The 21st Century & how those older laws from 1953, 59 & 88 are implemented ( or interpreted ! )
There are many myths and misunderstandings surrounding the ownership and carrying of knives and other tools with a blade. This article hopes to clarify the position and answer those questions. Hopefully those with any worries will be reassured in that the law does not seek to criminalise the legitimate user of knives and edged tools.
The questions of what the law regards as a weapon and what as a tool is perhaps a good starting point. Most people are familiar with the phrase 'offensive weapon' but do not know that English law does not contain long lists of illegal offensive weapons. The relevant law is found in the Prevention of Crime Act 1953. Section 1 (1) provides :
Any person who without lawful authority or reasonable excuse, the proof whereof shall lie on him, has with him in any public place any offensive weapon shall be guilty of an offence.'
A succession of past cases have decided that an automatic knife is an offensive weapon full stop. You may keep one you already have in your home but that's it. The penalties for carrying again are 4 years & or a fine of up to £5000
The Criminal Justice Act 1988 (Offensive Weapons) Order 1988
This significant document contains a list of prohibited martial arts style weapons. You need to know that ‘balisongs’ or butterfly knives become prohibited from further import & manufacture. These are classed as Gravity knives. If you owned one before 1988, you can keep it at home.
Before we get on to knives in general it is probably worth mentioning the 'combat knife'. Many people believe that there is a particular type of knife, called a combat knife that is illegal. I know from my own experience that people worry about ex-military kit or military knives bought from overseas. In fact all that is illegal is the selling or marketing of any knife as a combat or fighting knife. There is no law against ownership or possession of such knives other than the range of laws discussed here in this article. Should you have any sort of combat or military knife it is as legal (or not) as any other. The majority of such knives are now marketed and sold as 'survival' knives; the ones with the compass and fishing line There are also some genuine military Aircrew variants, and the knives. If you use any of these and they work for you then you are quite legal, as long as you have that all important ' reasonable excuse' for carrying it.
This act most significantly affects the carrying of knives in the UK. Simply put it is an offence under section 139 of the Act to carry an article with a blade or sharp point in a public place. A non locking folding pocket knife is not included, so long as the cutting edge is three inches or less. In practical terms it is best to take 'cutting edge' as meaning the whole blade, sharp or not. You must personally satisfy yourself that any non locking folding pocket knife that you carry falls within the law.
The position that we start from then is that all fixed blade (sheath knife style) knives, all locking folders and all folders with a blade over three inches long are illegal to carry on a daily basis. This means that a regular Swiss Army Knife, penknife, smokers knife etc are perfectly OK to have on you at all times.
However the law is there to punish the bad guys, not to criminalise the rest of us who use their knives and other tools in a specific context of lawful outdoor pursuits have little to fear from the law. Two specific defences are provided by the Act and these are very important as they can provide the excuse you need towards a Police officer or in the very unlikely event of ending up in court on a charge under s139.
Under section139 (4) it is a defence for the accused to show they have good reason or lawful authority to carry the knife in a public place.
Secondly under section 139 (5) it is a defence to prove the knife is carried for work, for religious reasons or as part of national costume.
Anyone who legitimately requires a knife for work has an defence under s139 (5). That covers literally anybody who can say they require a knife to do their job. However, unless you are a Sikh or wear a kilt it is likely to be s139 (4) that provides you with an excuse should a knife you are carrying be challenged by a Police officer. As long as you can provide a 'good reason' you are allowed to carry what you want. It is the question of what amounts to a good reason that causes problems for the average person on a normal day; however this is not the case for someone involved in bushcraft. Involvement in almost any lawful bushcraft activity would be a 'good reason' in the eyes of the law. It is impractical if not impossible to do most bushcraft without a knife or blade of some sort. As the Act includes 'any article which has a blade or is sharply pointed' it extends to the other edged tools used in bushcraft; axes, machetes, billhooks, scythes etc. As long as you have a good reason you are allowed to carry and use these articles.
To reiterate:. No knives, other than non-locking folders with a blade three inches ( 76.2mm) or less should be carried in a public place* on a daily basis unless you need it for work, for your religion, for your national costume or you can supply some other good legitimate good reason. You must satisfy yourself that you have reason. My opinion is that if you cannot undertake your work or intended past time without having a fixed or locking blade knife, then you have a case to make.
