Think you want an Original Dirty Harry Holster from Lawman Leather of Texas? Then you'll want to think again:
My name is Red Nichols and I am a holster addict.
It all started innocently enough, as what the toy industry called a ‘junior cowboy’ in the 1950s. We were targeted with the holster and capgun sets associated with the advent of television in America especially shows such as Hopalong Cassidy in 1949 and the Roy Rogers and Lone Ranger shows that followed hard on Hoppy’s heels.
A look at the period advertising of the likes as Sears, Roebucks for these sets shows more than just the connection with these TV heroes and their fellow cowboys like Wyatt Earp and Gene Autry. It was that capguns were mere accessories to the leather holster sets that made up the bulk of the sets’ appeal. Alone the guns were cheap and when the sets were marketed, the leather and its cowboy sponsor were big news but the makers of the capguns were not mentioned at all.
Mid-‘50s found me in post-War Japan with my family, and a set of Hubley ‘Colt .45’ TV show guns and holsters arrived from my grandparents in America. The Hubleys were so long and heavy I could scarce hold them both at arm’s length! Later in life I replaced them (free toys are great for digging holes in the dirt when you’re a kid) with an immaculate pair I have on a bookshelf in a case; along with a pair of Nichols ‘Stallion .45’ capguns
And so it was that I became enamored of gunleather vs guns.
Early ‘60s, having kicked around variously between the Territory of Hawaii and Japan I found myself on the way to London and en route my oldest brother introduced this 13-year-old teenager to shooting. He was ex-Navy and had everything from his M1 Garand in 30-06 and M1-30 carbine in .30 Cal, to a Colt Python 6” and a Ruger Blackhawk both in .357 Magnum. An S&W Chiefs Special in .38 Spl and a pump action Winchester .22 rifle and a Colt SA in the same caliber. He took me out to a canyon and let me fire all of them but I don’t’ recall him making me clean them.
England in the ‘60s is no place to own much less shoot a handgun, as the then-famous author Ian Fleming learned the hard way when he sought to have an acquaintance’s .38 S&W military issue revolver painted for the cover of his book “Dr. No” – the police came ‘round to his house looking for a similar pistol used in a local murder. And it was no better while at boarding school in Switzerland. So I studied about guns instead of shooting, and soon learned that I was more interested in the holsters for them than in the shooting itself.
By the time I was returned to America in the late ‘60s I had probably learned as much as Geoffrey Boothroyd about the technical specs of handguns and holsters as Boothroyd – because we both learned all we knew from Col. Charles Askins’ articles in the annual Gun Digest books.
Leaving London took my family to Oakland and that city in the late ‘60s was very much the milieu of the Dirty Harry films of early the next decade that were set in San Francisco that is across the Bay Bridge from it. It being summer vacation before starting a local high school I sought out the local library because I was a bookworm, and encountered, of all things, a book about holsters: it was Chic Gaylord’s book about pistol craft and his own holsters were prominently featured.
I started making my own gunleather with a ‘loan’ from my mother that I used for leather and tools from the local Tandy Leather store. Tandy was big business at that moment although that didn’t last much past the decade of the ‘70s. One could claim that I became a ‘professional’ in ’68 while making gunleather that I sold, being a police sciences student at the local junior college, wearing Bianchi gunleather while employed as a uniformed security guard, and trained as a PPC shooter at said junior college’s traveling shooting team. But unlearned and untrained, I wrote to a young John Bianchi in L.A.
JB, as we called him, answered all my naïve letters; and by 1970 I thought, ‘Why am I reinventing the wheel here, how about I just ask him for a job?”. Which I did and for some reason he saw something in this 20-year-old, perhaps because my portfolio included my handmade version of the then-popular Hoyt forward draw police holster for which I had even learned how to make and temper springs.
The job didn’t pay worth a darn but it was slightly more than the pay as a security guard. And I loved being in there so much that I not only failed to go home on time – I hung around watching, then helping the company’s designer after hours – but sometimes failed even to bring my paycheck home. In 100F, no a/c, WITH smog conditions. Time went on and after working a year in the company’s duty holster department I was apprenticed into its R&D department where new products were prototyped and special orders were handmade. Then the company moved south from L.A. into Riverside county and, coddled by the new air conditioning there, I was nominated to be the company’s designer; which is to say ‘under the care and guidance of’ JB.
All of the 1970s were the Golden Age of innovation in gunleather. Bianchi Holster became the largest gunleather company in the world bar none after having split off from JB’s former partner at Safariland before I joined up. New designs such as the Model 27 for uniform LEOs, the Model 9R for undercover LEOs, the Model M66 for military use, the Model 4 Askins Avenger and the Chapman High Ride for ‘combat’ shooting entrenched JB’s company as ‘king of gunleather’. I worked on all of them.
