Chaps (pronounced “shaps” and short for chaparajos) were originated as a protective garment worn by cowboys in brushy areas. There are many reasons for the use of chaps from decorative to practical. This study will include the origin as well as the practical uses of chaps.
Chaps originated in Spain and Mexico. The first known use of them was for riders to wear when working cattle. They were two large pieces of cowhide that were used to form a protective shield over both the riders legs as well as the horse’s chest. Hooking onto the saddles horn, they served both purposes well, but were bulky and hard to work with; therefore chaps were conceived.
Batwings – Originally the most prevalent type of chaps were batwings. These chaps were mostly just an outer layer of leather, usually with three clasps to hold them on the leg. One clasp was near the top of the leg, one behind the knee and one around mid calf.
You will see batwings in most early westerns and western art. Frederick Remington and Charles Russell probably never heard of shotgun chaps which are more common today. Batwing chaps could keep a cowboy’s legs safe from brambles and brush, but they weren’t a lot of help keeping the legs warm in cold weather.
Batwings mostly gave way to shotgun chaps in the mid 20th century; however batwings are still popular today among rodeo cowboys for the decorative value as well as the fact that they flop around so much during a ride that they can help show good spurring traits.
Shotgun – Shotgun chaps tend to be more fitted to the individual than batwings. They are formed from leather, usually with a zipper to zip up and encase each leg, as if in armor. Shotguns can be used to keep warm in cold weather as well as protection from thorns and brush.
Both kinds of chaps are also useful in a branding corral protecting against all kinds of dangers such as vaccination needles and hot branding irons.
Chinks (short for chinkaderos) – Chinks came along in the latter part of the 20th century and have grown quite popular, although there are still pockets of holdouts here and there. Chinks have been called “cowboy shorts” by some individuals who don’t want to change, but they are quite practical for the working cowboy.
Usually made in a similar fashion to shotguns, chinks are simply cut off around knee to mid-calf level, and have fringe around the outer edge. Much more comfortable in warm weather, chinks, like batwings and shotguns, serve a purpose in the cowboy life style. Since most cowboys wear boots that come up near the knee, chinks protect the area above the boot.
Chaps are also useful for other reasons. Leather chaps stick to a leather saddle or a bareback horse better than do fabric trousers and help the rider stay in the saddle.