They say it’s dangerous to meet your heroes. Before I bought my first pair, Red Wing Iron Ranger boots met that classification. I saw them on the streets. I stared longingly at pictures of them beaten to hell and rich with patina. At night I dreamed, and there they were.
Then one day I finally met them, officially. And they were exactly the hero I hoped they’d be. Relatable, fun-loving, down to spend all sorts of time with me. And damn handsome, in the way that heroes tend to be.
Few boots combine those classically muscled looks, long-term durability, and (eventual) comfort quite like the Red Wing Iron Ranger. Picking the most essential boot in the world is a doubtless an impossible task. But if you told me it was the Red Wing Iron Ranger, I would refuse to waste your time arguing for very long. Because of their popularity, price, and Red Wing’s wide availability, it’s fairly certain you won’t be the only person wearing them at a 50-person boot party. But if you’ve worn them for any period of time, yours definitely won’t look exactly like the other guy’s. Also, that sounds like a cool party.
This review will take you through looks, sizing and comfort, break-in, leather and care, outsoles (they’ve changed—for the better), and construction and durability before getting to the Stitchdown Final Take. And all of that is worth a read, to ensure you’re properly informed and armed before you make a decision on buying them, or something else. But a quick preview: I love mine, quite a lot.
- Alden Indy 403C Review: A Three-Year Look at a Near-Perfect Boot
- Thorogood Moc-Toe Boot In Tobacco Leather: Five-Year Review
- Tricker’s x Division Road Bourton: Five Months Into Some Wonderful Kudu
- Red Wing Iron Ranger: A Four-Year Review of a Timeless Boot
- Tricker’s Stow: A Two-Year Review of a Very Excellent Country Boot
The Brass Tacks
Shoemaker: Red Wing
Model: Iron Ranger 8111 in amber harness leather. Mine have the old nitrile cork sole; Red Wing moved all Iron Rangers onto Vibram 430 mini-lug soles a few years back.
Price: $320 (through that link at LA’s The Stronghold—you’ll see them as high as $330 elsewhere).
Years Worn: Four
Worn How Often?: On average for those four years, at least one time per week—although sometimes more frequently, especially when they were new (and my collection was smaller…) and when traveling.
How I Cared for Them: Cedar shoe trees usually inserted when not being worn; wiped down and brushed with a horsehair brush after getting muddy; full Red Wing mink oil treatment 2-3 times per year.
A Bit of History on Red Wing Heritage Boots
In 1908, Red Wing began creating some of America’s great workboots in—you’re never going to believe this—Red Wing, Minnesota. Founder Charles Beckman (who has a Red Wing boot named after him, naturally) developed boots for very specific work needs, from farmers, to blacksmiths, to Minnesota’s iron miners, which the Iron Ranger is named in honor of.
Over the years, the Red Wing range expanded, most notably to include their iconic moc-toe boots for hunters and other sportsmen, which were introduced in the 1950s. Today, Red Wing’s work-specific boots can be found on the feet of many a construction worker, welder, and more—but within the last couple decades, they’ve also focused on the Red Wing Heritage line of fashionable, functional boots that certainly can be used in many heavy work situations, but also transition quite cleanly into a casual lifestyle boot. The Iron Ranger reigns as the most popular boot in Red Wing’s Heritage line, and it’s easy to see why.
The Red Wing Iron Ranger is a boot’s boot. The kind of boot that other boots want to grow up to be, even though that’s basically impossible. The kind of boot that those boots can look at and say “that is an extremely handsome boot and yes I feel threatened by it, but here I am admitting it because DAMN.”
The quad-stitched, pleasingly bulbous toe cap. The nickel eyelets and speed hooks that provide some visual pop. The backstay that extends all the way up the rear of the boot. These and other design features have been mimicked over and over again by other boots—which is part of why Iron Rangers look like the boot that an eight-year-old might draw, in the best possible way. It reeks of rugged. It’s a prototype, an archetype. It’s just my type.
Iron Rangers come stock with Red Wing’s black/brown Taslan laces, which look good, but are often juuuuuuust a little shorter than you want. Which was fine—I wanted to swap mine out for leather laces anyway. I feel they give the boots a slightly different look than most other people’s, and just work on a boot like this. I’m pretty sure I’ve had them for three years and they’re holding up—and looking—great.
The one thing: Iron Rangers are fairly incapable of being dressy, so you definitely have to be ok with that. But for essentially any casual situation, this boot faces zero issues getting things done.
