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"It’s A Perfect Match"

by Massad Ayoob
The Complete Book of Handguns 2003
(Harris Publications; used with permission)

With quality gunleather and custom revolvers, this husband-wife team delivers a one-two punch discriminating handgunners can appreciate.

He's a clockmaker. She's a corporate accountant. Together, though, they work to benefit shooters who are connoisseurs of fine handguns and fine holsters in which to carry them. They are Grant Cunningham and his wife, Chris.

Both are competitive action pistol shooters whose hobby led them to find a better way to do their thing. Grant is a wheelgunner who founded the whimsical Revolver Liberation Alliance, whose motto is, "The West wasn't won with a jammed up gun." He's a revolver fan with specific tastes in double-action sixguns. He is partial to older Colts and Dan Wessons for their inherent accuracy.

Chris fast-tracked from first touching a gun in 1994 to getting her concealed carry permit within a year, and then taking an LFI-I class. She began to carry daily, and immediately found that most gunleather was designed by men, for men. In 2000, in desperation, she started making holsters for herself. Word about her excellent concealment holsters for women got around, and now her avocation is becoming a very busy second job.

Slick Sixguns
Most revolver aficionados would agree that Colt and Dan Wesson are tied for accuracy and ahead of the rest of the pack, but somewhere behind the Smith & Wesson brand in the action smoothness department. Grant Cunningham figures that some judicious action work on the Colt or "Dan" can give the handgunner the best of both worlds.

Grant's action work on the Colt is limited to the Python, the old Official Police and Trooper, and the D-frame guns such as the Detective Special. He doesn't care to work on later models. He chamfers the chamber edges slightly for faster reloading. His action job takes the typical "stacking" two-stage double-action stroke of the Colt to an exquisitely smooth and light single-stage DA pull. "This involves changing the geometry of the double-action strut and the double- action sear," explains Grant. "There's also some work done on the cam surfaces of the rebound lever and on the bolt drop face of the rebound cam. If the customer is up for refinishing, I polish out the bolt cuts, which Colt calls the 'bolt lead-in', on some vintages, Colts are amazingly rough at that point. Of course, you have to refinish the cylinder afterward. If the customer wants the gun refinished anyway, I like to break all the sharp edges. These include trigger surfaces, particularly the back surfaces of triggers, which can be a problem for fleshy fingers, and the back edges of triggerguards, which are often razor sharp."

Grant checks the headspacing and firing pin protrusion, the latter important to proper ignition. Many customers like bobbed hammers and double-action-only conversions. "Colts require special attention in this area. Pythons are different from D- frames, the physics of how the hammer brings the firing pin to the primer will differ. On the D-frame, you need to retain mass in the hammer, so bob it in a way that retains maximum mass behind the firing pin. The Python, with its floating firing pin, can get away with a much lighter hammer than a D-frame. On an Official Police, I have to bob the hammer the way I do on a D-frame. The double-action-only conversion is what I would recommend for carry or home defense. This includes removing the single-action cocking notch," says Grant.

He doesn't think this gets in the way of good shooting. In fact, he feels the double-action-only Colt, properly slicked, is more shootable. "To eliminate stacking, it's almost impossible to retain the single-action notch, depending on how the internal parts align. For maximum reduction of stacking and still retaining single- action capability, I must replace parts often to get parts with enough metal left."

A Grant Cunningham action job will also include removing burrs, and putting a glass smooth polish on every contact point, including the inner surfaces of frame and sideplate to reduce friction drag of internal parts. Smaller parts are also smoothed. "I even polish the ratchet lugs," notes Grant. "All that little stuff adds up. On a Colt revolver, it's the little stuff that makes the difference."

Long experience with virtually every generation of double-action Colt revolver has left some strong impressions on this craftsman. "Often, because of sloppy factory fitting, parts have to be replaced and refitted. I've seen factory guns where fitting was done with a file and too much metal was taken off," notes Cunningham. "I must say the new guns are much better than the old guns in that regard. I had a chance to work on a .32/20 Police Positive made in 1914, untouched internally for all those years, and that same week started on a Detective Special made in 1992. The internal finish of the new gun was far superior."

