Many misconceptions surround the automatic knife, commonly referred to as a switchblade. Thanks to dramatic Hollywood portrayals, many assume these knives are not only illegal to own but the trademark tools of the underworld. The reality is that the auto knife is legal in many jurisdictions — and, in fact, is used by law-abiding citizens, our first responders and military because it is often the best tool for the job.
Anyone who has seen West Side Story thinks of this when they hear ‘switchblade’ or automatic knife
What is an Out the Front (OTF) knife?
The single-action out the front knife deploys the blade out of the front of the handle in a straight line and locks it in place. The operator must manually release the locking mechanism and retract the blade to the closed position.
The double-action OTF knife releases the blade in the same manner but can also automatically retract the blade by pressing the activation button a second time. These usually have a lower-power deployment spring than single-action knives to accommodate the auto-retracting feature.
A side-opener knife swings the blade out from the side of the handle just like a common pocketknife. The blade is then manually retracted into the handle once the lock is disabled. An example of an automatic side opener is the Microtech Stitch.
Are auto knives legal?
In the United States, there are multiple layers of regulations that auto knife consumers need to understand. Since the 1950s, each state regulates switchblades or auto knives independently. The Federal Switchblade Act of 1958 regulates the interstate sale and import of these products. Auto knife customers need to be fully aware of the disparate national laws when traveling with their automatic knife.
US Knife Laws by State
As of mid-2018, 18 states have little to no restriction on auto knives. 21 states have some sort of restriction on auto knives, which can vary from a near total ban to simply requiring a weapon permit to carry. They require careful review as there are a multitude of exemptions and restrictions for each jurisdiction. 11 states or territories, including Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, completely ban automatic knives and are currently a no-go for legal carry.
Four categories that state law can cover:
- Possession – who can and cannot have an OTF knife, even if it is not carried on their person
- Sale – whether or not it is legal in a particular jurisdiction to sell an OTF knife to a customer and what restrictions/exemptions apply
- Open carry – a requirement to have the knife in plain sight
- Concealed carry – allows for or requires a knife to be concealed and out of sight or in a vehicle
Federal Switchblade Act Repeal introduced in 2017
An attempt to repeal the federal restrictions on automatic knives was introduced in 2017. Proponent and Knife Rights organization chairman Doug Ritter explained the motion to repeal when he said the following:
“The Federal Switchblade Act was an asinine idea when it was passed in 1958 in a wave of Hollywood-inspired, politically motivated hysteria and has only become more irrelevant as time has passed. The majority of states have always allowed switchblade possession and with Knife Rights’ repeal of switchblade bans in 13 states in the past seven years, fully four-fifths of the states now allow switchblade possession to one degree or another. With a Congress and Administration that may be inclined to finally rid the country of this abomination, it is way past time to repeal this law that only serves to interfere with lawful trade and commerce.”
In addition to legalizing interstate trade for popular automatic knives, the proposed legislation allows for the secure and safe transportation of knives through jurisdictions where the mere possession of a certain type of knife is enough to bring arrest and criminal prosecution. Mirroring legislation passed in 1986 to protect those traveling with firearms, the Knife Owners’ Protection Act aims to provide legal protection to anyone traveling with knives if they can legally be possessed at the points of origin and ultimate destination.
In addition to these efforts at the federal level, individual states have continued to deregulate automatic knives in recent years.
Many state laws restricting OTF automatic knives have exceptions that vary from state to state, often the knives are considered part of a collection or possession limited to those older than 21 or other predetermined age limits.
Some of the restrictions focus on blade length and shape. Many have length limits, ranging from 1.5 inches to 3 inches maximum. Others focus on double-edged blades or call out stiletto or dagger-type blades that have no cutting edge but are intended for straight thrusting.
Other laws combine knife ownership with a permit to carry a firearm or other dangerous weapon or with a hunting and fishing license. Many make exceptions for first responders that include fire, police and emergency medical personnel and the military.
The automatic knife industry continues to move out of the shadows of the McCarthy-era hysteria of the 1950s and enjoy the roll back of many ill-conceived laws. Until these are all put in the past, the automatic knife customer will need to remain vigilant and aware of the legalities surrounding their auto knife and choose their actions accordingly.