down hand planes (where the flat is up) and some techniques require the bevel down chisel use.  Both are true, but don't negate the point I am making.  In a bevel down plane there is a chip breaker and the plane body itself that allows the blade's edge to careful and with great control meet the surface of the wood. In other words, the entire plane's design is an attempt to negate the imprecision of bevel down cuts.  The bevel down chisel techniques are legit techniques, but they are designed to hog out a ton of material quickly with the chisel acting as a cutting tool and a pry, to a certain degree.  In any instance in which the chisel is used to create precision cuts it is used bevel up, which would be the equivalent to grinding the bevel on the opposite side of the blade from what Emerson does.

Point two--if you look at the chisel grind on Jeremy Horton's wonderful blades, he grinds them on the equivalent side to a wood chisel, that is opposite what EKI does.  In fact, all of the custom chisel grinds I have seen are on the opposite side from what EKI grinds.  I reference Horton's work because he is widely regarded as one of the best, if not the best grind masters on Planet Earth. If Horton grinds a chisel for a right handed knife with the flat on the left (looking down on the spine) that's the right way to do the grind. Period.

And here is the thing, all it would require EKI to do would be to grind on the other side.  All of tthe benefits of the chisel grind would remain intact, the ease of maintenance, the hard use capacity, and the sharpeness, plus they could add a degree of precision to their blades that is missing.  I know Emersons are hard use knives and precision work is not their intended use, but this is a fix that will sacrifice nothing and add a lot.

Deployment Method: 1

Well, I know I have trumpeted simplicity, and the thumb disk is simple, but here there is just not enough clearance for my thumb. Note the difference between the video overview and this opinion.  Over time I was less pleased.


I have medium sized hands, according to my gloves.  But often times that description isn't good enough.  I do not have fat fingers.  Being Italian and marrying an Italian I have my share of male relatives with pump, sausage-like fingers, but I don't have those kinds of digits and I still found the thumb disk a minor issue.  I can open the knife, no problem, but it took a bit of thought.  There is a reason this is the most often replaced part.  There are a few aftermarket upgrades, Pete Gray being the most famous supplier of wider, upgraded thumb disk for an Emerson.  If this were my knife to keep, I would definitely get a wider thumb disk, something like what you find on the Blade HQ Boker Kwaiken.  In the end its probably somewhere between annoyance and slight problem.  I'd like a score of 1.5, but that would break the scoring system.

As a note, the design and the exposed rear tang when closed made me wonder how easy it would to convert this to a front flipper.  I am sure the pivot would have be reworked or moved a bit, but its all there. And  a front flipping Mini A-100 would be SWEET.

Retention Method: 2

If you look through the history of Spyderco or KAI USA or Cold Steel and see all of the pocket clips they have tried, it makes you wonder how Ernie got it so right the first time.  The Emerson clip is a thing of beauty--simple and perfectly tensioned.


Its not a paint scraper and it doesn't feel too small (though on bigger knives you do get a bit of a pendulum effect).  Damn good.

Lock: 2

A simple titanium liner lock, like 99% of Emersons. The lock, like most Emerson features, is no bullshit.  I liked it quite a bit, even if this was the problem area when the knife was originally shipped. It was sent back to EKI and during my use it never moved, wiggled, stuck or slipped.  Much like the Emerson clip, this something that just works.

Overall Score: 18 out of 20

The Mini A-100 is a great EDC knife.  If you want something small but capable of taking a thumping, this is a knife to consider.  Its not as elegant or refined as, say, the Spyderco Caly3, but it works and works and works. If the Caly3 is a graceful Lotus, this is more like the Toyota Tacoma (actually the Hino, but that is not available in the US). It worked doing home improvements, in the workshop, doing EDC tasks (including rehabilitating a Play Do toy), and out in the woods.   The grind is no where near the problem it is on a full chisel ground Emerson and the thumb disk is a bit annoying, but neither are big issues.  When they come up for sale again, these are about the best EDC knife you'll find in the Emerson line (I am still trying to find a Micro Commander to review to complete the suite of Emerson EDCs).  Its pricey for the materials, but this is a damn solid design and a damn solid knife.     


