Hello and welcome to my blog. What I'm doing here is documenting my personal expression of "hands-on history" from a craftsman's perspective. I've been on this path for a large part of my life and it's taken me to some interesting and challenging places. I hope to share the processes and the historically inspired objects I've crafted along this journey into our past. This adventure has deepened my appreciation for past craftsmanship and the intelligence of common place things in Early America. Besides, now I have all this cool stuff to play (teach) with.

Jim Miller

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Eureka Moments #3, Recreating a Miner Piece of Pistol Packin' History

"Packing Iron" by
Richard C. Rattenbury
pg. 65
     This post should be of interest to the viewer for several reasons. First, it's about an amazing piece of Gold Rush history and second, I finally get to "show" the process of how to recreate something. In the past I never really paid much attention to visually documenting how I make anything but now with my blog, it's worthwhile to do it on current and future projects. This story starts with the book "Packing Iron, Gunleather of the Frontier West", by Richard C. Rattenbury, 1993. It's an incredible achievement that charts the development and history of how the guns that "won the west" were carried. On page 65, there is a holster that immediately caught my eye.  In the book, it is described as, "Civilian Flap Holster for Colt Model 1851 Revolver". and the text continues "....clearly was intended for the California Gold Rush market." Oh yes, I was in  l-o-v-e !

    As the picture clearly shows, the holster is almost completely covered with embossed designs. On the flap, you'll find most of the elements of the newly designed California State Seal and on the body there is the depiction of a Woodland  Indian, stepping out from behind a tree and drawing his bow. Is that amazing or what?  It makes you wonder if it's a social comment on the pride the Argonauts felt about their new State or is it just pure decorative fun? Whatever it is, I needed to figure out how to make a decent reproducion of this rare and special piece of Californiana.

Gold Rush Daguerreotype Showing the
California Holster in Use
Image Courtesy
Heritage Auction Gallery
Close Up of the Flap
Photo Courtesy
The Witte Museum, San Antonio
    The book states that the pistol was from the Donald Yena collection so that seemed like a good place to start. I discovered that Donald Yena is a well known western artist who resides in Texas. I wrote to Mr. Yena, inquiring about the holster and my desire to make a replica. I asked if there was a chance for more photos.  He kindly responded with a hand written letter informing me that he had sold it to the Witte Museum of San Antonio, Texas. When I contacted them, it was encouraging to learn that their curator, Bruce M. Shakelford remembered a holster similar to my description, in their collection. After considerable time passed, I was delighted to receive an email with attatched photos of the rare holster.Thank You Witte Museum ! A few close-ups of the designs and a  nice back view gave me the courage to start the project. Before I wrote to Mr. Yena, I stumbled on a daguerreotype of a miner wearing the same holster so I've including it here for those skeptics that might feel that such fancy holsters were probably never used by rough-n-tumble 49ers.

Clay Positves Being Set-up For Casting
the Plaster Negatives
Photo Lindy Miller 2011
Main Leather Parts with the Plaster
Embossing Dies and Bone Folder
Photo Lindy Miller 2011
     Luck would have it, I already own a Colt Second Generation '51 Navy, so it was easy to mock-up a full size pattern of the holster's molded body. The embossed designs, on the other hand, were going to be a challenge. It's obvious that this was not a "one-off " creation by some leather artist but rather, a mass produced article, with die stamped ornamentation. I started with a scaled drawing of the design elements and then using modeling clay, sculpted them in relief, on a board. Over the clay positive, I cast a plaster negative, that would act as my embossing die. I talked my friend Derek Manov into joining me on this project. If he threw in the leather, I would share my dies, so he could create his own version of the original holster. As you can see in the pictures, the moistened (about 5 ounce) oak tanned leather, took the designs quite nicely, after I pressed it into the dies. I then used the bone folder's rounded point to chase around the designs and enhance the details before the leather dried. I colored the leather using Fiebing's light brown dye, which ended up a little darker than I wanted, but still okay. The brass closure button was turned from a scrap of brass rod and riveted onto the body. With waxed linen thread and a saddle stitch, I sewed the belt loop on the back first, then attached the flap and finally stitched up the side seam. For the brass end-cap, I silver- soldered the cylinder shape out of thin, brass flat stock and then slid it onto a wooden support. This way I could scribe the decorative lines while turning it on my wood lathe. Since the indented lines grabbed the wooden support, I had to char it with a torch for it to release the brass. After the end-cap was polished and riveted to the leather, I lightly waxed the holster and called it done. When I tried out the Colt, it fit it like a glove.

My Replica Holster
Photo Lindy Miller 2011

        As with all my attempts at replicating the past, I'm always my own worst critic. My best work has always been when I had the original in front of me but when this is not the case, I am quite comfortable with the honest effort of a respectable, close copy. This holster is an example of a close but not a perfect copy. In the world of reproductions, it's almost impossible to achieve perfection and that's not a bad thing. Past people and past things should remain special and undiminished by our vain attempts at bringing them back.

     Due to the interest this post has generated, I've included all of the pictures of the original holster that the Witte so kindly sent me.

Back View of Original Holster
Images Courtesty of
The Witte Museum of San Antonio

Close Up of Design on Original Holster
Full Front View of Original Holster
Full Flap View of Original Holster


  1. Fantastic work on that holster Jim. Any chance of me ordering one from you? Love to have one.

    -Dave Rodgers

  2. Absolutely gorgeous and ingenius.

  3. Not trying to be a suck up here Jim but you really do have an artistic gift in order to reproduce this with such clarity. Do you have any hi-res images of the original? I doubt I'll have the skill to do your plaster work but figured I'd try anyhow.

  4. Absolutely fantastic, great work...

  5. I was going to say "fantastic". but it is already in use ... how else would you describe this museum-quality reproduction It puts my reproduction of the movie version of Johnny Ringo's rig (single left cross-draw to dual S&W Schofield rig) to shame. And I thought mine was "okay" ...