Red Wing Iron Ranger – Is It Really the Ultimate Boot?

Iron Rangers have a reputation as the best first boot a man can buy — the ultimate entry-level boot for guys who want to level up from sneakers and cheap chukkas.

They’re probably the least controversial pick for an solid all rounder, beloved by Reddit and a favorite of celebrities like Bradley Cooper and Dave Franco. Deeply tied to the history of Minnesota’s iron mines, Red Wing designed footwear for miners toiling deep inside the state’s Mesabi Iron Ranger in the 1920s and from there, the Iron Ranger was born.

But does that actually make it a good boot for urban men?

[See my comparison of Red Wing vs. Thursday boots!]

Red Wing Iron Ranger Overview

The word “classic” is overused when talking about men’s leather boots, but damn if that isn’t the first word that comes to mind when looking at a pair of smooth, understated, undeniably masculine boots like Iron Rangers. There’s just something about this boot. It’s beautiful but simple, tough but subtle.

The defining feature is the toecap, which is attached over the shoe’s body with a dual double stitch along the foot’s break. While it’s certainly slimmer than a Timberland or construction boot, you wouldn’t call the Iron Ranger sleek. The toe cap lends it a rounder, more bulbous toe than competing models like the Wolverine 1000 Mile. While it’s great with a button down or a t-shirt, I don’t think it dresses up very easily — they’d look ludicrous with a tie. With that said, I’d consider the boot to fit just fine with a well-put together smart casual outfit or with work jeans. That’s a tough design feat to pull off.

Outside of the toe cap, the rest of the boot is triple stitched with wax threads, and I found no loose threads. The first four pairs of eyelets are nickel and the top three are nickel speed hooks. (Some folks complain about the speed hooks dressing down the boot, but any cobbler can swap those out for a pittance.) The tongue of the boot, meanwhile, is attached to the inside of the leather upper, which could help to keep it from fraying over time.

The leather is full grain — more on that below — and thick, but there’s no inner lining like you’ll find in some of Red Wing’s more dedicated work boots. This makes for a more classic, understated look but it also means they’re not the warmest boots on the market.

[Get the best price for Red Wings through our link here.]

What Is Red Wing Heritage?

Nowadays, the Iron Ranger is no longer worn in mines. The boot has left Red Wing’s line of work boots and is now only available in their more fashion-focused Heritage line. That means that while they’re not safety tested for factory work and they don’t have lining on the inside, they’re still made from the company’s beloved thick, full grain leather and have become a favorite of fashion conscious men across the globe.

Red Wing Iron Ranger step

Red Wing Iron Ranger Leather

  • Full Grain, oil-tanned leather
  • Very thick, full grain

One of the first things I noticed is how thick the leather is, certainly more than two millimeters. The Iron Ranger is made from full grain leather, a type that many consider the highest quality grade leather on the market. It comes from the top layer of the hide (the steer’s skin) and includes the skin’s natural grain.

Full grain leather is usually compared with top grain, which has the top surface sanded away. Broadly speaking — there are exceptions to this rule — this makes top grain more uniform in color than full grain, but also less durable. Top grain leather typically won’t attain the patina and unique character that a pair of full grain leather boots will over time.

So while full grain leather won’t always be completely perfect and uniform in color, it makes for boots that look better, more distinct, and more you as they age. (I’m being normative, here; there are some full grain leathers that are uniform in color and top grains that aren’t, but this is a good rule of thumb nonetheless.)

It’s worth pointing out that much of Red Wing’s leather, like the roughout used for Hawthorne muleskinner leather, comes from their owned and operated tannery called S.B. Foot Tanning Co. However, the wording on their site is ambiguous and it’s not actually clear if the leather for their other Iron Rangers use their leather. Some Iron Ranger colors use slightly different kinds of leather, which I’ll discuss in the next section.

Red Wing Iron Ranger Leather Care

  • “Rough & Tough” leather may need conditioning less often
  • Red Wing recommends mink oil and pine pitch for conditioning
  • Neatsfoot-based leather cream may help retain color

The Iron Rangers are oil-tanned, which Red Wing says makes them resistant to water, stain, and perspiration. Before they leave the factory, they’re conditioned with their own boot oil that’s made from a combination of pine pitch and mink oil. That means you don’t need to condition them yourself until you’ve been wearing them for a couple of months.

