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For well over a century now a caricature of a cowboy dressed in batwing or woolly chaps, boots, Stetson and holstered six-gun slung low on the hip has been the stereotypical, symbolic, worldwide image of the United States. But in reality, a low-slung holster and belt were innovations most 19th-century working cowboys didn’t wear.
The history of the development of Old West gun leather has to be related in generalizations, because there were probably more than a few saddle makers and pistol-carrying wanderers and soldiers who dreamed up their own versions of holsters and gun belts before any of the popular styles became commonplace.
Prior to Sam Colt’s 1830s development of the first dependable cap-and-ball revolver, the smaller single-shot flintlock and cap-and-ball pistols were usually stuck into a coat, vest or pants pocket, or the larger pistols were stuck into the waistband of the pants. Some pistols had a slender L-shaped hook on the left side of them to hook over the top of the pants or belt for carrying the gun. And the first “holsters” were nothing more than a piece of leather rolled and stitched into a socket shape through which to thrust the single-shot pistol for carrying on a belt.
The first holsters as we think of them today were a pair of leather pouches stitched on the opposite ends of a piece of leather, so that the holsters could be slung over the pommel of a saddle, with one holstered gun hanging on each side of the saddle. Somewhere along the way, the U.S. Army decided to put flaps on these holsters to better protect the pistols from water and dust. A few of these double flap holsters, known as “pommel holsters,” were even made for the giant-sized Walker Model Colt revolvers used during the Mexican War of 1847.
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The pommel holsters evolved into single holsters worn on the belt. Many of these early flap holsters appear to be“left handed” holsters, because when the holster is put on the belt it has to be worn on the left side in order for the butt of the pistol to point to the rear. But these holsters were actually designed to be worn on the right side, with the pistol butt facing forward, so that a soldier on horseback could cross-draw his pistol with his left hand and leave his right hand free to wield his saber. Many Army veterans continued to wear their civilian guns this way, with and without flaps, on the Western frontier, starting in the 1850s.
The 1850s also saw the evolution of the “California Slim Jim” holster. Instead of the pouch shape of the military holsters that pistols fit into loosely, the Slim Jim was a form-fitted sleeve that the revolver slipped into like a glove. And there was a loop stitched onto the back of the holster for the belt to go through. The Slim Jims were made with or without flaps, and they were often carved with elaborate floral designs, making them a fashionable piece of apparel in the traditional Spanish colonial style.
It is uncertain who first thought up the idea of what became the traditional “cowboy” holster, commonly referred to as the Mexican Loop or El Paso Loop holster. It was cut out of one piece of leather, shaped so that one half of the leather folded over like a sandwich, with the open bottom edge and the contoured open side edges stitched closed to form the pouch for the gun.
The other half of the leather was folded down behind the full length of the pouch to make the “skirt.” From two to six slits were then cut horizontally through the middle of this skirt, forming one, two or three straps that the pouch was inserted down through to form the finished holster. And the fold at the top of the holster formed a loop for a belt to go through, so that the holster hung on the belt, not below it.
At first, the top of the outer side of the Mexican Loop holster was so high that it was nothing more than a pocket for the pistol to fall into. But over the years, the top side of the holster was cut down further and further until all of the handle of the gun and part of the trigger guard were exposed so that the gun could be gripped faster and pulled from the holster faster.
Yes, some individuals probably created their own fast-draw holsters during this time, and perhaps some even tied down their holsters with a rawhide thong around their thighs so that the holster wouldn’t ride up the leg on a fast draw. But otherwise, and contrary to movie myth, these Mexican Loop holsters that were usually worn high on the hip into the 20th century were not fast-draw holsters, and the so-called Hollywood fast-draw holsters of the 1950s movie boom simply did not exist in the 1800s.
At first, holsters were worn on any type of belt. And even in the early days of the Mexican Loop holster, the style and design of a belt seldom matched the holster. It wasn’t until after the Civil War when cartridge revolvers began to replace cap-and-ball pistols that saddle makers began to sew cartridge loops onto the sides of the belts for the gun-wearer to carry extra cartridges where they were easy to get to, and the authentic “gun leather rig” of the shoot-’em-up days of the Old West was finally born.
For Wild West shows, promoters started gussying up the star performer’s gun leather with hand-tooled floral decorations, nickel-silver conchos, or dime-sized nickel-silver “spots” to identify the star from the other performers. And when silent Western movies also got popular, spotted holster rigs started showing up on the bad guys as well as the good guys.
Next came the “Buscadero” rigs popularized in 1940s–50s Westerns, with a Mexican Loop holster slung through a horizontal slot on the bottom edge of the gun belt so that the six-gun hung lower on the leg and the gunfighter’s hand didn’t have to reach upward to grab the pistol out of the holster.
These Buscadero rigs evolved into fast-draw holsters that had circular spring-metal straps sewn inside the leather to hold the pouch open so that the cylinder of the revolver could begin turning inside the holster, which allowed the gunslinger to begin cocking the gun before it cleared the holster.
But these fancied-up, decorated, tied-down Buscadero and fast-draw gun leather rigs of the 20th century were all showmanship hokum — part of the “reel” Old West, not the real one.
Originally published in the April 2012 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.
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