The historical drama series Peaky Blinders is named for a fearsome Birmingham street gang armed with razor blades sewn into the rims of their flat “peaky” caps. But did that really happen? And even if it did – would a razor blade cap actually work as a weapon in hand-to-hand combat?
The series takes some liberties with history; for example, whereas the Peaky Blinders were a real Birmingham gang, their heyday had been during the late 19th century rather than during the post-WW1 period. Also, as noted by Birmingham historian Professor Carl Chinn, the historical record seems to make no reference to Peaky Blinder gangsters using razor blade cap weapons:
The hooligan gangs active in 1890s Birmingham were infamous for wielding steel-capped boots, stones and sometimes knives; they also used heavy belt buckles as flails and kept their pockets full of iron bolts to be thrown as projectile weapons. Straight-razors (rather than razor caps) were used as weapons by street gangsters in cities as far-flung as Glasgow, Sydney and Sao Paolo during the early decades of the 20th century.
The first documented reference to razor blade caps, however, actually appears to have been in a popular novel written by Birmingham author John Douglas in 1977.
In A Walk Down Summer Lane, which is set between the two World Wars, Douglas describes the bills of the gangsters’ “peaky” caps as being “slit open and pennies or razor-blades or pieces of slate inserted and stitched up again.” In close combat, according to Douglas, the cap would be “whipped off the head and swiped across the opponent’s eyes, momentarily blinding them, or slashing the cheeks.”
Douglas also refers to this nasty street-fighting trick in his poem, The Legend of Summer Lane:
I was born in Newtown Row – down Summer Lane we dursen’t go,
To show our face because, you know, they’re always fighting drunk, lad.
They’d shop their gran for two and six, or blind your eyes with brutal flicks,
Of ‘peaky blinders’ – just for kicks – but only just in fun, lad.
Douglas may have been referring to a bit of real Birmingham history that went unreported at the time the Peaky Blinders were most active, or simply repeating a colourful local urban legend. It’s also possible that he invented an improvised weapon out of whole cloth, as it were, for storytelling purposes. However, A Walk Down Summer Lane undoubtedly spread the folklore of the razor cap, especially when it was serialised in the Evening Mail newspaper during the late 1970s.
But would it work as a weapon?
Regardless of its historicity, is a cap with razor blades sewn into the rim a plausible weapon in hand to hand combat, as described by John Douglas and as shown in the Peaky Blinders TV series? What sort of damage could it do?
We stitched two relatively heavy antique razor blades into the brim of a tweed flat cap and set about testing the weapon. Our first observation was that, in order for the blades to be sufficiently exposed to serve as weapons, they have to be stitched so as to project at a particular, dynamic angle relative to the cap brim. While the razors might not be noticeable at a distance they are quite obvious (and potentially intimidating) at close range.
Gripped by the rear of the cap and swung with force, the blades consistently slashed cleanly through braced sheets of 1/4″ cardboard, leaving 3″ long cuts. Covering the cardboard targets with light cotton fabric reduced the depth and length of penetration and heavier fabric reduced it to negligible levels, so exposed-skin targets such as the face and hands are the most plausible.
Although the Peaky Blinders series often shows a single slashing attack with the cap dealing several parallel wounds simultaneously, our experiments suggest that to be impossible if the razors are all stitched into the cap brim in parallel.
Our conclusions are that the razor blade cap could plausibly be used as a weapon in surprise attacks, albeit not an especially effective weapon when compared to knives or straight razors. It is, however, unquestionably potent in works of dramatic fiction.