AskDefine | Define switchblade

Dictionary Definition

switchblade n : a pocketknife with a blade that springs open at the press of a button [syn: switchblade knife, flick knife]

User Contributed Dictionary



  1. A folding knife with a blade which opens automatically (under spring pressure) when a button is pressed.


a folding knife with a blade which opens automatically (under spring pressure) when a button is pressed
  • Danish: springkniv
  • Finnish: stiletti

Extensive Definition

A switchblade (also known as automatic knife, switch, or in British English flick knife) is a type of knife with a folding or sliding blade that springs out of the grip when a button or lever on the grip is pressed.
Switchblades are legal weapons in Russia and parts of the U.S.A., often covered by very specific laws— people believe that these laws appear to have been enacted at times of moral panic by newspapers and films about supposed knife use. This was most striking in the late 1950s, when films such as The Wild One in 1954, Rebel Without a Cause and High School Confidential in 1955, and the Broadway play West Side Story in 1957 about rebellious youth, The Outsiders 1967 novel and 1983 film all featured switchblades, and were closely followed by the US Switchblade Act of 1958 (a federal law; individual state laws differ widely). This US federal law was closely followed by the UK Restriction of Offensive Weapons Act 1959.


Automatic knives started out as personal defense weapons. The first switchblade may be lost to history, or perhaps hiding in a museum collection of renaissance armor. The earliest known examples of spring loaded blades are automatic folding spike bayonets on flintlock pistols and coach guns. Museum examples dating from the 1700's are mostly English and French origin. These are unique pieces were produced one at a time from wrought iron and not considered mass production knives. Hand made automatic knives of this era may not have makers marks or tang stamps and are hard to date or catalog. By 1790, combination pistol/spring dirks appear as standardized products by gun makers. Examples of steel automatic folding knives from Sheffield England have crown markings that date prior to 1840. Tang stamps Tillotson, A.Davey, Beaver, Hobson, Ibbotson and others produced automatics that have either simple iron bolsters and stag handles, see Fig A, or ornate embossed silver alloy bolsters. These long slender locking blades with elegant blade grinds are often found built as manual lockbacks. Some English knives have a "pen release" instead of a central handle button, see Fig B. The main spring activated larger blade is released by pressing down on the closed smaller pen blade. Also in the 1800's folding French personal defense knives, marked Chatellerault were available in both automatic and manual in standardized sizes, see Fig C. Chatelleraults have recognizable features such as "S" shaped cross guards, picklock type mechanisms and engraved decorative pearl and ivory handles. About the same time in Spain, Admiral D'Estaing is attributed with a type of folding navel dirk/weapon that doubled as an eating utensil, see Fig D. When folded closed, the blade tip would extend beyond the handle to be used at the dining table. Then it could be spring activated to full length if needed as a side arm. Released by a lever, instead of a handle button.
After the American Civil War (1865), knife production became industrialized. The oldest American made production automatic is the Korn Patent knife, with a rocking bolster release. By 1890, advertising and customer response began to have a great effect on knife production. Automatic versions of utilitarian non-weapon models such as farmers jack-knives and pen knives became readily available. Advertising showed a small ladies hand working a fly-lock automatic pen knife with the caption urging women to buy one for their sewing kit so as not to break their fingernails opening a normal pen knife. Some automatic knives were advertised for defense use, and were made with designs that appeared intimidating. But these American made knives were still basically jack knives, lengths not exceeding 20cm open. Around the turn of the century, George Schrade retained the patents for several practical automatic pen knife designs. The New York Press Button Knife Co., and then later Shrade-Walden Knives manufactured many varieties. Other companies like Imperial and Remington paid royalties to Schrade,and produced similar knives which are known as "contract knives".
