The Rambo Knives
In 1968 David Morrell began writing "First Blood" while in college. The book was published in 1972. In 1980 Carolco Pictures released the hit movie of the same name after hiring actor Sylvester Stallone to play the novel's lead character, John Rambo. (The name "Rambo" actually comes from the Pennsylvania Rambo apples.) Stallone also wrote the screenplay for the movie. Although the Rambo character in the book did not have a knife and died in the story, the movie character brandished a large "survival" knife that went on to become almost as much of a star as Rambo who survived to reappear in the sequels.
"First Blood" was followed by three sequels, "Rambo: First Blood Part II" in 1985 (screenplay written by Stallone) and "Rambo III" in 1988 (written by Stallone), and "Rambo" in 2008 (written and directed by Stallone). David Morrell wrote novels for Rambo II and Rambo III based on the screenplay for the movies. Each of the Rambo movies featured John Rambo and his big knife that was custom designed for each movie. The Rambo knives were revolutionary to the world of knife enthusiasts and collectors.
This is the story of the Rambo knives. This is the information that I have gathered in bits and pieces from various sources. I am certain that I am not the leading authority on the Rambo knives and I welcome and corrections or omissions from our readers. The knife, as with the knifemaker, has become legendary and as with any legend it is often hard, if not impossible, the separate facts from myths.
Stallone, who is a knife enthusiast and collector of custom knives, enlisted the services of two master knifemakers, Jimmy Lile and Gil Hibben, to design and make the custom knives for the movies. The knifemakers and Stallone collaborated on the design of each knife. Designs and prototypes were sent back and forth between the knifemakers and the movie studios until they came up with a knife that pleased Stallone and the movie prop people.
First Blood - 1980
There have been a lot of rumors circulated among knife enthusiasts about various knifemakers that Stallone supposedly approached to make a knife for the movie. One story even suggests that the legendary master knifemaker Bill Moran was approached and may have even made a prototype but then declined the offer to make the knives for the movie.
What we do know for sure is that a deal was struck for a master knifemaker from Arkansas, Jimmy Lile, to make the knives for "First Blood". Jimmy Lile had been a full time knifemaker since 1970 and had become one of the world's most respected custom knifemakers and operated a knifemaking shop in Arkansas until his death in 1991. Lile had other knifemakers working in his shop under his supervision so not every knife that came out of his shop was handmade by Jimmy Lile but those that were not were marked differently with a "dot" stamped above the "Lile" name. After Jimmy Lile's death in 1991, his wife Marilyn kept the shop open until 2003 when it closed for good. Knives produced by his shop after Jimmy Lile's death were also stamped with "LILE" but with a dot stamped above the name.
Lile came up with an innovative new design that incorporated features that he envisioned a person needing in a survival situation. The knife featured 14 split saw teeth along the spine, Philips and flat screwdrivers made into the cross guard, holes in the guard for lashing and a watertight hollow handle with a compass in the cap. The original design had a second small folding knife stored in the handle but they later chose to use the handle storage for survival items such as fish hooks, fishing line and matches.
In the photo below, the knife You see on top is a Prototype for the First Blood Movie. This is the only Prototype that was made with the same features as the movie knife. It has 14 sawteeth and a polished blade. The knife You see under it is serial number 055 of the First Blood knives with 12 sawteeth.
The knife was prominently displayed in the movie and used in several key scenes. The unique design was an instant hit with knife enthusiasts and the "Survival Knife" was born.
Jimmy Lile made 100 serial numbered copies of the original First Blood knife. Numbers 1-13 had 14 saw teeth along the spine. Numbers 14-100 had 12 saw teeth. Numbers 1-6 were stamped "movie knife" and sent to Stallone for use in the movie. It is rumored that all 6 were pretty much destroyed during filming and are stored somewhere in bits and pieces. Originally, Lile kept numbers 7-14 and Numbers 15-100 were sold to collectors around the world for $1,000 each with a top grain cowhide sheath. Those knives now command prices of several thousand dollars each in those rare occasions when they are offered for sale. Lile's shop also produced 800 unnumbered First Blood knives.
The original Lile knives were 13.8 inches in overall length with a 9 inch flat ground blade and a grey bead blasted finish except for the bright edges. The knifes were usually made from D2 steel but some custom orders were made from 440C stainless steel. The hollow handles were also D2 or 440C steel and wrapped with 36 feet of green nylon paracord sealed with a commercial lacquer for protection and waterproofing. All of the serial numbered First Blood knives had a compass in the handle cap but some of the unnumbered knives had the optional "skull crusher" pommel.
The original movie sheath was made by Jim Buffaloe but it was reportedly modified by the movie prop people to give it a more worn and abused look.
Lile's shop also sold the "Sly II Survivor Knife". These originally sold for $580 and were available in D2 or 440C steel and had a lugged guard. They were available with 6 inch, 7 1/2 inch or 9 inch blades. Other available options included polished edges and the screwdriver guard.
The First Blood knife design was licensed to United Cutlery to make factory reproductions of the knife. United Cutlery's replica model UC-RB1 is 14" overall and has a 9" long, 1/4" thick stainless steel blade.
Rambo II "Mission" Knives - 1985
Jimmy Lile once again made the knives for the second Rambo movie, "Rambo: First Blood Part II". The Rambo II knives are generally referred to as the "Mission" knives since they were stamped with "Rambo The Mission".
Only 100 serial numbered "Mission" knives were made. They had black blades and bright edges, 14 saw teeth along the spine and the screwdriver cross guard.
Somewhere around 800-1000 un-numbered knives were made with a gray bead blasted finish. I read that there was one Rambo II knife specially made for a custom order with 13 saw teeth.
