Ensign , Gill , Buster article in knife world

Re: My Family's knife company Ensign Chicago,IL
by draltjr » Tue Mar 30, 2010 6:39 am
Ensign Knives by Mark D. Zalesky (published in KNIFE WORLD, December 2000) http://www.knifeworld.com/

The Ensign [pronounced ‘N’-sine] Corporation was — and still is — a Chicago-based firm that specializes in the manufacture of transformers and similar electronic parts. Though you wouldn’t know it today, there was a time in which they played a pioneering role in a knife industry that was set for explosive growth.Their story is a fascinating one, full of famous names and fascinating knives, and I hope you enjoy it. In the late 1960s, Dave Ensign was living in Salt Lake City, where he became acquainted with a Manti, Utah knifemaker by the name of Gil Hibben. Dave introduced his brother Joe, then working out of Chicago, to the knives that Gil was putting out at that time. Both admired Hibben’s work and were impressed with the quality that Hibben was able to achieve with such basic equipment. The Ensign brothers had experience in the manufacturing business, so when Gil fell on hard financial times, the Ensigns suggested that they help each other out. In 1968, they provided Hibben with some capital with which to expand and modernize his operation without compromising the handmade aspects of his work, and what is probably the first ‘benchmade’ operation of the modern era was soon underway. The Hibben operation proved a success, and the business began to grow. Later that year, the Ensigns were contacted by Browning, the well known gun manufacturer, about the possibility of producing a line of custom-grade knives marked with the Browning name. Joe Ensign travelled to Sandusky, Ohio, and purchased some additional manufacturing equipment for the purpose, then located a firm capable of blanking the blades out of the tough 440-C steel that Hibben preferred. Hibben designed Browning’s new line of knives, consisting of three distinctive fixed blades and a single lockback folder. Anyone familiar with Hibben’s work of the late sixties should have no trouble seeing the resemblance to his handmade knives — swept blades, slightly swelled handles, graceful mounts. They were a bit futuristic, and unlike anything offered by any other knife manufacturer. The Browning project began with the enlarged Hibben operation manufacturing all of the knives, but as time wore on the relationship between Hibben and his financial supporters, the Ensigns, became strained. In about 1970 they parted company, and the Ensign Corporation elected to undertake the Browning contract on its own. They began by purchasing an old gas station in Gunnison, Utah and renovating the garage portion to accommodate a knife manufacturing facility. Starting from rough blanks, Ensign completed all of the Browning knives by hand, mainly using the sort of equipment you would expect to find in most custom knife shops. Over the years, Ensign would produce about nine different patterns for Browning and would continue the relationship until Ensign closed its doors for the final time. Ensign was not strictly a contract manufacturer, however, for from the very startup of their gas station-turned-knife shop they produced a line of knives marked with the Ensign name. These knives, if not designed by Hibben, exhibited much of the Hibben influence in their design (as did many of the custom made knives of that era). Some Ensigns were very similar to the knives the firm was producing for Browning. This line included two hidden tang fixed blades, the Sanpitch (upswept hunter) and Wasatch (skinner); as well as two lockback folders named Chukar (upswept point) and Pika (drop point).With brass mounts, laminated hardwood handles, a mirror polish, and a fair price, they were stiff competition for the custom knifemakers of the day. One of Ensign’s early innovations was the introduction of the all-steel fixed blade. While Browning quickly lost interest in them, the Ensign brothers saw potential in their low-cost practicality and expanded that portion of the line under the Ensign name to include other variations. The two basic models, Steelhead (upswept point) and Gray Wolf (drop point) were joined by lightweight drilled-tang models Falcon I and Falcon II, as well as two laminated wood models based on the same blades, Raven and Blacktail. All featured 3-1/2” blades of 3/16” thick 440-C. These ten models would remain Ensign’s basic line for several years. Along the way, a few knives were made with custom handles such as jade. These are rare, and command a premium on the collector market. In the late 1970s, Dave Ensign heard of a fellow down in Richfield, Utah who was earning quite a reputation for his fine handmade knives. That man’s name was Buster Warenski, and in about 1979, Ensign would introduce a line of knives designed by Buster and bearing his name
Last edited by draltjr on Tue Mar 30, 2010 6:45 am, edited 1 time in total.


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Part 2 of Article
by draltjr » Tue Mar 30, 2010 6:44 am

The three knives Warenski designed for Ensign were slick, modern hunters of practical design, and each were named for locations near to Warenski’s home: Pahvant, Tushar, and Praetor. Though generally similar with drop point blades in the 3-1/4”—3-1/2” range, full tapered tangs of 3/16” 440-C, and black pakkawood handles, each was a bit different. The Pahvant featured a guard and a handle held with four small pins, the Tushar a guard and a handle held with two large rivets, and the Praetor a long bolster and a handle held with four small pins. These three models were made to compete with low- to mid-range handmade hunters, and were constructed with a fit and finish that would meet or beat most of them. Furnished with a quality sheath, these were top notch knives at realistic though not inexpensive prices: $139 to $148 retail, at a time when the rest of Ensign’s line ran in the $26.50 to $60.00 range. In about 1981, Browning geared up to produce their own knives on a large scale, and with Browning still constituting the major portion of their business the Ensign Corporation saw the writing on the wall. Within a few years Browning’s orders had declined to the point that it seemed futile to continue, and Ensign closed the doors on its knifemaking operation at the end of September, 1984. Today, Joe Ensign is retired and living in California, though brother Dave was tragically killed in 1978. Gil Hibben remains one of the most recognizable names in the knife industry both for his knifemaking and his collaborative efforts on a line of knives for United Cutlery, and Buster Warenski enjoys an enviable reputation as one of the very finest knifemakers in all the world. The Ensign Corporation is still alive and well in the electronics field, and while they’ve been out of the knife business for over 16 years, a short list of their ‘firsts’ should suffice to state why it’s a firm that shouldn’t be forgotten: The first modern ‘benchmade’ knife company (1968) The first production knives designed by a custom knifemaker (1968) The first production knives to use 440-C steel (1968) The first modern production knife to use all-steel construction (1970) My thanks to Ruth Adams and Joe and Darrel Ensign, without whose assistance this article could not have been written.

Thanks Again to Mark Zalesky and Knife World http://www.knifeworld.com/

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Comment by Jan Carter on February 14, 2014 at 10:06

Thank you Daniel and KnifeWorld.  This article serves to remind us that many companies have contributed to producing a future for knife collectors.  It also gives us a different tang stamp to be keeping a look out for!!

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