and other holster leather are one of the more fragile items in our firearms
collection which we cherish so much. Leather itself is a porous, organic
material that, when seen in a World War I or II collection, has probably been
weakened by wetting and drying, humidity, fungus, and bacteria, abrasion,
dirt, improper preservation, sunlight and other factors just to
name a few common ravages. In addition, most of these valuable and treasured
items were never intended to serve beyond their original purpose and their
original construction caused them to be weakened with stitching, stressed by
weight and sharply bent then poorly stored, modified and reissued. It
is really surprising that many of these holsters have survived at all.
Tanning started out as a specialized trade and generally remained a small
industry until the outbreak of a war which required leathers goods in vast
quantities. The tanning process quality from these different tanneries can
cause variations which affect them in different ways. To name a few effects:
inability to hold a dye or interaction with a dye so as to change its color
within a short period of time; the ability to repel water; tendency to
harden, curl and crack; loss of strength.
Leather, then as now, is a very versatile material allowing bending,
twisting, stitching, coating, imprinting, water setting/forming, dying and,
of course, considerable wear. New, it is a fairly forgiving material, and has
seen hard service. However, the limits of its versatility and strength was
often exceeded by the designers and its users. Examples of the design which
were only short-term expedients and which we all see as damage include the
closure tabs which are merely strips of light leather, perforated with a
large hole, then subjected to constant pulling and stretching.
None of the German Army had materials that mitigated these stresses for
long-term preservation; they were expendable items and could be replaced
fairly easily. The materials that were available for preservation was
Neatsfoot type oil (which was actually destructive), sperm oil, tallow, and
boot polish. None of these materials are good for the leather.
Good stitching, generally well done, has not been a problem over the years
because a high quality linen thread, waxed, was used and held up very well.
From simple, on the shelf aging, to hard use or neglect, the oils in the
leather fibers (impregnated as a last step in the tanning process) have
dried/evaporated to such a point that oxidation has begun to effect the fiber
bundles. As time goes on, oxidation continues, the leather often lightens in
color, looses strength (and maybe surface finish), then evidences obvious
powdering. This process is called dry rot and has nothing to do
with fungus or bacteria. If untreated, all leather will dry rot. If treated
incorrectly, it can be destroyed long before dry rot could take its toll.
Dry rot is what occurs if nothing is done to leather to preserve it. Other
factors can also have taken their toll and the collector must assume some of
these have had their effects: ultraviolet light, ozone, particulate matter,
treatment with improper oils, serious flexing, hardening from wetting and
drying and abrasions.
Leather goods are usually made from several types of leather, Finished, Buff,
and Rawhide. Luger holsters are generally made from the Finished type
leather. Finished leather can be any thickness but is composed of both the
epidermis (which has any type finish applied) and the under-leather, the
dermis, which gives the leather its basic strength. When the bond between the
finished epidermis and the under-lying dermis begins to breakdown, crazing
or a cracking of the surface occurs followed by a release of particles of the
surface, i.e. flaking.
Leather is composed of fiber bundles which, when on the animal, are
lubricated and moisturized by an elaborate, natural system. Once the skin is
removed from the animal and chemically cooked by the tanning
process, some oils are put back into the leather as a final step in the
tanning process. When these are washed out or eventually evaporate, the fiber
bundles, instead of sliding against each other, begin to chafe, break and
lose strength. They also have no protection against oxidation (as when
covered with oils and waxes) and this also begins to weaken the fibers.
(Note: it is the active petroleum distillates of many leather care products,
notably Neatsfoot Oil, that are absorbed by the dry fibers but then
chemically burn and weaken the fibers.)
Conditioners for leather is a tricky subject, as anything you put onto
leather can damage it, usually at the minimum darkening the leather.† You will hear of several products.† There are two types of conditioner which folks
use, I donít like either one (EBT) to preserve a nice holster. They are Lexol
and Pecards. I also want to advise that either of these products should be
used very lightly. If they are slopped on the leather and allowed
to soak in, the leather will turn mushy. A nice Luger holster was
never designed to soft or mushy, so I must warn anyone using
these products to use a small amount and the holster will be protected and
one used by many collectors today is Connollyís Hide Food (I think itís
called Connollyís Hide care or preservative now); it will darken your leather
but does minimal damage to it and is suggested by folks like Jerry Burney as
the best conditioner out there (if ANYTHING has to be used)
There are differences in both these products. The Lexol is a water-based
product and the Pecards is an oil-based product. With the Lexol being water
based, it should be used as directed with a light coat. If you feel another
coat is required, wait at least 24 hours before another application and this
final application should also be light. The water will evaporate and leave
the oils to nourish the leather and protect it. The Pecards, being an oil
base type should be applied as directed and will protect and nourish the
leather as well.
A good leather care product should be long lasting. Every time a holster is
treated, especially if it is flaking, the handling poses a potential danger
of lifting the flakes. So, a good treatment should penetrate, protect and
lubricate both the inner fibers and surface, and not require re-treatment if
properly stored for a number of years.
