Picking a Front Strap and MSH Treatment
The purpose of changing the texture of the surface of the front strap (and main spring housing) is two-fold; to improve the purchase that your hand has in gripping the firearm and also as ornamentation. I have several different front strap treatments to offer; checkering, serrations, stippling, and scallops. They all have something to offer. Each one's merits will be discussed below and compared to each other.
Checkering is considered by most serious gunmen to be the "King" of the front strap treatments, both in traction offered and appearance. Checkering is created by cutting rows of intersecting 60-degree lines. The lines most frequently intersect at 90-degrees, which makes each point appear to be a miniature pyramid. Other patterns can be done (for example, 45 or 60 degrees) to give each point the appearance of a diamond, which is more commonly encountered in gun stock checkering.
Checkering is commonly found in 5 different degrees of coarseness, specified in LPI (lines per inch). The coarsest (and having the most traction) is 20 LPI, followed by 25 LPI, 30 LPI, 40 LPI and finally 50 LPI (having the least traction). The most frequently encountered pattern on front straps and main spring housings is 20, 25 and 30 LPI. In my opinion, 40 and 50 LPI patterns are too fine to offer much traction and are used primarily as ornamentation and as a way to reduce glare
The two most common criticism of checkering is that it is abrasive to "cover" garments used in concealed carry and that it is rough on tender hands. These are often sound arguments, depending on you and your pistol's purpose. I negate a little of the damage to cover garments by leaving a smooth border at the bottom of the front strap that’s about .125” tall. A gun checkered 20 LPI will offer the greatest traction, but be the most abrasive on hands and the most wearing to cover garments. Tender hands may prefer 40 LPI patterns and clothes will last longer, but you may find it offers less traction than needed, when your hands are wet with perspiration, mud or blood. To save yourself worry, try out a buddy's gun that is checkered and see how it feels to you.
Serrations are simply half a checkering job. On a front strap, serrations are the long lines that run vertically on the front strap, without any intersecting radial lines. Serrations also share the same spacing characteristics as checkering, as well as the same use for the different degrees of coarseness. Serrations do not offer quite as much traction in the hand as checkering, but are not as rough on cover garments. I personally find that 20 lpi serrations are adequate to give me good grip on the pistol. If you need to shift your grip, serrations may be found to "turn loose" easier than checkering. I machine my serrations to stop short of the bottom of the front strap, so as to not create a snag point there. I offer a traditional serration pattern of (11) 20 lpi equal length lines centered on the front strap.
Scallops are pretty new to the custom market. They are created by machining semi-circular slots in an overlapping staggered pattern that creates a texture to enhance the grip on the gun, but does not have the abrasive quality that checkering does. The gripping traction is better than serrations, without the abrasion of checkering. There is no industry standard for scallop patterning and you'll find everybody does it a little bit differently. Some are fairly shallow and don't intersect closely, which gives a pretty "soft" feel. Other patterns are cut deeper and intersect more aggressively. They give more traction and yet do not seem to be "snaggy" to cover garments. This is only available on flat main spring housings.
Some call stippling the poor man's checkering job, but done properly, it can lend an elegant appearance to the front strap. Stippling is achieved by striking a specially ground, pointed punch with a hammer, driving it into the front strap, creating a "dent", or upset area. This is repeated hundreds of times, until the area being stippled is completely covered. This may sound brutal, but is only done with a very light (often an 8-ounce) hammer, using a swing from the wrist. It is possible to create designs or patterns with the stippled area, but most customers choose to have a complete panel done to maximize the gripping surface available. Most stippling patterns are fairly easy on clothes. To me, it doesn't offer as much traction as20 lpi serrations, but is useable.
If you want to be able to hold onto you pistol with a soft, loose grip, even when you're hands are slick with sweat, oil or blood; 20 lpi checkering is the way to go. I personally would use it on any pistol deigned for match use or open carry in either Law Enforcement or Military applications. Your grip adhesion is almost as well off with 25 lines per inch and a little more suitable for concealed carry. If you are setting up a pistol for concealed carry, serrations, scallops both give good adhesion, although they all depend on grip tension to adhere. Stippling's adhesion characteristics come in right behind the rest. Stippling, serrations and scallops all are relatively equal in terms of being snag-free to concealment garments.
As far as appearance goes, checkering is timeless in appearance. Stippling is okay; it's just never really appealed to me. I seen some stippled pistols that were really nice, but also seen some that the coverage was less than uniform and the "pits" were shallow and they left me cold. Any work that isn't executed properly looks bad, but poor stippling looks extra bad to me, for some reason. Scallops are pretty eye catching. Checkering and serrations have stood the test of time and I don't see them falling out of favor.
The most popular frontstrap treatment ordered in my shop is 25 lpi checkering. Serrations seem to look the best on Retro guns. I have been carrying a CCO with scallops on the front and rear and have been well pleased by how well scallops work.
Checkering, serrations and scallops are all machine-cut and hand finished in my shop. I invested heavily to be able to do much of the work by machine for two main reasons, as good as any man may be with a file, he will never be as uniform and consistent as a milling machine and every man's wrist and elbow joints have a limited life span. I know of many pistolsmiths that suffer from the pain encountered in their wrists and elbows after a workout with the checkering file. The bottom line is that you, the customer benefits from getting a checkering job that is more uniform and perfect than ever. I get a few more years of useful life from my joints.
Front Straps: truing and high gripping
Before cutting checkering (or any other treatment) into your front strap, I measure the front strap to be sure there is enough thickness to cut the treatment that you want and to find any high or low places that may cause problems with the finished job. Once the front strap's condition is known and the frame is fixtured and squared in the milling machine, I make a very light cut over the entire surface of the front strap only as deep as to obtain a uniform flat surface to work from. If the customer wants the frame cut for a high grip front strap, I make this cut at the same time as truing. If a front strap's condition is not thick enough to cut with the requested treatment and retain full strength, I will work with the customer to select a satisfactory alternative.