Not long ago, I blogged about my penchant for leather holsters. I have always had an affinity for fine leather—boots, belts, saddles and holsters—and I have spent some important money on all of them. An axiom of the West goes something like, “A cowboy wears two weeks pay on his feet, another two weeks pay on his head and a dollar and a half in between.” I’m too old to play cowboy anymore, but for much of my life I’ve found that I pretty much adhered to that sentiment.
As far as holsters go, I have examples of most of the manufacturers. A lot of them are from larger makers that I have acquired over the years. For me they are working rigs, and they show it with scratches, abrasions, water and blood stains. They are sacrificial pouches designed to carry and protect my precious pistols and revolvers. Most of them are well-designed but plain outfits. During the past couple of decades I have begun to collect and use some fancier rigs—and by fancy I mean holsters and belts with carvings on them.
Recently, I have been picking up some Ruger Flattops through Lipsey’s in .44 Spl. and .45 Colt, and when the 50th anniversary .44 Mag. Flattop was released I bought one of them too. Now I don’t keep any “safe queens” around my homestead. Every firearm has to earn its keep around here, but in the case of these recent Rugers, I had no clean way to pack them. So I paid a visit to a neighbor who is reputed to be a fair hand at leatherwork.
Von Ringler has been making holsters for more than 25 years. Like most of us from Wyoming, Von is an immigrant; in his case he got here via West Virginia. At first he worked in the oil patch, but for Christmas in 1980, his wife bought him a hobbyist leather kit. Then, the oil patch work petered out and Von found himself in need of employment. He approached Filener Co., a Cody, Wyo., leather shop in 1985 and offered to work free for three months. They liked his work and put him on the payroll. Filener Co. had developed a regional reputation for making excellent holsters—so much so that the saddle-making and other leatherwork sort of fell by the wayside.
As Von was developing his craft, he found himself in need of a more versatile holster. This part of Wyoming is prime grizzly habitat, and few backcountry hunters and hikers travel without a heavy revolver. Trouble is that it can be below freezing in the morning and into the 70s by noon. It isn’t uncommon to have to change clothes twice a day. A regular belt rig that keeps the gun in one place isn’t always convenient. And if it isn’t convenient to pack, the pistol will often be left behind, rendering it useless in an emergency. So Von began tinkering with an idea for a versatile holster that would allow the user to keep a gun out of the way for a given task at hand, yet still keep it instantly available should the need arise.
He christened the new rig the Wyoming Combination Holster. By employing a series of snaps the holster can be worn as a shoulder rig, chest rig, strong-side or a crossdraw holster—and it can be switched very quickly. Von started selling the Wyoming Combination Holster nationally in 1989, and it has become quite popular in the Intermountain region, as well as Alaska.
Filener decided to hang it up, and Von bought the shop tooling in 1988. Rather than go big, he decided to go home and moved the business to the unincorporated community of Clark, Wyo. Von’s eye for quality and execution, and melding innovative designs like the Wyoming Combination Holster with time-proven classics like the Tom Threepersons holster has established him as one of the premiere makers of leather holsters anywhere in the country. I asked him what sets his holsters apart from the rest.
“We won’t let anything wrong get out the door,” was his reply. He added that the leather he purchases—known as long-backs—is more expensive than buying a full hide. A full hide has belly skin that is too thin for holsters. Still, he has the burden of approximately 30 percent waste, meaning that nearly a third of the raw leather he buys is unacceptable for his holsters. At 10 bucks a square foot, that’s a big ouch.
Von’s operation is all handwork. He does, however, have a small retail operation selling working holsters to the Wyoming-based Rocky Mountain Discount Sports chain. About nine years ago he hired a neighbor, Shirley Bentley, to help him keep up with the orders. She told me that when she first started, she knew nothing of leatherwork or holsters. Barely five feet tall, this diminutive lady learned the craft well, and she works the leather with strength and love. You can see it in her hands as she works. Von taught her everything, and now he says that her stitch work is straighter than his own.
“If I go into a Rocky Mountain Discount store and look at our holsters, I can’t tell whether an individual holster was made by Shirley or me,” he said. By the way, Shirley has her own scaled-down version of the Wyoming Combination Holster that she wears every day as she walks from her home about a half mile away to Von’s shop. “It isn’t unknown for us to see a grizzly here,” she said.
Indeed grizzlies do frequent the area around Clark. Jerry Ruth, a retired police officer and neighbor of Von, had his .41 Mag. Ruger Blackhawk in one of Von’s Tom Threepersons crossdraw holsters on July 19, 2009, about 1 1/2 miles from his home. He and his son, Shane, were scouting for elk when Jerry was blindsided by a grizzly in the tall sagebrush. Jerry’s face was torn from the biting grizzly and he could hear bones crunching in the bear’s mouth. The bear flung him a few feet, and he landed with the gun under him, still secure in the holster. With the bear squaring off and preparing to charge again, Jerry managed to draw the revolver and get three shots into the bear, killing it and ending the assault. Jerry credits the superior design and quality of Von’s holster for its part in saving not only his life, but his son’s as well.
That was certainly testimony enough for me. I retrieved my checkbook and placed an order for two Threeperson’s holsters, one for my 5 1/2-inch Flattop in .44 Spl. and another for my 6 1/2-inch barreled Flattop .44 Mag. Along with a matching belt and ammo slide, and having Von do some full-coverage carving—just because I like it—it’s going to cost me about what I paid for my first .44 Mag. some 35 years ago. I’m about halfway through the six- to eight-week waiting period to take delivery as I write this, and I am chomping at the bit to take delivery and start using them.