Strap ’em on, Cowboy…

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.

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For those who love to smile as they read, bestselling author Karen Witemeyer offers warmhearted historical romance with a flair for humor, feisty heroines, and swoon-worthy Texas heroes. Karen is a firm believer in the power of happy endings. . . and ice cream. She is an avid cross-stitcher, and makes her home in Abilene, TX with her husband and three children. Learn more about Karen and her books at:

21 thoughts on “Strap ’em on, Cowboy…”

  1. Hey Karen, good job on the photos. Although I’ve heard of ‘cross draw’, I’ve never noticed it in any books. Same goes for TV shows and films. Are there any out there, or is it that I just wasn’t looking at the position of their guns? I would think something like that would stand out in a movie gunfight – no?

    As for antique holsters, the ones in our house are all the vinyl kiddie variety. 🙂

  2. Hi Karen! Fun post. I haven’t thought much about holsters, but my heros have guns that fit their personalities. A gunslighter-turned-preacher used a Colt Lightning, one of the first double action revolvers. I’ve thought about using cross-draw holster for a character, but they look so awkward. They’re not–so my hubby tells me–it just looks that way. Fun post!

  3. Hi Karen,

    Great post! Like, Victoria, I always thought the cross-draw looked awkward. But I suppose if the cowboy was fast on the draw he could handle it just fine. And the cowboys in your pictures don’t appear to have a problem with it. :o)

    Antique holsters? I wish. Nope, in my family’s history everything useful seemed to be used until it fell apart.


  4. Hi, Anita. I love finding those old photos. It gives a much more authentic feel to things, don’t you think? These came from a book called, “I See By Your Outfit” which chronicals historic cowboy gear.

    How ’bout those vinal kiddie holsters? 🙂 Love that. One of my boys was a cowboy for Halloween a few years ago. No guns, but he had a sheriff star and hat. He wanted to use a lightsaber, but I drew the line at importing sci-fi weapons into the costume. 🙂

  5. Vicki – Great point about using weapons that fit the hero’s personality. I hadn’t thought much about using a cross draw gun position for a hero, but I’m kind of warming to the idea. It would give him a unique look.

  6. Hi, Kirsten.

    You’re right about the cross draw position not looking as sleek as the regular variety. However, there was one picture I came across of a fellow who wore two guns, both in the cross draw position. He wore them right in front as if they were bookends for his belly button. I immediately pictured him drawing them like in the movies, dramatic as they criss-crossed each other, guns blazing. It might actually be a more natural motion.

  7. Great information Karen. I guess that is like everything in life… you always have your own style about what you wear, so why not a cowboys gun belt..
    thanks for sharing.

  8. Interesting details, Karen. Very good for us authors to know. My hero on the cover of THE WIDOWED BRIDE has his gun in the same “cross draw” position as your white-shirted cowboy. I thought it looked strange, as did one reader who wrote me to point it out. Nice to know that some cowboys really wore their guns that way (howver, his right hand is on the gun and his left arm is around the heroine. Go figure.)

  9. Hi, Tanya. There really was quite a variety out there. of course the more money you had to burn the fancier you could get with the leather tooling. Most cowpunchers probably didn’t get too fancy with their gear, but I can picture a trail hand on a cold night stamping his initials into his holster.

  10. We read and write westerns and I think we get used to thinking of guns as mainly being weapons but in truth I think cowboys saw them as tools. Not really a dangerous threatening thing but rather a tool to be used to protect himself, bring down game and even call for help.
    Loved this post, Karen. Love the old pictures. I can stare at them forever.

  11. Thanks, Mary. I bet you’re right about most western men thinking about their guns as tools. Just a natural part of their life, and a necessary one with how solitary their jobs were most of the time.

    I love the old pictures, too. What a spark for the imagination!

  12. I enjoyed the post very much! You learn new things every day! I love the West – one of my favorite time periods – and it’s great to learn new things. I really enjoy reading books from that time period. Thanks for the info in your post today!

  13. Thanks so much for stopping by today, Valri. We love seeing you here at the Junction! It’s hard to beat a good western romance, isn’t it? Love those rugged cowboys and their feisty women. 🙂

  14. Loved your post. Enjoyed learning about how cowboys would wear their guns. I’ll have to look at old photos to see if there are any criss-cross.

  15. Hi, Cher. I See By Your Outfit is a fabulous book full of authentic photographs and great descriptions. it based mostely on the cowboys of Wyoming in the 1880s and later, but most of the information is applicable to cowboys anywhere in the later part of the 19th century. It’s been a great resource to have on hand.

  16. Sir,Recently while digging in my grandfathers attic i came across two items. First was a smith and wesson no.2 old army with holstier. The other was a holstier very old but in good shape. i believe it is a cross over because the belt flap is at an angle and rivited in place. The only mark is the no.50,the leather is hard and sewed with very heavy thread. Can not find it on the computer could you help identify it?

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