HIstory of switchblades and automatic knives
|Alabama||Legal – State Code: Section 13A-11||Legal – Only Bowie knives or knives of “like kind or description” are restricted from carry in a vehicle or concealed about the person. or outside of one’s own property without good reason.|
|Alaska||Legal – became legal on September 16, 2013 – ||Legal – became legal on September 16, 2013 –|
|Arizona||Legal – S.B. 1108 Changes to Arizona Code: 13-3102, 13-3105, and 13-3112||Legal – S.B. 1108 Changes to Arizona Code: 13-3102, 13-3105, and 13-3112. Knives prohibited in certain locations (schools, airports, hydroelectric facilities, nuclear facilities, polling places, and on the grounds of organized public events and gatherings. Persons under 21 may not carry a switchblade definable as a deadly weapon concealed on their person|
|Arkansas||Legal – State Code: 5-73-120||Legal – Legal to carry concealed on one’s person or in a vehicle in most circumstances unless with intent to harm.|
|California||Legal – Possession at home only. State Code: California Penal Code 17235 and Penal Code 21510||Limited – Illegal to carry openly or concealed on one’s person, or in a motor vehicle stationed in a public place or place open to public unless blade is under 2 inches – Cal. Penal Code §653k|
|Colorado||Legal* – Changed by SB17-008 (effective in August 2017); *However, many cities and municipalities still ban possession of switchblades and gravity knives.||Limited – Illegal to carry switchblade with blade length limit of over 3.5 inches if concealed (applies to all knives).|
|Connecticut||Legal – State Code: Sec. 53-206||Limited – Possession in vehicle prohibited; Illegal unless carried by person with a valid hunting, fishing, or trapping license while actively hunting, fishing or trapping; when moving one’s possessions; when being transported for repair; when being used in an authorized historic reenactment; or if the blade of the switchblade is under 1.5 inches – Knives Defined As Dangerous Weapons|
|Delaware||Illegal – State Code: Crimes & Criminal Procedure – Chapter 11 Section 1446||Illegal – State Code: Chapter 11 Section 1446|
|Florida||Legal – State Code: 790.001||Legal – State Code: 790.001|
|Georgia||Legal – O.C.G.A. § 16-11-126||Limited – legal if carried openly and legal if carried concealed when blade is less than 5 inches (130 mm). Concealed carry of a blade greater than 5 inches (130 mm) requires a “Weapons Carry License” O.C.G.A. § 16-11-126|
|Hawaii||Illegal – State Code: §134-52||Illegal – State Code: §134-51|
|Idaho||Legal – State Code: 18-3302||Limited – Concealed carry allowed if not otherwise prohibited by local ordinance, but prohibited if possessor is intoxicated, exhibits an ‘intent to assault another’, or exhibits any deadly or dangerous weapon in a rude, angry or threatening manner – State Code: 18-3302|
|Illinois||Limited – Allowed with valid Firearm Owner’s Identification Card. –State Code:720 ILCS 5/24-1||Limited – Allowed with valid Firearm Owner’s Identification Card. –State Code:720 ILCS 5/24-1|
|Indiana||Legal (except on school property) – State Code: IC 35-47-5||Legal (except on school property) – |
|Iowa||Legal – State Code: Crime Control and Criminal Acts – Definitions. 702.7||Limited – illegal if carried concealed without “Iowa Permit to Carry Weapons”, legal to carry openly – Iowa Department of Public Safety SF2379 Frequently Asked Questions – State Code: 724.4|
|Kansas||Legal – Session of 2013 amending K.S.A. 2012 Supp. 21-6301||Legal – Session of 2013 amending K.S.A. 2012 Supp. 21-6302|
|Kentucky||Legal – State Code: 500.080 Definitions for Kentucky Penal CodeState Code: 527.020||Limited – concealed carry, even on one’s own property, allowed only with “concealed deadly weapons permit” – State Code: 527.020|
|Louisiana||Legal – Became Legal on August 1, 2018||Illegal- illegal to intentionally conceal a switchblade on one’s person. R.S. 14:95|
|Maine||Legal – No restrictions|
|Maryland||Legal – State Code:§ 4-105||Limited – legal to carry openly; illegal if carried concealed unless holder has a license to carry a handgun State Code: § 4-101 (a).(5).(ii) – definition § 4-101 (c).(1-2)|
|Massachusetts||Legal – Mass. Gen. Law Ch. 269 § 10||Limited – Legal if length of blade does not exceed 1.5″, illegal otherwise – Mass. Gen. Law Ch. 269 § 10|
