Whether you call them chaps, leggings, bat wings, woolies, or chinks, the different styles of leather leg coverings are an important part of a cowboy’s gear. Derived from the Spanish chaparreras, they protect a rider’s legs from brush, thorns and the elements. Different leathers cut in various styles have been used but the basic purpose remains the same. This is the first part of a history of chaps written by my friend and tack historian, Phil Livingston.
Part One: 1600s to Mid-1800s
The Spaniards imported cattle from Cuba to Mexico in the early 1500s and the livestock industry developed rapidly. Cattle were herded by day and corralled at night, so they were gentle. But, on the open Mexican ranges, a few escaped. Around 1600 the skill of roping developed, and wild cattle could be captured. Crashing through the brush and cactus was hard on a vaquero’s pants and even rougher on his legs.
The first solution was to hang a large piece of leather on each side of the saddle pack to protect the rider’s legs. Called “armas”, the leather was a permanent fixture on the saddle. Another much lighter chap which could be worn all day was in use during the same time period. Called “armitas”, they were made from two pieces of buckskin hung from a belt around the waist. Armitas covered the thighs and reached below the knee, which allowed freedom of movement. Each piece was held by leather straps tied around the legs. The edges were usually fringed. After the cattle industry reached California, vaqueros often used goat, sheep, wolf, bear, or mountain lion pelts. Armitas are still worn today, with better fit, various leather and styling. They also developed into a similar type of covering, that’s commonly used today, known as “chinks”.
As the Spanish ranchers pushed north, into what would become California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas, they took their riding equipment with them. Leg coverings were modified to fit the working conditions and personal preference. The first true chaps were the closed leg style – much like a pair of seatless pants. They were cut to fit loosely and consisted of two leather tubes supported by a straight belt. When Anglo Texans began cowboying in the early 1800s, they called these chaps “shotguns” because of the resemblance to a double-barreled gun. They were the prevailing style, usually with outside pockets added, for well over a century. Cowboys from Texas and vaqueros from California mingled on the open Montana ranges. Shotgun chaps, both plain and fur-covered, were worn by all. During the icy winter the “woolies” were favored since they kept the legs warmer.
Winged chaps, sometimes referred to as “apron chaps” or “batwings” began to appear in the 1800s. A product of the South Texas brush country, they provided protection to the lower leg and the wing was an extension of the fringed side flap on shotguns. The first wings were cut straight and were not excessively wide. Later versions tapered out from the legs and flapped when the wearer walked.
Check back in the coming weeks to read the second part of Phil Livingston’s history of chaps. Dennis Moreland Tack is a full line manufacturer of handmade tack. We know how important it is to have safe, high quality, durable tack on the ranch or in the backwoods and we make hard-working tack for these purposes. If you have any questions, please feel free to call at 817-312-5305 or email at email@example.com.