• Red Nichols, Holstorian

Temper, temper!

Updated: Nov 19

"Temper" is a word little-used by leathersmiths, although they are of course very aware of it in principle. From a tanner it means the relative stiffness, or softness, of the finished leather. So one can readily appreciate the difference in the flexibility of, say, the soft horsehide of an old motorcycle jacket that is chrome tanned; and in the very stiff temper of the vegetable tanned horsehide used in shoe soles. In plastics this word 'temper' is replaced by the words 'flex mod': the amount of force required to deflect a specified shape of the polymer a certain distance.

What we use to make holsters from are literally rejects from these shoe makers' sorting processes (well, actually this is done by the tannery) in which case they are called 'seconds'. But a gunleather maker is not compromising by using such 'seconds' because these are only so-classified because in fine shoes, the sole is not colored or finished in any way -- and the natural 'grain' I'll call it because it's like sorting timber for rifle stocks, can be quite 'figured' in horsehide.

This leads to a beautiful 'tiger' grain that I call 'brindle' in brown holsters; but it's not considered acceptable for the pale soles of expensive shoes. There they also have the matching problem of the right to the left that we rarely have with holsters. Plus we can dye the leather brown or black, and get either a handsome result in the brown, or an imperceptible figuring in the black anyway.

I got sidetracked. So we choose horsehide today, as Gaylord and Theodore did in the '60s, because it is so stiff yet so thin. It has a very fine, dense grain but that's not why we choose it. Because it's main characteristic, is that is has a very hard 'temper' being so-made for shoe soles that bend very little anyway. And this is accomplished in the tanning, and in what's called 'finishing' that includes rolling.

So we like to call it 'the Kydex of leather': it's thin and it's also stiff, but not rigid and can be molded. For Kydex we use heat, and really not a lot of it; for horsehide we use water to soak it and ditto, not a lot of it. And this allows the maker to create the ideal leather holster that sits, waiting, while it's empty for the pistol to return to it; and releases, firmly, the pistol when the latter is drawn. The holster becomes a true launching platform, always at the ready while holding its charge firmly -- yet ready and willing to release it.

Now: I choose to use the phrase 'heat tempered' when a horsehide holster has been molded and dried ideally. Not fair to use the word 'properly' instead; that's a matter of taste for the maker and the buyer. And this is done with hot air (not from me, but from a dryer).

We do know that most gunleather is made from cowhide. Hot air drying is ideal for it, too, but not all makers do this. Sparks, we know, does not do this because they rely on ambient air drying to do 'unwet' (dry) their cowhide and horsehide products. How do I know this? From exchanging comments on forums with their former owner, where owner Tony Kanaley argued that it was both unnecessary and undesirable. And when I explain the process, you'll realize why I was, quite frankly, shocked to hear such a notion from an established maker.

Here, above, is an image of how Bianchi Holsters did their drying: in a hot air dryer that operated quite like a pizza oven in the sense that the racks passed through it at a pace that meant the exiting product was, by definition, fully dry. The oven being open at each end, and there being hot air blown into the oven through vents, also meant that the wet air was not ever trapped in the oven with the wet-becoming-dry holsters. The difference is why drying a wet holster in a closed heat-only home oven will turn it into a prune: the hot, wet air can't escape and the holster, being made of an animal product, literally 'cooks' and shrivels.

We makers can do this at home but we don't use Mom's oven unless we're desperate. And then only if Mom had the foresight to buy us a fan-force oven. And we turn the temp down to a range around 150F or less. And we leave the bloody door open on the oven! Takes about 20 minutes for the 'ding'.

If one wants to duplicate the huge oven that takes a forklift to move, at home, it's mighty easy: use the hot air from your home clothes dryer to blow onto the wet holster while it sits inside the single open side of an otherwise six-sided box. So even a very deep shoe box would do because cardboard is a poor heat conductor; but I used a timber box. And I didn't use the clothers dryer outlet -- don't put the holster in the dryer itself! -- because locally they don't vent outside the home but inside the room; so I used a fan force room heater instead. Placing it at a short distance from the box prevented the air from becoming overly hot; let this happen and the holster will actually shrink. The hot, dry air then roils vigorously around the holster and works better than simply heat much as an air fryer is more effective than a common oven (again, don't put your wet holster in an air fryer!)

And that gets us to the point, finally, doesn't it: controlled hot air drying provides a holster that fits the same at the completion of the drying, as it did when it went in wet after molding. AND, with both types of vegetable leather, it hardens the leather.

Back in the olden days, which is pre-1960s, there were authorities who thought holsters should be softened like a baseball glove:

But nobody's catching baseballs with pistol holsters so instead we want a holster to be more than firm, as is an old Brill. Instead, today we want the holster to be hard and stiff for ready holstering and drawing (it is never 'reholstering' just as it is never 'redrawing' or 'refiring; we holster, we draw, we fire -- repeatedly at a range, for example).

Inside veg leather is an element called 'collagen' and this is almost literally a glue that holds all the fibres of the leather together. We want these fibres to stay together even while the leather bends, to prevent cracking, splitting, tearing, etc. Well, collagen also holds the fibres into a NEW shape after molding -- and it softens with water but it HARDENS with heat. So we heat the holsters to harden the collagen into its new, final shape after molding, and we do so in a way that lets the water escape; and that is by fan force heating and we choose a temperature that prevents the holster from shrinking. And I call this process 'heat tempering'; and YOU want this from your maker because it harnesses the science of leather working, in a way that obviates 'break in'. This image s/b titled 'Pants on fire!':

You know about 'break in', don't you? Of course you do; holster makers from the best to the worst have been you about the need for it for a half century that I know of. And they've been feeding you the b.s. so you won't complain, much less return, a holster that doesn't fit. 'Break in' is a term derived from the concept of 'breaking' a shoe; the shoe makers of old -- I used to buy my shoes from English shoemakers in London as a teen -- when fitting a new shoe to a gentleman, would 'break' the shoe at the instep so that the shoe would bend where HE wanted it to, for your wearing comfort. Vs. where the leather naturally wanted to 'break' (i.e., take a permanent bend that is visible and so looks like a break). Notice the obvious creasing of the shoe, above where the toes of the foot will naturally bend: the shoes have been 'broken' to facilitate both the comfort AND the appearance. A dead art today:

When a holster maker doesn't know his processes (worst case) or doesn't control them (best case) then a buyer such as you is told to expect 'break in'. But it is so incorrect to put that burden on you the buyer, that I was able to GUARANTEE my gunleather to require NO break in. And that guarantee was: a replacement holster in advance of its return, with one that satisfied. And yet I never had a single return or request for return; instead I received email confirmations that the holsters fit right out of the box. Because I both understand, and managed, the process itself. This little disc that is called a'rosette' by saddlers, is actually cut from the same American horsehide that the holster is stated to be:

I then, like 'heat tempered' horsehide for pistol holsters. It doesn't really add anything for belts; the strips we buy are ill-suited to what gun people expect from 'gunbelts'. Gaylord used the process to harden his holsters, and Paris Theodore specifically addressed his need for bigger dryers when he was ramping up operations to compete with us at Bianchi and with Safariland in the early 1970s. Bianchi used them and all other major makers, too, from that time onwards.

But I'll bet that every small maker you can find will argue AGAINST it because, well, they don't have hot air dryers and don't intend to use them, either! Thinking, oddly, that using them will slow the process when instead it speeds it up.


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