Second Amendment enthusiasts are adding a new front to their right-to-bear-arms battle: knives. In particular, the infamous switchblade, which is banned in many countries, including Australia. Why all the fuss? Well, it all dates back to racism, xenophobia, class warfare and political theatre. Sound familiar? It's no coincidence this was the knife Freddie Grey was arrested for carrying.
But First, A Poem
An Encomium of the Drop-Knife.
No knife is so slick,
It is quick on its trick
And a joy that will last you through life.
There is none 'neath the sun
Just like it, not one,
It's the Schrade Safety Push-Button Knife.
If the button is pressed
The blade does the rest,
Opens out like a thing all alive;
You break no thumb nail
In your efforts — that fail —
If you're owning this Push-Button Knife.
It's the handiest yet,
It is everyone's pet,
And with all good knife merits it's rife.
Its blades are rare steel,
And really ideal
Is this notable Push-Button Knife.
It's the very quick pick
Of club, class, and clique,
Its equal they cannot contrive;
It's a true treasure trove,
And a thing you will love
Is this wonderful Push-Button Knife.
A. W. BELLAW, DeGroff, Ohio
An Italian stiletto or bayonet-style switchblade.
What's A Switchblade?
To start, we should probably define what we're talking about. Let's let the US government do that for us. The Customs (Prohibited Imports) Regulations 1956 defines them by saying:
Automatic knives that have a blade folded or recessed into the handle which are designed or adapted to open automatically by pressure applied to any spring, device, stud or button in or attached to the handle or blade of the knife, including knives commonly known as flick knives, switchblades, assisted opening knives or flipper knives
Basically, a switchblade is a knife where you push a button to spring open the blade. In your head, you're picturing the Schrade ShurSharp, which was most popular during the first half of the 20th century. That knife was made in America, but aped the "Italian Stiletto" blade shape, which was a sabre ground, single-edged blade with a partially sharpened false edge on its back. That's a relatively ancient style which prioritises an ability to thrust or stab over cutting efficiency or utilitarian design.
An early Schrade push button knife. Picture: WRSDesign
Sharp, Sexy... Safe?
Motorcycles and sportscars first achieved mainstream popularity in America when troops brought them home from WWII. And so, too, the switchblade. Schrade was contracted to produce an automatic-opening knife for US paratroopers and soldiers stationed in Italy brought back those Italian stilettos.
In short, the switchblade was sexy. Compared to the very basic nature of pocket knives of the time, the switchblade was both high-tech — it opened with a button! — and exotically dangerous in appearance.
Schrade had actually been manufacturing push-button knives since the turn of the century, marketing them to outdoorsmen, farmers and laborers as the height of labour-saving technology.
A 1904 advertisement from Schrade for its push-button pocket knife read:
Operated With One Hand.
No Breaking of Finger Nails.
Will Not Open in Your Pocket.
Will Not Close on the Fingers When in Use.
The Schrade Safety Push Button Knife, of which we are the exclusive manufacturers, is rapidly becoming the leading knife on the market because of its many advantages over the ordinary pocket knife. Being easily operated with one hand it is far more convenient than the old style pocket knife which necessitates the use of both hands to open and frequently results in broken finger nails... This novel knife is especially suitable for a gift or souvenir, as it is something out of the ordinary, very useful, and when furnished with one of our attractive handles makes an ideal gift.
Ironic that a knife marketed partially for its safety benefits would end up being banned due to its alleged danger.
A Poor Weapon
A modern analogy to the switchblade would be AR-type semi-automatic rifles. Those are black and look like military weapons, so some people think they're cool, but others think they're dangerous. In reality, any gun is only as dangerous as the person using it. And so too, with knives. A folded newspaper can be deadly in the right hands; cars kill more people in the US every year than guns and knives combined.
Analysing the switchblade objectively as a knife enthusiast, it's a crappy weapon. The push button design, which is the only thing banned, introduces a major point of potential failure and that hinge is not only a weak point, but must allow blade "play" in order to function. That's where the knife can wiggle a little, side to side, and that means the blade acts like a lever on that weak point, exacerbating failure. The longer the blade, the weaker that style of knife will be.
As a knife which only works one way — the thrust — it also lacks proper finger guards, tractive handles, jimping or other mechanisms for ensuring your hand doesn't slide down onto the sharp edge. A sharp knife + a tight grip + your hand being soft and full of blood vessels and nerves + poor traction = serious potential for injuring yourself.
A weak knife that only works for stabbing and has poor retention is also one that's likely to be lost or broken during any sort of fight. That's not to say you couldn't use one to kill someone, simply that there are and always have been better options that remain totally legal.
