In January, rapper Vic Mensa was arrested in Glendale, California for felony possession of brass knuckles. “An officer pulled over Vic, and at some point during the stop, patted him down,” reports TMZ. “We’re told the officer found the brass knuckles in Vic’s pants pocket.”
In California, not only is it illegal to sell or manufacture brass knuckles, it’s also illegal to own them under Penal Code § 21810. “Section 21810 is a ‘wobbler,’ meaning the offense can be charged as a felony with a maximum sentence of three years and a fine of up to $10,000 plus penalties and assessments that can total $42,500,” per Greg Hill and Associates. “It can also be charged as a misdemeanor with a maximum punishment of one year in county jail and up to a $1,000 fine, plus penalties and assessments (total of approximately $4,250).”
Luckily for Mensa, he wasn’t charged with a felony possession of brass knuckles, instead getting charged with simple possession of brass knuckles, which does still carry a sentence of up to a year in county jail. Per the same Hill and Associates website, the decision on how to charge someone in these circumstances considers a variety of factors including, “the client’s age, how the discovery of brass knuckles was made, if anyone was injured, how the suspect cooperated with police, the suspect’s prior criminal history (especially as to gang affiliation and prior prison sentences) and any other factors relevant to how brass knuckles are prosecuted in the particular courthouse.”
But Mensa and prosecutions aside, at a time when gun violence has reached such levels that parents are considering homeschooling their kids, the illegality of brass knuckles seems not just quaint, but somewhat absurd. We can have guns, but brass knuckles get you up to three years inside?
Their legal status becomes, if not less hypocritical, at least slightly more understandable once you realize the sheer damage they can inflict (more on that later). But more stunning than their potential for rearranging a person’s bone structure is the way in which brass knuckles have traveled through time, maintaining their cultural relevance from one era to the next. From their inception as an ancient weapon to their days as the hardcore wrestler’s weapon of choice, the brass knuckle has evolved as an underground weapon of the subculture.
1) The first iteration of a brass knuckle-adjacent weapon comes from none other than the ancient Roman caestus — “a type of glove or handguard made from leather and metal used during boxing matches in gladiatorial events.” “Unlike modern-day boxing gloves which are used to muffle the fist of fighters and thus lessen bodily harm, the caestus was used to intensify the damage caused by a punch or blow,” reports Weapons-Universe.com, an online weapons store.
2) Brass knuckles — in their nascent form — made their first major pop-culture appearance early, featuring in a boxing match in Virgil’s Aeneid (written in the first century BC). The story describes a match between Dares (a young Trojan) and Entellus (an aged Sicilian) whereby the old man nearly loses after he “falls headlong by the impetus of his own blow, with a crash like that of a falling pine.” “The old man’s blood is stirred, and he attacks his youthful enemy with such furious and headlong rushes, buffeting him grievously with both hands, that Aeneas [the story’s protagonist] put an end to the battle, though barely in time to save the discomfited Trojan from being beaten into insensibility,” reads the Encyclopedia Britannica entry.
3) Before the invention of guns, back when hand-to-hand combat was still a common occurrence, similar “hand gloves” made up of materials including brass, wood, iron and lead were used all the way up to and through the Civil War. In fact, they were so popular that even Abraham Lincoln’s bodyguards were each equipped with a set, according to KurdoKnives.com. In his Medium article on the dark history of brass knuckles, Alan Max notes, “one of the most lethal transformations was the brass knuckle knife that was basically a sharp blade with knucks as a handle grip.” “This lethal version was formed during World War I and is famously known as the Mark I Trench knife that had a seven-inch blade and brass knuckles instead of straight handles,” writes Max. “These blades became so popular among U.S. soldiers that in the Second World War, every soldier was given trench knives of their own.”
4) Today, just as they were back then, brass knuckles are designed to multiply the force of a punch, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to win the fight. “We’re big fans of force multipliers in the case that a person is dealing with somebody who’s much bigger and stronger than them, or when there are multiple attackers,” says Trea Drake, a certified instructor at Krav Maga Houston. “I personally don’t have a stance on any particular force multiplier. My problem with any of them, whether you have brass knuckles in your pocket or whether you carry a knife — which in Texas, something like 85 percent of the male population carries a blade on them — is that it gives people a false sense of security. They don’t get themselves properly trained when the reality is, the vast majority of the time when you’re in a context where deploying a weapon is appropriate, you’re probably going to have to fight to that weapon.”
