Bruce Nelson Combat Leather – A Look Back
by Sandy Froman

I first met Bruce Nelson in November of 1982 at my parents’ house in Northern California. At the time, I was living and working as a lawyer in Los Angeles and had flown to the Bay Area to have Thanksgiving dinner with my family. My sister and her husband had met Bruce earlier that year while taking a course at Gunsite in Northern Arizona where Bruce was an instructor. Bruce was living in the Bay Area so my sister had invited him to join our family’s Thanksgiving celebration.

Based on my sister’s recommendation, I had already signed up to take the beginning pistol class at Gunsite the following spring. So, I quizzed Bruce extensively over turkey dinner about what would be expected of me as a new student. I placed an order that evening for Bruce’s handmade leather gear for my Colt 1911 .45 ACP pistol. And I asked Bruce to certify to my “good character” as a prospective Gunsite student—it was then and still is a requirement to train at Gunsite that you be of good character and have no criminal record. He was amused at the request—probably because we had met for the first time that night—but he signed the letter I had typed for him. Maybe he knew then that we would be living together within six months!

At that time Bruce was still working full time as a Special Agent Supervisor for the California Department of Justice. He was assigned to the DOJ Bureau of Narcotics Enforcement. Much of his daily work involved undercover missions or supervising other agents in such difficult and dangerous assignments. He was also a chief firearms instructor for California DOJ, responsible for overseeing the firearms training curriculum of the agency. Often, he was asked to analyze officer-involved shootings, and make recommendations as to whether DOJ policy and training should be changed to prevent officer deaths and injuries.

Although Bruce’s professional time was devoted to his law enforcement career, he was actively engaged in designing and making custom holsters and related leather goods. Most weekends and evenings when he was not on an undercover assignment were spent in the garage of his San Bruno home cutting leather, sewing holsters, lowering gear into dye tanks, and writing up orders. When I moved up to the Bay Area to share Bruce’s life, I became his secretary, personal assistant and leather craft apprentice in addition to my full-time job teaching law school at Santa Clara University College of Law.

Bruce’s many years of experience with practical pistol craft, and close friendships with some of the most notable pioneers in that arena, gave him a deep understanding of how practical and functional concealment holsters should be designed and made. This real world experience led to working and re-working designs until they were fit for production. When Bruce was developing a new design, the leather scrap pile became quite large. If it wasn’t perfect, it didn’t leave the shop.

Two of the most notable examples of Bruce’s work are the #1 Professional and the Summer Special. Both are functional, practical, and logical designs that make it easy to carry a pistol for real world use. No one could have predicted that these holsters would become two of the most popular and copied designs in history. Over the years these holster designs have been made by some of the best shops in the industry and have inspired countless adaptations. The fact that after four decades these designs are still being made is a true testament to their intelligent and thoughtful creation.

Bruce retired from law enforcement in the summer of 1985, and we moved from California to make our home in Tucson, Arizona. We bought land on the edge of the Coronado National Forest, where we could safely shoot practically in our backyard. Bruce had become well known and sought after as one of the premier makers of custom concealment holsters. Bruce Nelson Combat Leather was established and his legacy grew each day as Bruce worked in his shop to build holsters that would become classics in the world of leather craft.

Production in the shop ceased with Bruce’s untimely death in February 1995 but his work and designs had already left an indelible mark on the world of concealment holsters and practical pistol craft. Now after 23 years, the legacy that is Bruce Nelson Combat Leather continues in the talented hands of Erik Little.

Erik, a former RECON Marine and retired Sheriff’s Deputy, is the owner and operator of Rafter L Combat Leather. Erik often credits Bruce as the major influence of his work and designs. Like Bruce, Erik’s history and experience in pistol craft further augments his skills as a leather worker and when combined together these skillsets lend themselves to an enhanced understanding of how functional concealment leather should be made.

Erik is picking up where Bruce left off and reestablishing the Bruce Nelson Combat Leather brand. It is with great pleasure that I give my support and blessing to Erik Little in his efforts to continue Bruce’s legacy and work. Erik will now be making Bruce’s designs on Bruce’s machines and with Bruce’s original patterns, making each holster by hand one at a time.

Bruce Nelson Combat Leather lives again!

Sandy Froman
Tucson, Arizona
March 2018

Brian Nelson:


I can’t believe he’s gone.  As long as I’ve been on this earth, he’s always been there.  On behalf of Sandy, our family and her family, I thank you so much for being here.  The gift of your presence, your calls and your thoughts are the best gift you could give to our grieving family. My brother would be so humbly flattered.

