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The History of Automatic Knives

Automatic knives of every stripe are cool, no doubt about it. They possess panache, flair, a fascinating clockwork complexity — a sense of style that strains the adjectives we apply to them. Automatic knives in general (and switchblades in particular) have appeared in countless films, served as plot devices in novels, and become part of the monikers of a large number of bands. They’ve definitely earned a place in popular culture.

But did you know that style wasn’t the primary reason why automatic knives were invented? In fact, they had very practical purposes and have played many roles over their nearly 300-year-old history. In this article, we’ll discuss when the automatic knife was invented, the various permutations it has undergone over the years, the purposes it has been put to, and why the automatic knives you use today are part of a noble tradition.

The 18th Century: Folding Spike Bayonets and Clock Springs

The exact origins of the switchblade are difficult to pinpoint. Most students of history point to the mid-18th century when discussing this particular kind of blade, pointing at the development of folding spike bayonets attached to various kinds of flintlocks. These pointy stabbing weapons bear little resemblance to the stilettos and OTF knives we think of today, but their operating principle is functionally similar.

A central figure in the development of the first automatic knives was one Benjamin Huntsman, a lock maker, tool maker, and clock maker. The native of Sheffield, England, eventually moved on to steel manufacturing, and his developments were so monumental that Sheffield came to be known as Steel City. When it came to automatic knives, though, his contribution was smaller, although still essential. His tempered clock springs powered those folding bayonets — and other implements. Soon Sheffield would see the rise of other kinds of automatic blades and they would start to spread throughout the world.

The 19th Century: The Automatic Knife Idea Expands

By the 19th century, Sheffield inventors had begun to incorporate automatic spring opening into knives as well as bayonets, and more than five producers crafted their own models. The idea migrated across the English Channel, and France began producing so-called Chatellerault knives, which were named for a medieval settlement renowned for its swordmaking. Many Chatellerault knives were folding, but others introduced automatic varieties. Some configurations included blade lengths that could extend beyond the handle, making them appropriate both for practical purposes such as eating and for fighting. According to some accounts, Chatellerault knives were employed in naval contexts.

Eventually, the Spanish started making automatic knives, and the idea migrated across the Atlantic to the young nation known as the United States of America. Documentation is naturally spotty, but some odd examples have turned up, such as spring-loaded knives that doubled as a last-ditch, holdout firearm. The advent of mass production would see the creation of recognizable brands such as the Korn Patent Knife and the New York Press Button Knife Company.

The 20th Century: American Pragmatism and Italian Ingenuity

European designs for automatic knives started to trend toward the ornamental, particularly in Spain where precious metals and rare substances such as pearl began to appear on handles of automatic knives. In the United States, though, practical designs surged. Multiple manufacturers produced automatic knives marketed to farmer and laborers. While many today associate automatic designs with combat-related blades, the early years of American mass production saw them sold as labor-saving devices designed for workers who often had one hand occupied when they needed their knives.

Eventually, practicality would also come to the continent. In 1937, Germany introduced the Fallschirmjägermesser, a unique kind of automatic knife that used gravitational force rather than stored kinetic energy to deploy the blade. This sort of folding knife had a lever on its side that would release the blade when pressed, but it lacked a spring. Instead, the user would rely on gravity to open the knife, which is why these kinds of automatic knives came to be called gravity knives. Similar to American designs, these gravity knives had a practical — if highly specialized — purpose. Assigned to German flight crews and paratroopers, they were intended to help trapped soldiers cut their parachute cords or even saw through hulls in the event of a crash. As such, the Fallschirmjägermesser had a distinctly utilitarian bent, minimizing the knife’s point.

A dramatic reimagining of the automatic knife in the United States wouldn’t happen until the end of World War 2.  American soldiers returned home with slim, dagger-like Italian stilettos, and suddenly the public began to see the automatic knife less as a tool and more as a object of both beauty and danger. Unfortunately, some didn’t approve of this new direction, and their distaste would lead to governmental action.

20th Century: Federal Action and Restrictions

Italian-style stilettos took the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave by storm, and it was only a matter of time until their sleek and stark design drew significant disapproval. Public opinion pieces began to appear across the nation, their content typified by a November 1950 article in Woman’s Home Companion entitled “The Toy That Kills.” In it, author Jack Harrison Pollack wrote, “Do you remember the days when firecrackers used to kill, burn and maim scores of youngsters every year? Aroused parents finally put a stop to it. They banded together all over the country to force the passage of local ordinances governing the sale and use of fireworks — and now a firecracker casualty is a rarity. … Today we are confronted with a new toy that kills. Fortunately, this new menace can be controlled just as effectively as fireworks have been — if parents will just step in and do it. This new threat to our children’s safety is a pocket-knife called a switchblade.”

Pollack went on to call automatic knives a device “for committing violence,” a “deadly weapon,” and a “wicked weapon.” He called for state laws to ban switchblades and urged parents to pressure shopkeepers to take them out of their window displays. Finally, he flatly stated, “In all my investigations, I could find no good reason why anybody — youngster or adult — should be legally allowed to carry a switchblade.”

In 1958, Pollack would get his wish — at least in part. L 85-623, which is more popularly known as the Federal Switchblade Act, prohibited the manufacture, distribution, and sale of switchblades across state lines. However, a 2009 amendment greatly weakened the act by removing restrictions for “a knife that contains a spring, detent, or other mechanism designed to create a bias toward closure of the blade and that requires exertion applied to the blade by hand, wrist or arm to overcome the bias toward closure to assist in opening the knife.” Today, most types of automatic knives are federally legal, and automatic knives are legal in 44 out of 50 states in the U.S.

Despite legal restrictions, automatic knives remain popular all across America, including the sorts of knives offered by TacKnives. In our next article, we will discuss in more detail the legality of owning automatic knives in the United States.