Italian knifemakers have their own style of knives, some have characteristics similar to the early French Chatellerault, others are quite unique. Before World War II (1938), hand crafted automatic self defense knives marked Campobasso or Frosolone are often called "Flat guards" because of the two piece top bolster design. These Italian designs became most favored, and evolved into the 1950's Italian switchblade and similar manual stilettos called "Picklocks".
After 1945, soldiers returning from europe brought home the early types of Italian stilettos. American entrepreneurs capitalized on this market. Until this time, automatic knives in America were largely utilitarian, but in the 1950's great numbers of "novelty knives" were sold. Novelty knives included weapon-like stilettos that range in size from 3 inches to actual weapons over a foot in length. Some are flimsy souvenier knives made for tourists, and others were made with solid materials and workmanship. Unlike American factories, Italian fabricators were "cottage industries" of family members in separate small shops. Increased sales affected the production methods and each year refinements to the designs and methods of manufacture produced new variations. Post WWII import laws required importers to stamp each knife with the importers name on the blade tang. It is the great variety of yearly design changes, and importers tang stamps that make collecting switchblades so interesting. Also in the 1950's, Japanese manufacturers began to copy Italian designs and made lower quality knives.
Toward the end of the 1950's sensationalist tabloid press invented the image of the young delinquent with a switchblade or flick knife, and it became self perpetuating. Street gangs of kids used switchblades as badge of membership. Magazine articles affected the public perception of automatic knives in a negative manner, claiming outlawing switchblades would stop gang violence. Politicians used the topic to get re-elected, by outlawing switchblades, werewolves in comic books, and dime novels with cop killers.
Prior to the prohibition, it was common to see a hardware store display tiny automatic keychain knives on cards with all shapes and colors of plastic handles. The intention of stopping children from carrying weapons resulted in laws prohibiting one hand utility knives used by sailors on fishing trawlers, who might need to cut a net free in high seas. The prohibition became so widespread that dictionaries were excised of the word switchblade. Even today, it is difficult to trace the first use of the word "switchblade" in literature, because of edited editions.
In the early 1960's, production of American made switchblades was limited to military contract paratrooper knives. In Italy, switchblades were made with a composite of modern parts and leftover old style parts. These types of Italian knives are called "Transitionals" and were still available in other countries. Around this time, the "Picklock" became obsolete, replaced by the tilting bolster model. The Golden Age of hand crafted Italian switchblades had come to an end. And although many varieties of automatics were still in production, the quantities of automatics dropped. Before the modern age of anti-terrorist customs, switchblades still managed to migrate with tourists into prohibited areas. Manual folding stilettos were still available in great numbers, but additional legislation outlawed bayonet point or double edged knives resulting in a production trend of clip point stilettos.
In the 1970's modern production methods seemed to stabilize, and samples found from this time are typical of automatics made up through the year 2000. In the 1980's, sales of automatic knives had a comeback with the concept of kit knives. Since no law prohibited switchblade parts, assembly was the purchasers risk. This loophole was short lived, eventually prohibited also.
Switchblades from the 1930s to the 50s have a high amount of hand craftsmanship and are very collectible. Recent mass production methods tend to yield cheaper knives with thinner materials and less detail work. However, there are a fair number of knife companies and custom makers who build high-quality automatic knives for military, emergency personnel, and for knife collectors. Some famous automatic knife manufacturers include Microtech Knives, Gerber Legendary Blades, ProTech, Benchmade, Dalton, Boker/Magnum, Severtech, Spyderco, and Piranha. Then there are the Italian manufacturers famous for the classic stiletto style switchblade. Included among these are Frank Beltrame, whose family has been making automatics for over 50 years, and AGA Campolin, another family concern that has been in the business for some 60 years.
Automatic knives (known tang stamps) 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, Tiawan, U.S.A.