The only consolation to our loss is that Bruce lived his life just the way he wanted to, with passion and intensity.  He was never wishy-washy or gray.  He knew exactly how he was going to get from here to there and there was never room for a missed step or bad luck along the way.  I never met anyone who lived the idea of self-determination like my brother.

He was consumed by his passions.  Whether his love of music, photography or nature.  Sharing the joy of marksmanship or his athleticism.  The skill of his craftsmanship or his concern for your constitutional rights, his focus was always 110% and it allowed him to be so good at all of these.  And his passion for family and friends.  That’s why this room is filled with such a variety of people from such a broad spectrum of his life.

And now with his posthumous permission.  I’ll unwrap his gift to you.  Whether it’s a home project or hobby, your job or your dream or your family or your friends, be passionate.  Take it, immerse yourself in it.  Step back and reinvent it.  Focus on whatever it is and make it the best it can be.  The best you can be.  My brother would love that.

Brian Nelson

Clint Smith:

I first met Bruce in May 1978 at Gunsite. He was still a working cop for the California DOJ. I have carried a Summer Special and its Milt Sparks’ renditions since that time on a daily basis. As best as I can remember the holster was maybe $70.00, but no matter the cost it is and continues to be my EDC. After a period of time Bruce and I became friends, and I finally talked him into making me a LEO duty-belt and muzzle forward cant holster for the 1911. The basket weave holster, belt, mag pouches and cuff case were my daily carry from then on. The metal-shanked duty rig was my holster of choice, actually it was the only rig I used on duty and the Summer Special was and is my holster of choice to this day for CC EDC.

After moving on from Law enforcement and Gunsite, I visited and stayed with Bruce and Sandy at their home in Tucson.  While visiting I was able to watch as he made me a personalized rifle magazine pouch that I still use to this day.

Bruce established the bar of excellence in holsters for reality-based EDC. There were many who got into the holster game for competition purposes, but Bruce always held to the concept of a real holster for real work --he was a street cop and knew what was required. He built those holsters to save LE lives.

Upon his early passing the shop sat idle for a while. After a time it was my pleasure to introduce Erik to Sandy for the transfer of patterns and knowledge.  

Today because of Sandy’s willingness to share Bruce’s designs and Erik’s dedication to perfection, Bruce’s design are again available to you all.

You should not miss the chance to acquire and promote the legacy of Bruce Nelson, and no one has done it better than Erik.

There is a reason Sandy transferred this history to Erik Little.

YOU should find out why.

Clint Smith

U.S.M.C. 1967-1970

LEO 1970-1980

Gunsite 1980-1983

I.T.C. 1983-1993

Thunder Ranch, Texas 1993-2004

Thunder Ranch, Oregon 2004- Indefinite

Ken Hackathorn:

