• Red Nichols, Holstorian

Elmer Keith's rare Berns-Martin "Speed" holsters

Updated: Mar 11

We know a surprising amount about the very first Berns-Martin "Speed" holsters ever made, because they were made for Elmer Keith. And we can date them, by knowing that inventor John Berns was stationed by the USN in AK in 1930 (his Census appearance) and Keith was hunting there (his book "Hell, I Was There!").

This archive image was taken in the very year that Berns was stationed there. For all we know, he took it because the artist is not credited otherwise.

And from Elmer's extensive feature article about the holster, which has many pics but not including his set, that appeared in American Rifleman in 1932; and Bern's patent application filed in that year. The set itself is on the cover of 2018's "Holstory".

The first half of this very long article is about sights and not holsters; but there is a connection for Keith: the Speed holster was explicitly developed to shield both the front and rear sights after blacking for an ideal sight picture against snow.

In his article, Keith demonstrates that it is he and Berns who have worked out the solution to handgun hunting in deep snow; and that it is Berns' fellow member of the USN Rifle Team, Julius "Jack" Martin who is the leatherworker who will make the sets.

This is Keith's 'slip hammer' SA that he hunted with. Notice the 'Fitzed' trigger guard; he illustrates such pistols with a DA, too.

Because the article also points out, that Berns-Martin is just starting out. The evidence is that Jack is back in the famous home of Berns-Martin, Calhoun City, at the end of 1936 for his father's funeral there; and prior he was building orders in NYC while still in the Navy, at least until the end of 1935. These latter holsters w/b marked with tiny letters vs the famous ovals we know so well today.

Elmer in the snow with his first pair. Is it AK or ID? Does it matter, when the snow is the reason for the holster?

The point of all this is that Berns-Martins can be dated by their markings. And therefor they can be graded by rarity (in addition to the obvious criterion of condition).

The rarest, of course, is Elmer's "First Set", and my showing the front and back for you is purposeful:

Because this set is filled with unique features that you'll miss at first glance. First, neither of the holsters nor the belt have their maker's name marked on them:

Second, the two rows of cartridge loops are two different calibers -- the upper row is .44 and the lower row is .38. In that period Keith would have been using .44 Special revolvers and .38-44 revolvers with the associated 'hot' .38 Special loads; because neither the .357 Magnum nor the .44 Magnum had been invented yet. But he was working in both! No, the twin rows of loops are not for rifle cartridges; notice that they don't don't align to suit that, because there are five above and six below, yet the appear to align (but only at the last loops)

Third, the holsters are sewn to the belt; they cannot be slipped off the belt and there are no belt loops if one did.

Fourth, the snap buttons have not ever been seen on any other gunleather.

Fifth, the safety straps are also sewn to the holsters and because of that, will not swivel down behind the holsters when not used as do all later Speed holsters.

Sixth, and the piece de resistance: the only lined Berns-Martin gunbelt in existence and the lining was hand-stitched to the belt AFTER the holsters were sewn to it! Oh, and here it comes with a pair of S&W Triple Locks and what look like Ropers but are Kearsarges (sp?) instead; and one of the revolvers was originally Ed McGivern's, done in a trade:

OK, so we've determined that Keith's "First Two" set is the rarest. A close second will be his "Second Two" set, yet notice that it is entirely consistent with the commercial versions and has none of the special features of his First Two. Nevertheless the carving featuring a poppy flower is completely inconsistent with the commercial versions, which used the rose (although I know of one using a very odd pattern that is not the rose, from that era):

The rose pattern most-often carved into Calhoun City-marked "Speed" holsters.

Now the rarest of the Speed holsters after the two Keith sets, is this one that is the first of the commercial versions. It has the Berns-Martin name stamped into it and but notice that there is not only just one of the patent numbers, but it is not J.E. Berns' patent:

That's not Berns' 1935 patent marked on this Speed holster. Instead it is E.E. Clark's 1932 patent; and this is the year that Keith's article about the Berns-Martin appeared. Doubtless lawyers were involved! Elmer had one of the Clark's in his estate auctioned a few years back; the new owner won't send me more pics :-).

