For lack of a more all inclusive term for our purposes, the following group of animal skins I have classified as simply riding grade.
In the late 1920’s, with the Industrial revolution in full swing and when manufacturing was actually done in the U.S., a company named Schott NYC came out with the first jacket specifically designed for the comfort, convenience, and protection of the motorcycle enthusiast. The Perfecto had all the characteristics of what we know today as the traditional or classic style motorcycle jacket. The material of choice, and thus the first true “riding grade” leather, was horsehide.
Today, most commercial leather tanning and garment manufacturing is done in Pakistan, India, and more recently, China. While they are indeed experts in the manufacturing of all kinds of leather, Buffalo and Cowhide have emerged as the predominant leathers that have been determined to be strong enough and thick enough to protect a biker’s skin from a bad case of road rash.
This is not to say that’s your only choice. I hear the Aussies are making some jackets out of kangaroo, and I’m sure somebody has taken a slide down a sand dune in a nice camel skin jacket, I just haven’t seen any testing on how they would hold up on an asphalt surface, and they aren’t really commercially produced in mass quantities anyway.
With the determining factors for riding grade leather being thickness and strength, both buffalo and cowhide in their most natural state meet the criteria. But how do they compare?
Riding grade biker leather should be at least 1 millimeter thick; indeed most quality motorcycle jackets and chaps range from 1.2mm up to 1.6mm. Cowhide is thicker than buffalo hide naturally, but thickness can and often is altered in the tanning process.
The strength of the leather (resistance to tearing) is determined by the outer skin, the epidermis if you will, which is referred to in the industry as the “grain”. Once again, after much stress testing, cowhide wins out.
The Bottom Line
Clearly, cowhide is the superior leather for both strength and durability, yet buffalo is quite adequate in terms of protection and esthetics. Once again, it’s your choice. Buffalo is (or should be) less expensive than cowhide. If you run across some “soft leather” as mentioned previously, that should be cheaper than buffalo.
But! Riding grade leather is not solely determined the type of animal skin used. How the hides are finished is also a major consideration to take into account.
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