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Hardly any other series of movies have generated so much excitement for large knives as the Rambo movies have done. Not only did the films create a resurgence in the popularity of the Bowie knife, they also solidified the concept of a survival knife. The history of the various movie knives reveals that behind the concept of each knife lies the one man who would wield them on screen, Mr Sylvester Stallone (John Rambo).
The Bowie knives used in the films have completely different origins - the knives for First Blood (1982) and Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985) were created by legendary knife maker Jimmy Lile. The knives in Rambo III (1988) and Rambo (2008) were built by knife legend Gil Hibben. However, Stallone worked closely with the knife makers to design each knife, often rejecting many of the prototypes before seeing the one knife worthy of John Rambo’s skills.
Well before selecting the Rambo knife, Stallone was working on writing the screenplay for the films. The first movie was based on the novel by David Morrell, First Blood, published in 1972. All the subsequent films were written by Stallone and were followed by novels written by Morrell. It is this closeness to his films, and a noted affinity for custom knife collecting which inspired Stallone to be creatively involved in the production of the Rambo movies and knives.
A true Survival Knife
For First Blood, Stallone sought the advice of Arkansas knife-maker Jimmy Lile. Although Stallone had a concept of the knife he wanted, he left the detail up to Lile to design. Lile came up with the idea to have a hollow-handled Bowie with fourteen saw-teeth on the knife’s spine, 14 being his lucky number. An early prototype of the knife featured a small pocket knife stored in the hollow handle, but it was later preferred to utilise the space for smaller survival items, such as fishing line, hooks and matches. The hollow handle was wrapped with 34 feet of strong green nylon paracord and two holes were drilled into the knife’s guard for lashing. One of the first film’s prominent hunting scenes depicted Rambo with his knife lashed into a makeshift spear and dropping down onto an unsuspecting wild boar, later carving off a piece of roasted swine to consume.
Lile was asked to make the knife for the film’s sequel, Rambo: First Blood Part II. For this knife, Lile went BIG!, constructing a black Bowie with a 10" blade and brightly polished edges, giving the knife a better contrast on film. Otherwise, the knife’s design was a near perfect replica of the knife used in the original film. The new knife still had fourteen saw-teeth (remember its his lucky number) but the handle was wrapped in black nylon paracord instead of green.
For Rambo III Stallone went to Lile first, but after rejecting a few prototypes, turned to the well respected knife-maker Gil Hibben. Stallone was already familiar with Hibben’s work because he owned some of Hibben’s custom knives in his own personal collection. Hibben offered Stallone a few prototypes similar to Lile’s hollow-handled knives. After further rejections by Stallone, Hibben designed the most traditional Bowie knife used in any of the films. Hibben designed a macassar ebony-handled knife with a hollowed blood-groove in the handles main body. Originally, Hibben intended to offer Stallone a version of the knife with a double-bladed axe head to fit into the blood-groove, but that version never made it on the movie. It is claimed that Hibben and Stallone are the only two owners of these fabled axe head attachments. On the blade, instead of saw-teeth, Hibben integrated eight notches on the spine that represented the eight men who died in Rambo’s unit during Vietnam. This knife was also larger than the previous two, measuring in at 18 inches and weighing nearly 2 pounds!
In the newest Rambo film, simply called Rambo, Stallone once again turned to Gil Hibben. For this film, Stallone developed a small storyline around the film’s knife. In the film, Stallone loses the knife featured in Rambo III and has to forge a new one from a truck leaf spring, as you do! The new knife is a complete departure from the Bowie, and resembles a brutal short machete. It took Hibben well over two dozen prototypes before Stallone found one worthy enough for the film’s story. The machete blade has no tip, no guard and no original sheath. In the film, Rambo uses the leather sheath from his Rambo III knife and cuts off the tip to accommodate the new blade.
Hunting Bowie Knives
Colonel James “Jim” Bowie will forever be known as “the bearded bloke who took a knife to a gun fight,” according to the famed Sandbar Fight that occurred on September 19, 1827. To me, this seems like a fundamentally silly thing to do. In this fight, Jim Bowie disemboweled Norris Wright, the sheriff of Rapides Parish in Louisiana, with a 'Bowie knife' after Wright failed to kill Bowie with a pistol. In fairness, it worked out ok for him in this altercation, although gutting Mr Wright seems a bit extreme, wonder what the argument was over? From that day on, Jim Bowie vowed to always carry his Bowie knife by his side. The Sandbar Fight solidified Jim Bowie’s image as a superb violent knife-fighter and canonized his 10” long and 2” wide blade as the infamous Bowie knife.
Today, the term “Bowie knife” has been used to describe any large bladed knife, but the true identity of the original knife is one of rich historical significance. Although some points in the history of the Bowie are contested, it is widely believed that Jim Bowie was the designer of the knife and he enlisted the services of Arkansas blacksmith, James Black (rather apt name), to actually bring the design to life. James Black was reportedly given a wooden model of the huge knife by Jim Bowie, and from the one Black created two versions: Jim’s original design and one James altered to include a sharpened edge on the curved top edge of the blade. When Jim returned to pick up his finished knife, Black presented him with the option to choose whichever of the two knives he wanted. Bowie chose the modified version. Some even claim that the historical Bowie knife cannot be accurately pinned down to a single design; rather, it was a series of knives Jim improved upon over the years.
