The Lile Legend

Knifemaker Jimmy Lile Leaves His Mark.

The state of Arkansas is famous for many things. The first Walmart discount store, a president of the United States, and some of the country’s most beautiful mountains — the Ozarks — immediately come to mind. But to one famous actor and a whole slew of knife aficionados there’s a guy named Jimmy Lile whose memory brings a smile. Born in 1933, Lile was raised in Russellville, Ark., where he would become a forerunner of a plethora of excellent knifemakers located in the northwest corner of the state, including Bob Dozier, Ryan Wilson, Kenny Teague, Tom Krein and Daniel Crotts. His fame and influence, however, would go far beyond Arkansas to moviegoers and knife fans throughout the world. You see Jimmy Lile is the knifemaker who made the first two Rambo knives used by Sylvester Stallone in his legendary Mission film series.

There is no bigger Jimmy Lile fan than John Henry Hill Jr., an oil, gas and real estate magnate who knew Jimmy Lile for over 20 years, leading up to Jimmy’s passing in 1991. Hill has made it his mission to make sure the Jimmy Lile legend lives on by marketing top shelf replicas of the artisan’s knives and promoting a superb book, James B. Lile, The Arkansas Knifesmith, Knifemaker To The World by Jack Lucarelli and John H. Hill, Jr. on the Lile Knives, LLC website.

The Stallone Connection

American Handgunner asked Hill to give us a background on how the Jimmy Lile/Sylvester Stallone connection came about. “In the summer of 1981, Sylvester Stallone was a customer of Pony Express, a knife and gun store in Los Angeles.” John informs. “Sylvester Stallone had started collecting Jimmy’s knives and contacted him, instigating the prototyping for the first two movies.”

The first Rambo movie was entitled First Blood and it would be the public’s first glimpse of Stallone wielding the now famous massive, buzz-saw-spine’d Bowie we are all familiar with today. According to John, “Sylvester Stallone received numbers 1 thru 7 of the First Blood knives. These featured a 9″ 440C stainless steel blade with 14 saw-back teeth, a matte blade finish with polished edges, a cord-wrapped hollow handle with a compass in the butt cap, a guard fitted with both flat head and Phillips head screwdrivers, and an aluminum handled gents folder inside for cutting the cord on the handle.

“Next up was the sequel entitled Rambo the Mission,” Hill continued. “The first Mission knife was an enlarged version of the First Blood, with a 10″ blade, 14 saw-back teeth, 440C with a black blade with polished edges. A second knife — the Mission Stiletto — was made of 1-piece of 440C stainless steel and one piece of solid Micarta. This was more of a boot knife and Sylvester Stallone carried it that way.”

Reviving The Mission

For several years John Henry Hill Jr. has been replicating Lile’s First Blood knife using custom knifemaker Vince Ford. This replica sells for $3,500 in a limited edition of 100 knives. Hill chose highly accomplished knifemaker Vaughn Neeley to replicate the Rambo “Mission Series” knives. Once that series was in the works Hill kicked everything into an even higher gear.

According to John, “We teamed up with custom knifemaker Vaughn about a year ago and he is currently doing first class, custom quality remakes of several of Jimmy’s famous knives, including his Rambo the Mission movie knife and the stiletto from that movie. There are only 100 numbered sets of these being made. These knives can be purchased individually. The Mission knife sells for $2,250 and comes with an accurate replication of the original leather sheath with Eze-Lap diamond sharpener. We offer the option of a black Eze-Lap sharpener/butt cap on request. The stiletto sells for $850 with sheath.”

But Hill and new partner Neeley weren’t content to stop there. Vaughn explains. “In addition we are doing a custom remake of Jimmy’s Vietnam Commemorative Hollow Handle knife, complete with the RVN service medal etched on the blade. We have also made a version of that knife commemorating the Dual Front, (Afghanistan/Iraq) conflict. The front of the knife has the Iraq Service Medal and the back has the Afghanistan medal. This knife has a stainless steel guard and aluminum butt cap, while the Vietnam version has a brass guard and butt cap like Jimmy made it. Both knives are limited to 100 numbered pieces. Both of these models sell for $750 and come with an accurate replication of the original leather sheath.”

In addition, Hill and Neeley recently added the ‘gents folder to the pack. Vaughn lends, “This is the small folder Jimmy tucked inside the hollow handle of his first movie knife. It’s a fully custom knife. We make it with aluminum or stainless steel sides. The aluminum version is $150 and the stainless version is $180.” Incidentally Handgunner readers, that’s a great price for a custom folder!

Subtle Improvements

As a knifemaker, Vaughn Neeley is known as being a stickler for quality. He clued us into the subtle differences between the Lile knives he makes today versus the ones crafted by Jimmy. “We have made it our mission to do Jimmy Lile justice with the accuracy and quality of the knives we are replicating,” says Vaughn. “Modern materials have allowed us to make a couple of improvements we feel certain Jimmy would have used had they been available at the time. One is the great CPM 154CM steel we use for the Mission hollow handle and the Vietnam and Dual Front commemoratives. The Mission hollow handle and stiletto were painted with black engine paint originally. We have upgraded this to powder coating. Other than those improvements we have been as true to the original designs as we can be.”

You have to think Jimmy Lile would be humbled and honored to see his legacy carried on by Hill and Neeley. Very few custom knifemakers have retrospective books documenting their craftsmanship. There are other replicas of the famous Rambo knives on the market, ranging from cheap Asian knock-offs to other custom fare, but you can’t get closer to the originals than the knives you see here. These are, simply put — the finest!
By Pat Covert

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