Recently, I received a rather terse e-mail that read, "The balisong is purely Filipino. Get it right."
Apparently, the correspondent is upset about my suggestions that the butterfly knife design did not originate in the Philippines. I tried to respond to my angry questioner, but my reply bounced back with the message "address invalid." Surprise... Surprise.
I do not have any direct evidence proving the origins of the balisong. If anyone has any solid evidence, I would love to hear it.
The French also claim to have invented the butterfly knife design. The oldest dated evidence I know of that supports this is a French book clearly showing a sketch of the balisong design. That book, "Le Perret", was published in 1710. A copy can be seen at The Museum of Thiers, in Thiers, France. I hope to post a picture soon and I'm trying to locate other copies of that book (hopefully, I won't have to go all the way to France to see it).
This book, clearly dated 1710 and clearly French, really tends to indicate that the balisong originated in France in the late 1600s or early 1700s. It certainly disproves the popular myth that the balisong was invented in the Philippines in the early 1900s.
To my aforementioned correspondent, I can only say, "Sorry."
Assuming the balisong was invented in France, it would probably have spread throughout Europe including to Germany, England, and Spain.
I have recently acquired a very historic balisong, a piece by Bontgen and Sabin's (English/German) which has the tang stamp "D.R.G.M (over) 1867". D.R.G.M. would indicate Germany and 1867 would make this one of the oldest balisong I have personally seen. Again, the certainly shatters any claims that the balisong originated in the Philippines in the early 1900s.
I also have a Bontgen and Sabin's balisong knife that appears in B&S's 1895 catalog.
I also have, in my collection, a balisong with the tang stamp "Espana (over) MDCCCXCV". Espana is Spanish for Spain. MDCCCXCV is, I believe, Roman numeration for 1895.
This special piece was in a box of assorted balisongs that I bought at a yard sale for something like $25. It's a sad story. The young man who had collected this box of balisongs abruptly left home and has not been seen nor heard from in many years. The mother, now an old lady, was moving out of her big house to a small assisted-living apartment. She was selling off a lot of stuff including, reluctantly, many of her son's things which she had kept all these years waiting for his return. The collection has several other significant pieces in it. I've maintained that if the son returns and can identify the knives, I will return them to him. I have a great hope that one day this man's interest in butterfly knives will be renewed. Maybe he'll do what everyone does these days, a bit of web surfing, and come up with my site. I hope he'll see this story and say, "Hey, that's my collection." If you are, by chance, that man, please contact me. Your mother is frail and wants nothing more than to see her son, and I have a box of balisongs to talk to you about.
Anyway, back to our subject.
I also have this balisong. Notice how fully-developed it is. There's a functional latch. The blade has a tang pin. And the handles have pockets. The man who made this knife knew exactly what he was doing. He had the design down. I doubt seriously that this was the first or only balisong that this man made.
This knife was made in England. The handles are silver. The marks you see on the handles are English silver hallmarks. They tell quite authoritatively who made the piece, where, and -- most importantly for our purposes here -- when it was made. These symbols were legally standardized and registered and those records survive today.
The WM mark is the registered mark of Mr. William Morton. He made the knife. The crown is a standard symbol and tells us the purity of the silver. The lion is the registered mark for the Rockingham Works in Sheffield, England. And that last symbol, the stylized "d," is a standard symbol that dates the piece... dates it to 1873. So much for the idea that the balisong was invented in the Philippines in 1905.
Assuming the balisong was invented in Europe and eventually came to be used in Spain, it's not unreasonable to suggest that a Spanish sailor might have taken a balisong knife to the Philippines which was, at that time, a Spanish colony.
In the Philippines, the balisong quickly found popular acceptance. It was also quickly integrated into the Filipino combative arts. The Filipino arts have long integrated weapons, including knives, and the balisong fits in very well with Filipino styles.
Want more evidence? Ok.
Here's a copy of an English patent issues to the German Cutlery Firm of Bontgen and Sabin's on April 12, 1880. It seems to describe the balisong pretty well.
Here's a page from Bontgen and Sabin's 1895 catalog.
(My thanks to noted cutlery expert Bernard Levine for these two pictures.)
One of the members on bladeforums.com recently advanced the theory that the balisong was well-received in less developed countries such as the turn-of-the-century Philippines because unlike most every other folding knives design, it does not require any spring components. Making springs is a more sophisticated technology.
I like this idea.
Folding knives have many practical advantages. Basically, a folding knife is easier and safer to carry than a fixed-blade. But, most folding knife designs require some sort of spring. The balisong is a folding knife that is simple to make from simple materials and requires no spring. Furthermore, it's a great folding design since, once locked open, it's virtually as strong and reliable as a fixed blade. It's not surprising that the Filipinos recognized the advantages of the balisong and quickly adopted it.
So, my theory is that the design was originally French and was picked up by their friends, the Spanish. I suspect that a Spanish sailor brought the first balisong to the Philippines. And, the Filipinos quickly adopted it.
But why would a Spanish sailor prefer a balisong knife? The answer is that many early balisongs such as my early Spanish piece have brass handles that fully cover their steel blades. Steel can generate a spark if struck against certain other materials. Brass in naturally non-sparking. I've learned in my other research that the sailors who preferred balisong knives where those who tended the ship's cannons. To tend and operate cannons, you need a knife to open crates of balls and kegs of powder, cut fuse material, etc. Cannons fire with gun powder. The last thing you want around gun powder is an unexpected spark. So, the brass handles covering the blade were a safety precaution to prevent sparks. And that is, I suspect, how a Spanish sailor came to be carrying a balisong knife when he arrived in the Philippines.
Some people think that it was probably an American serviceman, perhaps returning from World War 2, who brought a Filipino balisong back to America. But, the oldest American production balisongs that I am aware of were by Hemming Cutlery of New Haven, Conn. and predate even World War 1. Hemming Cutlery started producing balisongs in 1905 (again, another bit of evidence against the balisong being invented in Philippines in 1905). So, while it may easily have been an American serviceman who brought the balisong to America, it was probably brought from Europe.
As you can see, I am greatly interested in any further information or evidence that anyone might be able to supply regarding the history or origins of the butterfly knife design.