How to recognize a good repro McClellan Saddle

There are two specific elements that are essential in selecting and evaluating a repro McClellan. One is quality of materials and workmanship and the other is authenticity. These weigh about evenly in selecting the best repro saddle, but quality of materials and workmanship is a bit more important when we consider safety, durability and maintenance. The fit of the saddle is an over-riding concern, but this we've covered elsewhere, so I'll just cover quality of materials, workmanship and authenticity here.

The first and often the most important measure of the materials and workmanship of the saddle is simply how does it look? If it looks sloppy, poorly made, lightweight, or too heavy, shows poor craftsmanship, then trust your instincts. It is probably not what you've been looking for. If it looks good, solid and well finished, then take the next step and make a detailed examination of the materials.

The original Ordnance Department specifications required that the saddle fittings be made of "heavy harness leather". This material was described as, "at least 10oz weight". Today we usually think of heavy harness as 12-14oz weight material. The fittings especially the straps should all be cut from the back and upper sides of the hide (not bellies) of vegetable tanned harness leather. Some makers use stuffed harness or plain vegetable tanned skirting leather for saddle fittings, which is acceptable, but stuffed harness should be avoided for bridles and halters and plain vegetable tanned leather should be well oiled as part of the finishing process of the saddle. The strap leather should be split down to 12-14oz and not used as it comes from the hide. To check the leather quality, look on the flesh (back) side. It should be close grained, smooth, flat, hard and not spongy or too flexible. The thickness of the straps should be consistent. It should not be 14oz at one end and 11oz at the other, and it should only be dyed on the grain (top) side. (Note: One ounce weight is 1/64 inch thickness, i.e.: 16oz = 1/4 inch)

The black dye on the grain side should be uniformly applied and should have a flat satin, not shiny or hard surface, appearance. The flesh side should be un-dyed and free of dye bleeding. It's color should be more like mahogany than white pine. The edges should be dyed black, but not edged with enamel. The dye should not wipe off onto your hands. If it does, scrub the surface with a soft white cloth and if the dye still comes off it is poor quality dye work and probably cannot be corrected.

The straps should be of uniform width throughout their full length. There should be no wavy edges or nicks. The curves of the skirts, sweat leathers and stirrup hoods should flow neatly. All cut strap ends should be square. The edges of all pieces should be No 2 beveled and smooth. The upper edges of the saddle skirts should be gently skived (shaved) down to about 3-5oz weight to blend with the saddle seat. Straps may be creased, but this was not common. Some contractor and officer saddles had this feature, but most enlisted saddles were plainly finished.

Stitching should be at least 7 stitches per inch, 8 stitches were prescribed by the Ordnance specifications. By comparison, custom English bridle work has about 16 stitches per inch. Thread should be heavy, at least five cord or #207 or larger. Natural or artificial sinew is never used. The correct authentic thread is waxed five cord natural linen. Poly and poly blend thread is quite acceptable provided it is not bright white. This thread is available in a "neutral" color that is difficult to distinguish from linen. This is a matter of choice between the saddle maker and the customer. Hand stitching is technically correct and is preferred for a high quality saddle, but some saddle maker's are very good with a machine and machine stitched saddles are often less expensive. Regardless of the thread or stitching method, all stitches should be tight and sunk slightly below the surface, and the holes should be filled. They should be straight and even on both sides and of the same length on both sides. The finished ends should be neat and no loose thread should protrude from the last stitch. The last stitch should be finished either with a back stitch or box stitch. The strap ends should be skived down when folded back for buckle chapes. The fold back should be about 2 1/2 inches for average straps. Tongue holes should be spaced 1 1/2 times the width of the strap and 2 1/2 times from the billet end. There should always be an odd number of holes, usually five except on the girth billets. Hole should be oval not round, and the tongue should pass through freely but snugly.

The brass screws attaching the saddle skirts should all be sunk flush to the surface of the leather. The heads should all be parallel to the ground. All brass screws should be #6 x 3/4 inch.

Running loops should be made with two rows of full length stitches, not stapled or cross stitched.

