A Reader Asks: Why Automatic Knives? And How?

Image courtesy Microtech

Microtechh DOC (Death On Contact) Automatic

Reader Outwardhound asks:

Would like the TTAK intelligentsia to help me understand the following about automatic (switchblade) knives: What benefit, if any, does an automatic knife have over an assisted opening knife?  I have a Benchmade Barrage that opens very easily and gosh darn quickly.
Since my home state of Texas is legalizing automatic knives effective September, is it worth the expense?
Also, even though legal in the state I still can’t order an automatic online because Federal law prohibits interstate shipment – correct?  So, if I want one, do I have to find an in-state manufacturer?

Thanks for the question! Before I give you my take on automatic knives, I’ll confess that I’m anything but an authority about them. I’ve never lived in any state that even allowed possession of ‘switchblades,’ and my current home state of Washington didn’t even allow assisted-openers until last year.

I have illicitly owned a couple of automatics (more than 20 years ago, but thanks for asking) and they were all worthless pieces of shit. They probably came from Tijuana, with blades made of Zamak or some other zinc alloy. I’ve handled many high-quality automatics owned by my Oregon friends, but I’ve never carried one. So feel free to take my comments with a grain (or a whole bag) of salt.

Auto Or Assisted: What’s The Difference?

‘Switchblade’ is a disfavored term among knife guys, since it plays directly into the ‘Jets v. Sharks’ street-gang paranoia which was originally exploited by the congressional bed-wetters who banned automatic knives in 1958.

Broadly speaking, an automatic knife is a knife with a spring-loaded blade that’s held closed by a catch. When you press a button or lever on the handle of the knife, the catch is released and the blade flies open. The federal definition of ‘switchblade’ now only applies to  knives with spring-loaded blades and an opening mechanism in the handle of the knife. The classic Italian stiletto-style switchblades of the 1950s, along with secret agent-style OTF (out the front) automatics both fall in this category.

‘Assisted opening’ knives are a relatively modern invention, and they escape this federal definition of ‘switchblade’ by simply moving the opening mechanism to the blade of the knife. A closure spring or cam holds the blade shut until you flick the flipper or opening stud far enough to overcome its resistance.

Switchblades are nominally restricted by federal law, but 2009 amendments to the law have made them widely available in those states which do not still prohibit them.

What’s The Auto Advantage?

Image courtesy KAI-USA

For everyday carry, I’m damned if I know the advantage of an automatic knife over a well-designed assisted opener like a Kershaw Scallion. OTF automatics are slightly faster than a flipper- or stud-operated assisted opener, because you don’t have to adjust your grip much after the blade opens. A lot of people are nervous about carrying an OTF automatic in their pocket, because they tend to do a lot of damage if they open themselves into your lower pelvic region.

Side-opening automatics don’t seem to have any real speed or handling advantage over most assisted openers. It doesn’t really matter whether you open a knife with a side button instead of a flipper or stud, since you’ve got to adjust your grip once the blade is opened either way.

For practical purposes, I’m usually of the school that says ‘simpler is better.’ Assisted openers have fewer critical parts than automatics, which is part of why a quality automatic will cost much more than a $50-$70 Kershaw assisted opener. If both were legal in my state, I’d carry an assisted opener before an automatic. But I don’t really have a dog in this fight, since I choose to carry a manual flipper (or Spyderco) instead of an assisted opener anyway.

Factor                                              Advantage
Speed/ease of opening                     None; they’re both lightning-quick.
Price                                                     Assisted openers are much cheaper.
Reliability                                            Assisted openers, unless you spend a fortune.
Legality                                                Assisted openers are much more broadly legal.
Coolness                                              Automatics. By a mile.

But How Can I Buy An Automatic?

On its face the Federal Switchblade Act (15 USC Sec. 1241 et. seq.) seems to prohibit any interstate shipments of automatic knives, but the statute is so riddled with exceptions that virtually anybody can simply order one online and have it delivered. ‘Common Carriers’ like UPS and FedEx are allowed to ship them interstate, however.

The US Postal Service is not supposed to ship them except to the military and police, but internet discussion forums report that switchblades are routinely shipped by USPS anyway. If you order it from an online dealer you won’t have any control over how they pack it and ship it anyway. This isn’t legal advice, but I don’t see how anybody could bust you for a vendor’s unwise shipping decision.

