The History of Western Gunleather
Pommel Holsters, Gun Belts, Holsters, Shoulder Holsters,
Cartridge Belts and Rifle Scabbards
This history of Western gunleather has been gathered from several sources and blended together to create what we hope is interesting reading on the background of gun leather. The first way to carry your handgun was in a Pommel Holster or Pommel Bag Holster. then the evolution of gunleather continued on with Cartridge Belts, Holsters, Gunbelts, Hip Pocket and Shoulder Holsters. The evolution of the Rifle Sling to the Rifle Scabbard is also on this page. If you wish to learn more about the evolution of other western items such as saddles, spur straps & spurs, chaps & chinks and wrist cuffs click here. If you wish to read about a specific item on the page please use the links below.
The development of the United States west of the Mississippi into the frontier "Old West" according to various historical sources was the beginning of the rapid evolution of guns and gunleather. Before this time gun leather was used the most by the militaries throughout the world and due to this it had to meet requirements for uniformity in it's design and use. However, the unique conditions and diverse group of peoples/nationalities that made up the westward movement and started settling the west created vastly different needs and uses of guns and gun leather. To meet this need, mainly in the mid-1800's regional artisans/saddle makers started designing and making new gunleather patterns that were better suited for the conditions and usage that was found on the western frontier. Most of this gun leather was made by the many saddleries that were found scattered throughout the west. The saddleries found a comfortable additional source of income in the making of gun belts, holsters, rifle scabbards and cartridge belts in addition to their normal offerings of saddles, saddlebags and harness. The larger saddleries offered not only a variety of styles in different grades and types of leather but in the amount of ornamentation that they put on their products. Thanks to the imagination and design innovations that these frontier western leather workers came up with many of their designs are still used today.
Pommel Holsters - Pommel Bag
The first form of gunleather used widely throughout the west was the pommel holster that was used originally by the military in Europe and then in the US colonies. These were made commercially by companies that were supplying the military and were the easiest way to carry the cumbersome pistols and needed accessories of the time. In the early 1800's frontiersmen used large-bore, single shot handguns commonly known as "horse" pistols. They used these mainly for game hunting and protection. The pommel bag holster is believed to have been developed in the California Gold Rush era where it was used by Wells Fargo in the gold fields. When revolving cylinder handguns became available in the 1850's most people quickly went to using gun belt mounted holsters and the pommel bag holster. The pommel bag holster had a limited popularity through the early 1900's by those who felt the need for more firepower such as law enforcement.....four loaded guns are always better than two! It was also a convenient way to have gun, extra ammunition and hard tack close at hand while riding (without having to turn to access your regular saddlebags) and much more accessible than a belt mounted rig in cold or wet weather when you were heavily bundled up against the elements. The Pommel Bag Holsters were available from simple plain bags to the heavily ornate with carving and ornamentation. This was also known as a "Saddle Cantina". Click here to view our custom pommel holsters and pommel bag holsters.
The Evolution of Belt Holsters
Holsters mounted on a belt started showing up around the 1840's according to historical period photographs. The handguns in these holsters were the smaller single-shot pistol, pepperbox and revolvers. Before and during this period most gun leather was made by eastern manufacturers and brought into the west by immigrants, settlers and traders. These belt mounted holsters were rare as they were made for the lightweight expensive guns of the time. These first holsters came in a few different forms. The first couldn't really be considered a holster as it was made of an open-ended loop or sleeve fixed onto a wide belt. This gave ready access to the single-shot or pepperbox pistol but offered no protection for the gun itself. The standard holster or pistol case were mounted by making a holster with vertical slits on the back that slid through a belt. The open-topped belt holsters appeared to popular with the eastern manufacturers in the 1830's and 1840's. They usually had deep bodies made of extremely stiff molded bridle leather and didn't necessarily fit the contours of the gun as many were basically a version of the pommel holster minus the bag. The early versions were both open-toed and open-topped.
