Pearl Handled Switchblade

Paul M. Alvarez 2008

General George S. Patton once said "Only a pimp in a New Orleans whorehouse or a tin-horn gambler would carry a pearl-handled pistol." and I am sure that he might have said the same of this knife. In spite of their shortcomings, switchblades were once popular knives, especially among our more disreputable class of denizens.

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Automatic knives or switchblades have been with us for many years and have even been used by the military. The stiletto style, of which this knife is an example, was especially popular with "gang members" and other criminals during the '50s. In it's infinite wisdom the Congress of the United States even enacted Public Law 85-623, commony called the "Federal Switchblade Act" designed "to prohibit the introduction, or manufacture for introduction, into interstate commerce of switchblade knives, and for other purposes". This act was mainly symbolic as even the proponents of the act did not expect it to have any affect on the crime rate or of their use by criminals. Kind of reminds me of the current anti-gun "debate" where our legislators feel compelled to do "something" if it is the wrong thing to do.

Back before Spyderco introduced their one-handed opening system and revolutionized the knife industry, if you wanted a flashy piece of cutlery, the switchblade was the knife of choice. Even though they have been made in different configurations, typically when you mention the word switchblade what springs to mind is the stiletto style of knife. It became the perenial favorite of many a screen writer and has been featured in countless Hollywood productions. Can any of us "Knife Nuts" ever really forget Detective Harry Callahan burying his switchblade into the leg of the bad guy in "Dirty Harry"? On the plus side, these knives were, of course, easy to open and made a distinctive sound when opening. Rather like racking the slide on a pump shotgun, it drew immediate attention from the movie audience.

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The stileto style of switchblades have been imported by the thousands, from Europe originally and then from Asia and the Phillipines. Many were brought back by tourists or returning servicemen. They ranged in quality from excellent to "tourist crap". The better quality Italian or German blades used horn, stag, ivory, or, yes, mother-of-pearl for the handles while most of the cheaper models typically used plastic imitations of those materials.


The blade of this knife, as is typical for stilettos, is thick (.17") but quite narrow (.55") and fairly long, this would make it better for stabbing rather than cutting were it constructed better. This blade geometry also makes it more difficult to put and maintain a good edge on it as the blade angle is too sharp. It has a longish ricasso, reminiscent of the early Sykes-Fairbairn Commando knife, to accomodate the lock. The lock mechanism consists of a stirrup that engages a stud projecting from the base of the blade. As you can well imagine, this is not the strongest method of locking a blade, especially if the steel is a bit on the soft side as these tend to be. I have found many of these with the stud either broken or worn to the point where it does not lock anymore when they have been subjected to stress. Additionally, metal is removed from the root of the blade to create the lock stud thereby weakening the blade.

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The knife is opened by pressing on the large button on the handle. This button is part of a spring loaded lever with a right angle stud at the other end that engages the hole at the base of the blade. The stud is only .130" in diameter and these also frequently shear or wear to the point of inoperability. When the button is pressed, the stud disengages the hole and the mainspring then drives the blade outward and, hopefully, into the locked position. The leaf mainspring is prone to fatigue and consequent failure. There is a safety stud with a sliding piece that locks the button to prevent inadvertent activation, and subsequent embarassment, while in your pocket

Opening the knife can be a bit of a problem as well. You want to make sure that your fingers are well out of the way so as not to impede the blade. This is not easy to do as the handle is rather narrow and gives rise to the "two finger" hold on opening. Grip the knife with only the thumb and index finger, with the other fingers well out of the way, while the blade deploys. It looks really "cool" on the silver-screen but I would rather keep a more secure hold on my knife during moments of stress.

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Overall this knife is 6" long when closed and has a brass frame/liner to which are attached the other pieces. The handles are plastic imitation pearl held on by brass pins. The bolsters are hollow stainless steel pieces as are the pommel and activation button. The stainless blade is 4.75" long and is marked "B" and "Rostfrei" at the ricasso. The spring and backstrap/lock are carbon steel. I believe that it is probably Italian in origin.

While at first glance this is an impressive looking knife it is, in fact, not one that I would reccomend for any serious social use. The blade has become quite loose as they frequently do. Even in the best examples this type of knife is inferior to a good modern lockback.

The Federal Switchbalse Act tried to legislate these knives out of existence. It failed miserably, as any such prohibition is doomed to fail, and ultimately lead to the developement of much superior construction, activation and locking systems. Modern knives fall well within the boundries of the act and are as quick to open, are stronger, and hold better edges than these old timers.

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