The early .44 caliber Colt sixguns of the 1840s, the 4 1/2 pound Walker and the 4 pound Dragoons, were too heavy to be comfortably carried in a leather holster worn on a belt around the waist; instead, they were normally carried in pommel holsters draped over the front of the saddle forcing the horse to carry the weight. In the middle of the 19th Century both the much easier to pack Colt 1851 Navy .36 and Slim Jim holster appeared. The ’51 Navy Colt at 2 1/2 pounds was a viable packing pistol and could be carried high around the waist out of the way but still readily, and relatively quickly accessible from quality leather. The Slim Jim rode high in either the crossdraw position or for a twist draw on the strong side. Those claiming a fast draw was not possible with old-style holsters need to go back to take a closer look at authentic Old West leather.
The next step forward in leather design for packin’ a sixgun was the Mexican, or Cheyenne, loop holster. From the time of the Civil War until after World War I, this was the most common holster in use. In this style of holster the back flap is an integral part of the holster having one, too, or three loops that accept the main body of the bolster. When made of quality leather that is not overly bulky, the Mexican loop still serves well today as an everyday open carry holster. I am nowhere near as fast as I was as a teenager, not even close. However using a 7 1/2” Colt Single Action .45 Colt in an El Paso Saddlery 1897 Sweetwater Mexican loop holster, I can draw, cock the hammer, level the sixgun on target, and hit the center of a silhouette target at seven yards with an elapsed time, including reaction time, of eight-tenths of a second. Imagine how fast some of the old-time gunfighters would be with the same equipment! Don’t tell me a fast draw was not possible until the invention of the Hollywood steel lined holster.
Ever since my three kids were very young, and that goes back a long way, my wife and I have shared responsibilities and household chores. For example I have done all the grocery shopping and we share the cooking; she is the bargainer in the family and it is her job to get the best prices on any major purchases. She is a great asset at a gun show and when my youngest daughter bought her first car she took Mom along. After the deal was closed the salesman paid Dot the ultimate bargaining compliment by telling my daughter if she ever came in again to buy a car to leave her mother at home. Dot also shops and bargains for her own cars and she does better than most men when it comes to picking a dependable vehicle.
While I was at a recent SHOT Show, she bought a two-year old Dodge Caravan, an excellent low mileage, practical vehicle at an excellent price; however, when I got home one look at the tires, which were in very good shape, convinced me they were a cheap brand of minimum quality. I could have cared less about the mileage left in the tread but instead went to the local tire shop and purchased brand-new, top-of-the-line radial tires. There’s a big difference between buying a bargain and buying cheap. I always want a bargain, however cheap is almost always too expensive whether we are talking tires, brakes, parachutes, firearms, even holsters. The cheapest route usually finds us with something we really don’t want at the least or something that can be dangerous to our well-being at the worst. The real bargain is in buying the absolute best quality we can afford.
There are bargain holsters and there are cheap holsters; the latter should be avoided at all costs. My leather makers are as important to me as my doctors and my gunsmiths. Sixguns are expensive and they deserves the best care when taken afield and that care will be delivered by a well designed holster made of the best available materials and crafted by experts who understand what a holster should do and what it must not do. Probably even more important than the care afforded to the sixgun by the proper leather, is the fact that a well-designed holster will not only be the most comfortable for carrying a sixgun, it will also provide security and the easiest possible access.
Our choice of holsters like spouses, friends, vehicles, dogs, and firearms is highly subjective. When it was time for me to choose my first commercial holster, it was relatively simple. The three big manufacturers were George Lawrence, S.D. Myres, and H.H. Heiser with all representing the best quality it was possible to obtain, however, my local dealer only handled George Lawrence. The Lawrence #120 I purchased for a Ruger .44 Blackhawk in 1957 is still in service today. It has scratches and blemishes after nearly a half century, however it is still in excellent using shape. Good leather properly cared for will last a lifetime and then some. My choice was limited, however today’s shooters have a much more difficult time. All three of the 1950’s major purveyors of leather are gone, but there are dozens upon dozens of excellent leather craftsman out there with everything from one–man shops, to mom-and-pop operations, to large companies. Many of these crafters advertise their products in magazines and on the net, so access to them is relatively easy.
Sixgun leather is found throughout this book with concealed carry leather being covered in Chapter 36 and hunting leather in the Chapter 39. What follows herein is
just a short glimpse of some of the other great leather available; some of the leather that I have used successfully lo these many years for hiking, backpacking, camping, or just plain old fashioned woods bumming which can take place not only in the woods, but sagebrush deserts, rolling foothills, and lofty mountains as well as in the pines. In short anywhere outdoors it is prudent to pack a handgun. Different situations will require different sixguns and different holsters but the need always remains the same. The holster must provide comfort, security, and most of the time, easy accessibility.
