Here’s an item from the Cobwebbed Arms Locker here at Hog Manor. Acquired during the weapon’s brief flowering of legality in the USA in 1984, it was sold as a “Spetsnaz ballistic knife.” Recent research has convinced us what we believed at the time was true, that this knife was a US-made knife intending to capitalize on the “ballistic knife” craze. In this post, we’ll tell you what we’ve learned about these knives, and our still-unsatisfied search to see if Soviet Spetsnaz ever did issue such a toad-stabber.
And yes, we’ll tell you how it works.
The “ballistic knife” hit the weapons world like a cannon shot in 1983 or 1984. In 1978, a series of books by a Soviet defector to Great Britain appeared in the West. The officer, Viktor Belyayev, was a GRU man who had served in the Soviet Army, then in Spetsnaz reconnaissance, then finally as a GRU officer under official cover in Switzerland. He used the pen name “Viktor Suvorov,” the name of a great Tsarist era general and legend of Russian arms whose name honors a series of Russian military academies (including the one the defector graduated from). We get the impression that modesty is not among his traits. In any event, people in the West (especially the US and UK) were always curious about the Soviet Union and its secret organs, and “Suvorov’s” books were very successful. They were well written and, we know now, told both deep truths and fanciful tall tales about the Soviet services.
We were absolutely sure that the first story of the Spetsnaz “ballistic knife” came from Suvorov’s Spetsnaz, but recently reread the book in e-format and even searched for instances of knife with no joy. So where did it come from? We still like him as the source, but wonder if it was a Soldier of Fortune article or something that spawned the Ballistic Knife craze.
And craze it was. In a matter of a couple years, the usual foes of liberty in Washington, led by Five Families associate and later-disgraced corrupt senator Alphonse D’Amato (R-NY), had drummed up enough hysteria to push through a bizarrely written Federal ban. Their handmaidens in many state legislatures followed suit, and there is a spotty and uneven ban in effect that has stopped the interstate manufacture and sales of these knives, although “parts kits” are intermittently available. In some states, manufacture for personal use is also banned, and you have to be leery of “constructive possession” statutes and case law. The Federal statute has some exceptions, including for military personnel.
Why any military person would want such a knife is another question. We wanted it because it was a “Spetsnaz knife,” a story which seems to have proven a total fabrication.
(Due to the length of this post — over 2600 words — it continues after the jump, with The History, The Ballistic Knife in Use, Auction Action, and Misinformation and Information subheadings).
We’ve seen some indicators that there actually were knives made before the knife featured at the top of this post, but there are few of them.
The US-made ballistic knives like this one appear to have been made by the Florida Knife Company, a large firm that made knives under contract for many dealers and jobbers, and sold them themselves (a company by the same name today sells only industrial knives, something quite different).
Today, replicas and imitations are widely for sale. The letter of the law is avoided by selling without the spring, or by selling with an RTV-molded knife blade in place of the steel one. We’d be very leery of trusting the legal advice of somebody selling possible contraband in an advertisement — his first name just may be “Special Agent”!
The Ballistic Knife in Use
As we mentioned above, we really wonder why any military person would want such a knife. In 1983 or 1984, as soon as they appeared on the market, we ordered one for almost what we’d paid for a good knife — a Randall Model 14. We do not remember whether we ordered the knife from Shotgun News or from Soldier of Fortune, both of which we subscribed to at the time — and which we received, when the mail room clerks on the post didn’t steal them. The ads played up the mystery of the knives, hinted that they were “genuine” Spetsnaz knives, and that their origin was unknown.
At the time, we were collectors of Soviet and Chinese arms, which was a rare and exotic field in the early 1980s. We were a few years away from the 1984-89 deluge of Chinese arms, and almost a decade from the early nineties explosion of the Russian and Eastern European surplus market.
Of course, there was no Internet at the time, so we sent off a postal money order and we waited. Finally, after some weeks, a box showed up at the mail room. The clerks didn’t steal this one.