Overview of designs

The varieties of button or lever mechanisms, blade locks, safeties, single or multi-blade and spring configurations are so numerous that a complete listing is virtually impossible. Several books, periodicals and newsletters have been written to aid in cataloging for collectors. See Collector Terminology listed below.
There are two basic types of switchblades, side-opening/folding switchblades and OTF switchblades (Out-The-Front or telescoping). A side-opening knife's blade pivots out of the side of the handle (in the same manner as an ordinary folding knife, except with the press of a button). An out-the-front knife's blade slides directly forward, out of the tip of the handle. There are two types of (out the front) OTF knife: double action and single action.
Double action OTFs allow the user to extend or retract the blade with the press of a sliding button. Spring tension in these knives is actually provided by the movement of the button, which makes them much safer to carry since they will not open accidentally. However, the extra force the spring requires can also make intentional opening more difficult.
Single Action OTFs require the user to retract the blade manually and compress the spring. Because they often use a lever to compress the spring, stronger springs can be used. This makes them open more vigorously than the double-action type, and allows them to achieve tighter lock-up.
The word stiletto is sometimes used in English to refer to a switchblade however a stiletto is a short knife or dagger, with a long slender blade of various designs and does not necessarily insinuate that it is an automatic switchblade. Switchblade Stilettos should not be confused with or the non-automatic stiletto linerlock or lockback version folding knives.
The side-opening switchblade should not be confused with the butterfly knife also called the Balisong or Batangas
The side-opening switchblade should not be confused with the Assisted-Opening Knife also referred to as the A/O Knife, Torsion Assist Knife, Assisted Knife, Spring Assist Knife, Spring Assisted Knife, Quick Release, Quick Draw, Alternative Automatic and the Semi-Auto. An assisted-opening knife is a knife that when you push on the thumb stud to open it a spring takes over and propels the blade open. Assisted knives make a great alternative to automatic knives. An assisted-opening knife is a type of knife which uses an assisted mechanism behind the blade. They open by the ambidextrous thumb stud on the blade with a slight bit of pressure. They are commonly confused with switchblades, but have one main difference. While a switchblade can be opened usually with the push of a button within the handle, the user of a spring-assisted knife must apply slight pressure to the thumb stud and the spring/torsion assisted mechanism does the rest. Once the knife has been opened about one-quarter of the way (45°), the mechanism will open the knife the rest of the way. In basic essence the main difference between a full-auto and an assisted-opening knife is the external trigger, and the internal power source. A full-auto uses a spring to power the blade and a button to release the blade from the handle. By contrast, a assisted-opening knife uses a pre-tensioned crescent shaped steel bar to provide the power, and the user is required to depress the blade in some way - either by the use of a thumb stud or some protrusion on the blade itself. Because the user’s hands are clear of the sharpened portion of the blade during deployment they are far safer than a traditional knife where the users hand must come into forcible contact with the blade. Small differences admittedly, but differences nonetheless; and the law is all about detail. Thus a assisted-opening knife is not prohibited in the US, UK, or Canada in the same way that a full-auto is and logically this makes sense - ANY knife (or ANY other tool for that matter) can be dangerous in the wrong hands IRRESPECTIVE of configuration, size, ease of use, or geometry. This amounts to criminal abuse of what is just a tool let's not forget. When Kershaw revealed the Chive at the Shotshow in America during 2003, people were amazed at the simplicity of it’s' design. After all, how could someone pack so much technological advancement into such a small package? Acclaimed American custom knife maker Ken Onion is the man behind this wonderful new design. But perhaps the origin's of Mr. Onion's marvel need a little more exploring. Kershaw's little Chive has proved to be quite a controversial showpiece. So what's the secret behind it's incredibly easy-to-use blade deployment mechanism...Some have questioned the legality of carrying something that opens so readily, yet the law is quite clear. Switchblade Automatic knives are defined as an auto as 'operated by a button or any other device attached to the handle'. Of course, the Chive has neither a spring nor any device attached to the handle, relying instead on a pre-tensioned steel bar to provide the power (an invention pioneered by Blackie Collins on the Meyerco Power Assisted range). It also features an extended tang that protrudes from the handle, another idea developed from Kit Carson's Flipper system found on his Columbia River M16 models. Combine the two ideas and ... wow! It's fast alright, but still within the limits of acceptability. Some argue that this just exploits a loophole within the law, but I would point out that this is just extremely clever conceptual design and it should be appreciated as such. Kershaw promote the safety aspect of the design, and irrespective of whether it is fast or not, you can't escape the fact that the whole idea is to provide a tool which is easily and readily available for use with maximum safety in mind.
A new variation of the switchblade is a Dual-Action design that allows the user to manually open the knife as though it were a manual (and legal) folding knife. Often, the trigger for such knives is hidden in a grip panel, these are commonly referred to as Hidden Release or Hidden Scale, The user is required to move the scale away from the body of the handle or squeeze or twist the handle in a certain fashion, or is hidden in some other manner such as the Colt M-16-K, Boker Plus Tactical Action 2 Linerlock, or the Smith & Wesson SWAT series.


