Story and Photos by Michael Janich
I have been fascinated with switchblades since I was in fifth grade, when I first read the classic novel The Outsiders. Unfortunately, that was the early 70’s, more than a decade after the passage of the 1958 Federal Switchblade Act and long before the internet. Buying a switchblade back then was a whole lot harder than it is now.
Ultimately, I managed to acquire a few old-school switchblades from friends and even smuggled a couple back from day trips to Tijuana and Acuña, Mexico. While I was glad I could finally satisfy my interest, and the thrill of snapping my prized possessions open never faded, I began to realize that traditional switchblades were novelty items or, at best, light-duty utility knives. They were not the fearsome weapons I originally thought them to be.
Although I will admit that I was disappointed with my revelation, it did little to curb my appetite for automatic knives. During the 1980’s, I bought and assembled the switchblade “kit” knives that skirted the laws back then. In the 1990’s, I lived in Bangkok for a few years and bought switchblades from street vendors.
While my collection steadily grew, the quality of those knives did little to change my opinion of the real-world usefulness of traditional switchblades.
In 1987, a custom knifemaker in Florida, named Ron Miller, produced a revolutionary aluminum-handled, coil-spring-driven automatic knife with a button-lock mechanism. Ultimately known as “the black knife,” it laid the groundwork for the modern era of automatic knives.
Miller’s design not only set a new standard in design and engineering, but its execution proved that it was possible to make a precision, high-quality automatic knife that locked up solid and provided all the performance of a conventional folder.
As is often the case in the knife world, what happens in the custom arena drives trends on the production side. In addition to major players like Benchmade, Gerber, Microtech and Spyderco, the increasing availability of relatively low-cost CNC machinery also lowered the barrier of entry for small-scale auto-knife producers.
While all this was going on, organizations like Knife Rights were systematically challenging and overturning the state laws that prohibited the ownership and carry of switchblades.
The result is the current modern era of automatic knives, where we have a seemingly endless supply of knives to choose from, they’re readily available for purchase, and, depending on where you live, they’re often completely legal to carry.
While I’m all for the brave new world of switchblades, one question remains to be answered: Are autos—even today’s state-of-the-art autos—good choices for self-defense?
To answer this, let’s first address the issue of cutting performance. Old-school switchblades often had blades of marginal-quality steel that were sometimes not even hardened. They also tended to be very narrow, which compromised their edge geometry and cutting performance.
Modern autos feature the same blade steels, heat treating and edge geometry as today’s best conventional folding knives and, when properly designed and executed, will cut and puncture just as well as any other modern knife.
Most classic switchblades had flat leaf-style kick springs that only powered the blade through the initial portion of its opening arc. To open the rest of the way, the blade relied on the inertia of its initial spring kick and a purposely loose fit of the pivot.
Similarly, the lock mechanisms of most traditional autos left a lot to be desired. Some consisted of nothing more than the pin of the firing button’s lever arm nesting in a hole in the blade tang. Others used variations on the back-lock concept, but even the best of them were still unreliable.
Modern automatics, on the other hand, usually feature button or “plunge” locks that offer excellent lock strength, while remaining easy to operate. Some designs combine a button-style release with a separate lock, like a liner-lock, to offer even greater strength. Once again, this makes them just as dependable and capable as manual-opening folders.
One notable exception to this rule is the double-action out-the-front (OTF) automatic. Due to the temperamental nature of this breed, and the need for the blade to slide freely within the handle, even the best examples do not offer serious lock strength—especially when the knife is used to thrust. As cool as they are, they should not be considered for serious self-defense use.
Like many classic switchblades, modern button-lock autos also have sliding safeties that block the button from being depressed. This prevents accidental firing in the closed position and accidental lock release when the blade is in use. While this can be a very useful feature, it can also be a hindrance when it comes to getting the knife into action quickly.
On the positive side, just like their manual-opening brethren, modern autos are typically equipped with pocket clips. This allows them to be conveniently carried and keeps them poised at the top of the pocket for instant access. Classic switchblades lacked this feature.
All things considered, modern side-opening automatic knives are every bit as good as today’s state-of-the-art manual folders. Once open, and in your hand, they have all the qualities necessary to serve you well in a personal-defense situation. However, depending upon their specific design, getting them out and open is not as easy as it may seem—even with their spring-loaded blades.
Autos equipped with pocket clips can be drawn just as fast as their manual counterparts; however, once they are drawn, the process of operating the firing button can actually make them slower to get into action. The reason is that indexing that button is a fine motor skill. If you have to release the safety before finding and pressing the button, that’s a really fine motor skill.
