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  • Red Nichols, Holstorian

Post 6: Old Wives Tales

Updated: May 7

Old wives tales that were actually started by their husbands: how to make a holster actually fit the pistol that you bought it for! No disrespect intended for the famous woman I've used in the image below: Carey was the widow of famed Texas Ranger Leander McNelly and more importantly to holstory, was then the second wife of saddler W.T. Wroe who employed . . . wait for it . . . A.W. Brill before he bought out the Kluge Bros saddlery in 1912 and opened his own saddlery to build, among other items, the famous Brill 'scabbards' he called them.

One of the gun writers of early days (like the 1950s and later) published an article in which he recommended that the first thing one does, is throw the holster into a barrel of water -- for six days. Days?! Not even for six hours, or even six minutes. Then you were to put the gun in a plastic bag and let the gun set in the soggy, wet holster until dry.


Geez, what an idiot. At least in this regard. I'll locate the article again and post it here, then maybe not call him an idiot. Anyway, a new holster since at least the 1960s has a finish on it. The holsters of old were 'block fitted' which is to say that they indeed were wetted then a mold of the pistol inserted to give the holster a basic 'fit'. Then dried somehow, this case of the image by ambient temperature air, on a rack.

Modern holsters, though, go through many more steps than block fitting. Very professional steps that use the science of the natural material that is leather.


Leather of course, is tanned animal hide. Virtually all gunleather is made from vegetable tanned horsehide which has the very large benefit of being available in thicknesses from 4 ounces to 16 ounces. That allows a maker to buy his leather, with the backside (called the 'flesh side') fully finished in an assortment that allows him/her to use the ideal thickness (called 'weight' and measured in ounces) to make the products. An unlined belt one would want to be reasonably thick; a holster that is high-definition molded (incorrectly called 'boning') one would want to be of reasonably thin leather. With some caveats in both cases. Other makers use horsehide exclusively which is absolutely the finest leather for a high-performance holster but comes only in relatively thin cuttings called 'shells'. It's my personal favorite although I used it only for a year to two, right at the end before retiring.


So a well-made holster is indeed dipped in water. The water is hot; personally I use and recommend that the water be just as hot as one's hand will tolerate and no more. Why? One could be scalded if one got carried away, that's why; and the extra heat will do no greater good for the leather than 'hot'. How long should it be immersed? Seconds!! One doesn't actually soak the leather because it becomes claylike and the molding is then second rate. The notion with molding even in a rubber-padded press, and especially with high definition hand molding, is to stretch the wetted leather into crisp changes of direction; and that's not possible with a soaked leather holster. Yes, even Sparks uses a padded press:

That's not a complete lesson in molding and it's not meant to be. When the maker has his/her holster fitting the mold ideally, the holster will be dried. This is the part that makers including even Tony at Milt Sparks don't know: how to dry the holster to leverage the science inside the leather. Step one: don't let it dry out naturally, overnight in a cold workshop in Idaho in winter!


That's because the science of shaping vegetable cowhide (there is none for chrome tanned leathers) is to leverage the combination of fibers that keep it from tearing in use and the collagen that connects them, to make the new shape permanent. How to do that? Hot air drying. No, that's not your home oven with the oven door closed! The result of doing that will be something that looks like a prune; or a very large raisin/sultana. And brittle, too.


Again, I won't explain here the details of that; beyond saying that at the ideal temperature the holster will be surrounded by moving, hot air that carries the moisture away and 'locks' or sets the collagen around the fibres so that the holster doesn't ever lose its exacting shape. The holster then gets a finish that's designed to repel the water that it might actually encounter such as mist or rain. Not necessarily resistant to wading across the Rio Grande if you're a Border Patrolman. So now you see why you don't want to wet your holster again, when it's new, to make it fit your pistol better: the finish at the very least will fight back.

If your new holster doesn't fit its because its maker does not know how to mold and then dry his/her holsters without it shrinking in the process. It's easy to prevent, difficult to fix. And it is from that failure that the old wives tale was created, by them, to stop you from returning your holster. At Bianchi I was responsible for processing these claims and as the Q.A. manager, too, you can be assured I found a way for us to prevent the problem in the first place. Stop the returns, increase the customer satisfaction. That involved huge air dryers that worked in a fashion like a pizza oven: the holsters passed through the ovens on hanging racks and it was timed to delivery an ideally-dried set of holsters at the other end.

So the tale of 'the plastic bag method' curing your too-tight holster sprang from that: but the bag was used only if the holster actually was wetted, so as to prevent the steel from rusting! Pistols then were all steel or steel and aluminium; and often chrome plated to boot. Stainless didn't really appear until the 1970s. Ferrous metals on wet veg leather reacts and actually burns the leather and also corrodes the steel! And the wetter, the worser.

From there came the idea that it wasn't the pistol that the holster was adapting to; it was the extra thickness of the bag. But a plastic bag is as thin as a strand of hair, it's not adding any thickness to assist the task! Put the pistol itself, into a new, dry holster and 'wear it around the house' as forums suggest, and you'll get the same result because it's the pistol itself that is doing the work of making the holster fit better. And 'wearing it around the house' brings the action of the belt into play, by pulling the holstered pistol into the body and increasing leverage around the pistol (because the maker also didn't shape the 'wings' of your holster, either).


To aggravate the problem, many makers from the best-known to the little-known, intentionally build in a feature during molding that actually causes the need for so-called break-in: they mold into the trigger guard and into the ejection port. Of course, it's always been done that way! Only by the one who didn't learn that, especially that port molding, CAUSES the pistol to hang up and FORCES the buyer to break-in his holster. My method: I did not ever mold into either the guard OR the port, by filling in those spots on the molds:

So: one takeaway from all this is that if your new holster doesn't fit when you first get it, you should change holster makers. There are lots of them and everyone has a box'o'holsters, and it's not just choice of styles that causes that; it's the desire for the next best thing. Yet if a name brand doesn't know how to make your holster fit, take it/send it back as NFG and start looking for a maker who knows what he or she is doing. It's not a craft; it's a science. My own holsters under the Berns-Martin brand -- and I'm fully retired now so I'm not trying to sell you something -- were guaranteed to fit right out of the box. NO break-in required or else a free replacement would be posted to you.


Not only did I never have a complaint, or a return, under the guarantee; but I routinely received email confirmation saying "just as you said, my holster fit right out of the box and needed no break-in". Managing the processes was how I could make that guarantee with complete confidence. That plus using horsehide :-).


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