|Michigan||Legal – State Code: 750.226a.||Legal – State Code: 750.226a. repealed under Michigan Switchblade Ban Repeal bill, SB 245 went into effect 90 days after singing on October 10, 2017|
|Minnesota||Limited – Illegal unless allowed under exceptions made for collectors and/or possession as curios or antiques – State Code: Section 609.66 Subdivision 1State Code: Section 609.02 Subdivision 6||Illegal – State Code: Section 609.66 Subdivision 1State Code: Section 609.02 Subdivision 6|
|Mississippi||Legal – State Code: Crimes Section § 97-37-1||Limited – Illegal if carried concealed or when intoxicated – State Code: Crimes Section § 97-37-1|
|Missouri||Legal – Senate Bill 489 (2012), signed by Governor on 10 July 2012 with emergency clause.||Legal – as long as possession is not against federal law – Senate Bill 489 (2012), signed by Governor on 10 July 2012 with emergency clause.|
|Montana||Legal – State Code: HB 155 repeal of Section 45-8-331||Legal –State Code HB 251 amendment of Section 45-8-315|
|Nebraska||Legal – State Code: Crimes and Punishments. 28-1201||Limited – Illegal if carried concealed – State Code: Crimes and Punishments. 28-1201|
|Nevada||Legal – State Code: NRS 202.355||Legal – Nevada Knife Law Reform Bill, SB 176 (effective July 1, 2015) – State Code: NRS 202.350 paragraph 8(h), State Code: NRS 202.355|
|New Hampshire||Legal – HB 1665-FN (2010)||Legal – HB 1665-FN (2010)|
|New Jersey||Limited – Possession is only allowed if possessor has a “lawful purpose” State Code: Code of Criminal Justice – 2C:39-3||Limited – Possession only legal while in the woods or engaged in hunting or fishing and possess a valid hunting or fishing license-State Code: Code of Criminal Justice – 2C:39-3e|
|New Mexico||Illegal – State Code: Criminal Offenses – 30-1-12||Illegal – State Code: Criminal Offenses – 30-1-12|
|New York||Limited – Hunting, Fishing, and Trapping permit required to purchase and possess. – State Code: Penal Law Section 265.01, 265.20(6)||Limited – Possession is only legal for use while hunting, trapping or fishing if possessor is carrying a valid state license for hunting, trapping or fishing – State Code: Penal Law Section 265.01, 265.20(6)|
|North Carolina||Legal – except “on campus or other educational property”, as defined in NC General Statutes Chap. 14, Article 35, §14-269.2||Limited – Concealed carry is not allowed, unless done on your own property; Open carry is Legal, unless done “to terrify or alarm the public”, or if on a school campus, state property, or into a Courthouse or at a parade, funeral procession, picket line, or demonstration upon any private health care facility. – NC General Statutes Chapter 14, Article 35, §14-269;|
|North Dakota||Legal – State Code: Criminal Code – Weapons – 62.1-04-02||Legal – Concealed carry permitted only with dangerous weapons permit – State Code: Criminal Code – Weapons – 62.1-04-02|
|Ohio||Legal – State Code: § 2923.12 State Code: § 2923.20||Limited – Legal to carry concealed unless switchblade meets the definition of deadly weapon (any instrument, device, or thing capable of inflicting death, and designed or specially adapted for use as a weapon, or possessed, carried, or used as a weapon) – State Code § 2923.11State Code: § 2923.12 State Code: § 2923.20|
|Oklahoma||Legal – State Code: §21-1272.||Legal – HB 1911 (effective November 1, 2015) amends Title 21 O.S. § 1272 (unlawful carry). |
|Oregon||Legal – State Code: 166.240||Limited – Illegal if carried concealed State Code: 166.240|
|Pennsylvania||Limited – Allowed if possessor has a “lawful purpose” – State Code: Pa. C.S.A. 18.908||Illegal – State Code: Pa. C.S.A. 18.908|
|Puerto Rico||Illegal – Title 15, Ch. 29, Sec. 1243 United States Code||Illegal – Title 15, Ch. 29, Sec. 1243 United States Code|
|Rhode Island||Legal – State Code: 11-47-42||Limited – legal to carry concealed unless blade is a dagger, dirk, or stiletto or concealed while containing a blade length of over 3 inches State Code: 11-47-42|
|South Carolina||Legal – State Code: 16-23-460||Legal – State Code: 16-23-460|
