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The Butterfly Knife Is a Flawed Weapon

Mamerto Adan is an engineer by profession, but a writer by night. He loves toys and knives. He also has a martial arts background.


Balisong lovers out there, before we continue, please don’t hurt me! I wrote this article not to bash the iconic blade, but to offer some ideas you might find helpful. If I did bash it, I'd be a hypocrite since I own the blade. A butterfly knife is a coveted weapon for a good reason. It’s frightening, functional and a beautifully bladed implement. Once it was tagged as a criminal weapon, it became an iconic Asian blade and used for demonstrating skills among Filipino martial artists.

Originally the balisong was a utility blade, like other folding knives. It then became a weapon used both by martial artists and criminals. There is no denying that this pocket knife is a lethal killing tool, as history shows. But as I found out later, not all local knife experts love the balisong. To be fair I did some interviews and wielded the knife for some time. I even attempted to EDC it. As it turns out, they make a valid point. As a weapon, a butterfly knife is a performer but not good enough.

What is a Defensive Weapon?

Before we move on, let’s start a brief list of what makes a weapon defensive. My friends and I got into a long discussion about this, but we arrived at the following:

  1. Bring the assailant down with minimal strike (stopping power).
  2. Incapacitate the assailant and kill only when necessary.
  3. Legal to carry.
  4. Won’t harm the user.
  5. Easy to carry, conceal and deploy.
  6. Ease of use with minimal training.
  7. Infinite ammunition.
  8. Minimal maintenance.
  9. Readily available.

Unfortunately, humans are yet to come up with a defensive device that will satisfy the above requirements. Firearms deliver the necessary stopping power, most of the time that is. But with the wrong gun type, wrong caliber size or missing the proper target and you can end up in a very unfortunate and unwanted situation. You have to learn to store enough ammo so your guns won’t become useless. Firearms are also illegal to carry in some places. Another bad thing is how easy they are to deploy, though my friends advised me to get enough training. But yes, mishandle your weapon and you will end up getting shot by your own pistol! There are other options like pepper spray, but again, this doesn't satisfy all the requirements either. Did you know that it won’t work on a junkie while it is also deemed illegal in some countries?

That’s why serious, defense-minded people are known to keep multiple weapons, to compensate for their potential limitations. Nevertheless, the above requirements only cover tangible defensive weapons. In the end, situational awareness, conflict avoidance, common sense, low ego and proper compliance should be the first line of defense.

Enter the Defensive Blade

Knives became popular among martial artists and defense experts for good reasons. They are readily available, easy to conceal, quick to deploy (some models are), need little maintenance, won’t run out of ammo and can bring on a lot of damage. Nevertheless, knives are not perfect defense weapons. I know a friend who advises his students to use knives and guns as a last resort. Knives are known to have low stopping power. With pepper sprays, the target will go rolling in the dirt almost immediately. Telescopic batons hurt, enough to put a man down in agony. But there are lots of cases where people don't notice they're stabbed until after a fight. That’s why knife fighters are trained to stab in a frenzy and target specific areas on the body to increase the stopping power. And yes, knives are not less than lethal tools. Unless you learned to use them properly, using knives can lead to a dead victim!

Now why did I go into this lengthy intro if our topic is all about balisongs? So it will be easy for us to understand why this frightening stabbing tool has serious shortcomings that need to be addressed, if you are planning to fight for your life with it.

Balisongs are Illegal to Carry

My balisong with an assortment of knives.

My balisong with an assortment of knives.

And there you have it! If the law forbids it, then don’t bother. Otherwise, a defensive weapon will be a liability rather than an asset. I will say it again, knife laws suck. The Italian Stiletto (switchblade) became an unjust victim of melodrama and politics, but butterfly blades do deserve all the frights in the world. In their birthplace the Philippines, it is a popular tool for settling arguments and fights. It was once a favourite weapon of criminals and muggers and so a number of people fell victim to its lethality. With a blade length of almost 4 inches, a typical Filipino flipper is bigger than standard folders. The blade is also well made, with edges that could inflict serious cuts.

Lack of Proper Guard

Closer view of my balisong showing lack of good guards.

Closer view of my balisong showing lack of good guards.

Knives have guards for a good reason, so your palm and fingers don't slip on the cold, sharp blade while you do your business. When working outdoors, your hands or the handle could get wet and the guard will come in handy to prevent slippery accidents.

In the world of pocket knives, guards are non-existent. Handle ergonomics make up for the lack of protection, yet pocket knives were never marketed as fighting blades. Butterfly knives share these shortcomings. Yes, some models have flipper-like extensions in the blade, but I have a feeling that those are not enough to stop your wet hands from slipping into the blade.

Fortunately people learned to deal with the lack of guard by taking advantage of the long handle. The odds of cutting yourself were reduced by gripping your balisong near the bottom part of the blade. This gives you some space between your hand and the sharp blade.

Lack of Ergonomics

Details of my balisong handle.

Details of my balisong handle.

Among the seas of pocket knives, a butterfly knife is one of the many that lacks handle ergonomics. It's a good thing that it had a long handle, for the lack of curves will contribute to dangerous slips. The shape of the handle does not help either. When fully opened, the handle tapers towards the blade. This increases the odds of slippage when you are stabbing someone.

Needs Practice to Deploy

Aside from being illegal to use, the complex deployment made the butterfly knife less ideal than other tactical blades. Make no mistake about it, this blade is meant for rapid one-handed opening. In fact, this is one of the reasons why it got banned in other countries. I once heard how it was branded as “gravity knives,” though I can’t remember which country it is. Rapid opening is not the problem though; it’s the ease of opening. The safest way to deploy the balisong is by doing it with two hands. But doing one-handed flipping requires dexterity, skills, and nerves of steel. One could also use some good wrist movements, and I got to admit that flipping butterfly knives are fun.

But good luck staying focused and dexterous in the heat of a fight…

Adrenaline could ruin your composure, and doing complex things while someone is wrestling with you is not a good idea. To prove the point, you can conduct pressure testing involving trainers and able-bodied daredevils. When subject a willing volunteer to a live headlock (with one arm trapped) to see if he could deploy a folding knife. Even without training, they could open their blades if they are using an ordinary assisted folder. Balisongs are different. Do note that the volunteers have minimal training, and they have trouble flipping the blade open. One even dropped his knife.

I’m sure though that an expert could do better jobs, but as the test indicates, balisongs are not for newbies.

And then there is the fact that flipping open a sharp blade could lead to nasty injuries.

But Does This Blade Have Potential

Despite the shortcomings, butterfly blades never lost their charms among martial artists and defense experts. If you ask me, I’d prefer an assisted folder and fixed blades over those. Yet better to have balisongs than nothing. It boasts a long blade and one-hand deployment features. I might not carry it outside due to legal restrictions, but the manner of flipping open the butterfly knife will scare any potential thugs out there. To a knife expert, any blade is a weapon, but we could all agree that running away and avoiding conflict is far better than any folders on the market.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.