Indefinitely Wild

Robert Young Pelton on All the Ways You Can Actually Use a Pocket Knife

The legendary adventurer breaks down blade skills

For many of us, a knife is an essential we carry everywhere we can. But why? The knife you see here, and throughout the article, is a DPx HEST/F. (Robert Young Pelton)
Photo: Robert Young Pelton

What’s the point of carrying a knife? It’s a question so simple that most of us knife guys actually struggle to answer it. Why should you put one in your pocket? Why should pocket knives be legal? What makes them so essential? I asked the surliest Canadian I know—former lumberjack, current war reporter, and knife designer Robert Young Pelton—for answers. 

“What if there is a car accident and I have to break open a window?” he responded. “What if I have to lever something open? What if I have to do an emergency tracheotomy? Having a knife opens an entire universe of things you can do that you can’t do without a knife.”

In 2014, Pelton (here with baby antelope) visited the conflict in South Sudan, hunting down the rebels to create an entire issue of Vice Magazine, and a documentary. (Robert Young Pelton)

Pelton is not a normal person. (Don't believe me? Listen to his episode of the Outside Interview podcast.) He talks about third-world kidnappings like you and I reminisce about rainy days at the beach. He has cute nicknames (Heavy D) for some of the world’s most notorious warlords. He literally wrote the book on visiting the world’s most dangerous places and having fun while doing it. He just spent Christmas in Afghanistan because he found a last-minute deal on a flight and thought it’d be nice to visit old friends. 

In 2010 he decided that most knives were being designed poorly and that he could do it better. So he launched his own knife company, DPx Gear, whose knives are some of the toughest ever made. I figure he’s used a knife a few times, and is qualified to speak to their abilities. Here are all the things he's learned while relying on them in the field. 

Planning to use a knife for self defense? "The idea is that you run away, not sit there and play Rambo with the guy,"says Pelton. (Wes Siler)

A Knife Blade Makes a Terrible Weapon  

“If you get into a knife fight, you are an idiot,” Pelton begins. “Everybody practices how to disarm somebody with a knife. It’s actually very easy to do. If you pull out your knife in a bar fight and try to stab someone, all you’re doing is handing the guy about to beat you up a free knife.”

But a pocket knife can be a valuable self defense tool—if you leave the blade closed. 

“A knife is a lethal object, but it doesn’t have to be used as one,” he says. “Non-lethality is important, because you don’t want to go to jail for the rest of your life in a foreign country, or even this one, for doing something with a blade. A knife handle should inherently be an ergonomic tool that you can hammer things with. You can use it to pummel the shit out of people.”

A while ago, Pelton related a story to me about a customer of his who was thrown into the back of a car in Afghanistan by two large men. He was able to pull out his knife, wail on his assailants with its handle, and they were subdued enough that the guy got the door open, and hurled himself out it. He was banged up from tumbling down a highway, sure, but at least he wasn’t beheaded on video tape. 

A knife will give you more leverage, more reach, and quicker access than whipping out a credit card ever will. (Wes Siler)

A Knife Can Be Used as an Entry Tool

“Older doors, as you know, have a bolt that is beveled on one side, and you can push anything from a credit card to a knife into it, forcing it open,” Pelton says. A knife isn’t going to pick a lock with the artful stealth of a proper lockpick, but in a pinch, it’ll get you into most vehicles and buildings. That can be invaluable following a life threatening car crash, or just help you get back inside your apartment if you've locked yourself out. 

In addition to jimmying that door lock, Pelton suggests using the handle as a hammer to pound the pins out of door hinges or to smash windows, so you can reach through and unlock them. He includes a carbide glass breaker on the pommel of his knives for that exact purpose. 

But you need to be careful if you’re breaking glass with your knife handle. “A lot of people think they’re just going to grab their knife and hammer the glass,” he says. “Well, if you do that, you’re going to slice your wrist open and die. All you need is a pressure tap. And sometimes it’s better to hit your knife with something else, so you don’t have your hand flying through a glass door. Try to use a minimal amount of force.”

You aren’t going to be able to use a knife to jimmy the lock on a car door, but you can use one to pry that door open far enough that you can insert something with more leverage into the gap. A piece of wood, or even a street sign pole will help you there. 

Of course, do to that, you’d better have a well-made knife. 

