Behind the Scenes with Bitterroot Gun Leather
May 8th, 2019
3 minute read
The Bitterroot Valley, located on the Montana-Idaho border, is one of those places where it’s easy to believe in heaven. Lined on each side by incredible mountain views under Montana’s fabled big sky, it’s a place where the elk are massive, the trout fishing world-class, and guns are a way of life.
Nestled into the shadow of the mountains, in a tiny town filled with the kind of tough-but-decent people you might expect there, is a tiny shop named Bitterroot Gunleather. BGL, as it’s known to its fiercely loyal customers, makes holsters just as gorgeous as the valley surrounding it. Caleb Koller is the man behind those holsters, and he makes each one by hand, painstakingly ensuring its quality.
Four years ago, he was using a Kydex holster for open carrying in Arizona when a family member bought a leather one from a table at a gun show. He was entranced by it and decided to spend the money buying materials to make his own.
It took him a month, he says, and he thought he was “the coolest” when he was finished. He wanted to learn more, however, and his research journeys took him to Holsters for Handguns, a holster maker guild of sorts on Facebook, owned by Jay Nelson of American Holster Company. In the group, Koller found the mentorship — and constructive criticism — that he was looking for.
“There’s always somebody who will criticize something about a holster,” he says of the group, “until it gets to a point where they say, ‘Nice holster as always.’ That’s when you know you should probably be selling your work.”
Koller opened Bitterroot Gunleather after moving to Montana, and he’s been selling those holsters ever since. When comparing his current work to that first one from so long ago, it’s clear that not only has Koller learned, but he’s excelled to the point where his holsters are now works of art — and he continues to perfect his techniques. His wife handles the books and shipping and is the person Koller credits with pushing him to quit his day job to chase his new love.
Bitterroot Gunleather doesn’t advertise. In fact, all of his orders come from word of mouth. The three-inch stack of invoices and six-month waiting list, however, says he doesn’t need to. His customers are loyal, vocal, and often come back more than once, happy to wait for a handmade holster created by someone who pours his heart and soul into each one.
He credits the group and the contacts he’s made in the industry along the way for part of his success, and he looks to pass that knowledge and camaraderie on to others looking to learn how. While he doesn’t give away the finishing techniques that set apart his work, he’s happy to help those learning the basics of getting started with holster making. After all, he says, others took the time to help him.
When asked about the best holster he’s ever made, he paused a moment and then talked about a big cowboy who wanted a holster for his equally big gun. The man admitted he was dying and didn’t have much time left. Koller finished the holster in time for him to see it and hold it. The cowboy died soon after and was buried with the holster on his hip.
“That’s it,” Koller says with slightly misty eyes and a resolved expression. “That’s my favorite holster.”