Getting a Grip

brian board handgun
Brian Board’s masterpiece (bottom) and the rasped-into-shape plastic grip on the long-barreled Challenger (top). The rasp marks can be seen clearly, but the grip works well. In my heretical opinion, the later, slimmer plastic grip is superior to the original bulky walnut one.

by Terry Wieland

Among other things I lusted for at the age of 16, the Browning Challenger — then in its first-iteration heyday — was high on the list. Since then, there has been a Challenger II and III, but for sheer aesthetic delight, none comes close to the beautifully finished original Challenger of the mid-60s.

Made to FN’s highest Belgian standard of fit and finish, with dark, glossy bluing and an action like buttered silk, even its minor flaws, like the gold-plated trigger, you could forgive as being emblematic of a taste-challenged age.

There was, however, one functional detail that took away from the Challenger’s operation, and that was its bulky, one-piece, wrap-around walnut grip. Undoubtedly it was nicely made, but if you didn’t have hands like an ape, it was just too big. And, because of its complexity, there was no after-market alternative available.

As the Challenger neared the end of its production life, amid the inflation chaos of the early ‘70s, Browning changed to a translucent plastic grip which was very attractive, and obviously much cheaper. It was also slimmer, although it still had those flaring skirts. 

A few years ago, I realized my dream and acquired a Challenger with one of those plastic grips. A previous owner, who had the same objections to its bulk as I did, had gone at the grip with a rasp, removing the bell-like skirt around the base, which not only got in the way to no purpose, but made the gun difficult to fit in a holster or carry comfortably.

The rasp job looked hideous, but it fit my hand and felt good. This gave me the bright idea of buying one of the walnut grips, which were available as replacement parts, and having a stockmaker slim it down like the plastic one, but professionally done with checkering and an oil finish. The grip cost me 50 bucks on eBay, and sat in a drawer for 15 years while I looked for a stockmaker.

Original Browning walnut grip (right) compared with our remodeled one. It took time, effort, and money, but it was worth it.

Finally, I met Brian Board, a wood specialist who lives close by, and persuaded him to undertake the task. Brian, being a member of the American Custom Gunmakers Guild (ACGG), works to a standard considerably higher than I thought was needed. 

As it turned out, though, the complexities of the factory grip, with a single through-screw holding it in place, and steel bushings with olde-world wood-to-metal fit, required Brian to make a custom counter-boring bit to deepen the holes as the grip was slimmed down. He then had to shorten the screw, re-set the bushings, re-checker and, well, you get the idea.

The finished product was superb, as the photos show, but it cost me $500, and even at that, Brian trimmed some hours off the bill. Having a second factory walnut grip, I asked if he’d do another one, knowing what he now knows, and with the custom counter-bore already made. Short answer:  Absolutely not.

“If I charged for all the time I put in, you’d question both your sanity and mine,” he said.

Brian’s customized grip meets the high standards of fit and finish of the original FN-made Browning Challenger, and only a Browning expert could tell that it’s not factory original. As for shooting and carrying, it’s a gem. I switched the original rasped-down plastic grip onto a long-barreled Challenger which I bought in a moment of weakness, and that will have to do for it.

Out of curiosity, I did a quick look around the internet gun sites. I found one old-stock but unused walnut grip for sale for $200, and a Challenger from 1974, with the amber-colored plastic grip, and an asking price of $1,295. Gulp. Or rather, two gulps.

Having realized my goal of a Challenger set up exactly the way I want it, it’s time to call it a day and not try for two. At least, I say that now.


Our shooting editor is spending far too much time chasing guns he lusted after as a teenager. At least in the case of the superb original Browning Challenger, it has not been a disappointment.