Toe plugs were added later when softer, more pliable leather started being used which gave the added benefit of protecting the barrel of the holster from debris. In the frontier the wearer often squatted down in snow, mud or sand so this was an essential improvement on the design. In many areas of the west these eastern holsters weren't readily available and many times just weren't made tough enough to stand up to the extreme rigors of the rough and ready environment that it was subjected to. This is the era where the original saddlers of the west really came into the scene. Located in the scattered remote settlements and growing towns of the west they started producing gunleather from the early 1850's onward. By the mid-1850's many of the belt holsters had full cover flaps which was usually made by leaving the back of the holster longer and folding it down over the gun. This enabled the use of not only the smaller guns but also the larger Walker and Dragoon Colts in the holsters with the added benefit of protecting the cylinder from the elements that could foul it. The eastern made commercial flap holsters were similar to the military form that was used widely in the Civil War and thousands were manufactured during the war between the states. These eastern made holsters fit a variety of handguns from personal sidearms to various military guns. The western custom made gun leather came into being and the first western holsters came onto the scene during the Gold Rush days of the early 1850's. This first truly western holster was the "California" pattern. The eastern holsters were made of a lighter weight leather than those made by the western leather makers and by the early 1870's were offering "transitional" styling with a half-flap cover, this also when the "Mexican Loop" came into being. In the mid 1870's some holsters appeared with some decorations on the edging. In the early days of using this style of holster the frontiersmen would make the gun more accessible by folding the flap over into their belts or pants. Western saddlers started making these holsters with flaps but since most westerners preferred their guns to be more accessible by the 1880's the flapless belt holster dominated the market so much so that the eastern manufacturer's started offering copies of the western patterns such as the "Mexican Loop" in their gunleather lines and catalogs. The Buscadero belongs to the "new" old west.
*Note: The larger frame guns sometimes had a closed-toe but were commonly made open-toed.
California or Slim Jim
This open-topped pattern commonly known as the "Slim Jim" established a design/construction style for the frontier west. The holster came in two versions but the popularity of the open-topped over the full-flapped variation showed the vast differences in conditions and usage between the civilized east and the wild and wooly frontier west. The guns of this time were extremely susceptible to moisture due to the percussion ignition of firing and thanks to the hundreds of miners living in the sometime lawless mining towns in California, Montana and Colorado who needed ready access to their firearms the open-topped design was the most popular even if it didn't protect the gun from moisture. Being able to pull your gun more quickly than the other guy was much more important than the flap covering the entire upper body of the gun to keep it dry. The holsters almost immediately were designed with a variation that added curves to the design which was intended to shroud the revolver's cylinder and percussion caps which helped keep it dry but still allowed ready access to the grip and trigger. The percussion cap revolver was the norm until well into the 1860's.
The "California/Slim Jim" design is the first holster to incorporate decorative elements, initially with just decorative toe plugs in brass, silver or gold. Then elaborately hand-carved detailing started appearing of animals, patriotic themes and fern patterns which is believed to have come from the Mexican influence. By the mid 1860's floral and border motifs were common, and later still many holsters started featuring a simple stamped or rolled border with a single design element in the corner such as a rosette. The "California/Slim Jim" pattern started appearing more eastward around this time, becoming popular not only in the mining camps of the Rocky Mountains but also throughout the Southwest and Great Plains. Eventually during the Civil War it appeared as far east as Kansas and Missouri. By the 1870's the "California/Slim Jim" holster began being replaced by the new "Mexican Loop" holster designs that came out with the introduction of the metal cartridge and cartridge belts. *Note: Although the "California" is similar to the military holster it evolved independently and earlier than the official military version. The two holsters do have similar features such as a deep, contour-fit body, riveted and/or sewn belt loops and toe plugs.
