What's do you call an aardvark with a flick knife?
The Oxford English Dictionary defines the flick knife, or indeed flick-knife, as "a weapon with the blade held in the handle by a catch which can be released with a flick of the finger", which it claims was so named by analogy with the aeronautical manouever of the flick roll. Although residents of North America may will be far more familiar with the term switchblade which is of course, exactly the same thing.
Certainly in the United Kingdom the flick knife first became popular during the early 1950s when it was, by reputation at least, the weapon of choice of the Teddy Boys, as evidenced by the front-page headline in the Daily Mirror of the 15th September 1953, 'Flick Knives, Dance Music and Edwardian Suits' when it reported on the trial of six members of a gang known as 'The Plough Boys' for stabbing to death one John Beckley during a gang fight near Clapham Common. However whereas the Teddy Boy phenomenon might have died out by the mid 1950s, public concern about the general rise in youth crime that characterised the immediate post-war period and the prevalence of so-called juvenile delinquency continued. There was, in particular, concern regarding the perceived enthusiasm for the carrying of knives by teenagers, which was at the time seen as rather un-British and was all put down to the influence of American gang culture.
The flick knife thereby became, as one account puts it, "a symbol of the depravity of British youth in the affluent society" and resulted in one of those periodic bouts of moral panic that regularly beset the country. During the spring of 1959 the Daily Mirror ran a number of stories on 'the flick knife craze' which culminated in the headline 'Ban this thing' on the 6th March 1959, when the Mirror claimed that "week after week in this country people are being threatened and wounded and - sometimes - killed", and naturally blamed this state of affairs on the ready availability of the flick knife. In such circumstances politicians often find it difficult to resist the urge to be seen to be 'doing something', and so a brief two section bill was introduced to deal with the problem.
The result was the Restriction of Offensive Weapons Act 1959 which, at the very least, provided a statutory definition of the flick knife as; "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 Act (as later amended) further specified that "any person who manufactures, sells or hires or offers for sale or hire, or exposes or has in his possession for the purpose of sale or hire or lends or gives to any other person" is guilty of an offence. It also banned the importation of such knives, and therefore effectively outlawed the infamous flick knife. The Act also incidentally applied the same strictures to what it referred to as a gravity knife, which it defined as "any knife which has a blade which is released from the handle or sheath thereof by the force of gravity or the application of centrifugal force and which, when released, is locked in place by means of a button, spring, lever, or other device". A technical distinction that was no doubt relevant from a legal standpoint, although the man in the street would likely have seen little difference between the knives in question, particularly if faced with either in a dark alleyway behind some public house. As it happens the Act did not make it illegal to actually possess either a flick knife or a gravity knife, but since the Criminal Justice Act 1988 makes it a crime to carry "any article which has a blade" in a "public place" and "without lawful authority or good reason", individuals might be well advised to leave such items safely at home.
Nonetheless, despite the fact that the sale of flick knives have been outlawed in the United Kingdom for the best part of half a century, they remain (witness the aardvark joke) at least in the popular imagination, as symbolic of a certain casual attitude to violence. They continue to make the occasional appearance in the British criminal justice system, mainly because other jurisdictions have failed to impose a similar ban, and seem to regard a knife as a knife, irrespective of the exact technical relationship between blade and handle. September 2007 saw the case of a Peter Michael Enguita who was fined a total of £600 for arriving at Durham Tees Valley Airport with five flick-knives in his luggage. He appears to have been dealt with rather leniently compared to one Prithvi Raj who was found in possession of four flick knives at Birmingham Aiport in 2005, and was fined £500, ordered to pay £500 costs, and given a four month suspended prison sentence. In both cases the flick knives in question appear to have been 'novelty items' that were disguised as cigarette lighters.
Curiously enough anyone typing the words 'flick knife' into Google will find that eBay asserts that it can offer "Great deals on Flick Knife". Disappointment however awaits, as the best it could offer was a Flick Comb, a replica apparently intended for the fancy dress market. (£2.49 plus postage and packing.)
- Dominic Sandbrook, Never Had It So Good: A History of Britain from Suez to the Beatles (Abacus, 2006)
- Restriction of Offensive Weapons Act 1959
- Davies, Michael John
- Man who tried to take flick knives onto Birmingham Airport flight 'reckless and idiotic', 13.10.05
- Man who carried flick-knives onto planes fined £600, 20th Sep 2007.