Our choice of sixgun leather will largely depend upon how we are moving about, be it on foot, by horseback, or in a vehicle. A right-handed person may have difficulty driving with a long barreled sixgun in a hip holster on the strong side, but will be fine with either a crossdraw or shoulder holster. A southpaw can handle the shoulder holster or strong side hip holster, while the cross draw may interfere with seating in the vehicle. Switch to the passenger side and just the opposite it true. If one is going to drive some time and be the co-pilot other times, this should be taken into consideration when selecting a holster.
For security holsters normally require some sort of retaining device or at the very least a tight fitting holster. A pleasant trip in the field can be ruined as one watches a prized sixgun bouncing off the rocks. The best retaining device is what is known as a safety strap consisting of sturdy piece of leather that goes over the hammer and then fastens to the front of the holster with a Dot Snap. It is easily unfastened and can be folded behind the belt when its use is not necessary. I also like the hammer thong for single action sixguns, however, it can be hard to release in cold and/or wet weather with equally cold fingers. Not using the safety strap can be disastrous to a hunting trip. When in Africa I shot a Warthog early on, placed my scoped Freedom Arms in its shoulder holster, leaving it un-snapped. When I bent over to look for the bullet that had exited the Warthog and plowed into the mud, my sixgun slipped out of its holster and the scope hit the only large rock around. Fortunately I had backups.
Cheyenne loop holsters normally hold single action sixguns securely except for the most vigorous activity without the use of a safety strap or hammer thong. This design may be nearly 150 years old, however it is still a practical holster for outdoor use. A good holster deserves an equally good belt. Some holsters such as crossdraws and pancakes ride real well on the pants belt if it is a sturdy lined belt of 1 ¾” width, and one also wears suspenders to help distribute the weight. When it comes to cartridge belts, I prefer the folded over money style belt made of soft leather that conforms to the body shape. For years I felt the belt had to have a full row of cartridges. I have changed completely on this. When out for a day’s shooting, a full cartridge loop belt may be appropriate, however, but mostly I now go with 12-15 cartridge loops on the belt or a cartridge slide that holds 6 or 12 rounds. When going with a shoulder holster I use the same suspenders and I also hope that the weather is at least cool enough to wear a heavy shirt that helps pad the straps of the shoulder holster rig.
The Slim Jim of the 1850s, the Cheyenne of the 1860s and 1870s, bring us to the third important holster developments. I use the plural as two men, conferring together came up with two similar great designs. In 1920 Texas Ranger Lee Trimble and former NW Mounted Policeman Tom Threepersons met around a campfire, enjoyed the calm of the night, and discussed sixguns and leather. At the time both were using Mexican loop holsters and put their heads together to design a new holster that would work much better than the Mexican loop style when riding in the automobiles, which by that time had mostly replaced the horse. Threepersons removed all excess leather, which included the back flap and that part enclosing the trigger guard, raised the gun as high as possible by having the exposed trigger guard riding on a heavy welt at the back of the holster and also folding over enough leather to sew a very tight belt loop on the back of the holster. The sixgun now rode very high on the belt so the holster was slanted with the muzzle to the rear to allow the sixgun to be drawn quickly. Trimble was apparently a little more traditional than Threepersons and although he used the same basic design his holster maintained an abbreviated back flap and rode about one-inch lower than Threeperson’s design while maintaining the same angle.
Now it was time to find leathermakers to bring the designs to fruition. Tom Threepersons took his design to S.D. Myres in El Paso while Trimble went to A. W. Brill in Austin. The basic Tom Threepersons has been made by virtually every holster maker with George Lawrence offering it as the #120 Keith, and Bianchi as the #1 Lawman. Today both of the original designs, are available from El Paso Saddlery and they make excellent packin’ holsters. Available in plain, basket stamped, border stamped, and floral carving, the #1920 Threepersons and the #1930 Austin are both fully lined, and can be had equipped with or without a safety strap or hammer thong. Both the #1920 and #1930 represent the epitome of leather crafting and the artist who does the floral carving is without equal. I have excellent holsters from the 1950s bearing both the Lawrence and Myres brand that reveal that holsters from El Paso Saddlery are of even a higher quality.
Authentic old West designs from El Paso include the Mexican loop style Rio Grande, Cheyenne, 1880 Ranger, 1890 Original, Dodge City, and the 1897 Sweetwater of S. D. Myers. Going back even farther we have the Californian and Slim Jim originally designed for percussion revolvers. As mentioned earlier, the Slim Jim was probably the first revolver holster to allow a relatively fast draw. For all of these original designs cartridge belts are offered of standard style and folded over money belt style all with any combination of cartridge loops desired. All holsters feature a full-leather lining which is also available for cartridge belts. For further treatment of El Paso Saddlery leather, in fact a full chapter, see my previous book Big Bore Handguns.
