Photography, books and movies about wartime are a few of my passions. The ever-present scene of the soldier looking lovingly at a tattered photo of the gal he left behind always chokes me up. While touring the National WWll Museum in New Orleans this year, I saw many of those worn and faded photos displayed within the glass cases. How many times must that soldier have looked at that photo, longing to return home and see his girl again? How else could a soldier have held on to the image of a loved one left behind? In my research through history books and talking to people in the field and at local gun shows, I found an interesting and artful way that this devotion was expressed— sweetheart grips.
Throughout history, soldiers have created unusual souvenirs from battlefield debris. It wasn’t until after World War l that the term “trench art”was used to describe these creations made from carved bones or shell casings, among other things. During World War II, some American soldiers even found ways of replacing the grips on their pistols. This form of trench art came about as a result of the invention of acrylic. A clear, lightweight acrylic known as Lucite was new to this war, and covered the viewing ports of warplanes. Soldiers salvaged the Lucite from downed planes and used it 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 gals beneath where the grips 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 could see how many rounds he had left. The photo was also an easy way for a soldier to identify his gun, should someone else pick it up. And when they found enemy guns, they made clear grips for those, too.
Where can you find these historical sweetheart grips? I started by heading to a local gun show. Many vendors I asked 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. One vendor allowed me to take photos of a war-era gun with the original grips.
Luckily, Garrett Schuster, who owns Garrett’s Guns & Ammo eBay store, found a pistol for me at another gun show. This French Unique 25 auto (1920–1930) is not what you would have found soldiers carrying during World War ll. However, it does show the spread of the sweetheart grip outside the war. The elderly man who sold the gun said it was his wife in the photos. I enjoy a good love story, so I’m going to believe him.
Just like the soldiers in World War ll, many people still enjoy customizing their firearms, and grips are an easy, non-permanent way to make that change. Not only does a custom grip show a little of your personality, it also may show others something that you hold dear to your heart.
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 how easy the process is. 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.
Rio Grande Custom Grips
Is the sweetheart grip story true or an exaggerated love story? One doubter in Ebay comments is quoted as saying, “There is no way these grips were made from windscreen of a Japanese Zero. They either burned on impact or crashed in the ocean.”
I, on the other hand, believe in the love story. The grips of my pistol were carved by a muddy soldier, as he sat in the trenches with bullets flying overhead. They carry the photos of his sweetheart, whom he married upon his return. They lived happily ever after.