The Slim Jim Holster and Gun Belt was also known as The California. In the early days of the west guns were usually carried in a pommel or saddlebag holster. But as revolver advancement were made and they became more manageable saddle makers designed a more accessible and efficient hip holster. The first true western style holster was the "California". These were slender in profile and had a deep form-fitting body with sewn in toe plugs to keep debris out and help secure the gun. The holster was mounted on a belt by a leather loop sewn on the back. The "California" was also known as the "Slim Jim". Most of these western holsters were embellished. Designs went form plain to heavy complex carving or stamping. The "California" was replaced in the 1870's with the advent of the cartridge for hand guns.
"Mexican Loop" Western Gun Holster
The early 1870's brought the gun belt and/or cartridge belt for the new metal cartridges and the need for a more adaptable holster to fit over the size of these belts along with the larger variety of guns that were being made. Designed either in northern Mexico or the Southwest the western saddlers started making this design immediately and was commonly found as far north as Canada within a decade. This holster design featured a more ample, flexible belt loop that could pass easily over the new gun belts fully loaded with cartridges that were popular during this time. It was an extremely simple design of one piece of leather that was folded over and sewn to make a shaped holster. A back panel was then cut with two to six horizontal cuts and the holster pocket went through the cuts to make a space between the holster and back panel for the cartridge gun belt to slide through. At this time the typical gun belt was anywhere from 2" to 5" wide. Initially the "Mexican Loop" holster body was closely contoured to the shape of the weapon, a design feature believed to have been influenced by the "California/Slim Jim". Some "Mexican Loops" had a tear drop toe plug which kept the barrel from being fouled if the wearer hunkered down in snow or mud. Most of these holsters had some type of embellishment. Stamped or Floral Carving were the most common. In the late 1890's and early 1900's brass or nickel spots, along with conchos and coins became popular decorations. The holsters that came out of Mexico often had an embroidered design on the holster and gun belt, and the Plains Indians added beadwork to theirs.
There were two regional versions of the "Mexican Loop" holster. The most popular was the "Cheyenne" named after Cheyenne, Wyoming where it was developed and produced by saddlers Gallatin, Meanea and Collins in the 1870's - 1880's. The distinguishing feature of this version of the holster was the "bulge" or swell in the seam contour between the skirt loops which made the pouch much more secure, and it had a tear drop toe plug sewn into the bottom. The other regional variation was the "Texas Jockstrap" made by S. D. Meyers of Sweetwater in the late 1890's. The distinguishing feature of this version is a "T" shaped piece of leather that contained both sides and bottom. This T-shaped loop was usually sewn or riveted tot he back skirt of the holster. Mr. Meyers made this design in his El Paso, Texas shop until well into the 1940's. The eastern leather manufactures started making their version of the "Mexican Loop" pattern in the 1880's and by the late 1890's you could buy inexpensive "Mexican Loop" holsters from your Sears, Roebuck & Company or Montgomery Wards catalogs. Many of these holsters were unmarked and a few were stamped with the initials of the manufacturer. These holsters were cut from a lightweight leather and were usually well made. The body contour was designed to hold different makes/models of revolvers that were of a similar shape and size. This holster maintained it's popularity well into the twentieth century thanks in part to the Wild West Shows and then the early Hollywood films that assured its place in the general public's mind as being a part of the historic frontier Old West. The "Mexican Loop" holster has a wide following among frontier and gunfighter reenactment groups, along with SASS and CMAS.
*Note: Right hand versions of the "Mexican Loop" were much more prevalent than left hand versions.
"Buscadero" Western Gun Holster
This is the holster most well known to us that have grown up as the Hollywood cowboy generation, watching such favorites as Roy Rodgers, The Lone Ranger and Rawhide to mention but a few. The gun belt and holster known as the Buscadero was originally designed for Texas lawmen and the Hollywood cowboys in the 1920's. The rig combines a carved leather gunbelt with one or two holsters. The holster is held in place by an elongated slot in the gun belt or sewn to the belt. The Busbadero gun belt is cut in an arc across the back, sets low on the hips and the holster(s) are angled slightly forward for a faster draw. These rigs often had silver engraved ranger buckles. Many of the first westerns had actual cowboys in them wearing their traditional rigs but as movies caught on stars were wanted for the movies. Theses western stars wore custom made, hand-tooled outfits that were edge laced and sported custom buckles. Theses stars included such greats as Tex Ritter, the Cisco Kid, Roy Rogers, Hopalong Cassidy, Gene Autry, John Carroll and the Lone Ranger.