All hardware should be iron, not brass, and all should be hard black lacquered. "D" rings should be 2 inches and side bar rings should be 1 1/4 inch I.D. The ring staples should be bent strap iron, not castings. These should be driven into the side bars. Semi-circular foot loops did not appear for this purpose until much later. All the foot staples should be "low". There are those that claim that the "high" foot staples were used in the latter part of the Civil War for securing the saddlebags. There is no documentation for this until 1885, but the high foot staples do make it easier to run the saddle bag billet through. So this is a matter of choice. The stirrup strap buckles and coat strap buckles are iron bar buckles.

If a new tree is used, it should be off-white in color. There should be no lumps nicks or bumps on the seat and the raw hide should be smoothly and tightly applied. The lacing should be pulled tight and should be located so as not to chafe either the rider or the horse. If a stripped 1904/17 tree is used it should be checked for soundness. Set it flat on a strong hard surface and press hard with full weight onto the pommel and cantle. If the tree flexes noticeably, it is not sound. Pull and twist the stirrup hanger loops. If the hinges move, even slightly the tree is unsound. Make sure that there are no cuts or slits in the raw hide and that all the lacing is sound and present.

Quality of materials and workmanship can be somewhat subjective, but authenticity is not. There is a specification for the way an 1859 McClellan should look. If the repro does not meet the requirements of the specification it is less than an authentic 1859 McClellan.

The authentic 1859 Pattern repro McClellan cavalry saddle should look something like this:

Made of heavy harness leather (12-14 oz). All hardware is iron, black jappaned. All buckles are iron, bar type, black jappaned, four ring staples of strap iron, black jappaned and driven into the side bars. Stirrup hanger loops on a new tree should be steel rectangles, on a stripped 1904/17, brass truncated jappaned black. It is not recommended that the 04/17 hangers be replaced. The "D" rings should be iron, black jappaned, without stops (spades), but with stops is acceptable, since common lore is that the stop was in use late in the Civil War. Stirrup hoods should not have "US" embosses. Rivets should all be copper. Stitches should be a minimum of 7 per inch, 8 is better and thread should not be bright white. 38 brass screws should be used to attach the saddle skirts. Stirrups should be "bell" shaped. Toe kicks are advisable and not inaccurate although not specified. Sweat leather loops should be formed of cased leather. There should be three rows of stitches on all the straps.

You may want to trust the saddle maker to make the saddle details from patterns of the correct quantities dimensions, shape and thickness, but it is wise to do a little study of references showing original saddles before you accept what you are sold. All the correct hardware is now commercially available, so there is no excuse for the saddle maker to use substitute materials. Insist on authentic period hardware, materials and techniques of the saddler's art. Avoid leather straps that is either too light or too thick and rigid. The saddler has the tools to split the leather to exactly the correct weight. As I said early on, trust your instincts. It must look right.

There are not more than a hand full of saddle makers that have shown themselves capable of turning out a quality reproduction. If you intend to purchase a saddle, don't be afraid to ask the maker about his work and references and see how he measures up to the above quality, materials, workmanship and authenticity measures described above.

What different types of leather are there?

Latigo Leather: This is a general term used describe alum, chrome or other mineral salts tannage. A latigo is a cincha-strap on a western style saddle. Oiled, chrome tanned straps were, and still are, used for this purpose because it is strong and has considerable stretch. Because of its use in saddlery, "latigo" became a general term for mostly all chrome tannage. About 80% of all commercial leather goods used today are of this tannage; furniture, clothing, shoes, luggage etc. Latigo leather is sometimes wrongly called oil tanned. It may be oiled after tanning for certain uses, but no oil is used in the tanning process. The only true "oil tanned" leather today is chamois and some other exotic animal skins.

Bridle Leather: Technically this is vegetable tanned leather that has been further curried with waxes and animal oils. It has a finer hand and is suppler than common un-curried vegetable tanned leather. The best true bridle leathers still come from England, but there are other very good bridle leathers offered. Unfortunately, today the term 'bridle leather" has come to mean any vegetable tanned leather that is fabricated into a bridle and oiled.

Harness Leather: as the name implies, is primarily used for strap and harness goods. It is vegetable tanned leather that is either "stuffed" or is heavily treated with some combination of oil, wax and tallow before use in fabricating straps and harness. "Stuffed" harness leather is saturated in a vat of warm oil, tallow and sometimes waxes. This mixture becomes "stuffed" into the body of the leather, leaving it waxy and slightly oily to the touch.  

Articles above written by Jim Ottevaere