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Flip Out Over Vintage Balisong Knives

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Back in the early 1980s as a budding young student of martial arts, I discovered the balisong knife. More commonly known as a butterfly knife, this blade design originated in the Philippines and the knives featured an opening method that required a bit of skill and in my opinion were flashier than using an auto-opening blade.

There were no special bearing systems like IKBS (Ikoma-Korth Bearing System), handle materials were brass, steel, aluminum or some zinc alloy (titanium was literally unobtainium back then unless you had connections to the US Military's Aerospace programs), some sported wood, bone or plastic inlays and the blade steel was usually 440 C or some other stainless steel that was  branded as “surgical.”

Most of these knives were made in Japan, the Philippines or Taiwan (we didn't even have trade relations with China at the time). A few had been made in Europe, but they were not commonly seen in my part of the City. The only one at this time that was made in America was Ernest Emerson's personally built bali that he made in 1979.

The balisong that started it all. Ernest Emerson built this out of aluminum and steel using handtools, basing it on a butterfly knife he borrowed from his Jeet Kune Do instructor, Richard Bustillo. It's the first knife he ever made and he refuses to sell it, despite some ridiculously lucrative offers from collectors.

Ernest Emerson built this out of aluminum and steel using handtools, based on a balisong he borrowed from his Jeet Kune Do instructor, Richard Bustillo. It is the first knife he ever made and he refuses to sell it, despite some ridiculously lucrative offers from collectors.

All I knew was that I had to learn how to manipulate one because I saw this superseding the nunchaku as THE martial arts weapon of the 1980s!

Opening a balisong is a simple three-step move.  The important thing to do is to evaluate the knife and see which side the edge is on with relation to the latch on the handle.

In most instances, the latch is on the handle with the same side as the edge of the blade. This is known as the Batangas handle as that is the region in the Philippines where the knives originated. If the latch is on the non-edge side of the blade, it is known as a Manilla handle for the city where balisongs were made in that fashion. The handle that corresponds to the edge of the blade is known as the bite handle as you will eventually get cut if you accidentally hold this handle during a manipulation.

Holding the knife closed with the bite handle on top and facing outward, you flip it open and let it drop all the way down.

Next, you rotate the handle that you are holding 180 degrees so that the back of the bite handle is now facing outboard.

Then you simply flip it back into your hand and you are holding a balisong at the ready. The following video shows this in action:

I own two knives from this period.

The first had one of the catchiest names of all time. It was Taylor Cutlery's Manila Folder.

If memory serves correctly, there were a number of variants of this model when it first reached American shores from Japan in the early 1980s. All of them featured a brass frame, but inlays could be had in various hardwoods, bone, stag, buffalo horn, and other materials. Unlike the majority of these knives at the time, it featured the Manila style latch on the handle corresponding to the unsharpened side of the blade.


Taylor Cutlery's Manila Folder was one of the “must have” blades for the butterfly collector in the 1980s.

It might seem a bit heavy to modern balisong aficionadoes, but these knives were a solid and well-made knife and probably represented the top of the line until balisongs began production in the U.S. and manufacturers took advantage of better materials.

The non-branded side.

The non-branded side.

This knife lives on today. A decade or so later, Taylor Cutlery was purchased by Smith & Wesson in order to produce, among other things, Smith & Wesson branded knives and tools. Smith & Wesson purchased Schrade Cutlery in 2016 and the knife holdings somewhat merged. Schrade is now manufacturing a balisong with stainless steel handles known as the Manila Folder. In fact, it is the only knife that Schrade (or Taylor, Imperial, Uncle Henry, Old Timer, etc.) manufactures in the United States.

Schrade Cutlery's modern day Manila Folder pays homage to these knives of the past.

Schrade Cutlery's modern-day Manila Folder pays homage to these knives of the past.

That was one tragedy of the balisong knife. Lawmakers and bureaucrats who had seen too many martial arts movies banned these knives from importation in the 1990s. The good news is that all modern day balisongs in America are made here and not overseas.

Which brings us to our second knife pictured and one that has many memories attached to it.

Valor Cutlery's Singapore model. At the time Valor made some very nice knives on par with Gerber Knives of the same time period. Today they are mostly trash knives imported from Pakistan and certainly not a balisong among them, but at one time they were a good manufacturer.

I first discovered this knife in 1984, while a Freshman in High School. I learned how to flip on this one and carried it constantly.

Searson's High School Knife

Searson's High School Knife

That came to a screeching halt two years later while giving an impromptu lesson on the beach during the Summer. A police officer asked to see it and wanted to charge me with carrying a switchblade. When he could not find a button on the handle or figure out how to open it, he made me drop it down a storm sewer, along with the other one with which I was performing. Gotta love the NYPD.

I always liked the engraved look of the brass handles on this one.

I always liked the engraved look of the brass handles on this one.

I replaced it soon after with another one. These knives cost $30 or so at the time and I used it to teach manipulation of the balisong to countless others until the day before I shipped out to Parris Island for USMC Boot Camp. I didn't have much of a family life and at 17 had few worldly possessions, but I knew the knife would get confiscated by the Marines. I gave it to my best friend, who in turn gave it to a girl who was having problems with a stalker a few years later.

I sourced this knife fairly recently after a nearly 30-year search!

Although I did carry a balisong as a pocket knife in the Corps, it was a different brand and I had a hard time running down a version of the Singapore for nearly 30 years.

As flashy as they were at the time, they were really nothing new. The design had been around for several hundred years. The steels were nothing special, nor were the handle materials. Most of the time the pins were not heat treated and this lead to parts breakage, likewise the Batangas handle often meant the latch would contact and ding the edges of these knives.  Most modern designs have addressed these issues by using spring-loaded latches, properly made parts and more use of modern materials.

We will take a closer look at the balisong in an upcoming print issue of the RECOIL, today I just wanted to share a taste of why these knives matter to me and the path that they set me down.

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  • I had one of these Singapore knives in the 80s and loved it. I wish I could find one now.

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