  1. Excellent review. I got an A100 Mini used and have since sharpened/reground it to a more traditional cutting bevel. It's taken some work and I had to scrape off most of the black coating on mine but I like it better.

    I also like that simple handle shape. Without the clip it's one of the most comfortable handles on any knife I own.

  2. A quick note for your review: the knife was not new. I purchased it from the cove used, and in disassembly (was cleaning it up) I screwed the whole thing up. Emerson knew I had disassembled it and that it was from the Cove, and took it back for warranty no problem. Shipped it on Monday, had it back Thursday evening in perfect shape.

  3. If we take into account the knives are meant to be fighters, then does the current grind make sense? Is it indeed better for stabbing and slashing? I think that would be the primary question to ask and answer before making any final evaluation of the grind.

  4. Hi Tony, nice review, but I have two comments. I have a Mini and full size A-100, and I agree with most of your review except for your F&F score and your comments about the chisel grind.

    I think you're being overly generous with your 2/2 for F&F, especially, when I can see from your pictures some of the same issues that mine have, most noticeably the scales that aren't flush with the liners that aren't flush with the backspacer. Also the really rough finish on the edges of the liners and jimping. Also, since you reviewed a used, broken-in knife, you didn't have to contend with the horrendous lock stick that it most likely came with (which I strongly believe falls under F&F). Blade centering is not the only metric with which to judge F&F.

    In regards to the chisel grind being on the wrong side, I've heard that complaint before, and it was from a sushi chef/enthusiast. Much like using marking knives in woodworking or making clean trim cuts on a dovetail with a chisel, sushi chefs like chisel grinds with the bevel out, to help make very accurate downward cuts. This orientation chisel grind is not very all-purpose, however. For example, try make a feather stick with the A-100 with your left hand. In rigid material, it is very hard to change/control your cut direction without the edge bevel's shoulder to pivot on, much like when carving with a wood chisel in a scooping motion you use the bevel shoulder as a pivot.

    1. For the longest time, companies like Strider and Emerson made excuses for their knives because they were "hard use tools" or "not meant to be pretty" (I'm paraphrasing in both cases). Off center blades, lock rock, and more was justified using those phrases.

      However, the scales, liners, and backspacers not being flush is not an example of poor fit and finish. If that were the case, than any of the Spyderco/Gayle Bradley offerings should be similarly criticized. That would be ridiculous: the proud liners were a conscious design decision. The same applies here. Yes, the liners are inset ever so slightly. And yes, the back spacer is slightly larger than the liners. But each edge is smoothed over, and though they aren't flush, they aren't sloppy edges. At worst, it's a non issue.

      I don't know what you mean by "rough liners." The edges aren't sharp. If you mean that the machining lines are apparent, then yes that is true. But that is an aesthetic consideration, and I'm very much a fan of the industrial look it has.

      With regards to lock stick and break in: that was not an issue on mine, though I bought it (lightly) used. This seems akin to out of the box sharpness: sure, it's nice. But in the long term it's not an issue.

      Finally, if anything, Tony was generous with the deployment method score. I just ordered a Pete Gray disk after developing a callous within a week of carrying this alone. I hope it helps, because this knife tends to hog pocket time.

    2. Comparing the poor fit of the A-100's scales and liners to the Gayle Bradley is ridiculous. The scales/liner alignment of the Gayle Bradley is very clearly and obviously a design intent, and it is a design intent that is well implemented. The scales are inset evenly on all sides, the liners have a clean, smooth, brushed finish.

      It is very clear from the pictures, and from the 2 A-100's that I have, that the design is for the scales to match the liners and to match the backspacer. There are places where they do match up and places where the scales overhang and places where the backspacer sticks out proud. It is not even and uniform. There is nothing to suggest that the design was for the liners to be slightly inset, since the misalignment is sporadic. This is very clearly either poor quality control, or more likely loose manufacturing tolerances. I suspect the latter.

      And yes, I do mean that the machining lines on the liners, liner jimping, and blade spine jimping are apparent and rough looking. To me, that's not an aesthetic (it's definitely not an aesthetic I've seen any other brand attempt), it's simply EKI not caring about that. Does that make them a bad knife company? No, they just care about other things. But I do regard that as poor F&F.

