Cowboy Gear Of The Ol’ West

Folks who identify with the old days and the “Cowboy Way” of Roy and Gene go for the period-correct cowboy-era stuff and the B-Western rigs. People harbor fond childhood memories of their silver screen heroes — or of real-world idols like Dad or Granddad — using an old cowboy-style holster. Many of us inherited the gun, but the leather couldn’t be saved and so we yearn for something to grace and honor those memories.

Memories and history run hand-in-hand. America is a land of history. This country was forged in the fires of rebellion and fierce independence, and these emotions stir us still. The cowboy has become a symbol of America — independent, brave, spirited, reliable. His holsters remain an iconic symbol of his short reign in history and his lengthier one in our hearts. Is it any wonder the cowboy holster is still so revered and loved?


The echo of the California Slim Jim continues to
resonate in this K-Frame’s Threepersons holster
and in this Blackhawk’s field holster.

Art With Function

Aficionados regard these old holsters as both art and craft. Plain or fancy, they truly are functional, portable art. Those old cowboy guns were ergonomic and had spectacular, eye-appealing lines. Their holsters reflected this with beautiful curving contours, causing the eye to sweep over and around the profiles of the pistol. Take a look at the heavy contouring on the main seam of an old California Slim Jim, those deep trigger and throat recurves … oh, be still my heart!

Tooling was made to run with those curves. It teased your eyes to go over every inch of the leather. Border designs raced your eyes around the curves and down the barrel while the flow lines in finely rendered floral carving eased your eye over every bit of the surface. Kydex? Well … it just sorta doesn’t compare!

Lots of guys nowadays think it’s sissy or too girlie to have floral work on their gun leather. Hate to tell ya, but the rose was one of the numero uno flowers on carved cowboy gear at the turn of the century. And those fellers who wore it were plenty macho! Back in the day, a person’s riggin’ spoke yards about his skill level. If you wore fancy gear, you had either suitcases full of money or the backbone and skills to back ’em up. Top hands had top gear. They didn’t need black or camo to tell the world they were hombres.


The border stamp made its appearance over 100 years ago
and continues to add understated eleganceto this modern
X-Frame’s holster.


Functional art — providing protection for
the weapon and status for the wearer.

Speed And Aggression

Black or camo — the polymer crowd wants tactical-looking gear and doesn’t give a flip for the cowboy style. Too clumsy, too heavy, not “easily concealable,” you’ve heard it before. Even competitive cowboy shooters are leaning away from the truly traditional as well. They think it’s slow and ponderous to use — though they love the decoration. Nowadays, there’s a real trend toward “gamer rigs” in many of the cowboy sports and some rigs have become about as traditionally-cowboy as tofu. Many game-oriented rigs are purpose-built and fulfill their intended role — speed, aggression and more speed — admirably.

However, while those new-fangled speedy jobs serve a purpose on the gaming field, they may fail to secure a gun well or keep it from getting a load of dings and bruises in the real world. And one must consider aggression and speed aren’t all that useful in the field, where common sense and purposeful, well-coordinated action seem to be better and more comforting traveling compadres anyway.
Those old cowboy holsters were made to hold your smoke wagon in the worst conditions and extremes of movement. Losing your revolver in the frontier era meant you were without a safety net. Obtaining food, protecting yourself and signaling an emergency were complicated or impossible when a gun was dropped and lost.
Gunleather was high on the trigger and cylinder and darn near swallowed the gun for a reason. The toes were plugged or stitched through so the mud and snow and gravel you had to wallow through wouldn’t plug or damage the barrel. Many of our best field rigs follow those guidelines, and the Slim Jim as a distinct genre is alive and well because of it.
The traditional cowboy holsters could’ve disappeared when the new-fangled, swing-out cylinder double-action “self-cockers” heralded a new trend in revolvers. They could’ve vanished when semi-autos came on the scene. It never happened. Makers simply adapted their patterns to carry the new trends in weaponry.


This flower-filled holster belongs to a former Special Ops Soldier.
It wouldn’t be wise to call him a sissy, so don’t get any foolish ideas!


These low-cut, steel-line rigs by Ernie Hill (left) and
Alphonso (right) are purpose-engineered for the “cowboy
sports” of quick-draw and spinning respectively.

Modern Problems

The world we live in today is more complicated than it has ever been and it seems we have specialists in every field. This trend in gun leather is no exception. There are forms now to suit virtually every purpose. We’re much further along ergonomically-speaking as well, and we understand how we carry and use a holster as well as why we carry.

The 21st Century is seeing the return of the Single Action as never before. While Cowboy Action sports have made them popular, we are now seeing a resurgence of the SA in its original role as a self-defense handgun. Honest.

The change in attitude toward self-defense will call for new trends in holster development. They’ll go in both directions. Adaptations of modern rigs to the old SA’s? Cowboy decorations on holsters for polymer pistols? Time will tell.

The allure of the cowboy rig lies — I think — in the soul of the person who wants it and in the maker’s abilities. It’s a passion. Form follows function. It always does with gun leather.

Karla Van Horn is the sole proprieter of Purdy Gear, maker of all-things wonderful in leather — especially cowboy gear.
By Karla Van Horn

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