The text below was not written by me. It was, a blog post by a gentleman I have know for quite a few years now and I always pay attention to what he says. Admittedly, I do not always agree with him, but I always find his opinion well reasoned and driven by his personal experience. He prefers to stay anonymous. He posts as Rancid Coolaid on various forums. The text in italic is his. A few of my comments are at the bottom.
What began as an inquiry of utility has become a quick primer for pocket knives. Below is the first installment regarding automatic, semi-automatic, and purely manual pocket knives.
For most of us, it happened when we were boys. The first time we saw one, we immediately thought – or yelled – “I want one.” The switchblade is iconic, but is it practical or necessary?
But, before all that, a few housekeeping items.
1. Vocabulary. Every intelligent discourse begins with an agreement on vocabulary – else all the really important points get lost in the ambiguities.
For purposes of this post, we shall consider an “automatic” knife to be one that deploys a blade by way of a button not affixed to the blade. Whether “out the side” or “out the front” – also called “OTF”, these are automatic knives.
In contrast, there exist now many “assisted open” or “semi-auto” knives with a spring assist, usually associated with a blade protrusion or extension used to overcome initial resistance. It is this resistance that keeps the blade closed and prevents its unintentional deployment. The “semi-auto” is spring-assisted rather than spring-deployed. In many legal respects, this is an important distinction, as is the means of deploying – button not on the blade vs. blade extension.
Finally, the old school manual deploy blade, whether by thumb stud or by 2-handed open, this is the knife we all did have, and we usually have a few.
2. Legal disclaimer. “Automatic knives” are illegal in many jurisdictions for most people; “semi-auto” are as well, though in far fewer jurisdictions. It is the responsibility of the one owning or possessing the knife to know local laws. I write from a free state (Texas), so convey no legal permissions on those choosing to live in a communist state (California) or other. You do the crime, you do the time.
I’ve been asked on a few occasions about automatic knives, “do I need one”, “why should I carry one”, “how should I carry one”, etc. The long answer is below, the short answer is “it depends.”
When I was a kid in the 70s, a pocket knife was usually a Buck or Swiss Army; they were opened with 2 hands and carried in a pocket, deep in the pocket, at the bottom of the pocket. By the 90s, Spyderco and the likes had introduced us to two new pocket knife features: the pocket clip, and the thumbhole, both paradigm shifts in pocket knife usage and carry.
By the 2000s, spring-assist was catching on, and today one is hard-pressed to not own a few and know of quite a few more options in edged tool/weapon options of the semi-auto type.
And this brings us to one very important practical point: with the advent of very reliable, very well-made semi-auto options, the automatic became far less advantageous. And this might be a good time to address usage, and why an automatic was ever needed (as to whether it still is, we shall get there in time.)
Most people are quite adept at highly dexterous tasks, but only with their primary hand. In normal daily life, that is more than adequate; however, in life-and-death circumstances, the need for a certain measure of dexterity in one’s weak hand can be the difference between surviving and not. For those that have carried a gun professionally, there is – almost universally – a constant companion on the weak-hand side, as well there should be. I’ve had a fair bit of arms training and have taught a bit as well, and the topic always comes up, and I address it in the same way each time: with a gun on your strong-side hip, take the strong-side hand and place it flat on the center of your chest, then prevent or discourage me from taking your weapon and/or your life. As an aggressor, the first thing I will do is immobilize your primary hand – I have trained to do this, I can do it quite efficiently, and will do so probably before you realize there is a threat. As a defender, that means having a plan that begins with no strong-side hand.
The uninitiated and untrained often don’t get that far. And this is why so many fail the first test, and die. Don’t fail the first test.
It is in exactly this circumstance that an automatic knife can literally save your life. Worn weak-side or in an accessible location, the knife can be used efficiently with the weak-side hand to regain control of the weapon or the use of the primary hand. This is why law enforcement and military can carry automatic knives, because they have need to control their weapon in defense of your liberties.
Prior to the proliferation of spring assisted knives, an automatic was the best choice – or a small, fixed-blade option.
On the automatic side, the pros are – in my estimation and experience – these:
1. Easy, no-fumble, one-handed operation.
2. Rapid deployment, great control.
3. These tend to be knives we don’t use to open boxes and envelopes, so they stay sharp by lack of use – or mine do.
4. On OTF knives in particular, the coolness factor is unmistakable. There is a reason John Wick carried an OTF, they are, in simplest terms, cool.
1. Legality. If it is on your side, it isn’t a con, but it is seldom on the side of the masses.
2. If poorly designed or improperly carried, it can open unintentionally, and – given #3 above – create problems.
3. OTF in particular, they fail. They get gritty or get hit just right, and the blade does not fully deploy – sometimes not at all. This is the primary reason I own but never carry a few OTFs.
4. It is a mechanical device, and is often designed to not be deployable without working properly (no thumb stud, no designated place to grab the blade, blade locks in when button is not depressed, etc.)