|South Dakota||Legal – State Code: 22-14-19||Legal – State Code: 22-14-19 Note: The City of Sioux Falls prohibits concealed carry of switchblades definable as a dirk, dagger, or other dangerous or deadly weapon or any instrument or device which when used is likely to produce death or great bodily harm, a definition which in practice appears to cover all switchblade knives.|
|Tennessee||Legal – State Code: 39-17-1302 (c) (1)||Legal – Effective July 1, 2014 – State Code: 39-17-1302|
|Texas||Legal – Effective 9/1/13 – HB 1862||Limited – Effective September 1, 2013 – Legal for adults and minors to carry a switchblade (or any knife) with a blade length of less than 5.5 inches (measuring the non-handle portion) HB 1862. Switchblades with blades 5.5 inches or more are prohibited in certain locations listed in the Texas Penal Code.|
|U.S. Virgin Islands||Illegal – Title 14 Chapter 119 § 2251 V.I.C.||Illegal – Title 14 Chapter 119 § 2251 V.I.C.|
|Utah||Legal – State Code: Offenses Against Public Health and Safety – 76-10-504||Limited – Allowed if not concealed; concealed carry allowed with permit or license – State Code: Offenses Against Public Health and Safety – 76-10-504|
|Vermont||Legal – State Code: Ch. 85 Weapons – T.13-4003||Legal – As long as blade is less than 3 inches – State Code: Ch. 85 Weapons – T.13-4003|
|Virginia||Illegal – Illegal if for sale; Simple possession is considered prima facie evidence of intent to sell – State Code: 18.2-311||Illegal – http://pweb.netcom.com/%7Ebrlevine/va.txt State Code: 18.2-308 – 18.2-311]|
|Washington||Illegal – Only legal for possession by on/off-duty police officers and paramedics State Code: RCW 9.41.250 HB 2346||Illegal – State Code: RCW 9.41.250 HB 2346|
|West Virginia||Legal – State Code: §61-7-2||Limited – Legal to carry concealed if 21 years of age or older. Illegal if carried concealed by a person under 21 years of age without a state license. – State Code: §61-7-2W. Va. Code § 61-7-7 (2016)|
|Wisconsin||Legal – For adults not convicted of a felony. – State Code: 941.24||Legal – Legal unless possessed or carried by a felon or on government property and other weapon-free zones. – State Code: 941.24|
|Wyoming||Legal – State Code: Statutes 6-8-104||Limited – Illegal to carry switchblade definable as dangerous weapon concealed unless carrier meets eligibility requirements for a WY concealed carry permit. – State Code: Statutes 6-8-104|
City and county ordinances
Unless preempted by state law, various county, city, or other local jurisdictions may also have their own codes or ordinances further restricting or prohibiting switchblade possession or use, for example Sioux Falls, South Dakota, or Oakland, California.
Switchblades date from the mid-18th century. The earliest known examples of spring-loaded blades were constructed by craftsmen in Europe, who developed an automatic folding spike bayonet for use on flintlock pistols and coach guns. Examples of steel automatic folding knives from Sheffield England have crown markings that date to 1840. Cutlery makers such as Tillotson, A. Davey, Beever, Hobson, Ibbotson and others produced automatic-opening knives. Some have simple iron bolsters and wooden handles, while others feature ornate, embossed silver alloy bolsters and stag handles. English-made knives often incorporate a “pen release” instead of a central handle button, whereby the main spring activated larger blade is released by pressing down on the closed smaller pen blade.
In France, 19th-century folding knives marked Châtellerault were available in both automatic and manually opened versions in several sizes and lengths. Châtellerault switchblades have recognizable features such as “S” shaped cross guards, picklock type mechanisms and engraved decorative pearl and ivory handles. In Spain, Admiral D’Estaing is attributed with a type of folding naval dirk that doubled as an eating utensil. In closed (folded) position, the blade tip would extend beyond the handle to be used at the dining table. It could be spring activated to full length if needed as a side arm, by pressing a lever instead of a handle button. By 1850, at least one American company offered a .22 rimfire single-shot pistol equipped with a spring-operated knife. After the American Civil War (1865), knife production became industrialized. The oldest American made production automatic knife is the Korn Patent Knife, which used a rocking bolster release.