This is why, Drake says, you need to have good hand-to-hand skills to disengage from the person to even use a set of brass knuckles. “And most people don’t ever consider that. That’s the problem that I have with them.”
5) As for how much damage a brass knuckle can inflict when it does connect, the results vary. According to Weapons-Universe.com, by putting your fingers through a set of brass knuckles, the fighter’s fingers are able to maintain a tighter fist. “The fingers cannot be driven into the palm, and the metal grip provides additional weight,” per their website. In addition, their website notes that using brass knuckles requires throwing a slightly different type of punch than a “standard forward strike.” “Fingers could be broken if the punch connects directly,” per Weapons-Universe.com. “Fighters using brass knuckles often use a rolling punch with a glancing blow. This protects the fingers and causes more damage to the opponent.”
6) If used correctly, brass knuckles “can inflict broken bones, cuts, concussions and eye and nose injuries,” per FindLaw.com. “Although injuries from brass knuckles are usually serious but non-fatal, there are some cases where the use of brass knuckles has resulted in death.”
7) Their lethality is no mere sword guy-style rumor: In 2014, a man in Texas turned himself into the police after being accused of using brass knuckles to attack another man, who died in the hospital a couple of weeks later. In 2015, two women in California were arrested for beating to death a 65-year-old man allegedly using brass knuckles in L.A. “The two women are facing murder charges in connection to the attack on Mr. Whitmore, an artist from Los Angeles who was savagely beaten while standing on a platform at the Willowbrook Metro station June 13th,” reported KTLA.
8) That level of viciousness is probably not what former Vice President and would-be next President (screams internally) Joe Biden had in mind when he attempted to use the metaphorical “brass knuckle fight” as a way to exhibit his toughness and loyalty to Democratic values, while he attempted to walk back a comment he’d made about working with Republicans to pass legislation. When asked by MSNBC’s Joy Reid last year about how he’d overcome Republican opposition, he replied, “There are certain things where it just takes a brass-knuckle fight,” reports CNN. It’s hard to know if Biden was trying to coin a phrase here, or simply mangling the more common expression “bare-knuckle brawl” (let’s face it, it’s almost certainly the latter).
9) It’s the potential for an actual brass knuckles fight to cause fatal damage that’s behind their being illegal in several countries around the world, including Hong Kong, Austria, Belgium, Bosnia, Canada, Croatia, Cyprus, Finland, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Israel, Malaysia, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Russia, Spain, Turkey, Singapore, Taiwan and the U.K. But of course, in the U.S., where the adage “god, guns and glory,” is a part of the national fabric for so many Americans, the laws vary from state to state, with no one comprehensive rule to stop them being used.
10) In Alabama, brass knuckles are only illegal if they’re being carried in a concealed manner. “You must obtain a permit to carry a concealed weapon,” reports WorldPopulationReview.com. “Failing to adhere to this law can result in a misdemeanor.” Similar laws exist in Arizona, Connecticut, Florida and Delaware, where it’s only illegal to carry brass knuckles if the person doesn’t have a permit to do so. In Hawaii, brass knuckles cannot be carried, but they’re legal to sell and possess.
11) In most U.S. states, brass knuckles are illegal to buy, sell or carry, however as of September 2019, the state of Texas legalized the possession of brass knuckles without a permit for self-defense purposes. Drake tells me that, based on what he’s seen from the governor of Texas, “that law wasn’t formed because people wanted to have the use of brass knuckles, necessarily.” Instead, he points to a type of keychain known as the “Wild Kat keychain,” a device made of cheap metal and designed in the shape of a cat’s face.
The weapon is used by sliding your fingers through the cat’s eye holes in a similar manner to brass knuckles, so that the sharp, cat-shaped ears act as a highly unpleasant deterrent. “What ended up happening is a girl got pulled over by the cops,” says Drake. “The cop saw that on her key chain and arrested her because back then, although you could buy them at gas stations, you could take them home, but you weren’t supposed to have them on your person. But most people didn’t know that. So what was happening was, people were getting prosecuted, not knowing that those things were illegal. And the governor said, ‘That’s completely ridiculous.’ It wasn’t because people were lobbying to use brass knuckles.”
Per the Texas Tribune, in 2019, Democratic State Rep. Joe Moody filed legislation “lifting what he called an ‘antiquated’ ban on brass knuckles last session, which the governor signed in May .” “The key chain — with pointy blades for ears — could have cost Kyli Phillips, who was 21 and living in Dallas at the time, $4,000 in fines and a year of jail time if she had been convicted of the misdemeanor.”
