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UK Knife Law Explained

UK Knife Law Explained for the Outdoors

UK legal carry law discussed with a former police officer

What can I carry in the UK? Is my knife illegal? What knife can I carry for bushcraft?
The above is a good example of questions we’re asked with regards to knives, axes and what we can carry for working in the outdoors in the U.K.

We of course discuss all of this on our bushcraft courses, but sometimes it’s easier to listen to a discussion than a lecture. For that reason I got one of our instructors, Kevin Field, to talk through his understanding of the current UK knife laws and how they might affect a bushcrafter or other outdoor enthusiast or professional.
Kevin was formerly a police officer, and I am an experienced outdoor instructor – but neither of us is a solicitor and we cannot give formal legal advice. The content in the video is our best understanding and interpretation of the current laws, but it is down to each one of you to do your own research and make sure that what you have in your pocket or bag is legal for your situation.

UK Knife Law Key Points:

  • The legal length for a non-locking, folding blade is 3inches/7.62cm
  • A knife with legal length can still be deemed an offensive weapon if it can perceived as such by someone else
  • Locking folding knives, fixed blade knives and knives longer than 3inches/7.62cm are all illegal for carry in a public place without a further defence
  • It is the duty of the person carrying the knife to know and understand the law – ignorance is not a defence
  • Access land and public footpaths are also public places
  • More information can be found on the gov.uk website

So what can I carry?

Well, the broadest answer is a folding blade, without a locking mechanism of no more than 3inches/7.62cm. That leaves you with something like the Victorinox Swiss Army Knife – however, even though it is not illegal necessarily to carry this as a knife, you could still be accused of carrying an offensive weapon.

The actual wording is:

“It is an offence for any person, without lawful authority or good reason, to have with him in a public place, any article which has a blade or is sharply pointed except for a folding pocket-knife which has a cutting edge to its blade not exceeding 3 inches.” [CJA 1988 section 139(1)]

There are specific defenses listed for the carry of knives outside of the definition above – including use for work, for religious reasons or as part of a national costume. The crucial part here is “without lawful authority or good reason”. What constitutes a ‘good reason’ is very subjective, and can depend on everything from how you act and behave with that item in public to how a member of the public perceives it. It is also not limited to knives, but hatchets, folding saws, ice axes and other sharp/bladed articles that an outdoor enthusiast may use.

Whilst it is impossible to give cast-iron guarantees and advice on what knife or other item you may carry, and how you can carry it, there are some generic situations where it is common for knives to be carried in public space:

  • A small, folding locknife with a serrated blade on the harness of a climber or the PFD of a canoe/kayaker for the purpose of cutting through rope, webbing or line in an emergency
  • A fixed-blade bushcraft knife being used by somebody camping on land where they have legal permission to do so, and ensuring it is being used safely and responsibly
  • A multitool with a locking blade in the toolkit of a mountainbiker at a trail center
  • A long filleting knife in the tacklebox of an angler on a pier where the public has access

All of those are fairly common scenarios, and there is a very good chance that a police officer, the Crown Prosecution Service and potentially a judge agreeing that it is a ‘good reason’ for that item to be carried or used in public, in that way, at that time.

But what if that climber still has that knife in their pocket when they sit down to a bowl of goulash in the Siabod Cafe later that day? Or if that bushcrafter forgets they have a knife on their belt when they pop into Tesco on the way home? Could the mountainbiker get into an argument with a stranger whilst adjusting their derailleur and threaten the stranger with the knife on the multitool? Can the angler drop into the pub when walking back home, dropping their tacklebox under the table?

The short answer to all of the above is that they are much more likely to have committed an offence. By making poor decisions, not paying attention to how they are handling the potentially illegal item in their kit and being complacent or just foolish they have moved outside of their (potential) legal defence.

One also needs to consider if they are trespassing, which in itself is a civil matter not a criminal one – but if you are found to be in possession of an offensive weapon then it can possibly become armed trespass.

There are so many variables that it possible to turn any hypothetical scenario into a situation where a law has been broken.

Seriously, what can I carry?

The best advice I can give – as an instructor and somebody who was once the victim of knife crime – is to make sure that the knife, axe, saw or whatever you are carrying is:

  • appropriate to the activity you are conducting, or about to/have been conducting and there is no other practical way to transport that item
  • not being used or carried in a manner which can cause distress or alarm to a member of the public
  • not likely to be accidentally carried on from your place of lawful use and activity to a public place (on the belt of your trousers etc)
  • not an item otherwise prohibited from being carried or owned (including flick knives, butterfly knives etc)
  • transported and stored in a way that cannot be misconstrued as being a weapon (i.e. in a rucksack in the boot of a vehicle, not in the cupholder next to you)

You also need to ask yourself if you REALLY do need to carry that item. Is there a ‘good reason’ for carrying a machete-like survival tool on the PYG Track of Snowdon? Do you need to have a £500 craftsperson-made bushcraft knife on your belt at the local game fair? Do you actually need a knife to go foraging, or will a pair of scissors or secateurs be more appropriate? There is a world of outdoor media, from Instagram to old episodes of Ray Mears shows on Youtube that may trick the unwary into thinking that anything is allowed because you’re being ‘outdoorsy’…

So please, make sure that if you are carrying a knife or bladed item in the U.K., no matter what the style or length, that you are aware of the rules and laws around the use and carry of those items. More importantly, you should also be aware of how your behaviour and actions could be seen by another person. You know that you are a safe, responsible person who is a student of wilderness skills and want to try out your new knife and axe – but has the person walking their dog just seen a threatening-looking scruffy person heading into the woods with camouflage gear and a Rambo-knife?

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