What Are Sweetheart Grips? History & Humanity in War


If you’ve ever watched an old war movie, you’ve almost certainly seen a soldier pull out a picture of his girl back home and stare at it.

Maybe he’s sitting down in a trench or huddled up to sleep, but either way, it tugs at your heartstrings. 

Soldiers with mail
Mail was surprisingly fast, considering all the factors standing in the way, but there was nothing like a picture from home to make it seem not so far away.

Usually, the soldier pulls the picture out of a cigarette case, helmet, Bible, or pocket…all places real soldiers kept pictures of loved ones left behind.

Soldiers comforting each other in the trenches
Soldiers comforting each other in the trenches

However, there’s also another less well-known place where servicemen kept photos, especially during World War II — the grip of their gun. 

This is what became known as a sweetheart grip.

Cute WWII couple sweetheart grip
Cute WWII couple sweetheart grip

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What Are Sweetheart Grips?

Sweetheart grips were made possible by acrylic (AKA Plexiglass or Lucite), which was invented between World War I and World War II. 

Aircraft and vehicles used acrylic. The material replaced windows and basically anything else previously made of glass.

Servicemen salvaged it from crashes and then shaped it to replace the grip on their handguns. 

Lady Be Good Crash
Lady Be Good Crash

Since the new acrylic grip was clear, they often placed a loved one’s photo under the acrylic. This kept the photo close by and safe.

Typically the picture would be a girlfriend or wife, which is where the term “sweetheart grip” comes from.

However, children, parents, siblings, or other family members also made appearances. Some soldiers would even use a picture of a favorite pin-up girl. 

M1917 Grip with dog
…or Man’s Best Friend!

Sweetheart grips were mostly seen on Colt 1911s it was the standard-issue sidearm of Allied troops during World War II.

That said, sweetheart grips worked with any handgun with a replaceable grip, such as enemy guns that soldiers picked up.

Sweetheart grip on a captured Japanese Nambu pistol
Sweetheart grip on a captured Japanese Nambu pistol

Why Did Soldiers Use Sweetheart Grips?

Sweetheart grips were just one more way for servicemen to carry pictures of loved ones…something they’d done since cameras became accessible.

But that doesn’t mean that sweetheart grips didn’t serve a purpose. 

Sisters on a sweetheart grip
Perhaps the owner’s sisters or children?

Sweetheart grips helped boost morale in a couple of ways.

These unique grips reminded soldiers of those they loved back home. The people they fought for and wanted to return to. 

WWI Postcard
WWI Postcard — a girl worth fighting for was a popular theme.

But the actual process of creating the grip was a morale booster in itself, just like other forms of trench art.

Creating trench art provided a distraction from the hardships of war. As you probably know first-hand, finishing a project leads to a certain sense of satisfaction and pride.

M1917 Patriotic Grip
An M1917 with a custom patriotic grip–the other side of this gun has the puppy dog grip further up the article!

A clear grip also served a few more functional purposes beyond just protecting photos.

Without a picture underneath, a clear grip could allow a soldier to keep track of how many rounds were left in their magazine.

For this purpose, right-handed soldiers put a picture on the right side while lefties would do the opposite and leave the left side clear. 

Clear 1911 grip
Modern clear 1911 grip

Another practical advantage of sweetheart grips was that they helped with quick and easy identification of gear.

Sadly, they helped identify bodies of deceased soldiers as well. 

Are Sweetheart Grips Still Around?

Unfortunately, sweetheart grips are rare these days. Even worse, there’s little documentation so we don’t know how common they were.

Soldier posing with a sweetheart grip 1911
Soldier posing with a sweetheart grip 1911

Plexiglass was pretty easy to come by, so that’s not a limiting factor. But soldiers were supposed to return issued sidearms, so how many were reverted and given back? We can’t say for sure.

Of course, some rebellious soldiers kept guns. War trophies are a different story…

That said, even guns that made it back home could have seen their sweetheart grips removed.

WWII surplus rifles
After the war was over, thousands of firearms, aircraft, and vehicles made their way into the civilian market — but thousands more were abandoned or destroyed.

Once you are with your loved one, do you still need their photo on the grip of your gun?

And though sweetheart grips helped protect pictures, they were by no means a method of foolproof photo preservation. Many current examples have photos in poor condition. 

Many grips may have been removed because the photo was no longer needed or ended up in bad shape.

WWII Rifles piled up
How many of these were art pieces in their own right?

It’s also possible that oblivious family members removed them.

Like other types of trench art, people didn’t believe what they’d created would have any value or interest to future generations.

WWII locket 2
As you can see, the sentiment went both ways! Lockets, however, are much easier to find with their original photos.

In addition, sweetheart grips were most common during World War II.

Though some were made during later wars as well.

Most sweetheart grips have had decades to be removed, become damaged, or otherwise go missing. 

M1917 Grips with Dorothy Lamour
M1917 Grips with Dorothy Lamour

There’s also evidence that these grips swept beyond the war front. You can find a few examples of weapons that weren’t used by any military.

Unfortunately, there are even fewer examples available like this. So, it’s even harder to say exactly how frequently this happened and where.

Fury Sweetheart Grip
The sweetheart grip on Wardaddy’s pistol, Fury (2014).

You can still find reproductions, however. They do show up in the media every now and then.

For example, Brad Pitt carries a Smith & Wesson M1917 revolver with a sweetheart grip in Fury (2014). Look closely to spot the pin-up girl grips.

Fury M1917
The M1917 carried by Brad Pitt as “Wardaddy” in Fury.

How Can I Get My Own Sweetheart Grips?

Want your own sweetheart grips to customize your gun? Sweetheart grips are an easy, temporary customization so I’d love to see them make a comeback.

These days, a couple of different options exist. Fortunately, none involve salvaging acrylic from downed aircraft. 

I'm a gunsmith
No. You’re not.

If you want to customize the shape of the grip, buy some acrylic and shape it yourself by cutting it or heating and molding it.

Honestly, it’s tricky if you don’t have experience with working with acrylic. It also requires tools you probably don’t already have.

For an easier route, just buy some clear grips

Either way, cut your photo down to size and install it with your grip.

Want an even easier method?

Just order some from a company that specializes in custom grips from photos.

Though lots of companies make custom grips, only a handful will place an actual photo on them. 

Frozen Elsa Sweetheart grip
…You do you, I guess.

Rio Grande Custom Grips is one company that does. They also have an excellent reputation.

The company offers grips for several of the most popular handguns with removable grips. They’ll work with you to make sure everything looks fantastic!

If you just want the vintage feel without customization, though, reproduction grips with pin-up girls exist.

Conclusion

Sweetheart grips can still be found in a few collections or popping up online every now and then, but they definitely seem to be few and far between.

Brigadier General Guy Drewry's M1911 with a picture of his wife, Louise Northington (Rock Island Armory)
Brigadier-General Guy Drewry’s M1911 with a picture of his wife, Louise Northington (Rock Island Armory)

It’s really a shame since, at least in my opinion. They remind us of an important human element of World War II, and war in general, that often gets forgotten. 

Sweetheart grips on a knife
Sweetheart grips on a knife

They remind us not only of the extra difficulty soldiers faced (and still face) by being thousands of miles away from those they love. But also of how those back home experienced heartache from missing and worrying about the people they love fighting in the war.

Have you ever seen a sweetheart grip in person? Thought about making one yourself? We want to know all about it! If you’re looking for even more history, check out the Famous Guns of WWII and The Coolest Guns from WWII (That You Can Still Buy).



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