SWAT Leather You Varmint!

Savvy gunfighters check their holsters — and saddle soap
; .

Aside from holsters and slings, saddles, bridles and breeching, leather is traditional
scabbard material — and arguably still best.

In the Garden of Eden, it is written, Adam and Eve wore “garments of skin.” Hide-scraping tools confirm leather dates to early hominids, who learned how to flesh and preserve it, transforming skin into commodity. They made it pliable and stiff, its surface rough and slick. They shaved, stitched and colored it. Many moons later, leather blessed Hollywood. From Tom Mix and William S. Hart of the silent flicks to Gene Autry and Hopalong Cassidy (William Boyd) in the ’30s, to durable Matt Dillon (James Arness) in Gunsmoke — which ran two decades after a 1955 debut — saddles and gun-belts dealt on-screen action. The Old West came alive with hoof-thunder and belching Peacemakers. Heroes and villains owed much to cowhide.


No Replacing It

These days leather loin-cloths serve a shrinking market. But beyond cradling big iron and keeping your pelvis off Dobbin’s spine, leather has many uses — especially for shooters. Leather belts carry ammo in leather pouches while snugging trousers in place. A leather shooting coat is the rifleman’s girdle. In my youth rifles wore leather scope caps and lace-on cheek-pieces. The finest long guns still have leather butt-pads and travel in leather-bound cases. Elk hunters ride into the Rockies clutching leather reins in leather gloves. They climb in leather boots and pack game out on sawbucks cinched to mules by leather rigging. On safari, leather gaiters keep grass awns out of hunting shoes ….

Leather’s allure has much to do with its ties to people and adventures of times long past. Leather carried “Wild Bill” Hickock’s 1851 Colts, the revolvers of William Bonney, the Earps, the Dalton Gang and Bat Masterson. Its Hollywood tenure has outlived westerns. Don Johnson’s shoulder holster in the TV series Miami Vice became as distinctive as the show’s cinematography. When the pilot aired in 1984, Galco had been producing shoulder rigs for 14 years — 11 as The Original Jackass Leather Company in Chicago, where founder Richard Gallagher sewed horsehide holsters for the police. When Vice producers had to hide Johnson’s Bren 10 under his Armani suit, they tapped Gallagher, then in Galco International’s new Phoenix digs. The Jackass shoulder holster became the Miami Classic.

With all respect to Kydex, leather is still, arguably, the best holster material. It can be molded by the gun to fit like skin. Its rough inner surface grips and caresses steel, securing but compliantly releasing it. A hard, polished exterior slips easily against clothing and sheds water like glass.


Stock too short? Butt-plate too hard? Galco’s leather boot slips on. Velcro on the toe tab secures it.

The Process

To become leather, animal skin first endures caustic salts, leaving it hard as particle board. Wet-salted hides are stacked as many-layered sandwiches and left to cure for a month or so. Brine solution acts more quickly — 16 hours for skins in vats. A water bath removes saline residue and blood. Hair, loosened by lime solution with a little sodium sulfide, is cleaned off in a machine. Scraped, stretched, dyed, sand-papered and treated with heavy metals, skin smells as foul as it looks. Acid solution counteracts swelling caused by the lime. “Bating” enzymes render the skin pliable.

Tanning prevents decay. The word derives from vegetable tannins fueling a process taking weeks, even months. Shrink- and stretch-resistant, water-repellant leather results. Chestnut, hemlock and oak are popular tannin sources stateside, though 80 percent of fibers come from other plants. Vegetable-tanned leather is commonly bleached, then immersed in Epsom salts, oils, glucose, and finally emulsions of soap, grease and wax.

Chrome tanning is faster. The leather shrinks to become long-wearing and heat-resistant. A salt-and-acid bath pickles bated skins before they’re tumbled in a base solution of chromium sulfate. Finished within a day, chrome-tanned leather may then undergo an additional bath, or even vegetable tanning.