Carrying a locking or fixed blade knife in a public place also extends to the contents on the inside of any vehicle you are travelling in & not just on your person. Example : A multi-tool with a locking blade left in the glove box of your car is still considered to be in possession of a bladed article! It is important to note that whereas you may regard your vehicle as an extension of your home, the law does not. Your vehicle is a public place in the eyes of the law. This means that it is inadvisable to leave knives, axes etc in your vehicle unattended so keep them out of sight. Police officers are generally not experts in laws pertaining to knives & weapons. Consider that not bringing attention to yourself is by far the best method of conducting your day, rather than “I have a right to carry this”
Clearly the exercise of common sense is important here. Keep all fixed blade knives and axes in a bag until you get to your outdoor destination. Don't have sheath knives, machetes or axes on your belt or pack in inhabited areas, or keep them as discreet as possible in the case of small villages if passing through.
Lastly there is the important question of what the law considers 'a public place'. The Prevention of Crime Act 1953 section 1(4) provides that;
'a public place includes any highway and any other premises to which the public have or are permitted to have access, whether on payment or otherwise'
This definition has been discussed in numerous court cases and an exact definition has proven evasive. The current position is contained in, amongst others, Knox v Anderton (1982). Here the court held that 'a public place' included premises to which the public could gain access without hindrance, barriers or notices restricting access
The worst case scenario :
As enthusiasts with more than just a passing interest in using or collecting knives I would not expect any of you to fall foul of the law. For the purposes of understanding the consequences of bad luck or poor judgement, I would suggest perusing the document linked below.
Every day the courts convict hundreds of people for offences involving knives and other edged articles under the two acts discussed here. Almost every single one of these are youths with kitchen knives or cheap 'Rambo' style knives bought to look tough. There is no case law I can find which involves convictions arising from legitimate outdoor pursuits; if you know of any, let me know too. It is really just a question of that pre-requisite for most bushcraft; common sense. As long as you are responsible in the transportation, carrying and use of your knives and tools you should not be approached by a Police officer in a lifetime of outdoor activity. If this should happen then a cheerful, calm and above all polite response to questions should have both you and the Officer going on your mutual ways in minutes. Remember the law is there to protect the good people and punish the bad.
*Importation of knifes into the UK :
As a footnote to the above, A more recent development of the internet has been the increasing ability to purchase items from other countries & have them posted here. Reasons may vary from cost effective purchase due to international fluctuations in currency to unavailability of an item. Regardless, the link below is worth reading prior to considering a purchase from outside the UK.
An area of the document hi-lighted in red text below is worthy of further discussion.
What counts as an offensive weapon :
Offensive weapons are goods designed to kill or inflict serious injury which have no real legitimate use. Such weapons are restricted and in the case of flick and gravity knives are banned from being imported into the UK and can be seized by Border Force officers. These include:
- knuckledusters, hand-claws and push daggers
- foot-claws - ie spikes designed to be strapped to the foot
- flick or gravity knives - ie with blades that are spring-loaded or can be opened using gravity or a flick of the wrist*
- weapons with a concealed or disguised blade or sharp point - eg swordsticks, stealth knives, butterfly knives and belt buckle blades
- martial arts weapons such as death stars, hollow kubotans and kusaris
- batons and telescopic truncheons
- blowpipes or blowguns, except for use by vets or registered animal handlers
- curved blade swords with a blade over 50 centimetres
*The United Kingdom Border Agency are using the “Wrist flick” test on folding knives, wether they be locking or non locking in nature. There is no current legal definition of the test used to classify the folding knife you import, which may or may not fail or pass such test. All that can be said is that many imported folding knives have been seized despite the same type & make of knife having been or currently being sold within the UK. To my understanding, the “Wrist flick” test, an interpretation of the past Flick & Gravity knife laws previously mentioned, remains untested in law. Be advised that your folding knife may be seized if tested and worst case, you may receive a visit from your local police to ask further questions about the item you imported.
There is a separate document about the specifics of this should it happen to you within this here.