knife-a-month subscription box
Two of the knives that arrived in the first subscription box. Photo: Joseph Phelan

I Bought a Knife Subscription Box From an Instagram Ad and It Was Alarmingly Easy

Due to a loophole in UK law, I didn't even have to provide any ID. Knife crime charities say they're horrified at the how easy it is for people to buy such weapons online.
December 4, 2020, 11:39am

Everyone knows that it’s not unusual to be peppered with ads for clothes, Black Friday deals or cheap electronics during a trawl through Instagram. 

However, as I was scrolling through my feed one night a number of weeks ago, I was presented with an advert for something I’d never seen before – a monthly subscription box containing a mystery assortment of knives. Yes, actual knives.

The video ad, for a US-based company called Knife-A-Month, showed two knives and a pair of metallic blue brass knuckles. The actions of the knives, one of which resembled a bright red ballpoint pen, were briefly demonstrated by a disembodied hand. The fake pen was shown to contain a spring-loaded blade which popped up upon the pressing of a button, while the other, a grey folding knife, flicked open with the push of a switch.

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I was encouraged to swipe up if I wanted more information, and I did. Knife-A-Month’s website informed me that for as little as $18 a month (about £13) I could sign up for one of four tiers of subscription box and, if I were to do so, I would be sent a new box of knives every four weeks. I’d heard of subscription boxes for craft lager, organic vegetables and vintage books, but knives were something completely new to me.

After 10 minutes of research I discovered that there are in fact several companies, most of them based in the US, offering a variety of knife subscription packages that can be shipped worldwide.

Knowing that Instagram tends to serve users with ads based on their personal search history and purchasing habits, I was a little bit confused as to why I had been targeted by a company called Knife-A-Month. I was even more confused at the fact that monthly knife subscription boxes were even a thing. Knife crime in England and Wales is at a 10-year high, an offence involving a knife is reported every 11 minutes, and at the beginning of 2020, Mayor of London Sadiq Khan said there was nothing that keeps him up at night more than knife crime. Was this even real? And if so, was it legal?

Given that I eventually bought one of Knife-a-Month’s boxes – purely for journalistic purposes – perhaps the Instagram algorithms are smarter than I give them credit for.

The first thing I had to figure out was whether I would be committing an offence by ordering via Knife-A-Month. This was slightly tricky as the items are selected at random, so the buyer doesn’t know exactly what they are going to receive until it’s in their possession.

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On its website Knife-A-Month describes itself as a service for “outdoorsmen,” and its knives as suitable for “hunting, survival, or self-protection.” Its terms and conditions state that users must be legal adults in their home country, and must warrant not to use the knives for any unlawful purpose. 

Still, I decided I needed some legal clarity. I got in touch with a lawyer and they informed me that it was technically legal to sign up to the service as long as I didn’t intend to sell the knives afterwards.

Knife-A-Month offers four tiers of subscription box: The Standard box, which contains one item, costs $18 (plus shipping), the Advanced box, containing two items, is $32 (about £24), and the Premium box, which I purchased, costs $39 (£29) and contains three items.

The website also offers an OTF Pack, which each month comes with a “new and unique” OTF knife, and costs $79 (about £59). These OTF knives, more commonly known as switchblades, have been illegal to manufacture, sell or hire in the UK since 1958, and so I decided against this option, just to be on the safe side.

The information provided about what each box is likely to contain is limited. The website simply states the number of items that will be sent, and while the image accompanying the description of the Premium box consists of two knives and a pair of brass knuckles, there was no text to indicate that this is exactly what I would get.

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Knife-A-Month is based in the American state of Maine, which has the lowest reported violent crime rate of any state in the entirety of the US

I tried to get in touch with the company via the email address listed on its website and also via its Instagram page to find out more about what exactly I was buying, but I received no response. Undeterred, I went ahead and signed up for a monthly subscription box, which I was relieved to learn could be cancelled at any time.

As it turned out, the purchasing cycle from start to finish was incredibly straightforward. Immediately after the purchase I was sent a confirmation email, and throughout the box’s journey I received a number of updates informing me of its progress. Within 14 days of purchase the knives were in my flat in London.

The ease of the buying process would have been reassuring had I been ordering anything other than knives. I wasn’t asked to verify my age prior to payment nor upon delivery – I didn’t have to present identification at any point – nor did I have to justify my purchase to any person or authority. A child able to get hold of an adult’s debit card would have had no difficulty ordering a box of their own.

The box passed through customs in 24 hours without, it would seem, causing anyone to raise so much as an eyebrow.

Because I was at work on the day they arrived, I didn’t have to sign for the package. What’s more, rather than being pushed into my postbox, it was left resting against my front door for a good six hours before I eventually arrived home.

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My box contained three knives. At first glance I was shocked not only by how vicious they appeared but by the sturdy build quality. Two of them in particular were remarkably weighty and had clearly been crafted to withstand punishment.

One of the three knives. Photo: Joseph Phelan

One of the three knives. Photo: Joseph Phelan

Each knife was a lock knife, making them illegal to carry in public in the UK “without good reason”. Government guidance around what can be regarded as a good reason includes taking a knife to a museum or gallery so it can be exhibited, carrying one to an historical re-enactment or for very specific religious purposes, or using one “in a demonstration or to teach someone how to use it”.

