As a law enforcement officer, what are the odds that the next person you stop has a concealed weapon within easy reach? Of course the answer depends on the circumstances, but nobody would argue that officers face the potential for harm with every single civilian encounter. The problem is that almost anything on or near a person of interest could conceal a covert weapon.
Compounding the situation is the fact that most encounters place officers well within the range where there is simply not enough time to react effectively against an attack. Most law enforcement personnel are aware of the infamous “Tueller Drill,” which demonstrates that an officer, under ideal conditions, cannot draw and fire his or her weapon effectively in the time it takes for a perpetrator armed with a knife or impact weapon to attack from 21 feet or less. Although the controversial 21-foot rule is actually more of a guideline, it simply illustrates that officers require more reaction time than they would normally believe is necessary for effective use of force.
The reality is that the actual distance becomes a moot point if the subject is within arm’s length of the officer. With the distinct possibility that there could be a covert weapon present, and without adequate reaction time, how can law enforcement officers minimize personal risk?
For personal safety, an officer must recognize weapons that by design, material composition, or method of carry can be concealed within reach of a person being taken into custody.
Modern law enforcement requires keeping current with ever-changing policies that define the rules of conduct in the performance of duties. Understandably, keeping up with just the basics often leaves precious little time to learn about other areas such as covert weapons. Criminals do not operate under the same constraints, primarily because they don’t have to follow any rules. When it comes to knowing what covert weapons are available, criminals get their information from contact with others while incarcerated, or from exposure to like-minded people on the street. This informal process provides an evolutionary form of peer review about which weapons escape detection by law enforcement.
A Centuries-Old Tradition
To put things into a historical perspective, covert weapons are not a new concept. In ancient times, travelers would carry sharpened coins that they could throw into a robber’s face, allowing them time to draw their own weapon or to beat a hasty escape. From this humble beginning, the concept of a coin as a weapon has evolved to include hidden blades. Similarly, so have keys and key chains that conceal all manner of slash or thrust blades. In fact, common items such as lipstick and mascara, combs, brushes, rulers, cigarette lighters, pens, pencils, and even musical flutes have all been designed to conceal blades.
Not surprisingly, the impetus for many modern covert weapons is international conflict. For example, to effect an escape, World War II operatives were trained to use hideout knives to slash or thrust at the hands and faces of their captors. Small blades such as thumb and lapel daggers were designed to be concealed in pockets; behind the lapel on a suit jacket; or in the case of brochettes, hatpin-like thrusting weapons, behind the trousers’ button fly, where they were seldom detected. Even today, some police are reluctant to search a suspect’s crotch.
Another famous spy weapon was the triangular-bladed arm dagger that was carried concealed under the agent’s sleeve. California knife manufacturer Cold Steel currently makes a complete series of tough plastic covert edged weapons; two of these blades are based on the triangular arm dagger. In fact, all of the World War II-inspired covert weapons are currently available, and in many cases, they have evolved into more effective weapons. An example is Blackjack Knives’ plastic thumb dagger. Although the company has been defunct for many years, a surplus stock of these non-detectable hideout blades is available through a major mail order supplier. Arguably, the plastic Blackjack thumb daggers are not lethal, but they could produce a nasty wound.
At the other end of the danger spectrum is the ballistic knife. Imagine a knife that actually shoots a blade. Attributed to a Russian KGB design, the ballistic knife looks like a small metal nightstick. However, when triggered, the spring-loaded blade is propelled with considerable force. Although the effective range is limited to a few yards, the potential lethality of this weapon should not be underestimated. There are two versions of the ballistic knife and both are relatively well made.
Perhaps not as lethal, but certainly of concern, are concealed blades that are found in common jewelry such as rings, cufflinks, dogtags, and belt buckles. To illustrate the scope of this problem, Rossiter and Associates, a civilian covert weapons research firm, acquired more than 40 distinct types of belt buckle knives, in addition to identifying many more. The bottom line is that there are a lot of covert weapons out there and many of them are junk, but they can still cut or penetrate an officer’s skin. Although it would be difficult to be able to visually identify every covert weapon available, the thing to keep in mind is that with modern materials and designs, any common carry item can be used to disguise a covert weapon; some are even invisible to metal detection.
