We’ve been spending some time with the local SASS crew here in Fort Smith, Arkansas–a town steeped in its western heritage. Fort Smith is the setting for True Grit, and countless other western tales. At the edge of Oklahoma, and butting right up against the Cherokee Nation, Fort Smith is a natural place for cowboy action shooting. And the sport is alive and well at the Old Fort Gun Club.
We showed up at a recent practice shoot to do some work with a pair of Ruger Vaqueros. These stainless shooting irons are a matched set, with many of the enhancements folks make to their revolvers already complete. They’re competition ready. And quite impressive. But you won’t look the part without a nice pair of holsters. When we set up the review with Ruger, we called the good folks at El Paso Saddlery and asked them to send us a holster. They could have just stitched up some leather, but that’s not El Paso Saddlery’s style.
Instead, they sent this rig. You should have been there when we opened the box. The glow coming off the leather seemed to cast its own light, and I swear I could hear Streets of Laredo playing somewhere in the distance.
What to look for in a Cowboy Action holster
There are some obvious points to consider. The holster has to fit the gun. As we’re almost always talking about leather, there will be some natural give. Oak tanned cow hide is the natural choice for most holsters, as it is stiff but will conform to the shape of an object. It also takes tooling well. More on that later. Some holsters even have steel shanks to help them retain their form, or–like these–have a thin steel liner that’s even more effective.
The holster should provide enough hold and enough give. You need to draw fast, but you don’t want the gun bouncing out of the holster. SASS sometimes has some movement involved, so some basic level of retention is a bonus. A leather thong looped over the hammer works. Just make sure it doesn’t get in the way. If you catch the hammer on the loop coming out of the holster, things could get ugly.
After function, it is all style. Actual historical holsters were made from whatever was on hand. Cow, elk, horse, buffalo…. Some were exceptionally ornate. Like whalers and scrimshaw, and WWI soldiers who made trench art out of brass shells, the old cowboys had a lot of time on their hands to decorate their holsters. It is an expression of individual style, and modern SASS shooters are just as into the practice.
The holsters I admire most are built into belts, and have knife sheaths, extra holsters, bullet loops…they may even have a second belt that holds extras, like shotgun shells. As most of the rifles and pistols share the same chambering, the bullets will fit both guns. In short, these are epic tool belts that should hold everything you might need. You don’t have to look far to find the modern equivalents, though they’re typically not leather.
The holster itself should pitch the gun off at a bit of an angle. Many of the SASS shooters I’ve known brace their guns out from their hips by placing leather shims between the leather that folds over to form the holster. The more shims, the steeper the angle. And all of this is just decoration if you don’t tie the holster to your leg, or have a really loose fit.
The El Paso Saddlery Holsters
This is a fully carved Hollywood Fast Draw Double Holster Rig. I think the name is fitting. It has roots in historical tradition, but looks more like something you’d find on the set of a 1930s Hollywood extravaganza. It is beautiful. All or the carving is done by hand. This is a process that takes time. You have to wet the leather, and then tap stamping tools in some places, and run an actual chisel around other places. Essentially you press in the wet leather in intentional patterns, and it will stay in place as it dries. Leather work is a craft–carving is an art form. This is a skill that takes years to master, and the holster here is a fine example. How much does a beauty like this cost? $558. That isn’t cheap, but this is an heirloom of sorts that will only get better looking as it breaks in, and if you take care of it right, it will last longer than you. Holsters don’t have to cost this much. They don’t have to look this good and work this well, either.
The fit is exacting. This was made for the Vaqueros with 5.5″ barrels. The belt itself has been stitched around the edge. Some of the stitching is more decorative. The smooth (grain) side of the leather (as opposed to the rough split side) needs to be on both sides of the holster, and belt–so two splits are glued together (rough to rough) and then stitched up. The contrasting white on the natural tan of the leather makes for a great flourish.
The holster could be dyed to match any color, but the natural will darken slowly as it is exposed to light and oil. It is almost impossible to convincingly fake the well work look of leather that has been well cared for and well used. Sweat does wonderful things to leather, or the look of it, but you’ll need the oil to keep out the salt.
The buckle on this is attached to the larger belt by two smaller strips of leather. In the long term, this may allow you to do more to adjust the sizing, as you can make these slightly shorter or longer. If you get a lot bigger, you’ll need a new holster–otherwise belt extensions are going to position your guns farther and farther behind your back.
Regardless of how you go, El Paso Saddlery can make functional gun rigs that fit. If you want cowboy bling, that’s in their wheel-house. If you would rather have a more pedestrian holster set, one that you can customize yourself, that’s easy, too. Once holsters are glued and stitched up, though, they are hard to tool. Keep that in mind. If you want something with that Spanish flair, or a set of deeply carved floral holsters–better to pull the trigger on that from the start.
And if the cowboy thing isn’t your speed, El Paso makes shoulder holsters, cross-draw, IWB concealed carry holsters, and a full assortment of military styles. And they make incredible 1911 rigs, too. From the historically accurate down to the Hollywood rigs, to the competition specific gear, El Paso does it all.