The story of Brill
Updated: Nov 20
I'm fascinated by how the Brill came about, and that it turned out to be the first 'modern' holster that had been engineered in a complex fashion for a purposeful result. We had one at JB's western museum and I had no idea at the time what it represented and I doubt JB did either.
It's correct name is 'Sunday Holster' and this one is in a private collection and considered to have been Butch Cassidy's; which if it is marked A.W. Brill as claimed it simply cannot be: the Brill company did not exist in Butch's lifetime.
If you've not ever handled a Brill you'll be surprised when you do. It's dainty. Very small and very light, it turns out it was designed, not to be a 'cowboy' holster but to be a 'hideout' holster. And every element of it is there for a particular reason, and were there from the time it was created (1907) and introduced (1912) and into the time its production ceased (1961).
All the copies of it made by Texas saddlers in that era conformed to a reasonably precise 'specification' as if it had been written down and published by L.E.O. buyers. It's half-lined with calfskin, not to protect the pistol but to protect the trousers! So saith none less than Elmer Keith.
The story begins with a maker you've never heard of: King Ranch of which there was an even lesser-known division called Kingsville Lumber Co. As if! But their holsters really were marked both ways, and quite unabashedly as to the the 'lumber' nomenclature; and the operation even had another name or two that it used.
The KR is a thick, heavy holster that is as bulky as we all would expect a western holster to have been, and it was created and made beginning in the very late 19th century. The King Ranch was a huge operation that included its own saddlery; and it was protected by the Texas Rangers whose purpose was largely that very notion: protecting against cattle rustlers especially from across the border. Their holster looked like this and it is significant that one J.C. White, a.k.a. 'Doc' White (below) carried his engraved Colt SAA in one:
It's significant because in 1905 it was noted Texas Ranger captain J.R. Hughes and his men were 'dismounted' into the city of Austin where the Rangers were headquartered. While there Hughes was instructed to cover all their weaponry for these foot patrols.
The result was a concealable holster that was to be worn on a narrow trousers belt; it is not a coincidence that even the trousers belt was brand-new in 1907. No ammo loops on this belt even though it was rarely worn through the pants loops; and certainly no bandoliers! Nothing could show and Hughes worked out that to accomplish his mission he needed to raise the holster very high on the waist and pitch the grip forward (today called 'positive caster') so it was narrower and could be reached under the coats they wore.
None of this is speculation. In the mid 1950's a writer visiting Austin was referred to a local, retired saddler name Rabensburg to make him several authentic Texas Rangers holster. And Rabensburg turns out to be saddler N.J. Rabensburg who then told the full story of how it was he who created the Brill-style holster for Hughes. My own research confirmed every claim he made and also added more information to flesh out how the various brands evolved from there.
Hughes came to the saddlery where Rabensburg was working while N.J. was only about 17. And that saddlery was that of his future father-in-law that became N.J.s after the wedding in 1915. Below N.J. is in Utah:
Now it gets a bit more interesting because this is not the saddlery of the well-known A.W. Brill. It turns out that August Brill was working as a clerk for a different saddler in Austin called W.T. Wroe and Sons; and in 1912 he left that operation to form his own company by buying out the Kluge Bros. there.
Wroe himself is noteworthy for another reason: his second wife was Carey McNelly, the widow of famed Ranger Leander McNelly who died towards the end of the 19th century. He became an auto dealer after Brill departed and yet was not successful at it.
Over the next dozen years one of the brothers made thousands of the famous scabbards (as he called them) for August, who himself was not a saddler but a merchant. These people weren't dummies, they sold not only saddlery and wagonry but even tires for automobiles that had become 'the thing' in 1908 when the Model T was introduced.
Rabensburg had moved on into other TX cities and even to other states. He returned and took over Brills' operation in 1932, dropping everything including being mayor of Llano TX to do so. My expectation is that both the Kluge brothers' health was failing -- they died within a reasonable proximity to that date -- and also that August and his son Arno were focused on creating a fishing/camping haven that they called Brillville; which opened right after WW2 and likely was delayed by the war in the first place.
King Ranch itself also made what I call 'Brillalikes' -- obviously not made by A.W. Brill yet made to the same specification and only in TX -- and they also made the Threepersons shown above. Arguably they made it before Myres did -- and before the Sunday Holster -- because we have a verified 1906 image of a Ranger Brown wearing one (pic by Lone Wolf Gonzaullas in the TR Museum).
Which brings us 'round to realizing that a Brill IS the first Threepersons. At left above is a KR, with a 'late' Brill at right. The Brill was a much-narrowed but not simplified version of the KR; and the Threepersons is that further simplified version we know so well today. Another post will explain how a Threepersons 'works'; it's not at all the simple scabbard it appears to be.
Modern copyists of the Brill, such as today's El Paso Saddlery that is not related to the original company that failed in 1902, don't realize (unless they have a copy of Holstory by now) what actually makes a Brill, a Brill: it's that cuff. And that cuff isn't ornamental; it's positioned carefully to form the lowermost edges of the belt loop tunnel. Many are found that are for very narrow belts of an inch, for example. Then Kluge and later Rabensburg varied this tunnel width for wider belts, but the hard way: they didn't move the cuff, they moved the fold in the holster! This had the effect of actually lowering the holster on the belt if the belt was very wide because for the narrow belted holsters the fold of the holsters had been set to be just as hard up against the top end of the welt as possible. So moving the fold while keeping the cuff in its original position forced the holster itself downwards.
As a designer I can 'see' the elements floating apart like tectonic plates as N.J. pared down the KR version, then being shifted into new positions as were the Earth's continents:
Then, welts were added (early Brills by Kluge had just the one welt, which prior had not ever been used by any holster maker except in the KR) while later Brills by N.J. had 2 and even three welts. The welts had/have a purpose: jammed up against the SAA's frame so hard that the holster itself swells as the pistol is inserted even today, they grip the frame to hold the pistol into a strapless holster. There are a few such with straps yet that is usually confined to the very shortest barrel revolvers that were even constructed differently to keep these sawed-off guns in the holster. A VERY intelligent design, is the Brill by Rabensburg, and a pair is found in Tom Threepersons' own holster.
The muzzle of a Brill has a lip extending from it so that it can be sewn to the fender that is behind it and only as wide as the holster pocket itself. And the welt inside that end of the holster is skived and layered to be thicker than everywhere else! It appears that this complex combination was chosen so that the holster muzzle would lay flat against the wearer to prevent pressure on the revolver muzzle; which it does accomplish. These welted seams are always hand-sewn and the cuffs are, too.
Details of the design's construction enable us to know when they were made, and in many cases even which company other than Brill made the copies (most were marked, too). Those that are called 'early' were made by Brill 1912 to 1932 and those called 'late' were made 1932 to 1961. By different saddlers, neither of which was Brill himself.