I first met Bruce Nelson at the ‘Columbia Conference’ in 1976 where Jeff Cooper set about creating IPSC.   The first half of each day was a morning seminar where we worked on the formation of the first action-oriented pistol shooting discipline. After lunch, we rallied at the MPPL range outside of Columbia, Missouri and Jeff ‘taught’ everyone a block of combat pistol training. Each afternoon these sessions were wrapped up with various shooting contests to determine who the big dogs were. Bruce Nelson was at the time an undercover narcotics cop for the California Bureau of Criminal Investigation.  The thing that made Bruce really standout to me was his extremely skilled shooting ability (he made me work hard to beat him). By the end of the weak, I had managed to squeak into first place, but Bruce was number two. He had been making holsters since his teenage years and had shot with Jeff Cooper's crowd not only at Big Bear, CA, but also with the Southern California Pistol league up at Wes Thompson’s range. Under the watchful eye of Jeff Cooper, Bruce had become not only very good with a pistol, but most importantly, he had formed many of his ideas as to what a really practical holster should be. As an undercover cop, he knew much more about how to carry and conceal a service pistol, and get it into action quickly. At the Columbia Conference he used a thumb break duty rig for his 1911 that he had made. Back in the day, most duty and concealment holsters had an extreme forward cant, aka the FBI cant. This required the users to assume a deep forward stance in order to make a smooth and fast draw. Often referred to as the ‘gunman’s crouch’ it had been around since the 1930s. Bruce recognized that the newer style of combat pistol shooting that he had done under Cooper’s influence did not utilize the ‘gunman’s crouch’, but rather a more erect stance. This had been proven to be much simpler, and most important faster than the old FBI crouch. Bruce’s holster designs reflected this as they had very little if any cant or angle to their design. Two holsters that have become copied extensively of Bruce Nelson are the “Summer Special” inside the pants holster and the Bruce Nelson cross draw.  Inside the pants holsters had been around for decades, but unique to Bruce Nelson’s design was that he put the ruff out surface of the holster on the outside to prevent movement of the holster, and added a single belt loop that snapped in place. Inside the pants holsters had all suffered one major drawback, and that was once you drew your sidearm, the holsters collapsed and made re-holstering very difficult. Bruce’s major change in the inside the pants holster was a reinforced leather ridge around the mouth of the holster. It made putting the pistol back in the holster much easier. Bruce favored the inside of the waist band carry with one of his design ‘Summer Specials’ for his Colt .45 auto LW Commander. He wore it in the appendix position with his shirt tail out covering the gun, along with the drooping shoulder “dropper” posture, he could protect the gun from any bump search, and the presentation from this rig was lightening fast….Interesting how over 40 plus years later this carry/draw technique is the current rage. By the way, as you can imagine, his Summer Special was straight drop…….zero cant or FBI rake would make this appendix draw nearly impossible  to do with speed or with a proper firing grip. With Bruce’s busy work schedule, and wanting to keep his identity protected do to his work……he turned his Summer Special design over to Milt Sparks and it is still in production today in its pure form. The second holster design that Bruce originated was his cross draw model. What was most unique to this design was two belt loops, the traditional tunnel loop on the back off the holster, but as part of the rear weld of the holster, Bruce added a second belt slot that pulled the butt of the pistol in tight to the body. One major drawback to most crossdraw holsters up until then was that they allowed the butt of the pistol to project out from the waist and print badly, and made it easy to grab the pistol grip and snatch the pistol from the wearer. This rear belt slot solved the problem perfectly. Remember, Bruce Nelson looked at his designs primarily as concealment rigs for 1911 pistols. Again, do to his work requirements, he offered this design to Milt Sparks to make and sell.  Milt did make a couple of changes, first he added the reinforced leather band to the mouth of the holster much like the ‘Summer Special’, and he saw the merit of making this holster a strong side carry version that would again pull the butt of the pistol in tight against the waist for best concealment. It also is still in the Milt Sparks product line as the BN55.  At the Columbia Conference the new holster designer for Bianchi Holsters was present. While Richard Nichols was not a student in the class or shooter in any of the events, he watched everyone to see what the handgun holster trends were.  Not long after this, Bianchi offered a couple of versions of holsters that clearly were influenced by the Bruce Nelson. The Bianchi ‘Pistol Pocket’ was similar to the Summer Special except that it had a thumb break security strap and utilized an FBI cant. Also, a version of the Bruce Nelson cross draw appeared as the ‘Askins Avenger’. It too had an FBI cant, originals had a snap off security strap. Rich Nichols, of Bianchi, told me that the Askins Avenger name was chosen because Col. Charles Askins was a well known top pistol expert, former US Border Patrolman, decorated Army Paratrooper, and National Pistol Champion. He was very well known as a gun writer of that era. Use of his name was felt to be a positive in the marketing of that holster. Charles Askins had nothing to do with the design of that Bianchi holster. Interestingly, today most folks refer to the Bruce Nelson holster design with rear belt slot as an Askins Avenger ‘style’ holster. It like the Summer Special has been copied and marketed by nearly everyone in the holster business. Bruce was not the kind of guy to seek applause in his accomplishments, he was proud that Milt Sparks made such fine products using his designs, and one told me that he felt that Lou Allessi made the finest quality copy of his crossdraw holster……to quote Bruce, “Lou’s product is better than I can make”.Bruce Nelson was a pro, humble to a fault……..I feel fortunate to have known him and considered him ‘one of the really good guys’.

Ken Hackathorn

Jack Furr:

This personal story of Bruce Nelson is one of many that stands out in my mind and shows what a genuine good human being he was. Bruce will always be in my memory.

