Are OTF Knives Useful? – The Truth About Out The Front Knives
When deciding what type of knife to carry, there are several types to choose from. You can opt for an ultra-reliable sheath knife, a good-quality folding knife, or one of the newer styles of mechanically opening knives, collectively known as switchblades, gravity knives, and out-the-front knives.
All mechanically opening knives are considered as switchblades as far as US Federal Law is concerned. More on that in a bit…. Switch blades are spring-powered, and the blade deploys out the side of the scales, just like any other folding knife. OFT Knives can be spring, manual, or gravity-powered, but the blade comes straight out the front of the knife, parallel to the scales. Gravity Knives have no mechanical opening system. They are deployed by simply pointing the knife towards the ground and hitting a release button. The blade is pulled out by gravity, hence the name.
The History of OFT Knives
Believe it, or not…OFT knives have been around for quite some time. The first known patent for one, which was a gravity knife, was in 1860. The first spring-powered OFT knife was in the following year. These knives were designed to be light-duty knives to be used by people who may have to hold on to something, hold something up, etc…, while opening a folding knife. They were probably pretty handy back in the day, but they were not very popular among the general population. The next practical one-handed system was the thumb-stud, which is simply a raised stud near the rear spine of the blade, allowing you to open the blade by pushing on it with your thumb. It’s difficult to determine who actually invented it, because many patents were filed simultaneously, but the first ones I ever saw were after-market attachments for the Buck 110 Folding Hunter. I still have mine. Next, Emerson came up with a similar device called a ‘wedge’. It works like the thumb-stud, but it is a flat disc, perpendicular to the blade spine, rather than a stud. All these came out in the 1970s. Spyderco, had the same idea in the early 1980s, but instead of a stud, or wedge, they just made a hole in the blade for your thumb tip, and created one of the best opening-systems yet, as well as one of the finest folding knives you can buy, without having to mortgage the house.
Mechanically opening knives, usually referred to as automatic knives, were popularized by 1950s gang movies, with choreographic (and very unrealistic) knife fights featuring Italian-designed switchblades, even though gang members seldom carried these types of knives. What became known as “Italian Stilettos” were actually designed to be issued to sailors, and used as an eating utensil, and light-duty pocket knife. They were brought home by returning WW-II US military personnel as souvenirs, and in 1950, a leftist magazine published an article called, “The Toy That Kills”, that described gang members using these beautiful knives to slice each other up in the streets. Of course, this was actually a very rare occurrence, as most gang members could not afford this type of knife (until the Chinese started making cheap copies of them in the 1970s). The media jumped on the story with movies and books glorifying fictional gang activities, resulting in US Legislation banning anything they considered an automatic knife. This also included OFT knives, which were actually designed for use by German paratroopers, and other European military special operations units as a one-handed light-duty knife, and seldom used by criminals.
What are OFT Knives?
As I stated earlier, OFT knives are just switchblades that deploy the blade straight out the front, rather than to the side. The advantage to this is if you might be in a very confined space, where a side opening blade might get trapped or tangled. The best example would be a paratrooper, who may need to cut a tangled shroud line from his parachute while still descending. Other than that, well….more on that shortly.
There are three types of OFTs available; single-action, double, or dual-action, and manual. Single-action OFTs use a spring mechanism to open the blade. It is closed manually. Double-action OFTs use a spring mechanism to both open, and close the blade. Manual OFTs have no spring mechanism, and use a sliding button to open and close the blade. There is one more type, called a gravity knife, which I described earlier. The best example of this is the German Paratrooper Knife, or Fallschirmjager-Messer.
It is a myth that an OFT can be placed against someone, and opened…piercing the unfortunate and unwitting victim. The spring is much too weak, and only propels the blade about 1/4 of the way open. Inertia does the rest. Oh, the person may be very slightly poked, but not only will the blade become stuck partially open, but the knife will be useless until it is repaired. The blade has to be opened all the way manually, then closed, for the knife to be usable again. OFTs were, and are not, made to be a fighting knife. They are a very light-duty blade.
Are OFTs Useful?
‘Useful’ is a relative term. If you draw your blade, and an attacker retreats, then blade was useful, even if it fell apart afterwards. A better question would be, “Are OFTs good utility or self-defensive knives?” This is just my opinion, but I would say, “No”, for several reasons.
First off, the more parts a knife has, the more things that can fail. Springs are no exception. Heavy-duty use, including self-defense, is very hard on locks, which is why almost all knife experts will tell you not to trust your life to any folding knife. There are a few exceptions, such as Cold Steel‘s Tri-Ad lock, and a few others, but even these are a far cry from any decent sheath knife. Any lock can fail, and the springs on OFTs, even the high-end ones, are pitifully weak. OFTs can be damaged just by dropping them. They are OK for light-duty use, but they are incredibly expensive for a halfway-decent one, and the cheaper ones are just junk. Barley adequate steel in the blade, unlined liners, and weak springs do not make a good knife. Almost any good lock-blade or slip-joint knife would be a serious improvement. Of course, if you want to spend $200.00-$500.00+ for a light-duty knife, it’s your money. But for the price of even a mediocre OFT, you can buy several really nice lock-blades, or slip-joint knives that will run circles around it.
