Classic Gunleather: Old West Rigs and Holsters

The Old West holster was a very simple idea 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 made for the new Colt Paterson revolvers were simple leather pouches shaped like the gun and worn on a leather belt. Form following function, they were made to get the job done, and little else mattered. Early military holsters added a flap to give the firearm more protection from the elements, but it was still a basic leather pouch with no embellishments. The early designs of the 1840s evolved into more intricate, contoured holsters known as “California-pattern” rigs, some plain, others with various carving styles, most produced by saddlers who imparted their own touches to the designs. These were produced long before the metallic cartridge era when gun belts were just belts made to carry the holster. They also helped keep a man’s trousers up, but belt loops for pants wouldn’t be invented for almost another 100 years!

In Europe, Russia and the Middle East, holsters made for single-shot handguns (flintlocks and percussion locks) of various sizes were generally much more elaborate, including woven and highly embroidered holsters dating as far back as 16th century Russia. The greatest influence on American holsters, however, were those crafted in Mexico, where decoration was as much a part of any item’s design as the item itself, be it an article of clothing, a hat or a holster. In time, the influences of European and Mexican craftsmanship 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. Where those designs went in the new century and how American filmmakers interpreted them in Western films, and later in television shows, created an entirely new genre of holster and gun belt, and changed how history remembers the American West.

Western leather gun holsters

The Soellner’s reproduction of Buffalo Bill’s holster and gun belt.

Holster Replicas

Recreating historic gun rigs is not as difficult as it might appear, so long as there is a starting point, an original pattern to copy. Fortunately, leather, even poorly cared for leather, can endure for a remarkably long time. Holster collectors like John Bianchi, who had his own museum of Western guns and gear in the late 1970s (later to become the foundation of the Autry Museum of Western Heritage collection), provided the patterns to recreate many original holsters, belts and buckle styles from the Old West. Another of the great influences on contemporary reproductions of original style holsters has been El Paso Saddlery. Bianchi recalled, “I bought the John Wesley Hardin guns and memorabilia from Bobby McNellis of El Paso Saddlery. Bobby started locking onto that kind of stuff very early on before anybody had an interest.”

In fact, McNellis, who resurrected El Paso Saddlery in the 1970s (the original El Paso Saddlery was founded in 1889), was one of the great sources for original 19th century designs. So many original rigs have survived, in fact, that Richard Rattenbury’s book, Packing Iron, is literally a modern holster-maker’s catalog for original designs, leather carving and stamping styles.

Recreating these historic and famous holsters has become a passion for some contemporary makers like Alan and Donna Soellner of Chisholm’s Trail Leather. Alan, who learned the craft from Bianchi, has become the Indiana Jones of western holster-makers, reveling in the

challenges of researching and accurately recreating authentic western holsters and gun belts from the most simplistic to the most intricate. Alan and his wife, Donna, are specialists in detail hand carving, authentic leather stamping and perfectionists at leather staining and antiquing to create the exact look of an original. By researching the holster’s history, and often that of its original owner, even to the extent of visiting museums with the original gunleather in their private collections, the Soellners have recreated some of history’s most significant and infamous holsters, gun belts, buckles, conchos, knives and sheaths. All of this comes at a price, and the research often can take more than a year. “The most challenging holster we ever copied was Geronimo’s,” Soellner said. “It was a Mexican drop-loop style but very intricately made. It took us three years to research and reproduce the design, including a trip to the Fort Sill Museum in Oklahoma where Geronimo’s gun and holster were being preserved as part of a special exhibit called The Warrior’s Journey.” The Soellners were allowed to examine, photograph and measure the holster, belt and knife sheath. But that was only the beginning. Every concho on the holster was unique and had to be hand made and hand engraved in the corn-flower design to match the original, as did the buckle, and the more than 300 domed silver studs used on the belt, holster and knife sheath. In the end they were able to produce 12 authentic copies of Geronimo’s rig.

Another long project by the Soellners was recreating the holster and gun belt worn by Buffalo Bill Cody. Again, it was a very intricate holster to reproduce from original photos provided by historians Greg Martin and R.L. Wilson. Recreating original designs, whether from the original holster or from photos in books like Packing Iron, is a labor of love and dedication to the craft.

Western leather gun holsters

Many Warner Brothers actors used Arvo Ojala’s rigs

Movies & TV

Sometimes being authentic can also be a stumbling block, one that led filmmakers to create more “exciting”-looking holsters for film and television westerns. In very early silent films, most of the guns and gunleather were authentic because they were still in use, but by the 1930s filmmakers wanted their stars to be seen with something a bit more memorable. The movies created Western heroes who had to be fast on the draw and real Western holsters were not particularly designed for that. Cinematic shootouts were more theater than reality; stand-up gunfights were rare in the Old West, they happened, but not often. In the movies almost every shootout was accompanied by a quick draw, and to make this possible a new style of Western holster and gun belt was required, what eventually came to be known as the “Buscadero” style. It evolved from the late 1920s and 1930s and has remained popular to this very day. Basically, the Buscadero design has the holster’s skirt looped through the gun belt (rather than around it), thus preventing it from moving and also allowing it to be lower so the gun could be drawn faster. Some of the most famous early designs were made by the legendary Edward H. Bohlin, including one worn by John Wayne in his earliest films. In Wayne’s 1947 classic Angel and the Badman, the handsomely crafted holster and gun belt he wore was made by one of the original Old West leather makers, H.H. Heiser. Heiser also made the double rig worn by Jack Palance in Shane.