This 'single patent' version was followed by the 'double patent' version, and that's beginning 1935 because it's when Berns' patent issued. Notice they were made both with and without straps; according to their brochure the 'with strap' version was the default (also notice the difference in the carry angle created by the different belt loops). He was a harness maker so all are hand cut and all are hand stitched.

These hand-marked Speed holsters are pre-WWII for Britain (1939); after which Jack appears to have stopped production while he supported the War effort with innovations that included his little-known 'upside down shoulder holster' sheaths for the Fairbairn-Sykes fighting knives that originated in the Pacific theatre.

It is right at this time that Martin was perfecting the famous "Lightning" inverted shoulder holster for revolvers; and he speaks of having accomplished that in a 1934 letter and stating that it draws 'like lightning'. Hence the name Lightnin' (no diphthong). Among these I expect that the hand carved ones are rarest because I know of only two; and my friend John Witty owns one of them; Flora van Orden of Evaluators beginning 1950:

Flora was married to the General who founded Evaluators, and he ran off with his secretary at some point. Ha! Flora outlived him by decades.

This carved Lightnin' was Geoffrey Boothroyd's, the Scotsman who 'advised' Fleming (got him into strife, more truthfully, at a vulnerable time in Fleming's life because he took criticism vary hard; striving as he was to be taken as a serious writer). We (the writers/editors/publishers) of Holstory have reached an agreement with its current owner to feature it and his 1941 British-issue 38 S&W on the cover of Holstory II:

At this point the 1950-onwards Calhoun City mark appeared, with notice from Martin to Keith that he had only just restarted production in 1950 after the War. This one (below) is unusual because its 'fitment' is marked on it: and it has been configured for a Fitzed revolver, which itself seems like a VERY bad idea with both the Lightnin' and the Speed holsters). Otherwise Martin did not mark the fitment on his holsters. The Calhoun City mark itself is dead common:

Even the muzzle plugs were configured especially for various front sights because, after all, the front sight is a big part of why the holster was created at all. This does not go to rarity; it's just a bit of trivia that will help you understand why your late-model Smith .44 Mag with Baughman ramp will not properly fit into the holster you have if it was built for an old fixed-sight Smith 38/44 -- the muzzle end is shaped very differently between the two:

Also dead common is the subsequent Elberton mark:

These are not as well-made as the earlier Calhoun City mark, and that it exists at all can be explained but perhaps not justified :-). When the "Dr. No" film appeared late in 1962 it caught the eye of a collector named J. Frank Coggins, who was a wealthy citizen of Elberton. And although he and his associates have stated in writing that they 'bought' Berns-Martin from Jack Martin, nevertheless we know that Martin and his offsider Frank Criswell continued to make the holsters in Calhoun City up until his death in 1968. Van Orden of Evaluators, a major customer of the company, died the year before and even knowing what we do about the brand name's history after that, it seems that all production of the brand in all three places (Calhoun City MS, Elberton GA; and Atlanta GA because knife-maker Blackie Collins owned the mark briefly) simply . . . simply stopped.

The Berns-Martin mark was not ever used again until I took up its registration it last year after its previous owner, Bianchi Holsters, allowed it to lapse for 30-plus years; but I did not ever use it on gunleather of either Berns or Martin's designs; but rather on my own. Still available on eBay via my former USA agent :-).

Intended for a James Bond film, this Berns-Martin shoulder holster in the horizontal style of Chic Gaylord is a style that the original company could have offered but didn't, the set was built 'on spec' and not ever deployed by the films' producers. The holster is horsehide, the harness is kangaroo lined and ostrich-leg faced; the pouch clips off for the belt and I suppose I could have configured the holster for the belt, too, but didn't):

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