It was a Friday afternoon and there was no sign of an end-of-week slowdown at Galco Gunleather’s holster plant in Phoenix, Arizona. I waited in the conference room for my tour guides—Scott Feck, vice president of operations, and Mike Barham, media liaison—to arrive. Surrounding me on the walls were movie and television show posters exhibiting an eclectic assortment of Galco holsters with actors such as Bruce Willis, Tom Selleck and Jackie Chan. In the nearby hallway is a flag that flew over the 1/158th Infantry Battalion headquarters at Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan, on January10, 2008. It provides the background for a certificate and for Barham’s Galco shoulder rig, which he’d named “Ralph.”
When the gentlemen arrived, we went on a tour of the factory. I learned a lot about Galco’s holster-making process, and found these seven aspects of it most intriguing.
“We go through a tremendous amount of leather,” said Feck. Galco Gunleather uses at least 868,000 square feet of vegetable-tanned steer hide per year. That amounts to about 20,000 animals. “We use backs, for the most part,” said Feck.
Despite the fact that Galco is probably the number-one customer from two tanneries in the U.S., Feck said that they fight for the higher-grade material. “We holler, scream, pressure, threaten … we go through more vegetable tanned steer hide than any other holster maker.”
Feck said Galco leverages major buying power, not only because it is one of the main purchasers in the country of leather, but also because its contract states that if Galco doesn’t like the quality of the leather, the tannery has to pay for return shipping. “That’s an encouragement for them to stick to the grade system that we’ve agreed upon,” said Feck.
Leather is graded in As, Bs and Cs. “We want As,” stated Feck, “and when it gets here we sort it further for what we’re going use for Black, Havana, and Galco Tan [colors] and then what we’re going to use for the front of the holster and the back.”
The Cutting Machine
Although humans are still needed for some decisions when cutting holster patterns out of leather, a state-of-the-art, digitized cutting machine determines overall how to best fit the patterns onto the different sizes of leather. The computer assesses the grade of the hide and which pieces can be cut out of it, based on production orders.
“Normally, the computer is spot-on, but sometimes employees will tweak a few things,” said Feck. Newly cut sections get barcodes beamed onto them for easy identification later.
The Horse’s Rump
Shoe companies purchase 100 percent of the U.S. tanned Shell Cordovan, an equine leather. So, what does it mean when a holster is made of horsehide? “Horsehide is a bit of a misnomer. We’re using the Cordovan Shell, which is found on the rump of the horse. It’s different than the cell makeup anywhere else on the hide,” said Feck. “Loosely stated, it’s almost closer to the matted fiber of a rhinoceros’ horn, or your nails, than skin.” This type of material is found on zebras, donkeys, and mules.
Feck explained that tanneries square off the center area for the uppers on expensive men’s cordovan shoes. Then, the tanneries sell leftover strips to others. Galco is the largest purchaser of these strips in the world.
The Top-Secret Creases
I had to put away my camera when it came to learning about the distinctive creases. Let’s just say that Galco Gunleather goes to the extreme to put creases in its holsters. Most of its competitors have creases built into their cutting dies, but Galco believes you cannot get a perfect crease when the weight (thickness) of the leather varies.
Galco will first cut the holster, split to insure exact leather weight, and then crease the leather separately. I cannot reveal anything else about the process, but Galco believes it meets its mantra “for those who demand the best, and know the difference.”
“Our customers may not know exactly what’s different, but they know there’s a difference,” said Feck.
The Old-Fashioned Stitching
“We’re using harness machines that are as old as the three of us put together,” said Feck. Although there are more modern machines than the ones originally made in the 1800s, the newer machines don’t give the look and appearance of hand sewing. Galco keeps dozens of old harness machines in storage for parts, and even creates new “old” machines when needed. According to Feck, it takes at least a year for a worker to get proficient at harness stitching.
Because of continued problems in buckle quality, and particularly in regard to buckle tongues, Galco decided to start its own foundry.
“The sizes would vary, and they wouldn’t fit the straps properly,” said Feck. Using the lost-wax method of casting, smaller parts come out perfectly molded and ready to be attached to various models. The process calls for heat, wax, and a vacuum chamber. Bigger metal parts are made in a process called shell-casting. Polishing yields beautiful and strong pieces. Galco casts a couple of tons of metal annually.
The Waterjets and Injection Molding Machines
We left the harness machines from the 1800s and entered the world of waterjets and injection molding.
Galco has used waterjets for about eight years for a number of tasks, such as to cut out various metal, plastic, and fiber materials for the interior of some products, and for its line of Kydex holsters. Nearby, big injection molding machines pushed plastic beads down a hopper, where they melted and then were fed into a mold. The finished parts—double swivels for shoulder rigs—popped out. “We introduced molded parts on holsters before anyone else,” said Feck.
What I Wasn’t Allowed to See
The vault, which holds models and specifications of firearms that will be introduced to the gun world. In order to deliver holsters for new up-and-coming gun models in a timely manner, Galco has do-not-disclose agreements with many gun manufacturers.