Need For Speed: An Introduction to Automatic Spring-Assisted and Quick-Draw Folding Knives

It’s ironic that just as automatic knives become legal in more and more jurisdictions, spring-assisted knives, such as this Browning Steel Duty, open faster and faster with the flick of a thumb and without the legal baggage of a “switchblade.”

It’s ironic that just as automatic knives become legal in more and more jurisdictions, spring-assisted knives, such as this Browning Steel Duty, open faster and faster with the flick of a thumb and without the legal baggage of a “switchblade.”

» THE NOTION OF A FOLDING KNIFE FOR SELF-DEFENSE is a polarizing one in the concealed carry community. Many people who devote their time and training to the use of a firearm for protection often also consider the need for a backup or “Plan B” option. For some, this takes the form of a second firearm. Others explore fixed blades or folding knives for this role. For individuals who are limited in their access to firearms, whether it be by national or state law, a knife quickly becomes a very valid option for concealed carry.

Once upon a time, fixed blades were heavily marketed for self-defense. Boot knives, neck knives and deep carry in the waistband were the tools of the trade, but as fashions changed, so did the industry. The birth of the “tactical folder” led many people to consider a pocket knife as a defensive option. It became rarer for an individual to carry a dedicated blade for self-defense, and the humble pocket knife became “tactical” in name and in nature.

Innovations in the world of folding knife technology have given birth to a host of fast-opening blades that can literally spring into action at a touch.

Almost all of us carry a knife. A good blade is an invaluable tool that we’ve grown up with: a trusted companion and go-to tool for almost any occasion. An object that anyone who’s spent time passing through a TSA checkpoint can attest to quickly feeling naked without. It makes sense that, for many of us, such a tool in our pocket could potentially become a last-ditch defensive option — “Plan B” or otherwise.

As with any tool for protection and defense, ease of deployment from a concealed position is vitally important, as is the speed with which that tool can be brought into play in a high-stress situation. Automatic knives and their assisted-open cousins offer the advantage of fast deployment and often simple actuation, providing a tool that (with training) can be accessed and used speedily.

Innovations in the world of folding knife technology have given birth to a host of fast-opening blades that can literally spring into action at a touch. Gone are the days of the old-school switchblade (which I’ll confess a long-standing love affair with) and now we are confronted with a wealth of high-quality speedy folders.

Automatic Knives

Folding automatic knives come in all shapes and sizes. They are simple to use, with a button or slide actuator triggering a spring that deploys the blade. The draw itself is a two-step process — removal from a pocket or garment and then a simple push of the thumb to bring the knife into play. It’s simple, fast and intuitive to learn.

We’re seeing more and more changes in knife-carry laws, and I am happy to see automatic knives becoming more commonplace. As the legality of these knives varies wildly from state to state, they are sometimes limited to professional use and designed primarily for military and law enforcement. This is reflected in the blade design, which is often very utilitarian. It’s fair to say that function is the first and foremost priority, and at first glance, most modern manufactured automatics are exceedingly similar in looks if not also performance. A quick image search on your search engine of choice will dispense a sea of black blades, semi-serrated edges, “tacticool” product names and tanto points. Credit must go to Benchmade and Kershaw for bringing some sleek curves and beautiful lines to the auto world.

OTF, or Out the Front, knives deploy straight out of the handle (as their name suggests) with the push of a button or slide.

Quality and performance with automatic folders varies greatly. While designs continue to improve, stories of quickly developed blade play (the blade itself loosening from the locking mechanism) and knives opening in people’s pockets still prevail.

Many modern automatic knives have incorporated a safety mechanism that locks the blade closed until ready to use. Some purists feel this slows down the draw, but I personally like sharp objects to remain contained when in my pocket.

OTF, or Out the Front, knives deploy straight out of the handle (as their name suggests) with the push of a button or slide. Given the nature of the system involved, they are almost exclusively thin, lightweight and designed for the thrust. They are fast to deploy and simple to use.

Microtech offers some of the slickest OTFs on the market, though Benchmade and Schrade have also produced some great looking offerings in recent years.

Spring-Assisted

Spring-assisted knives have become increasingly common over the last few years. Accepted in many more states than their fully auto brethren, assisted knives quite simply need a manual start (by the use of a thumb stud, flipper or other actuator) before a spring or similar device finishes the job, deploying the blade. This makes for another very fast, very reliable draw.

Interestingly, as these knives are more widely accepted and legal to carry in more states, their design varies greatly. They are not solely “tactical” in nature, and the smooth ease of opening and undeniable cool-factor of that lightning-fast open make these knives a much-loved choice for many.

Kershaw’s Leek series is a great example. It’s becoming a modern take on the “gentleman’s carry” knife and remaining one of the most popular pocketknives out there. Spring-assisted knives, by their very nature, use a coiled spring to push the blade and, in turn, activate the locking mechanism. The only exception to this rule that I am aware of is Andrew Demko’s Flash-Tek mechanism, as seen on the Cold Steel Swift, which uses a steel bar to achieve a similar result.

Flippers

Flippers are a commonplace design feature across multiple brands. This raised protrusion along the handle of the folder is pulled with the index finger, deploying the blade. This feature can be seen on many folders, whether spring-assisted or manual. It’s incredibly intuitive and easy to use even in stressful situations. It requires a change of grip to use the flipper with the index finger before moving the fingers to get a firm grip on the knife, but it’s a quick study and soon becomes second nature. The flipper itself often becomes a finger guard when deployed, protruding from the bottom of the knife and keeping the user’s fingers clear of the blade.

Pocket Snag

Ernest Emerson’s patented Wave feature, a cut-out on the blade of a folding knife allowing for a snagging draw on the pocket, has been a game changer — so much so that the name of the feature has become ubiquitous with the process of opening the knife. Nobody says “pocket snag,” and whether it’s an Emerson knife or not, you are “waving” your knife open. Emerson’s Wave is so popular that it’s been licensed out to multiple manufacturers.

With a little practice, a user can bring a folder into play in the blink of an eye.

It is arguably faster than even a fully automatic knife in that the very act of drawing the knife from the pocket actuates the draw. With a little practice, a user can bring a folder into play in the blink of an eye. The Wave can be seen on a range of knives, including Karambit-style blades, which are drawn in a reverse grip. The Fox Dart uses a miniature version of this principal, employing the Emerson Wave to snag on a sleeve or cuff as well as the pocket. Other variations on the same theme can be found, including Demko’s Thumb Plate, a screw-on steel plate that serves as an ambidextrous alternative to a thumb stud while also serving as a very reliable pocket-snagger.

Legality

The legality of automatic knives and their like varies from state to state and county to county. In some cases, city ordinances might also impose further restrictions and limit which knives you are legally able to carry and even own.

I heartily recommend exploring your personal options via knifeup.com. You can also find great links on kniferights.org — and their “Legal Blade” app for smartphones provides a handy at-a-glance guide to state laws.

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