The advent of mass production methods enabled folding knives with multiple components to be produced in large numbers at lower cost. By 1890, US knife sales of all types were on the increase, buoyed by catalog mail order sales as well as mass marketing campaigns utilizing advertisements in periodicals and newspapers. In consequence, knife manufacturers began marketing new and much more affordable automatic knives to the general public. In Europe as well as the United States, automatic knife sales were never more than a fraction of sales generated by conventional folding knives, yet the type enjoyed consistent if modest sales from year to year.
In 1892, George Schrade, a toolmaker and machinist from New York City developed and patented the first of several practical automatic knife designs. The following year, Schrade founded the New York Press Button Knife Company to manufacture his switchblade knife pattern, which had a unique release button mounted in the knife bolster. Schrade’s company operated out of a small workshop in New York City and employed about a dozen workmen.
Swordmakers in Toledo, Spain, developed a market in the 1920s for gold plated automatic leverlock knives with pearl handles and enamel inlaid blades. Italian knifemakers had their own style of knives including both pushbutton and leverlock styles, some bearing design characteristics similar to the early French Châtellerault knife. Prior to World War II, hand crafted automatic knives marked Campobasso or Frosolone were often called Flat Guards because of the two-piece top bolster design. Some Italian switchblades incorporated a bayonet-type blade equipped with a blade lock release activated by picking a lever at the hinge end, and were known as picklocks. These were later supplanted by newer designs which incorporated the blade lock release into a tilting bolster, which released a spearpoint or bayonet-style blade.
In the United States, commercial development of the switchblade knife was primarily dominated by the inventions of George Schrade and his New York Press Button Knife Company, though W.R. Case, Union Cutlery, Camillus Cutlery, and other U.S. knife manufacturers also marketed automatic knives of their own design. Most of Schrade’s switchblade patterns were automatic versions of utilitarian jackknives and pocket knives, as well as smaller penknife models designed to appeal to women buyers. In 1903, Schrade sold his interest in the New York Press Button Knife Co. to the Walden Knife Co., and moved to Walden, New York, where he opened a new factory. There Schrade became the company’s production superintendent, establishing a production line to manufacture several patterns of Schrade-designed switchblade knives, ranging from a large folding hunter to a small pocket knife. Walden Knife Co. would go on to sell thousands of copies of Schrade’s original bolster button design.
The advertising campaigns of the day by Schrade and other automatic knife manufacturers focused on marketing to farmers, ranchers, hunters, or outdoors men who needed a compact pocket knife that could be quickly brought into action when needed. In rural areas of America, these campaigns were partially successful, particularly with younger buyers, who aspired to own the most modern tools at a time when new labor-saving inventions were constantly appearing on the market. Most American-made switchblades made after 1900 were patterned after standard utilitarian pocketknives, though a few larger Bowie or Folding Hunter patterns were produced with blade shapes and lengths that could be considered useful as fighting knives. Most had flat or sabre-ground clip or spear-point blade profiles and single-sharpened edges. Blade lengths rarely exceeded five inches (12 cm). A few manufacturers introduced the double switchblade, featuring two blades that could be automatically opened and locked with the push of a button.
At the low end of the market, Shapleigh Hardware Company of St. Louis, Missouri contracted thousands of switchblades under the trademark Diamond Edge for distribution to dealers across the United States and Canada. Most of these knives were novelty items, assembled at the lowest possible cost. Sold off display cards in countless hardware and general stores, many low-end Diamond Edge switchblades failed to last more than a few months in actual use. Other companies such as Imperial Knife and Remington Arms paid royalties to Schrade in order to produce automatic “contract knives” for rebranding and sale by large mail-order catalog retailers such as Sears, Roebuck & Co.