Conditioning the leather, as you probably know, will turn it a darker color, which is something to keep in mind when selecting color. If you find yourself really attached to the boot’s color out of the box, you might consider using Red Wing’s leather cream, which is made with neatsfoot oil (rendered from the shinbones and feet of cattle) and is purposefully formulated to hydrate leather without changing the color. Venetian Shoe Cream would also work fine.

The standard leather used for most Iron Rangers requires a good conditioning every few months, depending on how often you wear them and what kind of a beating they take. Red Wing recommends their own boot oil and while I used Obenauf’s on my moc toes without any issues, I probably should have stuck with mink oil because I really darkened this leather.

Any of these products I mentioned will make them pretty water resistant, but you can add some leather protector if you want to maximize their resistance to water and dirt without suffocating the leather with a super heavy duty oil like Obenauf’s Heavy Duty LP.

It’s important to note that a couple of colors, (Charcoal and Copper) are made from what they call Rough & Tough leather. That’s still full grain, but it’s a kind of pull up leather: an extra moist, perhaps more durable kind of full grain that is so full of oils that it changes color when you rub it. Put pressure on the inside of the boot and it’ll brighten a little, run your fingers on the outside and it darkens. Regardless of whether it’s tougher, there’s a consensus that it needs less conditioning compared to standard full grain. You probably only need to oil it once or twice a year.

[See what I thought of the Charcoal Rough & Tough leather in my review of Red Wing’s Moc Toe boots!]

Finally, one of the boots comes in Hawthorne Muleskinner Leather. It’s made of roughout leather, which is a little fuzzier in texture and is created with what they call a “reverse-suede technique.” That means it uses the “flesh side” of the leather, which is why they look a little more like actual cow skin. Consider a rubber suede cleaner when they get dirty.

There’s a lot of debate as to whether or not you should ever care for roughout leather since oiling, conditioning, or waxing can ruin the fuzzy nap. That said, roughout is a little less water resistant and tends to absorb water more easily. The boot should still be water resistant but if you’re really concerned, you can experiment with non-silicon based waterproofing spray, which should help retain the nap. If some day the leather starts cracking, some people like to condition the inside of the boot to retain the outward fuzz.

[Read more: Red Wink Ming Oil vs Leather Oil –  Which Is Better?]

Red Wing Iron Ranger sole

Red Wing Iron Ranger Sole

  • 7mm Vibram Mini Lug sole
  • Older models have nitrile cork sole
  • 270-degree Goodyear welt

There’s a lot of talk out there about the nitrile cork sole: if it slips easily, if it’s flexible, if it’s durable. (Yes to all three.)

The truth is that it doesn’t matter — as of summer 2018, the Iron Ranger no longer has a cork sole. It’s being completely phased out in favor of a Vibram mini lug sole. That’s a high performance, oil resistant, flexible, yet low profile rubber sole that’s 7 millimeters thick.

This means the Iron Rangers no longer make loud, authoritative footsteps nor are they precisely as “classic” looking as they once were, but the good news is that it also means they’re a little more comfortable, they absorb shock a little better, they’re more durable, and you’re less likely to careen into a gutter when strolling in icy conditions.

The rest of the sole remains the same: the Vibram is attached to a cork midsole layer which over time will mold to your foot to produce that worn-in “fits like a glove”-ness That cork is attached to a steel shank, which spans the arch and is intended to provide some arch support, and the leather insole, which is attached to the boot with a 270-degree Goodyear welt. The Goodyear welt makes it easier to resole and provides another layer of water resistance, though it also means the leather insole can’t be removed.

A 270-degree welt may be a tiny bit less water resistant and a tiny bit harder to resole, but probably not to any practical degree. It’s mostly an aesthetic difference and it can make for a slightly sleeker boot when compared to a 360-degree welt.

The sole is my least favorite part of the shoe. The leather insole doesn’t offer much arch support or heel cushioning and it’s not particularly soft or yielding. Plus, in my opinion the boot is simply too slim to comfortably fit an orthotic insole.

Red Wing Iron Ranger fit

Red Wing Iron Ranger Fit and Sizing

  • Order half size smaller than sneaker size
  • Width available in D and EE

The rumors are true: order a half size smaller than you usually wear in sneakers. I’ve always found it baffling why shoe companies appear to purposely do this, as Red Wing themselves state on their site that their shoes are essentially sized too big, but there it is: half a size smaller, even when wearing the thick wool socks that you likely wear with your boots.

