Holsters : Cowhide or Horsehide?

"Should I have cowhide or horsehide?" This is the question I'm sometimes asked by customers wanting to order gunleather. Hardly surprising, given that it's difficult to pick up a publication these days that doesn't contain an article by some expert or gun guru telling us how wonderful horsehide is, how superior it is to cowhide, or how anyone worth his salt shouldn't be seen dead (no pun intended!) with his sidearm in anything but a horsehide holster. Strong words; but is there any evidence to back them up? What is the real truth? Is horsehide any better than cowhide? Or is it all just a load of old baloney? Let's find out! Having made holsters from both materials for a large number of years, I think I'm well placed to assume the role of devil's advocate on your behalf and, together, examine the facts and see if we can arrive at some sort of constructive and logical conclusion that will put an end to the argument once and for all.

In order to properly understand the situation we first need to have a nodding acquaintance with the two types of tanning that all leather, including horsehide and cowhide, are subjected to, namely chrome tanning and vegetable tanning. The easiest way for a layman to differentiate between the two is to take the example of a pair of all-leather shoes. The uppers of these will be chrome tanned, while the soles will be vegetable tanned. Chrome tanned leather is soft and pliable, while vegetable tanned leather, though pliable initially, may be wet-blocked to a particular shape and, once dry, will retain that shape; which makes it eminently suitable for the manufacture of holsters! With that little bit of information under our belts, let us now examine, in turn, the two materials in question.

First, the case for cowhide. A cowhide is normally divided into five segments, as shown in the illustration above. The two bends possess high tensile properties and are normally reserved for use in the production of belts, stirrup leathers and other applications where this particular attribute is called for. The bellies are irregular and spongy, of poor quality, and are normally reserved for linings and other second-line uses. The portion best suited to the manufacture of holsters is the shoulder, which starts from roughly behind the animal's head and extends aft about a third of the length down the animal's back, then left and right to around the top of the forelegs.
A Typical Vegetable-Tanned Cowhide Shoulder

We eat vast amounts of beef, so cowhides -- hence shoulders -- are plentiful. Though not cheap, they are reasonably priced, and are readily available. They are close-grained, supple in texture and easy to work with. Shoulders are generally split laterally to a uniform substance, which means that hides have the same thickness (give or take a few mil) throughout. A holster made from a cowhide shoulder may be wet blocked, then hand boned and burnished to provide an infinite degree of detail. When dry, it becomes rigid, holding the shape it has assumed indefinitely. For this reason, cowhide holsters are not only functional and hard wearing but, in the hands of a knowledgeable craftsman, can also be visually appealing. The disadvantages of cowhide? None that I can think of. There was a time when, because of ignorance and a lack of experience, I may have reluctantly wavered on the side of those who said that it was less durable than horsehide. With the benefit of hindsight, however, and after having worked with both materials for many years, I can now state quite categorically that, in my opinion and based on my experience, that just ain't so! Cowhide will outlast and outperform horsehide every time!

Now the case for horsehide. Horsehide is not as readily available as cowhide mainly, I suppose, because we don't eat too many horses. The French and the Belgians, however, do manage to fang down quite a few, so the skins are shipped over from Continental Europe to the US for tanning. Why aren't the skins tanned in Europe? Most European tanners I've quizzed on the subject have been surprised to learn that anyone anywhere would actually want veg-tanned horsehide, adding that there has never been even the slightest demand for it over here (Europe).

A horsehide is divided into segments roughly along the lines of a cowhide. However, chrome tanned horsehide is extremely hard-wearing. Remember the old war-movies and the long leather coats the Nazi SS officers used to swan about in? Well, most of the real ones were made of chrome-tanned horsehide, which is probably why you'll find they're still as good as new -- if ever you manage to lay your hands on one! Because of this, the shoulders and bends are chrome tanned for use in the garment industry. They are highly sought after and, being in short supply, can command a prohibitive premium price!

So what does that leave for vegetable tanning? Sadly, just the strips that are part of the rear, or the croup; segments that are, incidentally, not the most desirable parts of a horse's skin. Pictured below is a typical example of a vegetable-tanned horsehide strip


Because veg-tanned horsehide is not available in Europe, I am obliged to import mine from a tannery in the US. These strips are not of the best quality. They are seldom of uniform substance, often thicker at one side than the other, and invariably covered in surface blemishes (caused by protruberances on the inside of the drums in the course of the tanning process) which cause dark "banding" when a Tan or Cordovan dye is applied, as illustrated by the picture below left. holstersThe fact is that skins of an equivalent quality in cowhide would wind up in the garbage-bin.

Now vegetable tanned horsehide is extremely close-grained, dense and oily. This gives it a "buttery" or soft surface feel, and makes it easy to damage. This is illustrated (below right) where, using the same pressure during the blocking process, the protruding safety-catch on the metal block has pushed through and damaged the back wall of the horsehide holster (shown right), but not that of the one made from cowhide (shown left). horsehidecowhide Nor does this oiliness help when trying to dye the leather, as the oil prevents the proper penetration of leather dye. Black is about the only colour it will take with any degree of success, which is why the few holster-makers who make a big deal of using horside exclusively will supply their wares in any colour you like, just so long as it's black! When it comes to the process of wet-blocking, the oiliness again inhibits water penetration, which interferes with the proper wet-blocking process. This means that, once blocked, the item, when dry, is not as rigid as it should be, meaning that it doesn't retain its shape as well as it should or for as long.