And unlike dedicated weapons such as guns, knives are carried primarily for practical, everyday and emergency uses. Take this letter for instance, written to an individual who had been gifted a switchblade and sent in duplicate to Schrade:
My dear Mr. Goring:
I want to tell you how you saved the lives of twenty-eight
people. You remember presenting a knife to me (Dr. B. E. Hawke)
while travelling with you from New Orleans. Well, I was on the
"Laconia" that was torpedoed and sunk three hundred miles off
the West Coast of Ireland. In lowering our lifeboat into the
water, we got about two-thirds of the way down the ship side
when the rope attached to the front ends on the boat got fast
in the pulley, and as the stern was gradually going down, we
were in a fair way to be dumped into the sea when some one
called for a knife and I happened to have the only one in the
boat and it was the Schrade safety push button knife that you
gave me, so I hastily opened it and cut the rope and let us
loose and down we went to safety. I certainly treasure the
knife and will try and not lose it, and when I get back to
America, will make you a present of it; that is, if you would
care to have it. This was at 9:30 P. M. We were in the boat all
night and picked up by a warship the next morning, wet and cold
and numbed and shivering, but in a week I got pulled together
and am now nicely and completely settled at this hospital...
B. E. HAWKE, M. D.
Menace to Society
"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. It's only a short step from carrying a switchblade to gang warfare."
How's that for melodramatic? And it's just one passage pulled from a 1950 article in Women's Home Companion (of all things) titled, "The Toy That Kills," written by someone who was working as a ghost writer for Harry S. Truman.
During the early '50s, the white middle class became obsessed with the alleged danger posed by gangs of ethnic minorities allegedly roving America's cities. That's one reason for suburbia and the hysteria is what led to the Switchblade Knife Act, as well as the bans by individual states.
Urban street violence was the 1950's version of The War On Christmas. Look over here while we develop the military-industrial complex! And the switchblade was sexy. What began with "The Toy That Kills" led to a raft of newspaper and tabloid stories, all vilifying the switchblade, then Hollywood got in on the act with Rebel Without A Cause, Crime In The Streets, 12 Angry Men, The Delinquents, High School Confidential, etc, of course culminating with the smash hit broadway musical, West Side Story. That debuted in 1957. It's no coincidence that the federal Switchblade Knife Act was passed the next year.
"Isn't it true that this type of knife, switchblade knife, in its several different forms, was developed, actually, abroad, and was developed by the so-called scum, if you want to call it, or the group who are always involved in crime?" asked Senator Frederick G. Payne of Maine during a hearing on the issue. From the same hearing:
"Vicious fantasies of omnipotence, idolatry... barbaric and sadistic atrocities, and monstrous violations of accepted values spring from the cult of the weapon, and the switchblade knife is included in this," stated congressman Sidney R. Yates. "Minus switchblade knives and the 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."
"Every day our newspapers report numerous muggings and attacks, most of them involving knives," shouted representative James J. Delaney. "Can we sit by complacently and ignore the bloodshed in our streets? Doing away with switchblades will not be a cure-all for the crime wave sweeping the nation, but it will remove one of the favourite weapons of our juvenile and criminal element... it was not until about 1949 or 1950 that these things came into common usage. In the gathering of juvenile gangs and clans, nearly every one of them has a switchblade. It is a ritual with some of them to carry switchblades. It is not only the boys, but I was surprised to find that a great number of the girls carry them also."
And thus, push button knives were banned.
Push on the SOG Aegis' thumb stud and a spring opens the knife for you. It's as fast as a switchblade.
The Situation Today
So, all knife crime is gone, right? Well, it turns out that people need knives — just go look in your kitchen — and that laws are subject to much interpretation.
The idea of a folding knife you can safely carry in your pocket, but still open with one hand is a good one. And it's come a long way since the crappy switchblades of the early 20th century. Knife makers now just have to be creative in how they circumvent the law.
Much engineering and refinement has gone into knife mechanisms in the last 57 years. So, many knives can now be opened without any mechanical aid, with a simple flick of the thumb. Knife makers also figured out the biggest loophole in the law, which it turned out was the word "button". Want a knife that springs open? "Assisted" knives, ones in which you have to push on a stud mounted to the blade itself are legal in the US; I own several. (Editor's note: "Assisted" knives fall under the definition of automatic knives, so they are banned in Australia.)
All that has led to a massive grey area and much confusion. You may buy and carry a knife both legitimately and legally, yet still get into legal trouble if you do so. Much of the interpretation falls to police on the streets.
I was once tackled by two plainclothes cops in Brooklyn. One had seen the pocket clip of my knife as I walked past his car and put two and two together — nerdy white guy in Williamsburg with a knife? Must be a criminal. My knife — a SOG Access Card 2.0 — was legal and the cops actually couldn't figure out how to open it, so they got bored and went off to harass someone else.
It's a situation that leads to much confusion and, potentially a wilful misinterpretation of the law. Most of the burden for legality sits on the shoulders of knife makers and retailers, who have no incentive to make or sell illegal knives. Knives that are totally legal actually work better, faster and more reliably than switchblades. It'd take real effort to source and purchase a switchblade and you'd sacrifice utility and weaponyness in doing so. Anecdotally, no one does that. It just wouldn't make sense. Yet these laws are still used every day. Witness Freddie Grey.
Freddie was said to be carrying an assisted opening knife, of the kind described above, causing him to be arrested by Baltimore police. They claimed the knife was a switchblade, yet it was later shown to be of a totally legal type.
No one carries switchblades anymore, the laws around them now serve only to obfuscate real issues, provide police a way to trump up charges and generally get in the way of us being a happy country that has bigger things to worry about. Passing legislation based on the plots of Broadway musicals is just a bad idea.