You say it's HOW old?!
Updated: Nov 19, 2020
Working out when an item of gunleather was made, especially a holster, would seem a daunting task suited only the hyper-experts and museum curators. But they don't know as much as you're about to. It's very straightforward even if there is no maker's mark, for which one still needs a book like Old Cowboy Saddles and Spurs that lists every saddler in the West. About 6,000 of them! And it still contains meaningful errors about the dates these folks were being more than saddlers.
That's part of it, eh? Everyone knows the holsters of old were made by saddlers. Except . . . that doesn't mean all saddlers made holsters. But everyone knows that holsters were made because of repeating pistols, so before the Civil War, right? Well, kind of -- the most familiar gunleather was made because the Model T of 1908 forced saddlers to find other means of staying in business. That's a looooonnnggg time after the Civil War. By WW1 most of the sewing on the M1916 holster was by hand (notice some machines on the back wall, and the rows of men hand sewing, using stitching horses at the main table).
So. First step will be easy; you'll recognize a general style of holster, such as the Mexican Loop as Heiser called it, and you'll have an idea of the period. This one is by Bregenzer:
Second step, you'll notice the general condition of the item. Leather being what it is, that's a very vague guide because there are VERY old holsters that look new, and VERY new holsters that look old. I mean 19th century in the former case and 21st century in the latter! But please notice its condition. This one is by W.T. Wroe (there was also a J.P. Wroe):
Third step, if one wants to be pedantic, you'll notice the hardware. Too complicated to pursue too far, but at least notice it and decide if it's reasonable that it's from a century ago. A copper rivet should mean it's old, as in 'original El Paso Saddlery' old; but not only does the modern EPS use them, too (but they've got them upside down!) but Tex Shoemaker used them on advanced police holsters in the 21st century!
Fourth step, look for a welt. 'No welt' means it can be among the oldest. A welt inside the main seam means it can't be older than the turn of the last century. More than one welt? Not older than 1930/40s. That's the welt stack extending up past the seam, in a 1960s Brill; to be trimmed off later:
Fifth step: have a look at the sewing. Yes, sewing machines are as old as the middle of the 19th century. But if you want a machine sewn holster from that period it's going to be chainstitched; easily recognizable. And one will find lightweight machine sewing on gunleather of the early 20th century. But the main seams are likely to be hand sewn to the middle of that century; as late as 1960 on a Brill or Myres. That's because the HARNESS machines that we take for granted today, may have been invented by 1890 but saddlers didn't have them; couldn't afford them: Myres, after his Randall machine (gasoline powered, thank you very much) burned his Sweetwater factory to the ground, was quoted $550 for a replacement. That is the exact price of a new car, a 1919 Model T. And with gold at U$19/ounce then, that represented 29 ounces that today would set us back . . . U$55,000. For that, and lots of other infrastructure reasons, by the turn of the 20th century only 10% of saddlers had ANY sort of machinery. By 1945 Frank Ohlemeyer was making his own! And A.W. Brill had none.
Sixth step: learn to tell hand sewing from machine sewing. A few pics and the insight that a handsewn main seam will be as straight as a machine stitch on the front side, but very ragged on the backside: the hand pushes the awl through the first layer quite straight in accordance with a roweled tool that marked the pattern, but as the sharp awl travels through the leather, especially with welts, it wanders. That Brill image above a few, shows the neat, machine-like stitch from the front; and also shows the spaced marks applied with a roweled tool for the purpose. Now look at the backside of that same, incomplete holster:
Seventh: is another sewing clue. Old, hand sewn main seams simply start at one end and stop at the other, then tied off. Not very strong. Machine stitched main seams are started with a backstitch at the muzzle, then at the open end of the holster the machine is turned at the endpoint, stitched across ideally at least once, then the stitching returns. Can't then sew into the main seam, the reciprocating needle and awl will cut the original knot; all that effort to create strength, undone in a moment. Old, a California pattern from Packing Iron:
Modern -- a copy of an original 1900 holster, in this case by today's El Paso Saddlery:
Eighth: lacing of the main seam will support the notion that the holster is old. It's not dispositive; but it helps to appreciate that lacing was done because there was not machine or heavy thread to use! Lacing, especially rawhide which dries as hard as plastic, does more than hold the layers together; wrapped around the seam it protects the edges of the seam, too. This one is by Atkins:
Ninth step: if there's a snap fastener on it, the buttons (also called caps) on the outside will look the same but the mating parts are very different beginning around 1930. Old Heiser:
Tenth step, and we'll stop here for now: molding. Back in them thar days there were no press molded holsters. Oh, yes, there were holsters assembled after the main pocket was molded in dies; that's very old, turn of the 20th century old. By Read; the early pocket holsters are often found with a chainstitch on the perimeter, the main sewing by hand:
No, I mean with the holster wetted, a cast pistol inserted, and the lot then pressed inside a rubber-faced press: that's 1960s and later. Hand detailed, then? That's 1950s and later. The method was elevated to an art form by Theodore at Seventrees in the '60s, and turned into a production method by Bianchi in the '70s. A Gaylord:
Ok, 11th step: nylon thread. Early gunleather is going to be sewn, by hand or machine, with linen aka flax thread until the 1950s, then in nylon but not in a big way until the 1970s. Yet linen is still used today, so a clever reproduction holster maker will use linen -- but then they still forget No. 7 above :-). Nylon thread sits up on the surface of the leather when the same 'cord' size is used as the linen it replaced (always unnecessary on gunleather, it's magnitudes stronger than the linen):
And a 12th, that is optional: a saddlery-made holster of old, if it has a border stamping, is not actually stamped -- it's rolled. And we associate it with saddlers because they used this simple, hand-cranked machine on saddle fenders and skirts:
Why mention it at all? Because a modern maker will use hand tools instead, because they don't have the little machine 'cause they're not saddlers (my local saddler has one but doesn't make holsters). I use a modern El Paso Saddlery Co. holster because they think they are making accurate replicas but are using today's methods to do it:
Notice the hand tool stampings in the corners? These were used on the oldies because the hand cranked machine had a stop/start point, and didn't go around corners very well. So the early makers obliterated the join with a hand tool. Today's counterfeiters put it there only because it looks authentic; they were able to start and stop anywhere they liked :-).
Have fun, it's easy and rewarding.