Regardless, the Bowie lives on mainly due to its intimidating size. To be classified as a Bowie, the blade of a knife is typically between six and 12 inches long, or longer, and measures 1.5 to 2 inches wide. Basically big enough to scare a bear, not one of those cute care bears from the 1980's, but rather a massive grumpy Grizzly bear that wants to rob your picnic basket and genrally cause a fair bit of ole grief around the camp site. The blade should also measure roughly one-quarter inch thick. The back of the blade was often lined with soft brass to catch an opponent’s blade during a fight, and the upper guard was bent at a forward angle for better blade deflection.
Of course, the Bowie continued to go through varios changes over the next 150 years. During WWII, the United States Marine Corps issued the twelve inch KA-BAR fighting Bowie knife to its soldiers, and it soon became one of the most popular, most affordable fighting and hunting knives of that era.
In the 1960s, the Air Force survival knife featured a Bowie blade with saw-teeth machined into the back side of the blade. This knife marked the beginning of a typified survival knife. Its saw-teeth were intended to cut through the Plexiglas canopy of a downed aircraft. During the Vietnam War, the United States Army issued the same style of knives to helicopter crews for the same purpose.
With the exception of a few stylized Bowie knives from the movies, notably Rambo and Crocodile Dundee, the general trend of the Bowie knife was to make it smaller, lighter and more manageable. Of course, in Jim Bowie’s day, bigger was better, but times have changed somewhat. Although Jim Bowie never taught his “superb” knife-fighting skills to anyone, a few “Bowie knife schools” opened in the Southwest during and right after Bowie’s lifetime. The idea was that the art of cutting, thrusting, and parrying could be taught as practical warfare.
As history accurately recorded, Jim Bowie died defending the Alamo on March 6, 1836, along with famed Davy Crockett and William B. Travis. Bowie was outnumbered and outgunned, but that always seem to suit him. It is claimed that Bowie died in his bed, but with his back against the wall and his famous knife in his hand.
Crocodile Dundee Knife
It would be hard to imagine meeting someone familiar with Western films from the 1980s who did not know who said, “That’s not a knife…That’s a knife.” Those lines were delivered by “Crocodile” Aussie Mick Dundee, played by Paul Hogan, as he draws a flashy Bowie knife from under the back of his faux leather jacket to thwart a mugging attempt. The massive Bowie knife, compared next to the would-be mugger’s switchblade, implies that since Dundee holds the bigger knife, he is also much better skilled at knife fighting. Is that really true? This implication draws on the history surrounding the large Bowie knife, dating back to its original designer, Jim Bowie with the big ole beard, and its use in the infamous Sandbar Fight.
The “Crocodile” Dundee Bowie was designed and built by the film’s armorer, John Bowring. A native Australian, Bowring originally intended to become a professional gunsmith, but soon found it difficult to apprentice and license as a gunsmith in Australia. After five long years, Bowring became the continent’s first and only qualified gunsmith. Just as he began his own gunsmith business, he was approached by several television shows and films and was asked to make weapons for their productions. Bowring’s first big break into the industry came with designing many of the Special Effect weapons for Mad Max 3. After working on that film, Bowring was asked to design the Bowie Knife for “Crocodile” Dundee. Bowring since garnered much fame for his weapons and special effects work on The Thin Red Line and the Matrix.
For “Crocodile” Dundee, Bowring only made two steel versions of the Dundee Bowie, and several highly polished aluminum-bladed knives for safe use on the sets. One of the steel knives was used for the close-up shots, such as the scene with the would-be mugger, while the aluminum blades were used anytime Dundee put any motion behind the knife. After the film wrapped, the two steel knives were given to the movie’s writers, Paul Hogan and his friend John Cornell. Both men vowed never to sell their knives, under any circumstances.
Both men stuck to their word, but that has not stopped them from offering up a few of the aluminum-bladed Bowies for auction. The last Dundee Bowie to make it to auction was on June 19, 2005, offered by Australian auctioneers Bonhams + Goodman. The knife was valued between $7,500 and $15,000.
Upon close inspection of the Crocodile Dundee Bowie, one can note some interesting modifications to a typical Bowie. Firstly, the guard of the Dundee Bowie is not a full guard, and its one blade-side brass guard-point is angled downward toward the handle. In a traditional Bowie, the full brass guard is pointed upwards to catch an opponent’s blade during a fight. Secondly, the blade of the Crocodile Dundee Bowie features a deep blood-groove, probably added to give the shiny blade some on-camera texture. The handle is wrapped with twine or leather strands instead of showing some exotic wood, and the sheath is made to resemble crocodile hide. However, the one design the Dundee Bowie has in common with an original Bowie is the exaggerated clip-point blade, featuring a falsely-sharpened top blade.
The Dundee Bowie would be a fine example of a practical knife to carry in the Australian bush. It is heavy enough to chop wood or throw at small game, and lashed to a long stick, it would make a dangerous spear. And of course, if one happened to find himself in a similar situation as to Mick Dundee’s situation early in the film, a blade like Dundee’s does a fine job of piercing the skull of an attacking crocodile, and making one look like a hero to frightened pretty woman.