History of Western Belt Buckles: Why They're Big, and Why Cowboys Like em' that Way
Summary: Cowboy & western belt buckles have a rich history in the tradition of rodeo where they were awarded as trophies and became status symbols... the bigger the belt buckle, the tougher the cowboy. Western belt buckles were also influenced by Hollywood and the showy buckles worn by actors in early gunslinger movies. Before 1920, most cowboys didn't really wear belt buckles!
Here's some common questions we answer about belt buckles
Shop for vintage belt buckles at the author's eBay store
Did cowboys even wear belt buckles?
No, not really... Before 1920, most cowboys didn't really wear belt buckles! Pants didn't even have belt loops around the waist until 1922... That's when Levi—the oldest denim maker in the world—started putting them on their jeans. The truth is that most cowboys settling the West in the 1800s were wearing suspenders or pants that cinched from the back, like these Levis (the oldest known to exist ca. 1880s).
The only belt buckles you might see in the true Wild West would have been military style "plate buckles" that civil war veterans brought with them onto the frontier. These uniform buckles identified the soldier's regiments, states, and unit. Some were two piece buckles that interlocked, and others were hollowed brass shells filled with lead (sometimes called "Sardine Can" buckles by civil war antiques collectors).
Today, Civil War plate buckles hold significant historical and collector value. They provide a tangible connection to the soldiers who fought during this pivotal period in American history. Collectors often seek out these buckles to gain insight into the soldiers' backgrounds, affiliations, and the stories they carried with them on the battlefield.
One particular buckle, at The Gettysburg Museum Of History, was struck by a bullet while worn in battle by Sgt. Michael Miller of Co. K 1st Pennsylvania Reserves. He wrote: "A ball struck me on the plate on my waist belt. It bruised me a good deal, but I thank God it struck there for had it not hit the belt plate I would this day be in the ground for it would have went through my bowels"
Texas Rangers and the Ranger Belt Buckle: A Legacy of Law and Good Looks
The legendary Texas Rangers , founded in 1835, began as a group of dedicated volunteers tasked with protecting the sprawling and often chaotic Republic of Texas. But their impact went beyond just law enforcement—they also played a role in bringing the iconic belt buckle to the American West.
After the tumultuous era of the Civil War, many veterans sought new opportunities in the untamed western frontier. Drawn by the allure of open land and the prospect of a fresh start, they ventured westward and found themselves embracing diverse roles, including that of lawmen. Many of these veterans joined the ranks of the Texas Rangers.
Their military experience equipped them to tackle the challenges of maintaining law and order in the often unruly and lawless communities of the West. The Texas Rangers played a pivotal role in various conflicts, most notably the Texas Revolution against Mexico. Their responsibilities encompassed safeguarding settlers from Native American raids, apprehending outlaws, and upholding peace in the borderlands.
A dependable firearm, holster, and a good horse were requisites for success on the frontier. As some veterans ventured westward, they carried their uniform belt plates along with them. Over time, these buckles found a new purpose, transitioning to gun belts to ensure the safety and readiness of their firearms. The distinct "Texas Ranger" or "Ranger" style buckle traces its origins to these particular three-piece buckles worn on gun belts—a tangible connection between veterans and their continued commitment to upholding the law.
There's an old expression about Colt Revolvers: "God created men, Sam Colt made them equal"... and I'll add that belt buckles ensured they were always within arm's reach.
Over time, these buckles became increasingly ornate and decorative, departing from the utilitarian military purpose. Today, the Ranger buckle captures the essence of the American West's style and heritage. They're not exclusive to gun belts, and Ranger buckles are worn by many a cowboy. They remain a beloved emblem of Texan pride and a testament to the enduring legacy of the Texas Rangers.
Influence from the "Silver Screen"
While the Ranger buckle is common in Texas, it's not the big ole' cowboy buckle we know and love from rodeos and square dances. Those buckles didn't come about for another 50 or so years... and they draw their roots from Hollywood.
As the Wild West era gave way to the turn of the 20th century, a new cultural phenomenon was sweeping the nation—the rise of the silver screen. The invention of movies in the late 1800s marked a revolutionary shift in entertainment, and by 1905, the first movie theater had opened its doors. Cowboy movies swiftly gained popularity, captivating audiences with tales of gun-slinging heroes and daring adventures on the frontier.
