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Choosing and fitting custom grip panels: more than simply a handle, stocks and grips can add function, good looks and personality to your project.

Many things are mass produced today. That's fine for economy but sometimes we look toward something that is more personalized. A superbly polished and bright blue handgun is more attractive than the factory matte blue. A custom holster beats identical, off-the-shelf units and a well turned out pair of custom grips really sets off a classic handgun. Custom handgun grips will often be more attractive and more functional than the original.

While there is some demand for after market grip panels for self loading pistols, most are easy fits. The most common requests for custom stocks come from revolver shooters. Part of the reason is that there are numerous variations in revolver grip frames and one size does not fit all. In the interest of proper hand fit the customer may request a grip or stock that is larger or smaller than the factory style. The reasons for choosing custom revolver grips are many and the most demanding shooters are those who engage in fast draw, cowboy shooting or some type of action shooting. Hunters also occasionally desire a grip that is more comfortable to use with heavy recoiling handguns or a grip set that fits their hand better.

One of the acknowledged artists in the custom grip line is Chris Whisler of the Chisel and Plane Workshop ( Chris has good ideas that have manifested into first class wood stocks. He does the base work. It is your job to fit the grips to the handgun.

The reason the grips come oversize is two fold. First, personalized fitting means a better, cleaner look that is a link with the artisans of the past. While there are still artisans in the world it seems that they are few and far between. Much of what we do is standard fare but the occasional custom job is satisfying. Beginning with an oversized grip panel and fitting to the frame results in a perfectly pleasing fit. Second, grip frames differ enough in the case of single action revolvers that custom fitted grips are almost a necessity. Single action revolvers differ more than double action revolvers and there are many generations among the Colt, their clones and even in the fairly modern Ruger line.

The proper size of the grip panel is critical for fit and for good marksmanship. The grip centers the handgun and makes for more accurate shooting when the hand is perfectly centered on the grip frame. Whisler offers grips in small, medium and large sizes and a pencil tracing of the customer's hand is necessary to determine the proper grip size. This pencil tracing is critical. Do not automatically assume a person with large hands needs a larger grip. Sometimes the meaty hand acts as a cushion and the shorter fingers would be overstretched by a larger grip. By the same token, some women have small hands but long fingers. It really isn't surprising to find a female shooter needing larger grips than her husband. You will be doing pairs of guns often as cowboy action shooters need a pair of revolvers, so fitting four grip sets for a family may not be unusual.

Grips are ordered to fit the hand size. The oversize fit isn't for hand size as that is already supplied by the thickness ordered from the custom shop. The oversize wood is there to allow fitting to the grip frame and the customer's hand fit is inherent in the small, medium or large grip size that is ordered. It may be expressed as interior and exterior dimensions.

When you order the grips be certain that the customer's preferences are carefully calculated and do not leave anything out that they may prefer. For example, the base of the grips may be ordered in one of three styles. The beveled base is simply an angled base and possibly the most attractive, but this is preference. This seems the most common factory base, with the flat base being a custom item. Finally, there is an extended base that results in a longer grip as the stocks extend from the frame and the inside of the bottom of the grips angle back upwards into the grip frame. To give an idea of the appearance, this was a common factory grip on the Cattleman 44 Magnum revolver. Also be certain that you properly identify the firearms. There are at least four different types of Ruger grip frames, including the XR 3 variations. Once the customer has specified this preferences and you have done the hand tracing you are ready to order the grips and await their arrival.

Hand Tracing

The shooting hand goes on a piece of white paper. The thumb and the trigger finger are spread apart with the three remaining fingers together. Trace a solid line around the fingers and all of the way to the sides of the wrist. Then, without removing the hand from the paper, make a dotted line up from the wrist to the small finger. This results in a good idea of the total composition and size of the firing hand. This is not a drawing, it is a tracing and the tracing is sent to the custom shop.

Once the grips have arrived you are ready to fit your grips to the handgun. First, make certain the revolver is clean and unloaded. Remove the old grips and set them aside. Some custom grips will not have the location pin holes drilled, although some will. It depends upon the maker, the special order and the exact steps wished to ensure that the grips are a perfect fit. I prefer drilling the location pin myself for an exact fit. Without the location pin already drilled, remove the location pin from the grip frame. A brass hammer and light brass punch are ideal for this simple chore. Try not to bend the location pin as some are less robust than others.

Once the location pin is out of the way, place the grips on the grip frame and check for fit. There should be an overlap of wood over the grip frame. Check for the overlap particularly in the top, upper corner or "crotch" area as custom makers and cabinet makers term it. Occasionally, the grips may have been cut too small in this area. If this is true the grips should be returned. Far more often they will be cut correctly and you will begin to fit the grips to the frame.

Use a flat file to address the over lapping wood at the top of the grip panel. These flat sides will exhibit an angle, not a ninety degree fit. Be certain that there is a remainder of wood around the grip and that it covers the grip frame in all areas to be fitted. The grip screw holes must be aligned properly for the grip screw as well. Next, clamp the grip frame and the grip together using a small vise or, preferably, a clamp. The frame needs to be protected from damage and a pad or small block will do so. Put the crotch into the grip frame and tighten the clamp down firmly.

