Guns and Holsters Part 1

Guns and Holsters Part 1

Packing Alloy

Find a Hawke Scope

By Dennis Adler

Holster designs from the 1880s and 1890s include a Mexican double drop loop (left) with a 5-1/2 inch Umarex Colt Peacemaker. The design is based on the holster worn by Billy the Kid. Next, an El Paso Saddlery Tombstone Speed Rig, with 7-1/2 inch Umarex Colt Peacemaker. This design is also known as Skeleton Shoulder Holster and was originally designed in the late 1890s by Al. Furstnow of Miles City, Montana. At center is a hand carved Slim Jim style holstering a Crosman Remington Model 1875. This is similar to the style of holster worn by Jesse James, and is made today by TrailRider Products in Colorado. At right a Schofield military flap holster of 1872 design. This model is handcrafted today by John Bianchi Frontier Gunleather.

Over the past two years a great deal of thought has gone into creating authentic CO2 reproductions of Colt, Smith & Wesson, and Remington revolvers, even special hand engraved models duplicating the original patterns used in the 1870s and 1880s. These high quality Colt, Schofield and Remington airguns deserve to be worn in proper western gunleather, the problem is that authentic western holsters and cartridge belts usually cost more than the airguns they hold (with the exception of the hand engraved guns, but it can still be close!)

A page from an H.H. Heiser catalog showing a variety of loop style holsters from the 1890s. Even then the average price for a plain holster was $2.75 to $3.00. Hand carving added another $1.25.

Back in the 1800s, western holsters were very simple designs that, as time passed, became as much a decorative accoutrement for cowboys as it was a practical means of carrying a handgun. Military holsters aside, as far back as the late 1830s civilian holsters were simple leather pouches shaped like the gun and worn on a leather belt. Early military holsters manufactured in quantity for the U.S. Army and Navy added a flap to give the firearms more protection from the elements, but it was still a basic leather pouch with no embellishments other than a U.S. stamp. For civilians, the early designs evolved into more intricate, contoured holsters known as the “California-pattern” which were better finished and more rugged. Most were plain while others were done with various carving styles and border stampings. They were mostly manufactured by saddlers who imparted their own touches to the designs. The “California Pattern” holsters were around long before the advent of the metallic cartridge and gun belts were just belts made to carry the holster. And of course, a gunbelt also helped to keep a man’s trousers up instead of suspenders, since belt loops for pants wouldn’t become common until 1922, when Levi Straus started putting them on jeans!

The Slim Jim style of holster was one of the most preferred, and was favored by none other than Wild Bill Hickok. He carried a variety of Colt revolvers during his life. The last gun he owned, according to historians, was a Colt 1860 Army cartridge conversion. (Alan Soellner of Chisholm’s Trail Leather recreated this pair based on the original holsters and belt on display in the City of Deadwood South Dakota Historic Preservation Commission display).

South of the Border

The greatest influence on American holster designs in the 1870s were those crafted in Mexico, where decoration was as much a part of an item’s design as the item itself, be it an article of clothing, a hat, or a holster. In time, the influences of Mexican craftsmanship and the Mexican drop loop design brought about a more decorative form of holster making in the U.S., particularly during the post-Civil-War Western Expansion and throughout the remainder of the 19th century. The Mexican drop loop also inspired a number of ex-soldiers to modify their old Civil War flap holsters by cutting off the belt loop on the back (most were about ready to tear off anyway since they were narrow and poorly stitched on military holsters), cutting two slots into the flap and then bending the soft leather holster pouch to push through the slots, thus creating a faster holster to draw from and a large belt loop made from the rolled over flap. These were crude but effective ways to make do with what you had. Saddlers improved upon the drop loop design making it a style of holster that stood out from the traditional rigs of the 1860s and early 1870s.

The original Mexican drop loop design was often copied by former Civil War soldiers who converted their military flap holsters by cutting of the belt loop on the back, then cutting two slots in the flap through which the body of the holster was pushed forming a loop around the holster and making the flap into a skirt through which the gun belt could pass. Sometimes the brass flap stud was left on the holster other times it was removed (as shown). It was a cheap way to reuse what you had and make it faster on the draw.