Lile also made a stilleto knife that was made from 440C stainless steel with a micarta insert in the handle. it was a little over 10 inches in overall length and had a 5 1/2 inch blade.
Again, United Cutlery was licensed to make factory reproductions. The United Cutlery replica model UC-RB2 was 15 3/8" overall and had a 10" blade.
My thanks to Jack Lucarelli and www.jimmylile.com for Lile information and assistance.
In 1988 Carolco Pictures released "Rambo III". Stallone again went to Jimmy Lile to make a knife for the movie. Lile could not or would not produce the knife that Stallone wanted so he went to master knifemaker Gil Hibben about making the knife. Stallone had previously purchased several of Gil's custom knives for his personal collection. Gil made some prototype knives and sent them to Sly.
An early Hibben prototype continued the Lile survival knife style. Notice the finger grooved hollow handle. The inspiration for the handle came from a bicycle handlebar grip.
Gil Hibben made at least 4 different versions of this knife each with different guards.
This knife was actually used in a couple of scenes in the movie. Stallone originally wanted the Bowie style knife, which ultimately became the now famous Gil Hibben Rambo III Knife. There was a point in which Stallone changed his mind and wanted Gil to make a polished saw tooth type, Gil added finger grooves to the handle. The mine field scene was one of the first filmed. Then came the phone call from Stallones' secretary telling Gil to sit down, Sly changed his mind again and we are going with your original model, the Bowie type. Well, by the time they realized that they had the saw tooth knife in the mine field scene, it was too late and cost prohibitive to go back and re-shoot it. Funny thing is, most people never even noticed it was two different knives.
Eventually, they decided to abandon the hollow handled "survival" knife and come up with a whole new design. Gil obliged with the now famous large bowie with the angled stainless steel guard and stainless steel butt cap.
The movie script called for Rambo to be seen forging his knife. Gil made a video showing Stallone how to forge a knife. In his example, he forged a blade from a piece of a truck leaf spring.
Still captures from Gil's forging
demonstration video for Stallone.
Gil sent Stallone several blades in various stages of the process to be used in the forging scene.
The scene was shot but later edited out of the movie.
Still captures from the deleted scene
You can see the deleted scene here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4vkjqnWhg8k
It's a shame the knife forging scene was deleted from the movie. Rumor has it that Rambo may be seen forging another knife in the new movie "John Rambo".
Have you ever wondered about the slot in the blade? This is one of the rarely seen prototypes. Gil made a removable second blade that fit horizontally into the slot in the main blade. It was held in place by spring loaded release button. Only two of these knives were made, Sly has #1 and Gil has #2.
Gil and Stallone communicated several times by telephone and faxes until they agreed on the now famous design. This massive bowie style knife features a 11 3/4" long, 2 1/4" wide, 5/16" thick blade of 440C stainless steel and a macassar ebony handle. The movie knife was 18" long overall and weighed 2 pounds. It featured a stainless steel guard and pommel. The unique angled guard is reminiscent of the knives that Gil had previously designed for use in Kenpo karate. Gil made approximately 20 knives for use in the movie. Some were used, some were not.
He also made a dagger that was briefly seen in the finished movie. The 10 1/2" inch dagger is one-piece construction of 440C stainless steel treated with a black non-glare finish.
Gil sells handmade copies of the dagger. Some were serial number to match his handmade Rambo III knives and some were unnumbered as seen above.
Gil made only two of these daggers with his famous mirror polished finish. One bears his "Louisville KY" stamp and is in the hands of a collector. The second knife bears Gil's current "La Grange KY" stamp and remains in Gil's possession.
After the movie was released, Gil made 350 serial numbered 440C stainless steel full size handmade copies and 101 serial numbered Damascus steel Rambo III knives. Each of these were sold with certificates of authenticity. The stainless steel models hand a hand rubbed satin finish except for the polished false edge on the top of the blade.
Gil also made one out of meteorite Damascus. It is not serial numbered but the guard is marked "Meteorite".
This knife was also licensed to United Cutlery to make factory reproductions. It became one of the biggest selling collector knives ever made selling over 250,000 copies. It also really started the trend of making reproduction movie knives as collectibles. The United Cutlery replica is 16" in overall length and has a 11" long by 1/4" thick blade thus it is a little shorter and has a thinner blade than the actual movie knife.
United Cutlery also produced a replica of the Rambo III Dagger and a miniature Rambo III knife.
The United Cutlery Miniature Rambo III shown with the United Cutlery Rambo III for size comparison.
Gil also makes a handmade miniature Rambo III that is even smaller.
The Rambo III was a huge success for United Cutlery selling over 250,000 copies worldwide. It opened up a whole new field of collectible movie memorabilia and set the stage for dozens of movie knife and sword replicas to be made over the next twenty years.
United Cutlery continued to cash in on the success of the Rambo III replica by releasing two limited special editions in 1998 and 2000.
The original version - United Cutlery UC-201 was originally released in 1988 (although I have seen it referenced as RB3). The UC-201 model is still listed in the United catalog.
In 1998 United released the 10th Anniversary Edition UC-1162. It was serial numbered xxxx/5000, has a "John Rambo" signature etched on the blade, and the flat of the blade is mirror polished. This was a limited edition of 5,000 knives.
In the year 2000, United released another version, UC-1238 Rambo III Special Edition. This version had a black handle, the blade is etched with the "John Rambo" signature, it is serial numbered, and it came with a display plaque and a collectors card. This was also a limited edition of 5,000 knives.
28 years later the Rambo saga is still going strong.
For a comparison and review of the Rambo
III replica knives