Wednesday, June 30, 2004

The Gil Hibben Story

This article appeared in Knives Illustrated.

Arnold Howard

Gil Hibben knives decorate the homes of movie stars and heads of state. His knives have appeared in Rambo III, Under Siege, Time Cop, and Star Trek Generations.

But some of his highest honors are far removed from Hollywood. They are the quiet, sometimes awkward exchanges between the knife maker and the knife owner. Such as the man who told Gil, after buying a Hibben knife, "I've wanted one of your knives since I was a boy." Or the veteran who presented his green beret from Vietnam to Gil in appreciation for a knife that helped get him back home.

Or another soldier who appeared at Gil's shop and said, "I thank God and you, in that order. If it hadn't been for your knife, I wouldn't be here."

"Knife making is a dream I've chased since I was a boy," says Gil, the oldest of 10 children. "I tell kids, be careful what you dream about, because that's what you're going to get."

He left the Navy in 1956, thought about becoming a dentist, and sold Jeeps before selling his first knife in 1957. His business took off in 1965 when a Guns & Ammo cover featured a Hibben knife.

Gil lives 20 miles outside Louisville, Kentucky on six acres. He works in a 30' x 60' steel barn he built himself, complete with a buffing room and grinding room.

His office feels like a knife maker's. Hanging on a wall is a black bear rug, a momento of a 1974 Alaska hunting trip. A stuffed wild turkey juts out of the wall above his desk.

Gil sings while making knives. (He has sung in the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.) Opera music from the radio blends with the whine of grinding wheels. Referring to the Broadway show "Phantom of the Opera," Gil quips, "The Phantom and I have made many knives together."

Gil's hands move with the deftness of a master with 40 years' experience. In the shop, he's relaxed, sings, yet careful. A blade once spun off his grinder like a propeller and stabbed his thigh. The bloody tip protruded from the other side. Another time a knife he had thrown bounced off the target and stabbed him in the back. He treats blades with respect.

Gil uses 440C stainless steel. To his knowledge, he is the first knife maker to use this steel and the first to mirror polish it. In the sixties, 440C came in round, hex or square stock and had to be forged into bars for knives. "You have to be careful with forging," says Gil. "If it's not done correctly, you can cook out carbon or put stresses in it and end up with steel that's inferior to hot?rolled bars."

The shop is not the only place where Gil has learned about knives. Working as a hunting guide in Alaska for five years taught him how to design hunting knives.

Author of The Complete Gil Hibben Knife Throwing Guide, Gil began knife throwing after making his first bowie knife in 1957. He learned to make throwing knives by throwing them.

Gil's martial arts experience has helped him design fighting knives. He was awarded a 3rd degree black belt by the late Ed Parker, a world?famous instructor from Hawaii. His Kenpo knife dates back to 1968, when it was called the Ed Parker knife.

Gil's younger brother, Daryl, remembers Gil's karate training from the 60's. When Daryl was only 10, Gil would tell him, "Now hold still and I'll show you something." Daryl learned not to flinch when Gil's kicks and punches whipped in front of his face.

During the Vietnam War, soldiers treasured Gil Hibben knifes. In one Marine squad, the men took turns "walking point." When it was a man's turn to walk point, he was allowed to carry the only Hibben knife the squad owned.

The Vietnam stories attest to the reliability of Hibben knives. A recon soldier once chopped his way through the aluminum side of a downed helicopter with one.

Hibben knives have saved lives. An American soldier, just captured, held his arms up while a Viet Cong walked toward him with rifle pointed. When the enemy came within reach, the American yanked a Hibben push dagger from a sheath behind his neck and slashed the Vietcong across the forehead. He escaped. Another time he used the same dagger while fighting in a river.

A soldier in Vietnam won a Hibben knife in a poker game. A few minutes later, the knife, which hung on his leg, stopped a bullet. And somewhere in South America, Gil relates, either bandits or soldiers shot at a Hibben knife owner, who hid in tall grass. Later he escaped. When he removed his clothes, something fell out of his pants. At first he thought it was a coin. When he picked it up, he found a mashed bullet that had hit his knife and had lodged under the guard. If not for the knife, he figured, the bullet probably would have hit his spine and killed him.

One Hibben knife story is a mystery. In 1967, a burglar stole an ivory?handled Hibben knife from the home of Tom Siatos, former publisher of Guns and Ammo. It was a cherished knife with "Tom Siatos" inscribed on the blade. Tom had long forgotten the stolen knife when, four years later, a Marine lieutenant sent him a package from Vietnam. It contained the Hibben knife, complete with scabbard; an old, folding bolt?action Chinese rifle; and a Vietcong cone?style straw hat with red star on the front. The lieutenant's letter said the items were found on a dead Vietcong. He sent them to Tom because he recognized the name inscribed on the blade from Guns and Ammo magazine.

Tom reasons that either the burglar went to Vietnam or sold the knife to a soldier headed for Vietnam. That soldier was killed, and a Vietcong lifted the knife from his body.

Gil Hibben is so successful that legends are born of his knives. John Wayne and Steve McQueen owned several. How did Gil become so successful? He shares the answer with knifemakers or anyone who will listen. "Be true to yourself," Gil says. "Try to listen to your inner voice. It will lead to peace and happiness if you follow it. That's why I make knives. My inner voice has driven me to be a craftsman."

Gil's inner urging is what prods him to keep making knives, though he could retire off royalty payments of his licensed designs. "Why quit now when it's taken me this long to get up some ground speed?" he says.

Will the acclaim from the movie knives ever change Gil? He doesn't think so. "I'm having too much fun making knives to let it go to my head."