Carved ivory is beautiful and even functional; rosewood or walnut is handsome, but the look and feel of stag, now that's almost uniquely something of the American West.
Turn back the clock to the "B" westerns and even farther to the real West, where it was not unusual to find sixguns with stag grips, and very common to find knives made with antler handles. No two panels are alike, each has a rough surface that helps the shooter or knife-handler to maintain a grip even if his hand is wet with rain, snow, perspiration or blood, and there is an abundance of raw material to be found pretty much all over the western US landscape, with perhaps California being the exception.
Over the years, as the supply of highly-prized Sambar stag antler from India has dwindled, grip makers have turned to other types of antler material as substitute. I have a couple of .45-caliber, semi-autos, a Colt Combat Commander and a clone from Auto Ordnance, that are fitted with antler panels. The grips on my Commander came from Argentina, while those on the Auto Ordnance are made from a European antler. Both are attractive and very functional, even in the wet Pacific Northwest environment.
While Sambar is prohibitively expensive these days, and there is a finite supply of the stuff, my pal Raj Singh at Eagle Grips (460 Randy Rd., Dept. GWK, Carol Stream, IL 60188; phone: 630-260-0400;online: eaglegrips.com) has been turning our American elk grips, and in the process has demonstrated that this antler material really is a good choice. At one time, elk antler was considered to be too porous and lightweight for a grip material. Compared to the far denser Sambar, it is lighter in weight, but as I discovered recently with a set of panels supplied by Singh, elk antler is darned tough. I wrote earlier about Eagle's "Gunfighter" grips now enjoying popularity amount the Cowboy Action crowd in the March 1, 2010 issue.
The uneven surface of any antler, even a polished one, allows for a firm hold (more about that in a minute), and contributes to a visual effect that is unlike any other material. Depending upon the type of antler, one can get a dramatic combination of color that might contrast from an almost white or creamy white surface to deep brown in the recesses. This is why many grip makers have, over the years, tried to replicate stag or antler, which are not exactly the same thing, as noted above. Genuine stag is very dense and heavy, while elk antler is less so.
A set of Eagle's genuine elk panels are now on one of my two Ruger New Vaquero sixguns, the one with a 7 ½ -inch barrel and color case hardened frame. (My shorter trail gun, the all-blue model with a 4 5/8-inch barrel, has a set of yellow "Old Ivory" grips from the now-defunct Ajax company.)
Others may disagree, but there is just something about a long-barreled single-action sixgun that simply begs to be fitted with stag grip panels. Perhaps the only exception would be the horse-head ivory grips that graced the nickel finished Single Action Army Colt carried by Alan Ladd in Shane, but stag certainly carries the day on a blued revolver. (Think Matt Dillon in Gunsmoke.)
True enough, as veteran Gun Week readers will recall, I handcrafted a set of walnut grip panels for this particular sixgun a few years ago, and they have served with distinction. Rather than buy a new handgun, one can swap out grips and have a gun that has a new look.
As noted above, stag makes a superb material for knife handles. That is perhaps what attracted me to the Ruana heavy-blade skinning knife I acquired back in 1977 in Anchorage. It was in a cardboard box with several other Ruana knives and they were being sold at closeout prices. This astonished me because I knew who Rudy Ruana was and about the quality of his knives, and obviously the guy at this hole-in-the-wall gun shop didn't, else he would have never sold that knife for less than $50.
A couple of years ago, I finally ended a 40-year infatuation with the famed Puma White Hunter knife and found a brand new one in the box at a bargain price. I have only gently touched the edge with a fine-grit diamond hone, and other than that, the knife remains untouched. The stag handle is finely shaped and features a lanyard hole at the butt.
Many people prefer jig bone handles, which are colored to resemble stag, and a couple of years ago, Columbia River Knife & Tool introduced a hefty assisted opening side-lock model with a polished bone handle that is a real eye-catcher.
Again, handles made from bone are remarkable durable, and they polish up handsomely. As for providing a firm hold, they definitely do that.
For example, using that Ruana, I've skinned a couple of big deer in pouring rain without ever having had the knife slip around in my hands. As noted earlier, the uneven surface contributes directly to a firm grasp, so one is not likely to drop it. Also, I never had to touch up the edge, which speaks well of the steel. Anybody familiar with this skinning process will know it isn't exactly tidy, and aside from the blood and rain, my hands ended up covered with a slippery film of fat. This, of course, came after field dressing those animals, and one never keeps one's hands clean during that process!
Stag, and other antler material, is not always easy to work with, and depending upon the age of the antler, when you start cutting it, the stuff can stink up a room.
I built the handle to a ball-starter for my .50-caliber muzzleloader out of a piece of mule deer antler I had some years ago, and the initial cutting process smelled really rank, even though I did it outside in the "fresh" air. Drilling a hole through the section I had cut was another adventure in new odors, and with any luck, I'll never have to do that again!