GUNS Magazine Leather On Steel


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Dec 03, 2023

GUNS Magazine Leather On Steel

The Mexican Loop is the definitive Western holster. Made by Karla Van Horne,

The Mexican Loop is the definitive Western holster. Made by Karla Van Horne, SASS alias "Purdy Gear," this one features intricate floral carving and lacing around the edge. The revolver is a .50 Special from Hamilton Bowen.

Let us be slaves to the truth; half the appeal of Western guns is the leather gear that goes with them. Fortunately, there is a broad selection of both major manufacturers and smaller custom makers eager to scratch this particular itch — broad enough we canonly cover a handful of excellent, representative models here.

A behind-the-scenes look at the tools and processes used at PurdyGear to shape the exquisitely crafted leather. Even so, what reallymatters is the 50 years of experience in the hands holding them.

Master holster-maker Karla Van Horne (alias "Purdy Gear") was kind enough to welcome me into her shop and tolerate several hours’ worth of questions. An accomplished, self taught holster maker and carver with over 50 years’ experience, her work, like engraving, is so finely detailed you almost need to look at it through magnification to fully appreciate it. "If you sweat the small stuff," she told me, "you begin to figure it out … details matter."

She also emphasized the importance of the holster, belt and accessories all working together as a unified system. The belt serves as the heart of the system, since it distributes the weight and rides directly against your body and a badly designed one can rub you rotten. Karla is transitioning away from custom work, but she’ll still advertise available and in-stock holsters.

Galco's 1880 holster is available for either Colt SAA's, Ruger Blackhawksor Vaqueros, and pairs readily with their matching cartridge belt, availablewith either .38/.357 or .44/.45 loops. The sixgun is a 4" Bowen LightweightVaquero in .45 Colt.

Since I started wearing Galco well over 20 years ago, it was one of my first calls. They provided an 1880 holster, a loop-style holster reminiscent of some of the ones worn by John Wayne, along with a matching cartridge belt. Both are made of saddle leather in natural tan left rough-side out on the 3″-wide belt. It conforms to the body and stays put, and has stitched-in cartridge loops for either .38/.357 or .44/.45 calibers. Both the cartridge loops and billets, joined by a nickel-plated brass California-style buckle, are made of premium steerhide.

The 1880 holster is a high-ride model (it's also available as a crossdraw), positioning the cylinder of the gun comfortably at belt level, and uses a hammer thong for retention. It's available for either Colt SAA's, Ruger Blackhawks or Vaqueros, and while it's cataloged for barrel lengths between 4 3/4″ and 6 1/2″, Galco produced a custom one to fit my 4″ Bowen Lightweight Vaquero — and did so in record time.

For a less traditional look, their custom shop can produce the Single Action Outdoorsman (SAO) holster in a variety of exotic skins including the black sharkskin version I have for a Blackhawk. Including a generous sight track and tension screw, the exotic SAO — with its near-liquid edge work — is simply beautiful.

In addition to holsters, Galco makes a lace-on leather shotgun butt cuff as well as a leg-of-mutton-style shotgun case, both of which appeal to those of us who love the Winchester 1897 and Model 12 pump guns.

Bianchi's steel-lined Wild Clearwater is designed for Wild Bunch competition and is adjustable for cant and degree of retention. The gun is a Parkerized Springfield Jeremy built at Novak's .45 Shop.

Founded over 50 years ago by John Bianchi, who has a lifelong love of the West — as evidenced by his collection that formed the backbone of the Autry Museum of the American West — Bianchi's Cowboy line is heavily tilted toward traditional designs built to withstand the repeated use of competition. They come by it honest; Bianchi's book, Blue Steel and Gunleather, includes his history making early combat shooting gear for Col. Jeff Cooper. And Bianchi himself is credited with inspiring Armand Swensonto create the first ambidextrous M1911 safety.