In 1904, in combination with his brothers Louis and William, George Schrade formed the Schrade Cutlery Co. in Walden, and began developing a new series of switchblades, which he patented in 1906–07. Schrade’s new Safety Pushbutton Knives incorporated several design improvements over his earlier work, and featured a handle-mounted operating button with a sliding safety switch. A multi-blade operating button allowed the knife to operate with up to four automatic blades. In successive patents from 1906 through 1916 Schrade would steadily improve this design, which would later become known as the Presto series. With the Presto line, Schrade would largely dominate the automatic knife market in the United States for the next forty years. Schrade would go on to manufacture thousands of contract switchblade knives under several trademarks and brands, including E. Weck, Wade & Butcher, and Case XX, while other companies used Schrade’s patent as the basis for their own switchblade patterns. Among these were pocket and folding hunter pattern switchblades bearing the name Keen Kutter, a trademark owned by E.C. Simmons Hardware Co. (later purchased by the Shapleigh Hardware Co.).
Having earned a handsome return from his work, Schrade traveled to Europe in 1911, first to Sheffield, England, where he assisted Thomas Turner & Company in expediting a wartime order from the British Navy. He next moved to the knifemaking center of Solingen, Germany. Schrade was aware of Solingen’s reputation for having the best cutlery steel in Europe, and he opened a factory to produce his safety pushbutton switchblade knife there. In 1915 or 1916 Schrade sold his Solingen holdings (some sources state they were seized by the German government) and returned to the United States.
In 1918, Captain Rupert Hughes of the U.S. Army submitted a patent application for a specialized automatic-opening trench knife of his own design, the Hughes Trench Knife. This was a curious device consisting of a folding spring-loaded knife blade attached to a handle which fastened to the back of the hand and was secured by a leather strap, leaving the palm and fingers free for grasping other objects. Pressing a button on the handle automatically extended a knife blade into an open position and locked position, allowing the knife to be used as a stabbing weapon. The Hughes Trench Knife was evaluated as a potential military arm by a panel of U.S. Army officers from the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) in June 1918. Unfortunately, after testing the board found the Hughes design to be of no value, and it was never adopted. Hughes went on to patent his automatic trench knife in 1919, though Hughes appears to have been unsuccessful in persuading a knife manufacturing company to produce his design.
From 1923 to 1951, the Union Cutlery Co. of Olean, New York produced a series of lever-operated switchblades designed for the mid and upper end of the market, featuring celluloid, stag, or jigged bone handles, a bolster-mounted push-button, all featuring the company’s KA-BAR trademark on the blade tang. The line included the KA-BAR Grizzly, KA-BAR Baby Grizzly, and KA-BAR Model 6110 Lever Release knives. The largest model was KA-BAR Grizzly, a folding hunter pattern with a broad bowie-type clip point blade.Pocket knife made by Flylock Knife Company of Bridgeport, Connecticut with two spring-loaded, button activated blades. Scales are made of horn. Measures 3 3/8″ (86mm) closed. These were manufactured from 1918 to 1929.
Upon returning to the United States, Schrade made a final improvement to his Presto series of switchblades, filing his patent application on June 6, 1916. The next year, Schrade licensed a new flylock switchblade design to the Challenge Cutlery Company, which he then joined. Under the trademark of Flylock Knife Co., Challenge made several patterns of the flylock switchblade, including a large 5-inch folding hunter model with hinged floating guard and a small pen knife model designed to appeal to women buyers. A Challenge Cutlery advertisement of the day depicted a female hand operating a fly-lock automatic pen knife, accompanied by a caption urging women to buy one for their sewing kit so as not to break a nail while attempting to open a normal pen knife. Schrade pursued his knifemaking interests at both Challenge and at Schrade, where his brother George now managed one of the company’s factories.
With a few ex-Challenge employees Schrade formed a second company, the Geo. Schrade Knife Company, primarily to manufacture his Presto series of switchblade knives. In 1937, Schrade came out with two more low-cost switchblade knives designed to appeal to youth, the Flying Jack and the Pull-Ball Knife. The Flying Jack had a sliding operating latch and could be produced with one or more automatically opening blades. The Pull-Ball opened by pulling a ball located on the butt end of the handle. Schrade would later manufacture alternative configurations to the ball operating handle, including dice, rings, eight balls, or different colors. Unfortunately, the Pull-Ball required two hands to open, removing much of the switchblade’s utility as a one-handed knife. As the blade catch mechanism required a good deal of space within the handle, the knife’s blade length was short relative to its handle length. Schrade manufactured many pull-ball knives for sale under other brands, including Remington, Case, and the “J.C.N. Co.” (Jewelry Cutlery Novelty Company of North Attleboro, Massachusetts) Always looking for a new way to appeal to customers, Schrade continued to experiment with new forms of switchblade designs up to the time of his death in 1940.