I was a young law enforcement officer in South East Texas preparing to attend a 260 Defensive Shotgun class at The American Pistol Institute (Gunsite). On the drive to Arizona I had planned to visit Bruce at his home in Tucson prior to going on up to the Prescott area. On arrival in Tucson I called Bruce and told him I was in town and would be at his home within the hour and he said come on up. It was good seeing him again and we had a pleasant visit. A little later that evening Bruce asked me what type of shotgun I was planning to use in the 260 class and I told him I was going to use one of our department issue shotguns. Bruce asked me to show it to him and I took it out of the back of my SUV and he looked it over. I could tell that he wasn't impressed with our issue shotgun and he said to come back into the house as he wanted me to see his shotgun that had been prepared for serious work by a gunsmith that he knew well. Unfortunately, after all these years I cannot remember the gunsmiths name. Anyway, Bruce pointed out to me all the specific modifications that had been made to his Remington Model 870 that enhanced it's function which would also enhance my learning curve in that class. The 870 had a very good trigger, sights which could be seen quickly and were adjustable for windage and elevation, smooth action allowing one hand manipulation, extended magazine, a good leather sling, larger safety button and the stock had been shortened from factory specs and a different recoil pad installed. He asked me to shoulder the shotgun for fit and asked me how it felt good and pointed well.

Bruce insisted that I take his shotgun and use it in the class and leave the issue shotgun in the SUV. He went on saying that his shotgun would definitely make a difference in my learning curve and performance in the class especially how it patterned and it's ability to deliver slugs accurately if the operator did his/her job. Well, it was pretty hard to argue all his points and I thanked him for allowing me to take his personal shotgun with me to class and told him I would be responsible for it and take good care of it.

Altogether, I had known Bruce Nelson approximately two years at that point. Bruce had been my instructor in my 250 (General Pistol) class at Gunsite. We talked on the phone about holsters, law enforcement and I placed orders with him for holsters, belts and magazine pouches for other law enforcement officers in my area during those phone conversations and by letter.

To say that my 260-shotgun class was enhanced by my using his custom shotgun would be an understatement. It allowed me to perform at a level that our department issue shotgun would have never been able to reach under any circumstances, even with some modification as that particular shotgun was not intended for serious social purposes...only for wing shooting at best.

To me, it takes a special kind of person to allow someone whom they have known only a short while to take a personal firearm and use it in a class where it will be shot with bird, buck and slugs over 750 times and under rigorous conditions for an entire week and all he asked was that it be returned when I completed the class on my way back home...he even told me not to clean it. Well, I did clean it and told him that I really appreciated his allowing me to use his personal shotgun and I didn't know quite how to repay him. There is no way of repaying that special kind of kindness and trust but that was Bruce Nelson.

Later, when I became a staff instructor at API (Gunsite) and always remembering what Bruce did for me I loaned out my Remington 870 to young law enforcement officers who came with department issues shotguns and the circle was completed. I like to think that Bruce would approve.

Bruce Nelson was an icon in custom holster craft for anyone going into harms way, a talented small-arms instructor, professional law enforcement officer, first staff instructor at API (Gunsite), a kind and generous man, a loyal friend who I miss a great deal.

Jack Furr

Firebase Academy

Paulden, Arizona

Rick Furr:

I met Bruce in late 1976 at Gunsite I thought he was a great passionate instructor, or better yet, a teacher. We kind of hit it off and I knew that we would be friends in the future. I saw him a few times after that and ordered several of his holsters. When he and Sandy were thinking of moving to Arizona he called me and asked about Tucson. I told him about and soon after he told me they had found a place and bought it. He said he was going to retire from Law Enforcement and work on building BNCL to a full-time business. I told him I would help him with anything he might need. Soon after he moved in we went down to see him and Sandy and found his house was in a very beautiful location and he would be able to shoot by just walking out the back door. As time passed we become must closer friends and would attend gun shows and even the SHOT SHOW together a few times. These were some of my most fun times with Bruce. I got him to join IALEFI and at an Annual Training Conference in Mesa, Az. I had the privilege of assisting him teaching a concealed carry holster class. As time went by we became even closer friends. My wife would say I talked to him almost every day on the phone. Bruce was one of the kindest gentleman I have ever known. I surely miss him.

Rick Furr

Rick Miller:

I first met Bruce at the Columbia International Combat Pistol Conference at Columbia, Missouri in May of 1976.  This was the beginning of a long friendship and over the years we met at various matches around the country, in addition we held many long conversations on the telephone and worked together on several magazine articles on leather gear.

In 1985 and again in 1988, my wife Karen and I were the guests of Bruce and his wife Sandy Froman at their Spanish style home outside Tucson, Arizona.  Both visits were a delightful experience.  I fondly remember one sunny afternoon when Bruce and I played with our .45 Colt Peacemakers, and took turns setting up practical scenarios that reflected the way the "old timers" would have shot a hundred years ago.  Bruce remarked at the time that it is all well and good to work for the best efficiency in your practical shooting, but at the same time it is a good idea to remember the way it used to be done.

