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,Outwardhound
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?
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.
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.