For a life in the saddle, chaps are an essential component of the cowboy’s gear. Modern designs have evolved from the original Spanish model (which involved two pieces of cowhide strapped to the saddle horn), so that there’s now a style to suit every rider’s needs.
Derived from the Spanish word “arma,” meaning “shield,” armitas were developed in the late 18th century as “little armor” for early buckaroos working for colonial haciendas. Although they protected riders from the elements, their design was somewhat cumbersome; the closed, three-quarter length leggings had to be put on like pants. Their primitive waist design resembled something closer to a fringed farrier’s apron than modern day chinks. Today’s traditional armitas are more practical, but still feature no buckle hardware. Now, as then, they are often embellished with conchos, embroidery, and fringe along the top, sides, and bottom.
Chinks were worn by the vaqueros of California and the Southwest, who sought greater versatility and air circulation while riding in warm climates. Chinks only reach two to four inches below the knee, just enough to brush the rider’s boots, and are secured high on the upper thigh by thin straps. The leg shape is somewhere between a batwing and shotgun, clinging close to the leg without being restrictive. Chinks are still popular in Southwestern states and on summer guest ranches, where staying cool is second only to protecting legs from the elements.
Batwing chaps increased in popularity after the closing of the open range, when more cowboy work was done afoot. The batwing’s open lower-leg design that buckles only around the upper leg allows for maximum air circulation and freedom of movement, while full-length flaps offer protection from trees and brush. The most popular descendant of the traditional batwing chap is the rodeo chap. Cowboys competing in roughstock events favor the flexibility of the batwing’s open cut, as well as the dramatic flap which modern leather masters have embellished and extended to highlight every leap of a bull or bronc.
Shotguns offer the highest level of protection and stability for riding in the most rugged conditions. They were used by range-working Texas cowboys and peaked in the 1870s, when they were the most common chap in the West. Their closed-leg, zip-up design traps in heat while keeping out rain, snow, and pests, particularly when oiled regularly. Shotguns lack the extravagant lower flap of batwing chaps, and instead flare just enough to fit snugly over a rider’s boot. Contemporary shotguns are worn by Western pleasure riders and schooling hunters, often with fringe.
Plain leather offered little in the way of warmth to cowboys north of the Texas border, so in the late 1880s, woolies began popping up across the Great Plains. Woolies are either made with a fleece, usually Angora, or cut from hair-on cow or buffalo hide, then lined with canvas for added moisture resistance. Although rarely seen today (though they can be found often enough on Great Basin buckaroos, especially in winter), woolies live on in the Western works of Frederic Remington and Charles Russell, whose paintings immortalize woolies alongside the rugged cowboys who wore them.