During the 1950's the "Fast Draw" rig used a specially contoured Buscadero cartridge belt that placed the slotted holster tab even lower on the hip. A low cut "drop loop" slim almost tubular holster was hung from the belt tab. This put the pistol grip at hand level when the arm was extended. This new style had rigid sheet metal or steel liner which allowed hammer coking and cylinder rotation before the gun actually cleared leather. Hammer and leg thongs secure both the revolver an the holster. To achieve an even faster draw some versions extended the metal liner upward with the face or shank portion of the holster which angled the pistol slightly out. This also added stability to the draw. The holster body usually had a strap that buckled over the mid-section reminding one of the traditional Mexican Loop Pattern.
"Walk and Draw" or "Spaghetti Western" Western Gun Holster
This gun holster design came into being in the late 1950's thanks to the growing popularity of recreational fast draw competitions. The holster was sometimes called the "Walk and Draw" and used a leather-covered, metal plate over or behind the gun belt to help anchor it. The holster had a muzzle forward angle which increased the speed and safety of the draw. This rig became popular in movies such as "The Good, Bad, and the Ugly", "A Fistful of Dollars".....all of the classic "Spaghetti Westerns" with Clint Eastwood. This became the new rig of choice in all the television and movie westerns and is still being used today.
Hip Pocket and Shoulder Holsters
By the mid to late 1800's many of the towns of the west had been reached by "civilization" and the genteel townfolk did not want those entering their towns "packing iron". Many of towns passed ordinances or "laws" against carrying a firearm within city limits. The Hip Pocket Holster and Shoulder Holster became quite popular, as they were either concealed in your pocket or coat/duster. The Hip Pocket Holster was made to carry either a small derringer or a "suicide special" which was a small, inexpensive revolver. The holster had two functions, the first being concealment of the weapon and the second kept in a readily available yet securely safe position. It conformed to most pockets and some had loops to carry extra bullets which kept them readily available for re-loading. The Hip Pocket Holster continued it's evolution through the early 1900's and was used more in the east than the west although it was extremely popular with western bankers and businessmen. The holster seems to have been created in the east and then moved on into the western territories and states.
Designed for large-caliber handguns the Shoulder Holster was easily concealed beneath a coat or duster. It seems to have come out of the western frontier and this "concealed weapons" holster was not only popular but extremely practical. Law enforcement and gunfighters alike used these holsters. The rig gave the wearer an extra gun when it was needed and the icing on the cake was that you still had a gun on your person after you had handed in your regular gun and gun belt to the local authorities to come into town. The first "true" design of the Shoulder Holster appeared around the late 1870's. This holster allowed the pistol to "hang" under the arm in a vertical position when it was worn with an oval shaped shoulder loop. There were three types of this holster. The "Texas" pattern was the first and most common of the holsters and was made popular by a Texas shooter named Ben Thompson. The holster was well used by many but if speed was required this rig was not what you wanted. It was hard to draw a large pistol from the holster as the pistol had to lift several inches "up" before it could clear leather. In the late 1890's the "Skeleton" or "Clip Spring" showed up on the northern plains and several improvements were made to the fast draw. The holster had a full back and a small boot cap where the muzzle rested and a leather-covered metal clip or a piece of riveted rawhide rested on the upper cylinder to contain the gun instead of a full leather pouch. This design enabled the the gun to be pulled out in one quick side motion.....but the drawback to this design was that it cost twice as much as a "Texas" pattern holster and so it became a specialty item due to it's cost. In the early 1900's a new design named the Half Breed came out. This design used the best of both of the older style holsters. The design used a spring clip retainer and semi-closed toe in combination with a full leather pouch that was left open along the main front seam for an easy draw..
