Editor’s note: This article is an excerpt from the KNIVES 2004 book, but the information is still relevant.
Switchblades, or automatic knives, might attract the most attention, but reforms in recent years have relaxed restrictions in most U.S. states. The most banned knife in the country remains the ballistic knife.
Here’s a look at what ballistic knives are, how they became banned and why those bans should be repealed.
What Is a Ballistic Knife?
Federal law defines a ballistic knife as follows:
United States Code, Title 15 Section 1245
(d) “Ballistic knife” defined. As used in this section, the term “ballistic knife” means a knife with a detachable blade that is propelled by a spring-operated mechanism.
Pub. L. 85-623, Sec. 7, Oct. 27, 1986. Amended Nov. 18, 1988.
In plain English, a ballistic knife is essentially a blade attached to a hollow handle that fits inside of another outer hollow handle, which contains a coil spring. The coil spring compresses inside the handle, and a latch holds the knife blade down against the spring pressure. When the latch is released, the knife and attached inner handle launch and “go ballistic.”
The federal law on ballistic knives is very similar to federal law on switchblades, except that the switchblade law exception for “the possession, and transportation upon his person, of any switchblade knife with a blade three inches or less in length by any individual who has only one arm” does not apply to ballistic knives.
That means one-armed individuals are forced by federal law to have to throw their knives by hand just like everyone else!
Hollywood and Ballistic Knives
“¿Como esta?” asks Arnold Schwarzenegger in the 1985 movie Commando, as he fires a ballistic knife into the chest of a bad guy, which amazingly causes immediate death. Hollywood never misses a chance to help fuel a misguided weapons ban, and the ballistic knife was no exception.
In May of 1986, Francis Ford Coppola’s son and Ryan O’Neal’s son were in an automobile accident in which Coppola’s son died. O’Neal’s son was charged with reckless driving and possession of a ballistic knife.
Hollywood elitism and hypocrisy is nothing new. What made the ballistic knife so frightening to career politicians, media talking heads and assorted hoplophobes (those who irrationally fear weapons) is that it’s a knife that shoots!
Why are Ballistic Knives Illegal? Hype and Politicians
Politically, the ballistic knife helped fill the gap between guns and knives. It enabled knife haters to join ranks with gun haters and both had a common, new, inanimate object to wail and screech about.
Sure enough, one year after Commando was released, the Ballistic Knife Prohibition Act of 1986 was signed into federal law by then-Republican President Ronald Reagan, as part of the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986.
In addition to the ballistic knife being slandered and falsely linked to drug abuse, this was the newest national attack on knives since the 1958 Federal Switchblade Law.
Republican Sen. Alfonse M. D’Amato held a news conference pushing for and spinning the proposed ban. He announced that a ballistic knife “is a favored weapon used by drug dealers.” He further proclaimed, “Ballistic knives are at least as dangerous as switchblade knives that have been banned since 1958.”
The hype surrounding ballistic knives did not help matters. The knives were advertised for sale in tactical magazines with the pitch “The Commies Had It. We Stole It. Now You Can Buy It!!!!” Ballistic knives were advertised as being able to “kill swiftly and silently.”
Sen. D’Amato claimed a ballistic knife to be a “dangerous weapon, a terrorist weapon.” He further declared, “Ballistic knives have no legitimate sporting purpose. They are sought by professional criminals because they are easily concealed and capable of penetrating a policeman’s bulletproof vest.”
Democratic Rep. Mario Biaggi (a well known anti-gun politician and a sponsor of the so called “Cop-Killer Bullet Ban”) appeared at a news conference and asserted that ballistic knives were the “latest in cop-killer technology,” and that the ballistic knife can “…fire its blade like a bullet” and “penetrate police bullet-resistant vests.”
He stated he had bought his ballistic knife via mail order from the Florida Knife Corp. by putting the $79.95 on his credit card. Biaggi stated, “…there were no questions asked. I could have been anybody. The ballistic knife is totally accessible to anyone who wants it.”