The smoothed, too-steep front ramp of the post-1970 Detective Special style guns did not give the best possible sight picture. Grant can reshape the front sight to give a stark, serrated sight picture while still leaving that part snag free. He can also true up the point-of-aim/point-of- impact of a fixed sight Colt that shoots off center.

Grant's secondary specialty is the Dan Wesson revolver. He does half as many as he does Colts, because there are fewer out there. "There are some deficiencies in design, not in terms of strength or accuracy, but for getting a decent DA pull. Doing an action job on a Dan Wesson is harder than doing a Colt," says Cunningham. "Many parts made over the years are poorly machined, and I'm surprised they work as well as they do. It's not unusual to get through two or three factory parts before I find one that actually fits and works. The wide target trigger needs to be thinned down, and its face radiused and polished. Also, the adjustable trigger stop is something I silver solder into a permanent stop."

There have been four generations of Dan Wesson production. Cunningham rates them as follows: "The first generation guns are overall the best; the second generation is variable, and the third generation are rarely good. I'm looking forward to seeing the new, current, fourth generation guns; I've heard good things about them. The four or so Dan Wesson 1911 s I've seen so far show an attention to detail that I like."

"By the way," Grant continues, "the barrels of all three generations are uniformly excellent. My only complaint is that they normally haven't been crowned at the muzzle. I've seen a lot with dinged muzzles. I think the Dan Wesson has to have a 45-degree barrel crown. You can get away with an eleven-degree crown on almost any other revolver, but the thinness of the Dan Wesson barrel requires a steeper angle for good protection. The forcing cones in Dan Wesson barrels are generally well finished. The guns are very accurate out of the box, and re-crowning enhances this. Sometimes, I have to replace the barrel shroud locating pin, I’ve seen several that had excessive play."

Grant offers some tips for Dan Wesson owners. "The interchangeable barrels are an intriguing feature, but for maximum accuracy and consistency, you want to make sure the barrel is tightened exactly the same way each time it is reinstalled. It's easy to over-torque them, and that can change point-of-aim/point-of-impact. I learned from the silhouette shooters, who love the Dan Wesson, to use a torque wrench to guarantee consistency."

Most Dan Wesson revolvers have adjustable sights, and like most fans of this brand, Grant finds them a bit mushy. He often replaces them with Milletts, and notes that he has seen Dan Wessons coming from the factory with Millett sights lately. "BoMar has a special order rear sight that can fit a Dan Wesson," he observes, "and I'm designing a fixed rear sight of my own."

A particularly useful modification is Grant's re-cutting of the Dan Wesson stock for concealment and for smaller hands. Because the "Dan" has a stud- type grip frame like a Ruger GP100 or SP101, the upper backstrap of the stock can be cut dramatically inward to bring the web of the shooter's hand closer to the trigger and reduce trigger reach. Says Grant Cunningham of this particular modification, "We end up with a custom Dan Wesson .357 Magnum that has the strength of a L-frame and the trigger reach of a J- frame in a package the size of a K- frame."

I spent a pleasant day with Grant and his wife shooting some of his custom guns. The accuracy, of course, was there in spades: it comes with the Colt, and it comes with the Dan Wesson. But coaxing that accuracy out of the gun requires a good trigger, particularly on the double-action stroke, and it was clear that Cunningham's magic had taken hold. I shot a sweet Python with the rare three-inch barrel length, a great old Officer's Model Match six-inch.38 Special, and modern style Detective Specials with both two and three-inch barrels.

The longer throw of the Colt double-action trigger allows it to be distinctly lighter than the corresponding Ruger, S&W, or Taurus. That plus the smoothness of Grant's meticulous handwork made the glassy-smooth action a joy to trigger. The results were on the target, tight groups and fired fast. A machine modified to deliver better performance and make the operator look better. And, in a self-defense situation, to allow the operator a better chance to come out alive.