Sizing, Fit, and Comfort
I got sized into a 10.5D at the Red Wing store in Queens, and it was 100% the right fit. (For reference, I’m a 10EE in Thorogood Moc Toes, a 10 5-fitting in Tricker’s, an 11 in Wolverine 1000 Miles, and my three pairs of Alden Trubalance boots are 11D, although I’m probably actually a 10.5D in those as well—they’re damn comfortable but have some extra room in the toe and a bit of forefoot slop.) In many ways, this is my best fitting boot. Not in terms of pure comfort, necessarily. But definitely in regards to where my feet are at different points of the boot (especially the heel and forefoot), and how much space there is in the toe (almost none, yet I never jam my toes up against the front).
When I’m in these, I’m in them. I pretty much always wear them with medium-thick socks, usually Darn Tough socks (which have a no-questions-asked lifetime warranty, and which I can’t recommend highly enough). And I would never consider wearing anything along the lines of thin, dress-type socks—the unlined interior is just too rough to handle that.
As for comfort—well, definitely read the break-in section next. The short version of that: these things take some real time to reach what any reasonable person would consider “comfortable.” But they’ll get there, and you’ll be fine as long as you realize that every ounce of work you put in over the first few months is just a necessary and meaningful step towards making this boot your own. The hard leather footbed will compress and mold to your foot, and the boot’s upper leather will join in the dance as well.
I’d say that somewhere between three and four months in, the Iron Rangers morphed from just some boots into “my” boots. That’s a lot of time! But given that I’m four years in, and imagine another ten on the other side, it’s now ancient history that was plenty worth it. One of the most telling testimonials of how well they customize themselves to your foot can be felt when I switch into these after wearing other shoes for the first half of the day. When I initially put my foot in I feel like there’s something inside each boot, up between the ball of my foot and my toes. After three steps, I can’t feel it at all. The footbed knows my feet’s contours better than they do.
So are they comfortable? Yes they are, especially after you put in the work. Although in my opinion they’re not quite a contender for the most comfortable boot on the market or anything like that. For me, so far, that award goes to my Alden Indy 403C boots (three-year review here) and my Alden Roy plain-toe boots (review to come soon). But those are a different build featuring a glove leather lining and more luxurious leather footbed. It’s a different boot—and the Aldens cost almost twice as much.
The thing about Iron Rangers, from a comfort standpoint, is that you give up a lot during break-in—and a little over the rest of the boot’s life—to gain the certainty that these things are going to last, and last, and last. If they can spar with your feet, they are definitely going to display an even firmer resistance to any outside forces that want to do them ill.
There’s no reason to dance around it: these boots will repeatedly threaten to break you, before you break them. Also they will make it very difficult to dance at all, at the outset. In the first couple weeks, before the footbed began to mold, I experienced significant discomfort. My feet ached. Up around the eyelets, whose backs are good and raw, my ankles were jabbed at. The only move was to keep adjusting the tongue to cover them up, which helped.
But they got better with every wear—or at least every other wear. The leather softened up and started to display more and more give. The footbed gave itself over to my feet bit by bit. The eyelets/ankles issue went away, fairly quickly. On day one, they were unfriendly, standoffish. At month one, they weren’t exactly like having pillows strapped to my feet, but we were starting to get to know each other a bit. By month two, we were both pretty sure we could be close friends if we just worked at it a little bit more. Somewhere between month three and month four, we developed the kind of relationship in which you call each other even when you don’t have anything to talk about, just because it’s comforting.
I’ve heard from plenty of other people who have had similar experiences as me, and others who have said “You know what, it wasn’t that bad!” So it your break-in mileage definitely may vary. But in short: there’s a chance that the break-in will not prove the most fun, but all good things are worth a little work.
[Side note: This review is, once again, for the Red Wing Iron Ranger 8111 boot in amber harness leather. I also own a pair of Iron Ranger 8083 boots in Hawthorne Muleskinner roughout, which were significantly easier and quicker to break in—I’d probably rate them an 8 out of 10. I’m unsure if that has to do with the leather (which long-term honestly doesn’t seem quite as bulletproof as the amber harness, which is possibly why it’s easier to work in at the beginning) or just me having been through an Iron Ranger break-in once before. But if you’re truly terrified of contending with a rough break-in, and like their look, definitely consider the 8083s instead of the 8111s.]