Of course, you could choose to carry the knife with the safety off, but you’d run the risk of accidentally bumping the firing button and having the blade spring open in your pocket. How big is that risk? Well, it all goes back to design.
Autos with proud buttons that require only a light touch, and carry tip-down, can be a recipe for a spontaneous circumcision. Knives with recessed buttons that require more deliberate pressure and carry tip-up—so the spine of the blade rests against the back of the pocket—are less likely to fire accidentally or cause serious injury when they do.
The first rule of knife self-defense is: have a knife. If that knife is an auto, “having” it means being able to carry it safely and being able to deploy it quickly and reliably under stress. If you’re considering carrying a switchblade for personal-defense, take a very hard look at how the button operates and how the safety, if any, works in concert with the button.
Autos with well-designed controls allow you to find the safety by tactile sense, operate it smoothly and flow seamlessly into the operation of the button. Their pocket clips also allow the knife to ride in such a way that the chances of accidental opening are minimized and, when the knife is drawn, your hand ends up perfectly positioned to index the firing controls.
Conversely, switchblades with small, hard-to-find, difficult-to-operate safeties, hair-trigger buttons, and poorly designed clips should be avoided. As cool as they may seem as collector’s items, they are not worth trusting in a lethal-force encounter.
According to Knife Rights (https://kniferights.org/switchblade-legality/)—an outstanding organization that has led the charge in knife-law reform for years—currently 34 States have no restrictions on the possession or everyday/open carry of switchblades. Of these, 29 allow concealed carry; however, there are some significant limitations associated with these laws.
For example, I was amazed to learn that switchblades are legal—even for concealed carry—in the liberal state of Massachusetts; however, when you read the fine print, they are legal only if they have blades of 1.5 inches or less.
Also, it’s important to know whether a state has preemption with regard to switchblade legality. In states that do not, it’s possible that smaller jurisdictions could prohibit the carry of an automatic knife that is permissible elsewhere in the state.
Before you carry any weapon for self-defense, you need to research all applicable laws. This is particularly true of weapons like switchblades, since they have a serious and well-established stigma associated with them.
If you travel, the challenges of staying legally compliant obviously get a lot more complicated. If you are forced to travel to an area that does not permit the carry of your preferred automatic knife, you need to have a back-up plan for both your tool and your deployment skills.
For folks who travel a lot, carrying an auto is probably not a great idea.
Carrying a weapon and having the ability to deploy it under stress are only half the battle; you also need to have the skill to use that weapon effectively.
Ideally, you should be able to integrate all those skills in your training, so you practice drawing, opening and using your weapon against a determined training partner, all in one fluid continuum. To do that, you need a purpose-designed training knife that replicates the mechanical function of your live-blade but allows safe contact with your partner.
Training versions of manual-opening folders are readily available, but auto trainers are a very rare breed. Benchmade did manufacture a trainer version of their 5000 AUTO Presidio for a while, but it has been discontinued.
To my knowledge, no other company is currently producing auto trainers suitable for safe contact practice with a partner.
Even if you do everything right and are carrying an automatic knife 100 percent legally, if you use it in self-defense, you need to realize the odds are stacked against you if you have to justify your actions in court.
Most of what the legal system sees is the felonious use of knives, so it has grown to be biased against them, in general. If you compound that by choosing a style of knife that was officially demonized by federal law for about 40 years, justifying your actions as lawful self-defense gets even harder.
I love automatic knives—especially the current generation of them, which offers the same high performance as the best manual folding knives. However, when you take a hard look at them as personal-defense weapons, I believe their disadvantages outweigh their advantages. K&G
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Martial Blade Conceptswww.MartialBladeConcepts.com
Nine-year veteran of the U.S. Army Intelligence and Security Command, Michael Janich also served a 3-year tour at the National Security Agency. Highly decorated, Michael is a two-time graduate of the Defense Language Institute and served around the world in intelligence and investigative capacities for many years. Utilizing his extensive training in various martial arts and military/LE combatives, he established Paladin Press’ Video Production Department in 1994, running all aspects of video production for 10 years – personally recruiting some of Paladin’s most popular authors and being selected to work with the late Col. Rex Applegate as the producer of his landmark instructional videos on handgun point shooting. Published book and magazine author, Michael has been featured on various television programs and designed knives for many different knife companies throughout the industry. Michael is the founder and lead instructor of his signature knife defense program, Martial Blade Concepts.
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