The main good points I can see for OFTs are for collector value, the WOW factor, and possibly the intimidation factor. The upper-end OFTs seem to retain a lot of their value as collectors, especially those from Benchmade, Emerson, and other top knife-makers. And they do seem to be incredibly fun to play with. Their main use seems to be flicking the blade in and out mindlessly while thinking. I have a friend and colleague who will sit across from me while we are talking, and flick the blade on his Piranha Excalibur in and out constantly. But when he needs to cut something, he pulls out his Spyderco, or Case knife. In fact, although I know a lot of people who own OFTs, I can’t remember ever seeing anyone actually use one for cutting anything…
Of course, if you like them, or want one, by all means, indulge yourself. And if you actually use one frequently for real knife chores, and it actually works, I would love to hear from you. I am always eager to expand my knowledge, and have no problem admitting when I am wrong, even though it is not nearly as often as my wife believes it to be.
Are OFTs Legal In The US?
I am often asked if automatic knives are legal in the US, and the answer is, yes, and no…… As far as the Federal government is concerned, they are not legal. While not outright banning the ownership, or carrying of automatic knives, including OFTs, the Switchblade Act of 1958 makes is a federal crime to bring one into the US, even if you already own it, or sell one across state lines. If you cross the border into Canada, or Mexico, or anywhere else outside the US with an OFT on you, and try to come back into the US with it, if caught, you will be guilty of a federal offense. And don’t even think of taking one to an airport, even if you are not flying. You will be in for a long day, and will be going home (maybe) without your knife. A manufacturer can ship to a retailer in another state, but not to individuals.
The Switchblade Act, (Pub.L. 85-623, 72 Stat. 562, enacted on August 12, 1958, and codified in 15 U.S.C. § 1241–1245), prohibits shipment of automatic knives across state lines, with the following exceptions:
(1) to civilian or Armed Forces supply or procurement officers and employees of the Federal Government ordering, procuring, or purchasing such knives in connection with the activities of the Federal Government;
(2) to supply or procurement officers of the National Guard, the Air National guard, or militia of a state, territory or the District of Columbia ordering, procuring, or purchasing such knives in the connection with the activities of such organization
(3) to supply or procurement officers or employees of the municipal government of the District of Columbia or the government of any State or Territory, or any county, city or other political subdivision of a State or Territory; (4) to manufacturers of such knives or bona fide dealers therein in connection with any shipment made pursuant of an order from any person designated in paragraphs (1), (2), and (3).
As used in this chapter – (a) The term “interstate commerce” means commerce between any State, Territory, possession of the United States, or the District of Columbia, and any place outside thereof. (b) The term “switchblade knife” means any knife having a blade which opens automatically –
-by hand pressure applied to a button or other device in the handle of the knife, or
-by operation of inertia, gravity, or both. (source)
An exception was made to the law in 2009 regarding assisted-opening knives. Assisted-opening knives work the same way as switchblades, except that the opening process is started by applying manual force to the blade, rather than by pressing a button.
As you can see, OFTs absolutely fall into the switchblade category. There are places online that will sell OFTs across state lines to military and government personnel, who are exempt as long as it will be used in the line of duty, and some online retailers will sell you an OFT online, but be aware, they are breaking federal law if they do so. It is also illegal to have them shipped via the Postal Service.
As far as states go, some prohibit the sale, ownership and carrying of switchblades, including OFTs, outright. 14 states have a completed ban on OFTs. They are; New Jersey, Delaware, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Michigan, Illinois, Louisiana, Minnesota, Montana, Colorado, New Mexico, Hawaii, and Washington State. The District of Columbia also has a total ban on OFTs. Three states allow limited Ownership or carrying of OFTs. They are; California, New York, and Maryland. All other states allow both ownership and carry of OFTs, at least within certain size limits. But be advised that all states can, and frequently do, change their laws regarding knives, without notice. Stay informed. If you are traveling with an OFT, make sure you won’t be going through any states that prohibit them.
In addition to state laws, Counties, cities, parks, and private buildings can also set their own rules for allowing, or not allowing OFTs (or any other knife, for that matter), and under what conditions. Know the regulations before you carry an OFT anywhere.
All these regulations beg the question; Are automatic knives, including OFTs, any more dangerous or deadly than any other knife? The answer to this is a resounding NO! How a knife opens or closes has absolutely no effect on it’s deadliness or safety. The only things that determine a knife’s usefulness, deadliness, or safety is:
- The size and style of blade and scales
- The quality of the knife
- The skill, experience, and wisdom of the person wielding it (this is a biggie...)
Just about all knife laws in the US, in my opinion, besides being totally unconstitutional, are there because of politics, and nothing else. A knife, is a knife, is a knife. A 2-1/2″ slip joint knife wielded by an experienced knife-fighter is deadlier than a 9″ Bowie knife wielded by a novice. Knives are not great weapons, no matter what style they are, because they can be defeated by almost anything, like clubs, canes, sticks, rocks, bricks, belts, shoes, firearms, slingshots, and even bare hands. But they are indispensable tools.