Particularly since a lot of guys don’t really know their precise shoe size, I’d recommend trying them on in-store if at all possible and if not, heading to a shoe store anyway to get your foot measured in a Brannock device. (Yep, that’s the shoe-sizing ruler-looking thing.)

The Iron Ranger is available in two different widths: D for medium width and EE for wider guys. That’s not a great selection, since there are six potential widths, but D and EE is still a decent selection.

Red Wing Iron Ranger Break In

There are conflicting reports as to just how quickly these boots break in or even if they need to be broken in and all, but I needed about four wears over ten days to feel comfortable in these, about 30 hours. I always advise spending a day in the boots and then giving the shoes and your feet a day or two to recover before leaping back into the fray — my feet were indeed sore both during and shortly after the first few wears.

Red Wing Iron Ranger Price

At the time of writing, a pair of Iron Rangers costs $320 on Amazon, Nordstrom, and Red Wing’s official site. The good news is they regularly go on sale and dip below $300 — subscribe to the subreddit r/FrugaleMaleFashion and every month or two you should see them available at a discount at Nordstrom.

[Get the best price on Red Wing Iron Rangers on Amazon!]

Red Wing Iron Ranger finish

Red Wing Iron Ranger: To Buy or Not to Buy?

I like this boot. It’s beautiful, versatile, durable, it has good grip — at least it will once all the soles are replaced with Vibram — and it’s instantly recognizable. They’re a unique force in footwear: competitors are either less popular or have less cache, but Red Wing is right in the sweet spot of expensive enough to be admired, but not so expensive that you’ll seldom meet another guy with a pair. It’s also hard to find a boot with such thick leather that can be comfortably worn in the city.

It’s not a perfect boot. The insole isn’t particularly soft and they’re very hard to break in, but my biggest complaint is that they aren’t at home in formal situations. The bulbous toecap and nickel eyelets dresses the boot down, even when compared to competitors like Wolverine’s 1000 Mile.

But I’m excited about the future of Iron Rangers. With the new vibram soles, I think a lot of complaints about the hard heel and the iffy grip will be washed away and the boot will have new legions of fans.

This boot isn’t going anywhere.

[Love the look of this boot? Shop the Iron Ranger from Red Wing here.]

The following two tabs change content below.
By day: Manhattan-based journalist with reporting experience on four continents, published in Vice, Men's Health, Popular Science, and a bunch of other places.By night: ravenous consumer of anything and everything related to high end men's boots.Stridewise is where I nurture a maniacal obsession with footwear and share my findings. Say hey: [email protected]

12 thoughts on “Red Wing Iron Ranger – Is It Really the Ultimate Boot?”

  1. Nick,

    I first found your YouTube videos, while I was looking at Thursday Boots. Those videos lead to my purchase of a pair of Captains. The same week that my Captains arrived in the mail, I stumbled onto my first pair of Red Wings at a Nordstrom Rack. That was in October of 2018.

    They were an older version of the Blacksmith (with the Cork sole), in what my daughter calls the “Kidney Bean” colorway. As I hit the internet to learn more about them, I learned they were a Japanese marketed boot. Additionally, I learned/was warned about the “Red Wing Addiction”.

    I laughed off the addiction warning… then proceeded to buy a pair (of either Blacksmith, Beckman, or Iron Rangers) per week. I’ve since narrowed my focus to boots that are not available in the US, or are out of production…basically buying when I run across something I didn’t know existed.

    Not that there isn’t a certain amount of fun to this process, but when my wife asks me, “How many pairs of boots do you ‘need’?”, I don’t have an answer. So, I asked Red Wing if they have a listing of all their series numbers of boots they have produced (to let me know how many more I ‘need’), but they said they have no such records. Ugh!

    Do you happen to know if someone has compiled this list?

    • Hey Skidder! Thanks for reaching out my man. You know Red Wing is discontinuing the Beckman? I wanted to review them but it doesn’t seem like there’s a point now, which is a shame. I’ve got some brand new Blacksmith boots that I’m going to review though.

