From a distance, you might think one cowboy looks pretty much like another, but on closer inspection, you’ll find that though their gear contains the same staples, a cowboy finds a way to make his equipment truly his own. From the type of horse he rides, to the tool work on his saddle, to the way he shapes the brim of his hat–a western man can tell you a lot about himself without ever opening his mouth.
One prime example of this is how the man wears his gun. In the 19th century, it was unheard of for a man to ride the range without a weapon within easy reach. Dangers abounded. Wild animals. Snakes. Not to mention the trouble that originated on two legs from rustlers or Indian raiding parties. Some carried rifles in a scabbard attached to the saddle, but after the advent of the Colt Single Action Army revolver or Peacemaker in 1873, most cowboys carried a sidearm either instead of a rifle or in addition to it. It was always at hand, even if one’s horse was not.
But how a man chose to wear his Colt, well . . . that was a matter of style and expediency. The leather holster could be plain or decorated, usually natural or brown-colored leather, though sometimes black. Some men stamped their initials or their ranch’s brand into the leather. Holsters in the 1870s were open at the top and had a belt loop on the backside which slid over the cartridge belt. By the 1880s, holsters tended to be made from a single piece of leather with a back that looped over the belt and provided slots to secure the front. The holster at the top of this post shows this later style with a double loop holster.
Gun belts usually ranged from 3-4 inches wide, and the number of catridge loops on them depended on the caliber of the revolver as well as the length of the belt. Most carried between 40-50 loops. Since ammunition came in boxes of 50, one box could generally fill the belt and the revolver, leaving one chamber empty for safety purposes.
Look at the two men pictured below. Both wear their guns on the right hip. However one man is left-handed. Notice the butt of the pistols. The man in black is wearing his in the usual fashion, with the handle pointing backward. In contrast, note how the man in white shirt sleeves has his handle pointing forward. This is called the “cross draw” position. While most preferred drawing their weapon from the same hip as the dominant hand, some found it easier to reach across their body to draw their weapon, hence the outward facing handle. In fact, if you look carefully at the picture above with the four cowboys together, you’ll notice the third man from the left wears his pistol in the cross draw position.
Despite what we see in the movies, a working cowboy rarely if ever wore more than one gun. If he did wear two, usually the second was simply to have on hand to save the time of reloading as a man would not be nearly as proficient a shooter with his non-dominant hand. And those holsters that tied down to a man’s thigh? Well, those were usually reserved for professional gunmen whether on the right or wrong side of the law. The tie served to anchor the holster so that no slip of the leather would impede a fast draw.
So do any of you have antique holsters or gun belts in your family treasure chest? The wearing of sidearms waned after the end of the 19th century. As populations grew, towns passed ordinances against carrying weapons. But some die hard cowboys never gave up on packing their Colt when riding the range.