Splitting and shaving leather reduces its thickness. Sandpapering and buffing nix imperfections. Buffing the flesh side of leather raises the nap, yielding suede. Rollers compress leather to add firmness — and a glossy finish enhanced by waxes, shellacs, varnishes and resins. “Full grain” leather has not been mechanically surface-treated to remove flaws. Once a mark of high quality because only scar-free skins were spared surface finishing, full-grain leather isn’t so uniformly perfect now. “Top-grain” is the counter designation: leather sanded, buffed, rolled to improve its appearance. Shiny “patent” leather results from several coats of varnish. “Bridle leather” is high-quality leather impregnated with oils and hard-finished with wax — processes making it costly.


The First Date

Even after molding to a specific handgun during manufacture, a holster must be trained to hug it. You’re smart to seat the pistol gently until the leather, like a shy teenager, decides hugging is okay. Knife sheaths need more break-in time because knives are lighter. They’re also sharp. A friend once thrust his knife through a virgin sheath when he joined them prematurely. Wetting leather to make it supple helps it conform but moisture left to brood won’t do steel or leather any good.

Heat, sunlight and neglect dry out (ruin!) leather. Salvaged soon enough,
Danner boots can be rebuilt.

Care And Feeding

Care of leather is mind-numbingly simple: Store it where air can circulate to keep mildew and rot at bay, but where it won’t get hot or dry out quickly. Erin Hutchinson of Danner emphasizes cleanliness — brushing off dirt before it can penetrate and abrade. “Scrub full-grain leather with our Leather Cleaner on a damp cloth; rinse with a wet cloth, let the surface dry — not with heat or in direct sunlight. Then apply a wax or oil preservative, depending on the leather.” Hutchinson says suede or rough-out leather should be gently brushed free of dirt dry, without using cleaner. Then spray on a suede-specific waterproofing.”

A fellow who’s made saddle-bags for Harley-Davidson stresses wet leather must be air-dried slowly. “The idea is to keep it fed and supple as moisture leaves. Don’t over-oil.” DeSantis recommends you apply no dressing to its holsters, lest they become soft. For leather holsters and belts with hard finish, you can’t go wrong with wax-based products like ordinary shoe polish. Hunting boots scrubbed by wet grass, however, can lose wax quickly. For boots daily enduring wet conditions, I like Sno Seal, and grease from boot-makers Danner and Irish Setter.

Retired outfitter Ron Dube, who ran pack-strings into Wyoming mountains for decades, tells me: “There’s little time to tend leather properly on hunts. Best you can do is keep it clean and as dry and well-conditioned as each day allows. We hung tack at night under a tarp, dried boots away from heat, stuffing them with newsprint to absorb moisture within. Before and after hunting season, my crew gave all leather a thorough saddle-soaping, then rubbed in Farnam’s Leather New, a neatsfoot oil we applied as a spray. I still use neatsfoot oil to protect leather and keep it supple.”

Neatsfoot, by the way, is a generic term appearing in the name of many leather treatments. “Neat” derives from an Old English word for cattle. Neatsfoot oil is rendered from the shin-bones and feet (not hooves) of cattle. It softens, conditions and preserves leather. Mink oil, while it penetrates leather, is also acidic. Many reports claim it makes leather too soft and shortens its useful life. Dube told me continual soaking with any oil can cause leather fibers and stitching to break down. This observation squares with mine. Legendary Pacific Northwest bootmakers White, West Coast (Wesco) and Danner offer recrafting services to replace heels, soles and stitching and recondition uppers exhausted by hard life in the field.


Not Perfect

Storing firearms in scabbards and holsters is a bad idea, even if the leather is dry. Salt (tanning) and moisture residue you can’t detect ravage steel over time. Neither does ammunition age gracefully in leather loops and pouches, as vegetable-tanned leather turns brass green with verdigris.

Not everyone likes leather. “When you pack a pistol in Florida heat and humidity,” one patrolman told me, “you need a lightweight holster that doesn’t cling to your body.” Sweat makes leather smell bad, and it’s not as easily cleaned as polymer. Also, gun oil eventually degrades leather.

Then again, an Arizona ranger with a big iron blasting Texas Red before he cleared Kydex would hardly sound right.

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