History of Kershaw: SpeedSafe® Changes the Industry Landscape (1997–2010)

Kai President Koji Endo invests in a Kershaw revival.

Kershaw’s history is filled with good times, and some bad ones, too. And when those struggles do occur, Kai USA learns, adapts, and works hard to deliver quality tools to you. 1996 was one of those tough years. Because Kershaw failed to stand out in a crowded market, the company was on the verge of bankruptcy. It was clear: change was needed.

Much of this change came at the very top. President Pete Kershaw retired from the business in 1996, and Kai Japan saw an opportunity to send a strong leader to turn things around. Kai Group President Koji Endo appointed Jack Igarashi to be the new COO of Kai USA.

Igarashi brought a new mindset to Kai USA, one that remains to this day. That goal is to always deliver quality, technology, and innovation. With this in mind, Kershaw’s USA manufacturing team was searching for something new to shake things up.

The answer? A new way to open a knife. Custom knifemaker Ken Onion came up with an assisted opening mechanism that made flipping a knife very easy. Endo and Igarashi took a chance on this technology and signed Onion to a contract. He remained Kershaw’s premier designer for the next 13 years.

Kershaw’s assisted opening knives use a torsion bar to help move the blade out of the handle. This patented mechanism is biased toward the closed position, meaning that the blade won’t accidentally be opened by “gravity.” At the same time, it’s simple and effective to operate with one hand. Combining speed and safety, Kershaw naturally named this technology “SpeedSafe®.”

In 1998, Kershaw unveiled its first SpeedSafe knife — the Random Task. This stylish folder immediately caught the attention of the knife world. Not only did it have the innovative SpeedSafe feature, but titanium liners and a polished G-10 handle scale made this a strong, attractive Kershaw.

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Random Task 1510

Critics loved the Random Task, naming it American Made Knife of the Year at BLADE Show 1998. This recognition put Kershaw on the map as an emerging American manufacturer. Previously, the majority of Kershaws were made in Japan.

Unfortunately, the Random Task was fairly expensive at an MSRP of $175.00 and failed to gain widespread consumer appeal. Kershaw sought to produce another quality SpeedSafe knife at a more affordable price. And in 1999, the production team delivered a smash hit.

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Blackout 1550

The Blackout is an aggressive, yet lightweight Kershaw that features a substantial blade for cutting work. It also uses the popular SpeedSafe mechanism. Aesthetically, the Blackout was, well, completely blacked out with glass-filled nylon handle scales and a DLC-coated blade. This stealthy look immediately resonated with customers. At an MSRP of $99.95, the Blackout was Kershaw’s first USA-made commercial hit. It was even named Best Buy of the Year by BLADE Magazine. The knife’s success sustained for nearly 20 years, finally being discontinued in 2017.

Following the success of the Blackout, Kershaw rode a train of momentum that steamrolled into the 21st century. The brand found even greater success with a model that became one of the most popular Kershaws ever.

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Leek 1660

In 2002, Kershaw released the Leek, a pocket-friendly SpeedSafe knife with sharp cutting ability and good looks. Smaller, assisted flippers were beginning to gain popularity, even among those who normally didn’t carry knives. At just 3 ounces, the Leek helped open up the market to a whole new kind of knife user.

Although Kershaw later introduced other opening methods, SpeedSafe remains popular and an important part of Kershaw’s identity. Four new assisted flippers were released in 2018. Additionally, many variations of the Leek are currently in production, including a sleek carbon fiber variant. 

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Decimus 1559, DuoJet 8300, Fringe 8310, Outright 8320

Over the years, the Leek has come in many other different styles and colors, another key part to the model’s success. The rainbow version won BLADE Show Overall Knife of the Year in 2002.

Thanks to new leadership, USA manufacturing, and SpeedSafe, Kershaw began increasing revenue. Endo’s investment was starting to pay off. Based on this progress, and facing growing demand, Kershaw moved to a new, larger factory in 2004. Production continues at the Tualatin, Oregon facility today.

Kershaw enjoyed steady success for the remainder of the early 2000s. In 2010, Onion parted ways with the company. However, this would mark the beginning of a new era. Soon, Kershaw would reach heights it had never achieved before.

Check back soon for the conclusion of the History of Kershaw series.

Read More Kershaw History

Part I (1974–1979)

Part 2 (1980–1989)

Part 3 (1990–1997)

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