A knife is a ceremonial thing. A storied blade can be potentially handed down generation to generation. There is reverence in owning a knife.
And the first time you unpack a knife should feel no different. Lisa and Claire Pelton, the twin daughters of DPx Gear founder Robert Young Pelton, understand the ceremony of knives as much as they understand the function of them.
“Some companies toss a knife in some bubble-wrapped envelope, mail it to you, and that’s it,” Lisa says. “But where’s the respect in that?” Every DPx knife is packaged with care, a small yet significant “thank you” to the growing number of loyalists shooting unboxing videos on YouTube.
Headquartered in an early 1900s fishing village on the old San Diego waterfront, DPx Gear pursues utility, unique design, and the sacred properties of a reliable blade. In this antique house, where once Italian-Americans packed and shipped fresh-caught fish, DPx employees now pack and ship finely hewn Italian and American steel.
The house is littered with artifacts and souvenirs from Pelton’s many adventures. Animal skulls, weapons, shell casings of varying caliber adorn the facility, and the walls are covered in photographs and military unit patches and regalia.
The relics tell the story of Robert Young Pelton, a man for whom the term “adventurer” aggressively applies. An author, documentary filmmaker, and conflict-zone reporter, he’s a friend of the US and allied militaries, and the enemy of probably a few despots. He’s traveled to the kinds of hotspots where the metal meets the meat—Afghanistan, Chechnya, Colombia, and Somalia to name a few. Wherever he went, he found the need for reliable equipment, and was inspired to design his very first knife, the HEST, or Hostile Environment Survival Tool. As the author of “The World’s Most Dangerous Places, “The Adventurist” and “Licensed to Kill” the de facto bible on mercenaries and private security contractors, Pelton knows what men at the tip of the spear need in dangerous places.
So in 2008, the American-made DPx HEST fixed blade established a reputation as an essential survival tool and viable replacement for unreliable standard issue knives. Robert commercialized the blade, founded a company, and called it Dangerous Places in Extremis, or DPx.
The HIT Cutter is a particularly unique DPx creation.
“I develop knives based on what people need in the field. I test them in conflict zones, refine them, do a limited run, and then refine them again,” Robert said. The results of this constant refinement are splendidly apparent in DPx’s warehouse. On the shelves, accompanying RYP’s artifacts and trinkets, are of course rows and rows of knives. Inventive prototypes, 3D printed molds of tested designs, and rows of similar blades which tell a knife’s history from the first “what if we did this” idea to the final production model, like an evolutionary chart.
There’s even a “Bin of Shame” filled with cheap Chinese knockoffs that Lisa and Claire hunted down on the internet. “It’s sort of flattering, in a way,” says Claire. “For someone on the other side of the world to admire our knives that much, who feels that motivated to do a cash grab by making a P.O.S. replica of a patented product.”
It’s worth remembering that Robert didn’t come into the industry with much knowledge of knives. And in a way, having a non-knife background gave him the opportunity to come up with uses no one ever thought of before. Wire strippers on the Hostile Environment Field Tool’s jimping, or the hex-wrench included in the HEST/F folder are examples of the kind of all-purpose thinking that goes into a design. There’s also the “self-sheathing” HIT Cutter, an ergonomically minded tool that resists the definition of “knife,” and has a blade guard and carabiner on it, looking more like an item you’d find on a rock climber’s belt.
“We listen to what these guys wanted,” Lisa says. “My dad met a lot of soldiers out in the field, and he found out what they wanted and he decided to bring them that.” Pelton’s effort to provide a non-nonsense, utilitarian blade for field use mirrors his effort to start and finance “ground network” news sites in conflict zones, which aimed to bring truth directly to readers and bypass media bias. The DPx approach to products is similar, pushing past the shortcuts of big conglomerates and delivering a knife that boasts integrity.
The first HEST production model still holds its edge after nearly 10 years.
A growing favorite is the HEFT 6 Razorback, with a serrated top spine and a lethal 6-inch spearpoint blade. While this fixed blade makes no apologies for its true purpose of dealing damage, it still features the multi-function uses found in DPx designs, like a wire stripper, striker pommel with prybar, and the included Cordura sheath with kydex insert. The handle even includes a concealed storage department under the American G10 grip.
This goal of producing knives that do far more than just slice and dice has totally paid off. Among the Navy Special Warfare community in nearby Coronado, the brand has grown in reputation among operators and professionals.
“SEALs have been buying DPx because they say their standard-issue knives break or don’t hold their edges,” Claire says. “This just makes us work even harder. We’re talking about guys who rely on their equipment to save their lives, after all.” From there, word of mouth caught on until Robert, Lisa, and Claire started to notice guys wearing Mr. DP patches on their plate carriers. One U.S. Army Special Forces ODA has been proudly wearing Pelton’s “Mr. DP” mascot since he was in combat with them in late 2001 as they fought on horseback in the mountains of Afghanistan. Bars from Djibouti to Kabul also sport the laughing skull.
“Making and selling knives is like asking people to be part of your club,” Claire says. “If we treated people poorly, they wouldn’t want to be part of our club. We want our knives to last you a lifetime. We want your knife to be an heirloom.”
This honest approach to manufacturing and business lends an overall inviting quality to the DPx brand. They continue to forge ahead, building new and better knives for a growing number of customers. A wall is littered with print-outs, sketches, photographs, and diagrams of new and inventive things to try on future projects.
Stop by their house on Kettner Road one of these days if you’re ever in the Little Italy area and want to know a few things about deadly steel and honest business. You’ll probably get greeted by a Belgian Malinois named Nitro, a former police dog. But don’t be scared; he’s not as intimidating as the 12.5-inch machete-type HEFT Chop, which is coming soon.
Special thanks to Lisa, Claire, and Robert for the visit to DPx Gear HQ.
Photos by Mark Lagrisola.