My earliest recollection of wanting to own a switchblade came after seeing the film The Outsiders, where the character Johnny Cade (played by Ralph Macchio) uses a lever-lock switchblade to defend himself during a fight scene with rival “Socs” (short for socialites). The camera cuts to Johnny Cade on ground, then zooms to his hand as he discretely draws his blade from his jean pocket. He flips the lever and opens the blade with a “click”. I don’t know why watching the mechanical action of his switchblade was so fascinating to my 9 year old brain, but it made me obsessed with wanting to own my own switchblade.
My first switchblade was an old Italian picklock with a curved Kriss blade. I traded a schoolmate for it and I must have flicked open the blade a million times before it finally broke on a Boy Scout canoe trip. Somehow, I got sand inside the knife and it ceased to work. To make matters worse, I tried to pry off the grip to get at the mechanism and clean it. In doing so, I snapped the grip in two pieces. That was at least 20 years ago, but my mistreatment of that fine switchblade still upsets me.
I have acquired several switchblades since the ill fate of my first one and have managed not to break any of these. In fact, they don’t receive any wear and tear because I never carry or use them. Occasionally, I will locate one in a desk drawer and take a moment to spring the blade a few times. Then I return it to its resting place and forget about it. I greatly admire the craftsmanship of a well-made knife, but every time I buy a nice blade, I never want to carry it because I don’t want the thing to get marred. Instead, I carry a small, inexpensive folding knife that I’ve sharpened dozens of times.
Switchblades have had a mysterious history and are still illegal in some jurisdictions. The first legislation passed banning the knife was in 1958 (The US Switchblade Act of 1958), during a time of moral panic caused by Rock n’ Roll and movies like The Wild One (1954), Rebel Without a Cause (1955), High School Confidential (1955), and West Side Story (1957). These films showcased class conflict and rebel counter culture with unforgettable scenes of troubled youths brandishing their Italian Stilettos.
The US Switchblade Act of 1958 is somewhat confusing, but it basically prohibits the manufacture or transportation of switchblade knives in interstate commerce. There are also restrictions about sending automatic knives through United States Postal Service. Switchblades happen to be legal in my home state of Nebraska. If you are interested in acquiring a switchblade, it’s best to check your local laws before purchasing one. Here is a link for state knife laws.
There are two basic types of switchblade knife. One is front opening, where the blade springs out the front of the handle after pressing a lever or button. The other type is side opening, where the blade springs open from the side of the handle (like regular knives) after pressing a lever or button. Switchblades manufactured from the 1930s through 1950s were typically very well made and are highly sought after by collectors. Most switchblades available on the market today are poor quality with little functional value. High quality knives are available, but they are expensive. Some of the nicer makers are Hubertus, Boker, Burn and Case XX. Many of these makers offer blades in Damascus steel and come with beautiful grips in stag, horn, mircata and hard woods.
Even though I do not carry or use a switchblade, I cannot resist their appeal as a controversial weapon and historical symbol of defiance.
Chris Hughes is a WorthPoint Worthologist specializing in 20th century militaria and the owner of Rally Point Militaria and Vietnam Uniform – Military Collectibles sites.
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