One of my favorite things to do here at RevolverGuy is to introduce the readers to the talented artisans who make the products that we know and love. I often find that their personal stories are as interesting as the popular wares which bear their marque!
It’s been my experience that the men and women of the gun industry and culture are generally fantastic people. They’re some of the nicest, welcoming, and most talented people I’ve known, and it’s rare to run across a jerk in our circles. They’re out there, of course (as they are everywhere), but they really stand out in the gun culture, because the general atmosphere is so friendly and courteous. I really think that the gun culture is a cut above the other social circles that I come into contact with.
A recent introduction to Rob Leahy reaffirmed these beliefs for me. Rob is the founder, owner, and head-guy-in-charge of Simply Rugged Holsters, and it took only minutes for the two of us to start chatting like we were old friends when we met. That connection was first established on the basis of an appreciation for good gunleather, but as we continued to get to know each other, we realized that we had some “near misses” in our past, as Rob actually grew up across town from me. We didn’t know each other then, but it was fun to learn of the connection, decades later, and realize that the world isn’t quite as big as it seems.
Rob was kind enough to sit down with me for an interview about his interest in gunleather and the founding of his business, and I’m eager to share our conversation with our fellow RevolverGuys, so let’s get right to it.
Rob’s first jump into leatherwork began with a knife sheath. A shop teacher at his high school would let the students work on projects of their choice on Fridays, and he gave Rob his first formal instruction on how to turn a piece of cow hide into something functional. With that shop teacher’s help, Rob built a pouch for his G96 Model 960, which was a clone of the classic, Buck 110 Folding Hunter. “I used a finish nail, chucked up in a power drill, to drill the holes in the leather for sewing,” Rob chuckled. “I actually drilled a lot of holsters with a finish nail, in my early days.”
Rob hand-sewed the pieces together and soon had a functional knife sheath. Before long, he was making more of them for himself and friends, and by the time he enlisted in the Army, he knew enough about leatherworking that he could modify pouches, holsters, and knife sheaths for his fellow soldiers. “They were always bringing me something to fix up,” he said.
The Baker connection
Rob said he had a Don Hume Jordan holster early on for his N-Frame revolver (“I didn’t like it, because the loop was cut for a wide Sam Browne, and it was a sloppy fit on my garrison belt—it would rock too much when you drew the gun”), but it was a Roy Baker pancake holster that he bought in 1982 which would influence the young leathermaker the most.
Baker made his holsters from two matching pieces of hide, and formed the pocket for the gun with two irregular circles of stitching, that also encircled leading and trailing edge slots for the belt. When made for a small gun, like a S&W J-Frame, the tan-colored, rounded holster looked like a pancake (particularly on the models that lacked a thumb break), earning the design its name.
Baker applied for a patent in 1971 for his ambidextrous holster design (the same holster could be worn on the left or right side, as it was symmetrical, in the non-thumb break versions that he started with), and it wasn’t long before it became the most popular style of carry for those looking to conceal a revolver or auto pistol on the belt.
Rob says that it was Baker, “who taught us how to conceal a big, N-Frame revolver under just a t-shirt,” and he grew fond of his sample and the design very quickly, as he used it to tote his big sixgun around.
When a friend asked to borrow the holster, Rob loaned it to him, but the “friend” soon sold the holster to his brother-in-law, who refused to return it to Rob, when he sought to get it back. Needing a holster, but lacking the funds to purchase a new one, Rob decided to build his own pancake to replace the original. “I didn’t like thumb breaks, and I wanted a holster with good retention,” he said, “so a pancake was the obvious choice.”
Rob built his first pancake for the Model 25 and 29 revolvers that he favored, and before long, his hunting partner asked for one, for his own four-inch N-Frame. He loved it, and so did the customers at the Idaho sporting goods store that Rob was managing at the time. They saw Rob wearing his holster around the store, and wanted one just like it for their own guns. Before long, he had developed quite a business making pancake holsters, relying only on word-of-mouth advertising.
