Types of Switchblades: Differences and Benefits of Each
The switchblade, also known as the automatic knife, is both a specific type of knife and a category encompassing different styles and mechanisms. If you are considering a new switchblade for EDC, utility, fieldcraft, survival, or general use, it is crucial to understand the different types of switchblades.
Learn everything you need to know about switchblades and find the best type for your needs and applications.
Switchblade knives (automatic knives) differ from fixed blade knives due to their ability to fold or retract into the handle. However, while traditional, manually-operated folding knives, such as classic pocket knives, can also fold, the switchblade features an automatic folding mechanism that allows the user to deploy the knife blade faster than a manual knife.
A switchblade’s opening mechanism lets the user open the blade with a button, lever, thumb stud, or similar switch.
Are Switchblades Legal?
The legality of switchblade knives in the United States varies at all three levels of government: federal, state, and local.
Switchblades are generally legal at the federal level; however, the Federal Switchblade Act of 1958 (FSA), codified into law as 15 U.S.C. Chapter 29 (paragraphs 1241 through 1245), regulates them to an extent. While the FSA does not prohibit sales or ownership, it does prohibit interstate commerce (selling across state borders) unless the switchblade is shipped via an approved carrier.
The legality of switchblades becomes more complex at the state and local levels. Each state has its own rules, regulations, and definitions of what constitutes a switchblade knife, either falling under a specific legally-defined term (typically “switchblade” or “automatic knife”) or under the more general umbrella terms of “knife,” “deadly weapon,” or “dangerous weapon.”
Consult all applicable local and state laws before purchasing a switchblade. Even if possession, sales, and transfers may be legal in your jurisdiction, there may still be regulations regarding carrying, especially concealed carry.
Are Assisted-Opening Knives the Same as Switchblades?
From a technical point of view and despite their similar appearance, assisted-opening knives, also known as spring-assisted knives, are not the same as switchblades.
A switchblade allows the user to deploy the blade from a fully retracted or folded position with a single button or lever press. However, the user must manually open an assisted-opening knife at least 25% of the way, at which point the spring system takes over and completes the blade's deployment until it is fully open.
Additionally, while switchblades can be side-opening or out-the-front (OTF) and always feature a button, lever, or actuator on the spine or side of the handle, an assisted knife is almost always a side-folding model and generally does not feature any actuators.
Types of Switchblades
Typical switchblades are differentiated using two criteria: the opening mechanism and the type of actuator used to deploy the blade. The opening mechanism may either be side-folding or out-the-front (OTF), whereas the actuator type can be either single-action or double-action.
Side-folding knives, also called side-opening knives or folders, are what most people think of when imagining a practical pocket knife or switchblade.
Side-folding switchblades feature many of the same basic design elements and features as standard side-folding knives. The blade opens and closes from the side, and the handle features an opening on one side to keep it securely housed when not in use.
The primary difference between a side-folding switchblade and a classic side-folding knife is the opening mechanism; instead of manually pulling the blade, the side-folding switchblade features an actuator that automatically unfolds and deploys it.
Side-folding switchblades are only available with single-edged blades. A double-edged blade would present a safety risk to the user, as only one edge would be inside the handle when closed, leaving the other exposed.
Advantages of Side-Folding Switchblades
Side-folder switchblades are mechanically simple and use many of the same elements as non-switch side-folders. If you are used to this opening mechanism on other knives, you’ll find operation and maintenance easy and intuitive.
The simplicity of use and maintenance makes side-folding switchblades better suited for utility applications, such as camping or bushcraft. Additionally, this switchblade type is available in various blade shapes and styles, with a plain, half-serrated, or even fully-serrated edge.
Traditionally, side-folding switchblades are more affordable than other switchblade types. Its accessibility makes it an ideal first choice for most knife enthusiasts.
Drawbacks of Side-Folding Switchblades
Side-folding switchblades generally do not feature double-edged blades due to inherent safety concerns. Consequently, if you’re primarily looking for a self-defense tool or if your main application for a switchblade is thrusting instead of cutting or slicing, you may find side-folding models more limiting.
Additionally, side-folding switchblades feature the same ergonomic drawbacks as their non-switch counterparts. Due to one side of the handle featuring an opening to house the blade, that side features sharp angles that can be uncomfortable to grip and hold for long periods.
Retracting the blade requires you to adjust your grip and move your fingers out of the way to prevent the edge from cutting them. This factor may increase the knife’s learning curve if you aren’t used to using side-folding knives. Ensure you practice using one until you are sufficiently safe and proficient.
Out-the-Front (OTF) Switchblades
An out-the-front (OTF) switchblade is a knife using a boxcutter-like handle design and mechanism. Instead of folding into the side of your knife’s handle, an OTF knife lets the user deploy and retract the blade from a front opening.