Regardless of specific legislation, in common law countries switchblades (like other knives) are likely to be considered as offensive weapons and carrying them in public "without lawful authority or reasonable excuse" to be illegal.
Switchblades however, are often covered by specific law. Such laws generally restrict one or more of the following: manufacture, export, importation, sale, possession, or carrying in a public place.


In Australia, switchblades are banned by the Customs (Prohibited Imports) Regulations as a Prohibited Import.
At a state level, most jurisdictions declare them to be prohibited weapons in their respective acts, codes and regulations. Persons residing in states which do not have specific weapons legislation covering switchblades (eg, Tasmania) are still covered by Federal Customs legislation, but in circumstances where the state has no legislation against such items, an exemption may be applied for, after approval by the Head of the Police service in that state.
Some states which have specific legislation against switchblades allow individuals to apply for an exemption from this legislation if they have a legitimate reason. For Example, in the state of Victoria, a member of a bona fide knife collectors association, who is not a prohibited person (per the Firearms Act 1996), and meets other guidelines and conditions may apply to the Chief Commissioner of Police for a Prohibited Weapons Exemption, to possess, carry, or otherwise own such a knife.
This exemption may then, in turn, be used to apply to the Australian Customs Service for an import permit.
Australian Customs refer to all Switchblades as Flick Knives
Australian Legal Definition: A flick knife (or other similar device) that has a blade which opens automatically by gravity or centrifugal force or by any pressure applied to a button, spring or device in or attached to the handle of the knife .


Switchblades are not legal to sell, buy, trade, carry or otherwise possess. Part III of the criminal code first defines such knives as prohibited weapons (arme prohibee). "A knife that has a blade that opens automatically by gravity or centrifugal force or by hand pressure applied to a button, spring or other device in or attached to the handle of the knife." Different subsections of the code describe possession offenses and penalties. They are however, criminalized.
The Canadian Criminal Code states exactly this:
In sec. (84)(1)(b) "any knife that has a blade that opens automatically by gravity or centrifugal force, or by hand pressure applied to a button, spring or other device attached to the handle of the knife".
There are no other knife banning laws in Canada. Weblink Canada's Criminal Code


Most switchblades are illegal to own, import or export. However, if the blade is side-opening, a maximum of 8.5 cm long, the breadth is a minimum of 20% of length, and is not double-edged, they are legal.

New Zealand

The Customs Import Prohibition Order 2002 prohibits the importation of "any knife having a blade that opens automatically by hand pressure applied to a button, spring, or other device in or attached to the handle of the knife (sometimes known as a “flick-knife” or “flick gun”)". The Summary Offenses Act 1981 and the Crimes Act 1961 section 202A(4)(a) make it an offense to possess any weapon in a public place without reasonable excuse.

United Kingdom

The "manufacture, import, sale or hire, or offer of sale or hire, or lending or giving to any other person" of switchblades in the UK is illegal under the Restriction of Offensive Weapons Act 1959. Technically it is not illegal to possess such a knife as long as it is held within the home, although the knife would have to be pre-1959 vintage or its sale would have been illegal.
The prohibition upon Switchblades (or full-auto's to give them their correct term) was passed 50 years ago in response to some quite horrific attacks by the so-called Teddy Boys of the era.
Later legislation (under the authority of the Criminal Justice Act 1988 adds similar restrictions for a wider range of other knives and weapons. In Scotland the details differ, but the overall effect is similar.
Offensive Weapons Act 1959 States:
(1) Any person who manufactures, sells or hires or offers for sale or hire, [F1 or exposes or has in his possession for the purpose of sale or hire] or lends or gives to any other person— (a) any knife which has a blade which opens automatically by hand pressure applied to a button, spring or other device in or attached to the handle of the knife, sometimes known as a “flick knife” or “flick gun”; or (b) any knife which has a blade which is released from the handle or sheath thereof by the force of gravity or the application of centrifugal force and which, when released, is locked in place by means of a button, spring, lever, or other device, sometimes known as a “gravity knife”, shall be guilty of an offence and shall be liable on summary conviction in the case of a first offence to imprisonment for a term not exceeding three months or to a fine not exceeding [F2 fifty pounds] [ F2 level 4 on the standard scale] orto both such imprisonment and fine, and in the case of a second orsubsequent offence to imprisonment for a term not exceeding six months or to a fine not exceeding [F2 two hundred pounds] [ F2 level 4 on the standard scale]or to both such imprisonment and fine. (2) The importation of any such knife as is described in the foregoing subsection is hereby prohibited.

