Switchblades: A “Barbaric and Sadistic” Knife?
“Vicious fantasies of omnipotence, idolatry… barbaric and sadistic atrocities, and monstrous violations of the accepted values spring from the cult of the weapon, and the switchblade knife is included in this. Minus switchblade knives and distorted feeling of power they beget – power that is swaggering, reckless, and itching to express itself in violence – our delinquent adolescents would be shorn of one of their most potent means of incitement to crime.” –Representative Sidney R. Yates of Illinois, 1958
The quote above is not from a Hollywood movie or dime novel. A politician in support of the 1958 Federal Switchblade Act said those words more than 50 years ago. To understand why, we need to look at history, society in the 1950’s and a popular magazine from that time period.
History of Switchblades in the United States
While the word “switchblade” might conjure up imagery of tough guys in the 1950s with leather jackets and stiletto knives, it’s just another term for “automatic knife.” Automatic knives range from the iconic Italian stiletto to the modern OTF (out the front). The defining features are always the same: the blade, biased to open and kept under tension in the handle, deploys at the press of a button or lever on the handle.
The United States led production and distribution of automatic knives for most of the early 20th century, boosted by George Schrade and the onset of mass production. Schrade set up shops all over the country as well as abroad. Schrade produced and advertised automatic knives mostly to and for ranchers, outdoorsman, hunters, and farmers as quick, one-handed utility tools. Business was good, and people liked their snappy, modern Presto pocketknives. Then World War II happened.
During the war, many U.S. soldiers carried and used Schrade’s automatic knife, but they found something even more attractive while deployed in Europe: the Italian stiletto.
Demand stateside grew as American GIs returned home with these exotic knives, and that led to large imports from Italy. It may have been the sabre-ground bayonet blade, the highspeed look, the undeniably foreign influence or a combination of all three, but it did not take long for the stiletto and, by association, all automatic knives to get noticed by up and coming politicians trying to make a name for themselves as peacemakers and protectors.
Why Switchblades are Illegal: The Toy that Kills
Fast-forward to November, 1950. Subscribers all over the U.S. received their new copy of Woman’s Home Companion. It contained one of the most lurid examples of anti-knife muckraking to ever be written, an article titled, The Toy That Kills. Jack Harrison Pollack, a freelance writer and ghostwriter for then-Senator Harry S. Truman, wrote the article. He filled it with a number of quotes and statistics without ever referencing a single citation. Even in today’s digital world, we have a hard time finding many facts to back up Pollack’s claims.
What exactly was he claiming, you ask? In short, Pollack alerted the mothers of America that the switchblade and the switchblade alone was the sole cause for juvenile delinquency, gang violence and ruined lives. In his own words, “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.” The article asserts a handful of shaky anecdotal experiences and dubious statistics.
Pollack offered five tips for the concerned mother, condensed into the following:
- Make sure your kid is not carrying a switchblade.
- Make sure to “de-glamorize knife-carrying” in general.
- Use all your power as a mom and wife to get knives out of stores. (He even included verbiage for signs to hang up in stores.)
- Help police round up “dangerous knives,” even though there were no significant bans or laws in place at the time.
- Work on a state and national level for switchblade bans that are to be “strictly enforced.”
The end of Mr. Pollack’s article also marked the end for easy automatic knife use and possession in the United States.
Pop Culture Origins of Switchblade Ban
The Toy That Kills was the match that started a switchblade wildfire throughout the country. Newspapers ran embellished stories about gang violence and switchblade use. State legislatures started looking into the “issue,” and New York became the first state to ban automatic knives in 1954.
Even Hollywood jumped in on the frenzy. Movie studios released no less than six major titles in just as many years that included Rebel Without A Cause, 12 Angry Menand West Side Story. Every one of these blockbusters placed the switchblade front and center as a tool for violence and delinquency.
The 1958 Federal Switchblade Act Arrives
It only took eight short years from the publishing of The Toy That Kills for the issue to make its way to Washington, D.C., in what would become known as the 1958 Federal Switchblade Act. Hearings fielded reports from law enforcement and concerned citizens. However, a lack of hard data pervaded the inquiries.