Although the customers at his sporting goods store liked Rob’s pancake holsters a lot, he says that, “Early on, most of my work was actually building pocket holsters. There was a college campus nearby, and a lot of those professors and staff members were concerned about the violence there, which frequently went unreported” (and still is, today, because these schools don’t want to scare off parents and their checkbooks).
The savvy teachers needed holsters that would allow them to discreetly carry guns like their J-Frame revolvers, Freedom Arms (now, North American Arms) mini-revolvers, and High-Standard derringers. Getting caught with a gun in this kind of environment could be bad for their careers, so when they learned Rob was a budding holster maker, they began placing orders for pocket rigs. Before he knew it, he was soon building “lots and lots” of pocket rigs as the word-of-mouth advertising kicked in.
Rob said he thought about starting a holster business in the early ‘90s, but worried about competing “with the big guys,” like Bianchi, Safariland, and Sparks, and decided not to attempt it. However, he continued to learn and hone his craft, from folks like a neighbor in Idaho, who taught him how to basketweave, “and a few other tricks.”
When he was let go from a job in 2004, he found himself selling guns again, to pay the bills, and his first sale was only completed because Rob agreed to build a custom holster for the Colt 1917 that was purchased by his left-handed customer. “He was worried that he’d never find a holster for it, so he was going to pass, until I told him I could make one for him,” said Rob.
Fortunately for Rob, the customer was an active participant on the Sixgunner Forum, and he was eager to tell all his friends on the interwebs about his new gunhide. Interest grew in Rob’s work, and he started to attract attention from the likes of John Taffin and Jeff Quinn, who placed orders with him, then wrote good things about his work.
“I got LOTS of response from the articles that John wrote,” said Rob, “but it was Jeff who was responsible for the name of my business.”
“Jeff was a left-handed shooter,” explains Rob, “so he appreciated custom leatherwork.” In one of Quinn’s articles, he mentioned the pancake holster that Rob had made for him, and described it as “simple and rugged.” Having agonized over what to call the fledgling company (Rob knew that his last name, “Leahy,” would be misspelled and mispronounced too frequently to be used, “just like poor John Bianchi”), Quinn’s words struck a chord, and Simply Rugged Holsters became Rob’s marque.
With some help from friends, Rob launched his new career. Jeff’s brother, Boge Quinn (who’s not only good with a gun, but a wonderfully-talented musician), took some photos to help Rob put a catalog together, and his hunting partner from Idaho—the buyer of Rob’s second-ever-made “Sourdough” pancake holster—built a website for him. Rob explains that, “the website launched as we were moving to Alaska, and we were receiving orders as we drove up there.”
There was no turning back now. As news of his products was shared in the gun press and by satisfied customers, Rob soon outgrew the workspace in his home, and shifted to a 10’ x 12’ shed in the backyard, then to his two-car garage, as the business grew. It was during this period of rapid growth that I (Mike) first became aware of Rob, through the writings of John Taffin, and had my second “near miss” with him on the floor of the SHOT Show, when I saw him walk past with a small group of folks, somewhere near the Cimarron booth, and spied his name badge for a fleeting moment before the crowd swallowed them up.
In 2009, Rob moved back to warmer weather, in Arizona, but not before Alaska made its mark on him, and influenced his leatherwork. Carrying a gun in Alaska provided many lessons, and confirmed the viability of his “Sourdough” pancake design, which had evolved from Baker’s starting point, to include greater coverage of the gun, and thicker leather, for added protection and stability. An experience with a charging bear, which occurred while Rob was fishing on the Russian River, also shaped his growing catalog, by inspiring his clever Chesty Puller harness system that quickly converts one of Rob’s pancake holsters into a chest rig. The versatile design has become one of his best sellers, and makes up “a significant part of my business, these days,” says Rob.
