The custom handgun is alive and well in America, and it has been so since before World War II. Thousands of Yankee handgunners have turned to the custom pistolsmith to perform various changes on old Betsy in an effort to make her look, handle and shoot better. Certain handgun packages are so commonplace that they’re virtual standards. Guns like a Novak full-house combat .45ACP or a Davis PPC revolver deserve our attention as the highest level of improvement of a particular gun for a specific purpose.
On almost all custom handguns, part of the updated package is new grips. On some guns, like the venerable Colt 1911, grips are simple plates that fit the sides of the butt. On others, like a DA/SA (double-action/single-action) revolver, grips need extensive inletting and exterior shaping. Properly made, custom grips can greatly enhance the looks, handling and accurate shooting of any kind of handgun. For this reason a small group of custom grip makers have helped many shooters and their pistols and revolvers along the trail to better shooting.
One craftsman who specializes in custom grips is Tony Rist. Growing up on the beach after high school, Rist ended up in the Navy. When I asked what he did in the service, he looked a little pained and said, “I swam—a lot.” Turns out that he was in one of the early UDT (Underwater Demolition Team) teams, just before the SEALS got started. He had some mighty interesting days in Southeast Asia, but returned to civilian life and took up the body and fender repair trade, which he pursued for many years.
All along, Rist developed his skills as a woodcarver, painter and wildlife artist. When looking at one more crunched fender became more than he could bear, he quit and started making handgun grips in his backyard shop. He is as good as anyone who has ever done this work and far better than most.
Rist loves wood and keeps a large stock of various types, both plain and exotic, to build grips to customer’s order. He also makes up grips of many kinds on speculation, which he usually sells from a table at one of the local gun shows. For many favorite guns (1911s, Brownings, most revolvers and many of the earlier European autos) Rist can fix you right up.
Grips on your Spanish Astra cracked? Send in the pieces and he will give it a try. Want something exotic for a pre-war Colt Woodsman? Rist is your man. How about one-piece-type grips of varnished walnut for an elderly Peacemaker? No problem. On some, he may need the gun to insure a perfect fit, but for the common firearms, he can work from a library of grip and frame patterns.
I have known Rist for several years and have had many pairs of grips made by him. He is a straight and honest craftsman that guarantees his work. After using his grips on almost everything that I shoot regularly, I can positively endorse his craftsmanship and I never cease to be amazed at the things that he can do. Several months ago, I wrote about a beautiful pre-war Colt Woodsman with a complete King conversion performed on it. It was in Rist’s shop, in Carson City, Nevada, for new grips and I was able to borrow it for photography and a brief write-up.
His grips almost overwhelmed the old classic .22. They were crafted from mother-of-pearl and carved with a pheasant flushing from cover. He has also carved Gunsite Ravens on ivory grips for me. Beyond that, he has developed an impressive wood-burning technique. This enabled him to come up with a pair of maple wood 1911 grips for a jurist friend. They display a beautifully rendered blind justice, complete with blindfold and scales. By one means or another, he can put almost any design on his grips: emblems, wings, military insignia, badges, wildlife, lodge emblems, government insignia and much more.
There is a great deal of bum information circulating in regards to the use of ivory for pistol grips. Virtually all ivory comes from Africa and it may be legally imported into the United States with appropriate licenses. Rist uses a lot of ivory on grips, making panels for autos like the 1911 Colt and 1935 Browning. He also does many pair every year for Colt Pythons and big frame Smith & Wessons. Most of all, he completes the allure of the classic Cowboy Gun with one-piece grips for the Peacemaker Colt.
Since there are so many measurement differences in various generations of the old SAA (Single Action Army), he will probably have to have the gun in house in order to fit them perfectly. Ivory, particularly as shaped and fitted by Rist, is the most elegant grip material available. He can, however, work with mother of pearl for shooters who were never influenced by George C. Scott as George S. Patton.
As much as his ivory is distinctive, I must also mention his work with several kinds of horn. They are made of elk horn and finish up with a good-looking black-on-cream speckled look. I have seen a pair 1911 grips, double-diamond checkered, made of moose horn. This material ends up finished in several shades of gray. Other kinds of horn work pretty well, including Cape Buffalo horn, which finishes a shiny jet-black and sometimes with mysterious streaks of gray. All of the horn materials produce great-looking pistol grips.
Most of Rist’s grips are made of wood. He has wood that varies in color from a creamy yellow-white (tupelo, holly) to almost jet-black (ebony, African blackwood). Between those extremes are many shades of red, purple, yellow, brown and even olive green. Grain is another issue, with burl walnut and flashy cocobolo often used. Small spots of color (so called “eyes”) often appear in woods like domestic bird’s-eye maple or imported Algerian amboyna. There are a number of excellent reference books on hardwoods, which number in the hundreds of species, but I will stay with ones Rist regularly uses for grips and carvings.
At the thrice-yearly Big Reno Show, he lays out an interesting display table of magnificent grips of every kind and type. Suffice it to say that he can fill the greatest majority of possible requests. Last week at the show, I saw such things as checkered ivory grips for a Colt Pocket Model .380 (with medallions), high-horn grips for S&W Centennials (new style frame) and even reproduction extended target grips for a pre-war Match Target Woodsman.
Better than half of that table was covered with grips for the venerable 1911, since it is by far the craftsman’s bestseller. He had them in walnut, cocobolo, tulipwood, kingwood, maple, holly, African blackwood and many other types. But a surprisingly large number of grips were made of an almost unknown wood that is exotic in the extreme. It’s called buckeye burl and it’s harvested in the west-facing slopes of the Sierras in California.
The tree grows in the arid, rocky slopes of the Gold Rush country and is very tough and surprisingly light. Rist sends off selected blanks of the material to be stabilized in a shop specifically equipped for that purpose. The procedure involves forcing a chemical compound into the pores of the wood under pressure. The result is a material that is slightly darker than it went in, but utterly stable in every dimension.
It will not crack, chip or warp and is therefore ideal for producing pistol grips. In color, buckeye burl has an exceptional range of color. The base color is usually tan, but sometimes light to medium gray. There are streaks of black or dark brown and flecks of many other colors. Since the material usually comes from the roots of the buckeye tree, its grain goes in all directions. I have 1911 grips made from buckeye burl that is all shades of gray. This may be one of the most beautiful pair of grips that ever came out of Rist’s shop.
There is more to good handgun grips than flashy wood or other high-visibility material. It is great to have your pet handgun look good, but it is better to have it feel good and better yet have it shoot well. Properly contoured grips can have a lot to do with making all of these things happen. On request, Rist can deviate from the standard shape of such common grips as the 1911.
He can make them thicker or thinner, even add thumb rests or finger grooves. Checkering is another matter. It is the traditional means of improving the hand’s adhesion to the gun and can be attractive when crisply executed. Rist uses checkering extensively and can do such standards as the classic double diamond and other functional fancy patterns or just side-to-side, top-to-bottom checkering at any frequency of lines-per-inch.
Tactical Oval Shape
I asked Rist to make several pairs of grips for 1911s from my favorite wood, African Blackwood in the Tactical Oval shape that I developed several years ago. This contour tapers from front to back in such a way that a pair of them mounted on a 1911 grip produces an egg-shaped cross section. The grip gives a shooter a little better purchase for his finger tips and improves awareness of where the gun is actually pointed. Most shooters seem to like it.
On my specimen, Rist checkered the grips in a fingerprint pattern. I got the basic idea for this pattern from some of the early grips of Walter Roper. Providing a checkered contact point for the tips of the three grasping fingers and leaving the rest smooth, this design looks great and works even better.
I guess that it is obvious that I am sky-high on this artisan’s work. That’s true, but you won’t be disappointed by anything that comes out of that little shop. Give him a try; contact Tony Rist at 1165 W. Winnie Lane, Dept CH, Carson City, NV 89703; 775-883-5952; www.tonyrist.com.
The custom handgun is alive and well in America, and it has been so since…
by Walt Rauch / Mar 5, 2009