One well-sourced report came from the police chief of Kansas City, Missouri, which had a population of more than 400,000 people at the time. In the calendar year of 1956, this city reported around three dozen switchblade-related misdemeanors, crimes and juvenile goofing off.
Testimonies also came from the two federal entities that would ultimately oversee enforcing the Act if it passed: the Department of Commerce and the Department of Justice. From William P. Rogers, the deputy attorney general:
“The Department of Justice is unable to recommend enactment of this legislation. The Committee may wish to consider whether the problem to which this legislation is addressed is one properly within the police posers of the various States…Switchblade knives in the hands of criminals are, of course, potentially dangerous weapons. However, since they serve useful and even essential purposes in the hands of persons such as sportsmen, shipping clerks, and others engaged in lawful pursuits, the committee may deem it preferable that they be regulated at the State rather than the Federal level.”
From Secretary of Commerce Sinclair Weeks:
“The intent of these legislative proposals appears to be to improve crime prevention by control of the use of the switchblade knife as a weapon of assault. This approach gives rise to certain objections. One is that, at best, it is an indirect approach which addresses itself to only one of the many implements useable by an assailant. This casts doubt upon the resulting effectiveness in the reduction of crime in relation to its enforcement problems. To us, this ignores the needs of those who derive and augment their livelihood from the ‘outdoor’ pursuits of hunting, fishing, trapping, and of the country’s sportsmen, and many others. In our opinion there are sufficient of these that their needs must be considered.”
At the time (and in retrospect), many of the lawmakers agreed with the quotes above but said they were acting symbolically against crime. In other words, they made themselves look good to their constituents while doing little concerning the issues they claimed to care so much about. And so, on August 12, 1958, congress enacted Public Law 85-623, more commonly known as the Federal Switchblade Act.
The Act itself dealt with banning certain transportation and sales of automatic knives, as well as outright banning automatic knives in certain areas and places nationally. It also defined by law what a switchblade was:
“The term ‘switchblade knife’ means any knife having a blade which opens automatically-by hand pressure applied to a button or other device in the handle of the knife, or (2) by operation of inertia, gravity, or both.”
All in all, the Federal Switchblade Act is a hard read with more than a handful of seeming contradictions. If you want to dive deeper into what exactly the Act says and how it’s parts work together, we recommend you check out Knife Rights page on the document (https://kniferights.org/resources/federal-switchblade-act/).
Just as the United States had led the way in automatic knife production at the beginning of the 20th century, it led the way for knife legislation in the mid-20th century. As soon as the Federal Switchblade Act was passed, many other countries around the world followed suit and banned switchblade knives. This led to a domino effect in many countries, where owning anything short slip joint with a blade under 2 inches is now illegal.
The Rise of Knife Advocacy Groups
Knife Rights and AKTI are both organizations doing a lot to amend and repeal a law that seems to have been put in place without proper foresight and consideration. With their efforts, they successfully rolled back automatic knife restrictions in 40 states and counting.
One of the biggest wins for the knife world came in 2009 when the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) tried to reverse prior ruling on assisted opening/spring-assisted knives. Essentially, the CBP tried to define any one-handed opening knife as a switchblade. The revision would have dealt primarily with the importation of these assisted knives. The real concern came from the confusing nature of the Act. If CBP got their way, it would have been easy to extend the restriction broadly on both a national and state level. Luckily, many groups, including Knife Rights and AKTI, stepped up and prevented this from happening.
For knife enthusiasts, supporting Knife Rights and AKTI are the best ways to help revise and repeal the national and state restrictions on what, at the end of the day, is just another knife. Until that day, know your local laws and stay sharp!
Learn More About Knife Laws
Continue exploring the laws that govern knives in attorney Evan Nappen’s book,Knife Laws of the U.S.: Loopholes, Pitfalls & Secrets.
