by Terry Wieland
There is an unforgettable moment in Woody Allen’s 1977 masterpiece, Annie Hall, when a group of children look straight into the camera and, one by one, tell the audience what they later became in life. One angelic little girl states simply, “I’m into leather.”
Well, so am I. Have been for decades, ever since the mid-sixties when I sent away for my first George Lawrence catalog and fell under the spell of rich, oiled cowhide.
Leather is one of three living materials that are essential to the creation of fine guns, the other two being walnut (wood) and steel. Steel? Living? Well, I consider it so because it changes, evolves and ages throughout its life, mostly through interaction with oxygen, which causes rust. Blueing, browning, case hardening, and even the beautiful grey patina of age—most are a form of rusting.
But the subject is leather—we’ll leave steel for another time—and the myriad qualities that make it not only ideal for many purposes, but a material that can be turned into a work of superb craftsmanship, if not art.
Physically, it’s durable, pliable, can be moulded to fit, resists fire and moisture, and if properly cared for can last for centuries. In other words, it’s ideal for a pistol holster, gun sleeve, rifle sling, or ammunition pouch. The same is true of saddles, harness, and mountain boots; to see why, all you have to do is reflect on the qualities those items require.
To take one example, if a cordura boot doesn’t fit perfectly, it never will; on the other hand, thoroughly soak a leather mountain boot, then wear it until it’s dry, and it will fit like a glove. Oh, yeah — the same is true of gloves.
Since the 1930s, various substitutes have been tried. Remember naugahyde? Or vinyl “just like leather?” Except it wasn’t. The only advantage materials like cordura nylon have over leather is that they are cheap, can be worked easily into something approaching proper shape, and will last long enough the buyer won’t demand his money back. But not much longer.
We used to have many leather companies making superb leather holsters. Aside from Lawrence, there was H.H. Heiser, Brauer Brothers, Buchheiser, S.D. Myers, Colorado Leather, and so on. Each had its specialties, and each is attractive to an arcane little branch of the gun-collecting community that is in thrall to leather.
Traditionally, there are three finishes for a leather belt or holster: plain oiled leather, basket weave, and floral tooled. And of course there are different colors, black and brown being the favorites. For a long time, I favored oiled leather, but have since developed an admiration for both basket weave and floral.
When I acquired a beautifully engraved Colt Woodsman Match Target pistol a few months ago, I went looking for a suitable holster, as well as spare magazines and a pouch to hold them. There are various places you can look, including one website devoted to collector leather, and of course eBay. One gentleman who lives in Kansas, and is a long-time collector and dealer in vintage leather, sells on Gun Broker (www.gunbroker.com) and is identified as “lunker1999.” I’ve dealt with him for ten years or so, and you can usually find him by doing a search for Lawrence or Heiser. Once you find one item, you can click “see dealer’s other items” and have them all laid out. As of right now, he has about 670 items listed.
I started at page one and eventually found an H.H. Heiser floral-tooled holster designed for exactly that pistol, in lovely condition. As well, he had a double magazine pouch, also floral tooled, by S.D. Myres, and a fleece-lined Lawrence gun rug. How could I resist?
Handgun fanciers, particularly, seem to want appropriate leather to go with their pistol. A nice Colt revolver seems somehow incomplete without one, since they are intended to be carried on a belt, not in a box. Vintage leather holsters have become a collecting specialty in themselves.
It’s also worth keeping in mind that the whole world of holsters has changed in the past 50 years. The leather itself is different, largely thanks to environmental restrictions on tanning methods. The idea of what fits and what doesn’t has also changed, with modern leather holsters from such as Galco custom moulded to fit a particular model of gun, and no other.
What this means, generally speaking, is that if you find a vintage gun, you will also need to find an appropriate vintage holster. Fortunately, there are many about.
Gray’s Shooting Editor Terry Wieland is what has come to be known to pop psychologists as a “completist” — someone who cannot rest until an object, an arrangement, or a collection is complete. At least there’s a name for it.