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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!”

What Bianchi liked the most about the shape of the eyeglasses case was its slim profile and the way it hugged a wearer’s belt. He designed a prototype belt holster about the same size and shape, only he left the triggerguard fully exposed. “This had never been done before by any of the little custom operations making holsters for the Model 1911, mainly because in the 1950’s the big .45 semi-autos were not popular concealed carry guns. The Speed Scabbard was able to solidly retain a Model 1911, with the grips and triggerguard exposed, and without using a safety strap. The trick was to balance out the gun’s center of gravity in the holster. When the Speed Scabbard came out it became the first commercially successful, high-production concealed carry holster for the 1911.” The 1958 design has been duplicated by holster makers the world over for half a century and the Speed Scabbard is still manufactured today.

Modern Variations for the 1911A1 Style

After 100 years in production, the 1911 is one of the most prolific handguns in the world with a century of gunleather behind it. Modern belt holsters from manufacturers like Galco, DeSantis, Safariland, and Bianchi International, to name a few run, run the gambit to accommodate everything from full size 1911s to Commander-styles and compact, subcompact variations. Full size law enforcement duty rigs are still used as well, but concealed carry is the most popular, and holsters like the Galco Combat Master and DeSantis C&L (Cocked & Locked) Thumb Break are readily used for secure carry. Lightweight “minimalist” holsters like the Bianchi No. 5 Blackwidow, Galco Yaqui Slide and Yaqui Paddle, are also among those frequently used today for carrying the Colt Commander and compact 1911A1 models.

Although less trendy these days, shoulder holsters are still a good choice for carrying compact or full sized Government Models. Like the first concealed carry belt holster, the earliest contemporary 1911 shoulder rig was pioneered by Bianchi in the 1960s. The innovative X15 is still one of the most successful Government Model shoulder holster designs of the last 50 years. “All the existing shoulder holsters for the 1911 were pretty uncomfortable back in the 1960s,” noted Bianchi in his biography. “I collected old holsters and I wondered why anyone would put a 1-inch strap on a gun that weighs two pounds and put it over their shoulder? I thought why not put a wider leather strap over the shoulder and distribute the weight more evenly? No one had ever done it. Now you can’t find a shoulder holster anywhere that doesn’t have the wide, curved shoulder strap, and elastic cross-straps for comfort and ease.”

Bianchi’s design for the original X15 shoulder holster shifted the weight distribution of a Government Model by 40 percent. It also used a leather-covered spring steel framework inside the holster so the gun could be easily drawn. Today, contour molding is more commonly used in shoulder holster designs. Another early shoulder holster was the famous Jackass rig introduced in the 1970s. It is still made today by manufacturers like Galco, along with that maker’s own Miami Classic; the VHS (vertical shoulder holster) and the S3H Horizontal shoulder holster for Colt Commander and compact 1911 models.

In spite of the current trend toward carrying subcompact .380 and 9mm pistols, it is encouraging to know that sales of the Colt M1911, and the stunning proliferation of 1911, 1911A1, and custom-crafted .45 ACP models have increased for the gun’s centennial year, with new models and custom 100th Anniversary versions on the market from the most famous names in American arms making. And there’s a holster to fit every one of them!

[1] Blue Steel & Gunleather by John Bianchi 1978, 1986 Bianchi International; John Bianchi – An American Legend, by Dennis Adler, 2010, Blue Book Publications, Inc.

Additional sources: Packing Iron, by Richard C. Rattenbury; American Military Belts and Related Equipment by R. Stephen Dorsey; Military Holsters of World War II by Eugene J. Bender.

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