Gun leather--more than the guns themselves--defined many of the celluloid heroes of the American West.
This is a Legends in Leather duplicate of Burt Lancaster's rig in "Vera Cruz." The deep V cut angles the butt outward for a faster draw and was the trademark of gun coach Rodd Redwing.
My wife thinks it's weird, but readers will understand: Whenever I watch a Hollywood western--whether an old classic like "Red River," a cult film like "Tombstone," a modern remake such as "3:10 to Yuma" or any of the great TV western oldies like "Gunsmoke," "Have Gun-Will Travel" or "Bonanza"--I am riveted by the gun rigs. Mesmerized is a better word. More than the actors or the guns themselves, it is the leatherwork that often defines the characters and their places in the plot.
What would William (Hopalong Cassidy) Boyd have been without his unique black-and-white double rig? Would Roy Rogers have remained the unquestioned King of the Cowboys had he not been wearing his regal two-toned, silver studded double buscadero holsters?
And none of television's early gunslingers would have been as fast on the draw without Arvo Ojala's metal-lined holsters, which, during the 1950s and 60s, could be seen in practically every western coming out of the Warner Brothers back lot. To be sure, westerns of the silver screen and the small screen are indelibly bound together by leather.
While the first western, "The Great Train Robbery" (1903), was filmed in New Jersey, western filmmakers soon did go west--to California, where they had no problem rounding up real cowboys to act like...well, real cowboys. These authentic ranch hands supplied their own horses, guns and holsters, including rigs made by Hermann H. Heiser, S.D. Myers and George Lawrence.
One wonders what, if anything, the real Wyatt Earp strapped on when he was filmed in "The Half Breed" in 1919, as in real life he usually slipped his pistols into his coat pockets. But even though William S. Hart was the first western superstar of the silent era, he wore comparatively plain (but authentic) gun rigs.
This all changed in the 1930s. "Talkies" had come in, and with them, the singing cowboy--often appearing with fancy clothes and just as fancy silver-studded, hand-laced gun belts.
About a decade before, the buscadero holster had become prominent on the silver screen. This holster, which passed through a slit in the gun belt, kept the holster from sliding and provided a more stable gun rig for movie making. As incredulous as it may sound, filming a western was often more taxing on gun leather than walking the streets of Dodge or punching cattle.
Many years ago, I visited the late Roy Rogers, and he showed me his first fancy movie holster, a hand-carved double buscadero that Ed Gilmore made for him in 1938. The leather was cracked, the silver studs were tarnished and semi-dented, and the billet was broken.
Originally this rig, which can be seen in many of Roy's early pictures, such as "Shine On Harvest Moon" and "Wall Street Cowboy," was natural tan with two-tone black-dyed highlights accenting the carving. However, during one movie-making episode, the script called for Roy to engage in a rough-and-tumble fistfight in a muddy stream while wearing his sixguns. As a result, his beautiful leather showpiece got thoroughly soaked, which caused the black dye to run.
The gun rig was restained a single tan color by the prop department so filming could resume. But from that time on, moviegoers never got to see Gilmore's original two-tone version of Roy's rig.
"To me it's amazing to examine the originals," says Jim Lockwood of Legends in Leather (legendsinleath er.com), "because as a kid you saw it on the screen, and it looked like absolute perfection. And then, when you get up close and looked at it, some of it is very crude, like it was thrown together."
Jim Lockwood recreated Val Kilmer's Doc Holiday shoulder holster (multiple models were used in the film) and Michael Biehn's Johnny Ringo holster.
And Jim should know. After apprenticing with Bob Brown, who made many of the Hollywood's original B western rigs, Jim researched these movie holsters and eventually was commissioned by Roy "Dusty" Rogers Jr. to restore Roy Sr.'s Gilmore rig.
Today, using computer technology and detailed photographic blow ups from films and DVDs, as well as physical examination of the originals whenever possible, Jim recreates duplicates (they are too exacting to be called replicas) of some of the most famous Hollywood leather, including gun rigs from "Shane," "Tombstone" and all of the John Wayne and Hopalong Cassidy films.
In fact, the Hoppy rig is one of the most elaborate and controversial, as many believe William Boyd had multiple holsters, but Jim has proven that it was a single gun belt that went through numerous revisions.
"According to my research, it became obvious that William Boyd wore the same holster from the second Hoppy movie, "The Eagle's Brood," made in 1935, until he retired in the early '50s," Lockwood says. "He changed the original holsters by cutting the throats deeper into the holster for a faster draw, probably during the first few years. Also, the original billet was too long; it hung down from the belt, so they shortened that in later pictures."
One of the most notable and unusual features of the Hoppy rig were the open "skeletonized" leather drops of the holsters. Over time, these drops became worn and floppy, so Boyd closed them with carved leather backing stiffened with rawhide. This made the drops so stiff he no longer needed tie-downs, so Boyd removed them.
In addition, after having made 66 motion pictures before his television series began in 1948, the fancy white calf lacing on the belt and holsters had become scuffed and dirty, so Boyd had everything except the bullet loops dyed black. Again, another "new" look for a gun rig that many assume was originally made by Bohlin. But according to Lockwood, it wasn't.
"There's a very peculiar carving pattern on Hoppy's rig," says Lockwood, "in addition to the unique way the holsters are fastened to the skirt."
Lockwood discovered this unusual pattern and design, but without the silver embellishments, in a 1942 catalog from saddle makers Hamley & Company of Pendleton, Oregon. He's convinced they made Hoppy's
gun belt, which today is housed at the American Heritage Center at the University of Wyoming in Laramie.
