Ivory and its Substitutes by Craig Copeland
Near about as long as I've been obsessed with revolvers, I've been obsessed with grips. I can't leave anything alone and ivory has long been the Holy Grail of grip material. It also happens to be the most expensive. It wasn't until the last few years that I was even able to afford the real thing so before that, I tried all the substitutes I could find. Ivory is terribly difficult to photograph so when the weather was just right this week, I took the opportunity. Let us begin by first to addressing the "elephant in the room". The first set will be later compared to the substitutes in a group photo. This particular example is one that came factory on a Cimarron Bisley, made by Paul Persinger. I use this example because of my several sets of real ivory, it has the most character and grain. This is what everyone is shooting for. The beautiful creamy color that is so distinctive and wonderful, it is its own color. The pleasing, subtle grain makes each set unique and it will all eventually yellow with age. Ivory is even beautiful when it develops age cracks (checking), which is a rare thing in this world. Nothing makes a special custom or engraved sixgun stand out from the crowd like ivory. Likewise, nothing adds a touch of class and elegance to even standard factory guns, like ivory does.
A small gallery of real ivory grips, click to enlarge.
This is the one thing that separates ivory from all its substitutes, the Schreger lines. These lines are visible in the end grain, most obviously at the butt of pistol grips. At this point in time, it cannot be faked.
Below is a gratuitous group shot showing several different substitutes. On the far right is the real thing, the aforementioned Cimarron Bisley grips by Paul Persinger.
Beginning clockwise from the upper left is Arizona Custom Grips' "magna-tusk". An individual touted these to me as the best you can buy and indistinguishable from the real thing. For $79 and an endorsement like that, I had to try a set. So I put in an order for the Ruger Old Model XR3 grip frame. When things sound too good to be true, they usually are. For what they are, a relatively affordable set of ivory substitutes, they are fine. The fitment is pretty good. They are comfortable in the hand and they get style points for the blued hardware. However, there is no visible grain. They are heavier than most polymers but appear to be simply an ivory colored synthetic later treated with some sort of brown antiquing paint. Arizona Custom Grips offers a fitting service and I may indeed try another set fitted to one of my Colt replicas. As far as "indistinguishable" and any better than some of the premium substitutes, they are not.
To the right of that is the newer antique linear paper micarta from Sheffield Knifemaker's Supply. This stuff is a dead ringer for the old Westinghouse micarta that is so sought-after. I've got several sets made from it on SA's, DA's and autos. It's good looking stuff that has a beauty all its own but no one would mistake it for real ivory. The "grain" is completely uniform and the "end grain" bears no resemblance to Schreger lines and should settle any discussion about what it is. The big draw to micarta is that it is probably the most durable material to make grips from. It's impervious to weather, nearly impossible to stain and it will never change color. There are other ivory micartas that have no grain structure at all.
Click pics to enlarge.
Next up we have TruIvory, pictured above on a Cimarron replica of the Colt Single Action Army. These were left on the gun because all our TruIvory grips are one-piece. This particular set is an aged color. Most folks generally consider TruIvory, a product of the now-defunct BarS, to be the most authentic of the substitutes. It has a beautiful, subtle grain structure but again, no Schreger lines. BarS offered them in varying stages of aging, from pure new white to heavily yellowed, as one might see on a 150yr old Colt. Unlike most of the other options. TruIvory can be very difficult to distinguish from the real thing, until you look at the butt for Schreger lines. The obvious downside to TruIvory is that it is no longer made.
Here's a shot of real ivory on the left, TruIvory on the right.
Next up is UltraIvory by Eagle Grips on a Uberti replica of the S&W Schofield, courtesy of Dixie Gun Works. Unless I'm mistaken, it was one of the first of the new age ivory substitutes, which incorporated a visible grain structure. I have two sets of it and to me, the grain is more subtle than TruIvory and thus, more difficult to detect and photograph.
Lastly, we come to American Holly and the only wood commonly used as an ivory substitute. Like ivory and the better subs, it has visible grain structure. It also yellows with age, although at a much more accelerated rate. It's beautiful material but in my use, it seems to be a bit on the soft side and prone to dents, dings and scratches.
On the left is a set on a .38-40 Blackhawk that is about 15yrs old and heavily yellowed. The right, a set on a Bisley .44 from when the grips were new. The color difference is striking. Both sets by Cary Chapman.
One material rarely mentioned until the last few years is Dall sheephorn. While not traditionally considered a substitute for ivory, it does have a wonderful appearance with visible grain and color variations. The Dall (and Merino) varieties of sheephorn have a similar color, ranging from pure white to a light honey color. No one will think it's ivory but it's beautiful and may be appropriate for those guns that beg for "white" grips. It can be seen below compared to the ivory on the blued .500JRH.
The sad news is that real ivory has become all but unobtainable. Some well-intended but poorly misguided legislation has rendered interstate ivory trade illegal. All is not lost, for somewhere out there is a substitute that will at least satiate one's desire for ivory grips, to one degree or another.