Post 33: The myth of the origin and purpose of 'boning' leather holsters
Updated: May 26
First: it's not correctly called 'boning'! That comes from a misunderstanding of Chic Gaylord's reference to his holsters as being boned, and the rest of us incorrectly assuming he therefore meant his detail-molding. No, instead he was referring to slicking the flesh side of his horsehide leather, inside his holsters. This clip is from a 1959 feature story about Gaylord in NYC:
The machine-driven boning that has been described there is a rounded piece of plastic in a pistol-drill chuck! And he's describing spinning that inside the holster to smooth the flesh side that can be quite rough after splitting to thickness. Although I've not ever encountered horsehide that wasn't as smooth on that side as the grain side.
No, what we do today is correctly called 'detail molding' or 'hand detailing'. And its purpose is not what you've been told by the likes of newbies to the trade such as Tony Kanaley at Sparks (whose training consisted entirely of doing what his equally untrained boss, Milt Sparks, told him to do; Milt had been a sewing machine operator at Eubanks Pioneer). And neither is it necessarily accomplished the way that makers like those at Sparks Holsters tell you it is! More of the 'old wives tales spread by makers whose purposes they serve'.
The reference book Packing Iron includes a quote that its footnote '93' indicaters as coming from Heiser's catalog No. 14; and we know this catalog is from 1911 and so it was written by Hermann's sons after Hermann's death in 1904:
It's worth realizing that the paragraph following the Heiser quote means its own description of the process comes from JB -- who has fed author Rattenbury only what he wants him to know about it and nothing more. It's a Bianchi promo!
In the meantime at Bianchi we pursued detail molding to eliminate holster wear. That's right, detail molding is not done for retention unless one makes the mistake of detailing into the trigger guard and the ejection port! A harder mistake to make on a revolver but then, in those times, the guards weren't covered with the leather anyway.
Which brings up something: detailing inside the guard and the ejection port is what CAUSES the need for so-called 'break-in' for your new, very expensive holster. I learned long ago that it was the cause and didn't mold into them. That's harder for the folks who use a press to mold their holster as Sparks does, and Bianchi does, and Galco does; but it is readily ameliorated by not going into those areas with the tool (at Bianchi we used the broken off ball-end of a motorcycle hand lever, polished at both ends; certainly not an animal horn) (p.s., never use a steel tool for the task for a brown holster, the leather turns black before your eyes, while you work!).
It also brings up why a little maker would detail at all: he/she has no press! Presses were quite new to the industry when I joined it in 1970 and JB was using a sort of seesaw affair that came from the shoe trade to clamp shoe soles while the glue set up. It wasn't long before we had purpose-built presses made including a very large one that also pressed the sight channels into the main fold of the holster; it was invented and built for us by an incredible mechanical genius -- from scratch including its piston design! This is not it but instead is one of the several smaller ones with 'factory' cylinders. That'a 99R border patrol holster in the press, the hot-air dryer for the wetted/molded holster in the background:
He had come to us from Revell and went on to Toro; and was sleeping with my secretary who not only was a blonde bombshell, and yet a highly competent secretary, but also lived next door to me beginning well after they started working for the company. It was she who was in my living room that night after she had heard the news on the police scanner that JB's teenage son JR had shot himself to death in 1978. Poor kid, just 16.
The above image from Sparks is their myth; the below image is from their reality. Notice the stick that's been jammed into the mouth of the holster to shape the sight channel. The plastic bag the holster is in, is to stop the rubber pads on either side from leaving ugly marks all over the surface (which can't happen anyway when a holster is entirely hand molded):
Anyway: the purpose of detail molding is not retention; although that can be a welcome benefit. It is to eliminate HOLSTER WEAR on the pistol. Because one can make a leather holster grip a pistol very well without molding it per se, using a system called 'blocking'. That's simply a matter of forcing the mold into the wet holster so that it accepts a future pistol, and removing the pistol and letting the holster dry. All the points of contact then, act like a bedding system in a rifle stock that consists of discrete points of contact rather than full contact all around the barrel.
But that creates incredible holster wear! And is the method used by both Heiser and J.M. Bucheimer, and likely by Hunter and the like, that we know of.
Realize that when the best-known modern makers got their start, all the of the market was revolvers. There was otherwise only the 1911, the M39, the P38, the HiPower, and the Luger. Demand was mighty small for all but the 1911. For revolvers, then, there are so MANY high spots at the cylinder and frame and muzzle that the blue rubs off very quickly. Neale Perkins at Safariland thought he had solved it by adding his so-called Orthopedic Elk sueded lining; which when one learns about the types of leather, is simply another form of chrome tanned leather. What he really did, was reduce wear by wet-molding his holsters as his old compadre, JB had done with his unlined holsters.
Men such as my contemporary Bruce Nelson then spread the notion that the molding was for retention. But the idea instead was to eliminate every possible contact with a high spot on revolvers and autos; and by so doing increase the contact with the flats. And it was the latter that increased resistance to the draw but without wearing so much on the pistol itself. This is a 'late' Nelson that is copied from the Earl Clark patent; notice Bruce has molded into both the guard and port, with a token sight channel as was used by Paris Theodore:
Next time you choose a leather holster (I've made lots of Kydex holsters, the same rules apply to it and for the same reasons) by all means choose one that is hand detailed. It doesn't matter that some makers don't do it entirely by hand, but instead speed up the process by using a rubber-faced press first. Unless it leaves marks in the leather, which is why the one in the Sparks press you see in one of the images above is in a plastic bag: to keep the softer rubber from leaving an ugly impression on the leather like the Safariland below: