It’s February and the perfect time to bring back my article about Sweetheart Grips, originally posted in Women’s Outdoor News.
In high school I despised going to history class. The only activity I recall was coloring a map and choosing purple for the Ottoman Empire. Later, in college I learned to appreciate the study of our past when I attended an Art History course. Objects from the past tell so many stories. One just needs to do a little research (or have a great imagination) to let that article talk.
Now, as an adult, my love of history continues. Photography, books and movies about wartime are a few of my passions. The ever present scene with the soldier looking lovingly at a tattered photo of the gal he left behind, always chokes me up. While touring the National WW ll Museum in New Orleans, LA I enjoyed seeing displayed many of those worn and faded photos within the glass cases. Who did these photographs belong to? How many times must a soldier gaze at the photo, longing to return home and see his gal again?
In most movies we see a soldier pulling a tattered photo from his pocket or from under his helmet. How else might the soldier have held on to the image of a loved one left behind? How could he protect it from the elements of war? I began researching through history books, online, and talking to people in the field and at local gun shows. Eventually I found an interesting and artful way this devotion was expressed, sweetheart grips.
Throughout history, soldiers have created unusual souvenirs from battlefield debris. After World War I some used the word “trench art” to describe these creations made from carved bones, scrap metal or shelling casings, among other things. During World War II, some American soldiers even found unique ways of replacing the grips on their pistols. This form of trench art came about as a result of the invention of acrylic. New to this war was clear, lightweight acrylic that covered the viewing ports of warplanes. Known as Lucite, men salvaged the debris from downed planes. Soldiers used the Lucite to carve replacement grips for their Colt M1911A1 pistols. Removing the standard wooden grips from their Colts, they replaced them with handmade transparent grips. However, prior to putting the grips on, soldiers would place a photo of their gal where the grip attached. Thus, the “sweetheart” grips came to be.
Although many grips had photos on both sides, some soldiers kept one side of the grip clear, without a photo. This way, he would have a viewing port to see how many rounds he had left. Having a photo under the grip also made it easy for a soldier to identify his gun, should someone else pick it up. And as for finding enemy guns, many soldiers made clear grips for those too.
Once I found all this information, my quest began to find a set of these historical sweetheart grips? I started by heading to a local gun show. Some venders looked at me like I was crazy, having never heard the term sweetheart grips. Other vendors I talked to had seen a pistol come through at one time or another with a photo on it, but there were none in the building the day I went to search. Although photography was prohibited, one vendor kindly allowed me to take photos of a war era gun with the original grips.
Luckily, Garrett, who owns Garrett’s Gun and Ammo eBay store, found a pistol for me at another gun show. Although this French Unique 25 auto (1920-1930) is not what you would have found the soldiers carrying during WW II, it does show the spread of the sweetheart grip outside the war. According to Garrett, the elderly man who sold the gun said his wife was the gal in the photos. Whether this is true or not, I enjoy a good love story so, I’m going to believe him.
Just like the soldiers in WW ll, many people still enjoy customizing their firearms, and grips are an easy, non-permanent way to make that change. There are many colors, textures and designs to choose from. You can even use your own photo to have a custom set made. Rio Grande Custom Grips manufactures premium custom grips for many models of handguns with removable grips. They have a library of more than 80 designs that range from skulls and camo to animals and flowers. If you find a design that you like, they can even add a name or date to personalize them. If you want a completely customized grip, they can do that, too. Using a personal photograph of a loved one or a pet, Rio Grande Custom Grips can create your very own custom Sweetheart Grip, much more durable than those our soldiers carried in World War ll.
I had a set created for my husband and found the process very easy. I e-mailed a few high-resolution images to them; they picked out the one that would fit on the grip the best, and confirmed their choice with me. A week or so later, the grips arrived. Not only do custom grips show a little of your personality, it also gives others a glimpse of something you hold dear to your heart.
The tale of the sweetheart grips; true or exaggerated love stories? Some say, There is no way these grips were made from wind screen of a Japanese Zero. They either burned on impact or crashed in the ocean.
I, on the other hand, believe in the love story. An exhausted, muddy soldier carved the grips of my French Unique 25 as he sat in the trenches with bullets flying overhead. They carry the photos of his sweetheart, whom he later married upon his return. Oh, and they lived happily ever after.