When I purchased my first single action, in fact my first sixgun, a .22 Ruger Single-Six, I found myself with the pleasant decision of choosing a belt and holster for it. The two premium holster makers in those days were S.D.Myres and George Lawrence, and since my local dealer used the second supplier I chose a #120 Keith holster with a matching belt. I wanted a full floral-carved, fully-lined, laced-edge fancy rig, however my wallet dictated the plain-black, single-weight outfit. It served me well. I don't have the slightest idea whatever happened to it, but I wish I had it back.
A few months later my first Colt Single Action arrived, a .38-40 from the very early1900s. I felt really fortunate to have such a fine Colt, however the price difference between a box of .22s and .38-40's was an enormous chasm. In those pre-reloading days the .22 still served for most of my shooting and I rationed a box of factory .38-40's. The first leather rig for this 4 3/4” Colt .38-40 was totally handmade for the simple reason I was now in debt and certainly did not have enough money buy the Lawrence rig I really wanted. The only answer was to make my own. I had not yet discovered Tandy Leather and their catalog sales, and their was no leather store in my area, so I did the next best thing and went to the local belting supplier. For a very little amount of cash I was able to buy a three-inch wide piece of belting for the belt and another wider piece leather to make the holster.
This was very heavy-duty leather and after drawing the holster pattern I cut it out with a razor blade box cutter. The belt was easy; I simply cut it to length, riveted a buckle billet at one end, and the corresponding billet with holes at the other end, and I had a belt. The holster was folded over, formed around sixgun, holes drilled along the edge, and then fastened together with a rawhide thong, a slot was cut in the belt to accept the back flap, which was folded over and then fastened to the holster proper with a strip of leather also riveted to the back flap. It wasn't the prettiest outfit ever seen however it was definitely serviceable and exceptionally sturdy. Again I don't know whatever happened to this one, and as an example of my first journey into leatherworking, I wish I had it back also.
George Lawrence and the original S.D. Myres are now long gone, however Myres has been revived by a fellow down in Texas, and El Paso Saddlery offers many of the old-style S.D. Myres patterns. Today there are dozens of leather manufacturers and leather crafters offering just about anything anyone could desire. However, I have never lost the inclination to make my own even though I do own some of the best rigs put together by some of the finest leather artisans who ever lived. I learned by doing, by observing, and by trial and error. Over the decades various leather companies have offered holster patterns, however most of these were not very good. One notable exception is the excellent book by Al Stohlman, How To Make Holsters. Even though it is nearly a half-century old it is still viable and available in reprinted form from Tandy Leather.
In the 1950s Chic Gaylord ran a one-man leather shop in New York City specializing in concealed leather for law enforcement officers. In fact, he is the father of modern concealed carry leather. All of his concealed carry holsters used minimum leather and where hand-fitted and boned to fit a particular sixgun or semi automatic. Federal officers and undercover agent were regular customers to his small shop. Gaylord published a book in 1960, Handgunner’s Guide, covering speed shooting and holster design. This book, which has also been reprinted, contains an excellent section on making a Missouri Skin-Tite holster for a single action sixgun. Two excellent books for studying holster styles are John Bianchi’s Blue Steel and Gunleather and and Richard Rattenbury’s Packing Iron.
One of the easiest holsters to make is the Tom Threepersons, a design which features no excess leather whatsoever. Until Threepersons arrived on the sixgun leather scene, most holsters were of the Mexican style with a wide back flap. Threepersons removed the back flap and replaced it by a piece of trim leather that is folded over and sewn to the back to the holster to provide the belt loop. The front of the trigger guard rides on a heavy leather welt along the back of the holster. Although later modifications would offer safety straps or leather hammer thongs, the Threepersons design called for heavy saddle skirting that was perfectly wet formed to the outline of the exact sixgun it was to carry. To make such a holster one simply folded over enough leather to make a belt loop, sowed it to the back of the holster, and then folded over the body proper of the holster and sowed it along the edge. I have found the easiest way fo rme to sew leather is to first drill holes with a small drill bit in a MotoTool and then use two needles, one at each end of the waxed linen thread to form double stitching.
Will Ghormley is not only one of the top leather crafters in the business, he is now sharing his expertise with the rest of us. Will says: “Everything I craft is hand-made for my customers. I cut each item from the hide when it's ordered. It's worked and tooled right here at my bench. I dye and oil it and clamp it in my stitching pony to sew by hand. I started crafting leather over 30 years ago. I don't do it because it's easy. I don't do it because I'm smart. I fact, I only stick with it because I'm stubborn and I love the work I do. You can get store-bought leather most anywhere, but during my lifetime I'm only going to be able to craft so many rigs bearing my name. I make 'em like the pioneer craftsmen made them over a hundred years ago."
I have several Ghormley rigs. Ghormley is a student of western history and truly authentic designs, so all of his leather work comes from studying old examples of the Frontier period. His true love being cap-n-ball sixguns, he sent along two true period pieces for two of the most popular of the percussion pistols. For the 1851 Navy came a Slim Jim style, that he calls the Pistolero, with matching belt. The belt is border stamped while the holster, which completely covers the trigger guard and hammer, is carved in the old time incised style that was found on Frontier leather of the mid-nineteenth century. For the 1860 Army .44, Ghormley crafted an authentically styled holster, The West Texas, with a half back flap and the hammer and trigger guard slightly exposed.
A matched pair of Cheyennes, which carry a pair of Colt Single Actions is lined with red leather, the holster itself is of the Mexican style with two holster loops, and fully carved with a darkly dyed background. The matching cartridge belt also features leather rosettes with a red background and nickel spots. It is authentically styled a fitting rig for a a pair of 5 1/2" Colts.