The takeaway? If automatic knives are legal in your state and you want one, go ahead and order it.



  1. Edgehill says:

    Auto knives are good for people who deal with arthritis. I have a friend who can’t even open my assisted open blade. So he uses autos.

  2. dph says:

    I think you may be wrong about assisted openers in Washington, I purchased my 1st one over ten years ago and have bought them all at local sporting goods stores. Maybe these guys were all breaking the law? By the way, I love the Ken Onion Kershaws with the speed safe design. I don’t see an automatic being any faster. Also the picture is a Leek, not a Scallion.

    1. Chris Dumm says:

      Assisted openers were treated by many courts as ‘switchblades’ because they were spring-opened. My jurisdiction here specifically treated them that way, until the state law was amended last year. Other jurisdictions didn’t bother with them, and many LEOs wouldn’t confiscate them but others did.

  3. Derek says:

    My only gripe with assisted and auto openers is that they, typically, require two hands to close. The quickest way, that I could come up with, to close my SOG Aegis with one hand was to hold open the lock open and press the spine of the blade against my leg. I didn’t like doing that very much.

    Being able to quickly and easily flip open and close my Benchmades with one hand is infinitely more convenient than opening a fraction of a second faster. That’s my $.2 anyway.

    1. Derek says:

      That’s right. I gave you twenty cents. What of it?

    2. Jeff says:

      I can close my Shallot one handed pretty easily – not as fast as my Benchmade, but it’s not hard. Unlock the liner lock with your thumb while starting the blade closed with your index finger, then get your thumb out of the way and finish closing it. Just don’t do it too fast or you’ll cut your thumb. Don’t ask how I know, or how I got blood on my wife’s new Scallion last Christmas… ;o)

  4. Nathan says:

    At this point the only benefit of hiving an auto at this stage of knife technology is for the cool factor

  5. travis m. says:

    One disadvantage is that auto knives and assisted knives are harder to clean- which isn’t that huge of a disadvantage unless you go to a beach often and get sand everywhere…

  6. Sam L. says:

    The only auto I have was given to me by the gummint itsownself–parachute knife, orange-handled, with line cutter, one (1) ea.

  7. Mark Davis says:

    I don’t like autos or assisted openers. For my purposes neither offers an advantage over a standard folder.

  8. ChuckN says:

    They only need minimal movement to open;which is
    great if you’re ever in situations where you can’t move
    to well. I use one while climbing and doing rescue work
    where I may be in a confined position and the thick
    kevlar gloves I use make using an assisted opener a bit
    harder. That said, I don’t use one as an EDC.

  9. Mark N. says:

    Assisted openers are legal in California, but it took a couple of rather pointed Court of Appeal opinions to flesh that out. One trial court held that a manual knife that “could’ be opened by flicking one’s wrist (if one flipped hard enough) was a switchblade and banned, and this was affirmed on appeal before the courts came to their senses. Funny thing though is that butterfly knives are still illegal, as are true switch blades.

    Being one of those who never wants to use an EC as a defensive weapon, my Buck locking folder works just fine, even if it is difficult to open with one hand. Then again, I have to leave it home if I go to LA to see my sister–LA bans all knives longer than 2.5”.

  10. Sandman says:

    I personally only carry lock back knives. I own other knives, but i just love the security in a lockback. Im quite young so I dont have to worry about arthritis…

  11. Sam L. says:

    OTFs worry me–if the lock doesn’t catch, or breaks, it’s a movie-prop knife. Not good in an emergency.

  12. Out_Fang_Thief says:

    When I bought my Benchmade AFO, it was for one hand opening
    while wearing gloves in my construction job. I was cutting lots of
    string line. The Spyderco that I was using was tough opening with
    gloves on. That, and the flicker knives had not been invented yet.
    With most good auto’s at the $200 mark, it’s worth it if you have
    a pressing need for one-handed opening while wearing gloves.
    It is helpful because my right hand was badly disabled in a serious
    motorcycle accident, and I can no longer work a thumb stud now.
    If you want one just to impress people with its automatic function,
    then you don’t really need one. After a few days on the job, nobody
    blinked an eye when I pulled out my Benchmade. It was just a tool.

  13. D says:

    Not to be too annoying, but I want to point out that not all automatic knives are switchblades. I think most of you guys already know that though…

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A Reader Asks: Why Automatic Knives? And How?

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