A ballistic knife is a knife with a detachable, self-propelled blade that can be ejected to a distance of several meters by pressing a trigger or operating a lever or switch on the handle. Spring-powered ballistic knives briefly gained notoriety in the United States in the mid-1980s after commercial examples were marketed and sold in the United States and other Western countries. Since then, the marketing and/or sale of ballistic knives to civilians has been restricted or prohibited by law in several countries.
History and usage
There is a common but erroneous belief in the Western countries that ballistic knives were being developed for the Soviet Special Forces, however, such knives were never produced for nor used within spetsnaz units. The closest weapon to them is the NRS-2 knife with a built-in firearm in handle. All ballistic knives produced in the USSR were manufactured in makeshift conditions for the needs of criminals. By 1985, spring-powered ballistic knives were being advertised for sale in the United States in the Shotgun News, Soldier of Fortune, and other publications.
In its spring-propelled form, the blade of a ballistic knife is theoretically capable of being fired to an effective range of around 5 meters (about 16 feet) at a speed of 63 km/h (39 mph). Ballistic knives using compressed air or gas propulsion to fire the blade can be made somewhat more powerful, and do not suffer from spring fatigue over time. However, since the projectile blade of most ballistic knives has no aerodynamic or gyroscopic stabilization, the blade frequently tumbles after traveling a short distance. While easier to learn than the skill of knife throwing, the jarring shock caused by unleashing the expanding spring and a lack of a sighting mechanism contributed to its inaccuracy, making it advisable to close to within a few feet to ensure the blade delivered a killing blow to a targeted and vulnerable area of the body. Soviet training doctrine of the day emphasized the use of the thrown knife as a silent weapon, designed to kill or incapacitate an unsuspecting opponent at just beyond grappling distance (five to six paces); the ballistic knife appears to fit within that tactical doctrine.
In addition to spring, air, or gas propulsion, the blade of a ballistic knife may also be propelled by an explosive charge, such as a blank pistol cartridge.
Legality in the United Kingdom
The legal status of ballistic knives or pilum knives is doubtful under current legislation in the United Kingdom, particularly given the degree of discretion granted to Crown prosecutors and the police with regard to classifying knives of an arguably offensive nature as prohibited items. Prosecutors are encouraged by the government to charge defendants under more than one Act where applicable. Furthermore, in the UK it is customary for the Metropolitan Police, not a barrister, to be consulted as legal experts on a question of whether a given knife is to be considered illegal under existing UK knife laws, and this has resulted in a tendency to interpret any bladed object of questionable status as falling within the definition of a prohibited knife.
Whilst "ballistic knives" are not specifically mentioned in any legislation, the marketing, sale, transfer, or possession in a public place of a ballistic knife could be construed to be illegal under the Restriction of Offensive Weapons Act 1959, the Knives Act 1997, the Criminal Justice Act 1988, and the Prevention of Crime Act 1953. The Restriction of Offensive Weapons Act 1959 imposes criminal penalties for anyone who manufactures, sells or hires, or offers for sale or hire, or lends or gives to any other person "any knife which has a blade which opens automatically by hand pressure applied to a button, spring or other device in or attached to the handle of the knife." The Knives Act 1997 prohibits the marketing of knives as offensive weapons, while the Criminal Justice Act 1988 prohibits the carrying of blades or sharply pointed objects in a public place without "good reason or lawful authority". Finally, the Prevention of Crime Act 1953 prohibits the possession in any public place of an offensive weapon without "lawful authority or reasonable excuse." The term "offensive weapon" is defined under the Prevention of Crime Act 1953 as: "any article made or adapted for use to causing injury to the person, or intended by the person having it with him for such use". Under the Prevention of Crime Act, knives otherwise 'exempt' from penalty under the Criminal Justice Act 1988 when carried for "good reason or lawful authority" may still be deemed illegal if authorities conclude the knife is being carried as an "offensive weapon" without "lawful authority or reasonable excuse". 'Lawful authority’ means those occasions where people from time to time are required to carry weapons as a matter of governmental duty, such as police officers or members of the armed forces, not private persons, hence the 'lawful authority' language cannot be relied upon to establish an exemption from prosecution of private individuals. Furthermore, as the ballistic knife was originally designed as an offensive weapon, not as a tool intended for use in a trade or business, and given current prosecutorial directives, it may be difficult to establish "reasonable excuse" for carrying such a knife before a UK prosecutor or court, especially as the carrying of a knife in public for self-defence is not acceptable as a "reasonable excuse". In the eyes of the law, claims of self-protection are presently viewed as an admission that the defendant intends to use the knife in violation of the law as an "offensive weapon" - albeit in a defensive manner, and in otherwise justifiable circumstances.
Legality in the USA
History of legislation
After hearing uncorroborated testimony from a congressional witness that ballistic knives could be used to defeat body armor typically worn by police officers, and witnessing a staged demonstration against a wood-backed target, Senator Alphonse D'Amato of New York introduced the Ballistic Knife Prohibition Act, a bill to ban sale or possession of ballistic knives. The bill eventually failed. However, after gaining the support of Senators Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, and Dennis DeConcini of Arizona, congressional support for a ban on import or possession of ballistic knives quickly gained traction. In September 1986 senators supporting the ballistic knife ban attached their bill to popular legislation designed to eradicate drug crops in foreign countries and halt international drug trafficking operations. The bill was subsequently enacted into law. The new federal statute prohibited future importation or possession of such knives in interstate commerce. Some individual states following the example set by the federal law and passed even tighter restrictions, sometimes banning ownership of the knives outright within their state.
Similar to conventional automatic knives, federal law makes ballistic knives with a spring-operated blade illegal to possess, manufacture, sell, or import "in or affecting interstate commerce." This means they are illegal to import from outside the US, as well as buy or sell over state lines, including possessing or making them with intent to sell over state lines. The federal law also makes it a separate crime to use or possess a ballistic knife during the commission of a federal crime of violence, with a minimum sentence of 5 years in a federal prison. Federal law does not prohibit the possession, manufacture, or sale of a ballistic knife within a state's boundaries, and the individual laws of each state or territory must be consulted to determine whether possession, manufacture, or sale within a given state is legal (many states have statutes that regulate or prohibit the acquisition and/or possession of ballistic knives, and penalties vary from state to state). Like the federal switchblade law, an exception is made for sale to the US Armed Forces within the confines of a contract, as well as possession by duly-authorized members of the Armed Forces in performance of their duty.
A ballistic knife with a blade propelled by an explosive charge falls outside the federal law these knives, but is still restricted as this makes it a firearm subject to the AOW (Any Other Weapons) category of the NFA.
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- Restriction of Offensive Weapons Act 1959, 14 May 1959, Chapter 37-7 and 8 Eliz 2
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- USC Title 15, Ch. 29, Sec. 1245(d): "As used in this section, the term "ballistic knife" means a knife with a detachable blade that is propelled by a spring-operated mechanism."
- "U.S.C TITLE 15 CHAPTER 29 § 1245 Ballistic Knives". Retrieved 2010-10-05.
- 15 U.S.C. 1245, paragraph (c) (referring to 15 U.S.C. 1244, paragraphs 1,2, and 3)