While the most recent pocket knife innovations have introduced new shapes and materials to one of our oldest tools, the archetypal design hasn't drastically changed. It's why Opinel's wood-handled folder remains one of the best affordable knives available a century after its inception and why new brands revive old patterns like the friction folder.
New types of knives do exist, though, and one to have on your radar is the integral.
Perhaps somewhat curiously, integral knives are characterized more by their handle than their blade. While most folding pocket knife handles consist of two scales secured together and just far enough apart to make a channel for the blade to rest in, integral handles are more or less one piece. There's no backspacer because there aren't two handle scales, and other hardware is limited too. The result is a sleek, uncluttered knife with fewer parts.
"Fewer parts equals less maintenance and lifelong durability," says The James Brand's Ryan Coulter. Part of the company's purpose is to bring a modern, minimal and aesthetically concerned perspective to pocket knives and EDC, so it makes sense that its latest release is an integral called The Barnes.
As an integral knife, The Barnes's handle is milled from a single piece of titanium, features a frame lock that includes a steel insert for longevity and includes a lanyard-equipped pocket clip. Made of Bohler M390 steel, which is commonly referred to as a "super steel," its 3.5-inch drop-point blade is no slouch either.
Coulter says that The Barnes has been a two-year project for The James Brand due to the difficulty of making an integral knife at scale. The handle begins as a block of pure titanium about the size of a checkbook box and takes form through a lengthy (not to mention exacting and expensive) process of five-axis milling. It's not dissimilar to how Apple makes the bodies of its Macbook Pros.
Few knife companies make integrals precisely because they're so difficult and expensive to produce (Spyderco's Paysan and Benchmade's Anthem are two other examples). The history of integral knives is hazy, but it's generally agreed upon that the design comes from the custom knifemaker world, not mass production. Coulter explains that it was partly about demonstrating the mastery of their craft and their skill at machining. "It started out as an exercise in 'Can we pull this off?'" he says.
It should go without saying, then, that if you're interested in acquiring an integral, prepare to shell out for one. Think of it along the same lines as the aforementioned Macbook Pro or a high-end road bike. Custom ones can go for thousands; The Barnes is $599 (and it comes in equally thoughtful packaging with a lanyard and custom coin for warding off age-old knife gifting superstitions).