Rob continued to grow as a leather maker after his return to the “Lower 48,” taking a class with none other than John Bianchi, himself, and John Bianchi Frontier Gunleather Foreman Matt Whittaker. “I learned a lot from them,” said Rob, and he put it all to good use.
Learning from one of the industry’s greats was neat, but Rob knew he’d “arrived” as a holster maker when the “owner” of his long-lost, loaned, Baker pancake holster reached out to Rob, and asked him to build a few holsters for him. Rob agreed to build the holsters (for a four-inch Model 29 and a Walther) and trade them for the return of his Baker pancake. “This was the best measure of my success, that he would want one of MY holsters more than the original Baker,” Rob told me. The former “owner” got his two holsters, and Rob got his beloved Baker back. Rob says it hangs in his shop today, as a reminder of Simply Rugged’s beginnings.
Why the pancake?
Rob thinks the pancake concept is ideal for carrying a gun concealed on the hip, and while his catalog offers many other styles of holsters now (including his take on classics like the Slim Jim, Threepersons, Yaqui Slide, and Mexican Loop), it’s the pancake that’s really his specialty.
Rob explains that the fore and aft slots on the pancake provide a significant amount of inward tension that tightens the pocket and provides excellent retention for the gun. “You don’t need a thumb break to make sure the gun stays put,” he says, “and sacrifice the speed out of the holster.”
That inward tension also helps to make the design more versatile, according to Rob, because it helps to minimize the problems that arise from a mismatch between the size of the slots, and the width of the belt that the holster hangs on. When you have holster slots that are significantly wider than the gun belt, the holster can rock back and forth, like Rob’s old Don Hume Jordan holster did, when he threaded a 1.75” garrison belt through the holster’s 2.25” belt loop. But the pancake’s natural tension helps to keep the holster in place, and minimize undesired rocking or lifting during the draw, when it’s used with a narrower belt. “Baker’s holster slots were all really wide, because he made holsters for cops, not sportsmen, and they all had wide, two-and-a-quarter-inch duty belts,” explains Rob, “but they worked well with the narrower pants belts, too.” You can’t get the same results with many holster designs, which are much more sensitive to matching the belt width to the slots in the holster.
The business grew, and Rob’s first “employee” was his twelve year-old son, who started in the shop with dyeing and oiling chores, but soon “learned to tool leather better than me,” and was, “getting paid an adult wage by the time he was fifteen, because he was doing adult work, and was one of our most artistic workers,” said Rob.
The Arizona move in 2009 gave him more space to work and opened the doors to hiring additional employees. Rob found an excellent pool of workers in the young military veterans that lived in the area, and hired many part-timers for the first five years or so, but over time, his workforce evolved into a full-time crew of eight artisans, who are “mostly retired guys, with a few younger kids added.” The shop foreman has been with Rob for eight years, and typifies the type of person that Rob has sought to hire. “He didn’t know holsters when I hired him,” says Rob, “but he had an outstanding work ethic and I knew he would make a great hire.” It’s Rob’s opinion that it’s better to hire an employee for his attitude, then teach him the necessary skills, than it is to shop for experts in the craft, and the formula seems to be working well for Simply Rugged.
Rob built his business on leather pancake holsters and loves the type, but, “by 2007 I’d made thousands of them, and I wasn’t sure how many more of them I wanted to do.”
When he started to get a little burned out, cranking out the same old thing, he sought refuge in working with exotic materials like shark, gator and elephant skin. Working with these hides was a challenge, “because you don’t want to make a mistake when you’re cutting expensive materials,” and he had to use some different techniques, but “the holsters look good and work good,” and provide a welcome relief, and an artistic diversion, from Simply Rugged’s mainstream products.
When friend and gun writer Jeff Hoover nicknamed Rob’s leather and exotic hybrid holsters “Surf and Turf” models, the name stuck, and Rob and his crew refer to them as the same. Rob credits fellow maker Mitch Rosen as being an influence on his entry into exotics, but there’s no doubt his Surf and Turf designs have their own sense of styling.