Another Hollywood rig that stirs comment is Gene Autry's one-of-a-kind pouch-type holster, as he always wore a double buscadero gun belt fitted with just one holster, leaving the left-hand slot empty. Actually, this was a practice adopted in the 1930s when a script called for a character to carry one gun but the prop department only had a double rig in the actor's size. The solution was to simply remove the second holster.
You can see examples of this in some of John Wayne's early westerns, in which he often wore a two-toned carved and laced Bohlin rig with a right-hand holster and an empty left-hand slot. He used this rig until 1936, when he switched to what he felt was a more authentic-looking Heiser No. 714 carved belt and holster outfitted with an engraved silver Bohlin buckle and billet tip.
This rig stayed with the Duke through 1947, when it made its final screen appearance in "Angel and the Badman." After that, he used standard Stembridge prop department holsters for westerns such as "3 Godfathers" and "Red River."
The silver-knighted Paladin rig on "Have Gun — Will Travel" opened Richard Boone's monologue every week. This is a replica by Alfonso's of North Hollywood; the original was made by Ojala.
But in 1953, Wayne appeared in "Hondo" wearing the gun belt and holster that, with minor variations, would become his trademark for the next 23 years. It was a single Mexican loop rig featuring a rough-out money belt with smooth leather billet and bullet loops, and a tan leather skirt-less holster that angled slightly back against the thigh, positioning the gun grip out and forward for easy grasping.
Ironically, the last holster Wayne buckled on for the cameras was for "The Shootist" in 1976, in which he used a slightly modified and very plain Hunter holster and belt. In one scene, when he replaces his Colt in the holster hanging on a door, you can clearly see the three Hunter-style Chicago screws on the back of the rig.
Hollywood was sometimes cavalier in its choice of leather, but if there was one holster that epitomized the golden years of the TV westerns, it is unquestionably the metal-lined fast draw buscadero rigs made by gun coach and fast-draw champion Arvo Ojala.
Ojala was "the man in black" who got shot down by James Arness weekly on the original opening sequence of "Gunsmoke," which premiered in 1955 and lasted for 20 years.
Ojala was not the first to use a metal-lined holster. That honor should probably go to Ed Bohlin, who may have been fashioning metal-lined holsters as far back as the 1930s. But Ojala was the one who secured his metal lining with Patent No. 2832519 in 1954 and thus won a lawsuit against Bohlin some years later (although Bohlin was much better known for his elaborate silver embellished gun belts and holsters favored by flamboyant early stars such as Buck Jones and Tom Mix).
Ojala's design was a buscadero gun rig containing a metal "lining" sandwiched between a double-layered leather holster. This steel lining also consisted of a tongue that continued up the double leather drop. This enabled the holster to be bent, angling the hammer and grip to the shooter's preference.
But more importantly, the metal lining kept the holster open and eliminated any drag on the gun. Plus, by slapping the hammer back with the thumb at the start of the draw, a single-action could be cocked while the gun was still in the holster. Thus, the gun was ready to fire the instant the muzzle cleared leather, enabling some of Ojala's actor students--which included Jerry Lewis and Sammy Davis, Jr.--to achieve some spectacular speeds. Ojala himself was able to draw and fire a single-action Colt in an amazing one-tenth of a second.
(It should be noted that this technique was meant to be used only with studio blanks, but even then people were usually smart enough to use a steel deflector shield between the holster and their leg, as even a quarter-load blank could shred blue jeans and skin.)
Ojala's rigs were made in russet, black or rough-out. There were also a few carved versions and double rigs (such as worn by Wade Preston on "Colt .45"). Actor Rory Calhoun used to boast he had the fanciest Ojala holster in Hollywood: It was made of alligator skin.
A rare Ojala carved and double-dyed gun belt, made for Lorne Greene as Ben Cartwright on NBC's "Bonanza," which ran from 1959 until 1973.
Ojala's earliest holsters were unmarked, then were stamped with "Pat Pending" and finally with the patent number. His Hollywood Fast Draw Holsters were used by practically every TV cowboy who packed a Single Action Army, from James Garner ("Maverick") to Clint Walker ("Cheyenne"). However, Hugh O'Brian, in his role of Wyatt Earp, wore a double rig made by Bohlin, even though the actor learned his lighting-fast speed from Ojala.
One of Ojala's employees, Andy Anderson, left to develop his own "walk and draw" cutaway holster, which was a high-riding, fixed, Mexican loop style that angled the gun muzzle forward, so that the revolver could be slapped back, rather than drawn straight up.
William Boyd, as Hopalong Cassidy, wore a rig copied from a Hamley & Company pattern. This earliest version sported open holster "drops" and white lacing and bullet loops, with Bohlin silver embellishments.
This became the favored rig of Clint Eastwood in his role as "the Man With No Name" in Sergio Leone's spaghetti westerns. The Anderson holsters are being replicated today from the original patterns by Spaghetti Western Replicas (spaghettiwesternreplicas.com).
Today, in spite of Kevin Costner's affinity for the double Ojala rig he wore in his 1994 film, "Wyatt Earp," there is a tendency for movie makers to drift back to more authentic-looking late 19th century gun belts and holsters made by shops such as S.D. Myers. F.A. Meanea and obscure post-Civil War "Slim Jim" rigs.
But I still like the more flamboyant silver-enhanced, hand carved buscaderos of Bohlin and the stylish, cut-down fast draw rigs perfected by Ojala. History aside, these holsters reflect the eras of opulence and showmanship. And after all, to
paraphrase movie director John Ford, this is Hollywood, where the West is often not the way it was but the way we wish it would have been.