But by the mid-80s the innovation by everyone in gunleather stopped quite abruptly because of the encroachment of padded fabric for entry level ‘holsters’ and of molded Kydex ‘holsters’ for uniformed LEOs. At Bianchi we chased the promise of the former and left the latter to Safariland by creating the M12 Hip Holster that was adopted by the U.S. Armed Forces in '85. Bianchi Holster had been a big deal and had produced 20 million holsters and gunbelts in the time I was with the company.
The company was sold late '87 to outsiders who had no interest in gunleather. I’d had enough of that and left the company to go to a business university where I graduated cum laude. While doing that I discovered a market for consulting design to gunleather companies, and that I quite liked the life of a consultant designer while consulting to an sporting goods company called Easton. Gene DeSantis was my first customer for gunleather design and market strategy; and a decade and two dozen makers as clients later I could see that I was making myself obsolete by 2000.
So I turned my attention to a perceived opportunity at the turn of the century to help an Australian company become more competitive in its own country where Safariland was making great inroads. Nothing new about changing countries for me; it had become a natural progression for me while my siblings instead had returned to America by 1970 and literally never moved house.
I still had the gunleather bug in 2000, and bad, and overcame the inability to be a designer/maker of holsters in Australia by changing States in 2010 where the laws allowed, not real pistols, but the aluminum molds used to mould holsters. Gunleather can’t be responsibly created nor sold to consumers without it being tested against real guns to ensure that no controls are interfered with and that performance benchmarks are met. So I enlisted the assistance of a series of ‘armorers’ who had the work experience and the holster/pistol knowledge to test every new design, and every holster sold before it reached the customers. The rewards for these men were slight and after a decade they, and I, too, had lost interest in the tiny market share I could capture from this far away. I retired in 2020 age 70 and donated all my equipment to a local saddlery and my gun castings to a local maker in a neighboring State.
I was by now more interested in learning all there was to know about the players who had created the industry we all had worked in. The USPTO sets out that there is nothing completely new under the sun so it grants patents for new inventions ‘on the improvement over the prior art’. And these men (there were no women innovators) had created that 'prior art'.
This research came about at all because I had developed a theory that a Threepersons Style holster’s thick welt inside the main seam was not incidental to the design; it was the design’s very raison de etre. A small pic of Tom’s own holster appeared on an internet forum early in the century and it told me where it had been and where it had ended up: in the hands of the widow of the riflesmith who had received it from Tom Threpersons himself in the 1930s. I bought it and there they were: two layers of thick leather that bore the heavy wear of chafing against Tom’s pair of single action Colts of the early 1900s.
I set about researching Tom. Of course I’d heard of him from Charles Askins’ writings and Skeeter Skelton’s, too. Quickly I learned that there were two Indians called Tom Threepersons so naturally I wanted to know if I had the well-known Texan’s holster, a real gunfighter; or the Canadian rancher’s holster who was no gunman at all. It’s owner made it clear that the holster had come from the Texan at a rodeo in neighboring Arizona.
My enthusiasm for the topic having extended to donating what I learned about holster history – which I shortened to ‘holstory’ – on internet forums, it became apparent that only their legends had survived into modern times. Men who I knew to be Johnny-come-latelies were being credited for things that others had done before them, while the real contributors had been forgotten. In the former category were Milt Sparks who got his start by copying Andy Anderson’s products, and Lou Alessi who made only copies of Paris Theodore’s designs; in both cases when misfortune put the originators out of business in the ‘70s.
In the latter category was the A.W. Brill holster that, it turned out, was the very first ‘engineered’ holster ever and had appeared in 1905 at the behest of a prominent Texas Ranger, Captain John Hughes. And Tom Threepersons’ holster that was endorsed by Tom for the S.D. Myres company in 1930 and then modified somewhat to become ‘standard issue’ for the new F.B.I. of 1935.
The result was the First Edition of this book that is titled ‘Holstory – Gunleather of the Twentieth Century’ and these results showed that nothing of note had occurred in gunleather innovation until the Kluge scabbard of 1905 that today we know best as ‘The Brill'; and nothing more in gunleather was created after the 1985 introductions of the technologies of padded fabric and of molded Kydex.
Publishing the First Edition was not a signal to stop researching and my sources doubled from 1,800 to 3,500; to the point where the Second Edition was produced that then ‘topped up’ the knowledge of The First without requiring any corrections -- because there are no factual errors in the First Edition. Nor in the Second.
I've written lots about gunleather, here is just some of it: