One thing that confused me as I first poked around the edges of the DIY saber scene were the periodic references to “Graflex” and, less frequently, “Heiland”, such as on UltraSabers’ conversion page, which reads, in part: “We do not convert older Graflex/Heiland Flashgun sabers. We do know people who can help and can point you in the right direction.”
I’d never heard of either company. Who were they? Low-profile prop producers from the days before the ascendancy of Master Replicas? Not so much. It turns out that they’re makers of photographic equipment, and that the original props for Luke and Vader’s sabers were fabricated from the handles of professional flashguns. I don’t know why this surprised me so much: after all, I’d known for years that Han’s blaster was derived from a broom-handle Mauser, just as the Stormtroopers’ rifles were adapted from vintage-World-War-II Sterling submachine guns. “Everything old is new again”, indeed.
Luke’s hilt was made from a Graflex 3-Cell: you can see a beautifully detailed breakdown of the hilt and its construction, including differences between the A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back versions, here. (Note the addition of grommets near the base, and the replacement of the original control box’s LED-calculator-display lens with a chunk of card-edge connector from an HP-44 bus.)
It’s also worth noting that the distinctive S-curve shape at the top of the saber hilt, the portion referred to as the “emitter shroud”, has itself become known as a “Graflex curve” among saber enthusiasts. Given that it was, as far as I can tell, part of the original flashgun design, this seems entirely appropriate. (I’ll have more to say on the subject of the Graflex curve in a later post.)
Vader’s saber, meanwhile, seems to have been the subject of some historical controversy, or at least confusion. For a long time it was believed to be a Heiland Synchronar, but as is explained here, it turns out to have been a “Microflash” produced by Heiland’s British arm, Micro Precision Products, or MPP. (At least, the A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back versions were. By the time of Return of the Jedi, the original MPP prop had been either lost or stolen, and the prop department simply gave a Graflex the signature black-highlight treatment.)
Knowing all of this does not, fortunately, fill me with the urge to go out and track down ancient surplus camera parts for the very utmost in verisimilitude. Yet.