Many weapons are made from materials that are not easily detected; these weapons are considered covert because of the inert composition of the material from which they have been manufactured. Happily, there is a great deal of confusion about which materials are invisible to detection. This confusion creates interdiction possibilities for people attempting to infiltrate weapons into secure areas.
Surprisingly, there are many weapons that are manufactured from materials commonly believed to be invisible to detection, but are not. Some examples such as titanium and brass are non-ferrous and therefore have no magnetic properties; yet metal detectors pick them up. Perhaps the most surprising are weapons manufactured from carbon fiber. Although all other plastics and polymers are invisible to metal detection, carbon fiber material is easily detected. Some ceramic knife manufacturers, recognizing the inherent stealth characteristics of their products, mold a metal strip inside the handle making them detectable. Unfortunately, other manufacturers do not.
Most primitive weapons made from natural substances such as rock, bone, antlers or tusks are undetectable, but these types of weapons are uncommon.
Although there are literally hundreds of covert edged weapons that are invisible to metal detectors, they are more of a concern for officers involved with site security such as what is required in Federal buildings, court houses, and airports. Law enforcement officers on the street face a much wider variety of covert weapons.
Out on the Street
Even though the use of hand-wand metal detectors by officers on the street is increasing, not every department uses them. Often a pat-down is the only search employed. If done correctly, a frisk will uncover most hidden weapons.
The problem is that officers, brow beaten by political correctness, will often not search the areas where people tend to conceal weapons such as the mouth, hair, chest, crotch, and feet. Many inmates, for instance, learn to carry a razor blade in their mouth at all times. Weapons carried on the chest, in the crotch, and on the feet are easy to overlook. Consider that almost every major knife manufacturer has at least one model of neck knife designed to hang inverted, under the shirt, on the chest.
Other areas requiring careful search are the wallet or handbag. Currently available are credit card knives made from titanium, steel, ceramic, carbon fiber, polymers, and micarta. What these credit card knives have in common is that they all fit in a wallet and have at least one sharp edge.
It cannot be stressed enough that everything is suspect because so many concealed weapons are disguised as common items. Some obscure accoutrements, such as titanium drinking straws could have their sharp edges concealed inside a common to-go cup. Another example, the modern garrote, is typically a fine wire that is used for strangling. Most commonly thought of as an assassin’s weapon employed by World War II spies, the use of a garrote can be traced back to the Thugee sect in India who used a thin silken sash called a rhumal to strangle their victims. On the streets today, wire garrotes can be found incorporated into belts, shoelaces, or as one officer uncovered, rolled up in a condom.
The bottom line is that while doing a pat down—with or without a metal detector—be suspicious of everything.
Within Easy Reach
Not all covert weapons are concealed on a person’s body; sometimes the weapon is hidden within easy reach. A good example is a motorcycle dipstick knife. This weapon looks just like an oil dipstick when plugged into the engine’s crankcase, but affords the rider with an instantly accessible blade. One maker even put marks on the blade to indicate the proper oil level. Along the same concept is a blade attached to the underside of a motorcycle’s gas cap.
Automobiles also present an almost unlimited number of places to conceal weapons. Even common items such as aftermarket steering wheel locks like “The Club” may have had the inside rod sharpened to a nasty point. This modification does not affect the function of the security device, but makes a formidable thrusting weapon.
Hidden in plain sight, umbrellas and canes that conceal blades are almost a cliché. These common weapons range from unbelievably cheap and obvious to very sophisticated and expensive. Regardless of quality, they are all potentially dangerous to law enforcement personnel.
As long as enforcing the law requires officers to interact directly with people, there will be a potential for harm. Vigilant officers realize that every item within the reach of a person of interest may conceal a weapon. With all of the covert weapons readily—and in most cases legally—available, criminals clearly have an advantage. To be safe, an officer must recognize weapons that by design, material composition, or method of carry can be concealed within the reach of a person being taken into custody.
Bart Bjorkman is the author of “Recognition and Response to Covert Weapon Infiltration into Secure Areas,” published by Rossiter & Associates, www.rossiter2000.com.