Craig Dameron, a criminal defense lawyer in Texas, tells me that there’s more to the brass knuckles story than the Phillips case, however. “It may be part of the underlining of it,” he says. “Or they thought they’d just update the law where people could have more weapons. People have this fascination with the Second Amendment. And I think partly, from my experience of it, is that it’s an amendment you can actually touch. You can go buy the gun or the brass knuckles and possess it. It has a lot of power.”
12) In 2012, in an actual case of mistaken brass knuckles, rapper 2 Chainz was arrested at New York’s LaGuardia Airport for carrying an alleged set of knucks. “Fellow hip-hop artists Big Sean and DJ Drama rushed to 2 Chainz’s defense on Twitter, saying that the offending item was not a set of brass knuckles but rather a four-finger ring, a staple hip-hop accessory since the days of Slick Rick and Big Daddy Kane in the 1980s,” reported the L.A. Times. “Big Sean said the ring spelled ‘hood’ and added, ‘We had a shoot [sic] yesturday n he was rockin em,’ while DJ Drama posted a photo of 2 Chainz wearing the alleged ring and introduced a “#free2chainz” hashtag.”
13) Brass knuckles can fuck you up in more ways than one. Perhaps to capitalize on their cultural relevance, rappers Dr. Dre and Xzibit named their weed cartridge company after the metal weapon. By 2018, “Brass Knuckles” cartridges was estimated to be worth $170 million. But according to InternationalHighLife.com, while the THC oil in Brass Knuckles cartridges was said to be more potent than any other cannabis cartridge, it was also later found to be poisonous. “Unfortunately, Brass Knuckles is having a lot of controversy with its brand,” they report. “Independent lab test revealed high amounts of pesticides which caused a lot of damage to the public image of the Brass Knuckles brand.”
14) The symbolic nature of brass knuckles isn’t relegated to their presence in hip hop culture: Arguably, the most fervent purveyor of the brass knuckle is the pro wrestling heel. Many villains of the squared circle have pulled the weapon from their tights when the ref’s back is turned, but few with as much panache as William Regal, who “brought back the use of a classic foreign object to go with his old-school burgundy tights and catch-as-catch-can style,” states WhatCulture.com. “Destined for greater things in the WWE than he ultimately achieved, Regal’s effectiveness as a heel is still fondly looked back upon today. He masterfully enraged fans with his flagrant use of brass knuckles, often looking in surprised wonder at his own bare fist after disposing of the evidence.”
But even before Regal established his reputation, there was the inception of the WCWA Brass Knuckles Championship, established by the National Wrestling Alliance. The eponymously named championship series, which was created for “Wild Bull” Curry — the famed originator of hardcore style wrestling, known for having no rules or disqualifications — featured wrestlers like Curry and “Classy” Freddie Blassie, who used actual brass knuckles as well as ladders, tables and even hammers during matches that were held in a cage. The weapon is such a feature of the sport that, although they would never reach the prominence of the steel chair, in 2011, Bleacher Report went as far as to rank brass knuckles as the fourth-best illegal weapon ever used in wrestling.
15) Ironically, most brass knuckles these days aren’t even made of brass. “Often made in factories in Pakistan or China, brass knuckles typically are constructed out of aluminum or steel,” reports Weapons-Universe.com. “Chrome or brass paint, or whatever color is then applied. Truly brass brass knuckles are rare due to the weight and expense of brass, which can range up to $80 + for one pair!”
16) The same site carries a variety of brass knuckle-adjacent weapons as well. “Common varieties are spiked knuckles, ‘fat boys’ [thicker brass knuckles], ‘wedding rings’ [brass knuckles shaped like a series of wedding rings], brass knuckles donned with a longhorn steer on the knuckles, brass knuckles with lions or skulls on the knuckles, etc.,” per Weapons-Universe.com. “Spiked knuckles are seen to be of the most vicious variety of brass knuckles as they not only can shatter bone into fragments but will shred tissue.”
17) In 2006, Local 6 News reported that agents in Florida confiscated 14,000 packages of brass knuckles disguised as belt buckles in packaging labeled “Unique Cutlery, Inc.,” which was coming from Pakistan and China. “Half of the shipment of 14,000 brass knuckles confiscated by Customs and Border Protection at a Florida port was apparently headed to a store in Central Florida,” the station reported.
Because of course, a list of somewhat janky illegal weaponry wouldn’t be complete without at least one Florida-related episode.