Head out into Idaho's hinterlands, and chances are you'll find a bullet-pocked stop sign or two. If you don't own a hunting rifle or a little .22 pistol, chances are you know someone who does.
Guns are a way of life in the West, by historic lore as well as everyday life. Myth surrounds the gun--the Winchester rifle is known as "the gun that won the West." Guns are capable of helping a hunter secure a season's worth of meat and they often are used in non-lethal recreation, too.
However, many of us--perhaps most of us--don't think "art" when we think of guns. Yet countless museums--including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City--have exhibitions devoted to weaponry. While not considered a fine art on par with painting or sculpture, the crafting of guns and their accoutrements is a decorative and an applied art. But weapons aren't just art inside galleries and museums. Just ask the community of people across the country who are devoted to creating an artful way to carry your shooter.
Travel to Salmon, Idaho, and you'll find Brett Park creating and selling custom cowboy gun leather--holsters, gun belts, scabbards, spur straps and cartridge loops. Park, known in the industry parlance as a "maker," models his gun leather in the styles of the Western United States, circa 1880 through the beginning of the 20th century. Park and his wife, Kristen, run Circle KB--he as the maker, and she as the company's business head and Web master. Circle KB's products are conceived and created on the couple's Salmon property and sold through the Internet at www.circlekb.com.
Even before you see Park's craftsmanship, it's evident that Circle KB exists in a bygone era. Their Web site, somewhat incongruously, has the look of a Western United States past: The logo is in a Western font entwined with a stylized American Flag, and the words "Custom Cowboy Holsters & Historic Collectibles" is scrolled across the top.
But it's the craftsmanship of the leather work itself that really harkens back.
The hallmark of Park's gun leather is custom artistry. He prides himself on the singular quality of his work. "When someone gets a gun rig from me, they're buying a custom piece," he says. "It's a lot more of a quality piece than you'll find when it's manufactured." Creating the authentic vintage Western leather is a process of meticulous hand-crafting. "We're not working with 1880s tools," Park tells BW, "but all the patterns are hand cut and designed by me. I use machines for sanders and stitching and the rest is by hand."
The craft of gun leather has been Park's vocation for nine years now, but his skill in working leather was not something he was born into, but rather something he walked into by seeming serendipity. In 1998, Park met Dave Shelgrin, an established maker working in Salmon. "He was selling out," Park recalls. "He'd been making gun leather for 42 years and we purchased the business from him." Shelgrin was aging, and the business had gone down some by the time the Parks took over.
Fortunately for the business that would become Circle KB, leather craft wasn't something entirely foreign to Park. "I'd worked leather for years," he explains. "I grew up on ranches, worked ranches, worked as a guide and packer in the back country of Montana."
Park began creating designs, getting better and better at it, and the business gradually grew to the thriving entity it is today.
Though there are books of patterns for the holsters and other leather Park creates, he says he has never used them. "Our A-One Quick Draw pattern was designed by Dave [Shelgrin] 50 years ago," Park says, "And I use that pattern. All our other patterns I've built myself."
Park's process is deceptively simple: He works out his patterns with a pencil and paper. At any give time, he says, there is a box under his primary work table, full of the patterns from which he creates different gun leather designs.
Once he selects a pattern for a hoslter, he customizes it to its gun. Each of Park's holsters has to be customized, because as with snowflakes, no two guns are exactly alike. "Every gun is just a bit different in build," says Park, so he crafts each holster to the gun it's intended for. After he measures and crafts the piece, the holster is then fitted around a "dummy gun." Park then dunks the pattern in water to ensure that the holster fits the gun in every way. "I make sure that when I'm done with a product, that gun fits in there like butter."
A Park-created gun belt exhibits similar painstaking craftsmanship. The belt's cartridge loops are all hand-laced, not sewn onto the belt, and the belt will have slots punched into it to correctly fit the caliber of bullet for which the belt will be used. Like a holster, Park will then dunk the belt rig in water to ensure a tight fit. "The bullets won't fall out over years of use," Park says with obvious pride.
Besides the care in customizing his work, Park endeavors to make his gun leather visually appealing. The vintage Western styling is meticulously crafted and stamped and hand-tooled on each piece.
The Western leather Park creates is period-correct to what would have been worn by Arizona and Texas Rangers at the time. He also creates "Hollywood-type" accoutrements--stuff like you'd see in "spaghetti Western" films. Park has created gun leather for Broadway and movie television productions in which period Western wear is prominent--such as a Broadway production of Annie Get Your Gun--as well as props for school plays. He has an upcoming project with the Met in New York, and his gun leather will be featured in an upcoming TV movie about Wyatt Earp and Batt Masterson.
Another market for which Park creates a lot of gun leather is competitive shooting--for cowboy action shooters (a timed competition not done with live rounds) and cowboy mounted shooting (competitive shooting from horseback). In these shooting sport competitions, the guns have to be authentic, and so do their holsters, gun belts and equipment. "They have to dress period-correct to late 1800s, from hats to pants to shirt," Park says, "and so that's where a lot of my gear comes in."
These competitions, says Park, are simply fun. "A lot of people love to ride their horses and shoot their guns ... you kind of feel like you're back in 1880." Park himself used to be a competitive cowboy shooter, but with the success of his business, time became a factor and he had to give up the competition.
To get one of Park's pieces of custom gun leather, you have to go right to the source. Circle KB isn't a manufacturer and doesn't sell their pieces in gun shops or to a larger distributor. "Everything's custom made, nothing hanging around," says Park. "If you want a piece from us, you have to come to us."
"If you go to the store and say, 'geez, I want a gun belt,' it won't fit right at the waist," Park explains. The same goes true for the fit of a gun in one of his holsters. "It's like a custom piece of clothing," he says. "It's going to fit you a little bit nicer than something off the shelf. It's a personal-made product for an individual."
Materials, as well as methods, also separate Park's works from mass-produced gun leather. A belt and a holster, Park says, takes about four and a half square feet and he uses only high quality vegetable-tanned leather from a tannery. All the leather is hand-dyed with professional oil-based dye, which is more malleable than leather dyed with alcohol and "wears nicer to your body." He uses double-shoulder pieces ("picture the cow from his neck to the middle of his back to each shoulder"), prized for consistency in thickness throughout."
Most of Circle KB's business is through the Web, word-of-mouth and advertisements in a handful of national magazines. Potential customers will spy a rig they kind of like on the Circl KB Web site--perhaps the way the conchos or tooling is done catches their eye--but that customer might have other aspects they want their custom piece to have, too. Parks will work with the customer to incorporate all the desired elements to customize a piece to the customer's wishes.
Though this gun leather is crafted with meticulous care and attention to the smallest details, Park stops short of classifying himself as an artist. He does acknowledge, though, that if he doesn't see himself as an artist, the craft that he has mastered is "definitely an art."
Fine out more about Brett Park's custom gun leather from Circle KB at www.circlekb.com.