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Why are switchblades so illegal? ›
The law came in response to their perceived use by juvenile delinquents and gangs and associated media coverage, as well as by the 1958 passage of the Switchblade Knife Act in the United States.Are switchblades illegal in all 50 states? ›
There is no Federal restriction on the sale of auto-open knives within the 50 states. There are some state laws with restrictions regarding selling switchblades (see State Laws Regarding Auto-Open Knives). There are no Federal restrictions on other carriers, such as UPS or FedEx, regarding automatic knives.Why are knives illegal? ›
In California, certain knives are illegal to carry, particularly if they are misleading or undetectable. In general, knives that are illegal are those which are most commonly used to commit crimes and do not have an obvious use as a tool or look like knives.Why are spring action knives illegal? ›
According to California Penal Code 16220, a “ballistic knife” is a knife with a spring-loaded blade that can be fired, or shout out, like a bullet. A violation of PC 21110 is a wobbler offense under California law. This means it can be charged as either a misdemeanor or a felony.When did switchblades become illegal in the US? ›
1958, Congress enacted the federal Anti-Switchblade Act, which banned interstate sale of switchblades, and outlawed them in federal territories or on federal waters. Because few states had domestic switchblade factories at that time, the federal act made it illegal to purchase switchblades in most states.What is the US switchblade law? ›
Whoever knowingly introduces, or manufactures for introduction, into interstate commerce, or transports or distributes in interstate commerce, any switchblade knife, shall be fined not more than $2,000 or imprisoned not more than five years, or both.What state has the strictest knife laws? ›
California is known for having rather complicated weapon laws, and knives are no exception. It is completely unlawful to bring a weapon into public spaces like schools, public buildings, and any property owned by the U.S government.Why are butterfly knives illegal? ›
Why Are Butterfly Knives Illegal? Butterfly knives are illegal in many places because of their potential for use as a threatening weapon. A person with extensive practice can deploy butterfly knives with immense speed, which may be the knife's most dangerous quality.Are stiletto knives illegal? ›
Remember though, the stiletto is only banned or restricted in 16 states and is legal in states from coast to coast, between the borders, and even in Alaska. It's just important to check your local knife laws to make sure they are allowed to be owned and carried.Can you go to jail for carrying a knife? ›
if you're under 18, it's illegal to buy most types of knives. anyone over 10 can be charged and taken to court if they're caught with an illegal knife – even if it's the first time they've been stopped by the police. if you're caught carrying a knife, you could receive a community sentence, a fine or imprisoned.
How long would you go to jail for a knife? ›
Possessing a weapon: the maximum sentence for possession offences is four years' custody. If the offender has committed the same offence before or another relevant offence such as threatening with an offensive weapon in a public place, they will face a minimum sentence of at least six months' custody.Can I carry a 4 inch knife? ›
A: In California, you can legally purchase, own, transport, and carry any knife that is not restricted under the law. California's open carry law states that the hilt or handle of a knife can't be hidden or concealed. This includes if the hilt is hidden underneath clothing or in the blade's sheath.What is the most illegal type of knife? ›
The most banned knife in the country remains the ballistic knife. Here's a look at what ballistic knives are, how they became banned and why those bans should be repealed.Are flip blades illegal? ›
Although they are often confused with switchblades, assisted-opening knives differ from switchblades in many ways. One of the ways the two knives differ is that while switchblades are prohibited, assisted-opening knives are perfectly legal.Why are gravity knives illegal? ›
A knife is not illegal because it is designed to open by the force of gravity and lock into place; the knife is illegal when it actually does open by the force of gravity and locks into place by means of a procedure used by the District Attorney's office to identify a gravity knife, called the “wrist flick test.”Is a butterfly knife a switchblade? ›
Although referred to as the Federal Switchblade Act, the Federal definition of a switchblade also includes gravity knives and butterfly (Bali-Song) knives.What is a US weapon called a switchblade? ›
Switchblade is a miniature, high-precision strike tactical missile system developed by AeroVironment, primarily for the US Army and US Marine Corps. It is designed to engage stationary and moving targets in hostile environments, while reducing collateral damage.Is a stiletto knife a switchblade? ›
Most of these switchblades were side-opening designs, though some employed a telescoping blade. These Italian switchblades were commonly and popularly 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.Can military carry switchblade? ›
As to the illegal possession of a switchblade, this law does not apply to members of the armed forces that are acting in the performance of their duties. It also does not apply to people with only one arm if the switchblade's blade is three inches or less in length.
Active military and law enforcement officers are permitted to carry automatic knives in most states.
