A Century of 1911 Holsters

As the legendary Colt Model 1911 surpasses the century mark, the guns just keep getting better. With the Colt patent long expired, the hard-hitting .45 ACP is being manufactured by dozens of armsmakers who specialize in keeping the original 20th-century American military sidearm in the spotlight. Colt still makes them too, but it’s a pretty competitive market with U.S. and foreign versions that continue to embrace the original John M. Browning design, or take it as far from original as possible. The one thing they all have in common is a need for a holster with which to carry them.

No matter how old or how new your 1911/1911A1, no matter how innovative the features, there are about as many ways to carry a 1911 as there are versions, from shoulder holsters to belt and paddle rigs, each with subtle variations in design, to custom tailored holsters to fit every style and modification of the 1911 frame.

Old Traditions

Holsters were an afterthought. While much is made of them today, back in the early 19th century a man was just as apt to stuff his revolver in a coat pocket or into his paint’s waist as he was to go and purchase a belt and holster. That began to change with the advent of revolvers in the late 1840s and by the end of the century holsters were pretty common, but most were simple working rigs designed for any number of Colt’s, Remington, Smith & Wesson or other popular revolvers. Custom, hand-carved cartridge belts and holsters were pricey and most cowboys went for what was in the “holster barrel” when purchasing a new handgun. The arrival of the Colt Model 1911 created an interesting challenge, as its general shape didn’t fit too many established old styles. Some came close and a little work with a knife made the necessary modification for the triggerguard. Early handcrafted 1911 holsters were pretty much variations on single action revolver rigs.

The first dedicated production holster came shortly after the U.S. military adopted the Model 1911 as its standard issue sidearm. The most famous of the early military rigs is known today as the Pershing style, after Brigadier General John J. “Blackjack” Pershing. Officially, this is the Model 1912 military holster used during Pershing’s Punitive Expedition into Mexico in pursuit of Pancho Villa, following the Mexican revolutionary’s raid on Columbus, New Mexico in March 1916. This remained a popular holster style throughout the early 1900s and was still in use by the U.S. military, along with the later Model 1916 version at the beginning of WWII.

Civilian holsters for the Model 1911 were typically handcrafted and most bore a strong resemblance to single action holsters. One of the most interesting can be seen on page 132 of Richard C. Rattenbury’s book Packing Iron. The holster is an impressive piece handcrafted around 1915 by R. T. Frazier Saddlery in Pueblo, Colorado. A western style decorated with conchos and nickel-silver spots, the throat was deeply recurved to clear the triggerguard and the pouch semi-contoured to the 1911’s shape. A similar style rig, handcrafted by John Bianchi (Frontier Gunleather) is pictured.

Throughout much of the period leading up to WWII the 1911 was usually carried in a military flap holster, or an adapted shoulder holster—a style that first came into use in the 1870s for single-action revolvers. By the early 20th century there were quite a few shoulder holsters being manufactured for Colt Single Actions and other revolvers, and the modifications necessary to fit a 1911 wouldn’t have presented much of a problem. A very rudimentary bandoleer style military shoulder holster came into use during WWII and remained popular well into the 1950s. Copies of the M-7 shoulder holster are still made today.

Overall, the majority of holster designs had remained basically unchanged from the 1930s to the 1950s. People went into a gun store to buy a gun, and when it came to a holster the salesman or shop owner would go into the back room and rummage through a box to find a holster to fit the gun, just like in the old west. You didn’t say, “I want a black one with basket weave and a thumb strap;” you took what he had.[1]

There were a number of long-established leather companies (saddle makers) in the U.S., but essentially they had all been making the same traditional styles for decades. The first real innovation in 1911 holsters came in the late 1950s, when John Bianchi designed the original No. 2 Model Speed Scabbard. Notes Bianchi in his biography, John Bianchi – An American Legend, “I got the idea in 1958 from a slim eyeglasses case that I happened to see on somebody’s belt. I don’t know that I’d ever really paid that much attention to them before, but for some reason the belt case caught my eye that day. I even had one at home, so that evening I took my Colt 1911 and tried to fit it into the eyeglasses case. I was amazed. It slipped in and it was a perfect fit!”

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