By using the knife as an adze, you can chop through large pieces of wood, or even split logs to make firewood. If you're going to use your folder to do this, Pelton suggests unlocking the blade, so the huge forces of hammering on it don't wear down, or break, the locking mechanism. (Wes Siler)

And to Chop Down a Tree

“Back when I was cutting down trees, I remember one day I was admiring this 60- to 80-foot fir, and I made the mistake of not putting enough angle on the first cut,” Pelton says, of his time as a lumberjack. “I got halfway into this tree and it just sat down on my chainsaw. This was in the Yukon, so I couldn’t just call somebody if I screwed up. Here I was, about four miles from camp, with this tree sitting on my chainsaw, and I had to figure out a way to get it off. Well, I had an old Buck General on me, so I cut down the whole tree using that knife and a baton. It took me all day.”

Pelton’s describing a technique where you place a knife against something you want to cut through, then pound the back of it with a large piece of wood, called a baton. This increases a knife’s cutting power, allowing you to split logs that would initially seem far too big for something that fits in your pocket to handle. 

Many outdoorsmen will already be familiar with batoning and have likely employed it with their fixed blades to process firewood in camp. But batoning is typically considered too abusive for a folding pocket knife. Pelton has a solution. “The trick with a folder is to disengage the lock, so you’re not hammering the locking device.” Allow the blade to pivot in the handle, without locking it open, and just use the handle to keep the blade properly oriented. Used that way, you won’t damage the knife’s locking mechanism. 

A Knife Should Be Strong

“I used to do my sales presentations by taking a Benchmade Griptilian, putting it on the end of a table, and hitting it with my heel,” describes Pelton. “It’d break into five or six pieces. Don’t buy things that can break. Buy things made out of solid materials, like G10, or titanium.”

If you’re going to rely on your knife, you need a knife that doesn’t break. If you have a knife that doesn’t break, you can do more stuff with that knife. Most of the stuff described in this article necessitates such a knife.

It's way, way easier to sharpen your knife lightly and regularly than it is to return a dull knife to sharpness. This Spyderco Sharpmaker, is my favorite sharpening tool. (Wes Siler)

It Should Be Sharp

“The trick with sharpening is to lightly sharpen your knife on a continual basis,” says Pelton. “Don’t wait a week, grind the shit out of it, then wonder why it’s not working.”

He suggests you take a cue from butchers. “Hit the knife before you start working, then again every hour or so, so the blade doesn’t turn dull.”

And avoid the grinding wheel in your shop and the man who sharpens scissors and kitchen knives at the farmer’s market. The heat generated by the high speed friction of those can potentially ruin the temper of your expensive pocket knife, which are made using harder metals and more particular heat treatments. 

By creating an acute angle between the handle and the blade, you can shear through sheets of paper and other materials. Your blade must be kept razor sharp to do this though. (Wes Siler)

It Doesn’t Actually Have to Be a Knife

It can be an adze, a spear, a trap, a set of shears, or even a bench-based production tool—if you know how to use it. 

“If you hold the blade open slightly, you can use it to cut large section of fabric, leather, or whatever,” says Pelton. Take a folding knife, open the blade half an inch or so, and you can slice straight lines through large swaths of whatever material you want to cut, just like you would with a set of shears. 

“Lashing points on your blade allow you to tie it to something,” Pelton says. He suggests lashing the blade to a pole to, say, cut coconuts out of trees. You can also turn it into a spear or tie it to a log at 90 degrees to make a deadfall trap, handy for harvesting small game. Pelton’s folding knives include an opener notch on the blade and a hex bit holder on the pommel; both double as lashing points. 

“In Asia, when you watch them process fish, they don’t hold the knife in their hands. They tie it to a wooden block or stone [edge up, point toward you],” Pelton says. “This turns the knife into a production tool.” Used like this, your little pocket knife can process large amounts of whatever material you’re cutting or slicing very efficiently. Cut cord, clean fish, trim building materials. Whatever you need to cut, your knife can handle it. 

Pelton designs his knives to stand up to a lifetime of hard use. When he travels, he often carries several, and uses them to barter, and repay favors. (Tim Freccia)

A Knife Will Cut You

“The good thing about making knives is you don’t have to put a warning on the box,” says Pelton, half joking. “If it cuts you, it’s doing its job just fine.”

“When you do have a knife cut, the important thing is to flush it out, hold it tightly closed, then get some super glue on it,” he continues. “That’ll hold the skin flaps together. Elevate the wound higher than your heart to stop the bleeding and, nine times out of ten, it’ll heal just fine.”

It Might Be Illegal

“I can walk down the street with a chainsaw pretty much anywhere, but some places I can’t carry a knife,” Pelton says. “Unfortunately a knife is viewed as a weapon. Do a little research on what’s permissible to carry and use where you live, or where you’re traveling.”

“That’s sad. Everyone should carry a knife.”

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