When you take the good and the bad and compare it to semi-auto knives, the shine on automatics does indeed diminish a bit. I own several semi-auto and have yet to have one catastrophically fail – I have had one OTF fail miserably, and another fail to deploy on many stress-free occasions.
So, highlights and take-aways:
1. Because – for me – the task almost always chooses the tool, I am usually carrying a semi-auto now. With reliable, rapid deployment on the weak side, I can carry with confidence.
2. I have shelved the OTF autos for any real-world use. They are great to pull out at social events, if only to show the normies what cool stuff some of us have. *A note of caution: OTFs can be very dangerous in the wrong hands. As the cutting edge shoots out the front, anything forward of and in the line of the opening will get cut. Ask me how I know…
3A. For hard use, I will almost always have an automatic tucked away on my plate carrier or duty belt. It is the insurance policy, and a well made one will stow better in a non-pocket than will a semi-auto built for pocket carry.
3B: Todays pocket knives, especially those with pocket clips, are usually designed for pocket carry. They are made to ride at the back of the pocket with the blade pressed firmly against the rear seam. If you are carrying on molle gear or in something other than in a pocket, they don’t always carry so well. For non-pocket use, be sure you know how it positions, how/if it shifts, and how it feels in the hand when you need it.
Finally, as it will come up: very pointy pens, always carry, be ready to use. And the TSA has yet to take one from me. I also have one of these (https://countycomm.com/products/persuader-titanium) which can be called a “stylus” if it needs to be, but is extremely useful as a tool of persuasion.
If you need recommendations, here are a few:
1. semi-auto, weak-side or strong-side carry: Zero Tolerance combat folder.
2. OTF: Microtech. **Skip everything under $500 as these tend to have the weak springs and breakage-prone internals, but the higher dollar OTFs are close to robust enough for real-world carry.
3. “Out-the-side” auto: Protech, the rocking bolster design is my favorite as it takes an inexperienced user time to figure it out – in the rare event you lose your sidearm AND your knife. Their blades are very well made and come from the factory very sharp. Great craftsmanship and dependability. Additionally, the rocking bolster is almost impossible to deploy unintentionally, which is good, because they arrive very sharp.
4. Budget “out-the-side” autos: HK has a collaboration with someone to make some very good knives, their actions are quite robust, they deploy with authority, but the button design isn’t great – mine is rocker that passes through the handle and must be pulled down to release – either a locked in or locked out blade. Mine has deployed once, on a vest, when it was not supposed to. The blades are decent material but not usually the best. Most out-the-side knives have a safety to prevent accidental deployment (as does the HK) but that seems stupid to me, at least in real-world usage terms.
*The OTF that I blew up was a Benchmade, it not only malfunctioned, it came apart in multiple pieces, with the blade uselessly stuck in one of them. It is, in my estimation, a poorly made knife with inferior materials and workmanship.
*The OTF that malfunctions occasionally is a Microtech Troodon. When it deploys and locks up, it is rock solid; when it fails to deploy, a wrist-flicks gets the blade out and locked probably 75% of the time. For real-world use, I would kinda equate that to carrying a 6-shot wheel gun with 4 rounds loaded, and you only have time to draw and squeeze once.
I live in California for the time being and my knowledge of automatic knives is purely theoretical. In this state you can get lynched for just thinking about one. I do, however, have a long history with fixed blade and folding knives. I was interested in knives before I was interested in guns.
I am also a life long martial artist, most of it open hand, but some limtied knife training as well. I regularly practice to deploy a manual folding knife with either hand and can do so fairly well. However, RC’s point above about doing it under stress is important. I am right handed and I suspect that fine motor skills with my left hand will go the way of the dodo before they do on the right hand.
To me, a natural solution to that is a small fixed blade. When properly carried, it requires no manual dexterity to speak of: grab handle, pull out of the sheath, slice whichever portion of the assailant is closest to you. Even a small blade can be extremely effective in the right hands. What is even more important, a sharp blade is extremely effective even in marginally trained hands. Find a local Kali or Escrima school and train there for a few months. If the teacher is any good, you will get a reasonable grasp of the fundamentals of using knife and stick. They usually start doing more complicated things too early and most of them are useless in a real fight when adrenaline is pumping. However, that is still good practice and gets the basics properly grooved in. The rest is all mindset.
There are some small fixed blade knives that can be carried in the pocket and some that can be carried on the belt or as a neck knife. Except that is, apparently, in California where they are illegal as well. I looked at the regulations and unless I am misreading it, a 3 inch fixed blade knife concealed is deemed more dangerous than a 6″ folder. Yes, I know. California is special in that short bus sort of way.
If it is legal where you live, consider a short fixed blade like Esee Izula or KaBar TDI for weak hand carry. Izula is an excellent neck knife and I have seen some pocket sheaths for it. TDI is angled in a way that makes it very viable for belt carry. Indonesian karambit style knives are also angled in a way that can make for some interesting carry options, but these knives require somewhat different training, so I do not recommend them for general purpose carry.
Lastly, please do not rely on me for legal advice: figure out what the laws are where you live.