By John Taffin
When my kids were preschool age and even several years later, money was really tight. Twice a year, I managed to squeeze out enough money at both Easter and Christmas to buy my two girls special dresses, hoping I could one day do more. I’m sure many of you have gone down the same highway at a time when necessities literally ate up the budget.
Now, my kids are grown and my grandkids are no longer teenagers. I feel fortunate to have expendable dollars so I can do things for my grandkids, really important things such as helping with college expenses. I want to do everything I can for them, and one of the things I’ve done — after teaching them how to shoot and do it safely — is to supply them with quality firearms.
Two years ago, my granddaughter Whitney visited us for Thanksgiving, so I picked a few guns out of the safe and we went shooting. She immediately latched onto a Model 19 and said she’d like to have it someday, since she knew I plan on giving many of my guns to my kids and grandkids. After thinking about this, I figured it’d be better to start from scratch and build a special Model 19 just for her. I looked around and found a classic 4″ pinned and recessed which had possibilities.
I went to see my gunsmith Tom at Buckhorn Gun and made arrangements for him to tune and tighten it. He then turned it over to Rocky York, a local craftsman, for re-bluing. At the same time, the hammer and trigger were sent back to Turnbull for re-case hardening. I wanted to cover all the bases, as this would be a very special sixgun for a very special granddaughter. There was one thing missing: a nice set of grips/stocks.
I just “happened” (I definitely don’t believe in coincidences) to be on an online forum and found the username, Kurac — a fellow who was making Smith & Wesson target-style grips as a hobby and selling them from time to time. I contacted him and learned it would be several months before he had anything for me, and it was my choice whether or not I wanted to purchase them later.
A couple of months later, he informed me he had two pairs of smooth target grips, one for a Model 19 and the other for a Model 29. I immediately told him I’d take both — this is certainly one of those times when “Buy ’em both!” really paid off. It turned out to be a good news/bad news proposition.
The good news was these grips are absolutely exquisite: beautifully crafted, very hand friendly and just about fit the grip frames perfectly. The bad news was the maker, John Culina, didn’t want me to write about them, since he only made them as a hobby. This saddened me, as I always like to inform readers when I stumble onto something very special. Believe me, these grips are very special. More on that later.
When paired with these smooth, French walnut Magna-style grips, the Model 1955 is an
unparalleled big-bore defensive sixgun.
A Jim Riggs-engraved Smith & Wesson .44 Magnum with
checkered Culina grips in the Roper pattern.
The Tipping Point
There was a time when Smith & Wesson actually offered quality wood stocks, which looked good, felt good and fit the frame like they were made for it. Something went south in the 1980’s and it all changed. John discovered this when he purchased one of those special run .44 Special stainless steel Model 624’s. He discovered, as many of us had earlier, the “Coke Bottle” shape of the stocks — which had deteriorated to something more akin to a saw handle.
John had this to say on his Model 624: “The gun was in good condition, but it had one problem which I’m sure many of you can relate to — it came with one of the most ugly set of aftermarket grips I had ever laid eyes on. I just couldn’t bear it, so I sanded them down and gave them a nice glossy refinish. They looked much better, but the walnut was still really plain and I wanted something more appealing.
“I decided a set of Ebony smooth target grips would look really sharp on this handgun. After much research, I could only find one custom grip maker who was making Ebony grips. I wasn’t able to contact him directly, but I got a hold of an outfit that stocked and sold his product. After several attempts, they couldn’t tell me what a set would cost and how long it would take to get one. I got frustrated, threw up my hands and said, ‘Forget it; I’ll make a set myself!’”
Sixgunners in the future will be very glad this frustration occurred!
John appreciated the “3-legged” quality of Culina’s grip making. This collection
of N-Frame grips (from left to right) of Circassian walnut, Osage orange and
Bocote is a good example of his craftsmanship.
This unlucky target took a beating from John’s granddaughter, Whitney.
Her new .357 Magnum fitted with Culina’s cocobolo stocks shoots how it looks — snappy.
This good news/bad news situation is now only good news: John decided to go into the business of crafting custom grips for sixgunners. Not to worry, he isn’t leaving out those who pack a 1911! John recently informed me he and his wife formed Culina LLC and are making grips/stocks fulltime.
I’m certainly happy he made this decision. I know many grip makers, and John Culina is starting at the top by providing exceptional quality and workmanship. In fact, if you like what you see here, you better order quickly before he becomes famous and you wind up on the waiting list.
Currently, John offers both square and round-butt to square, smooth target grips for N- and K-Frame Smith & Wessons, Magna-style for S&W N- and K-Frames, as well as Colt Python-size smooth target grips and both standard and flat bottom style for 1911’s. J-Frame grips will soon follow and he’s already offering checkering. Factory medallions can also be fitted.
The classic “Coke Bottle” style grips are offered, as well as regular Smith & Wesson factory target grips. He can provide potential buyers with the dimensions of each of these grips. In my younger years, my hands were tougher and I preferred relatively thin grips; however, these days I’m much more inclined to choose thicker grips like the ones John offers. By the time you read this, John’s hoping to offer grips for single action sixguns.
It isn’t difficult to find hand-filling, target-style stocks for Smith & Wesson sixguns. They can be anything from smooth to checkered to finger grooved and all levels of quality. However, trying to find a pair of Magna-style grips — or plainclothes grips, as Elmer Keith called them — for Smith & Wesson N-Frames isn’t easy.
I got a pair smooth fancy walnut grips from John and they fit my 1955 Model 4″ .45 ACP perfectly — making it easier to conceal than when fitted with target grips and they fit my hand exceptionally well. I realize how subjective grip fit is, but big-bore 4″ Smith & Wesson’s seem to balance superbly for me with smaller grips. These concealable grips, when matched with full moon clips for the 1955 .45 ACP, make for one of the most practical big-bore defensive sixguns ever imagined.
Osage orange (left) and Circassian walnut grips stand out
on this pair of Smith & Wesson Model 629’s.
Culina LLC’s quality doesn’t leave out 1911’s; these stylish
grips include English walnut (left) and cocobolo.
Currently, John’s grips are offered from exotic woods such as bocote, cocobolo, three types of ebony, goncala alves, three types of maple, Osage orange, snakewood, zebra wood and — would you believe — seven styles of walnut, including claro, Circassian, French and English. In addition to all of these, Culina also handles special requests.
Slabs for creating grips are book-matched and three grades are offered, based upon grain pattern and origin of the wood. The three are: Service Grade, which is the plainest wood; Signature Grade, made from premium select cuts; and the very rare Exhibition Grade, which only about two to three percent of wood qualifies for. Prices for the three grades average $85, $135 and $159 for S&W target grips, while the same grades for 1911 are $35 and $65 for Service and Signature Grades.
Grips are normally finished with Tru-Oil, occasionally Tung-Oil and then buffed with a coat of wax. Personally, I normally don’t like high-gloss finishes on gun grips — but the finish used by John Culina is quite eye-pleasing.
Grip making, just as custom holster making, is a 3-legged stool. Those three legs are quality of design, quality of raw material and quality of craftsmanship. John Culina’s grips rest on three solid legs.
John can be reached the old-fashioned way at (916) 259-1251 or at www.culinagrips.com.