The build quality of the knife was uneven. The knurling and machining on the aluminum parts was well done and the edges well-broken (an edge that can cut you on any non-blade part of a weapon or article meant for field us is a signal that the manufacturer didn’t do his job). The knife was an edge-and-a-half blade, like no Russian blade we know of but much like a GI M3 fighting knife of any of the subsequent bayonets (M1 carbine, M1 rifle, M14, M16) that used that blade. This made us suspect, strongly, that the knife was no more Russian than Uncle Sam. The blade has a very thick, wedge-shaped, straight-ground edge to it, suggesting that it is not intended to be sharpened.
It can be launched with the “sheath,” which is a machined aluminum extrusion with a plastic end plug, in place, as a sort of baton thrower. The advertisements suggested that this made it a good way to deploy lethal or nonlethal force. We strongly suspect that that statement was never cleared with an attorney.
We found the knife disappointing on grounds of quality, accuracy, and striking power. It was a great gimmick and we’d often pull it out when friends were over and fire a few shots. Its accuracy was minute-of-shoe-box at about two meters.
Then, you had to reload it, which, given the strength of the spring was a non-trivial exercise.
In order for the knife to be launched with any vigor whatsoever, the spring has to be extremely strong. In 1984, it was difficult for even an extremely fit young SF trooper to compress. Today, over 30 years later, it’s simply not possible for the civilian he’s become to do it. (Which is why our pictures show it disassembled). As Wolfgang Peter-Michel notes, you need some kind of mechanical advantage to “load” it. The downside of that, of course, is that it’s not readily field-reloadable. It’s a one-shot weapon.
As a one-shot weapon, it has the same tactical value, and the same tactical problem, as the throwing knife, so beloved of movie makers and so absent from actual special operations. About the dumbest thing you can do with a knife in combat is throw it away, and actually throwing knives so that they hit nose-first requires: a stationary target; special, nose-heavy knives; a known distance; thousands of hours of practice; or, really, all of the above. It’s a circus trick, not a combat technique.
Despite their complete lack of combat utility, the knives created such a perfect storm of political fury that they were quickly banned around the world. As you might expect, the ban in the US was driven by the usual cabal of anti-gun urban-state Senators of the era.
Of course, they would argue that their ban was perfectly effective — no one has been killed by such a knife ever since. (Of course, no one was killed by such a knife before).
And so, alas, is the “spetsnaz” ballistic knife. The USSR and its successor the Russian Federation do not establish their special operations forces by wishful thinking or magic, but the same way every other serious nation does, by careful selection and intensive training. You might get killed by a Spetsnaz guy with a knife, but he’s going to be within arm’s reach of you, not across the room.
A number of these knives appear at auction from time to time. Here is an excerpt and some photographs from GunBroker and eBay auctions.
This knife is among the earliest productions of the ballistic knives made by the Florida Knife Company. This knife is in extreme good condition from 1984. These knives go for allot, especially in such good condition and among that this is one of the more rare production knives the company did. The price is firm and will not move. This is such a rare collectors knife if you like collecting military knives and know what this is this is for you, I will only take USPS money order. Please make sure that your state laws allow this item. I cannot sell the spring with this knife because it’s illegal so, what I could do is ship it separately and upon your delivery it’s your issue what you wish to do with it. Keeping it dissembled is also legal. PAYPAL ADD 4% Why shipping is 70$ because if you want the spring you have to make a separate purchase of 30$ and shipping is priority plus handling and insurance and tracking. Serious buyers only. Theres a loop hole in the law i can sell you the spring separately and shipped separately and upon the arrival of both pieces its your problem. States illegal to posses a ballistic knife are as follows, WA, ID, CO, CA, IA, IL, IN, TN, NC, FL, PA, NY, NJ, and CT. The rest are legal. NO RETURNS I REPEAT NO RETURNS ASK QUESTIONS PLEASE.
Here’s another 1980s original. This one has a few differences from the above. Notably a red dot on the trigger. This vendor is less convinced that his is worth a mortgage payment, apparently; he’s asking $575.
Naturally, modern copies are available. A cheap one that looks different is found here, and one that’s a closer copy here. Some of them sell with a non-edged “blade” or even a rubber blade to get around the law.