The best treatment for old Luger holsters should, of course, be neutral in
color. However, as discussed above, leather may change in color as it dry
rots and changes from other causes. Also, each holster is different. Some
have been changes by sunlight, others by heat; some have absorbed sweat or
fine dust. The basic question for the collector is, do you want to preserve
the leather holster or not? From there, a true collector concerned about
preserving his collection for posterity, the course is clear. Once you have a
safe, color neutral treatment, you must accept minor changes brought on by
treatment preservation, knowing the leather will be enhanced by it. The other
option, non-preservation, is sadly egocentric. There are folks, and major
collectors, on some of the areas with major swings in temperature and
humidity, have the holsters stored in cardboard boxes and brag that none will
be treated. Inevitably, dry rot will inflict more damage on all the
collection leaving less for the future by someone who professes to love their
A good example of this is the Rock Island Arsenal collection. For years, the
leather goods produced by them were not stored properly in their museum,
never treated with any conditioner, and were almost totally ruined. The Rock
Island Arsenal began a study to determine what could be done to preserve the
collection of historically important leather pieces in their museum. The
product they settled on was Pecards as the best product to preserve the
leather.† (it has been found that Percards, although it preserves, also leaves a thick
The following will be a discussion of proper treatment of holster leather and
will cover several specific areas and their types of leather, and their
special needs. By far, the most commonly used leather for holsters is the
finished leather. The finished surface of the Luger holster (whether smooth
or grained) has all the tooling, embossing and, especially the makers mark
and inspection marks. In constant contact with the air, the surface finish
first evidences drying, then crazing, then flaking. Crazing and cracking have
usually been hastened in spots by constant flexing as on the top flap of a
holster. The surface is subject to abrasion and dirt, also. When the surface
finish begins to deteriorate, valuable marks and cosmetic appeal are
proportionately lost. Through the breakdown of the bond between the finished
surface and the under-leather cannot often be exactly determined, the only
safe course of action is for the collector to treat the finished leather
surface of the holster with a quality product like Lexol or Pecards.
Treatment should be done in a relatively warm environment (approx. 65-75
degrees) and applied sparingly to prevent over penetration of the
conditioner. I recommend that the bare fingers be used to apply the
conditioner to avoid raising and flaking that may have taken place. The
holster should be left at least overnight in this warm environment to give
the fiber bundles time to absorb the conditioner. (Note: leather should never
be artificially heated to accelerate the absorption of the conditioner. The
added heat will cause damage to the fibers).
As the leather absorbs the conditioner, some areas may absorb more than
others. Simply smooth any excess from other areas onto those spots or add a
little more. After the waiting period, any excess can e wiped off. Then, with
a clean, lint-free cloth, can be used to gently wipe surface and leave the
conditioner. On a very flaked surface, this can be a problem, but I feel the
Pecards will work best in this situation. The Pecards will stop further
flaking. There is no way to repair any damage that has already occurred, but
we can prevent any further deterioration.
The conditioner should be rubbed into all lines of stitching, where it will
moisturize both the leather and stitching. Another critical area is where
bends are common such as the belt loops and flaps. The tab really takes a
beating and should be treated carefully since they take are flexed constantly
There are some good and simple rules for display of Luger holsters:
1. Never hang the holster by the belt loops. Support the holster from the
backside with a piece of bubble wrap
or acid free paper inside the loop. Never keep the pistol in the holster!
2. Keep the holster in a constant humidity and temperature as much as
3. Keep the holster out of the sunlight and a dust environment.
4. Never store the tool or magazine in direct contact with the leather. This
is not good for the holster or the tool/magazine.
I use RIG to coat the tool and magazine and then wrap in Saran Wrap. The tool
and magazines are them place into their
appropriate place in the holster and this helps the tool pouch and magazine
pouch to hold their shape.
5. Do not display the holster with the leather tabs snapped over the finials.
Do not keep the buckle, buckled.
6. Check periodically for any drying and retreat very lightly if required.
7. Never use shoe polish!
8. Avoid getting gun oil on the leather.
In closing, Iíd like to comment about leather preservation and expertise. I
am not an expert, but I have had many years of trial and errors and I want to
pass this information along to others. There will be shoe salesmen, leather
repairmen, who will be glad to point out products they have for sale which
are either polished or waterproofs. Even tanners and manufacturers cannot be
trusted to know what will be best for leather after some years have elapsed.
Many museum curators neither understand nor care how to properly conserve
these leather items. You may have noticed in almost any museum visit, that
leather items on display are deteriorating from improper treatment. You will
see them all quietly turning to powder or hardening to a wood consistency
while tastefully displayed in expensive glass cases.
This information is place for your consideration from my years of experience
in dealing with holsters. My holsters are neither mushy, nor dry
rotting, because I try to maintain them for the future. I hope you can use
this information and you must form your own opinion as how you want to
preserve your holsters. These are my opinion only.