I have a great interest in vintage Roper grips (as well as Lew Sanderson grips, which I’ll no doubt write about soon). I own a couple pairs, have traded off a couple, and am always looking for more. Roper grips are a niche in the shooting collectibles and antiques market, and there’s not a lot of published documentation about them. It’s a hard subject to Google, with most of the good information passed word of mouth between knowledgeable collectors. Here’s my contribution. Much of what I’ve learned has been taken from taken from internet forum boards, personal examination of Roper stocks and pictures of them, and one great article by Kevin Williams in Man at Arms magazine.
Roper grips were aftermarket target stocks marketed by Walter Roper from about 1934 to 1952. They were handmade, from wood, and production numbers reflect a relative scarcity compared to the abundance of something that was machine or assembly line produced (think about how you can always find older Franzite grips).
Roper’s grips were made by two stock makers in his employ - Matheis Gagne and WDH Nichols. Gagne made grips during the entire run, with Nichols joining during the mid to late period to focus on grip panels for semi-automatic pistols. Gagne’s specialty was revolver stocks, and the distinctive three arched finger tip ribbon found on many Roper grips was his signature mark. The ribbon, in combination with a couple other more subtle features, is the way most Roper stock’s are identified and authenticated.
Roper grips that survive to this day command high prices. The highest I’ve seen was around $950 for a set of N frame stocks on EBay about two years ago (when money was flush…). I believe under normal circumstances, $500 give or take is a more typical amount for a set of Roper’s in good condition – though that’s still a real good price for a set of grips.
Having mentioned the rarity and the current prices, it’s my suspicion there’s a fair amount of Roper stocks out there (residing on vintage handguns) that are not immediately identifiable as Roper’s at first glance. Most conspicuously, these tend to lack the Roper (i.e., Gagne) fingertip ribbon.
Roper stocks do not have a maker’s mark, so in any event the task of authenticating a set of Roper stocks is entirely a matter of confidence. In effect, the degree to which the stocks conform to the commonly understood Roper pattern determines what they’re worth. The ribbon is a usually a dead giveaway. When it’s present, those grips command the highest prices. In many cases, grips without the ribbon are selling for no premium at all because the buyer and seller aren’t aware the grips are Roper’s.
Here’s a list of other features and assumptions that might help determine if a set of antique grips conform to the Roper style and are in fact Roper’s:
1. Almost without exception, Roper grips will show two small, squarish stake holes (one low, one high, an inch and a half or so apart) on the backs of each panel. These jig holes were created when Gagne and Nichols mounted the panels onto their checkering saddle so they could cut the checkering. Possible exception: some grips with an otherwise typical Roper ribbon or scallop will have round, machine cut jig holes in back. There’s some speculation these are not Roper grips, but those of an imitator from the same time or more recent. However, there’s also the counter speculation that these are in fact Roper grips, made during the late period when a more inexpensive machine checkering option was offered by Roper.
2. The Roper ribbon as commonly known may appear on both panels, one, or none at all. Two ribboned panels or a set with none at all signifies an ambidextrous set. Sets with one ribbon usually show this on the left panel (border outlines the fingertips of the strong hand, most people are right-handed). Conversely, left-handed Roper grips with one ribbon on the right panel are a REAL rarity. If you encounter set of vintage, checkered, but unribboned grips that otherwise bear a strong resemblance to Ropers, examine the backs of the panels for jig holes. The presence of the jig marks in combination with other Roper features goes a long way in authentication.
3. The most common, unribboned sets are ambidextrous revolver grips that are shaped a lot like Colt Python stocks. When encountered, these are almost fully checkered. Look for the jig holes. But, Griffin & Howe stocks from the same period look a quite a bit like these. These are pretty desirable themselves though.
4. There are quite a few variations of the fingertip border or scallop to be found. A fully checkered panel - with the three arched, two pointed, uncheckered ribbon - is obviously the most common. Other variations include three finger tip impressions on one panel, with these indentations being checkered. Or, checkering on the fingertip side may appear on the inner half, ending with a leaf edge pattern in the center of the grip (again, 2 pointed). The backstrap side is uncheckered. If you see a set of vintage grips with ornate fingertip checkering on one side, again, look for jig marks on the backs of the panels to further confirm as Ropers.
5. Almost without exception you should assume all Roper grips will have at least one diamond showing around a grip screw hole (on either panel). The other panel may have its hole in an uncheckered area, but if it is in a checkered area, it should have a diamond around it. The tallness of the diamonds on the vertical axis may vary any given set. This is a matter of the degree to which the checkering lines intersect. I observe some set to set variation, it does not appear Gagne had a standard pattern.
6. All genuine Roper grips should have checkering of some sort. Hand checkering on Roper grips has been described as “organic” (Williams words in Man at Arms - I thinks it’s a good description). It’s well executed, at about 18 lines per inch. Nonetheless, real Ropers may show some very light scribe overruns into the borders. This is common, typical, and good for authentication.
7. Grips screw sets will generally be of the type Smith and Wesson used during the same era. Brass escutcheons, unblued screw.
8. Sets for the Colt medium frame double-action revolvers of the day are the most numerous, with similar Smiths a close second. But Ropers were also made for the Colt Single Action Army, Police Positive, 1911, Woodsman, H&R USRA, and the various High Standard semi-auto 22s (B, HD).
9. Roper revolver grips usually display a ‘coke bottle’ shape, with a slight flair at the bottom and a swell in the palm side. Roper grips heavily influenced Smith’s later ‘coke bottle’ N frame grips (see Williams). Roper grips usually add a fair amount of length to the butt. Roper grips, even when covering the entire frame, are somewhat slim.
10. Thumbrests are often encountered on Roper grips, and almost always show checkering into the thumbpad.
11. Wood and finish color on Ropers will vary. They’re mostly walnut, with stains ranging from dark purplish/red to light honey.
I think quite a few collectors are conditioned to dismiss and walk by vintage handguns (slightly pre and post war anyway) that don’t have their original stocks. I look at these guns closely. Ignoring the Jay Scott and Franzite stuff is no doubt very easy, but a nice set of vintage aftermarket stocks really intrigues me. These are the criteria I use to determine if they’re Roper’s, and I think, a reasonable authentication guide.
I’ve tried to attribute info to published authors who deserve credit. The rest is my own observations. Enjoy – buy wisely and sell honestly with appropriate caveats.