By the 1960s, John Bianchi was making belts and holsters used by many of the production companies filming TV and movie Westerns. “It’s hard to say that in this or that episode of Gunsmoke, or another show, if I made the holster that an actor is wearing because many of the principal actor’s gun belts were made by Arvo Ojala. There’s a famous picture of all the Warner Brothers Western actors taken together, and Arvo made most of their rigs, while we supplied stock holsters for the rest of the actors.”

Western leather gun holsters

Billy the Kid’s holster was made to hold a coat back on the draw.

Bianchi recalls that Arvo came to popularity in the early 1950s when he began working as a gun coach for TV actors. “He could do such fascinating tricks, so when they saw how good he was with a gun, the studio heads said, ‘Hey, we have to incorporate that into our series.’ The fast-draw tricks were incredible, but you had to have a holster like Arvo’s to do them! And you couldn’t buy a holster like his. He ended up not only teaching the actors how to fast draw but making the holsters for them as well. Part of his secret was a special metal liner inside the holster. The design actually goes back to the 1940s and Wild West performer and movie stuntman Rodd Redwing, who made the holster worn by Alan Ladd in Shane. [Redwing also did the close-up fast-draw shooting in the movie.] Redwing had used spring-loaded corset stays from women’s old corsets to keep the holster open, creating a cavity that allowed the cylinder to turn freely while still holstered. Rodd would cock the gun in the holster before drawing it, and that’s what the fast draw was based on, being able to thumb the gun in the holster—no live ammo of course, strictly blanks. Rodd was the first one to do this, and his designs inspired Arvo to take it to the next level in the 1950s and 1960s with more refined, heavy-duty-steel-lined holsters. Rodd mostly made holsters for himself, and they always had a kind of rustic look, even the holster he made for Shane, while Arvo focused on one thing, making the Arvo Ojala Hollywood metal-lined holster and gun belt. He provided great inspiration for everyone who followed. We make a similar holster today at Frontier Gunleather, inspired by Arvo’s designs.”

Related Stories: Famous Walk & Draw Leather Rigs Of Hollywood

Another of Ojala’s most famous designs was the Paladin rig worn by actor Richard Boone in Have Gun, Will Travel. While most of the movie and TV rigs were drop-loop designs, the Paladin holster was attached to the skirt from behind, leaving the pouch smooth, much like anold California-pattern rig, with the exception of the silver chess knight in the middle.

Walk & Draw Rigs

In the early 1960s another famous holster maker came along: Andy Anderson. “He used to work for Arvo,” Bianchi recalled, “and he finally went out on his own. The Andy Anderson Walk and Draw rig became equally famous in TV and movies in the late 1960s and 1970s. When he left Arvo, he opened up a shop across the street on Lankershim Boulevard in North Hollywood. Their shops were almost facing each other, and they became serious competitors. Alfonso Pineda, who had started out working for Arvo as well, also opened a shop in North Hollywood on Magnolia Boulevard.”

Alfonso’s of Hollywood would become another great influence on TV and movie holsters. In fact, Alfonso may have actually made the original Paladin rig while still working for Arvo Ojala. Alfonso later made a second version of the Paladin design having the chess knight fitted with a ruby eye. This is probably the most recognized Western holster in the world.

Western leather gun holsters

Legends In Leather

There were many famous holster-makers associated with movie and TV Westerns, and one of the best was Bob Brown. He was one of the few to make holsters for John Wayne, including the rig he wore in Red River, and oddly enough the boots Wayne wore as well. Brown also made the gun rig worn by Montgomery Clift in the film. “He was known as the Leonardo of leather,” said Jim Lockwood, Jr., who became Brown’s apprentice in the early 1990s. “Brown did remarkable carvings and holster designs for the movies beginning in the 1940s. He also made Western boots for quite a few of the actors and actresses at the time.”

Just as Arvo Ojala and Rodd Redwing taught their skills to Bianchi, Brown entrusted the future of his craft to Lockwood, who had been enamored with the Old West of the American cinema since he was a kid. As a young man, he even dated Shane author Jack Schaeffer’s stepdaughter! Fate would eventually bring Brown and Lockwood together, and Jim would spend almost 10 years learning the craft firsthand before establishing Legends in Leather. Lockwood has a file of every original Bob Brown pattern, and today he specializes in Bob Brown’s designs as well as other famous movie and TV Buscadero styles, making them one rig at a time, hand-cut and hand-sewn, just like it was done in the days of the Old West.

Whether an original rig preserved in a museum display case or one that has been freshly handcrafted, the Western holster, like the Western itself, has become an iconic part of our American heritage.    

For More Information Contact

Alfonso’s of Hollywood
818-769-0362; alfonsosgunleather.com

Chisholm’s Trail Leather
678-423-7351; westernleatherholster.com

El Paso Saddlery
915-544-2233; epsaddlery.com

John Bianchi Frontier Gunleather
877-877-4704; frontiergunleather.com

Legends In Leather
928-717-2175; legendsinleather.com

This article originally published in the Winter 2015 issue of GUNS OF THE OLD WEST®, print and digital subscriptions to GUNS OF THE OLD WEST are available here.