Handgun Grips Part i : Ivory
by john taffin
Handgun Grips Part I: Ivory by John Taffin
It is 1916 and a legend is about to be born. A second lieutenant from the West Point class of 1909 had been assigned to the 10th United States Cavalry Regiment. He placed an order with the Shelton Payne Arms Co. in El Paso for a .45 Colt Single Action Army with a 4-3/4” barrel and ivory stocks. Serial #322088 was shipped on March 5, 1916. The sixgun itself was silver plated and on the left grip there was a carved American Eagle wings spread, and on the right grip he had the letters GSP intertwined with the carving filled with ink so they would stand out. Sometime after this .45 left the factory George S. Patton had it fully engraved.
Often leaders come up with something which will identify them easily or serve as a trademark. With Custer and Buffalo Bill it was very fancy clothes, while Bill Hickok stashed his ivory-gripped 1851 Navies in a red sash around his waist. In more recent times many of us remember Douglas MacArthur and his corncob pipe and Ike and his Eisenhower jacket. For Patton this ivory-gripped .45 would become his trademark. Actually only part of his trademark as in 1935 Patton was assigned to Fort Shafter in the Hawaiian Islands and on October 18, 1935 a brand-new Smith & Wesson .357 Magnum serial #47022 was shipped to him. This 3-1/2” barreled sixgun came from the factory with a blue finish and walnut Magna stocks; he soon added ivory grips with initials just as on his Colt Single Action. Patton called the .357 Magnum his “Killing Gun”, however it is the Colt which has notches on this grip probably from when he served under Gen. John “Black Jack” Pershing as they chased after Pancho Villa into Mexico in 1916. During World War II these two ivory-stocked revolvers immediately identified General George S. Patton to the men serving under him.
Many of the Texas Rangers also looked for “trademarks” and for many of these it was an engraved sixgun, floral carved leather, and ivory grips. This started first with Colt Single Actions in the 19th century, followed by double action revolvers which were normally Smith & Wessons, and most assuredly the 1911 Government Model .45. It is not difficult to find pictures of Texas Rangers in the middle of the 20th century wearing a pair of ivory-stocked 1911s.
Elmer Keith was another one who favored ivory grips on his every day working guns. From the mid-1920s to the early 1950s Keith mostly carried Colt Single Actions including a King Short Action 7-1/2” .44 Special, a 4-3/4” .45 Colt, and the very well-known 5-1/2” #5 SAA .44 Special. Beginning in the early 1950s, especially after Keith left the Salmon River Country and moved into town he mostly carried 4” Smith & Wesson .44 Specials and Magnums all with carved ivory grips. In 1964 Smith & Wesson presented him with a pair of the new 4” .41 Magnums with ivory grips carved with his name.
Keith addressed the subject of gun grips in his 1955 book sixguns: “Engraved, inlaid or plated guns are usually stocked in pearl, ivory or fine woods. Of all materials, I prefer well-seasoned elephant or mastodon ivory. It colors with age and has beautiful grain in many places, is hard, and wears better than wood, and even in smooth finish, it is not slick. A beautiful gun with good colored ivory stocks is a thing of beauty anywhere. I do not like checkering on ivory stocks-better plain than checkered. Carving in base relief is the best treatment for ivory or pearl stocks. Some inlays like gold medallions, coins or presentation shields are appropriate on the inside stock; the outside stock should be carved. I do not want any crude carving; either the best example of raised animals heads or eagles or else keep the plain beauty of the natural smooth ivory.”
I often wondered how Keith could shoot his Smith & Wesson .44 Magnums with the smallish Magna grips. I found out when I was given the privilege of examining his guns after his passing and then when I went back and read his book again I found the answer had been laid out nearly 30 years earlier. Speaking of work done by the Gun Reblue Co. Keith said: “They recently executed an American spread-Eagle to our design and also a longhorn steer head on S&W Magna grips and that is the best treatment I have yet seen for the big Smith & Wessons. On the steer head one horn is extended to the top of the grip and the other to the bottom of the rear end of the grip. This makes a very nice job as the raised under-cut horns fill the crease in one’s hand at the fold and give a most perfect grip as well as a beautiful job of ivory carving. Usually the human hand has a hollow in the palm when it is closed around a sixgun or pistol grip and for this reason, raised base relief carving of ivory of a design that will fill the hollow in the palm of the hand is beneficial to a good, uniform grip on the gun. It not only enhances the beauty of the stock in the gun, if well executed, but also is helpful in getting a firm grip on the gun, and best of all it makes one take the same exact grip each time, which is one of the secrets of accuracy. Carving should be designed and executed with utility in mind as well as beauty of design each complementing the other.”
I have followed his suggestion and had Bob Leskovec of Precision Pro Grips carve a set of ivory grips to Keith’s specifications for a pair of 4” Smith & Wesson 1950 .44 Specials. They work just as Keith said they would. Notice also that Keith says ivory actually wears better than wood. His three Colt Single Actions and his four Smith & Wesson .44s all of which wear ivory stocks have seen much use, however none of those grips are broken. Shooters often talk of having their sixgun fitted with ivory stocks and then have a backup pair of wood to replace the ivories with for shooting. That makes absolutely no sense to me. If I have ivory grips I’m going to use them. Just think for a moment were ivory comes from. This is elephant tooth and elephants use those tusks to uproot trees and fight other elephants. Yes, once in a while they will break one, and if a sixgun with ivory grips is put to hard use one may also chip or break one of the grips; a small price to pay for the enjoyment afforded.