In the late 1930s the German Luftwaffe began training a Fallschirmjäger or paratroop force, and as part of this effort developed specialized equipment for the airborne soldier, including the Fallschirmjäger-Messer (paratrooper’s knife), which used a gravity-operated mechanism to deploy its sliding spearpoint blade from the handle. The German paratrooper knife, which featured a marlinspike in addition to the cutting blade, was used to cut rigging and unknot lines, though it could be employed as a weapon in an emergency. The U.S. Army in 1940 tasked the Geo. Schrade Knife Co. to produce a small single-edge switchblade for U.S. airborne troops, to be used similarly to the Fallschirmjäger-Messer. The knife was not intended primarily as a fighting knife, but rather as a utility tool, to enable a paratrooper to rapidly cut himself out of his lines and harness in the event he could not escape them after landing.
The company’s submission was approved by the U.S. Army Materiel Command in December 1940 as the Knife, Pocket, M2. The M2 had a 3.125-inch clip-point blade and featured a carrying bail. Except for the bail, the M2 was for all intents and purposes a copy of George Schrade’s popular Presto safety-button civilian model. The M-2 was issued primarily to U.S. Army paratroopers during the war, though some knives appear to have been distributed to crews and members of the Office of Strategic Services. When issued to paratroopers, the M2 was normally carried in the dual-zippered knife pocket on the upper chest of the M42 jump uniform jacket. After the war, the M2 was manufactured by Schrade (now Schrade-Walden, Inc.) as the Parachutist’s Snap Blade Knife (MIL-K-10043) under a postwar military contract. In addition, other companies such as the Colonial Knife Co. made civilian versions of the M2 after the war.
Postwar usage and the Italian stiletto
From the end of World War II until 1958, most U.S.-manufactured switchblades were manufactured by Schrade (now Schrade-Walden, Inc., a division of Imperial Knife Co.), and the Colonial Knife Co.
Schrade-Walden Inc. made knives under the Schrade-Walden trademark, while Colonial made a number of mass-produced switchblade patterns during the 1950s under the trademark Shur Snap. Designed to a price point, Shur Snap switchblades feature stamped plated sheet-metal bolsters and plastic scales.
In 1956, the U.S. Air Force requested development for a new aircrew knife with several requirements, including the ability to be opened with one hand. The final result was the MC-1 Aircrew Survival Knife. A development of the WW2-era M2 Parachutist Snap Blade knife, the MC-1 featured twin blades, The main blade was a blunt line-cutting blade with a protected sharpened inside edge for severing parachute lines, while the secondary blade opened automatically with a push button in the event the crew member could use only one hand. First issued in 1958, the MC-1 was restricted to U.S. military sales only, and was produced by the Camillus Cutlery Co., Logan/Smyth of Venice Florida, and Schrade-Walden Inc.. The last production contract for the MC-1 was cancelled in 1993.
After 1945, American soldiers returning home from Europe brought along individually purchased examples of what would become known as the Italian stiletto switchblade. Consumer demand for more of these knives resulted in the importation of large numbers of side-opening and telescoping blade switchblades, primarily from Italy. These imported switchblades were frequently referred to as stilettos, since most incorporated a long, slender blade tapering to a needle-like point, together with a slim-profile handle and vestigial cross-guard reminiscent of the medieval weapon.
The majority of these Italian stiletto switchblade knives used a now-iconic slender bayonet-style blade with a single sabre-ground edge and an opposing false edge. As with the medieval stiletto, the stiletto switchblade was designed primarily as an offensive weapon, optimized for thrusting rather than cutting (many imported stiletto switchblades had no sharpened cutting edge at all). These included knives which ranged in blade length from two to eighteen inches (50mm – 460mm); some were flimsy souvenir knives made for tourists, while others were made with solid materials and workmanship. Though undeniably limited in practical usefulness, the new stiletto switchblades were a revelation to buyers accustomed to the utilitarian nature of most U.S.-made automatic knives such as the Schrade Presto pocketknife.