      But you're right, these are non-issues, insofar as the function of the knife is concerned. I have both the Mini and full size and I think they are both great knives. But, that doesn't mean I'm going to ignore the existence of these issues, as minor as they might be. And at the price point that they are, I can't justify excusing EKI by crying, "but what an incredible value!" I've come to terms with the fact that I paid a premium for the excellent overall design of the A-100's, not how well they're fitted and finished.

      If this level of F&F doesn't bother you or Tony, that's fine, but don't pretend it's something that it's not. After reading dozens of reviews where Tony (rightfully, I assume) waxes poetical about the perfectly smooth pivot/scale transitions and invisible seams of his F&F benchmark, the Al Mar Hawk, I just don't understand how he can give this knife the same 2/2 score.

      And, I'm sorry, what? Tony giving the thumbdisk deployment a 1 instead of 0 is generous, but giving the F&F a 2 instead of a 1 isn't overly generous? I'll agree that the knurling on the EKI thumbdisks is a bit aggressive (I dulled mine down half a hair with my medium triangle rod), but the thumbdisk itself is a fantastic deployment device. I can live with Tony only giving it a 1 instead of a 2, because his personal experience with it wasn't ideal, but to suggest that it deserves a 0 because it's a bit rough on your thumb is hard to swallow.

    3. I think attributing it a "1.5" is generous. "1" is fine. Pardon the lack of clarity. It's not about the knurling, just the space you have to jam your thumb (or the side of your thumb) into.

      With regard to the grind lines: they have zero impact on performance and add a different look to the knife. If you don't like it, that's fine, but that's not a question of fit and finish. Same applies for the jimping.

      I'm sorry if the liners are wobbly on yours, but I was holding the review sample when I typed up my response, and the liners are consistently smaller than the scales on mine.


    4. This is one of the places where a more sensitive scale would be helpful. This knife had "very good" fit and finish. It wasn't great or perfect, but it was much better than average.

  5. Tony, I shit you not when I say this. Emerson grinds the knives on the wrong side purely for aesthetic reasons. He wanted to be different from every other chisel grind and he though it looked cooler having them on the presentation side. Dead serious.

  6. I'm beginning to feel as though reviewing Emerson knives is a futile endeavor. Unless you're going to be supplied with 10 pieces of a single model, it is impossible to capture the inconsistency in their manufacturing, which is the companies biggest issue. As someone who has owned seven or so Emerson's (and reviewed all of them), I was unlucky enough to experience some sort of issue with every single one of them.

    I feel as though EKI thrives upon the occasional review where someone, like yourself, receives a model that is at least functionally in tact. The waterjet marks on the liners, the ill fitment of the scales to the liners, and the blade centering appears to be something they continue to ignore and will simply never change.

    Listening to the recent GGL podcast where the guest Andrew mentioned the IWC CEO claiming they can sell their product for 30% more based on an "emotional experience" is the kind of unscrupulous tactics I fear are starting to be exploited by companies like Emerson and Strider. Both are notorious for QC issues and yet the "it's a knife made to work blah blah" mentality has actually penetrated the subconscious of a lot of the knife community to the extent where said companies don't need to make an effort to improve. Case and point: a thread on Bladeforums in the last week started by a proud new owner of an Emerson Vindicator that he claimed had "perfect fit and finish" when his own pictures showed that the scales were proud of the liners.

    1. I'm sorry, selling your product for what the market will bear, and knowing why people buy your product is not an unscrupulous tactic. Unscrupulous is telling them it's made of titanium when it's actually made of aluminum. Unscrupulous is telling them it's an "in-house" mechanism when it's actually an off-the-shelf mechanism. Unscrupulous is refusing to admit your pen is made in China (ala the new Esterbrook pens) while marketing it as "America's original pen company".

      As I see it, the IWC CEO's only sin is calling his customers out on why they buy his products and thus making them feel guilty about it, at least until their next purchase.

    2. Could you point us to your reviews to see what issues your experienced?