Movies began to feature larger-than-life characters adorned with showy and eye-catching accessories, including none other than the iconic cowboy belt buckle. The influence of these early Western movies found its way into fashion trends, leading to a surge in interest for the gaudy belt buckles seen on the silver screen.
Famous cowboy actors of the era, like Tom Mix, Gene Autry, Roy Rodgers, and many others...
further cemented the cowboy aesthetic in the collective imagination. Their on-screen personas were often characterized by rugged independence and fearless heroism, and their attire was carefully curated to reflect these qualities. This included the conspicuous display of large belt buckles, serving as both a nod to authenticity and a fashionable statement.
Early Hollywood silversmiths, such as Edward Bohlin and Al Shelton, seized the opportunity to cater to this growing trend. Both became renowned silversmiths that crafted elaborate belt buckles and captured the spirit of the frontier. These artisans contributed to the evolution of the belt buckle from its utilitarian roots to an ornate accessory that epitomized both style and substance for Hollywood Elites.
Young Edward H. Bohlin poses proudly with belt buckle and a Ranger style gun belt buckle. You can read more about his company, Bohlinmade, in this blog post.
The golden era of spaghetti Westerns in the mid-20th century continued to perpetuate the fascination with the cowboy lifestyle. Iconic actors like John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, Roy Rodgers and others, solidified the image of the cowboy as a rugged and fearless figure. Their ensembles, complete with bold belt buckles, further propelled the trend into popular culture. Here you can see John Wayne with the iconic Red River D Buckle from Rio Bravo.
(There's an entire website about this belt buckle if you're interested)
As cowboy movies started took Hollywood by storm, rodeo events become a fixture of American tradition in the West. Rodeo competitions, which had roots in the ranching and cowboy lifestyle, started awarding large and elaborate belt buckles as trophies as early as the 1920s. We all know that the biggest trophy goes to the first place winner, so the biggest buckle represented the biggest accomplishment. Trophy belt buckles celebrated the victors' grit and talents, so they became a symbol of pride and distinction.
Today, we'd call this "bragging rights".
The bigger the buckle-> the tougher the cowboy.
Rodeo competitions were a way for cowboys to prove their abilities and establish their reputation as skilled riders and handlers. The Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA) is one of the oldest and most well-known rodeo organizations in the world, founded in 1936 by a group of cowboys (then just RCA) who sought to create standardized rules and regulations for rodeo competitions. Prior to the formation of the RCA, rodeos were often locally organized, with varying rules and prize structures.
The organization introduced a point system that allowed cowboys to earn points based on their performance in various events, and those with the highest points were invited to compete in the National Finals Rodeo (NFR), which is now considered the premier rodeo event in the world. The notoriety of these organizations made their trophy buckles the most sought after and respected.
Hesston National Finals Rodeo
The famed Hesston belt buckles, introduced in 1974, commercialized the trophy buckle tradition. Partnering with the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA), Hesston created an annual series of collectible buckles that showcased various rodeo events. These buckles gained a dedicated following and became highly sought-after tokens of rodeo excellence.
In the modern era, the connection between rodeo and belt buckles remains strong. Major rodeo organizations, like the Professional Bull Riders (PBR), continue to award extravagant buckles to their champions. Television broadcasts of rodeo events have further amplified the cultural significance of these buckles, ensuring that their legacy endures.
Cowboy Belt Buckles & Enduring Legacy
The history of the cowboy belt buckle is a melting pot of tradition, fashion, and cultural influence. From its origins in Civil War military uniforms, it transitioned into a status symbol of cowboys that was inspired by the silver screen. The belt buckle embodies the grit, bravery, and enduring style of the American rodeo.... and when cowboys wear them, they pay homage to the pioneers, lawmen, and entertainers who shaped their captivating story.
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About the Author:
Brock Lane has an MS in Applied economics and operates multiple shops on Etsy, eBay, and Shopify. He maintains an inventory of over 10,000 rare and unique belt buckles, leather belts, and other goods. He leverages his sales history and professional background to write about trends in online retail marketplaces. Brock is an eBay affiliate and earns commission from linked products & shops.
Learn more at: www.beltbucklehistory.com
Shop for vintage belt buckles on Brock's Etsy Shop
or at Brock's eBay Store
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