In 1876 the US military adopted its first cartridge belt, admitting officially for the first time the expediency of carrying metallic cartridge in a belt around the body rather than in a separate cartridge box. While strong arguments existed both for and against the use of a cartridge belt, the most scalding complaint, the development of thick verdigris on the copper cartridges when held in tight leather loops, was overcome by using fabric for the loops and belt body. Initially the belts were of varnished canvas with leather billets, and eventually, with the the adoption of the belt invented by Anson Mills, were made entirely of fabric with integrally woven cartridge loops. The original 1876 pattern “Prairie Belt” was a huge success, and as soldiers are ought to do with any piece of equipment designed for field service, immediately started to come up with “field modifications’ for the belt to make the carrying of various related items more practical. By 1879 a number of official “trial modifications’ were in the field and by 1880 a whole new series of Mills woven cartridge belts was being developed. By 1881 an official Cavalry variant was available with a special attachment that allowed easy addition of the 1881 Saber Hanger, which was directly descended from the 1859 saber hanger that had been Patented by none other than future Confederate cavalry general J.E.B. Stuart. However, the new cartridge belt was too wide for use with the newly adopted Pattern 1881 revolver holster then in use with the cavalry. The Pattern 1881 holster was an improvement over the several Pattern 1876 variation and the briefly adopted Pattern 1879 design, in that it had a flap that was modified so that the holster would accept either the M-1873 Colt Single Action Army revolver or the M-1875 Smith & Wesson Schofield revolver. What the holster did not have was a belt loop of sufficient width to fit over the new woven cartridge belt. The holster was specifically designed for use with the leather Pattern 1874 saber belt. This was in fact intentional on the part of the army, who wanted the saber and revolver carried on the 1874 belt, and expected the trooper to wear the additional cartridge belt in the field as well. General of the Army, William Tecumseh Sherman took the official view that the cartridge belt “should not be over-weighted by carrying the saber and revolver, and that these weapons should be carried on a separate belt.” The men in the field, however, felt quite differently. They liked the new cartridge belts and wanted to utilize their revolver holsters with them. To that end a number of field modifications to holsters began to evolve, some of which exist today only through letters and drawings and some of which were produced experimentally on a scale as small as a single example to as many as several hundred. One example, which was produced on at least a limited basis, but whose evolution remains somewhat murky, is the so called “Ropes’ Pattern Holster”
The holster design attributed to Captain James M. Ropes was certainly the result of his many years of practical experience in the US military, and reflected both his experience in the Civil War era volunteer army cavalry and in the later Indian War era regular army cavalry. Ropes was born in New York in 1839 and at some point prior to the Civil War moved west to California. While the brief biography of Captain Ropes given in Edward Scott Meadows’ seminal reference book U.S. Military Holsters and Pistol Cartridge Boxes states that Ropes enlisted in the 2nd New Jersey cavalry on August 29, 1861, this is not correct. Additional research reveals that Ropes did enlist in a cavalry regiment on this date, but it was the 2nd California Cavalry. Ropes muster in as a 1st Lieutenant with the regiment, serving in both F and G troops during the course of the war and eventually being breveted to the rank of Major. The 2nd California Cavalry was officially organized in San Francisco, and did service throughout the west during the Civil War, primarily providing garrison troops to far flung western outposts, freeing regular army troops to fight in the east. At the conclusion of the war the regiment was mustered out, but Ropes re-enlisted as a 2nd Lieutenant in the 8th US Cavalry in June of 1867, rising to the rank of 1st Lieutenant in 1868 and Captain in 1882. He retired from service in 1891 and died that same year. In 1883, while serving as the Captain of B Troop, 8th US Cavalry at Fort Ringgold, TX, Ropes submitted a letter to the Adjutant General for the state of Texas regarding his ideas for improving the Forsythe Pattern holster that was being tried experimentally by some troops in the field. The Forsythe Holster design, as it is referred to in official Army correspondence, was actually forwarded through channels by Captain Kaufman, also of the 8th Cavalry, but serving in Kansas. The holster was a modified version of the M-1881 holster, and retained the basic profile of that design, including the butt forward orientation of the revolver when the holster was worn on the right side. The Forsythe (Kaufman) pattern dispensed with the additional hole in the flap of the 1881 pattern and was suited only for use with the Colt, and not the Smith & Wesson service revolver. Instead of the usual belt loop, the holster had a long, extended skirt in the rear that formed the “belt loop” and which was secured to the lower portion of the holster body via a strap with a buckle. As the letter forwarding the design so clearly states, this was an adaptation of “what is known in Tescas (sic), as the “Cow Boy Holster”. The extended rear skirt that formed the belt loop of the Forsythe pattern was taken directly from the “Mexican Loop” style holsters that had begun to be popular in Texas during the late 1870s and were the primary holster design among the trail riding “cow boys’ by the mid-1880s. The extended rear skirt of the holster that formed the belt loop was slotted and the holster body passed through these loops, securing the lower portion of the skirt to lower portion of the holster, and completing the “belt loop”. The large skirt allowed the holster to be easily slid over a wide cartridge belt filled with cartridges. Applying this same concept to the US military holster allowed it to be slid over the filled cartridge loops of the cartridge belt, something the Pattern 1881 holster could not do in its initial incarnation. The Forsythe design used the adjustable buckle strap to connect the bottom rear of the skirt to the holster body, and by moving this strap up and down along the holster body the belt loop could be adjusted for use on either the narrow Pattern 1874 leather saber belt or the wider Prairie style cartridge belt. Some 500 of the so-called Forsythe holsters were produced at Rock Island Arsenal in 1883 for trial issue. In reference to this new design Captain Ropes wrote in part:
“I have the honor to express the opinion that they are an undoubted improvement upon the old holsters, though much inferior to the holster upon which they are modeled and which has for years been in use by the Texas Rangers, Cow-boys and mounted men generally who carry a pistol for use.”Ropes goes on to state his primary complaints about the Forsythe holster by saying: “The flap on the holster is worse than useless; it is always a nuisance, and soldiers, if left to themselves will almost always cut it off, frequently with the consent of troop commanders. It is, I presume, a relic of the old-fashioned (percussion) pistol which had to be left dry” He continues: “The buckle also seems to me to be of no utility and it adds somewhat to the cost and greatly to the insecurity of the holster.” Ropes then notes that he had provided two sample holsters with this letter for evaluation and describes them as follows: “one is a model of the frontier holster before alluded to, the other is a modification of the it arranged with loops to carry 12 pistol cartridges if desired. It will be observed that these holster when carried on the right side present the butt of the pistol to the rear instead of the front as now prescribed by tactics, and this position it is believed is the better one for handling”.” From his own description is appears that Ropes’ design was a butt to the rear modification of the Forsythe pattern, without the buckle on the skirt strap, with cartridge loops affixed on one of the variants. However, in both cases the holsters were open top designs! Is is possible that what we call a Ropes Pattern holster today is not” Realistically it seems like the extant examples known as Ropes Pattern holsters are really Kaufman Pattern (not Forsythe as they are called) holsters with Ropes’ improvements! The handful of so called “Ropes Pattern” holsters are sized only for the Colt Single Action revolver, and have the general profile of the “Forsythe” Pattern, but are butt to the rear rather than butt forward, have a skirt strap without a buckle, have 10 cartridge loops on the upper front edge of the holster (not the 12 alluded to in the letter), and have a large closure flap! The flap is actually more reminiscent of the Civil War era percussion pistol closure flap than the Pattern 1881 flap which is only about 1/3 of the width of the “Ropes’ flap. The fact that the holster has a flap, the item Ropes most railed about in his 1883 letter, suggests that it was decided on a trial basis to adopt his butt to the rear carry design and to incorporate the cartridge loops on the holster body. This was not a new idea, as a military pattern holster patented by J.E. Bloom in 1879 also had cartridge loops on the hostler body, but significantly more than the 12 that Ropes mentions in his letter, or the 10 that exist on Ropes holsters found today. At least one of the sample pattern holsters submitted by Captain Ropes survived to be entered into the Rock Island Arsenal museum and a 1909 dated record card for the holster includes the following information: “4079 PISTOL HOLSTER. Open butt. From Department of Texas. Submitted by Capt. J.W. Ropes. Holster and belt loop made in one piece. Received at Ordnance Office 1884.” It is worth noting that the archivist got Ropes’ middle initial wrong on the card when the entry was made.
It is generally believed that the holster that we call a Ropes Pattern holster today was manufactured on a very limited trial basis at the San Antonio Arsenal during the mid-1880s, soon after Ropes’ letter regarding the Forsythe design and his submission of his “improved” holsters. The pattern was probably produced again in small quantities during the Spanish-American War period. Meadows notes that some extant examples are known for .38 caliber Colt revolvers, indicating their manufacture after the adoption of the double action .38 service revolver in 1893. All of the Ropes holsters have the large, one-piece body with and additional piece forming the extended rear skirt, which is the basis for the large belt loop capable of being placed over a loaded Mills pattern cartridge belt. The bottom of the skirt is secured to the body of the holster via a small leather strap, without a buckle and attached to the skirt itself via two large copper rivets. The large, Civil War style closure flap is also attached to the body via rivets, and a closure tab is riveted to the flap. The tab engages a brass finial on the face of the holster. Ten .45 caliber leather cartridge loops are sewn to the face of the holster, near the top opening and are covered by the flap when it is closed. A toe plug with a drain hole is sewn into the end of the holster. While this pattern solved a number of problems for the cavalry it saw extremely limited production and use, and the holster is extremely rare today. Realistically it seems most examples that are found in fine states of condition (and which are typically unit or rack marked in some way) are probably from the Spanish-American War era and were likely state militia used. Those without markings and with significant wear were probably part of the small number issued for limited field trials during the 1880s. The pattern was never officially adopted and the Pattern 1881 holster remained the primary cavalry holster in use until the adoption of the M-1892 .38 Revolver. In 1885 the Pattern 1881 holster (Third Type) had its belt loop enlarged to allow it to pass over a woven cartridge belt, but the cartridges had to be removed for the belt in order to do this and no cartridges could be carried in the belt loops where the holster rested. It would not be until 1890, nearly at the end of the single action revolver’s official service life with the US cavalry would the “Fourth Type” Pattern 1881 holster be adopted that would allow it to be placed over a loaded woven cartridge belt. Through all of these pattern changes, the 1881 holster remained an archaic, butt forward design as well.