Will discovered leatherworking in a high school shop class and that changed his life’s direction. Leatherworking for him is not just a job but a very important part of his life. I learned by gathering information from a wide variety of sources over a period of more than four decades. Today it is much simpler as Ghormley now provides access to truly authentic 19th Century professional leather patterns as well as carving and stamping designs.
Will has come up with four packets of patterns covering four types of leather accoutrements all of which are available from both Tandy Leather and The Leather Factory. All packets are complete with patterns for each project including the leather needed, and a list of all required materials and tools. These are not basic instructions on how to actually produce a holster or other leather goods. For this valuable information both Will and I highly recommend How To Make Holsters by the late Al Stohlman. Stohlman was a superb leathercrafter and his book covers all the basics, and is very reasonably priced.
Will’s Cheyenne Holster Packet, he is as its name signifies for crafting and authentic 19th Century holster. The Cheyenne or Mexican Loop holster was the most popular and practical holster available in the second half of the 19th Century. This packet contains tooling patterns, lining holsters, adapting patterns for left-handed or cross draw use, all for the following sixguns. Colt SAA , Bisley Model, Thunderer and Lightning, 4 ¾”, 5 ½”, and 7 ½”; Colt 1851 Navy; Colt 1860 Army; Remington 1858; Ruger Vaquero and Bisley Vaquero, 4 5/8”, 5 ½”, and 7 ½”; and Smith & Wesson Schofield. Holsters can also be easily modified to fit the Cartridge Conversions and the 1871-72 Open-Top.
A good holster needs a good belt so we have the Cartridge Belts Packet. In addition to the materials and required tools list, this packet contains cutting and measuring patterns for two money belts, two Ranger belts, and two Scout belts. The latter belt is lighter and trimmer than either the money belt or Ranger style. Instructions are also given on installing cartridge loops and buckles.
Okay you have decided to make your own holster. As a minimum you'll need heavyweight paper to make a pattern, I like posterboard, a very sharp knife or single edged razor blade, two needles, some heavyweight waxed linen thread, and of course, some leather. You will find you can turn out very serviceable rigs with this equipment. For less than the cost of one good holster, you can purchase all the equipment needed to make top-quality holsters. I would suggest the following; a pair of heavy-duty leather scissors, a supply of needles and waxed linen thread, a can of leather cement, a stitching groover, a stitching spacer wheel, and edge beveler, a supply of Dot fasteners for safety straps, and a setter for same. If you want to lace holsters instead of sewing, you'll need Florentine lacing and special needles. The only expensive item in this list is the scissors. Later on, you may wish to add decorating stamping tools, basket weave stamps, or even floral carving tools.
Tandy’s Leather has stores in may areas as well as a mail-order catalog, and a subscription to the Leather Craftsman magazine gives access to a long list of suppliers of leather and tools. Belly leather is absolutely worthless for holsters either because of its quality or thickness. Only the back of a cowhide is suitable for making holsters and belts. Leather is sold by thickness with one ounce equal to 1/64” in thickness, and usually 10-12 ounces is the best for making holsters. Saddle skirting is also very good, however it is very thick and very hard to work with.
Here are the basic steps for crafting a simple holster such as the Tom Threepersons. Using the heavyweight paper, a pattern is made to fit the individual sixgun allowing at least one-inch at the bottom and along the edges where it will be sewn together. Don't forget the belt loop. The pattern is traced on the leather, the holster cut out and folded around the sixgun checking for fit. Before sewing, the edge beveler is used to bevel all edges except those which will be sewn together.
A stitching groover is used to make a channel for the thread to lie in and a stitching spacer wheel spaces the holes evenly. I use a very small drill bit and drill my holes before sewing, being careful to keep the drill perpendicular to the leather. If a safety strap is installed it is accomplished before folding the belt loop over and sewing. At the same time the male end of a safety snap is installed on the holster proper with care so will not rub against the sixgun on the interior of the holster. Before sewing the holster together, a welt about one-half inch in width and the same thickness as the leather used for the holster should be cemented along the entire length of the edge on the inside back part of the holster I also like to add another welt about three inches long in the trigger guard area.
The entire center area of the holster were it folds around the sixguns should be wet down with water, I just hold it under the faucet, the holster folded over and the two edges cemented together. Holes are drilled carefully and the holster sewn together using two needles one at each end of the waxed linen thread and each hole is entered from both sides. Approximately 16 times the length of the holster is needed in thread. I prefer to start at the trigger guard area about four holes down, go up and then backstitch down again. This gives extra strength in the trigger guard area and when I reach the toe of the holster I backstitch about four holes and cut the thread off flush. Sandpaper or a sanding wheel used to smooth finish the edge of the holster, and it is then rubbed vigorously with a round piece of hardwood.
Before applying any finish it is necessary to perform the most important step. The holster is immersed in water, it is then removed and the excess water shaken off, and the intended sixgun is shoved into the holster and carefully set correctly. Fingers or a small piece of hardwood are used to shape the holster around the sixgun. The sixgun is removed, dried off, and oiled, while the holster is set aside to dry for 24 hours. The snap on the safety strap should not be set until the holster has dried thoroughly. The final step is to apply edge dressing if desired and then oil or die the holster. I prefer a neatsfoot oil finish, applying with a small brush and hand rubbing to the desired color. If the holster is going to be worn concealed instead of oil a natural wax should be used to prevent staining clothes.
This chapter has not been a total how to do it piece but rather an encouragement to try it. I have made hundreds of holsters for myself and a few friends, however I can't begin to rival any of the professional holster makers. But then I don't have to. All I have to do is please myself.