Another category of holsters are those based upon B-movie and TV western movie rigs. Two of the top craftsmen offering such rigs are Jim Lockwood of Legends In Leather and Walt Ostin of Custom Gunleather. Jim Lockwood of Legends in Leather is an expert on holster history and especially western movie leather. Lockwood was a student of Bob Brown, and specializes in replicas of the rigs Brown created for many of the "B" movies of the 1930s and 1940s. Col Tim McCoy, Wild Bill Elliott, Hopalong Cassidy, Roy Rogers, all are not just names of Western movie heroes of days gone by, they are also names of just a few of the intricate holster and belt combinations worked out in the tiniest detail from Legends in Leather.
Lockwood works with the thin leather that was used by the creators of the "B" movie rigs, which though fully lined are lightweight, thin, and most importantly very comfortable to wear. Comfort went south with the arrival of the heavy duty rigs with long drop loops and metal linings arriving in the 1950s and it must have been real chore for movie cowboys to wear them while sitting at a table or riding a horse. John Wayne’s last movie was made in 1976, and yet he was one of the few movie cowboys who never, ever used the Hollywood fast draw style of cowboy leather, instead spent most of his career after the mid-1940s wearing a comfortable soft belt with a high riding holster. Jim Lockwood's belts fit the curve of the body rather than the other way around and will not wear one down during a long day afield.
Lockwood says of his leather crafting: "...I had the great fortune to become friends with perhaps the greatest leather artist of all time, Mr. Bob Brown. Back in the 1930s Hollywood, Bob's genius helped mold and embellish the developing tradition of the Western by designing and handcrafting the gunleather for many of the famous Western stars of that golden era. Among Bob's credits are the rigs worn by Bill Boyd as Hopalong Cassidy, Charles Starrett as The Durango Kid, Bill Elliott, Lash LaRue, Sunset Carson, Buck Jones, Rex Allen, and even John Wayne's outfit in Red River. Bob has generously given me permission to use many of his original patterns and carving designs, which I've used to produce many rigs. By carefully researching old movies and videos, movie books, and stills; by exploring the many Western museums and taking pictures; and by visiting with the stars of the era, I have developed a library of my own patterns that duplicate the personal rigs of most of the popular Western heroes and heroines. My rigs are high quality, fully-lined, carefully handcrafted replicas in the appropriate colors, plain or carved, sewn or laced, just like the originals." He’s right.
Walt Ostin is Custom Gun Leather offering authentic Old West styles, fancy silver screen hero B Western rigs, or TV Cowboy, mostly of the Fast Draw style. He makes some of the best renditions of the various Lone Ranger rigs, radio, movie, TV, personal appearances, found anywhere. Custom Gun Leather provides several variations of the Mexican loop style of holster include the Cheyenne, the Russell, the Montanan, the Kansas, the Utah, the Colorado, and the Texas. Every local leather maker of the nineteenth century had his own technique and special rendition of the basic Southwestern Mexican loop holster design by using one or two loops, wide or slim loops, and more or less trigger guard exposed. One of my favorite rigs is Ostin’s Colorado consisting of a single weight belt with cartridge loops and a holster that allows the single action sixgun to ride deeply and securely in its basic Mexican loop design. The uniqueness of this outfit comes from the stamping pattern. In addition to the border stamping, Ostin uses a stamp that is neither basket weave nor fish scale but rather his own design that combines a little bit of each. The result is striking.
Walt can also provide excellent concealment leather and makes the best replica of the original Tom Threepersons I have ever seen. In fact the old lawman would surely be pleased to wear a rig from Walt Ostin.
I was just getting heavily involved in the shooting of single action sixguns when Fast Draw arrived. I had both a double rig from Ray Howser and a single Hollywood Fast Draw single rig from Arvo Ojala, both made for 7 1/2” Colt Single Actions. In the early 1960s, Andy Anderson, who had been working under Ojala, went out on his own with his Gunfighter line of fast draw holsters. Unfortunately I never purchased one of Anderson’s Walk and Draw rigs. Today they are very difficult to find however Walt Ostin offers a perfect recreation of Anderson’s Walk and Draw outfit. Made to carry a 7 ½” Colt Single Action, Walt’s rig incorporates all of Andy’s ideas including no back flap on the holster, six cartridge loops on the offside, a special Gunfighter buckle, and the decorative Gunfighter stitching on the belt.
