• Red Nichols, Holstorian

Got it out of my system: an early Brill vs a late Brill

Updated: Jun 10

The most prevalent, and the most collectible, of all the Sunday scabbards is the Brill; followed by L.A. Sessums' version of the design. And it turns out there are two versions of the Brill, and the reason for that is they were made by different men of different eras. And so we call them 'early' Brills and 'late' Brills.

Let's talk rare. Above, the holster's not rare but that mag pouch sure is! The next rarest are the cartridge slide and the belt by Brill, below. All have the Brill mark.

Gee the differences are tiny. But once you know about them they're also something one can't ignore at a glance! In the above image it's immediately obvious to me that it's an 'early' Brill set.

A little history explains it. August Brill was not a leatherworker himself but instead began as a clerk for carriage merchant and saddle maker W.T. Wroe of Austin. Wroe himself was notable because he married Captain Leander McNelly's widow long after the Captain's death and yet quite soon after his own wife's death near the turn of the century. Then, in 1912, August bought the saddlery of the Kluge Bros. and struck out on his own, leaving Wroe to fail at becoming an automobile dealer by 1916. He retired!

Kluge Bros' saddlery was comprised of brothers Charles and Henry Kluge, and they founded their company in 1885 after they themselves were born just prior to the start of the Civil War. By 1912 they weren't young men any longer yet they continued to work for August Brill; and it was Charles who was the saddle maker of some note -- Henry was a bookkeeper -- and it was he who made thousands of the Sunday scabbards for August from that sale date of 1912 (we know this from a 1924 newspaper interview) until 1932; when the role was taken back by the scabbard's designer, Rabensburg.

This is Brill's actual stamp, held by the estate of N.J. Rabensburg. This lone stamp was used on both the early and the late Brills. I've 'flopped' the image for legibility.

By the time of that 1924 newspaper interview of August Brill, Charles had made thousands of Brills including for 'a well known Texas Ranger' that I'd like to believe was Captain Hughes; and yet he was not known to wear them. On the other hand Hughes DID commission the design in 1907.

With Doc White at the merging of the Texas Rangers with the Texas Highway Patrol in 1935 to form the Texas Department of Public Safety. White is wearing what we know to be a King Ranch -- he wore it throughout the rest of his LEO career that included Treasury, DOI, and FBI -- while Hughes' gunleather maker is not yet known. Hughes was a lefty after taking an arrow through his right arm when he was a teen. We associate Hughes and Myres for their famed buscadero belt to suit the Ranger's disability yet that appeared in 1930 while Hughes' wound was 50 years prior.

For reasons that we do have to deduce, as opposed to what we absolutely know from a very large collection of Brill knowledge we've amassed, is why in 1932 the holster's inventor was tempted back to Austin from Llano where he was mayor. We have the exact timing, etc; just not the exact reasoning. But we do know that both August Brill and his son Arno would introduce their Brillville vacation resort soon after WWII ended; and that the Kluge brothers would die by then, too. So likely, the Kluges were old and ill and the Brills were preoccupied with business (and were not makers themselves).

1949 above and 1937 below:

When Newton Rabensburg again took up the cudgel he changed the Brill scabbard quite a lot. And we know which was which, because N.J. personally made a pair of Sunday scabbards in the mid 1950s for a man and his brother surnamed Nelson. To differentiate between them we could have used their makers, Kluge or Rabensburg; but before both men were fully identified (we identified the latter before the former) we had begun to use the terms 'early' and 'late'.

Newton Joseph Rabensburg, above. His grandson told me, with regret, that N.J. didn't like children -- including his own children and grandchildren.

The tiny differences between the holsters of the two men then allow you to identify an early from a late; with either only a frontside view or a backside view online. Having this info then will astonish you and win as many bar bets as you can stomach :-).

One: is the number of hand stitches at the top of the welt stack in an early Brill. Notice that this stitch is at right angles to the main line of sewing, and it is there for strength.

Two: is the number of these hand stitches at the top of the welt stack in a late Brill. It's a right angle stitch, then a return stitch 'downwards' (back towards the muzzle of the holster) in parallel with the main row of hand sewing. On today's harness machines that second stitch was/is continued to suit the eye of the operator because, on a machine, the difference in effort to sew one more or ten more is nothing.

Three: an early Brill has a straight line to its welt stack and main stitchline. Easy to understand the 'whys' of that: it was created for the Colt SAs of the Rangers that have a straight frame ahead of the trigger guard (in .45 LC a Ranger's practice ammo was free), and it was created from the King Ranch holster that also had the straight seam. The fender's shape then matches its outline.

Above, pearl grips from Colt cost more at the turn of the 20th century than the revolver!

Four: a late Brill has a pronounced 'waist' like a Rubenesque woman (bless their little black hearts) and the fender is configured to match as if it were a shadow cast by a light shone directly above the holster pocket.

