Despite A Rocky History Of Legality, OTF Knives Have Endured And Are Some Of The Most Popular Pocketknives On The Market Today
As its name suggests, an Out The Front (OTF) knife is a fairly straightforward affair. In short, it has an enclosed handle with a blade that deploys from the front–the bolster, hilt or what have you. In general, these fast-from-the-gate options are small, most with an average blade length of 3-3.75 inches, though there are certainly larger examples.
The knife is distinct from its “Out-The-Side” cousin, at least as a switchblade–one of its most common forms–in the variety of the way the blade is brought into action. Furthermore, the OTF knife needn’t any push-button, assisted-open system to flash cold, hard steel in the wink of an eye.
Overall, OTF knives are a fascinating, if not slightly intimidating, corner of the knife world. In this guide, we’ll look at some of the history, usage and types of OTF knives. Then we’ll show you some of the best options on the market today. Get ready to flick into action.
Legality Of The OTF Knife
In the past, these knives were favored by paratroopers and sailors. However, thanks to a media campaign in the 1950s that showed automatic knives as the tool of choice for criminals and underworld types, including popular movies like “Rebel Without A Cause”, automatic knives were banned nationwide. The Federal Switchblade Act passed into law on August 12, 1958 and effectively banned auto knives across the country.
Going into 2023, the panic over OTF knives and other switchblades has somewhat subsided. Most states now allow ownership and carry of OTF, and other types of, automatic knives. However, 11 states still have a blanket ban. Furthermore, there are some issues when it comes to what many places call ‘stabbing instruments’ and other vague terms. Where this becomes an issue is some states that allow automatic knives have laws against double-edged blades. Given many OTF knife options fall into both categories, certain models have a narrow window of legal ownership.
As always, if OTF knives or switchblades tickle your fancy, please check your local laws before picking one up. Better safe than sorry.
Types Of OTF Knives
As mentioned above, there are four types of OTF knives. Each has positives and negatives, and the prices will vary wildly. It’s important to know the differences so you purchase the option that best suits your needs.
Manual OTF Knife
The most basic and least expensive OTF knives are the manuals. They are exactly that, knives that deploy and retract through manual operation. The most common way of doing this is via a slider on the handle. The upside is that you are in total control of the speed of your blade. However, it may not have the wow factor of other knives on the list. But hey, you’ll be safe while using it.
Single-Action OTF Knife
These knives feature a powered deployment, usually with a button of some type, but require you to manually retract the blade to reset it. And it isn’t retracting like you might think. You pull a handle at the bottom to both retract the blade and recharge the spring so it’s ready to deploy again.
Double-Action OTF Knife
When you think of an OTF knife you probably think of double-action OTFs–better known as fully automatic. The blade deploys and retracts with the touch of a button or flip of a switch. Prominent companies like Microtech and Cobra-Tec make dozens of different double-action OTF knives.
The four-leaf clovers of OTF knives are definitely gravity knives. Few companies still make them. The blades deploy and retract with the help of gravity.
The Reate EXO is one of the most popular gravity knives on the market today and a great example of the style. Just take into account your local knife laws as some places have specific laws banning the ownership or carry of gravity knives.
What To Look For In A Quality OTF Knife
You can find decent, but basic, OTF knives in the $30 range, but expect to pay ten times that for a model that extends and retracts on its own with the push of a button. Though, the sky is really the limit when it comes to the features on these knives, as some can easily jump over $1000 depending on what’s included.
The rub, for the price, is that even the expensive options do not do well for anything other than basic and light use as they are not as strong as other types of knives.
The basic selling point of OTFs–aside from inherent coolness–is convenience. Read that as they can be entirely used with one hand. It’s best to think of the OTF knife as a refined gentleman’s blade: a cutting tool that you could rely on for daily life and its inconveniences.
OTF Blade Quality
The main issue surrounding blade quality on OTF knives is how light the blades have to be to function. Because the blade is entirely surrounded by the handle, the blade itself cannot be wider or longer than that existing space. As a result, most OTF knife blades are short and light.
These blades are rarely what we would call a full-profiled knife and many are under 3 inches despite a full-sized handle. These blades are not especially strong and are essentially for cutting only, though there is utility in thrusting or stabbing depending on the strength of the locking mechanism.
The small tang area is where the mechanisms are anchored, and this space is usually quite insignificant in surface area. It is entirely possible and even easy to break OTF knives if used improperly.
Practicality Of OTF Knives
If you are in the market for an OTF knife, realize that there are better designs for most daily work that are substantially stronger and can handle a much wider variety of tasks, not to mention are cheaper. OTF knives do have their niche, much like karambits, balisongs, and friction folders, but each of these designs has hard limits on what they can accomplish as opposed to a fixed blade or a suitably strong folder.
Best OTF Knives
SCHRADE VIPER OTF
Coming in at a relatively low cost (comparatively) is the Schrade Viper. The knife lacks some of the features of higher-end OTF knives, but at 1/10 the price of some of the others on this list, it is a good starting point should you want to familiarize yourself with the OTF style in general.