What is the legal length of a switchblade? ›
A. In the State of California, there is no maximum length for knives in general. However, the maximum legal length for a switchblade knife is 2 inches. Additionally, it is illegal to carry daggers or dirks concealed, and also illegal to carry many types of knives which are designed for concealment.What is the knife capital of the United States? ›
Why Portland, Oregon, is the Knife-making Capital of the U.S. It's home to more knife companies than any other U.S. city.What is a dirk knife? ›
A dirk or dagger is a knife or other instrument with or without a handguard that is capable of ready use as a stabbing weapon that may inflict great bodily injury or death. Most pocketknives and folding knives are not considered to be dirks or daggers unless the blade of the knife is exposed and locked into position.Can I legally walk around with a knife? ›
In general, it is legal to carry a knife in most states. However, there are often limits on knives or bladed weapons that may be carried.What is classed as a zombie knife? ›
These knives can range in size and shape but are commonly defined as having a cutting edge, a serrated edge and images or words (whether on the blade or handle) that suggest that it is to be used for the purpose of violence.Are karambits illegal? ›
Are karambits legal to own? Generally, yes. Karambits are regulated at the state level and while each state's laws can vary, most allow utility, work and functional blades that have a blade length of 3" or less or that are specifically designed for hunting or agricultural use.Can you take knives to Mexico? ›
Mexico's Strict Weapons Laws
This also includes knives, swords, and any other type of weapon. If you are caught carrying any of these items, you will be subject to prosecution and could face jail time.
In California, butterfly knives are prohibited. Under California Penal Code 21510 PC, butterfly knives are classified as a form of switchblade. Carrying, possessing in public, selling, or otherwise transferring a butterfly knife is illegal under this legislation.Why are locking blades illegal? ›
A lock knife is not a folding pocket knife and therefore it is an offence to carry around such a knife regardless of the length of the blade, if you do not have good reason. A lock knife has blades that can be locked and refolded only by pressing a button.What knife can you carry legally? ›
It is illegal to carry any sharply pointed or bladed article in a public place (with the exception of a folding pocket knife, which has a blade that is less than 7.62cm or 3 inches). A lock knife is NOT a folding pocketknife and therefore it is illegal to carry these knives regardless of the length of the blade.
How long can police keep you? ›
The general rule is that a person cannot be detained at the police station for more than 24 hours prior to being charged (s41 PACE). The 24 hour period runs from the time of arrest, or the time of arrival at the police station, whichever is earlier.What happens if a 16 year old is caught with a knife? ›
Situations involving weapons can quickly get out of control. “If you are found with a knife - you will be arrested and are very likely to be charged with a crime for a first time offence.Can you use a knife as self-defense? ›
Some people who are not willing to carry a gun will carry a knife thinking it a less legally-serious option. While it may fit different carry laws, using a knife in self-defense is still generally considered lethal force in the same way deploying a firearm is considered lethal force.Why carry a pocket knife? ›
A Pocket Knife is an Emergency Tool
But just the same, a knife is indispensable in an emergency scenario. You can use a simple pocket knife to cut seatbelts, break windows, cut clothing/bandages, etc.
The offence of selling knives etc to persons under the age of 18 is a summary only offence contrary to s. 141A of the Criminal Justice Act 1988; it carries a maximum of six months' imprisonment (or, in the case of an organisation, an unlimited fine) and can only be dealt with in magistrates' courts.Does a knife under the arm act? ›
Decades after the Arms Act was enacted by Parliament, the government of Karnataka issued a notification on August 28, 2017, banning sharp-edged weapons such as machetes, knives, daggers and swords etc.What is the longest knife blade you can carry? ›
Knife blades cannot be longer than 5.5 inches. Certain types of knives, such as switchblades, spring-loaded knives, swords, spears, and daggers are also outlawed.What is the longest knife you can carry in public? ›
Types of Knives You Can Typically Legally Carry
Knives that are usually legal to carry almost anywhere include multi-tool devices, Swiss Army knives, and utility knives, and knives with blades that are shorter than 2.5 inches.
A knife with a blade over 6 cm must be placed in checked baggage and are permitted when flying within Canada or to an international (non-U.S.) destination. Knives of any type or length are not permitted in your carry-on on flights to the U.S.What kind of knife do gangsters use? ›
A shiv, also chiv, schiv, shivvie, or shank, is a handcrafted bladed-weapon resembling a knife that is commonly associated with prison inmates.
