A switchblade (also known as an automatic knife, pushbutton knife, ejector knife, switch, Sprenger, Springer, flick knife, or flick blade) is a type of knife with a folding or sliding blade contained in the handle which is opened automatically by a spring when a button, lever, or switch on the handle or bolster is activated. Most switchblade designs incorporate a locking blade, in which the blade is locked against closure when the spring extends the blade to the fully opened position. The blade is unlocked by manually operating a mechanism that unlocks the blade and allows it to be folded and locked in the closed position. In 1954, Democratic Rep. James J. Delaney of New York authored the first bill submitted to the U.S. Congress banning the manufacture and sale of switchblades, beginning a wave of legal restrictions worldwide and a consequent decline in their popularity. In 1955, U.S. newspapers promoted the image of a young delinquent with a stiletto switchblade or flick knife with lurid stories of urban youth gang warfare, often featuring lower class youth and/or racial minorities.
Switchblade knives date from the mid-18th century. The earliest known examples of spring-loaded blades were constructed by craftsmen in Europe, who developed an automatic folding spike bayonet for use on flintlock pistols and coach guns. Examples of steel automatic folding knives from Sheffield England have crown markings that date to 1840. Cutlery makers such as Tillotson, A. Davey, Beever, Hobson, Ibbotson and others produced automatic-opening knives. Some have simple iron bolsters and wooden handles, while others feature ornate, embossed silver alloy bolsters and stag handles. English-made knives often incorporate a “pen release” instead of a central handle button, whereby the main spring activated larger blade is released by pressing down on the closed smaller pen blade. In France, 19th-century folding knives marked Châtellerault were available in both automatic and manually opened versions in several sizes and lengths. Châtellerault switchblades have recognizable features such as “S” shaped cross guards, picklock type mechanisms and engraved decorative pearl and ivory handles. In Spain, Admiral D’Estaing is attributed with a type of folding naval dirk that doubled as an eating utensil. In closed (folded) position, the blade tip would extend beyond the handle to be used at the dining table. It could be spring activated to full length if needed as a side arm, by pressing a lever instead of a handle button. By 1850, at least one American company offered a .22 rimfire single-shot pistol equipped with a spring-operated knife. After the American Civil War (1865), knife production became industrialized. The oldest American made production automatic knife is the Korn Patent Knife, which used a rocking bolster release. The advent of mass production methods enabled folding knives with multiple components to be produced in large numbers at lower cost. By 1890, U.S. knife sales of all types were on the increase, buoyed by catalog mail order sales as well as mass marketing campaigns utilizing advertisements in periodicals and newspapers. In consequence, knife manufacturers began marketing new and much more affordable automatic knives to the general public. In Europe as well as the United States, automatic knife sales were never more than a fraction of sales generated by conventional folding knives, yet the type enjoyed consistent if modest sales from year to year. In 1892, George Schrade, a toolmaker and machinist from New York developed and patented the first of several practical automatic knife designs. The following year, Schrade founded the New York Press Button Knife Company to manufacture his switchblade knife pattern, which had a unique release button mounted in the knife bolster. Schrade’s company operated out of a small workshop in New York City and employed about a dozen workmen.