The knife is a bit more manual than others in that it is assisted opening but needs to be manually closed. The overall structure of the knife is not cheap. The handle is made of aluminum and includes an integrated glass breaker in the pommel. It also features a manual safety system for opening and closing the blade to ensure it only opens when you want it to.
SMITH & WESSON M&P OTF
The M&P OTF retails in the same range as the Schrade Viper and is largely a product that appeals to an entry-level crowd. Many OTF knives on this list retail for more than some of S&W’s guns–a telling sign this market is for the discerning individual. with the M&P OTF, you get a large degree of utility without some of the additional features and glamor of higher-end models.
Like the Schrade, this knife has an integrated glass breaker in the pommel and is similarly assisted opening/manual closing. If you already own an M&P pistol, you’ll notice that the handle contouring matches the slide machining cosmetically, including a safety lever that resembles the one on the pistol. MSRP: $70
HOGUE KNIVES COUNTERSTRIKE
Hogue’s new Counterstrike is a flagship design that is sure to impress, not only with its modest price point for a fully-automatic knife but also the materials it is made from.
What sets the Counterstrike apart is not just that sweet-spot price, but the high-end materials it’s made from and its excellent strength. Among these is the MagnaCut blade, which itself is a prime selling point. This steel is among the best in the industry and gives the Counterstrike excellent edge retention and adds rigidity to the already thin OTF blade profile. Additionally, the knife has a glass-breaker pommel, aluminum, and carbon fiber handle, and is made in the USA.
KERSHAW JENS ANSO KAPSULE MANUAL OTF
The Kershaw Capsule is a small manual OTF excellent for concealment. At just 3.25 inches while closed and with a 1.9-inch blade, this small knife is a great self-defense tool because of its size and unassuming appearance.
However, it’s much more than that. The spear point blade works like a box cutter. The tip is great for puncturing the and edge can handle the type of slicing work you’d expect from a commercial box cutter. It’s convenient and compact enough that it can even fit on a keychain.
MICROTECH ULTRATECH D/E
Microtech is one of the companies that popularized the modern OTF knife. In fact, most knife enthusiasts would go so far as to say that Microtech is completely responsible for this trend and has set the bar for all OTF knives going forward. The Ultratech is a solid example why the company calls the tune.A dependable OTF, the knife displays an excellent balance in terms of material, strength, and utility. It is a fully-automatic design that opens and retracts with the same switch. If you want an incredibly reliable OTF knife for your daily use, the Ultratech is arguably the knife on this list with the most pocket hours across the board and is from an established OTF brand. Like others on this list, it features a glass breaker pommel and is made in the USA.
HERETIC KNIVES ROC
Now here is something you don’t see every day. The Heretic Knives ROC is visually stunning, it is just so rare to see a curved blade on an OTF knife. The company no longer has the ROC listed on its site as of this writing, but it is available and in stock online. The ROC accomplishes its one-of-a-kind appearance by using a curved handle to match the blade, which overall seems like a no-brainer.
But it just isn’t seen these days, despite the advantages in self-defense or martial arts. While it resembles a karambit, this knife lacks a finger ring on the pommel. The ROC is a fully-automatic design that retracts and deploys on its own. If you are in the market for an eye-catching OTF design that is USA-made, you’d better get them before they are gone.
The Piranha Rated-R is one of the most discreet and well-designed knives on this list. The others we’ve looked at have release buttons/switches on the side of the grip in line with the spine of the blade, whereas the Rated-R has it conveniently mounted where the thumb rests near the end of the handle.
It is a fully-automatic knife and requires no movement of the hand to deploy and retract the blade thanks to the switch location. Unlike most of the others here, it lacks a glass breaker pommel, further adding to its discreet appearance. The knife is on the higher end of cost for OTF blades. But like any semi-custom product, it appeals to a certain customer that has specific needs for a strong, durable, and unassuming knife. The Rated-R is made in the USA.
This list wouldn’t be complete without a knife from Benchmade. The company has been producing visually attractive and highly functional blades for the most demanding end users: hunters, cops, rescue crews, anglers, and bushcrafters, among many more. The Autocrat is the most sought-after Benchmade OTF model and it has an excellent reputation for strength and sharpness.
The knife is in the same cost range as most high-end OTF knives at $500, making it an investment for most people but a steal for those who desire American-made quality. The knife is fully automatic and is available in two colors. It does not include a glass breaker pommel, making it easier to use in the hand and a bit more classy in overall appearance.
- Best Benchmade Knife: What Are The Company’s Classics?
- Stiletto Switchblade: Sharp And Controversial
- Gravity Knives: What You Need To Know
NEXT STEP: Download Your Free KNIFE GUIDE Issue of BLADE MagazineBLADE’s annual Knife Guide Issue features the newest knives and sharpeners, plus knife and axe reviews, knife sheaths, kit knives and a Knife Industry Directory.
Get your FREE digital PDF instant download of the annual Knife Guide. No, really! We will email it to you right now when you subscribe to the BLADE email newsletter.