We also spent some time shooting a Dan Wesson that Grant had tuned up. The trigger pull was nothing less than excellent. Grant had put lightening cuts in the barrel shroud, and this short barrel gun was particularly fast on target. He was right about the special concealment grips-they not only hide better, and they give the gun a better feel. The trigger reach allowed a solid distal joint trigger finger placement for maximum control. His fixed trigger stop allowed me to feel absolutely no backlash, even in slow fire, resulting in well- placed hits on target.

Distaff Holsters
Several years of carrying guns and seven years of running action shooting matches have left Christine Cunningham with some definite ideas about what women need in gun- leather. She started CCL, Cunningham Custom Leather, in 2001. Her holsters have become increasingly popular, particularly in the Pacific Northwest, where they have found their way into the hands, and onto the hips, of some of the top female combat shooters around. They are also carried by a number of males who appreciate their comfort factor and simply like the good quality of Chris' work.

Chris divides female body shapes into "athletic," "average," and "hour- glass" categories. Knowledge of her customer's figure helps her to cut holster and matching dress gunbelt to the most comfortable and effective possible configuration.

She describes her CC-1 Belt Scabbard as "a mid-rise model with a small amount of offset. The rear mounted belt loops (easily changed to fit varying belt widths) are designed to position the gun in such a way that it is held slightly away from the body (doesn't dig into your hips and sides as much) but allows both a fast and sure grip on the gun and good concealability." It is available with straight, moderate, or full forward angles of tilt.

Her CC-2 belt holster, she says, is similar "but with belt slots instead of loops for no offset, holds the gun closer to the body. Please note that this holster must be made to fit a specific belt width." Any Chris Cunningham holster can be ordered either open top, or with a thumb- break safety strap.

She advises the customers that the belt and holster are integral, and have to work together. She offers either straight or orthopedic curved belts, depending on the body configuration of the customer. She explains, "Like holsters, belts can be made with an offset to make them more comfortable for a specific figure type. In a belt, the offset is called a 'curve cut.' In general, an athletic figure would order a straight cut, an average figure would order a moderate cut, and an hour- glass figure would order a full cut."

Mrs. Cunningham takes other factors into account. She told me, "Each of these figure types will have a range of heights that affects the fit of the holster. While many women can wear a straight-cant high-rise holster, many others would find that this puts the gun buff into their armpit. The holster needs a correct match of rise, cant, and offset to each person for the correct fit. The majority of women I've talked to have found that cant and offset are the most important factors in succeeding in getting a holster that's usable for them."

She has found that a reinforced belt is particularly important. As she explains in her extremely informative catalog, "A flimsy belt is not only functionally deficient, it isn't comfort- able! I've found through hard experience that the only way to maintain comfort while carrying the weight of a gun and accessories is to have a belt that's absolutely rigid. The difference in comfort is nothing short of amazing! My belts are made with an internal reinforcement that gives it the desired rigidity but still allows the belt to curve easily around your waist, and be of a presentable thickness. This avoids the mannish extra-thick 'gunfighter' look, but often with even better rigidity!"

I've seen Chris shoot matches and go through LFI-II with her own gunleather and HK P7. She's extremely fast, and a very good shot. And when she wants her pistol concealed, it is absolutely impossible to spot. Her stuff works.

In addition to holsters and belts, she offers pouches for magazines, speedloaders, and flashlights. Her pouches for speedloaders and full moon clips are particularly ingenious.

Each Cunningham Custom holster is wet-molded to a model of the customer's specific gun to ensure proper fit. Available colors include the usual black, mahogany brown, mahogany tan, and also red, emerald, and royal blue.

Bottom Line
Chris and Grant Cunningham are two nice people who really know their guns and gear. Each is a skilled craftsperson, and it shows in the work they turn out. Grant and Chris want to build something that's exactly perfect for you. The Cunninghams put the "custom" in "customer."