My Opinion On 3 OTF Knives I have Tested
I reviewed 3 OFT knives; the Lightning OFT, the Benchmade Infidel, and the Piranha Excalibur.
- Blade: 3-1/2″
- Blade Style: Drop Point
- Blade Material: AUS-8
- Overall Length: 8″
- Weight: 3.9 oz.
- Scales: Brushed Aluminum – Anodized Yellow
I got this Lightning from a local dealer. I have to admit, the bright yellow scales were very attractive, and make the knife easy to find if you drop it. The AUS-8 blade was pretty sharp, but a few swipes on my stones improved the edge greatly. AUS is equivalent to 440C, which is the low end of what I would consider acceptable knife steel.
The construction seemed OK, but not great. The screws were pretty cheap, and a few were a little loose. The blade flicked in and out smartly several dozen times, before I tried using it for anything. Opening it against cardboard caused the blade to hang up about 1/3 of the way out, and just barely pierced the box. The spring became wedged, rendering the knife non-functional, and the blade seized. Shaking it repeatedly finally freed the spring where I could pull the blade all the way out, and retract it. Then the knife started working right again.
Cutting tape, paper, and string was uneventful, but shaving wood made the blade feel loose. Sure enough, after several minutes of shaving an 2” diameter ash dowel, the blade had 1/16″ of side-to-side play. For safety reasons, I discontinued further testing.
For looks, I give this knife 4 out of 5 stars. But for use, a dismal 2. It is basically an expensive letter-opener.
- Blade: 4″
- Blade Style: Spear Point
- Blade Material: D-2
- Overall Length: 9″
- Weight: 5 oz.
- Scales: Brushed Aluminum – OD Green
Benchmade was nice enough to send an Infidel to a local knife dealer so I could pick it up legally, for testing and review. I promised I would mention Rick’s Tactical Supply for their help in acquiring this testing knife without violating any federal laws. Thanks, Rick…
The fit and finish of the Infidel was about what I would expect from Benchmade, well-done. It felt good and solid in my hand. The blade was razor-sharp right out of the box. D-2 is excellent knife steel. The blade flicked in and out with authority, at least 100 times. When opened against cardboard, the blade stopped at around the halfway point, but did not seize. It was easy to manually pull the blade all the way out, then retract it. The knife then functioned good as new.
The Infidel cut paper, leather, and small wood like hot butter, with no discernible blade play. But, when I got more aggressive, and tried to shave a 4″ diameter elm tree log, after 20-25 slices, the blade felt like it was becoming loose. When I checked it, there was 1/32″ blade play that wasn’t there when I started. I discontinued further testing.
In its own defense, for a light-duty knife, the Infidel performed well. Attacking a log with it was actually abuse. All-in-all, this is a great little light-duty pocket knife. And, it is waaaay cool!
- Blade: 3.25″
- Blade Style: Spear Point
- Blade Material: 154CM
- Overall Length: 8″
- Scales: Aluminum – Anodized Purple
- Weight: 4 oz.
My first impression on the knife was that this was absolutely the most beautiful of all the knives I tested, and maybe all the knives I have seen. The purple scales were mottled, and looked almost like an abalone shell. It was so pretty, I hated to have to cut anything with it.
The blade was razor-sharp out of the box. 154CM is excellent knife steel. The knife felt solid and tight. And it looked so good, I wanted to clip it to the outside of my belt for open-carry, and go to town, so everyone could see this knife. It was more like a piece of jewelry than a cutting tool. However, I resisted the temptation and got to work.
The beautifully shaped spear point blade glided through paper, cardboard, thin leather, sliced a few tomatoes, potatoes, some sting, 440 paracord, sisal string, and 1/4″ hemp rope with no trouble at all.
I really hated to take it outside, but business is business. I started by trimming a few tree branches. It chomped through branches up to finger-thickness with no issues whatsoever. I feathered several sticks, and the Excalibur proved it could handle precision tasks. Next, I whittled completely through a 3″ diameter log in about 180 strokes. This was definitely abuse. I declined to test the Excalibur further, as I felt it had more than defended its honor, and did not want to chance anything happening to it. The Excalibur had exceeding the other two knives by a large margin. It did what it needed to do. There was absolutely no blade play at all.
Would the Excalibur survive Cold Steel’s Absolute Proof testing? Very doubtful, but it proved to be more than up to the task as a light-duty pocket knife…and then some. If I were going to spend this much on another knife, the Excalibur would be on my short list.
If it seems that I am not a fan of OFTs, it is just my opinion. There are probably those who have a different opinion. I would never dissuade anyone from having any kind of knife they want. If OFTs are your thing, that’s great. I hope they serve you well. And I can’t fault them for being a lot of fun, because they are….. It’s OK to have something just because it is neat, or cool, and for no other reason. And who knows? Maybe the loud ‘snick’ of the blade from an OFT might dissuade a mugger or would-be rapist, or the mere sight of one may make a goon’s blood run cold, so that they look for an easier target. The absolute best weapon in the world is the one you never have to use…