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  • Red Nichols, Holstorian

Post 90: Making the grade?

Updated: Oct 12

"Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!", demands the Wizard of Oz in the 1939 film and presumably in the 1911 book, too. No, not an allusion to me even though indeed Australia is called the Land of Oz. Instead, to the ad man who's proclaiming the superiority of his company's leather choices.



You're better off knowing which tannery they use, and which cut from the hide, than any of the b.s. that's spread on websites about the leather that goes into gunleather; and in the vintage print catalogs that preceded them (does ANY maker issue a print catalog any more?).


No, no, not THAT Bianchi. Nor the wedding dress maker either!


One I like to mention is Galco's reference to using only A grade hides. That's not relevant to any problem you have: tanned leather is graded A,B,C and TR strictly on the basis of the number of prominent flaws in the sheet. So an actual hole, or cut, or masses of barbed wire scars, will be given a lower (it's a descending system, so C is lower than A) grade. But even a gaping hole or cut can be cut around by the maker, and we gunleather makers cut mainly small parts. Where this will really matter is to the maker: imagine a one-piece buscadero belt; much harder to cut around either flaw when the belt is for a 48" waist!



Masses of barbed wire scars one would want to avoid anyway; the legend of 'make it basket' is not completely false but one doesn't want to plan on that tactic. So if a maker is using only A grade, he/she isn't really paying much more per square foot than for C except times a million units; but the cutting waste will be higher for the C grade and that really adds up.


Yet the remainder being unsuited to a first-quality holster (remember we talked about quality; that everything has 'a quality' but what we care about is 'first quality' if we're gunfighters) doesn't make the remainder unsuited to making first-quality mag pouch lids, or keepers, or the tabs behind a Sam Browne buckle, etc.


WW1 horshide above. The maker claimed a yield of only one belt per horsehide section.


Another is the tanner. Now this you want to know. So a maker who says 'we use only Wicket & Craig' or 'Hermann Oak' is indeed making a strong point for first-quality. Yet these are both side leather tanners. Why do you care? Not because a side of leather has the fleshy belly on it -- the maker can either cut away the belly for something else (Don Hume said he had a building full of them) or simply buy the side from the tanner as what's called a 'back' -- but because the tannage of a side is softer and looser from what you should expect for a holster. For this reason makers typically use what's called a 'double shoulder' which is cut across the full hide at, well, the shoulders of the animal. The shoulders are a sole leather cut and is typically tanned with a very stiff temper.



Aha, temper you care about. Another blog post here speaks about 'temper, temper' and it's the stiffness of the leather, which in polymers would be called 'flexural modulus'. Fancy, eh? There it is measured by a machine but for leather we simply bend it in our hands; 'stiff', 'soggy', it's easy. This stiffness will disappear while the leather is quite wet for molding, but return when the leather dries out (though if your maker doesn't hot-air dry your holster, which Sparks does not, you won't get that temper back fully). Sparks, and no driers:



No maker will talk to you about temper and calling 'em won't help; they won't know what you're talking about anyway and if by the wildest chance the 'right' person answered the phone, they're going to play dumb. Gunleather makers are quite paranoid about what they think are trade secrets, but none of them know anything the others don't know, too.


The shape of veg horsehide is very irregular. And jackets are made instead from horse fronts and chrome tanned.


And ABC/TR grading doesn't tell you anything about how the flesh side of an unlined holster has been finished. Back in the day, Bianchi bought its double shoulders from a currier (a company that takes a nearly complete leather and 'finishes' it a certain way) named Endicott Johnson that took the sole leather tannage and finished it for gunleather.



Double shoulders can be a bit short for making belts, and because it is cut across the animal's hide vs the length of it, so such a belt is more prone to stretching than had it been cut from a back or side or even a butt (just that one end of a side). But millions of belts have been, and will be, cut from double shoulders. The flesh side of the leather we bought (Johnson has been closed for many decades) was 'pasted' as smooth as a baby's bum so ideal for unlined holsters.



What's ideal for lined holsters is a flesh side that has not been pasted smooth (as above); the glue sticks way better! But did you know that vintage gunleather makers didn't use glue at all, not for any part of making gunleather. But it became standardized in the 1960s and any maker who knows what he or she is doing uses glue to add structural integrity to the laminate and to prevent splitting at the edges after those are polished for you. But a maker is simply not going to buy his leathers in all the cuts and with or without currying nor vat dyed in several colors.


The above being only surface dyed, you can see the benefit to you of the dye penetrating fully and is called 'struck through' (what, Angelus Dye is still in business!?).


Which reminds that if your maker buys his leather in a vat-dyed version, what you personally can get (as long as it is still full grain and not corrected and pigmented, too) is a leather that is black or brown all the way through the leather. So the natural leather color doesn't begin to come through as the holster wears. Imagine a car paint job that if you scraped it in a parking lot, the metal underneath wouldn't appear and require repainting! Hasn't been done yet unless you count brushed stainless or aluminium car bodies. Either of which you're unlikely to own at present.



"We buy our horsehide only from Horween". Also a good sign. But on the other hand, there is no one else. Horween is the only horsehide tanner in the world unless one wants to buy from Japan or perhaps Italy. For US makers this is not an option with exchange rates, distances, tariffs, shipping, etc. What a gunleather maker uses in the way of horsehide isn't a even a full hide; unlike a cowhide, a horsehide has so much variation in thickness that there is essentially only one part of the animal that is suited to gunleather -- and we use an offcut of that! The leather is destined for shoe soles and we buy the offcuts that say 'not for soles' written on them :-). My favorite, versatile thickness for concealment holsters is 3.0 mm and the thinner, or thicker, pieces are ideal for components. It is such decisions -- using the 3.0 for the body of the holster and the uncommon 4.5 for welts -- that show you how a clever maker can make lemonade out of his lemons. But one takes what one gets (what's called TR or 'tannery run') so has to make these decisions lest any of it end up in a bin. Horsehide is really cheap when purchased this way because it is literally sold as 'seconds' because the shoe people won't use it; and Galco has bragged about using these cuts. Rightly; one can make a superb product from it.



It all comes from Maverick Leather. "Shhh. Mom smokes in the car. It's not a secret, everybody knows" (The Big Bang Theory).


Which reminds me that my wife told me that if I did something for her, then one day I could sleep with Penny. Turned out Penny would be our Bull Arab (an Australian pig hunting breed) who weighs in at more than 100 pounds and takes up lots of room on the bed. And snores!



Surely I've left out some cool stuff. But you know more than you did 5 minutes ago, eh?

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