The state of Alabama – whose frontier towns, such as Eufaula, once bristled with Bowie knives and even gave that famous weapon its nickname of “Alabama hunting knife” – is a region of the United States where knife owners enjoy wide freedom to purchase, own, carry, and use many different types of knives. Most legal restrictions, in fact, apply either to actual Bowie knives (large, hilted, single-edge knives with fixed blades) or implements similar enough to them to be considered legally identical by the courts.
While state law on knives is quite straightforward in most regards, local and municipal ordinances add plenty of complexity to the picture. Some cities and towns place length limits on knives; others merely legislate against carrying knives on school property; while a few, like Pell City, ban knives outright except on the owner’s premises (inside the home).
Despite an overall favorable leaning towards knife ownership and knife rights, knife owners should be careful to research local rules and laws. Since Alabama state knife law does not preempt local laws on the subject, what is legal in most of the state may be wholly or partially illegal in a specific municipal area. Police may lack fully accurate knowledge due to the varying legality between nearby towns and cities.
Legality of Knife Possession
Alabama’s knife laws are vague in many areas, fail to provide clear definitions of forbidden or restricted blades, including blade lengths. Some legal cases have added clarifying precedent to the existing law, however – in particular, Smelley v. State, 472 So.2d 715 (1985), which helped set limits on law enforcement’s and the courts’ ability to classify blades as Bowie knives.
Alabama knife law tends towards leniency in application on a state level and in numerous municipalities. Carrying most types of knives is considered legal in the absence of criminal intent. The state law lumps all folding knives together, regardless of whether they are regular pocket knives, switchblades, gravity knives, “lock-blade knives” (a special Alabama category explained further under concealed weapons, below), and others, and places no legal restrictions on their sale, possession, or carrying.
Bowie knives and similar blades such as machetes, large KA-BAR knives, and other large single-edge blade form a special class of knife in Alabama law. It is legal to purchase these knives, though under the Title 13A Criminal Code of Alabama, Section 13A-11-57, it is illegal to sell, give, or lend a Bowie knife to a minor, an action carrying a fine of $50 to $500. Thus, a Bowie knife cannot be given to a minor by a parent or guardian, with the same restriction implicitly applying to machetes, large KA-BAR knives, and so on.
A Bowie knife’s description was further cleared up in Smelley v. State. This decision describes a Bowie knife as being similar to a dagger but having just one edge, features a fixed blade that cannot be open and shut, and is too big to fit completely inside a “trouser pocket.”
This description appears to exclude double-edged blades, daggers, and short single-edged fixed knives (such as smaller KA-BAR knives) from the Bowie category.
Knife Length Limit
The state of Alabama legislates no legal blade length limits other than the implied blade length of Bowie knives (i.e, “too long to fit in a trouser pocket”). Many towns and cities limit folding blade length to 3” or 4” for concealed carry purposes, however.
Concealed Carry of Knives
Alabama state law permits, either directly or simply by failing to mention them, the concealed carry of all kinds of folding knives regardless of blade length (including switchblades, gravity knives, and so on), plus double-edged fixed blade knives of any length (such as daggers and bayonets) and short-bladed single-edged fixed blade knives (including small KA-BAR knives).
Bowie knives – any single-edged fixed blade knife too large to be carried in a trouser pocket – cannot be legally carried concealed under any circumstances, except on the owner’s private property. Carrying them concealed carries a penalty of $50 to $500 in fines, plus up to 6 months of imprisonment and “hard labor.” Open carry is implied to be legal for anyone not a minor, however. By a quirk of Alabama law, carrying a Bowie knife secured in a locked car trunk counts as “concealed carry” and is thus illegal.
Smelley v. State further gave rules regarding “lock-blade knives.” These knives are folding knives of any length (the case revolved around a 6” lock-blade knife) whose blade is single-edge and locked open to prevent closure once opened, thus making them effectively the same as a Bowie knife in fighting robustness. By the court ruling, however, these knives are considered folding knives, not Bowie knives, and can be legally carried concealed.
Municipal laws are not trumped by state law, adding an extra layer of complexity to the situation. Many localities place a local concealed carry limit on folding knives also, based on blade length, with upper limits of 3” or 4” most common. Decatur, AL’s local ordinances appear to make concealed carry of any knife illegal, regardless of length or construction.
Other Knife Law Considerations in Alabama
Most knife law problems in Alabama revolve around blades similar to Bowie knives, thanks to the state’s relatively vague and arbitrary description. The Bowie knife law is considered outdated by many knife enthusiasts, as its primary objective was to limit Bowie knife duels in the 19th century, a practice long abandoned, though the restriction lives on in the books.
The fact that municipal laws need not adhere to state law guidelines makes concealed carry more restrictive, mostly in the form of blade length restrictions, in many local areas. Overall, however, Alabama is a “knife-friendly” state permitting open carry and a wide range of closed carry choices, albeit with some remaining gray areas.
Resources and Further Reading