Why are Bowie knives illegal? ›
Bowie knife: This fixed blade knife normally has a guard near the handle and rests in a sheath when not in use. Bowie knives are 100 percent legal. Unlike other states, there is no law limiting the length of bowie knife you have carry.Why are triangular blades illegal? ›
Though many claim that the triangular bayonet was outlawed in the Geneva Convention in 1949, this is actually not the case. The Geneva Convention set many of the rules of war, and in response to bayonets it prohibits “bayonets with a serrated edge” (International Committee of the Red Cross).Are hyper blades illegal? ›
The majority of states allow legal ownership of switchblades, but a few do not. Many have prohibitions on the sale of them, and most have laws against carrying them concealed. But some states such as Vermont and Utah have no restrictions on them.Are blades illegal in Japan? ›
Carrying knives, firearms, etc. is controlled by the “Swords and Firearms Control Law”. It is illegal to carry a blade of any kind exceeding 6 cm, without justifiable grounds. Persons violating this law face imprisonment with work for up to 2 years or a fine of up to 300,000 yen.How illegal is a ballistic knife? ›
Whoever possesses or uses a ballistic knife in the commission of a Federal crime of violence shall be fined as provided in title 18, or imprisoned not less than five years and not more than ten years, or both.Why are daggers illegal? ›
By definition, a “dirk or dagger” is a knife or other instrument (with or without a handguard) that can be used immediately as a stabbing weapon, and that may inflict great bodily injury or death. This includes pocketknives and certain folding knives, if the blade is exposed and locked into position.What knives do seals use? ›
Ontario MK 3 Navy Knife
The U.S. Navy Seals commonly deploy this knife. It features a stainless steel blade which is approximately 6 inches in length. The knife blade is about 7 inches long and resembles its predecessor, Buck 184.
While other sections of the Offensive Weapons Act introduced included an updated definition of flick knives to reflect changes in weapon designs, and the banning of private possession of both flick and gravity knives.Why are butterfly knives considered switchblades? ›
Butterfly knives are included in this description of a switchblade, according to a California appeals court, since they may readily be opened with one hand and do not have a catch to prevent them from opening.Can Military own switchblades? ›
Active military and law enforcement officers are permitted to carry automatic knives in most states.
Why are gravity knives so illegal? ›
A knife is not illegal because it is designed to open by the force of gravity and lock into place; the knife is illegal when it actually does open by the force of gravity and locks into place by means of a procedure used by the District Attorney's office to identify a gravity knife, called the “wrist flick test.”How long can you go to jail for pulling a knife on someone? ›
The maximum sentence for carrying a knife illegally is four years in prison and an unlimited fine. If you injure someone or use a knife to commit a crime, the penalties could increase.Is it illegal to have a throwing star? ›
Penal Code 22410 PC is the California statute that prohibits making, importing, selling, giving, or possessing a shuriken, or SHUR. This device is also known as a throwing star, or a ninja star.Is it illegal to have a zombie knife in your house? ›
As of 18 August 2016 it will be an offence to sell, manufacture, rent or import 'zombie knives' under section 141 Criminal Justice Act 1988. An offence punishable with up to 4 years imprisonment.Is a stiletto an automatic knife? ›
Italian stiletto knives can be considered the automatic pocket knives that started it all. These automatic switchblades are available in a variety of styles and collectible handle materials.What are three types of switchblades? ›
- Side-opening. The knife blade ejects out of the side of the handle, similar to a regular folding knife but with a spring release. ...
- OTF (Out-the-Front) With OTF knives, the blade ejects right out of the front or 'tip' of the handle. ...
- Single Action. ...
- Double Action.
For the uninformed, OTF knives are a type of switchblade – that is, an automatic knife which deploys the blade 'automatically' on pressing a button or switch. Specifically, the OTF knife is a switchblade where the blade simply comes 'out the front'.Can a civilian buy an automatic knife online? ›
Federal law prohibits the shipment of 'injurious articles'—which includes automatic knives. The penalty for breaking this law is a fine or imprisonment for not more than one year. However, there is no federal restriction on shipment of automatic knives by common/contract carriers, such as FedEx and UPS.