Offered here is a GOOD+ condition example of what is known as a Ropes Pattern Holster. These holsters are discussed in some detail on pages 146-147 of Meadows”U.S. Military Holsters and Pistol Cartridge Boxes and briefly on page 301 of Graham, Kopec & Moore’s A Study of the Colt Single Action Army Revolver. Examples of Ropes Pattern holsters are also pictured in both references. While some examples are known that have unit or issue markings, this holster is not marked in any way. The holster appears to be all original with the exception of the the closure tab, and its accompanying rivet and stitching. All other components and stitching appear to be original. This Ropes holster shows significant wear and use and the majority of the original leather finish has flaked off and is no longer present. At most the holster retains about 20% of its original surface finish, and what does remain shows significant crazing and wear. The holster clearly saw a lot of use during its service life, and inside of the covering flap shows obvious wear and abrasion from a Single Action Army hammer rubbing the the flap while carried in the holster. The exterior of the holster was treated with black shoe polish long ago, which has evened out the black finish and darkened much of the original linen stitching. I believe some form of leather treatment was applied as well, along the lines of Pecards, probably to help rehydrate the leather. The leather is relatively pliable in its current condition, but shows some weakness due to age and use and the parts under the stress of motion like the flap should be treated carefully and not exposed to excessive motion or use. There is some minor leather loss along some of the edges where the flap and body join, and at the lower rear of the skirt, where two slits are present. I believe these slits are field modifications to allow the use of a “tie down” to keep the holster from flapping on the leg when riding or running. There is another hole in the lower rear of the skirt that seems to be the result of the leather wearing through from use. The majority of the original stitching remains intact, but some of it is starting to loosen and come apart, primarily at the flap to body joints and the upper portion of the body seam. Careful handling should allow the holster to survive for many more years and display well without further attention or treatment. All of the original ten cartridge loops remain intact on the upper edge of the holster body. This is nice, as the loops are often missing when these rare holsters are encountered. The loops show significant wear and some leather loss, particularly the loops on the outer edge, which show lots or wear and some minor leather loss, primarily at their bottom edges. The original brass closure finial is in place on the face of the holster body and remains securely attached. The closure tab is a more recent replacement but is extraordinarily well done and other than the leather showing less wear and age than the balance of the holster, blends very well. The original copper rivet may have been reused when attaching the replacement tab, as it seems perfect in every way. However, I will consider it a replacement as well. The tab stitching is also wonderfully executed, matching the balance of the holster well. The holster retains its original toe plug, another rarity for any military holster of this era. The plug appears to be solidly attached and in comparable condition to the balance of the holster. Even though the holster shows significant amounts of real world wear and tear it remains solid enough be a functional display item today, and as such it is pictured with a 7 ““ 1891 dated Rinaldo A Carr inspected Colt Single Action Army for illustrative purposes. Obviously the revolver is NOT INCLUDED with the holster.
Overall this is a GOOD+ condition example of a scare experimental US cavalry holster that saw limited issue at best and was probably produced in extremely small quantities, certainly not to exceed 500 pieces. Ropes Pattern holsters rarely appear on the market for sale and when they do, they are usually priced in the $2,000 to $3,000 range. I have never seen on priced below $1,500. This one is complete, including the cartridge loops, and though it shows heavy use is still solid enough for display. It is my opinion that the unmarked examples are the earlier, 1880s production holsters made for trial use, while the rack numbered holsters are probably militia issue from the 1890s. This is a scarce holster that does not appear for sale very often and is very fairly priced. It will be a great addition to your collection of US military arms and accouterments from the latter decades of the 19th century. This holster will equally at home in a late Indian Wars era collection as well as a Spanish American War collection, and is certainly rare enough that you will enjoy being able to show it off to your collecting buddies.SOLD