If caught with such a knife a court will ultimately decide the legitimacy of any given reason. Carrying a knife has a maximum penalty of four years in prison, and if convicted of carrying one on more than one occasion, a prison sentence is all-but guaranteed.

One of the three knives. Photo: Joseph Phelan

Photo: Joseph Phelan

All three of the knives I received were alarming in their own right, but the “credit card knife”, as it has been dubbed by police, was arguably the most sinister of the three. Designed to fit snugly into a wallet’s credit card slot, it can be rearranged into its knife form in a couple of seconds. After a little bit of practice, I was able to do it in less than one.

In 2019 a number of fines, mostly in the region of £350, were handed out to individuals caught possessing one of these weapons. The increased frequency with which such knives were confiscated during 2019 prompted police forces around the country to issue a series of warnings, alerting the public not only to the fact such knives exist and should not be purchased under any circumstances, but that they have the capacity to result in serious injury or death.

The "credit card" knife. Photo: Joseph Phelan

The "credit card" knife. Photo: Joseph Phelan

The "credit card" knife. Photo: Joseph Phelan

The "credit card" knife. Photo: Joseph Phelan

The Offensive Weapons Act 2019, designed in part to make it harder to purchase knives, received Royal Assent in May 2019, but it has its limitations.

Sarah Jones MP, Shadow Minister for Policing and the Fire Service and founder of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Knife Crime, said: “The Act means you have to be able to prove you are over 18 before you can receive a package containing a knife of any kind, but it only applies to British companies. This is a real problem, because people who want a knife will just go online and buy one that’s shipped in from another country.

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“What’s so frustrating is that we know how to resolve the problem [of knife crime]. There’s evidence of the interventions needed to fix it, such as educating people from a young age and providing better community services, and yet these solutions aren’t being used.

“It seemed that we were getting somewhere when Theresa May was Prime Minister, because she took a keen interest in instigating the right changes, but the agenda from the current government is completely different.

“Boris Johnson’s government is very keen to say that it’s adding 10,000 new prison places, or recruiting 20,000 new police officers, or giving the police 8,000 more tasers, but it doesn’t seem too concerned about levels of crime – it just wants something to say to make a headline.

“The things that are being done now aren’t going to tackle the long-term causes of crime at all, and the stats back that up; only one in 14 crimes that are reported lead to someone being charged, and I just don’t think this government is interested in looking at the evidence of what causes crime and how to reduce it.”

Jones also said that she has concerns over Knife-A-Month’s advertising methods, as well as those employed by similar companies, suggesting that they have been designed specifically to appeal to a young audience.

“I have certainly seen advertising that is notionally for over 18s, but clearly marketed at under 18s, and I think this fits in that category. From what I can tell these knives are clearly being marketed to a young audience and that’s incredibly concerning.

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“As you have proven, you can go online, buy some pretty horrific knives, and for all the seller knows you could have been 14. Nothing would have stopped you getting them. People who want to make money out of criminal activity are amazingly inventive, and we need to do more to try and stop these kinds of things from happening.”

Patrick Green, CEO of the Ben Kinsella Trust, an anti-knife crime charity set up in the wake of the murder of Ben Kinsella aged 16 in 2008, said he was horrified at how how easy it is for people to get their hands on a dangerous weapon via the internet.

“It doesn’t surprise me that subscription boxes like this exist but that doesn’t make it any less horrific. Knives just like the ones in the box you received have absolutely been used to kill and maim people, and the fact that they’re so easy to get one’s hands on is terrifying. But I’m not shocked by it.

“These types of knives are clearly designed to cause serious damage to people. You have to question why anyone would need a box delivered every month, unless they’re going to be used for some kind of criminal activity.”

Lucie Russell, CEO at StreetDoctors, a charity that equips young people affected by violence with vital first aid skills, said: “The subscription box idea is horrible, and those knives are obviously not going to be used for cutting up apples, but that it exists at all serves to highlight that there is a demand for these lethal items.

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“It would be fantastic to live in a world where dangerous knives simply don’t exist, and where they can’t be ordered online and posted through your letterbox, but that’s clearly not feasible right now. 

“What is practicable, however, is educating young people about the consequences of picking up a knife and taking it out of the house with them. This work must also go on alongside tackling the causes of knife carrying.”

This is a message echoed by Green.

“Knife crime in London is likely to get worse before it gets better. London needs the funding to tackle the root causes of knife crime and at the moment it doesn’t look like that’ll happen in the near future,” he said.

“If you look at Scotland, they’re really starting to make significant progress. Scotland’s Violence Reduction Unit (SVRU), which is independent of the police, was set up to treat knife crime – and violent crime in general – as a public health issue.”

Throughout the writing of this article I attempted to contact Knife-A-Month on a number of occasions to ask what steps it took to prevent underage people from buying its knives, and what it thought about the knives it supplies potentially being used for criminal purposes. I also asked how many subscribers it has, globally and in the UK.

I sent multiple emails via the support email address listed on its website to discuss the article, but none of the messages could be delivered. I would have made use of the form on the Contact Us section but its allocated correspondence quota had been exceeded. The many direct messages I sent via Instagram also went unanswered.

Upon the competition of this article I deposited the three knives I received into a knife drop bin. I also ended my subscription prior to a second batch of knives being sent to me. ●