Tennessee Knife Laws

tnTennessee knife laws can be difficult to understand, due to the legislature’s vague language and the Court’s reluctance to offer definitions of the terms used in the statutes. This article will track down the law and explain it with clear language that makes sense to everyone.

What is Legal to Own

  • It is legal to own a Bowie knife
  • It is legal to own a dirk, dagger, or other stabbing knife
  • It is legal to own a disguised knife such as in a belt buckle or lipstick
  • It is legal to own a stiletto

It may be legal to own a butterfly knife, however, one should check with an attorney first, as Tennessee’s definition of a switchblade could include a butterfly knife. Courts in most states would call a butterfly knife one that opens by “gravity or inertia”, which is how Tennessee defines a switchblade knife. However, other Courts have viewed butterfly knives, not as automatic or gravity knives, but as a type of pocketknife. As of June 2013, Tennessee’s Courts have yet to weigh in.

What is Illegal to Own

Tennessee Code § 39-17-1302 makes it illegal to own a switchblade knife or any other implement for the infliction of serious bodily injury or death, which has no common lawful purpose.

Restrictions on Carry

  • It is illegal to open or conceal carry a switchblade
  • It is illegal to open or conceal carry any knife with a blade exceeding four inches in length, with the intent to go armed.

Definitions of Various Types of Knives

Tennessee statute defines a knife as any bladed hand instrument that is capable of inflicting serious bodily injury or death by cutting or stabbing a person with the instrument. Switchblade is defined as any knife with a blade that opens automatically by hand pressure applied to a button or other device in the handle or by operation of gravity or inertia. No other knives are defined by Tennessee statute or case law. Butterfly knives are mentioned in several Appellate and Supreme Court cases in Tennessee; however, the Court does not offer any type of definition for a butterfly knife.

Intent to go Armed Defined

Tennessee statutes do not define “intent to go armed”, however the phrase has been the subject of several appeals. As early as 1889, the Supreme Court of Tennessee recognized, in Moorefield v. State, that carrying a pistol to and from a hunting trip, was not intending to go armed. In 1957, in the case of Hill v. State, the Tennessee Supreme Court stated, “We gather the purpose of going armed from the facts of each particular case.” In 1976, the Court of Criminal Appeals followed the Hill decision, in Cole V. State, holding that the necessary intent to support a conviction for carrying a weapon, the intent to go armed, may be proven by the circumstances surrounding the carrying of the weapon. The Court also stated that the mere carrying of a weapon did not deprive a person of the right to presumed innocent. In 2002, in State v. Neely, the jury found that Mr. Neely was guilty of possession of an illegal knife with the intent to go armed, after a knife was found in his car, which contained various items of personal property. While Mr. Neely argued that the knife was simply kept in his car, along with other items he owned, the jury found that because Mr. Neely had recently threatened his girlfriend, he could have been carrying the knife in order to make good on his threats. The Court, agreeing with the jury, upheld the conviction.

Defenses to Unlawful Possession or Carry

It is a defense to unlawful possession or carry of a knife if the possession or carrying of the knife was:

  • Incident to a lawful hunting, trapping, fishing, camping, sport shooting, or other lawful activity
  • Incident to using the weapon in a manner reasonably related to a lawful dramatic performance or scientific research
  • Incident to displaying the weapon in a public museum or exhibition
  • In the person’s own home, property, or place of business

Certain government employees may also have a defense to the unlawful carry or possession of a weapon.

Penalties for Unlawful Possession or Carry

A first offense of unlawful possession or carry of a knife is a Class C Misdemeanor, which carries a jail sentence of up to 30 days, and a fine of not more than five hundred dollars ($500). A second offense is a Class B Misdemeanor, which carries a jail sentence of up to six (6) months and a fine of not more than five hundred dollars ($500).

Conclusion on Tennessee Knife Law

It is illegal to own or carry (either openly or concealed) a switchblade knife.

It is illegal to carry any knife with a blade longer than 4 inches, with the intent to go armed. It is, however, legal to open or conceal carry any legal knife without the intent to go armed, such as for hunting, fishing, work, or any other lawful purpose.

  • Tenn. Code Ann. § 39-17-1302 (2013)
  • Tenn. Code Ann. § 39-17-1307 (2013)
  • Tenn. Code Ann. § 39-17-1308 (2013)
  • Moorefield v. State, 73 Tenn. 348, (1880 Tenn.)
  • Hill v. State, 298 S.W.2d 799 (1957)
  • Cole v. State, 539 S.W.2d 46 (Tenn. Crim. App. 1976)
  • State v. Neely, No. E2001-02243-CCA-R3-CD, Tenn. Crim. App.
  • Tenn. Code Ann. § 40-35-111 (2013)


  1. I believe it is also illegal to carry a dirk or dagger even if the blade is less than four inches. I think it has been determined that any blade with a double edge is illegal. The “push” knife or dagger, most of which have a short three inch blade, is likewise illegal. Understand my information is old. I was an LEO many years ago and that was the interpretation at that time (25+ years ago.