One of my favorite old movies is The Plainsman starring Gary Cooper as Wild Bill Hickok. I always enjoyed Cooper westerns, however for me the real star of this movie was his belt and holsters. Never mind that he carried stag-gripped 5 ½” Colt Single Actions instead of Hickok’s ivory-stocked 1851 Navies, how he carried them was what was important to me. Some Hollywood leatherworker had taken the basic Slim Jim design and added a drop loop. They were worn butts to the front and radically slanted backwards. They looked good but did flop around quite a bit. From the first time I saw this movie as a kid I knew that someday I would have a rig like this but modified to remove the sloppiness.
Forty years passed and someday never arrived. Then I ran into Bart Ballew of Circle Bar T Leatherworks. As we were talking, I mentioned Cooper’s rig and my desire to have a modified version. It also sounded like a great idea to Bart so we came up with the idea of a fully lined belt and two drop loop Slim Jim holsters made to hang straight. I also ordered them to fit an 8” Colt Single Action. The extra half-inch over standard was to allow the use of not only 7 ½” Colt Single Actions but also 1860 Armies, Cartridge Conversions, and 1871-72 Open-Tops as well.
I turned Bart loose as to whatever design he wished to put on the holsters and the belt with the only stipulation that there be no cartridge loops as I wished to use this rig with sixguns of several chamberings as well as percussion revolvers. I was overwhelmed with the beauty of the custom rig that resulted. Marty Overstreet of Circle Bar T, an absolute master craftsman, performed the custom carving covering the belt and both holsters with a floral design and a most attractive stamped background that gives the whole rig an antique look. The entire rig is black except for the floral carving, which is a dark brown. This allows the carving to stand out from the background. Both the belt and holsters are fully lined and everything is sewn together with a double row of stitching. Both billets feature a silver rhombus with a gold border, and the final touch was a great surprise to me as the engraved silver plated buckle is inscribed SIXGUNNER across the top in gold plating. Great Leather.
Bob Mernickle, recently of Canada and now settled into Nevada offers a complete line of custom leather especially for Fast Draw and Cowboy Fast Draw as he is one of the top participants in both. He does it all, plain, stamped, carved, extra fancy, whatever the shooter desires. I have been using his PS-6 concealment rig for a Colt Single Action for several years now; it is crafted of minimum leather, secure, and yet offers immediate access to the sixgun without any retaining device to get in the way.
When Ruger announced the 5 1/2” stainless steel Old Army, I ordered a pair for Cowboy Action Shooting, added Eagle’s buffalo horn Gunfighter grips, a pair of R&D .45 Colt conversion cylinders from Taylor’s & Co., and a double rig from Bob Mernickle. Bob crafted a lined belt and two holsters patterned after the Slim Jim but made to hang straight and very high on both sides. They are finished in a very dark brown, almost black with gunfighter stitching on both holsters and belt; a very high quality, well designed rig.
The newest leathercrafter I have discovered is David Cox of Cedar Ridge Saddlery. David was one of the vendors at the first National Cowboy Fast Draw Championships held in Idaho, and I was immediately struck by the beauty, quality, and craftsmanship exhibited in the holsters and belts he had on display. David specializes in Mexican loop style holsters as well as Andy Anderson's style in plain, full floral carved, or roughout. When I saw his leather displayed I immediately recognized the chance to purchase something very special for Diamond Dot.
David’s carving is exceptionally beautiful, so a full floral carved belt with two matching holsters made to fit her 5 1/2” Ruger Vaqueros was secretly ordered with room left on the back of the belt for me to apply 1” silver letters spelling out her alias. David added a special touch to the belt as instead of leaving the back plain he did a background carving consisting of a Diamond Dot pattern, diamonds with dots at each corner. Belt and holsters are both fully lined and the carving is absolutely exquisite. What I didn't know at the time I ordered the items for Dot, was that she also ordered a rig for me, proving once again been great minds really do run in the same channel. My rig, is The Eastwood patterned after the Andy Anderson rig worn by Clint Eastwood in so many spaghetti westerns. It is tailored for Cowboy Fast Draw competition, rough out, made to hang straight, and to carry a 7 1/2” Colt Single Action. Just as Dot’s outfit it also has a beautiful silver buckle.
Elmer McElroy of The Leather Arsenal, and former employee of the master leather crafter, Milt Sparks, has been building concealment leather for several decades and recently branched out offering top quality, double leather rigs for the Western enthusiast and Cowboy Action Shooter. All of his rigs are high quality, double leather, plain or border stamped, and built to last a lifetime of shooting.
Some shooters simply consider sixguns as a tool; I consider them works of art. As such they deserve to be carried in well-designed, exceptionally-crafted, high-quality leather.