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History of the Balisong (Butterfly Blade)

The knife is one of the most ancient tools known to man. In its earliest form, it consisted of a piece of wood, stone or bone with a jagged edge. Human creativity soon led to chipping, rubbing or flaking the material to produce a crude cutting implement. This was the first product of human ingenuity dating back millions of years, and an act that led to man’s dominance over animals.

The balisong, or Filipino butterfly knife, is one of the ancient weapons of Kali, the ancestral art of all the Malaya-Polynesian fighting systems. This mystic art is considered to be the deadliest fighting system in the world. Kali's domain was rooted to the Malay Archipelago, but its scope of influence reached far beyond its territorial sphere. In some parts of the Orient, as well as Africa, the Pacific Islands, Central and South America, Kali was and still is considered the art of arts.

The knife's ancestry dates back to the latter part of the Tang dynasty, around 800 AD. An ancient Filipino legend recalls the story of one warrior trained in the Filipino martial arts who dispatched 29 enemies with a folding knife. The knife, to forerunner of today's balisong, is referred to by native Filipinos as the Veintinueve, which means 29 in memory of that feat.

The original knife took its name from a small barrio called Bali sung, in the Batangas region of the Philippines. The people of that town are noted solely for producing this knife. According to the elders of that area, their forefathers have handed down the art of making this particular knife for centuries.

Literally translated, bali means to break, and sung means horn. The early handles were carved out of animal horns. This was the broken horn knife.

The early butterfly knives were made from available materials, and were rather crude when compared to Japanese blades. But unlike Japanese blades, the balisongs weren't meant to pierce through feudal armour. In the heat of the tropics, the target of a balisong was usually a nearly nude human body. For that purpose, they were more than adequate.

The first butterfly knives were introduced to the States by early Filipino immigrant farm labourers, and by returning GIs who brought them back as war souvenirs. The soldiers referred to them a click-click knives because of their fancy but noisy action. For the same reason, the Filipino-American kids of that era called them balisongs- bali meaning to break and song for the song of the blade. In the Filipino communities like Stockton, California, the balisong was a common as baseball to American kids. Every 5 year old knew how to open one, even though they might not know how to use it.

The balisong disappeared in the 50s because of the unsavoury reputation attached to the switchblade, flick knives and motorcycle gangs of the period. Remember Marlon Brando in The Wild One, James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause and The Blackboard Jungle? All knives were considered dangerous weapons in the hands of criminals delinquents and motorcycle gang members, and the federal government went out of its way to find excuses to destroy the gangs. The switchblade and gravity knife became illegal to manufacture, import or carry across state lines under the “Switchblade Knife Act”. In fact, during that era, even the motorcycle had a bad image. The Honda Company spent millions of dollars in advertising to make the Hog acceptable.

The present resurrection of the balisong can be created to Les de Asis, Daniel Inosanto, Jeff Imada, the Fililipino martial arts, the action films of today, and the September 28, 1970, ruling that lifted the importation ban when the balisong was declared “not a switchblade knife”.

In the 70s, Les de Asis used modern aerospace technology to produce the best butterfly knife ever. It took the knife world by storm, and de Asis knife received the BLADE MAGAZINE Award of the Year for the best American-made new design. Today, he is the president of Pacific Cutlery Corporation, the only licensed manufacturer of the patented Bali-Song knife and the only registered owner of the name Bali-Song. Dan Inosanto began using the balisong in his Filipino martial arts demonstrations and in films. He created a balisong sequence for the movie Killer Elite in 1975, but it was completely cut out of the finished movie. Regrettably, members of the film crew stated, That was the best action footage ever shot. The balisong eventually appeared in Jackie Chan's The Big Brawl, where Dan was Ron Max's behind the scenes advisor. In 1981, Burt Reynolds chose Dan to portray the knife-wielding villain in Sharkey's Machine. I even used the balisong to open a bottle of wine in a Cheech and Chong film. Other movies using the balisong, at time of publication, are: Silent Rage, Ten to Midnight, and Outsiders.

Knife making hasn't changed much since the 18th century. The big difference is the increased mechanization, along with the use of outside vendors of sophisicated equipment. Electric furnaces have replaced the old forges, and accurate pyrometers eliminate visual temperature determination.