OTF knives function using a sliding mechanism. When fully retracted, the blade is entirely enclosed by the handle, leaving only the handle and the front opening visible. The user can then instantly deploy the blade by using the actuator.
Consequently, OTF switchblades feature fully enclosed handles with no openings on any side. This handle style allows it to safely support double-edged blades, increasing the variety of blade shapes and styles available compared to side-folding models.
Advantages of OTF Switchblades
One of the biggest advantages of using an OTF switchblade is the increased value and effectiveness as a self-defense weapon over its side-folding counterpart. OTF switchblades can safely support double-edged blades with shapes best suited for thrusting motions, such as spear-point or needle-point models.
Another well-known advantage of the OTF switchblade is ergonomics. The blade opening is in the front instead of the side, meaning the handle is fully enclosed and more comfortable to hold and grip. You also don’t need to worry about changing your grip or adjusting the position of your hand and fingers when deploying or retracting the blade.
Drawbacks of OTF Switchblades
Although the maximum blade length of all folding and retracting knives is inherently limited by their design, OTF knives typically have shorter blades than their side-folding counterparts, even if the handles are about the same length.
This factor is because the handle must also accommodate the sliding mechanism that allows the blade to extend and retract. Consequently, few manufacturers produce OTF knives with blade lengths exceeding 4 inches, as they would render the handle’s length impractically long.
OTF switchblades also require more maintenance due to the more complex parts inside the handle. Failure to maintain an OTF switchblade risks rendering your knife unusable, as the locking mechanism may fail and leave the blade stuck inside the handle or wobbling loosely on its track.
A single-action knife opening mechanism is a button, lever, or another actuator that performs a single task. For switchblades, single-action means the actuator’s only purpose is to deploy the blade out of its retracted position.
While single-action mechanisms are available on both side-folding and OTF models, this opening system is most commonly associated with OTF knives. Single-action OTFs are typically the most affordable type of OTF switchblade, making them an ideal first choice.
Retracting the blade of a single-action switchblade is a manual task. The user must manually flip the blade back into the handle on a side-folding model. When handling an OTF knife, the user must push it back into the handle until fully retracted.
Advantages of Single-Action Mechanisms
The chief advantage of single-action opening mechanisms is their mechanical simplicity, making them easier to maintain. The springs also tend to be more robust and durable, ensuring a longer overall service life. In addition, these springs can deploy the blade slightly faster than a double-action equivalent.
The other advantage of choosing a single-action switchblade is cost. The simpler mechanisms are cheaper to produce, resulting in a lower sticker price. Therefore, single-action side folders and OTFs are more accessible, making them the ideal first knife for anyone looking to discover switchblades.
Drawbacks of Single-Action Mechanisms
The primary drawback of a single-action mechanism is the need to manually retract the blade when the knife is no longer needed. While experienced knife enthusiasts may have fewer issues, learning to safely fold or retract the blade without injury may increase a newcomer’s learning curve.
The best course of action is to practice manipulating the knife, especially deploying and retracting the blade, using a safe surface to guide the blade back into the handle as needed.
A double-action opening mechanism is a button, lever, or actuator that can perform two tasks, instead of just one, as with single-action equivalents. For switchblades, a double-action mechanism means the actuator (typically a lever) can deploy and retract the blade, depending on the direction it is pushed.
Double-action mechanisms are mainly employed in OTF knives, although some double-action side-folding switchblades are also available. Typical double-action OTF knives feature a bi-directional lever that deploys the blade when pushed forward and retracts it when pulled back.
Advantages of Double-Action Mechanisms
One of the most significant advantages of a double-action switchblade is convenience. Two of the knife’s essential functions (opening and closing) are tied to a single control, eliminating the need to retract the blade when no longer needed manually.
With double-action OTFs, this mechanism allows the user to deploy and retract the blade with a single movement of the thumb, with no grip adjustment needed.
Drawbacks of Double-Action Mechanisms
Double-action switchblades feature more moving parts, making them more mechanically complex. They are also more likely to wear out faster, especially under heavy or regular use. Consequently, this switchblade category is costlier and requires more maintenance.
Additionally, due to the mechanism needing to support both opening and closing, blade deployment is slightly slower than on a single-action knife, as the springs and load-bearing mechanisms must be able to retract the blade back into the handle at the push of a button.
Find Your Ideal Switchblade at Uppercut Tactical
Although there are advantages and drawbacks to each type of switchblade, it is crucial to remember that all switchblades, whether side-folding or OTF, single or double-action, can be capable knives as long as they are well-made and designed for your specific purpose, from EDC to tactical tasks.
Uppercut Tactical carries an extensive selection of quality switchblades of all types and mechanisms. We also offer a wide range of survival and preparedness equipment, such as bug-out bags, knife care kits, first-aid kits, and emergency food supplies, to ensure you and your family are ready for any situation.
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