Bianchi kindly supplied its Wild Clearwater holster for an M1911 (the single-action version is just called the Clearwater). The first thing you notice is the weight: designed for Wild Bunch competition, it's fully steel-lined like the early Cooper-era holsters, and its clever belt loop tunnel has 35 degrees of cant adjustment so it can be set up muzzle forward, straight up or at an FBI rake. It holds the gun securely (there's also a thong) but when you pull the gun it comes free immediately. It comes in chestnut tan or plain black.

Even more serious are Bianchi's Kenda Lenseigne holsters, designed with input from the accomplished competitive shooter whose laurels include four Overall World Championships in cowboy mounted shooting. Though I have limited exposure to the sport, anyone who can run a single action at speed while running a horse with the other hand has my respect.

El Paso Saddlery's 1930 Austin is an interpretation of the A.W. Brill design favored by such men as Texas Ranger Joaquin Jackson. The pistol is a Colt Centennial refinished in the 1912-style by Turnbull Restoration.

Considering the prominence of El Paso in Old West lore, perhaps it's no surprise El Paso Saddlery remains one of the most respected makers of Western leather. Boasting a history dating back to 1889, it has passed through several changes in ownership,reportedly being associated with S.D. Myres at one point. They’ve made holsters for such legendary figures as Gen. George S. Patton (who also purchased his famed Colt SAA in El Paso), John Wayne and John Wesley Hardin, who is buried in El Paso and for whom the saddlery made the shoulder holster now cataloged as the 1895 Hardin. Ironically, El Paso also produces the 1890 holster, a version of which was worn by John Selman who fatally shot Hardin Jack McCall-style — in the back of the head.

Though El Paso Saddlery makes a full line of modern concealment leather — and I mean leather, go elsewhere for Kydex — the one that caught my attention is the 1930 Austin. The Brill-type holster is available for single- and double-action revolvers as well as some semiautos. Like all El Paso holsters, it's available in either russet brown or black, and with several different stamping options ranging from basketweave and border stamping to floral carving. Other options include a hammer thong or strap.

The version I ordered (at retail) is black with fish-scale stamping and sized for a Government Model M1911. The particular pistol I had in mind for it is a 1912-style Colt finished in the correct grayish charcoal blue offset by fire blue small parts … which made me grateful for the protection the holster's suede lining offers the high polish. Candidly, I had some second thoughts about black, as the russet seems to show off the stamping a bit better, but the subdued black seems to pair well with the gun's flash. Be prepared: El Paso gives fair warning the holsters are made one at a time to order and you should expect a couple months’ wait.

The Barranti-Myres Legacy line offers several faithful Threepersons holsters built using the original Myres sheet copper patterns. Primarily available for revolvers(both single and double action), they’re available with a variety of stamping or carving.Photo: Mike Barranti

Another maker with perhaps closer ties to the original Myres’ designs is Barranti Leather Company. Mike "Doc" Barranti is going on 35 years making holsters. Not counting the vinyl one for his BB gun, he started making holsters by using the top of an old boot to make a holster for an 1860 Army revolver he’d made from a kit. If the boot part sounds familiar, you’ll recognize — like many of us — he was influenced by the inimitable Skeeter Skelton, as well as Elmer Keith and others. He also had inspiration at home; both parents were good with their hands. He grew up watching his father do woodwork and his mother, a seamstress, sewing and doing needlepoint.

A lot of his work is for single-action revolvers, but Barranti offers concealment leather (including shoulder holsters) as well as field holsters, traditional Western gunbelts complete with carving and non-gun items such as leather valet and safari chair. In addition to a Brill, he also produces faithful versions of the Threepersons holsters as part of his trademarked Barranti-Myres Legacy line. By "faithful," I mean the holsters are built using original Myres sheet copper patterns Barranti obtained from a collector. Available decorated with a variety of stamping or carving options, Barranti marks them with the original Myres’ maker's mark beside his own.

So there you have it, a snapshot of some of the best Western-style holsters available on the market today. Get your Old West-style shooter, pick up the right rig and get ready to slap some leather!

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