Five: the floral pattern of an early Brill is very, very different from a late. This is also easily understood because different craftsman have different preferences and skills. The tools are literally all the same -- these were originally made from old fencing nails that are quite large and not much like what we think of as a 'nail' today -- and what we call 'carving' is instead, largely 'stamping' with these tools after some initial cutting is done. This below is an early and another that is attributed to Butch Cassidy is nearly identical:

Six: the floral pattern of a late Brill looks like this one. Notice that even the cuff patterning is unique to a late vs an early. Both early and late Brills were made with the maker's mark at center of the cuff replaced by the buyer's initials; here are some notables:

Seven: there are differences between the basketweave of early and late Brills, but they are confined to the perimeter shape of the main pattern. This was inconsistent enough that seeing one corner in an image wouldn't be dispositive.

Seven and a half: the cuff leathers are different, too. The early Brill has a very wide cuff that is much more like the King Ranch it evolved from:

While the late Brill had a much-narrowed cuff, but still gripping the welt stack hard up against the revolver's frame:

Eight: that's it for the front side. The backside tells its own tales, beginning with the sewing of the cuff ends to the fender behind the holster pocket. Really, really different and consistent with the change in that little stitch at the top of the welt stack that is on the front.

An early Brill has a single line of sewing that holds the tip end of the cuff nearest the main welt stack; it runs onto the cuff end and then off again and it could almost be by machine. The end of the cuff that is sewn to the fender, nearest the main fold of the holster, is definitely hand sewn and always has the same number of stitches (six as I recall) and also runs off the sides of the cuff -- but then with a single stitch at right angles to the main row as on the front side. Greater resistance to tearing loose by the pressure from the belt, given that the cuff IS the lowermost portion of the belt tunnel.

Nine: the cuff sewing on the backside of the fender changes a lot with a late Brill. Again there are always the same number of hand stitches at the cuff end nearest the main fold, but now there is another, large return stitch back onto the cuff end. I call it a 'fish hook', and notice that that single, straight line of an early Brill nearest the welt stack is now identical to the hand sewing of the sewing on the other side.

Ten: Early Brills have only one welt and it is very, very thick indeed. Late Brills have a minimum of two thick welts on revolvers and often have three; I've not ever seen more, or fewer, on a late Brill.

One thick welt above in an early Brill; three thick welts in a late Brill below:

Look again, and see the layered welts as the stack heads for the muzzle. There are three welts as it leaves the cuff area, still three as they all taper together (called skiving) and barely visible at the muzzle end is the addition of a fourth welt that is skived at both ends.

Eleven: All of that presupposes the your Brill is for a revolver. There is a version for the 1911 and for the Colt pocket autos, and they are very different indeed from the revolver. In fact, in plan view they are configured very much like all other 1911 auto holsters of the era including the most famous of these, Shelton-Payne Arms' which company founder actually patented his method of keeping the mag button off the inside of the holster. Brills followed the configuration, which was to set the complete trigger guard down inside the holster pocket in an annex of its own; and true to the era the trigger itself was then exposed. I recall that these by both men for the early and late periods, have only the one primary welt; but there is still a second welt layered onto the muzzle end of the welt, tapered at each end.

Early above, late below. But then you already knew that, from the stitch(es) at the top of the welt.

Now THIS one will confuse you: the muzzle is open on it vs. the closed end of all other Brills. Obscured is a hole in the holster interior for the mag button; also a rare Brill feature.

Twelve: A late Brill did this no differently and both eras featured a version of the 1911 holster that was configured for the 2" barrel revolvers; and this one always had a safety strap. I have a newspaper article by a different maker who pointed out there that the strap was considered necessary when the pistol was so short. The strap is also found on 4" revolver holsters, too; and so doubtless was personal preference of the buyer.

Unmarked but 'Still a Brill' from its construction.

Now you can test yourself. Google 'Brill holster' using just the image search, then choose a single image of either the front side or the backside of the holster and decide if it is an early or a late. Then click on the image itself to see if that takes you to a backside view, and if it then is consistent with your choice.

To misquote Raj in The Big Bang Theory -- "Bar bets for everybody"!

I promised images of the known 'initialed' Brills. These were made in both the early period and the later period; the letter stamps used are similar but not identical. N.J.'s are in his family still. These are their cuffs only:

And now the holsters themselves:'

L.G. Phares, head of the Department of Public Safety in 1935. He and well-known Ranger captain Tom Hickman, who wore a Myres Threepersons instead, got into a disagreement about policy and Hickman lost; out in the same year that his nephew Hank Sloan joined FBI.

Ranger La Fetra Trimble below, is incorrectly associated with originating the Brill design. That's a myth with no substance; the Sunday scabbard existed long before Trimble was a Ranger. Instead his at the Texas Ranger museum is by Kluge:

R.C. Vaughn was a Ranger beginning 1916. These men didn't hold the roles very long.

Texas Ranger A.C. Love had two Brills that we know of; this late one has his initials but the other is an early and does not:

Ranger W.H.K. has not yet been identified. Either Ranger King or Ranger Kuykendall are possibilities but likely were Rangers too early for this one that is nearly identical to the pair of Nelsons that follow this image; it appears to have once had a plate riveted over the initials, as L.G. Phares' Brill has:

A chap and his brother, both named Nelson, met Rabensburg mid-1950s just as N.J. was retiring; and at his home shop he make this pair of long and short barreled Brillalikes while telling the Nelsons that he often substituted the buyers' initials for the Brill stamping:

We'll doubtless find more initialed Brills :-).

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