Many believe the butterfly knife first came to American shores in the early part of the 20th century with Filipino immigrants, but its popularity and infamy in the United States only really began after US soldiers returned with balisongs from the Philippines after World War II. The balisong is believed to be much older than this, however. Patents for knives that look very much like the butterfly knives produced in Batangas in the Philippines in the early 20th century existed in France as early as the 18th century, and similar knives were also produced in Germany, Italy and Spain in the 19th century.
It is plausible that the arrival of the first balisong in the United States was in the 18th or 19th century and that the fan knife was of European origin. It may have been a European immigrant or returning American citizen who brought a European butterfly knife to the US first, rather than a Filipino immigrant bringing a Batangas-made balisong to the US.
Some even believe the butterfly knife made it to the Philippines when Jose Rizal, one of the Philippines’ national heroes, returned to Spain from his travels with a European-made butterfly knife among his possessions. Such a statement would be considered blasphemy by many in the Philippines, who believe the design of the balisong is ancient and purely Filipino. Without proof, however, it is impossible to discount any of these theories, as the design may have been patented in Europe after European travelers and sailors got their hands on even older Filipino balisongs. The definitive truth, as is often the case with history, is obscured by the sands of time. Rizal may even have introduced the Filipino balisong to Europe!
The balisong became less popular in Europe in the latter part of the 19th century, but in the early 20th century, the pandays (metal craftsmen) of Batangas began producing the fan knife to meet local demand. These balisongs had karabaw (water buffalo) horn inserts and brass handles, and the blades were made of recycled steel, often from vehicle leaf springs. This perhaps lends credence to the theory the term “balisong” comes from two Tagalog words: “baling” and “sungay,” or “broken” and “horn.” The horn inserts were ‘broken’ pieces of karabaw horn, but the handles could also be rotated apart or “broken.”
The Batangas balisongs produced in the early 20th century strongly resembled the designs of the balisongs produced in Germany at around the same time (or vice versa). What we do know, however, is the popularity and ubiquity of the Filipino balisong surpassed that of any European butterfly knife design in the decades (and centuries) to come, and that the design became synonymous with the Philippines: Batangas in particular, although similarly designed knives known as mais-mais (corn-corn) also became popular in and around the island of Cebu in the 20th century. Balisongs were used for many everyday tasks, including shaving! Balisongs were far more common than straight razors prior to the Second World War.
Batangas in the Philippines was soon thought of by many, particularly in the Philippines, as the home of the balisong. Many of the towns and barrios around the province still have families that make the distinctively Batangueño knife with varying degrees of quality and success. These knives were so popular that they were mass produced around Asia in the latter part of the 20th century to meet growing US demand. Unfortunately, the small size, concealability and opening mechanism of butterfly knives (as they came to be known) led to their popularity with American criminals, much like the Italian stiletto, and the US Government introduced the Switchblade Act in 1958, which was later interpreted to also include the butterfly knife. Imports of butterfly knives and automatics were subsequently made illegal, but both continue to be commonly available on the US market today due to domestic production and continued importation from Asia and Europe.
Today, the butterfly knife continues to be maligned and connected with crime around the world and it has been made illegal in several countries, including in the Philippines, where it is considered a deadly weapon with no other use but in crime, according to law enforcement agencies. Sadly, the butterfly knife is no more dangerous than any other knife and is slower into operation than modern folders of legal design made by prominent manufacturers such as Benchmade and Spyderco, both of which continue to domestically produce butterfly knives to meet US demand. In Batangas, efforts have been made to promote the balisong as the quality working knife that it is—some have even stated that it is commonly used for circumcision there! Unfortunately, due to their relatively low cost and ubiquity in the Philippines compared to imported knives (the Philippines puts a hefty duty on virtually all imports), balisongs continue to be popular with Filipino criminals. Their image and unique opening mechanism is another factor that leads to their continued prominence, and modern balisongs are being made with increasingly better quality every day. Even in the Philippines, where balisongs were traditionally made with recycled brass and steel, aluminum and stainless steel is becoming more common in balisong manufacture.