This story is part of our end-of-year series This Year in Gear rounding up the most notable releases of 2020. For more stories like this, click here.
If, when you think pocket knife, you imagine an implement with a silvery steel blade and a black handle, a look back at the best knives that came out in 2020 will have you redrawing that mental picture. There are knives like that, sure, but there are also knives with gold blades and knives with kaleidoscopic handles. There are super steels and mammoth teeth. It's this stock of blades, the ones that brought color, size, shape and material to bear in previously unimaginable ways, that demonstrate that pocket knives are better made — and better looking — than ever.
The Norwegian knifemaker Helle is best known for its fixed blade bushcrafting knives, which made the release of the EDC-oriented Kletten a bit of a surprise. With a 2.1-inch blade, it's the company's smallest folding knife, but it maintains a few of its siblings' traits, including a triple-laminated steel blade and a curly birch handle.
The blade's movement typically prevents the integration of paracord into a folding knife's handle, which is why most paracord knives are fixed. TJ Schwarz designed his way around that problem with a unique handle that accommodates a zig-zag weave, making the Parascale the first of its kind.
Gerber Armbar Drive
If you want a knife-first multi-tool without excess functions, the Armbar is it. It comes with a 2.5-inch frame lock blade, scissors, a bottle opener and a few more implements in a form that fits nicely in a pocket. There's a version that swaps the screwdriver for a wine opener for those more interested in drink than DIY.
The James Brand x Elyse Graham Duval
One of the cooler collaborations of 2020 was between The James Brand and Elyse Graham, an artist who used colored resin to create a set of poppy scales for the front-flipping Duval. Sadly, it's long since sold out.
Quiet Carry Waypoint
The Waypoint is straightforward in appearance but perfect in execution. It's a sleek and versatile everyday folder with a blade made of Vanax SuperClean, a type that exhibits the high corrosion resistance, toughness and edge retention characteristic of a "super steel."
It seems surprising that this little utility knife got its start on Kickstarter until you learn that the designers behind it are a group of aerospace engineers who design aircraft prototypes. No wonder it's so elegantly simple, combining high-grade titanium and aluminum-bronze alloy with the replaceable blades you can buy at a hardware store.
Benchmade looked at the knives used by Scandinavia's indigenous Sámi people for inspiration to create the Leuku, a survival-oriented fixed blade. Keen eyes might notice its similarities with the Puuko — both use the same high-grade materials, but the Leuku's blade is a much longer 5.19 inches.
Buck Knives 112 Ranger Drop Point
If you're looking for an American pocket knife exemplar, Buck's 112 Ranger wouldn't be a wrong choice. The company created it over 50 years ago to meet Navy regulations of the time, but this is the first version featuring a drop-point blade.
SOG Ultra XR
This year, SOG dressed up its ultralight money clip-slash-pocket knife with a gold blade and pocket clip. It'd be gaudy if it weren't so damn slick.
How can you not love a tiny folding pocket knife that takes the form of a small dog? This pooch isn't all bark, though — Spyderco made it with premium blade steel and a titanium handle.
Drop + Quiet Carry iQ
Quiet Carry's iQ was an impressive EDC folder even before Drop got involved and added knurled titanium scales. Unfortunately, the collab blade is sold out; here's hoping the two join forces again next year.
Opinel 130th Anniversary No.8
The iconic French No.8 pocket knife dressed up for its 130th birthday in a black blade and illustrated handle featuring symbols that hearken back to its roots in France's mountains.
Victorinox Swiss Army Spartan Onyx Black
The Swiss Army Knife needs no introduction, and Victorinox's Onyx Collection speaks for itself. The standout in the set is the Spartan, which features two blades, a bottle opener, corkscrew, toothpick and more.
Benchmade Bugout Custom
Benchmade imagined the Bugout as a backpacker's knife. Hence the reliable yet lightweight materials that make it durable despite weighing less than two ounces. Now you have the option to personalize it from blade to bolts — supposedly, there are over 400,000 combinations.
Civivi Mini Mastodon
Scaled-down cleavers continued to appear in 2020, and Civivi's Mini Mastodon is the best of the new bunch. It's almost an oxymoron with a blade under three inches, but it's also ideal for regular use with features like a lanyard hole and reversible pocket clip.
The James Brand Hells Canyon
The James Brand's biggest release of the year is its biggest knife yet, the Hells Canyon. The company teamed up with chef Chris Cosentino to dial in the details of a fixed blade meant for meal prep. Those include a 5.4-inch blade made of Crucible S35VN steel and a G10 handle that leaves room between hand and cutting board.
Gerber rolled out its Reserve Collection, which features high-end American-made knives, in late 2020. The Sedulo is the second and latest entry; it's a folder built on an increasingly popular pivot lock system made with S30V steel.
VSSL x Kay Foye
One of the year's coolest knife releases is also one of the most limited and expensive. VSSL, a company that makes a unique line of cylinder-based camping gear, commissioned Kay Foye to modify 30 Buck 110 folders with her artisanal handle scales. She used precious materials like mammoth tooth, jasper and blue oak to do it. That's why each one goes for $600, 10 percent of which goes to an organization that helps find employment for youth with special needs.