All knives begin with steel, which is purchased in bars. These are forged & heated and then hammered until they are near the desired thickness and shape. Forging is a slow process, and the steel may have to be returned to the forge several times for reheating.

Next comes smithing, a finer shaping technique. Smithing is followed by tempering, which hardens the metal. Tempering is controlled by the temperature and the length of time the steel stays in the fire. It consists of heating the blade material until it is red hot (1,000-2,000 degrees Fahrenheit) then cooling the heated metal immediately by plunging it into water, oil or other substances, a process known as quenching. Tempering is a very delicate operation. In ancient times, it was believed to be a magic step, and was often accompanied by magical incantations and secret cooling solutions. In actuality, these secret solutions assured certain temperature but only by accident. The incantations inadvertently standardized the heating time because it took a certain amount of time to recite them.

Tempering leaves the blades very hard, but brittle. To remedy this, the blades are again heated, but at a lower temperature. When the right temperature is reached, the blades are removed and cooled down slowly. The longer the blades are left in the fire, the more flexible they become. The tempered steel is ready for grinding, which gives the knife its finished form. In fact, a knife’s efficiency and appearance is determined by the grinder. Grinding is performed by different size grinding wheels, depending on the design of the blade. Small grinding wheels are used for a small hollow ground blade while large flat blade needs a large diameter wheel or an abrasive belt backed by a flat platen. After grinding, the blade is sharpened and polished.

While a blade is being fashioned, the handle is simultaneously following its own course toward completion. Cutting, drilling, adding insert material, and polishing are the typical steps.

Blades and handles are finally joined and assembled along with the latches. Balisongs require many testing procedures to make sure the parts fit properly and work well. The blade must fold into the handle at the proper angle, without touching the sides, and must also lie flat, open and closed. Proper clearance, balance and play must be maintained. Before each balisong leaves the plant at Pacific Cutlery, it goes through about 85 hand and machine processes requiring roughly 24 hours of labour.

In knife jargon, the baisong is classified as a nontypical folder, a typical folder being a regular pocket-type folding knife. The balisong itself, though ancient in concept, is truly ingenious in terms of form following function. It completely eliminates the need for a blade-protecting sheath. Instead, the balisong conveniently and safely stores in half it length, and the handles do no double duty by sheathing the blade as well as quickly pivoting around to form a sturdy handle. The balisong is an improvement over the typical folding knife because it can be opened with one hand, The integral quillion even doubles as a thumb and finger guard by providing a protruding hilt that prevents the hand from sliding onto the blade.

Translated from Tagalog, the word "Balisong" means "Broken Horn" (literally, "baling sungay") as the original Balisongs were made from carved animal horns & recycled knife blades. The name butterfly knife is a term coined in the United States. The history of the butterfly knife is uncertain. The knife may actually have been invented by the French. The book "Le Perret" suggests it was developed in the late 1600s or early 1700s Around 800 AD & is a traditional weapon of the Filipino fighting art of Eskrima. The knife was invented around 1900 A.D. in the Philippines & spread by American soldiers returning from World War II.

While the meaning of the term "balisong" is not entirely clear, a popular belief is that it is derived from the Tagalog Language words baling sungay (literally, "broken horn") as the original balisongs were made from carved animal horns. These knives are also referred to as "fan knives" or "click clacks."

The use of the balisong is so popular in the Philippines that an urban legend exists about every Batanguenyo carrying it everywhere he goes. They are a pocket utility knife used by people of Filipino society. They have also been used to fight duels over matters of honor, although such practices have been discontinued for decades.

The butterfly knife appears first documented in a 1710 French book, "Le Perret", where an intricate and precise depiction of a butterfly knife is outlaid, explaining that the device was developed in the late 1500's as a utility knife. It then most likely came into popular use in the Philippines through transference intercontinentaly to Spain, which coincides with the Spanish governance of the Philippines during that period.

There is, however, conjecture attending to the balisong being an 'ancient Filipino invention dating back to 800 AD', stating it to be the most ancient of weapons of the Filipino fighting system of Eskrima.

Views: 274

Comment by Joshua Morale on February 26, 2010 at 7:51am
I also recall seeing that this blade was originally made by the french , i recall that it was use a "cannoneers' knife due to the non reactive metals use for the handles.- Josh

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