There is an additional step involving grips not delivered with the location pin hole drilled. With a 5/32 drill bit make a hole not more than about 3/16" deep. Normally, the hole is marked with a piece of tape before the drilling begins. Consider the thickness of the grip before you begin this drilling operation.

When all steps have been completed for both grip panels, you may wish to replace the location pin that holds the grip panels in place on the grip frame. Place the new grips on the frame and check the fit and grip screw alignment. Mark the grip frames in the area that needs to be addressed with a file using a sharp knife. Remove the panels, carefully using a wood file and then sandpaper to remove the excess wood all the way to the mark lines. After the first effort, replace the grip panels and observe the fit. This is very much a cut and try approach. Take your time and carefully fit the grips a little at a time. Repeat the steps until the fit appears seamless. Always remember, you can always sand more but you cannot put wood back that has been removed!

When sanding it is good to start with the 100 grit sandpaper and progress to ever finer sandpaper such as 120, 150, and finally 220. Sanding with the very finest grit will give a better and smoother finish. After the grips are sanded and you are pleased with the final fit you may wish to dampen the grips with a wet cloth. Do not soak the grips at all or they will swell. Moisture added will raise tiny fuzz in the grips. Allow them to dry thoroughly and remove the fuzzy, raised grain with the finest sandpaper. If you desire to finish the wooden grips standard finishing techniques work just fine. The tedious but worthwhile part is the fitting.

Double action revolver grips also will benefit from hand fitting, although there is usually more consistency in double action revolver grip frames. While Smith and Wesson frames are often very consistent, there are variations worth considering. As an example, the hard plastic handles of I frame Smith and Wesson revolvers are notoriously fragile. The old plastic handles will shatter even when being tightened up, they do not have to be dropped. Many like the looks of the later J frame grips, but these differ more than is commonly realized. The first Smith and Wesson Chief's Special revolvers were actually I frame revolvers with deep frames for the longer cylinder but the frames are definitely different on later models. It is possible to fit J frame grips to the I frame. The handle is longer but may be sanded away for fit. The locating pin is also in a different location. With the original grips so difficult to acquire, it is worth the time and effort to fit J frame grips to a nice I frame revolver. The bottom line of the checkering on J frame grips will be nearly at the base of the grips after this operation. And, frankly, we are figuring into the equation the fact that the gunsmith or the owner will have on hand a pair of factory J frame grips that have been written off, such as after the fitting of some modern tactical grip to a Chief's .38 variant. This will solve the common problem of finding grip panels for an I frame Smith and Wesson. The old long Banana grips make excellent grips for the I frame when they may be found and the sanding necessary with the checkered J frame is not necessary with the "banana grip."

A quick mention about fitting the composite grips from Tombstone Gun Grip ( This maker offers blocks of material that you are able to form into grips yourself. Their grips can be had in a general outline, such as single action or double action revolver, and as ninety per cent or almost completely inletted grips. These grips will require drilling of the location hole and often need the supplied grip screw shortened as well. Tombstone grips are relatively easy to sand and will often add value to a refinished handgun.

A good tip on restoring a handgun that works well with these grips is polishing with regular shoe polish. That is correct, the pores and consistency of the Tombstone grips are very well suited to black shoe polish. Even better, you may first give an undercoat of the standard brown shoe polish and then work over with black to give a classic brown under black finish. After a few tries and practice the results will be very attractive.

When all is said and done, fitting a revolver with custom one-at-a-time grips is well worth the time and effort to add another dimension to a quality revolver.

Other Grips Of Interest

It is critical that when ordering grips for the 1911 pistol the customer specify if there is a magazine well, an extended safety or other modifications. As an example, I recently repaired a rather heartbreaking chip in a set of custom grips from Zipps Grips ( These are wonderfully made grips but the customer had attempted to place a standard set on a pistol with an extended thumb safety, resulting in a chip out of the wood due partly to the grips not being tightened down. I was able to patiently polish and refinish the chip. On another occasion a 1911 was dropped on the floor and the grips were cracked but careful polishing and gluing lead to a like-new repair.

Shooters using the 1911 in long range competition often adopt special target grips. While there have been many attempts at the perfect one hand grip, the RoCo Firearm-Technology ( Master XL stands alone for affordability and comfort. These grips must be carefully assembled or they may be cracked. Be certain they are exactly centered upon the frame and then carefully tighten down the screws to produce the absolute bet fit. Although designed for pure target pistols, the author managed to prove they were excellent for use in an experimental long range lOmm pistol.

Finally, there are times when we are commissioned to do a one of a kind pistol and there is nothing like a set of custom grips to set them off and the 1911 grips illustrated here are the first and best of their type. From DonSon Products (, they commemorate the 100 years of service of the 1911 pistol and are fitted to a Commander marked by Colt "100 Years of Service." An excellent set up.

When it comes to fitting pistol grips it is all about time and extra care. There are other options that greatly increase the good looks of the handgun while not breaking the bank. In the end, the choice is very individual and the seasoned gunsmith will lead the customer toward a choice that will not only set the pistol off in terms of appearance but also enhance the shooter's potential.
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Author:Campbell, RK
Publication:American Gunsmith
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Feb 1, 2013
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