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When the Military Commissioned a Switchblade: A Case Study in the Practicality of Automatic Knives

Practicality of Automatic Knives

If you spend any time online reading about automatic knives, you’ll soon discover that a certain segment of the knife-loving doesn’t think very much about them. These aficionados tend to denigrate both their style and functionality, pointing out their perceived shortcomings of automatic knives and deriding them as stuff that only a “mall ninja” would want. (For more info on that particular epithet, visit Know Your Meme, but understand in the meantime that it’s supposed to indicate that an individual has married enthusiasm for weapons with little actual knowledge.)

Sadly, it’s true that some people have misused both automatic and OTF knives, giving them a bad name. Just look at what happened during the 20th century in our article about the history of automatic knives. However, it’s a mistake to assume that all kinetically powered blades are simply showy, putting style before substance. For example, when the U.S. military wanted a practical knife to put in the hands of servicemen, it selected the Gerber 06 Auto — an automatic knife.

The History of the Gerber 06 Auto

The story of the Gerber 06 Auto started with a simple need: The United States Armed Forces wanted a one-handed knife that could stand up to battlefield use. As one soldier who participated in a short Blade HQ documentary about the Gerber 06 Auto said, “In Iraq, I was moving in and out of buildings and underneath things and crawling around in places. And you don’t need a two-handed knife.” But how did that Gerber end up deciding on an automatic design?

The credit for that particular innovation goes to Jeff Freeman of Freeman Outdoor Products. A graduate of Oregon State, he told his alma mater how his career in higher education got sidetracked by his enlistment in the Army at the start of Operation Desert Storm in 1989. ““After basic training and machinist school, I was shipped off for a 36-month tour in Panama,” he said. “I was the sole machinist and toolmaker for a 1,500-person helicopter aviation maintenance brigade.” When he returned, he became an employee at Gerber.

Unbeknownst to many consumers who are familiar with the brand primarily through its retail offerings, Gerber receives a significant amount of its revenue from contract work — including work for the U.S military. When the request came through for a single-handed knife design, Freeman began to work on a mock-up in his spare time. He said, “I liked automatic knives and push buttons, and I thought we could make one.”

So make one he did. In fact, Freeman crafted two, one with a drop-point blade and one with a tanto-style blade. Both measured slightly less than nine inches when opened, had a pocket clip, and featured push-button out-the-side deployment, making them the Army’s first official automatic knives.

But Was the Gerber 06 Auto of Any Practical Use?

One of the complaints that critics of automatic knives offer is that they simply aren’t as functional as other types of blades. But the experience of the U.S. Army, which received the Gerber 06 Auto just in time to use it in the Second Persian Gulf War (aka the Iraq war), was that these blades proved invaluable, although perhaps not in the way you might imagine.

The first thing that many will think of when considering the purpose of a military knife is self-defense. Indeed, it was what Gerber VP of Marketing Andrew Gritzbaugh highlighted when discussing the knife. “It’s interesting,” he said, “because it’s not just a product that serves a specific need or makes life comfortable, but it can save your [expletive].”

But in Freeman’s experience, soldiers didn’t praise the 06 Auto primarily because it was a great fighting knife. They loved it because of its ease of use and its general hardiness. “When I was at Gerber, I would get a lot of comments from people,” he recalled. “Not so much the life-and-death, like, ‘That saved my life.’ But, ‘Man, I carried that thing to the sandbox and back, and I’ve had that thing in my pocket for three deployments, and it’s been awesome.’”

That’s exactly what Gerber Senior Engineering Manager Hal Hardinge found as well. The 06 Auto functioned as much as a multi-purpose implement as a weapon. Hardinge stated, “Certainly soldiers when they’re deployed out in the field, they don’t have access to a lot of other tools, so whatever they have with them is going to be what they use. … It can be used for any number of functions that it isn’t typically designed for.”

.S. Army Colonel Mike Buckley recounted just such an experience when he was deployed to Iraq. While in the field, he had a crown come loose. The only things he had available to fix it were a tube of super glue and his 06 Auto. “I used that knife,” he admitted. “I scraped the gum off [of the tooth]. Those poor guys thought I was crazy. It worked.”

OTFs Are Practical, Too

We’ve already written an article about why OTF knives are also practical, so know that it’s not only government-approved automatic blades that have a place in your daily routine. The kinds of OTF knives that we offer here at TacKnives find lots of applications in everyday and professional contexts. Just consider this Reddit post. In it, a user named natedogg1985 complained that OTFs “have high price tags and pretty limited functionality in comparison with more traditional offerings.” He didn’t see how they could work in a practical situation.

Another user named AcetylcholineAgonist answered by saying, “I’m [law enforcement] … For a lot of us it’s about how easily they close. Without changing grip, glove on or off. Being able to close the knife and be certain it closed before you drop it or put it away is super valuable. Sometimes you need to let go of that knife right now, and I can close OTF autos faster and more positively which means I’m not leaving a sharp lying around exposed while whatever goes down.” In just about every situation, an OTF can work well for you, too.

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