My book Bowie Knife Fights, Fighters, and Fighting Techniques is available from Paladin Press. This blog contains additional information about the bowie knife, as well as the fighting knives of other nations.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Bowie Knife Maker: Jimmy Lile

The gun store I used to frequent in the 1970s carried a small selection of custom knives. I had not given much thought to buying one, but one day I spotted a "chute knife" on display and it was a case of lust at first sight. It was nearly $200, so I had my wife buy it for my birthday. Every line and proportion of this knife, as well as its workmanship, struck me as perfect. It was made by Jimmy Lile, and the store owner assured me that he was a highly respected knife maker.

The following article about Lile was published in the Jefferson City Post-Tribune on June 29, 1978. Lile was already renowned among knife enthusiasts, but he rocketed to true celebrity as the designer of the knives for First Blood (1982) and Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985).

Jimmy Lile with Sylvester Stallone, posing with "Rambo" knife

RUSSELLVILLE, Ark. (AP) - Knife-making,  which evokes images of burly artisans sweating over backwoods forges, seems to fit Jimmy Lile, a white-haired, affable man with work-scarred hands.  
Aided by two assistants in a shop just off his Russellville, Ark., kitchen, Lile, 44, earns a comfortable living and has achieved worldwide fame from what once was a hobby.
Owners of Jimmy Lile knives include King Carl Gustav of Sweden and former President Richard Nixon. Two Lile creations -- a Bowie knife and an Arkansas "toothpick," a long fighting knife, share a spot among the U.S. Bicentennial memorabilia.

The knife blades are ground in the Lile workshop from long slender bars of a metal known as D2, which is mostly iron and chromium, with some carbon and molybdenum. After being heat-treated in an electric furnace, the blades are sharpened to a fine edge on hard Arkansas and Ouachita oilstone, stone so hard that diamond saws are used to cut it.

Lile fashions the knife handles out of ivory taken from elephant tusks, Indian stag antler, wood and German silver. Then come the frills: exquisitely carved tigers, quail and folio-like etchings of old-time hunting scenes.

His most recent innovation is a pocketknife that locks open and shut with a muted click. He's trying to patent it. A pocketknife with two blades that lock open and shut will be introduced in two years, he says.

Much of Lile's work is made-to-order; some he sells at handicraft shows.

Lile's cutlery sells for up to $5,500, and it can be found displayed in the showcases of nobility, concealed in the boots of law enforcement officers and airline pilots and dangling from the belts of hunters. Nixon was given a Lile Bowie knife by the late Sen. John McClellan, D-Ark., to commemorate the completion of the Arkansas River Navigation System, a project that opened up Arkansas and Oklahoma to heavy shipping.

A friend of King Carl Gustav ordered a pearl-handled pocketknife for the Swedish sovereign.  
But Lile isn't one to rest on his laurels. Out of the shop off the Lile kitchen come up to 500 knives a year. "I call it a family operation. I try to keep it small and efficient," Lile says. He says that's why he is successful.

It wasn't always that way, though. Until eight years ago, when he became a full-time knife-maker, Lile was a teacher, coach, general contractor and construction superintendent. He made knives during his spare time in those years. Some of those times were lean, like the time he went broke as a general contractor.

"Instead of filing for bankruptcy, I paid it all back with interest -- $164,000," he says. And he paid off his debts in the same way he financed his college education -- by making knives. His determination to repay his debts endeared him to the banks. When he needed a loan to start his knife- making venture, he had little trouble getting it. "They knew that if they kept me alive, I'd pay them back," Lile said.
 Lile designed this knife for Rambo III. Below the knife is the wooden prototype. Stallone rejected the design, ending their relationship.

Stallone selected this bowie knife designed by Gil Hibben for Rambo III.

4 comments:

  1. I would have Loved to of met Jimmy Lile! I am a HUGE First Blood/ Rambo fan, and I have loved knives all of my life! When I was a kid, we were so poor that all I could afford to buy were those Pakistan imitation Buck pocket knives, which would break at slightest use and would Never get sharp. Now however , as an adult I have been so greatly blessed to Finally own some high quality beautiful handmade survival knives. They might not be made bu the late great Jimmy Lile, but they are still made exceptionally well with the extreme highest quality a handmade survival knife could ever have. And they are also beautiful and my treasures where knives are concerned! Maybe one day I will be able to buy and own a Next Generation Lile Rambo knife, but even if not, I will love and cherish and be proud of the awesome handmade knives that I do own! Thanks for reading!

    ReplyDelete
  2. Update to Above: I have wonderful news folks. I don't know why God did but He Blessed me royally. I ordered a very high quality handmadeMartin MCE II survival knife by Martin Knives. I also ordered a high end handmade First Blood knife made by the Incredible Canadian knife maker Ray Matton. Both knives have now been made now, and delivered to me with my Matton Edge knife being the latest on.

    I am also waiting for 2 more handmade knives that are being made by very high quality up-and-commer Sam Wilson. One is almost done and should be on its way to me this week. The 2nd one is a biiiiiig secret and surprise knife design that Sam and I both came up with and is going to take the knife world by storm!!! But mum Is the word until it is completed. It is going to be the Prototype and also the #1 and I will be getting it. Just wait til this knife is unveiled!!! A very big surprise and showstopper Sam Wilson knife is On Its Way!!!!

    ReplyDelete
  3. Well it has been a while since my post above. So first thing's first:

    I am no longer affiliated with Sam Wilson aka Wilson Custom Knives. Nor do I endorse any knives made by Sam Wilson. If you wish to do business with this guy, Do It At Your Own Risk is all I can say.

    I recently had the very first ever All One Piece Rambo knife made. The blade, handle, and guard are all one piece. It has the Split serrations as well. The grinds are different than the movie knives of First Blood, but the concept is still the same. Made with solid D2 steel, razor sharp and with a thicker pry bar-like tip!!

    I had it stamped with an honor that reads:

    "IN HONOR OF US MILITARY POWS and MIAs LEFT IN VIETNAM"

    This is something that I've wanted to do for a very long time! I finally found the Right knifemaker for the job!! And an excellent job, he did!!!

    ReplyDelete
  4. Well it has been a while since my post above. So first thing's first:

    I am no longer affiliated with Sam Wilson aka Wilson Custom Knives. Nor do I endorse any knives made by Sam Wilson. If you wish to do business with this guy, Do It At Your Own Risk is all I can say.

    I recently had the very first ever All One Piece Rambo knife made. The blade, handle, and guard are all one piece. It has the Split serrations as well. The grinds are different than the movie knives of First Blood, but the concept is still the same. Made with solid D2 steel, razor sharp and with a thicker pry bar-like tip!!

    I had it stamped with an honor that reads:

    "IN HONOR OF US MILITARY POWS and MIAs LEFT IN VIETNAM"

    This is something that I've wanted to do for a very long time! I finally found the Right knifemaker for the job!! And an excellent job, he did!!!

    ReplyDelete