Bruce and his wife Sandy, a prominent attorney in the Tucson area, were very active over the years in the fight to defend the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.  In addition, Sandy is a past president of the National Rifle Association, and a very active supporter of gun owner's rights.

All in all, Bruce Nelson was a pioneering holster designer, and an experienced pistoleer who had a great influence on practical leather gear.  Above all, he was a good friend.  (2017-04-05 15.24.51)

Rick Miller

Jay Johnston:


First, I want to be clear that my association with Bruce was not extensive.  But this does not suggest that his impact was not great- I took it for granted when I met and worked with him in the late 80's that he would always be there.  I was very mistaken.

Bruce Nelson worked with me on a limited basis while I was on staff at the Department of Energy Central Training Academy (CTA).  As a new and inexperienced firearms instructor learning a trade, I was fortunate to have very experienced adjunct and staff instructors present, folks that went on to create schools and become relevant and respected names in firearms and tactics instruction.  Bruce Nelson was one of the inspirational instructors I speak of.  His calm and professional approach, gained from years of experience, was respected by the class and provided an excellent example to me personally as I learned.

In addition, Bruce made my first truly custom set of leather which I used for teaching many years and still have.  To state that it has held up well over the decades is to reinforce the professionalism and quality approach that exemplified the man.  Later, I was fortunate to test some of his prototypes and provide feedback.  I realize now that he is gone what an honor this was.

When I first heard Erik Little of Rafter-L was going to continue the legacy of Bruce Nelson Combat leather I was conflicted.  Not often can a follow-on product equal the original in my experience.  But having obtained some items from Rafter-L, and putting those products to use, I believe that if any maker can do it Rafter-L is one of a select few.  The skill level, materials and design approach, and philosophy...along with coordination with the Nelson estate and family reinforces the likelihood this will be true to the original and the man.

I’m not sure we can do better, or ask for more…

Jay A. Johnston

John Bianchi:

In the 1960’s we sponsored and attended lots of gun shows. At one of these shows in the young man Bruce Nelson and his young sister Nadine had put in for one of our raffles and won, if I remember correctly, a Winchester rifle. I was elated. These two kids were red blooded patriotic polite Americans, the kind we wanted to support in the firearms industry. Bruce was also very interested in leather work, so I hired him as an apprentice. We also hired his sister a bit later. We taught him all the basics and also the tips that separated the professional from the amateur. This would eventually help him to become a master holster maker and designer.  

Bruce always wanted to be a police officer and always talked about it. I wrote a letter of recommendation for him for his first job as a police office.

We always stayed in contact over the years. Bruce was an outstanding American, police officer, and you couldn’t ask for a better human being.

John Bianchi

Barrett Tillman:

Bruce remains one of the nicest and most impressive people I've ever known.  I'm pretty sure that we met at Gunsite in early 78 when he was instructing another class overlapping my 250.  Later Jeff confided that Bruce was the California undercover officer described in Cooper On Handguns, a sloppy character with long hair who seemingly slouched his way through life.

Bruce and I renewed acquaintance when he and Sandy attended an aviation event at Mesa's Falcon Field c. 1990.  Bruce's dad had been a pilot, and Bruce retained an interest in such things.

Bruce and my father hit it off, and Dad arranged for him to present his officer survival lecture to our sheriff's department in NE Oregon.  Dad was a long-longtime special deputy, and I was probably the only NRA certified instructor in the county, so I wrote and taught the first few years' CCW courses.  (The department also used our family range on the ranch: three bays with a mover plus a funhouse and a 360-degree indoor simulator.)

Dad sponsored Bruce's trip, which essentially was pro-bono for the SO.  I will always remember the color slide showing the four CHPs laid out after the 1970 Newhall incident. It was a sobering lesson, and Bruce's understated yet authoritative message was one the deputies took to heart.

Bruce stayed with my folks during that trip, and he phoned Sandy every night.  They were devoted to one another in a way I've seldom seen matched by married couples.

I've lost half a dozen friends between the ages of 46 and 52, starting with knife maker Al Mar in 1992 and continuing to Bruce in 1995. His death was an absolute shock because he was one of the healthiest people I ever knew.   I cannot remember how many people attended his funeral, but it was standing room only.  And small wonder.  He was irreplaceable--in so many way.

Barrett Tillman

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