  2. I carry, by Tennessee definition, an illegal knife bought legally in Walmart. If this knife is legal to sell, how can it be illegal to carry? Wouldn’t Walmart be at risk for legal action by the state for selling an illegal to carry knife? I do not carry it with the “intent to go armed” (I use it at work), however, it was needed to defend my self at some point, would that become an issue of “intent to go armed”?
    I think the laws of this state need to further clarified so that its citizens are not a risk of (il)legal action.

  3. CZMAN…..Read the section on defenses to the law. Last time I checked “working” would fall under “any other lawful activity” as would your “place of business”. If you stop off at the bar on the way home you should probably leave it in the car. The law says they are illegal to carry with the intent to go armed, not illegal to own therefore Walmart or bubba or anybody can sell knives over 4 inches. To sell an automatic knife or switchblade the purchaser must be military, LE, emergency services, etc. and use it on the job.

  4. I always carry with the intent to be armed. Why wouldent i??? Sure, i also carry for tool or survival purposes as well. Why is it more legal for me to carry a gun? Why can i get a permit for my gun but not a blades?

  5. I carry multiple weapons every day, everywhere i go, SPECIFICALLY with the intent to be armed. I have a God given RIGHT to be able to defend myself. I would prefer to open carry my weapons lawfully as a deterrant. But make no mistake, if i cant go about armed legally, than i WILL go armed illegally. No one will stop me from being able to defend myself and/or others. I have been armed since the age of 12. I have never brandished or threatened with my weapons except in my own defense. So far i have pulled weapons twice. Both times it saved my life. Both times just being armed, ready, willing, and able to defend myself sent the bad guts into retreat

  6. I was told by a Deputy that a knife that you use your finger to open aka “open assist” or “spring assist” was a switchblade per Tennessee legal definition. I contacted my State Representative to purpose a Bill to clarify the definition but he would not. Said they are only allowed to purpose a set number of Bills per year. I guess this wasnt important enough for him.

  7. Why is self defense NOT “any other lawful activity”? is self defense illegal? I’m not going armed I’m defending my self. and self defense is legal?

    some help here?

  8. Any law that violates one’s ability to go armed for self defense is unconstitutional. The right to self defense, and being armed for self defense cannot be taken away, or abridged by any law, considering the amount of street crime that the state cannot stop with current enforceable law.
    If I carry a knife that is 5″ long because it was my carry blade in another state, why should I not be allowed to continue to carry it here in TN? It is my right to carry as I please to defend myself, and my family as I see fit when my state can only show up after an event to take a report. When the state cannot protect me, I MUST protect myself and my family. Screw your unconstitutional law

  9. And I thought we in America lived in a free society but yet it is illegal to carry a knife. It seems that today you could get arrested for just about anything but yet the people who are committing real crimes get away with it and people who are trying to defend themselves get the shaft.

  10. I bought a switch blade at a gas station. Im not military or any type of police
    I use it at work and fishing. I live in memphis
    This is illegal?

  11. Ok, we have some rational people here and some fanatics.

    1. I agree that having a gun permit but not a knife permit is silly. By that I mean, obviously super long knives or swords, not utility ones.

    2. Agree or disagree with someone’s interpretation of the 2nd amendment with respect to bear arms, it is silly that a gun would be allowed and a long knife not.

    3. “God given right” does not even factor into it, this is supposed to be a logical discussion not one of secular beliefs. ‘God’ surely doesn’t give out rights in the human world, nor does it advocate violence or being armed.

    4. If you feel that to be a manly man, you need to fight an uneven contest (e.g. be more armed than everyone else), you are actually a small scared little child. Man up.

    5. Who cares what the laws are somewhere else? You could do A in place A, you can’t in place B. In place B you have other great things you couldn’t do in place A. Btw, not all places have the same laws, and you are an idiot if you think they should, just to make you happy.

    6. No, TN law actually states that a switchblade needs a button.

    7. Off topic: Carrying a baton is also illegal. E.g., a stick.

    8. I think if my wife can carry a gun, I should be able to carry a sword or baton.

    9. The whole “if you can see it it is menacing” thing is bull shit. What, you can’t see that gun on that guy with the CCW permit? How is a sword or stick more menacing than a gun?

    1. As it relates to item #3, it depends on which god. Some very popular gods advocate violence frequently.

  12. Thank you for clearing up the open assisted knife question. i was wondering how is blade length measured? is it just the length of the honable edge or is it the total overall lengh of the blade (say from the hingepin to the tip)? again thank you for posting this artical. I live in TN and wish to carry a knife as far as LEO is concerned as a tool. do you know if it is legal anywhere to carry a knife solely for going armed.

  13. All of the above was very insightful. Tn says 4 inch carry. New Mexico says you can open carry a Bowie. Now with all the above said, as long as you can see it ( openly), I say sport it. From defense to cleaning under your nails. Better to have it and not need it then need it and not have it

    1. Realistically, for defense, carry a gun if you aren’t a restricted person. Everything else, yeah a knife is good.

  14. This article needs to be updated as it is now legal to carry blades over 4 inches and automatics (switchblades).

    1. As of 2014 there are NO restrictions on any knife. This page is woefully out of date. See the links below.

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