Classic Old West Spurs

Nothing is more symbolic of the cowboy than his spurs. The cowman’s spurs rated among his most important pieces of equipment, and, as with much of his other gear, spurs could be plain, functional devices or veritable works of art, heavily laden with silver and engraving, reflecting the owner’s wealth or status. In the case of an ordinary cowhand, ornately adorned spurs were among his most prized possessions, displaying pride in his profession. Cowboys called them by many names including “gut hooks,” “hooks,” “can openers” and “pet makers,” to name a few.

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The graceful, long-necked “California” spurs, which evolved from those behemoth spurs worn by the Spanish conquistadors of the 16th century, are considered by many to be the most beautiful and artistic appendages ever put on a cowboy’s boots. By maintaining the same basic lines yet reducing and refining them, the California pattern metamorphosed from the heavy, oversized spurs worn by the conquistadors, and later the colonial vaqueros, into the comely, practical tool most often used by working cowboys and other frontier horsemen from around 1870 on through the dawn of the 20th century. In fact, California spurs have enjoyed renewed popularity with modern horsemen in the past three decades.

California Spurs

California spurs were all fitted with rowels—often large, multi-pointed wheel- or star-shaped affairs (most had 10 to 14 points)—measuring from a smallish 1-3/8 inches to more than 3¼ inches in diameter.

These points were sometimes filed to a blunt edge so that the rider could signal his mount by light touches or by rolling the circular rowels across the animal’s side without inflicting unnecessary pain.

As a rule, the California spur featured a fairly narrow heel band that ranged from around ½ to 1½ inches wide. It is where most of the adornment is found and could be straight-sided, tapered, straight-edged or extremely fancy, boasting of scalloped or curved borders. Most often the outer side would be decorated while the inner band was fairly simple. The adorned sides could bear cutout stars, crescents, sunbursts, federal shields, flowers, harness spots or almost any design that would lend itself to a graceful decoration.

A dome-headed stud was affixed to the forward portion of each end of the heel band and was used to fasten the spur leather or strap. On fancier spurs, these studs were also gussied up. Below the studs hung a pair of chains, used to hold the spur in the proper position on the boot.

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California-pattern spurs often employ what is referred to as the “gooseneck” shank. Long and graceful, the shanks of the early versions were pinned or sweated to the heel band, while later models were of one-piece construction. The shank generally had a curved drop to it, although they were sometimes straight and could measure from 1¼ to 2½ inches to the furthermost point rearward (not including the rowel). At the top of the shank, an upturned metal appendage, called the chap guard, was fashioned. This aided in keeping the wearer’s chaps or trouser cuffs out of the rowels. The shank could be plain or fancy, even silvered. Sometimes a pair of small metal danglers—called “jingle bobs”—hung from the rowel pin. These made a pleasing tinkling sound while serving as a constant reminder to the horse of the spurs’ presence.

Growing Popularity

California spurs were produced in great numbers—at first by blacksmiths and independent spur-making artisans. Then, around 1870, the August Buermann Manufacturing Company of Newark, New Jersey, which had been manufacturing bits and spurs since 1842, began producing them and selling them by mail order. These “catalog” spurs, which could be purchased for just a couple of dollars, were well-made, handsome representations and were quickly snapped up by the growing number of cattlemen, as well as horsemen in other professions—both civilian and military.

Soon respected saddlery firms, such as Main & Winchester of San Francisco and F.A. Menea of Cheyenne, Wyoming, were stocking both plain iron and fancy, silver-embellished Buermann catalog spurs in their inventories. Despite the vast array of designs offered in this distinctive style, few could compete with the mass-production capabilities of Buermann and other commercial spur-makers, like the North & Judd Manufacturing Company (Anchor Brand), which began producing saddlery hardware sometime in the mid-19th century and later followed Buermann’s lead by offering a line of California-pattern spurs as well. By the first decade of the 20th century, these makers’ catalogs offered page after page of handsome designs that ranged from austere to elaborate renditions of what they referred to as “Cowboy,” “California,” “Mexican” and “Texas” spurs.

Buermann-made spurs became the standard of the cowpunchers of the Old West. Early Buermann spurs are stamped with a small five-pointed star with the letters “AB” stamped inside, and the legend “HAND FORGED STEEL” or “PATENT.” North & Judd were also considered favorable among cattlemen and other horsemen in the West, and their goods bore an easily identifiable anchor stamp on their products. By 1926, North & Judd had purchased the Buermann company and began stamping their anchor mark next to the Buermann star on many pieces. Interestingly, North & Judd continued to turn out a line of the best designs of the Buermann shop and marketed them separately, stamping these products with an empty star and not adding their own trademark anchor stamp.

Spurs Turned Art

Many spur-makers—individual artisans and commercial producers alike—copied variations of the California pattern from each other, and by the late 19th and early 20th centuries, spur making had soared to an art form that spawned such artisans as G.S. Garcia, A. Herrera, J. J. Estrada, Jose Figueroa and others, whose exquisite work is much sought after by collectors today.

Spur leathers, the straps that hold the spur to the boot, also became an art form that ranged in design from simple leather straps with plain iron or brass buckles to shapely cut styles that might sport stamp tooling or carving, fancy silver buckles, conchos, harness spots or other colorful embellishments. A couple of the more popular styles of spur leathers included the large “gull wing” spur leathers. This is a sort of bird-wing-shaped single piece of leather that simply attached via holes in either end (or via a small strap attached to a concho on a rounded end and holes on the opposite “wing tip” end). Although not seen for many years, the gull-wing style has enjoyed renewed popularity in recent times, thanks largely to today’s interest in the Old West.

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Another favorite with cowhands was (and still is) a two-piece set of leathers with one large kidney-shaped leather where one end is rounded and either attaches directly to the spur shank’s button or is attached by a hidden strap under a concho. The other end of the “kidney” has a straight tab with holes for attaching to a separate buckle that is attached to a small rounded tab that fits over the spur shank’s stud or button. Generally speaking, spur leathers that buckled on were worn with the buckle on the inside of the foot, rather than on the outside, in order to keep them from snagging on brush and other obstacles.

For the benefit of today’s horsemen interested in the old-style spurs, the so-called “Texas” spurs of McChesney, Kelly Brothers, Crockett and the like didn’t exist during our frontier era. Those are mostly products of the first half of the 20th century. However, there were apparently a few of the simpler Texas-style spurs that seemed to gain favor with some cowmen in the latter years of the Old West, such as the OK spur. This was a small, handy spur with a gooseneck shank, a multi-pointed, plate-type rowel (rather than the spoke-type rowel) and an unusual four-button system of fastening the spur leathers to the boot (two buttons on each side of the heel shank), and using a small, austere buckle to fasten them to fit.

However, fastened to the boots of cowmen, it was the California spur that jingled up the great cattle trails, circled the world in Wild West shows and urged half-wild mustangs across our American prairies to bring civilization to the untamed frontier. Regardless of whether they were plain forged-iron spurs on some unknown cowhand’s boots or a set of ornately shaped and silver-inlaid models fit for the likes of Buffalo Bill Cody, Theodore Roosevelt or any of the legendary figures of the Old West, the California spur has indeed become the cowboy’s trademark.

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This article originally published in the Spring 2016 issue of GUNS OF THE OLD WEST®, print and digital subscriptions to GUNS OF THE OLD WEST are available here.