With the invention of the metal cartridge, the need to carry ammunition close at hand to easily re-load and a method of carrying more shells brought into being the cartridge belt. This was the ideal method of storing this great advancement in making the weapon easier to use. It is not known exactly where the cartridge belt came from but it showed up shortly after the Civil War in the west and by the late 1860's the gun belt made it's advent. The cartridge belt was first mainly used by the buffalo hunters. The cartridge belt could carry a variety of shells and cartridges from shotgun and rifle shells to revolver cartridges. Some belts would carry two different types of ammunition. These belts were made for the military and civilian population and several "crossover" types came into being such as the "Prairie" and the "Mills" cartridge belts.
Rifle Cases, Loops and Scabbards
Rifles were used throughout the west from the time of the early frontiersmen. Since most travel throughout the west involved riding a horse or mule over sometimes extremely rough terrain and a wide variety of weather condition depending upon the region you were in. In the 1830's a full length rifle case appeared in use and was intended more for the protection of the rifle than for carrying it. The case shrouded the rifle from muzzle to butt and had a semi-contour fit. They were initially fabricated by the Indians from a single piece of supple, tanned deer or elk skin, sewn along the main seam and then decorated by applying fringe, beadwork and colored cloth. Many trappers, traders and frontiersmen traded for these functional cases to protect their most important possession and asset....their rifle. The examples of early rifle cases made for muzzle loaders show the case being made by sewing together two pieces of hide. The main drawback of the buckskin rifle case was that it didn't mount onto a saddle, you had to carry it balanced on your saddle pommel.
The Horn Loop was the first western design for the rifle. This design consisted of a short triangular leather sleeve that was attached to the saddle horn and the rifle slipped in muzzle down. It's origins aren't really known and it may have been around as early as the late 1830's. The drawback of this design was that it allowed easy access to the rifle but provided it with no protection. It was most popular in the plains states where there was no underbrush or rocks to damage the rifle.
In the early 1870's the Saddle Scabbard appeared in Texas and then spread throughout the west. Made from a nearly full length sheath of durable leather it had adjustable sling style straps that could be attached to the pommel and rear rigging on either side of the saddle so that the butt faced forward. This form took off with the introduction and availability of breech loading rifles. The actual scabbard body was usually made from one piece of medium to heavyweight skirting leather and cut to the general shape of the rifle. It was then folded over and sewn or laced along the main seam. The slings were fixed and usually attached to the scabbard by riveted retaining straps and had buckles for adjustment. Early versions through the mid 1880's usually had slim, contoured bodies (design similar to the "California" pattern) and sometimes had a sewn-in toe plug. The late 1880's and throughout the 1890's a more general design came about that had a "roomier" cut to accommodate a larger variety of makes of similar size and design. These scabbards were more reminiscent of the "Mexican Loop" holsters that were popular during the same time period. Most scabbards through the late 1890's had minimal decorations, usually only a simple stamped or rolled border along the outer edges. Intricate floral and waffle weave patterns only came about with machine stamping, however this usually made the cost of the scabbard almost double the coast of a plain scabbard. The eastern leather manufacturers started offering these in their catalogs in the late 1880's. The rifle scabbard is still used widely today when riding in the back country.
Most cowboys in the cattle trail riding days left their rifles and scabbards in the chuck wagon unless they were riding in extremely rough or dangerous country. It was too important to have something happen to it if it wasn't going to be needed. The short carbine version of the Winchester Model 1866 was one of the most popular carbine's of the time due to the fact it was very easy to carry in a scabbard and ease of use due to the shorter barrel length.
Packing Iron - Gunleather of the Frontier West by Richard C. Rattenbury
Cowboys & Trappings of the Old West by William Manns and Elizabeth Clair Flood
Cowgirls Women of the Wild West - Elizabeth Clair Flood