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Guns and Leather: History of Leather Holsters

Guns and Leather: History of Leather Holsters

Leather holsters have been used for centuries to enable gun owners to carry and access their firearms under a variety of circumstances. But the cowboy holster that we’ve come to associate with the Old West and cowboys was not the first design to enter widespread use. 

Guns and Leather

Leather — specifically cowhide and horsehide — was the material of choice for more than a century. Manufacturers used leather for gun belts, bandoliers, slings, and holsters because of its strength, rigidity, and durability. 

Leather Rawhide

Synthetic alternatives, such as Cordura nylon and Kydex, have only been available for the past few decades. 

Since the advent of these new materials, most shooters have switched from leather to synthetics, although a large minority still use leather holsters. 

Why is a Holster Important?

A traditional holster is a stitched leather sleeve designed to hold a handgun — revolver or semi-automatic pistol — securely, safely, and comfortably on your person.

A holster is important for three major reasons: Personal safety, ease of use, and comfort. Holsters are designed to keep the gun aimed away from the user if the firearm accidentally discharges while inside it. Being able to reach the firearm in case of an emergency easily is also a key feature of holsters. Holsters also provide much more comfort for the user than simply sticking the gun into your waistband.

Woman with Holster

Carrying a concealed handgun without a holster can be dangerous, and you should always check your local laws to determine whether it’s legal. 

Early Days — 19th Century

The open-top holster that we’re accustomed to seeing in movies and on television associated with Old West gunfighters was not the first design used by cowboys and others in the 19th century.

The pommel holster — a leather pouch attached to the saddle and not your waist for access during horseback riding — was the forerunner. The U.S. Army added a leather flap for environmental protection. 

Before Samuel Colt patented the Colt Paterson in 1836, it was customary for individuals to carry firearms in coat and vest pockets. 

Many people carried compact pepperbox percussion-cap revolvers in the early 19th century. Some revolvers had butt-mounted hooks to attach to a gun belt without a holster. While the gun was accessible, it was also exposed, compromising both security and safety.

As full-size revolvers became widespread and cavalrymen began carrying sidearms, the need for a belt holster became apparent. The cavalry or field holster used a leather flap to retain the weapon and protect it against rain and the weather. To draw the gun, you opened the snap closure of the flap.

Cavalry Holster

The leather cavalry holster evolved from the pommel holster. Soldiers wore them in the cross-draw position with the butt of the revolver facing forward. Originally, the cavalryman would draw his revolver with his left hand and his saber with his right. 

California Slim Jim Holster

While belt holsters made their debut in the 1840s, the California Slim Jim holster entered the scene a decade later. Rather than a loose-fitting pouch-like design, the Slim Jim created a tighter fit for better retention. These holsters also had loops to attach securely to a gun belt and often featured ornately carved designs. 

Mexican Loop Holster

The Mexican Loop or El Paso Loop holster was introduced in the 1870s and may have originated in either Mexico or the American Southwest. This design differed from the earlier California holster in several ways, including a trademark, single-piece design. 

The new holster type was pattern cut, forming a skirted backing. The backing folded over and down to create a belt loop and a skirt between the holster and the body of the person carrying it. 

The backing had multiple slots cut into it so the scabbard part could pass through it, creating straps or loops that held the holster body to the backing. 

This clever craftsmanship resulted in a holster with a loop for a cartridge belt and skirt loops to keep the holster in place when the shooter drew their gun. 

The 1870s also saw the invention of the leather shoulder holster and the increasing popularity of cartridge belts. 

20th Century

In the mid to late 20th century, holster makers introduced a variety of retention devices to secure the weapon in place. For police, the open-top quick-draw holster was too exposed to potential criminals. At the same time, the field holster, while effective at retaining and protecting the gun, did not allow you to draw his sidearm quickly. 

A leather holster with retention prevents a suspect from disarming the officer and gaining control of the gun. Active retention devices include thumb breaks, retention straps, and separate locking mechanisms you manually bypass, usually using your thumb. 

IWB Holsters

The traditional belt holster is OWB (outside the waistband), but IWB (inside the waistband) is a relatively new carry method designed to maximize concealment. 

IWB Holster

An IWB leather holster began to gain popularity in the 1970s. This method rapidly became the standard for concealed carry because it allows you to carry the weapon more discreetly than OWB alternatives. 

Independence Leather IWB Holster

At We the People Holsters, we’ve traditionally manufactured Kydex holsters for various handguns. 

However, we’ve recently introduced our Independence line, a return to holster’s leather origins, which uses a pancake design and full-grain cowhide for a comfortable yet durably constructed holster. 

The leather retention holster design uses a snug fit to keep the gun in place. Passive retention increases accessibility for a quick draw, which is ideal for self-defense when the weapon is concealed and held close to the body. 


OWB Holsters

While the holsters of the Old West were worn outside the waistband, the modern OWB holster differs in some important ways. Our Independence OWB holster has a rear tail fin to reduce printing, ensuring the holster remains close to your body. 

Woman with OWB Holster

Unlike single-layer holster designs that don’t provide sufficient rigidity for a safe, efficient draw and re-holster, our holsters employ a double-layer shell to protect both you and your weapon. 


Save 15% with We The People Coupon Code: BLOG15

The Best Leather Holsters on the Market

At We the People Holsters, we offer leather and Kydex holsters for gun owners who need a high-quality holster for reliable, safe concealed, or open carry. 

If you’re interested in the best leather gun holster on the market, check out our leather Independence line, available in either IWB or OWB configurations.