1950s gang usage and controversy
In 1950, an article titled The Toy That Kills appeared in the Women’s Home Companion, a widely read U.S. periodical of the day. The article sparked a storm of controversy and a nationwide campaign that would eventually result in state and federal laws criminalizing the importation, sale, and possession of automatic-opening knives. In the article, author Jack Harrison Pollack assured the reader that the growing switchblade “menace” could have deadly consequence “as any crook can tell you”. Pollack, a former aide to Democratic Senator Harley M. Kilgore and a ghostwriter for then-Senator Harry S Truman, had authored a series of melodramatic magazine articles calling for new laws to address a variety of social ills. In The Toy That Kills, Pollack wrote that the switchblade was “Designed for violence, deadly as a revolver – that’s the switchblade, the ‘toy’ youngsters all over the country are taking up as a fad. Press the button on this new version of the pocketknife and the blade darts out like a snake’s tongue. Action against this killer should be taken now”. To back up his charges, Pollack quoted an unnamed juvenile court judge as saying: “It’s only a short step from carrying a switchblade to gang warfare”.
During the 1950s, established U.S. newspapers as well as the sensationalist tabloid press joined forces in promoting the image of a young delinquent with a stiletto switchblade or flick knife. While the press focused on the switchblade as a symbol of youthful evil intent, the American public’s attention was attracted by lurid stories of urban youth gang warfare and the fact that many gangs were composed of lower class youth and/or racial minorities. The purported offensive nature of the stiletto switchblade combined with reports of knife fights, robberies, and stabbings by youth gangs and other criminal elements in urban areas of the United States generated continuing demands from newspaper editorial rooms and the public for new laws restricting the lawful possession and/or use of switchblade knives – with particular emphasis on racial minorities, especially African-American and Hispanic teens. In 1954, the state of New York passed the first law banning the sale or distribution of switchblade knives in hopes of reducing gang violence. That same year, Democratic Rep. James J. Delaney of New York authored the first bill submitted to the U.S. Congress banning the manufacture and sale of switchblades.
Some U.S. congressmen saw the switchblade controversy as a political opportunity to capitalize on constant negative accounts of the switchblade knife and its connection to violence and youth gangs. This coverage included not only magazine articles but also highly popular films of the late 1950s including Rebel Without a Cause (1955), Blackboard Jungle (1955), Crime in the Streets (1956), 12 Angry Men (1957), The Delinquents (1957), High School Confidential (1958), and the 1957 Broadway musical West Side Story. Hollywood’s fixation on the switchblade as the symbol of youth violence, sex, and delinquency resulted in renewed demands from the public and Congress to control the sale and possession of such knives. State laws restricting or criminalizing switchblade possession and use were adopted by an increasing number of state legislatures.
In 1957, Senator Estes Kefauver (D) of Tennessee attempted unsuccessfully to pass a law restricting the importation and possession of switchblade knives. Opposition to the bill from the U.S. knife making industry was muted, with the exception of the Colonial Knife Co. and Schrade-Walden Inc., which were still manufacturing small quantities of pocket switchblades for the U.S. market. Some in the industry even supported the legislation, hoping to gain market share at the expense of Colonial and Schrade. However, the legislation failed to receive expected support from the U.S. Departments of Commerce and Justice, which considered the legislation unenforceable and an unwarranted intrusion into lawful sales in interstate commerce.
While Kefauver’s bill failed, a new U.S. Senate bill prohibiting the importation or possession of switchblade knives in interstate commerce was introduced the following year by Democratic Senator Peter F. Mack Jr. of Illinois in an attempt to reduce gang violence in Chicago and other urban centers in the state. With youth violence and delinquency aggravated by the severe economic recession, Mack’s bill was enacted by Congress and signed into law as the Switchblade Knife Act of 1958. This U.S. federal law was closely followed by the UK Restriction of Offensive Weapons Act of 1959. In Canada, in 1959 Parliament amended the Criminal Code to include the new-production automatic knives as prohibited weapons banned from importation, sale or possession within that country.
The new laws treated all automatic-opening knives as a prohibited class, even knives with utility or general-purpose blades not generally used by criminals. Curiously, the sale and possession of stilettos and other ‘offensive’ knives with fixed or lockback blades were not prohibited. In other U.S. states, the sale and possession of switchblade knives remained legal, particularly in rural states where a significant proportion of the population possessed firearms. As late as 1968, Jack Pollack was still writing lurid articles demanding further federal legislation prohibiting the purchase or possession of switchblade knives nationwide. New York congressman Lester L. Wolff (D) even read one of Pollack’s articles into the U.S. Congressional Record.
