The word conjures up images of Mafioso enforcers silencing family members who don't show enough loyalty, Sharks and Jets pirouetting and jabbing at each other beneath New York City overpasses, and jazz musicians battling for the attentions of sultry vixens in smoke filled music halls. While I happen to think the images are darkly romantic and fascinating, to the weak kneed and weak minded the word switchblade evokes unnecessary violence, violence that can be and must be stopped by banning all switchblade knives everywhere. Speak the word and Michael Bloomberg donates another few million to his anti-everything causes. Sort of like a twisted turn on the "when a bell rings an angel gets its wings" fairy tale.
Yet the reality is much different. There are no legions of inner-city youth carving each other up with switchblades. Never were. For a couple of reasons. During the heyday of the hoodlum switchblades were mostly cheaply made Italian or Spanish imports that couldn't stand up to peeling an apple, let alone carving up one's opponent in a school yard fight. No experienced thug would carry one. They preferred stouter folding knives, fixed blade knives, clubs, baseball bats, guns - anything that would see them through the conflict from start to finish.
Automatic opening knives (switchblades) have been banned in most states and virtually all large cities since the 1950s. This was a knee-jerk reaction to a flood of 'hoodlum' movies that hit the theaters mid-century and focused on the growing restlessness and violence being displayed by inner city youth. The directors and producers of these movies picked the switchblade as a key prop device because they looked cool and, well, they thought that's what all self respecting hoodlums used.
Never let it be said a politician will let pass a chance to ban something "for the good of the children." Anti-knife laws swept the nation in the 1950's driven mainly by the images presented in these movies. Switchblades virtually disappeared. Imports were banned and most domestic manufacturers making automatic knives abandoned that segment of the market.
But the switchblade soldiered on in one area that local lawmakers couldn't touch - the US military. The military continued to purchase automatic knives for issue to pilots, paratroopers and rescue personnel. The thought was that the automatic opening feature would allow an injured Soldier to open the knife one handed and cut himself free of his parachute suspension lines or harness. In theory not a bad idea.
What we have to look at today is one of the more common US military switchblades as issued by the Army in the 1970s and 80s. This knife was manufactured by Schrade Walden in New York and was issued to my good friend and fishing buddy Bill sometime in the 1980s. Bill started his Army career flying Cessna O-1 Bird Dogs in Vietnam and ending his career flying the Grumman OV-1 Mohawk in the Army Reserves. Somewhere along the way Bill was issued this knife and 'forgot' to turn it in.
Last year we were doing some float fishing and Bill pulled out this knife. He had it clipped to his belt via the home make lanyard and it was his emergency bail out knife should his kayak overturn. I hadn't seen one in years and he let me play with it for a bit. The last one I saw was in a unit supply room back at Fort Bragg in the early 1980s. Airborne units were allowed to purchase and issue them to jumpers for use during airborne operations. Our supply room kept a few on-hand for issue to jumpmasters, but never had enough to hand out to the full company so they rarely got issued. Of course they were considered 'sensitive items' just like an M-16 so were kept locked up in the arms room. My impression of them at the time was that they were poorly put together. The spring that opened the main blade was weak and barely got the job done, and there was a lot of 'slop' or play in the blade when opened and locked. The knife had a high cool factor, but my impression was that a small fixed blade knife was a better option.
Bill reports that he carried it for years in the special pocket sewn into the inside thigh of the issue flight suit. The pocket was sized specifically to fit this knife. Since you have to have a specific place for everything inside the cramped cockpit of an airplane I guess this location made good sense. It was out of the way of the parachute harness and allowed easy access.
One useful feature this knife incorporates is what is commonly referred to as a 'gut hook'; a hook shaped blade designed specifically to cut parachute suspension lines. The design works very well and will slice through tensioned suspension lines like a hot knife through soft butter. It's much more effective at this task than the straight main blade.
As represented by this knife the concept of the switchblade as an emergency tool doesn't inspire confidence. As I've already mentioned, these knives are poorly fitted. The blade deployment spring is weak and barely gets the blade more than halfway open. The user has to finish the job with a flick of the wrist. Several flicks of the wrist, actually. The lanyard bale also frequently interferes with opening. While the idea of one handed opening is good, this knife assumes that your good hand will always be your right hand. It puts the opening button and slide lock just on one side where only your right hand can get to it. Here's hoping it's always your left hand that gets broken or crushed during the ejection or parachute landing because otherwise you're in trouble.
We do have to keep in mind that this knife is essentially a WWII-era design that was kept in production through the 1980s. From that perspective it's not a bad design and reflects the best knife making technology available during the war. As a purpose built tool, something designed for a single use during a specific event (to cut a downed flyer or paratrooper free of his parachute) it works OK. For any other purpose it pretty much sucks. I'd hate to have to go into a true survival situation with just this knife. It would break the first time it saw hard use.
Since the 1980s folding knife technology has advanced quite a bit. Manufacturers have designed and marketed fast opening knives that get around the silly switchblade restrictions. Most makers incorporate an opening 'stud' on their blades to permit fast opening using the thumb. Some manufacturers like Spyderco incorporated large opening thumb holes instead of studs. All of these solutions are extremely effective and allow the manufacturing of more robust folding knife designs. Today's high quality folding knives deploy faster than most switchblades, can be used in either hand and stand up just fine to real world use.
One direct response to the weakness of our switchblade is the Benchmade 915 Triage. It incorporates an ambidextrous fast opening main blade with an extremely rugged locking mechanism and incorporates a gut hook that can be opened with one hand.
The Triage is an extremely rugged knife that can not only slice open your parachute harness but then go on to slice open the hood of a Buick. That's what I want the next time I get into a scrape!
Awww geeze, not another blog!
Welcome to A Fine Blade!
This blog will focus one of my lifelong passions and one of man's most basic tools - the knife!
As time and events permit we'll tiptoe into other territory where we can use the knife as a metaphor in discussions about current events and have a little politically incorrect fun.
Because you see, knives rank just below guns as the most politically incorrect subject on the web today.
Guns & Knives = Bad. Gay Marriage & Recreational Drug Use = Good
We'll see if we can't have some fun with that.
So stay tuned, and welcome aboard!