From trainmaster to trailmaster, Earl Southard has held several titles in recent years, while always maintaining the notion of putting people first.
Now, Southard says that attitude has helped his business, Trailmaster Holsters, gain popularity around the country and the world.
“Outdoors has been as much my DNA as eating or anything else,” said Southard.
Southard says his love for nature and exploration are the reasons behind his business.
“All of my products are designed by me, cut out of the leather by me, hand-stamped by me,” he said.
Southard says his custom leather holsters were born out of a need to stay safe in the wilderness; they’re designed to hold a small rifle while allowing the consumer to carry a fully-packed backpack.
Southard has logged more than 1,500 miles on foot exploring in the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex, often taking friends and colleagues, who gave him the nickname, ‘Trailmaster’, for the many adventures over the past 20 years. They were also the first to test Southard’s custom holsters.
“What nobody does is make something specific to carry a weapon in the backwoods, and it’s nice to know that when I go backpacking, not only do am I wearing one, but everybody that goes with me seems to be wearing one as well,” he said.
While he’s never had to use his firearm in his decades of exploring the Bob, Southard says his holsters are dependable and ready for any emergency like a grizzly bear encounter or a personal injury.
“Should that scenario arise, the rig I’ve designed for that purpose meets that need, not to mention, I’m getting older and fatter, I could fall off the trail and hurt my leg if I’m out by myself,” he said.
Southard’s experiences in the Bob Marshall now serve as a quality standard each time he creates a product.
“They’re built around the standard that they got to be strong; they got to last me. When I go into the Bob Marshall you cannot have gear fail you in the Bob Marshall when you’re 25 miles from a road, so they’re built with that in mind,” he said.
Trailmaster Holsters’ business logo, a compass rose, highlights Southard’s passion for exploration along with his service to our country.
“What it represents is integrity; because no matter which was the world turns, north is always north, true is always true, so that’s kind of the guiding principle for my business is integrity, not to mention that the first core value of the Air Force is integrity first,” he said.
Over his 24 year career in the U.S. Air Force, Southard served around the world before retiring as a First Sergeant in 2006.
His service in the U.S. included working on the missile sites at Malmstrom Air Force Base as a Facilities Maintenance Specialist; Southard also spent time in California as an Instructor of Military Technologies and Alaska before making his return to the Treasure State.
“I kind of believe that Montana is one of the last best places left, I really do and I’m not just talking about the U.S. I’ve been a couple other places overseas,” he said.
Throughout his military career and time after as a BNSF Trainmaster, Southard says people were his business and believes this continues to be true for Trailmaster Holsters.
“So the first thing for me is the relationship with the customer. It seems like every customer that calls me, we have like a relationship, it’s almost an oddity. I meet the nicest people around and that’s actually primary to building them a quality holster.”
Often times, Southard says customers calls don’t involve placing an order.
“I really like the customers who call to talk about the Bob Marshall. Once they find out that I’ve got a few miles back up there, they ask for places to go. But other people call me up and talk politics, they’ll talk maybe church, they’ll call up just to see how I’m doing. It’s like it’s more a friendship than a business,” he said.
Southard purchases all of his products from Montana vendors, including Montana Leather Company and Tandy Leather Factory in Billings and Shining Mountain Images in Great Falls. He believes the best customer service comes from the Treasure State.
“So, I don’t think outside maybe a tool, I never went out of Montana for any of the raw products I use to make my finished products with,” he said.
Southard’s holsters have shipped everywhere, including to Australia, Switzerland, Norway and Argentina.
“Y’know that just blows my mind because Argentina is the capital of the cowboy world I mean that, if you think cowboy, Argentina is the new wild, wild west. So yeah, I consider that a compliment, I really do that was kind of a proud moment,” he said.
Southard says his explorations will continue to test the durability of his products and hopes customers get a chance to take his holsters out for an adventure of their own.
“Every time I’ve been in there it’s been the trip of a lifetime- every one. If you only got to take one I’d recommend everybody get into the Bob Marshall. On horse on foot, whatever,” he said.
Trailmaster Holsters makes leather holsters for a limited number of firearms, for more information, visit their website.
Reporting by Keeley Van Middendorp for MTN News