As an anti-violence measure, legislation against switchblade sales or use clearly failed in the United States, as youth street gangs increasingly turned from bats and knives to handguns, MAC-10s, and AK-47s to settle their disputes over territory as well as income from prostitution, extortion, and illicit drug sales. In fact, the U.S. murder rate using cutting or stabbing instruments of all types declined from 23% of all murders in 1965 to just 12% in 2012.
By the late 1960s, new production of switchblades in the United States was largely limited to military contract automatic knives such as the MC-1.
In Italy, switchblades known among collectors as “Transitionals” were made with a mix of modern parts and leftover old style parts. Around this time, the “Picklock” design was largely replaced by the tilting bolster, ending the “Golden Age” of hand-crafted Italian switchblades.
Switchblade knives continued to be sold and collected in those states in which possession remained legal. In the 1980s, automatic knife imports to the U.S. resumed with the concept of kit knives, allowing the user to assemble a working switchblade from a parts kit with the addition of a mainspring or other key part (often sold separately). Since no law prohibited importation of switchblade parts or unassembled kits, all risk of prosecution was assumed by the assembling purchaser, not the importer. This loophole was eventually closed by new federal regulations.
The ability to purchase or carry switchblades or automatic knives continues to be heavily restricted or prohibited throughout much of Europe, with some notable exceptions. In Britain, the folding type of switchblade is commonly referred to as a flick knife. In the UK, knives with an automated opening system are nearly impossible to acquire or carry legally; although they can legally be owned, it is illegal to manufacture, sell, hire, give, lend, or import such knives. This definition would nominally restrict lawful ownership to ‘grandfathered’ automatic knives already in possession by their owner prior to the enactment of the applicable law in 1959. Even when such a knife is legally owned, carrying it in public without good reason or lawful authority is also illegal under current UK laws.
In the US, switchblades remain illegal to import from abroad or to purchase through interstate commerce since 1958 under the Switchblade Knife Act (15 U.S.C. §§1241-1245). However, a 2009 amendment (Amendment 1447) to 15 U.S.C. §1244 provides that the Act shall not apply to spring-assist or assisted-opening knives (i.e. knives with closure-biased springs that require physical force applied to the blade to assist in opening the knife).
While operationally identical (in terms of one-handed opening), the spring-assisted knife has slight but important differences. A switchblade opens its blade from the handle automatically with the press of a button, lever, or switch that is remotely mounted in the knife handle or bolster. In contrast, a spring-assist design uses manual pressure on a lever or switch mounted on the blade or connected via a direct mechanical linkage to open the blade initially, at which point an internal torsion spring propels the blade into an open, locked position. Still other types of one-hand opening knives rely on the use of a manual protrusion on the blade itself to ‘flick’ the knife open using a thumb or forefinger, without any spring assistance. Since all these knives can be rapidly opened with one hand, the logic and utility of 1950s-era prohibitions against a subcategory of one-hand opening knives like the switchblade have been called into question by knife rights advocacy groups. In recent years, several U.S. states have repealed laws prohibiting the purchase or possession of automatic knives in their entirety.
Despite federal laws, there are still a number of U.S. knife companies and custom makers who build automatic knives, primarily for use by the military and emergency personnel. Some well known present-day automatic knife manufacturers include Buck Knives, Colonial Knife Co., Microtech Knives, Benchmade, Severtech, Gerber Legendary Blades, Mikov, Pro-Tech Knives, Dalton, Böker, Spyderco, Kershaw Knives, and Piranha. Colonial currently manufactures the M724 Automatic Rescue Knife, which is currently being issued for use in all U.S. military aircraft ejection seat survival kits.
The classic Italian style stiletto switchblade continues to be produced in Italy, Taiwan, and China. Automatic knife manufacture in Italy consists predominantly as a cottage industry of family-oriented businesses. These include Frank Beltrame and AGA Campolin, who have been making automatic knives using hand assembly techniques for more than half a century. Since the late 1990s, the nations of Taiwan and China have emerged as large-scale producers of automatic knives.
Automatic knives have been produced in the following countries: Argentina, China, Czech Republic, England, France, Germany, Hong Kong, India, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Korea, Pakistan, Poland, Russia, Spain, Switzerland, Taiwan and U.S.A..