Misinformation and Information
There is a great deal of misinformation afoot about these knives. Some typically uninformed kid at The Truth About Knives traces the history of the tool to, we are not making this up, the video game Call of Duty: Black Ops. He has a bunch of strong opinions about it, and then in true TTAG style — has any website ever fallen so far short of its name? — admits (emphasis ours):
I’ve never seen one in person, so I couldn’t possibly speculate as to whether they’re actually more lethal than a torso hit from a .50 BMG at ten yards.
You don’t say.
When you’re a baby duck, everything is shiny and new, isn’t it?
He is probably correct in pointing out that the image, of an original Florida Knife Company knife, is probably being used in a scam. But we have to feel sorry for the kid:
Don’t get me wrong; I’d love to play with and test a real Pilum ballistic knife some day. I’d also like to test an M240B machine gun and, fire a live-warhead MANPADS missile at a flying target drone, and blast a Soviet tank hulk to smithereens with the main gun of an M1 Abrams. Since they’re all illegal and more or less equally impossible, I’ll have to learn to live with my disappointment.
There is a way to do all that, child. We’ve done all of it but the M1 tank bit (and we’ve blasted a lot of Soviet (and US) hulks with a lot of AT weapons; but Chris Hernandez can probably tell you all about the M1). And you too can do all that.
Just put down the game controller and join up.
Fortunately, there is positive information available, although it takes some effort to bring it in. For example, Wolfgang Peter-Michel has written a history of these knives, in German, attempting to cut through the myths and reveal what is real — kind of like we’re trying to do in this post. So we took a break from drafting this post to order Peter-Michel’s book.
While some genius is trying to sell the book on GunBroker and eBay for $100 and more, we found it on Amazon.de for $52.50 shipped. Wolfgang Peter-Michel describes his self-published book like this (our translation):
Many myths and legends have existed to date about the so called “Ballistic” or “Flying” knife. Certainly not everything one hears in about them in enthusiast circles is true. Just one fact is 100% certain: they do, in fact, exist.
But who has ever seen one with elite or special units or even held one in his hand? Sure, there is for example the gruesome story of a man, hit by one of the flying blades of this kind of knife, was hit with enough power it knocked him clean out of his shoes. Overstatement? Probably, especially if the knife was fired from a distance of more than 10 meters. It is, however, true that the steel spring of this knife is so strong, powerful and stiff that a man of ordinary build would not be able to put it together with his two hands.
To cock the ballistic knife, one needs some kind of a mechanical advantage.
The most fascinating questions, come in reference to this: where did these puzzling weapons come from originally, and who made them at that time? Who used them? And especially: how dangerous are these flying knives in fact. At which distances are they effective? This book, the first on this subject, addresses all these questions, introduces the most important variations, and documents these special knives in detail and thoroughly.
The previously mentioned legal difficulties at first made it nearly impossible for the book’s author to do his research, get his hands on actual physical samples, in order to investigate and photograph them.
Fortunately he found, after an intensive search, a collector in a land outside the EU, who has a few interesting pieces.
As we did, Peter-Michel found no evidence for Spetsnaz use of the knives. He found what he interprets to be several generations of knives, and one marked with the name of a well-known Czech bladesmith, Jan Puda, who now seems to be out of business, but who deferred and deflected all ballistic knife inquiries while he was active. The “Puda Patent” knife Peter-Michel identified also is not manufactured with the normal quality or materials of Puda’s conventional knives.
We also asked Russian armament expert Maxim Popenker for his opinion, and he was willing to share it:
To the best of my knowledge it’s an urban legend, that has its roots in criminal folklore. Back in Soviet times many criminal “lagers” had their own workshops, and many were known to produce various knives for semi-illegal trade with outside world (obviously, with illegal blessings and profit-sharing from certain guards or even prison bosses).
Most knives were made from crappy steel, but often were of indigenous designs and elaborately crafted. Various switchblades were quite popular, and I think that a ballistic knife could be the result of some prisoner with a certain technical background and too much free time.
As for Spetsnaz, they used either conventional knives, or single-shot NRS knives firing captive piston ammo.
And Max’s last objection is, in our view, the strongest one. Russian and Soviet Spetsnaz, a term that encompasses a very wide range of units, are generally well equipped with silent and reduced-signature weapons.
So the Florida Knife Company knife we began the post with may, indeed, be the original knife — inspired by a fanciful tale in a defecting spy’s tell-all memoir.