• Red Nichols, Holstorian

This is not your great-grandfather's El Paso Saddlery

Updated: Mar 23

I could have titled this post "Dances With Truths" because one of the unintended consequences of being holstorians is that it becomes obvious when the facts can't be made to align with the claims. None of that 'print the legend' crap here. And it's mighty bothersome that both these statements from El Paso Saddlery are . . . false. Today's El Paso Saddlery has not been producing since 1889 (since 1978) and it surely is NOT the world's oldest gun 'holstery', which would be the continuous lineage of S.D. Myres.

It's troubling to me because there can be no motive other than to deceive collectors and customers -- and that's you. Oh, yes, they really do make a nice product, notwithstanding their misconception of how a Sunday holster is to be made. But surely only making a buck can be the motivation for claiming that a company founded in 1978 after buying the machinery remaining at the closure of S.D. Myres Saddlery in El Paso, is the same company as the one that was incorporated in 1890 but closed forever in 1902?

Every maker has a legend that its founder has told so many times that even the founder believes it! And the biggest lie they tell, virtually all of them, is their founding date. Sparks, Bianchi, Myres, Heiser, the list is long. A notable exception I can think of is A.W. Brill who very straightforwardly said, in more than one newspaper interview, "1912". Reference books get that wrong but it's not August's doing. But why scrabble for a few extra years at the beginning of their careers? In today's El Paso Saddlery the difference between 'since 1978' and 'since 1889' is just too big a gap to overlook!

The real, original El Paso Saddlery has its roots in a steady succession of small saddleries in El Paso and in one man who is connected to them: Walter Harding Shelton who later founded the famous/notorious Shelton-Payne Arms there. The tale is set out in several El Paso Times newspaper articles in the 19th century and again in articles by the modern company's founder, Robert Emmet McNellis, Jr. who appears to have drawn on them. In the face of testimony like that it's impossible to support the idea that today's company has been making gunleather for more than a century. Plus I knew Bobby McNellis in the '70s.

Shelton was born in Mississippi before the Civil War and came to El Paso eventually in 1886. By then the original saddlery of J.D. Newton had been established in 1880 and in 1882 had become Newton & Andrews by taking in partner F.H. Andrews.

Now pay attention because the company names keep changing: in 1886 it was Andrews who changed partners to W.S. Hills to form Andrews & Hills saddlery. Be aware that gunleather was very much a sideline to saddlers then; it's a myth that repeating handguns created a huge demand for high performance gunleather. That didn't happen until the early 20th century when the automobile wiped out most of the demand for saddlery.

It was in 1890 that Shelton organized with Hills to dissolve Andrews & Hills in favor of incorporating a new company that was called . . . El Paso Saddlery.

The new company's advertising began immediately and it prospered with saddles, harness, carriages, buggies, horse collars, and some gunleather.

One of these earlier companies made one of Butch Cassidy's gunleather sets; their name is clearly marked on the set. And likely it is the source of the mistaken belief that it was August Brill who made a holster for him in a later set. Impossible, Brill was formed 1912 after Butch was killed 1908.

Ah yes, here's the marking on the belt itself; Andrews & Hills:

Shelton appears to have decided that there were bigger things to accomplish by becoming a firearms merchant. In those times they were called hardware stores and perhaps that is the source of gunfighters' weaponry being euphemistically referred to as 'hardware'. In 1900 Shelton sold his original El Paso Saddlery to third parties (for now unnamed) to form a different company called Shelton-Payne Arms. His new partners were Payne and a chap named McCutcheon.

Shelton-Payne Arms was proud to count Pancho Villa as a customer (!) and it appears that Shelton's failure to fill an order already paid for by Villa caused the assault on American interests that led to Patton's incursion into Mexico to capture him. The raid is considered a failure but instead, with the involvement of Tom Threepersons it was Villa's top lieutenant who was killed (according to Tom, by Villa himself) and that surely did only harm to Villa's operations in 1916.

Big problem for that original El Paso Saddlery: the new owners' purchase had funded a major competitor and in 1902, in the face of the competition from the new Shelton-Payne Arms, it simply failed. All its advertising in local newspapers vanished and the advertising and news stories that took its place were for Shelton-Payne Arms.

Shelton's company made it to 1930 and he even patented a holster for the 1911 pistol that protected the mag button from being pressed. He retired by 1930, died 1933, and its new owner, Don Thompson Inc, began to appear in newspaper advertising as its successor company. THAT company operated until 1948 when its latest iteration, Don Thompson and Son, issued its final ad and the son joined the Army!

Now there is a loooonnnnggg pause until a new kid in town, Bobby McNellis, saw an opportunity in the sale of Myres by its latest owner since 1976, Frank LaCroix. Apparently Bobby wanted the hard assets -- machinery, etc. -- but was unwilling to pay for the name; so he bought the former and another man, David Duclos, bought the name that is still used with permission today by my friend Mike Barranti.

In that year, 1976, Bobby's own article about the gunleather of El Paso the city was published in Arms Gazette; and it is there that he pointed out that the original El Paso Saddlery had shut down in 1902. Then in 1978 he formed R.E.M. Industries -- his initials -- and chose to use the "d.b.a." for R.E.M. that today is . . . The El Paso Saddlery.

So now we know why he didn't feel it was necessary to buy the Myres name: his choice of the El Paso Saddlery name was available free! In his 1981 interview with the El Paso Times he repeated his statement about the original company's closure in 1901/2 and stated that 5 years earlier he had 'looked around for a name' and had chosen El Paso Saddlery. His early catalogs of the era were straightforward: his company made 'reproductions' of the original company's offerings. Copies.

Yet that changed in a 1988 article in the American Rifleman, where on the one hand he affirmed the acquisition of Myres hard assets but in a caption claims he is using EPS' original metal stamp on his gear. It's obvious from the image that it is neither the steel stamp of the 19th century (it's a zinc photoengraving; we pioneered the practice in gunleather at Bianchi during the 1970s and JB and Bob were good mates, with the former even buying collectible guns from Bob's collection) nor does it have its original shape:

Where does this leave us? Trying to tell when a genuine, original El Paso Saddlery holster is on offer at auction, or instead the reproductions! If one knows a LOT about the subject it is possible to tell them apart by details in their markings and in their construction; but these details are SO obscure that many a buyer has been fooled, me included once-upon-a-time.

The new company went to a lot of trouble to try to duplicate the original mark yet without completely succeeding; then complicated matters by creating many versions of the mark in different sizes. Is it now at the point where one wonders if this is counterfeiting -- using what looks like the original stamp on what is claimed to be a holster made by the original company -- or simply an 'homage'?

Caveat emptor -- buyer beware: the holster below is not an original:

However the mark above IS from an original El Paso Saddlery.

After some years of study I can tell them apart and can advise that one will virtually NEVER encounter a genuine El Paso Saddlery product from the 19th century; although genuine Shelton-Payne Arms gunleather from the early 20th century abounds. Be careful!

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