Back to those pocket holsters
I didn’t know that Rob got his start making pocket holsters, so when I learned of that later on, it seemed appropriate that my first Simply Rugged purchase had been one of them.
The Simply Rugged Pocket Protector includes a much-appreciated twist on the conventional pocket holster, derived from real-world experience. As Rob explains it, a friend was the victim of an attempted robbery, conducted by multiple opponents with high-capacity pistols and body armor. The would-be “victim” fired three rounds from a Smith and Wesson Model 642, killing one of the offenders and wounding another, and driving the rest away.
After the shooting was over, the friend was left with just two rounds in the gun, and worried if they would be enough to repel a second attack if the robbery crew came back. He eventually made his way to a shotgun, but fortunately didn’t need to use it.
Rob’s friend didn’t normally carry spare ammunition for the gun, but said that he immediately wished he had, when he was left standing there with a nearly-empty revolver—“I’d have paid a million dollars for two extra rounds,” he told Rob.
Rob gave him a Speed Strip to fill the gap for the future, but later on he added a pocket holster with a slot in the rear of the skirt that held a pair of extra rounds, to allow a top-off of a depleted gun. “That’s a million-dollar reload, right there,” said his friend, when he saw the holster for the first time, which Rob now sells as the Pocket Protector.
My sample is made for the J-Frame, and it’s a perfect fit for my beloved, .38 Special, Model 640 Centennial. The Simply Rugged Pocket Protector does an excellent job of hiding a snub in a pocket, keeping it oriented properly for an efficient draw, and protecting the gun from debris. It’s made by folding a single piece of leather and sewing the edges together, where they meet at the trailing edge, with a roughly-triangular-shaped loop of stitching that also forms the pocket for the pistol. The two layers of leather allow Rob to sandwich that “million-dollar reload” on the back, between them, making it a new favorite in my stable. You won’t make a speedy reload from the backside of the holster (and I’m not convinced it’s likely that you will need to, since I can’t find a case involving armed citizens where a rapid reload under fire was necessary), but you’ll always have at least two rounds in reserve, and that’s comforting in itself.
There’s another pocket holster that just made an appearance in Rob’s lineup that you might be interested in, too. The Force Options pocket holster incorporates a pocket on the front and rear of the holster, which allows you to store extra items, like a strip loader and a decoy drop (such as a few bucks wrapped around a hotel key card).1 As Darryl Bolke (who urged Rob to make the Force Option holster) envisions it, if the person accosting you doesn’t take the drop money and walk away from the confrontation, then you can pull the gun out on your next trip into the pocket (“You want the rest of it? OK . . . “), and a reload on the next trip after that.
But wait, there’s more
You’ll find a lot more besides solid holster designs when you check out the Simply Rugged catalog. Rob and his crew make outstanding belts, wallets, knife sheaths, rifle slings, and ammo pouches as well, and many of these are as clever as they are simple and rugged.
Rob’s Bear Mount rifle sling, for example, allows you to mount a sling to a rifle that lacks swivels or studs for mounting, and his Full Moon Pouch, inspired by a chewing tobacco can holder, may be the most useful and efficient carrier I’ve seen yet for a moon clip.
Great folks, great gear
As I discussed at the beginning of this piece, we’re fortunate to live, work and play amongst great people in the gun culture. After getting to know Rob and his products better, I’m eager to spend more time around both of them.
Rob is a RevolverGuy at heart, and knows exactly what you need to carry yours with security and style, so pop on over to his website and have a look around. You’ll find quality leather gear, made by military vets who are real craftsmen, and I know you’ll be happy that you took the time to do it. Make sure to come back and let us know what you think.
- I first learned of this tactic from friend Massad Ayoob, when he wrote about it in his seminal book, In The Gravest Extreme, but apparently, gun writer great Skeeter Skelton also described the ploy in his columns.