      I love hearing about your creeping boot addiction! It’s so interesting and it sounds like we’re kindred souls. A list of all Red Wing boots in existence? Now that I don’t know, I’d have reached out to them personally but since you did that and had no answers… check out the Red Wing GM in this interview I did https://stridewise.com/red-wing-boot-japan/ he seemed pretty responsive on Linkedin and might have that info? Long shot though.

  2. Yeah, the fourth pair on the way. Like tattoos…once you get one you gotta get more. Thank dog I never got started on tattoos.

    And wife actually said that yesterday when I told her another pair are on their way…”How many pairs of those boots do you need?” I just roll my eyes.

    I started with the ‘cheap’ 595’s. Oh man, they have to be the most comfortable shoes I’ve ever worn. EVER. Next a pair of Iron Rangers – Oxblood. They are so damn cool. A pair of work chukkas in briar oil, now my favorite go-to. And the fourth one a moc-toe in briar oil again. Just love the way they look all oiled up, and are self-repairing, they always look good.

    Oxyclean for the white soles – they stay looking new. My IR’s get a very thin insole of leather and cush, not much more will fit in there.

    And yes, they’re all a half-size smaller than everything else and very comfortable. The blood-red ones are on as we speak. 😉

    The 595’s are about due for a re-sole. The factory can install the original style sole.

    Did you see the guy that put christy soles on his IR’s? They look pretty darn nice.

    • Hey Chris thanks for your comment man. Yes, the boot bug definitely bit me hard as well! Red Wings were my first proper boots, I’ve got the Blacksmiths in Briar Oil Slick right now but haven’t seen an oxblood IR in the wild! Show me the christy soles?

  3. Full grain means the entire skin. Split leather is just that; a skin that is sliced into a thin top grain and a thin suede. That way you get twice the use out of one skin. Most bootmakers refer to full grain leather that is reversed so the fleshy side is on the outside of the shoe as “roughout”. High quality boots and jackets are always made with the full thickness of the skin being used.

  4. Hey man, LOVE your videos– best boot reviews/ videos online period.

    I would really really love you to review the Corcoran WWII jump boot though (the brown one especially but would love a comparison of the 3 varieties they have- two in black and one brown)

    Im very interested in your insight on the leather and overall quality.

  5. Great website, thank you for such great content. I pulled the trigger on a pair of Iron Rangers in black a week or so ago and am having some serious ‘buyers remorse’. I’d urge anyone thinking of buying a pair to think carefully.

    I usually take a UK12/US13 in Nike, Converse sneakers etc, and a UK11/US12 in English brogues and other dress shoes. My right foot is 30.5cm and my left 29.5. I was urged by the salesman at Red Wing to buy a UK10.5/US11.5. They are plenty long enough but the width is a real problem. These are a narrow boot, be warned! The fit is very idiosyncratic. Although there is heaps of length, you can feel the seams at the side and the rivets in the top of the boot, when you inevitably have to ‘size down’. The laces also don’t loop the top pair of hooks. This produces a very weird ‘stepping out of the boot feel’ when you walk in them.

    I did take them back and tried the EE width which was sloppy sideways, and the US12 which was clownishly long with lots of heel lift. The salesman laughed when I suggested exchanging them for the wider pair saying ‘you definitely don’t have wide feet’. My initial feeling was that I should have exchanged them for the moc toe, which are more forgiving width-wise, from what I understand. I’m really beginning to wish I’d done that, however, I really needed a semi-formal pair of boots.

    After 4 full days of wear I’m really beginning to dislike them. Both my little toes are totalled from a blister on top that has rubbed the skin off. I also have discomfit in my calves, thighs and butt. I have a history of back pain which I’m thankfully over now, but today I thought I could feel it firing up again after another day in the Rangers- which are very flat and hard soled.

    Moral of the story- these are a tricky boot with a few foibles in the fit. Definitely don’t be worried about walking out of the shop if you don’t get a great feeling from them straight away.

    • Hey so glad you like the site, Chris! Iron Rangers are a solid boot. Sorry to hear the fit isn’t working out, sometimes the last just isn’t for you. I know this is counterintuitive but since you’re wearing them anyway, maybe you’re just wearing them in? Keep at it for a week or so before deciding? If still bad you can always sell them on eBay for a couple hundred bucks. Not an ideal turnout though, sorry man.

Leave a Comment