Ah, the mythical ballistic knife. A cheesy hallmark of 80’s action films and, before that, the subject of politicians’ Hoplophobia (that’s an irrational fear of weapons).
Do a quick internet search, and you’ll find some website that says, “Yes, ballistic knives are illegal to own.” End of story, right?
Before we explain further, understand these five things:
- You shouldn’t try to own a ballistic knife.
- You legally can’t buy one, anywhere, ever.
- Many states have banned these knives.
- This isn’t legal advice. Laws change.
- This is for entertainment purposes only.
The Ballistic Knife Prohibition Act of 1986
Let’s review the legislation that allegedly outlawed ballistic knives. This Act was sponsored by Representative Mario Biaggi (D) of New York, and ratified as law in 1986. The summary of the bill (H.R. 4711) says:
“Ballistic Knife Prohibition Act of 1986 – Amends the Federal criminal code to prohibit the possession, manufacture, sale, importation, and mailing of ballistic knives (knives with a detachable blade that is propelled by a spring-operated mechanism).“
But that is wrong, even though it’s literally spelled out on a government website.
U.S.C. Title 15, Chapter 29, §1245
This section of the U.S. Code was created by the Ballistic Knife Prohibition Act. The text makes ballistic knives illegal, but only under certain circumstances. It says:
“Prohibition and penalties for possession, manufacture, sale, or importation
“Whoever in or affecting interstate commerce, within any Territory or possession of the United States, within Indian country (as defined in section 1151 of title 18), or within the special maritime and territorial jurisdiction of the United States (as defined in section 7 of title 18), knowingly possesses, manufactures, sells, or imports a ballistic knife shall be fined as provided in title 18, or imprisoned not more than ten years, or both.
Prohibition and penalties for possession or use during commission of Federal crime of violence
Whoever possesses or uses a ballistic knife in the commission of a Federal crime of violence shall be fined as provided in title 18, or imprisoned not less than five years and not more than ten years, or both.
‘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.“
This Ban Only Affects Interstate Commerce
The text of the ban clearly says that possessing a ballistic knife is illegal if you are “in or affecting interstate commerce,” or if you have or use a ballistic knife to commit a crime of violence.
Interstate commerce is the general term for transacting or transportation of products, services, or money across state borders.
That means you must, in some way, be doing business with ballistic knives. Only then is possessing one illegal.
Simple Possession is Not a Federal Crime
You might say, “Surely, Congress also made possession of a ballistic knife outside of interstate commerce a crime, right?”
There is no crime against simple possession of a ballistic knife under any federal law. You just can’t buy one, sell one, make one with the intent of selling it, transport one across state lines, or import a ballistic knife into any U.S. territories.
Don’t believe it? Here’s the only text the ban added to the U.S. Criminal Code.
U.S.C. Title 18, Chapter 83, §1716
In this section, “Injurious articles as nonmailable,” the Ballistic Knife Prohibition Act added the following text to Title 18, which covers federal crimes and criminal procedure:
“(g) All knives having a blade which opens automatically by hand pressure applied to a button or other device in the handle of the knife, or by operation of inertia, gravity, or both, are nonmailable and shall not be deposited in or carried by the mails or delivered by any officer or employee of the Postal Service.
Any ballistic knife shall be subject to the same restrictions and penalties provided under subsection (g) for knives described in the first sentence of that subsection.
As used in this subsection, the term ‘ballistic knife’ means a knife with a detachable blade that is propelled by a spring-operated mechanism.“
So, federal law says it’s a crime to ship a ballistic knife using the Postal Service. But there is nothing in the U.S Criminal Code that says simple possession is illegal.
You Still Shouldn’t Try to Own a Ballistic Knife
The 1986 ban makes it illegal to buy one of these knives anywhere in the U.S. You can’t go online and order one from a shady overseas retailer, either, unless you want Customs to show up at your door with some bad news.
Since you can’t buy or import one, the only way to get your hands on a ballistic knife is to build one. We probably shouldn’t have to say this, but we will: Trying to build a knife that launches its blade through the air is incredibly dangerous, and stupid.
You’re likely to wind up with a sharp piece of steel lodged in your body. Ballistic knives are kind of pointless, too. In the 80’s, when these knives were legally sold for a short period, they were never popular or practical.
Their existence was relegated to the back pages of knife magazines, advertised as novelties and “stolen Soviet technology!”
Many states have recognized the loophole in federal law that still allows for these knives to be built and owned by individuals. Those states have taken matters into their own hands and banned simple possession.
Depending on where you live, that means you can’t own one, period.
Real Ballistic Knives are Considered Illegal Firearms
Although their name suggests otherwise, the “shooty” knives you could buy in the 80’s weren’t powered by an explosive cartridge. Instead, they were powered by a compressed spring. The spring would shoot the blade out of the handle when a button was pressed, launching it through the air.
There is one ballistic knife known to exist — except it doesn’t work the way you think it does. It’s called the NRS-2, and it’s a firearm/knife hybrid. This Soviet-designed ballistic knife can fire a single subsonic pistol cartridge from its handle at 140 meters per second (that’s 459 feet per second for my fellow Americans) with an effective range of 25 meters, or 75 feet.
Contrary to popular belief, the NRS-2 does not fire its knife blade from the handle. It’s a single-shot, emergency sidearm intended for special forces.
If you attempt to build a ballistic knife powered by a firearm cartridge, you will absolutely land on the wrong side of the law. That’s because making a projectile knife powered by gunpowder means you’re manufacturing an illegal firearm.
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives will charge you with criminal possession of a Title II weapon. Those weapons are regulated by the National Firearms Act.
Ownership of Title II weapons is restricted to Federal Firearms Licensees, who must obtain a Class 3 Special Occupation Tax.
This is the same set of regulations that governs machine guns and destructive devices, like grenades. It’s serious business.
For the sake of your freedom and safety, do not attempt to build one.
Now you know.