Leather and Care
Out of the box, the amber harness leather on the 8111 boots may not initially seem like the world’s most interesting leather—but the range of where it can end up years down the road, depending on wear and conditioning, is legitimately astounding. Here, let’s look at some pictures:
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Our Newest BootHunter @rude.gent & His Red Wing Heritage Iron Rangers There are many like them, but these ones are HIS. Without HIM, they are useless. Without them, HE is useless. . . Patience, discipline, and consistency are principles that HE has always tried to apply to HIS life. Whether it be strength training, work ethic, or boot maintenance, those three play a very important role. HE had no idea what HIS boots were going to look like after 2 years, but HE knew with time and effort, HE was going to have something amazing. Strangely enough, taking care of HIS boots taught HIM the importance of self-care and making time for it so that HE, like HIS boots, age well. . 📸: @2brick.kubrick • Model: Redwing Heritage Iron Ranger 8111 . #redwing #RedwingWednesday #redwingheritage #8111 #ironrangers8111 #ironrangers #boots #leatherboots #fallessentials #mensstyle #mensfashion #blogger #seattlerblogger #pnw #upperleftusa #bootlife #bootcare #fashion #style #instafashion #menswear #o
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Iron Ranger Really, do I need to say anything more. It's an iconic classic for a reason. Just look at that photo again 😊📸 my favorite boot style and that leather is getting a patina almost as nice as the Iron behind it. 💪 boot for the #bootSquad — @redwingheritage Iron Ranger #8111 — – #8111 #ironranger #harnessleather #patina_perfection #stilllifephotography #boothunter #redwinguniverse #ruggedstyle #ruggedworkwear #ruggedman #ruggedbeauty #redwingheritage #redwingboots #myredwings #redwingvirus #ranger
Those are all the same boot! What in the sam hell.
Harness leather is about as durable shoe leather gets—it’s also used for riding tack and other things that can’t afford to be anything but crazily strong, like weightlifters belts. Red Wing’s is oil-tanned, which keeps it good and durable—in many ways it stands counter to a chrome-tanned pull-up leather like Chromexcel, which scuffs very easily, but can generally be horsehair-brushed back to life. The amber harness will resist small scuffs, as well as water and other potentially staining scourges—and again, the patina can go in infinite directions depending on how you treat them over time.
I didn’t notice any imperfections on my Iron Rangers’ leather out of the box. But if you happen to get a pair with some, chances are they’ll be overshadowed by the perfect imperfections that come naturally with hard wear. So I’d counsel you shouldn’t worry about it too much, unless you’re planning on keeping your Iron Rangers pristine, which I’d term a unique and interesting plan.
The leather is definitely stiff at first, which contributes to the notoriously tough break-in period. It becomes significantly more supple as it becomes worn in, though, and also conforms to your foot and ankle in a meaningful way. Despite that softening, four years in it’s still as bulletproof as I could ever hope for. I have managed to bless them with a couple small nicks that have torn the leather up, including one on the toe and a number on the backstay (I’m pretty sure from catching on the speed hooks as I relentlessly shuffle my feet under my writing desk). But given the situations I gladly hurl these boots into—including lots of tree-felling/wood splitting in the fall—I’m neither surprised nor upset that they’ve gotten that way.
The only care product I’ve ever used on these is Red Wing mink oil, which can restore a beaten-down boot quickly—but also, it must be known, tends to darken the boot significantly. I just pull the laces out, rub a bit in with my fingers (Just a bit! It’s easy to overdo it, so go slow—you can always add more), and then let that sit for maybe a half-hour before giving it a go with a horsehair brush that I’ve classily labeled “MINK OIL!!!”
I’ve really enjoyed the darkened look for their first four years, but gazing at pictures like those above also gives me half a mind to try a new product next time they’re thirsty, just to see what direction they take them in over time. Already thinking hard about some Kiwi neutral polish on the toe/backstay like that first pic above…
My Iron Rangers, being the older model, came with the nitrile cork outsole. It’s designed as a non-slip outsole, and it’s possible that’s true for many work-type surfaces. But on the wrong kind of pavement or sidewalk in the rain, or on wet natural surfaces with leaves and mud, they can sometimes be more yes-slip. Trusting that outsole on ice or snow is definitely something to avoid. That said, all Iron Rangers now come with the tread-happy Vibram mini-lug outsole—which I what I have, and love, on my Iron Ranger 8083 boots in Hawthorne Muleskinner roughout.