Back in the day a cowboy spent about $2 for a plain leather holster and another $3 for a bullet loop cartridge belt. Most gun shops just had a “holster barrel” with various holsters made by local saddlers who used their scrap leather to produce three basic sizes to fit most revolvers; you reached into the barrel, found a holster that fit your gun and that was it. Of course, there were custom holster makers in some of the larger cities like H.H. Heiser in Denver, Colorado, J.S. Collins in Cheyenne, Wyoming,  R.T. Frazier in Pueblo, Colorado, and El Paso Saddlery in El Paso, Texas. They sold more expensive gun belts, holsters and rifle scabbards, usually with a great deal of embellishment done with stampings and hand carved designs. But even these makers offered plain holsters that sold from around $2 to $3. The rest were several dollars more but better quality than you would find in a run of the mill small town general store or gun shop holster barrel. By the 1880s well established makers like H.H. Heiser were also selling their wares through mail order catalogs and sporting goods stores. El Paso Saddlery, by the way, is still in business today. The original company founded in 1889 is famous for making holsters for John Wesley Hardin.

Drop loop holsters were very fashionable and varied in style and number of drop loops. Two were usually preferred to keep the holster held firmly against the skirt. This is a copy of Bat Masterson’s 5-1/2 inch Colt J.S. Collins holster recreated by Alan Soellner.

The most common holster for a Colt revolver was either a simple Slim Jim style contoured to the shape of the gun or the Mexican drop-loop style. Add a little border stamping and you had a good looking holster to protect your pistol that still cost less than $3 in the 1870s and 1880s. Today, even reproductions of those styles are pretty pricey but there are some affordable original style western rigs on the market that will work for Colt, Schofield and 1875 Remington CO2 models without breaking the bank.

What did these various holster designs provide? The rig at far left is a copy of Billy the Kid’s and has a high rear panel that made it easier to tuck a coat behind before drawing. It also has a slightly flared mouth to make re-holstering easier. Interestingly, Pat Garrett wore the same style holster! The Al. Furstnow Skeleton Shoulder rig allowed a lightning fast draw from under a coat by securing the gun with a leather-covered spring steel clip that held the revolver by the cylinder with the muzzle tucked into a retainer at the bottom. The Slim Jim design with the Remington was a simple, secure holster that allowed a relatively fast draw but kept the gun well covered up to the triggerguard. For the military, the Schofield flap holster kept the gun as protected as possible from the elements, especially the dust created by Cavalry horses on the move.

For the first part of this article I am showing several contemporary copies of traditional western holsters and cartridge belts that are priced considerably higher than the standard CO2 models of the Peacemaker, Remington, and Schofield, and close to the price of some of the hand engraved models shown. These are top of the line rigs built by some of the most famous holster makers in America, and are shown to give you an idea of what fits and what is historically correct for the guns.

In Part 2 we’ll look at several new handcrafted holsters being readied for introduction just for Colt 5-1/2 inch and 7-1/2 inch CO2 models, the Schofield, and Model 1875 Remington.

4 thoughts on “Guns and Holsters Part 1”

  1. nice to see that some airgun specific holsters will be arriving. I have been using my El Paso Saddlery ,and other holsters from my SASS days , but those are getting expensive. Most of mine were purchased 15-20 years ago. I would avoid the leather or pig skin lined holsters, they are too snug of a fit and while they are easy on the finish , they really slow down the draw. My favorite El Paso holster is the 1880 , border stamped pattern holster.

  2. I bought one of the Air Venturi Western Justice holsters about the same time I bought my first Umarex Colt SAA revolvers. It always seems to be a little oversized for the Colt SAA. Holster design appears to be very simple as long as you are not looking to make one ornate with engraving. I’ve got some left over leather from a brief leather working hobby that I have thought to use to make my own holster for the Colt SAA. What I wasn’t sure about was how to stiffen the leather. One thing I thought to do was to cut a thin cardboard frame for the holster and then cover it all around inside and out with the leather to achieve a stiffness the leather itself doesn’t have.

    Since the Colt SAA came out, I’ve often wondered why Pyramyd didn’t begin stocking a greater selection of lower priced holsters for the replica Colt SAA. I’ve seen a greater selection of replica holsters for WWII era replica air pistols at another online air gun retailer. Now that holsters specific for replica airguns are being readied for introduction, I’m very eager to read your next report.

    • The Air Venturi rigs are nicely made but use thinner gauge leather. A lot of original holsters from the 1840s used lighter weight leather as well and were almost soft. You need to have a heavier gauge leather for holsters and though you could sew two pieces together I would not recommend using cardboard between them as it will break down over time and cause the holster to deform. You need 7-8 gauge leather to make a solid revolver holster. As for WWII holsters, there are so many it is amazing, most of which are made by World War Supply and sold through various catalog retailers. I have used them in a number of Airgun Experience articles. They are made overseas and are of exceptional quality for the very reasonable prices asked. I particularly like their holsters for the Walther P.38 and Luger P.08 Parabellum. Unfortunately they do not make western holsters, just WWI and WWII military holsters.

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