United States

Federal law
The Switchblade Act, (public law 85-623, enacted on August 12, 1958, and codified in 15 USC 1241-1245), prohibits possession on Federal lands, Indian reservations, military bases, District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and other protectorates. It prohibits manufacture and sale of switchblades in interstate commerce. It provides exceptions for manufacture pursuant to government contract, and use by Law enforcement, government agencies, members of the Armed Forces, and for one-armed persons. The act was amended in 1986 to also restrict ballistic knives. Federal law controls Federal aspects only, and does not mandate prohibition within an individual state. It does say specified knives can not be mailed through the U.S.Postal Service, and provides penalty exceptions for other common carriers/shipping companies doing normal business.
Title 18 USC 1716 (G) (2) (1-4) provides this summary. Federal law prohibits shipment of automatic knives across state lines, with the following exceptions: Switchblade knives can be shipped: (1) to civilian or Armed Forces supply or procurement officers and employees of the Federal Government ordering, procuring, or purchasing such knives in connection with the activities of the Federal Government; (2) to supply or procurement officers of the National Guard, the Air National guard, or militia of a state, territory or the District of Columbia ordering, procuring, or purchasing such knives in the connection with the activities of such organization; (3) to supply or procurement officers or employees of the municipal government of the District of Columbia or the government of any State or Territory, or any county, city or other political subdivision of a State or Territory; procuring or purchasing such knives in connection with the activities of such government. (4) to manufacturers of such knives or bona fide dealers therein in connection with any shipment made pursuant of an order from any person designated in paragraphs (1), (2), and (3).
Title 15 USC 1244 provides in summary: Knives can be shipped by common carrier, that sale, transportation or distribution, possession or introduction into interstate commerce of switchblade knives is authorized if it is pursuant to a contract with the armed forces or any member or employee thereof acting in the performance of his or her duty may possess switchblade knives and may have them shipped to him and sold to him or her. The possession and transportation upon his or her person of a switchblade knife or a blade 3 inches or less is authorized to any handicap individual who has the use of only one arm.
State laws
Each individual state (and sometimes individual counties, cities, and towns) may, and often do, have laws restricting weapons including knives, often specifically mentioning switchblades. Laws often refer to blade lengths and styles to define tools with useful purposes. The definition of a legal knife is often taken in context with the situation. Some states allow police officers to declare any object, screwdriver or broken bottle as an offensive weapon. These state laws differ greatly. Switchblade knives are legal in some U.S. States in one way or another for citizens. Switchblade knives are legal in all U.S. states for Military personnel and other qualified individuals.
Example, in California:
''653k. Every person who possesses in the passenger's or driver's area of any motor vehicle in any public place or place open to the public, carries upon his or her person, and every person who sells, offers for sale, exposes for sale, loans, transfers, or gives to any other person a switchblade knife having a blade two or more inches in length is guilty of a misdemeanor. For the purposes of this section, "switchblade knife" means a knife having the appearance of a pocketknife, and includes a spring-blade knife, snap-blade knife, gravity knife or any other similar type knife, the blade or blades of which are two or more inches in length and which can be released automatically by a flick of a button, pressure on the handle, flip of the wrist or other mechanical device, or is released by the weight of the blade or by any type of mechanism whatsoever. "Switchblade knife" does not include a knife that opens with one hand utilizing thumb pressure applied solely to the blade of the knife or a thumb stud attached to the blade, provided that the knife has a detent or other mechanism that provides resistance that must be overcome in opening the blade, or that biases the blade back toward its closed position. For purposes of this section, "passenger's or driver's area" means that part of a motor vehicle which is designed to carry the driver and passengers, including any interior compartment or space therein.
Connecticut law states that:
§ 53-206. Carrying of dangerous weapons prohibited.
(a) Any person who carries upon one's person any BB. gun, blackjack, metal or brass knuckles, or any dirk knife, or any switch knife, or any knife having an automatic spring release device by which a blade is released from the handle, having a blade of over one and one-half inches in length, or stiletto, or any knife the edged portion of the blade of which is four inches or over in length, any police baton or nightstick, or any martial arts weapon or electronic defense weapon, as defined in section 53a-3, or any other dangerous or deadly weapon or instrument, shall be fined not more than five hundred dollars or imprisoned not more than three years or both. Whenever any person is found guilty of a violation of this section, any weapon or other instrument within the provisions of this section, found upon the body of such person, shall be forfeited to the municipality wherein such person was apprehended, notwithstanding any failure of the judgment of conviction to expressly impose such forfeiture''
In 2003, Florida Governor Jeb Bush overturned a questionable law stating "No one shall carry a self propelled knife". The law was cleared up to allow Florida residents to use switchblade knives. (Portion of 790.225, F.S)
The American Knife and Tool Institute ( AKTI ), is addressing the inequities of regional law, by refining a glossary of knife terms including switchblades, stilettos, Bowies and gravity knives. The definitions are cultured from court rulings and first hand knowledge by collectors. The AKTI hopes the use of this glossary will achieve standardized common terms for knife types or measuring points among legal officers and and collectors, leading to sensible knife legislation and law enforcement, with considerations to the knife makers and collectors in America today.