Since it’s what’s available now, I’m basing this rating on the Vibram mini-lug, which I consider a significantly more capable outsole. Even with that one, I wouldn’t recommend these as a boot to trudge through a foot of snow, or really more than a few inches—this is an unlined leather boot that honestly isn’t designed to be used as a true winter boot, anyway. But for the most part, it grips what it needs to, when it needs to—I’ve taken the 8083s on long hikes for which I would never consider using my older-model 8111s with the nitrile cork outsole. And even though I’m sure you’ll find people who disagree, for me it doesn’t really ruin the profile of the boot whatsoever.
MORE STITCHDOWN SHOE AND BOOT REVIEWS
- Alden Indy 403C Boot in Brown Chromexcel: Three-Year Review
- Thorogood Moc-Toe Boot in Tobacco Leather: Five-Year Review
Construction and Durability
These boots are built to last, and it’s obvious. The 270-degree Goodyear welt seems fairly infallible, and also makes them easy to resole when the time comes—and given how well the rest of this boot is constructed, if you wear them for the years and years that you should, a resole will most definitely come. I’ve never had an issue with loose stitches or anything of that nature. That leather footbed isn’t a joy to break in, but that’s over quickly enough, and the tradeoff there is knowing that it’s not about to fail anytime soon.
A story on that: I met Bryan at the Red Wing Heritage store in Manhattan (which is featured on Stitchdown’s master list of all the Best Men’s Shoe Stores in New York City)—and I also met his boots.
He wore his Iron Rangers for eight years solid, including at one point 700 days straight, while on the road playing music and living out of a van. Needless to say, he didn’t exactly baby them. After that significant abuse, the footbed eventually contracted and shrunk away. It’s possible that they could’ve been repaired, but at that point, they’d done what Bryan needed from them. See his boots below:
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If you take care of your boots, they’ll take care of you, right? Shoe trees and lots of rest and a general caring attitude? Can’t go wrong! On the other hand, if you wear your boots for eight years, at one point for more than 700 days IN A ROW, sometimes going three days, sometimes four at a time without even taking them off, because you’re literally living in your car while crisscrossing the country to play music? Well, your footbed contracts and shrinks away, and you figure it’s just too much trouble to get them repaired, and your boots retire and become a tiny little museum dedicated to all the things an Iron Ranger 8111 can overcome, and become. Happy #RedWingWednesday everyone. #redwing #redwingboots #8111 #ironranger #boots #bootweather #bootseason #bootaddict #fashion #style #mensfashion #mensstyle #menstyle #mensshoes #mensboots #menwithclass #styleformen #styleforum #dailylast #shoecollector #shoeaddict #shoegame #shoelover #instashoes #shoeporn #mensfashionreview
Now imagine NOT wearing them every day (the highly recommended practice for any quality footwear is giving them at least a day of rest after wearing to dry out), and using shoe trees (also recommended to help recovery and post-wear drying to protect against potentially corrosive sweat and other moisture), and you get the idea of how well this construction can withstand the world.
Value, as always, is subjective. But at this price point, it’s hard to argue that Iron Ranger boots aren’t one of the best values around in a rugged, everlasting, handsomely styled boot from a trusted shoemaker. Yes, there Chippewa sells similar-ish boots (without the cap toe) for slightly less. The exceedingly similar Thorogood Dodgeville boots generally retail around $20 cheaper and go on sale more often than Iron Rangers—although they’re tougher to find. Obviously what everyone has available to spend varies. But $20, or really even closer to $100, shouldn’t be a major concern on any boot that’s got 10+ years in its tank.
The Stitchdown Final Take
This is a pair of boots that has it all: looks, durability, invincible leather, and a very competitive price for a boot with all those qualities. They’ve also got comfort, in time—you’ve just gotta be willing to work for it, and said difficulty of break-in is the only reason this review didn’t net out at a 9.2 or 9.3 out of 10. But if you like the looks of Iron Ranger boots and everything else they offer, I would spend a significant amount of time counseling you on the break-in being completely worth it. Hell, I personally bought a second pair (those 8083s).
The overall recommendation on Red Wing Iron Ranger boots is: buy them! I’ve put my Iron Rangers through a ton in four years, and plan to put them through a ton more—my suspicion is that they will be very thankful for it. As will I.
Overall Rating: 8.8/10