At the news conference, the typical “dog and pony show” was conducted by a New York police officer who fired a ballistic knife from 30 feet at a silhouette target of a person. Of course, there were no known cases at that time of anybody ever being killed by a ballistic knife, no less any reported cases of a police officer being shot at by a “drug dealer or terrorist” (or anyone else for that matter) with a ballistic knife.
Furthermore, I could not find any official poll taken of drug dealers inquiring as to whether a ballistic knife was their “preferred weapon” of the 1980s, but somehow I doubt it considering the ready availability of cheaper and more effective black market firearms.
The Florida Knife Corp. issued a statement that their ballistic knives do NOT penetrate bulletproof vests, but noted that any ice pick could penetrate a bulletproof vest. Bulletproof vests are NOT ice pick-proof, however banning ice picks is not as politically correct or headline grabbing. A ballistic knife has as much “sporting purpose” as any throwing knife.
Since when is the “sporting purpose test” applied to knives, anyway? What sporting purpose does an 8-inch chef’s knife have? Then again, why should facts get in the way of a feel-good knife ban?
The Final Cut to the Ban: Throwing Knives
There are many books that deal with the subject of knife throwing for both fun and combat. A knife can be thrown with substantially more power and accuracy than can be achieved by firing a ballistic knife. This fact alone makes the ballistic knife ban patently absurd and useless.
Any decent fixed blade knife can be thrown (although throwing your handmade, damascus, ivory-handled bowie is not recommended). But why should facts and logic stand in the way of any headline-grabbing politician pushing a weapons ban and holding news conferences?
So What? Who Needs a Ballistic Knife Anyway?
Okay, the law is ridiculous, so what’s the problem? Who needs to own a ballistic knife anyway, right?
Well, here is the problem: the ballistic knife ban is a KNIFE BAN, and just because it isn’t your ox being gored does not mean you should ignore it. This ban paves the way for more knife bans. The politicians see our knife rights as “easy pickin’s.” They can look like they are doing something about crime, terrorism or drug dealing, when in reality it’s just another hit on our knife rights.
Ballistic knife bans lay the groundwork for further knife bans and for activist courts to be judicially dishonest and to prohibit other lawful knives and weapons that are not ballistic knives. Don’t believe it? Then you have obviously not read State of Florida, Appellant, v. Pariya Darynani, Appellee, 4th District, Case No. 4D99-4172.
In this case, the Florida Court banned formerly lawful automatic/switchblade knives under the guise of Florida’s ballistic knife ban. The case is a classic example of anti-knife bias and the abuse of our knife rights that a wrongful knife ban can cause.
New Jersey’s ballistic knife ban has even more potential for abuse. The New Jersey ballistic knife ban was signed into law by then Republican Gov. Thomas Kean, who stated, “We have to restrict the flow of knives that serve no useful or lawful purpose.” I
f the “bunny huggers” wanted to push it, New Jersey’s ballistic knife law is so overbroad that archery and bow hunting are threatened and could be banned.
Chapter 39 Of New Jersey Criminal Code Firearms And Weapons 2C: 39-1.
u. “Ballistic knife” means any weapon or other device capable of lethal use and which can propel a knife blade.
Bows and crossbows can all shoot broadhead arrows. Broadheads are and/or contain razor-sharp knife blades. Is a compound bow with a broadhead arrow a “weapon or other device capable of lethal use and which can propel a knife blade?” Of course it is!
Sure, it was not the intent of the New Jersey Legislature to ban archery and bow hunting, but it was not the intent of the Florida Legislature to ban switchblades/automatics, either, and yet the Darynani court did just that!
Unfortunately, knife aficionados were not organized, prepared or ready for the ballistic knife fight in the mid-1980s. We were never warned about the future effect and ramifications of ballistic knife bans on our knife rights. We dramatically lost on the ballistic knife issue and are now paying a price.