Switchblade Collectors Terminology

The number of switchblade variants is so great, beyond listing in this enclopedia article, that this list of terms is offered to impress upon the reader the endless features and combinations. Space is not available to write a definition for each term. Some automatic mechanisms are so specific to a manufacturer that the brand name is used to describe the machinery, such as Ka-bar Grizzly, or Aerial, or Korn patent rocker release or Case Zipper.
Terms describing specific types of button release mechanisms;
Leverlock, Reverse Lever, Press Button, Square button, Oval button, Tall button, Fat button, Flat button, Flylock, Double D Stamp, Pinned Tab, Exposed Bar, Pull-Ball, Penblade Release, Squeeze Knife, Clamshell, Toggle, Modern Spoon, Double Action, Scale Release, Lanyard Release, Bolster Release,
Terms describing specific blade locking mechanisms associated with automatics;
Lockback, Picklock, Humpback, Fulcrum release, Ring pull, Tilt bolster, Cam lock, Liner lock, Button open/close, Clasp knife,
Terms describing unique and different mainspring or kickspring designs;
Dovetail spring, Slip in spring, One piece spring, Round Rod spring, Stacked spring, Beveled spring, Coil spring, Pinned spring, Torsion spring, Leaf spring
Terms describing blade grinds or types associated with automatics, (Damascus, Teflon & Stainless are not specific to automatics or stilettos)
Dagger grind, Bayonet, Bayo, Plain blade, Swedge Blade, Half grind, Ramped sear hole, Long Tang, Kris blade,
Terms describing general condition or repair problem specific to automatics
Proud blade, Popper, Kickback, Banana, Bent spine, Liner gap,
Other terms used to describe switchblade types (not brand names unless it is mechanism specific)
Swing guard, Flat Guard, Fish, fish tail, wasp waist, Shuresnap, Bowtie, Full lined Ears, double end, shellpuller, NATO, Red-dot safety, Trapdoor, Fish bonker, Conversion, Transitional, Paratrooper, Side cocker, No-Button, Shell Wrap, Derby bolster, Toothpick, Custom, Tactical, Spikes, Cupids, Catalanas, Lazy W, Lefty (left handed design)


switchblade in German: Springmesser
switchblade in Finnish: Stiletti
switchblade in French: Couteau#Couteaux_automatiques
switchblade in Dutch: Stiletto
switchblade in Norwegian: Springkniv
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