The branchial arches are meristic vertebrate structures, being metameric both between each other within the rostrocaudal series along the ventrocephalic surface of the embryonic head and within each individual arch: thus, just as each branchial arch must acquire a unique identity along the rostrocaudal axis, each structure within the proximodistal axis of an arch must also acquire a unique identity. It is believed that regional specification of metameric structures is controlled by the nested expression of related genes resulting in a regional code, a principal that is though to be demonstrated by the regulation of rostrocaudal axis development in animals exerted by the nested HOM-C/Hox homeobox genes. The nested expression pattern of the Dlx genes within the murine branchial arch ectomesenchyme has more recently led to the proposal of a Dlx code for the regional specification along the proximodistal axis of the branchial arches (i.e. it establishes intra-arch identity). This review re-examines this hypothesis, and presents new work on an allelic series of Dlx loss-of-function mouse mutants that includes various combinations of Dlx1, Dlx2, Dlx3, Dlx5 and Dlx6. Although we confirm fundamental aspects of the hypothesis, we further report a number of novel findings. First, contrary to initial reports, Dlx1, Dlx2 and Dlx1/2 heterozygotes exhibit alterations of branchial arch structures and Dlx2–/– and Dlx1/2–/– mutants have slight alterations of structures derived from the distal portions of their branchial arches. Second, we present evidence for a role for murine Dlx3 in the development of the branchial arches. Third, analysis of compound Dlx mutants reveals four grades of mandibular arch transformations and that the genetic interactions of cis first-order (e.g. Dlx5 and Dlx6), trans second-order (e.g. Dlx5 and Dlx2) and trans third-order paralogues (e.g. Dlx5 and Dlx1) result in significant and distinct morphological differences in mandibular arch development. We conclude by integrating functions of the Dlx genes within the context of a hypothesized general mechanism for the establishment of pattern and polarity in the first branchial arch of gnathostomes that includes regionally secreted growth factors such as Fgf8 and Bmp and other transcription factors such as Msx1, and is consistent both with the structure of the conserved gnathostome jaw bauplan and the elaboration of this bauplan to meet organismal end-point designs.