The gun leather worn by those who tamed the Wild West was generally pragmatic gear–something to keep your pistol close at hand, more or less clean and dry. Then as now, however, some folks didn’t mind indulging in a little something special when it came to how they carried their weapons. So singular were a few of these holsters and belts that I’m sure you’ll agree, they’re nothing less than art.
Among the earliest non-military holsters were the slim jim styles that showed up in significant numbers among those who flocked to California during the gold rush years of the 1850s and afterward. Typically worn high on the the belt, up at the waist, California slim jim holsters often carried big revolvers–old paper cartridge guns and later brass cartridge conversion pistols. Colt Dragoons, Walkers, and Army and Navy revolvers were popular carries, as were Remington’s Model 1858.
Even when not ornately carved, California slim jim holsters possessed an elegance stemming from the contours of the gun leather, both along the throat of the holster and along its seam. The style was never forgotten, even as other types of holsters emerged. In fact, we sometimes see the contours of the slim jim carried over into Mexican loop and “half-breed” holsters that came along later.
Speaking of the Mexican loop, here’s another example where the design of the holster itself creates a certain aesthetic. The classic skirt of the Mexican loop, along with its single or paired retaining bands created a new artistic effect, and along with it, new opportunities for embellishment and ornamentation. “Spots,” carving, and even a stray concho here or there began to appear on gun leather.
To suppose that the Mexican loop holster was popular only along the southwest border would be a mistake. Frank Meanea’s gun leather from the 1860s and afterward is broadly regarded as some of the finest ever produced, and some of his finest examples include Mexican loop varieties.
Somewhere between the slim jim and the Mexican loop, we find the later arriving half-breed holster. These examples more or less hide the skirt and thereby show off the contours of the gun pouch itself.
As for fast-draw and low riding tie-down gun rigs, these are largely the creation of Hollywood costumers, though they have gained wide appeal and have been further refined for popular recreation such as cowboy action sport shooting. While some may scoff at these late arrivals and highly modified variants on the classic Old West holster, the craftsmanship evidenced in some of these rigs has taken the art of gun leather to a whole new level.
Whatever your personal tastes in Old West fiction, you can often let your imagination run, decking out your favorite Western hero or heroine in gun leather of undeniably artistic quality, whether historically accurate or indulging in a bit of whimsy. In the cinema of your mind, you can’t go wrong.