Some manufacturers have attempted to solve this problem by having the horsehide strips hard-rolled at the tannery, a process which involves wetting the leather, then passing it through stainless steel rollers under a pressure of some thirty-odd tons. This compacts the leather and renders it rigid -- so rigid, in fact, that it acquires the nature and consistency of plywood. In this state, it is an absolute swine to work with! It is hard to cut, harder to sew, and makes anything but the most rudimentary process of wet-blocking virtually impossible. This is patently obvious from the many holsters made from hard-rolled horsehide which may be seen just about everywhere, and which give the impression of having been blocked only in passing -- almost, one might say, as an afterthought and with absolutely no attention to detail.

Why, you may think, this obsession with rigidity? Well, with any good covert-carry holster, the twin elements of weapon retention and optimum concealment must blend together perfectly in exact, long-term, gun-to-leather fit. This also helps to minimise holster wear on a weapon by eliminating any extraneous movement of that weapon in the holster. All this may only be achieved if the holster is blocked to the precise dimensions of the handgun it is designed to carry, is rendered rigid or stiff by the blocking process, and then retains that shape indefinitely once dry. This is the true benchmark of a quality holster. Having a handgun flop about in a holster because it fails to retain its shape is not something to aim for.

I use ordinary horsehide not the hard-rolled variety and have successfully developed a technique for blocking it to provide the detailed molding and visual appeal that one normally associates only with cowhide. However, even though I use a pressure of almost twenty-five tons in the process, and can produce a holster that looks halfway decent, I must reluctantly admit that the final outcome leaves a lot to be desired. I know for a fact that every holster I make from horsehide will lack a lot in the way of rigidity, long-term weapon retention, and a uniformity of colour or appearance. I could, of course, make it from hard-rolled black strips. But would you want a holster that was more-or-less OK for fit, but which was as ugly as sin and looked as if it had been blocked by someone wearing boxing-gloves!?!

What can we say in favour of horsehide? Price-wise it's more or less on a par with cowhide, though many manufacturers, for reasons best known to themselves, insist on charging a hefty additional premium. Don't pay it! I know that I charge extra for horsehide, but this is to cover part of the cost of shipping it over from the US. From the supply point of view it may not be as plentiful as cowhide, but there's still enough of it to go around. Is it more durable than cowhide? My experience shows that this is a myth; it isn't. So what advantages does horsehide have over cowhide? To be honest, none that I can think of. On the other hand, we can say that cowhide ticks all the boxes when it comes to material quality, endurance and performance.

So where did this rumour about the alleged superiority of horsehide originate? Was it a spin-off from the acknowledged durability of chrome tanned equine skins? Or from the legendary shell cordovan, the segment of muscle that lies below the bend, which costs an arm and both legs to buy, when you can buy it -- which is almost never! Who knows? I have heard many theories on the subject. The most plausible one to date says that it originated with a certain holster-maker who, lacking any appreciable talent for design or execution and needing to endow his product-line with an "edge" it was never in any danger of otherwise acquiring, decided to overcome this hurdle by switching his entire production to vegetable tanned horsehide. He then informed certain gun-gurus, experts, and gentlemen of the shooting press that this action was prompted, didn't they know, because of its obvious superiority in every way to cowhide; and they, acknowledged experts to the last man, agreed wholeheartedly, swallowed the story hook, line and sinker, and the rest, as they say, is history! Well, it's as viable as any other story I've ever heard!

So here's a belated news-flash for all those experts out there who, over the years, have pronounced loud and long on the side of horsehide: Hate to say this, guys, but the Emperor definitely isn't wearing any clothes! Horsehide is, and always will be, a poor substitute for cowhide!

I've tried to present the facts as impartially as I possibly can. Having made equipment from both materials for a large number of years, I think I have a better knowledge than most as to their relative benefits and drawbacks. If, however, you want my personal advice based on solid experience, then as a traditionalist and an artisan who takes immense pride in his work, I would have no hesitation in recommending cowhide every time! Ask any holster-maker worth his salt and you'll get the same response.

July 2006. I have just examined my latest shipment of horsehide from the US and have had no option but to reject it. The quality was far worse than anything I'd ever experienced before.

I have been making holsters now for more than thirty-two years, and I'm far too long in the tooth to start trying to deceive the few customers who request horsehide into accepting, because of my reputation, what they genuinely believe to be a quality product, when I know for a fact that the raw materials I'm expected to use are worse than sub-standard. The two just don't go together. Silk purses and sows' ears.

I have therefore decided that, as from today, I will no longer be offering horsehide as an alternative choice. I know that this affects only very few of my customers, but I apologise to them nevertheless. If at some point in the future I manage to locate a satisfactory source of vegetable-tanned horsehide, you may rest assured that I will once again offer it as an alternative. In the meantime, I am still in a position to offer you what are probably the finest holsters in the world, made from the very best premium-grade top-grain English cowhide!

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