• Red Nichols, Holstorian

Your holster is an open book

Updated: Nov 19

We could go too far with that metaphor and so I'm not speaking of 'spine' or 'cover' even if there could be valid parallels. But "Ed McGivern's Book"is its correct title, not 'fast and fancy pistol shooting'. I myself have a first printing edition of Ed's unreadably long book that has too many words and not enough pics. Not mine, is this one:

Instead, I'm suggesting that you can 'read' a holster like a book, when you understand its 'vocabulary'.

Of course, 'author's name' tells us a lot. "S.D. Myres El Paso Tex" and "S.D. Myres El Paso" tell us who made it, and confirms that is was 'the' Sam Myres. And it also tells us when it was made -- i.e., is it an 'early' or a 'late'? Was this in Sam's time or someone else's? In this case, we are reasonably sure that any Myres holster 'with tex' is in Sam's time, and it's anyone's guess which era that the 'no tex' mark belonged to alone: nephew Dace who took over from him, etc.? The image above also tells us that the holster was made after the patent issued in 1937.

Above: better yet -- the 'with tex' mark (so after 1920), the patent mark (so after 1937), and the word 'Python' -- so after 1955. See how easy it is?

Okay, now you know who made it. How about when? If you've kept up with what is now called 'vintage' gunleather (wait a minute, I designed that one! What's 'vintage' about 1975?! Or 1995 for that matter!?) then you'll know roughly where a Heiser fits in with a Bianchi fits in with a Shoemaker. Likely not when that particular model was introduced though, and that's where the marks, which every maker changed (!), help. But look at the sewing, and look for a welt, and look to see how the trigger and/or the guard is accommodated, and the 'drop' from the belt, and even the material.

Above: chain stitching. It's REALLY easy to spot -- and to unravel which is why it isn't used for gunleather since this one was made.

Sewing. I like to start with sewing. Sewing machines were invented in the mid-19th century but they were not only lightweight machines, and the chain stitch was first. Chain stitched then? Could even be mid-19th century. Lock stitched? It's not as old as it could be: light-duty sewing machines were readily available to makers who didn't have heavy-duty harness machines that didn't even exist until the mid 1880s. To make matters more confusing, saddle machines weren't USED by saddlers and harness makers and gunleather makers until the early 20th century; Myres got his in the 1910s.

In fact one reference tells us that only 10% of saddlers had ANY sort of machinery by the turn of that century. And a harness machine cost as much as a Model T; which was a LOT (U$600). Easy, then, look for heavy duty sewing by machine.

Not so fast: from the FRONT side of the holster, hand sewing of the era looked just like machine sewing, because they used the same thread -- not a coincidence -- and a rowel-like hand tool that precisely spaced the marks for the hand awl. One could even run a version of this tool OVER the sewing to neaten it up. Want to know anyway, though? Turn the holster over: the stitchline is no longer straight, which it would be on a machine stitched holster; it's quite ragged in most cases. But then it's also not as OLD as you would think; darned Myres was still hand sewing the welts all through his lifetime and he died in '53! FBI agent Jerry Campbell's Myres 614 has a hand sewn welt area (it's in a private collection) and he signed on in '34 (it wasn't the FBI then, but the USBOI) when Myres already had Randall and Campbell machines (matching surname is a coincidence). This was given to McGivern's benefactor Groff in 1956:

Lacing is simply uncommon today. Very laborious, it can be quite decorative and it can even protect the seam itself. It was even used with welts. And with machine sewing. But largely it was used to supplant the sewing machine itself, because the maker didn't have one. Or electricity, either, which had only reached the major cities of the US at the turn of that century. One of Myres' machines was gasoline powered! Hmmm, his shop also burned down in 1919 and his Randall was in the center of the fire . . .. When you see whiplacing you'll rarely see a welt in there, too; and even more rarely see the seam itself stitched, too. Lawrence did all three by the 1960s: a welt was included, it was stitched in place, then the main seam was laced through all 5 layers (this one's lined).

Welts didn't exist until the turn of the last century in gunleather. The first we know to use them was the King Ranch products of that very moment. King Ranch had its own saddlery for obvious reasons: lots cattle, lots of cowboys, lots of horses, and lots of visiting Texas Rangers hunting rustlers. Its logo was the 'running w' and as I recall, a 'running iron' was one that was like a poker, and simply run across the cow's hide to make the mark. I expect in their case an actual 'W' was used because an iron would've been cheap.

From the King Ranch holster evolved the 'Sunday' holster that we know best today as the Brill although Brill neither was its inventor, nor even the first to make it. Think of him instead as being Henry Ford among the dozens of Texas makers who made the style as if to a specification. So -- when we see welts we know they are early 20th century and later.

Above: fenders for a Western saddle. The border ornamentation is not done with a hand tool, but with a cranked machine that has a roller in it. The leather is passed through and all of it -- creasing and border tool -- rolled into the leather at once. This pair even has Brill-style 'cuffs' (not called that on a saddle). When we see the rolled border on a holster then we know it was made by a saddler; no 'gunleather only' maker has used this method since Sam Myres in the early '30s including today's El Paso Saddlery.

Saddlers were not gunleather makers except in the most incidental way. Dunno why when the repeating handgun had existed since Colt's 1836 'Paterson' revolvers. I expect the notion of gunleather took off in a meaningful way when metallic cartridges appeared and the revolver could be reloaded quickly; and the belt could be adapted to hold such ammunition at the ready. Then repeating rifles appeared that could chamber the most powerful pistol ammo, too; then smokeless powder and better metallurgy . . . So it was neither the repeating handgun nor smokeless powders that created the pistol holster as a mass-market product.

It was the Model T; the one below is an interior shot of a 1910, note the manual spark advance lever at left. The image is a reminder that holsters like the Brill were NOT created for the automobile; heaps of room inside this T :

During the 1920s alone, more than 2/3 of Texas saddlers simply . . . failed because of the automobile. The ones that survived became gunleather makers: Brill, Myres, Lawrence (eventually), Heiser early on, Keyston Bros (beginning with toy holsters), etc.

Triggers typically were exposed until the turn of the 21st century; the one above has one of the two earliest marks of Heiser's so circa 1900. Of course they were exposed then because the whole objective was to get to the 'shoot lever' as fast as possible in an era when the penalty for someone else to reach for it was asking to be shot with it first (nowadays I think you get a referral to a CHOP helpline for helpful hints against next time)(where's Angela Davis when you need her? Or Huey Newton?). Fast and fancy shooting then, REQUIRED drawing the DA revolver while beginning the trigger pull in the holster! Elmer solved that one for the SAA with his slip hammers (trigger won't hold the hammer back, so 'cocking' the hammer meant one simply . . . "let it go". Covered guards and triggers everywhere you look? 21st century. A mix? Late 20th. Always exposed triggers? Early 20th. Flap holster WITH covered guard and trigger? Late 19th.

Gee, that's not an exhaustive list but it's a great start. When one sees a whiplaced holster with no welt and the belt loop is hand sewn, it's very early 20th century. Chain stitched? Rare but late 19th century. Machines stitched everywhere? Mid 20th century. A press-molded fitment? 1960s onwards. Hand detailed molding, too? Began the same time. Nylon thread? Oooh, harder because it began in the '50s but if it's a major brand, not until the 1970s. Then one has styles to rely on, so pancake and avenger styles not until the '70s, horizontal shoulder holsters not until the '60s, forward draw police holsters not until the late '30s. You get the idea -- it's hopeless unless you know EVERYTHING about gunleather. And who would bother. Really.


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