Red Wing Blacksmith vs Iron Ranger: The Heritage Boot Battle

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William Barton Avatar by  William Barton | Last Updated:  Jan 27, 2021

The plain-toe punisher

Red Wing Blacksmith

The cap-toe killer

Red Wing Iron Ranger

Both the Blacksmith and Iron Ranger are built with top-of-the-line materials, like a Vibram 430 mini lug sole. If you prefer the plain-toe look, the Blacksmith is the right boot for you. While you won’t find many of Red Wing’s most iconic leathers, there are still plenty of interesting color options and the quality is just as strong as the Iron Ranger.

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The Iron Ranger is the icon, and it’s the boot to beat. With a 270-degree Goodyear welt and models featuring Red Wing’s beloved Amber Harness and Roughout leather, the only reason to not get the Iron Ranger is if you don’t like the cap-toe, or if the high-contrast nickel eyelets are distracting to you.

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Pros:

  • Plain-toe is sleeker and leaves a little more room in the front of the boot
  • Brass hardware doesn’t contrast to much with the leather
  • Unique and interesting leather options
  • Iconic style with the nickel eyelets and bulbous toe box
  • Like the Blacksmith, it has in-house tanned leather and a 270-degree Goodyear welt
  • Toe-cap adds more durability and gives a great masculine look

Cons:

  • Not available in some of Red Wing’s most famous leathers
  • Needs shoe trees to keep the vamp from sinking and making the toe look even more bulbous

Do you ever get tired of taking good care of your boots? 

Man, I was walking through the woods in my Iron Rangers the other day, and I was tippy-toeing through the mud when I thought, these are heavy-duty boots. Why am I so scared of getting them dirty? 

That was it—I just charged through the mud, enjoying every second of it. My Iron Rangers are my beater-boot, but I still want a Red Wing that I can wear into town. So I picked up the Blacksmith. 

And that begs the question:

In the Red Wing Blacksmith vs Iron Ranger debate, which is the better boot? 

Well, in this article, I’m going to break each one down and lay them out side-by-side so you can make the right choice for yourself.

Let’s dive in. 

Red Wing Blacksmith vs Iron Ranger: Overview

Red Wing Blacksmith vs Iron Ranger Boots Side by Side Compared on White Background
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Blacksmith Iron Ranger
Upper Full grain oil tanned leather Full grain oil tanned leather
Sole Leather and cork Leather and cork
Outsole Vibram 430 mini lug Vibram 430 mini lug
Style Plain-toe Cap-toe
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Red Wing Blacksmith

Red Wing Blacksmith 9 1

The Red Wing Blacksmith picks up where the discontinued Beckman left off. It’s made on the same last as the Iron Ranger, so the style is nearly identical besides a few key differences. 

For one, it doesn’t have a cap-toe, so it looks sleeker and has more room to wiggle your toes around. Also, the hardware is brass instead of nickel—that means it blends in better with whichever leather you choose. 

The Blacksmiths are available in a few different leather-types. The most popular are the Briar Slick, Black Prairie, and Roughout. 

Red Wing Blacksmith 19

I picked up the Black Prairie leather because it shows the natural tan leather color through the black paint as the boot ages and scuffs.  

The Blacksmith seems to be Red Wing’s answer to the Wolverine 1000 Mile boot—it’s remarkably similar, but the Vibram mini lug sole (and the less-expensive price) makes the Blacksmith a clear winner. For more on this, check out this Boot Battle video from our YouTube channel below:

What I Like

  • I’m a big fan of the Black Prairie leather—it’s matte, smooth, and it’s going to look very distinctive as it ages.

  • The brass eyelets compliment the leather options well and don’t contrast as harshly as the nickel Iron Ranger hardware. 

What I Don’t Like

  • Some of Red Wing’s most beloved leathers are missing from the Blacksmith model.

Red Wing Iron Ranger

Thursday and Red Wing 41

The Red Wing Iron Ranger is an old classic. With its distinctive cap-toe and nickel plated eyelets, it’s easy to spot an Iron Ranger from a few dozen yards away. 

It may be helpful to think of the Blacksmith as a riff on the Iron Ranger. They’re both built on the same No. 8 last, so they both have the same bulbous toe box. Some people love it, and it’s a little too “work-wear” for others. 

In my opinion, the Iron Ranger hits the perfect balance of style and ruggedness. It’s a beefy boot, but the full grain leather upper and fairly slim sole keep it classic looking.

What I Like

  • The Amber Harness leather is tough to break-in but it patinas so beautifully and looks incredible after a few months. 

  • The toe-cap and contrasting eyelets lend a lot of rugged style to this boot.

What I Don’t Like

  • The toe-cap keeps its shape much better than the vamp, so you’ll need shoe trees to help the vamp stay in shape over the years.

Leather Quality and Care

red wing iron ranger boots on gravel next to river

Up to this point, I’ve highlighted the differences between the Blacksmith and Iron Ranger, but these are remarkably similar boots. 

Both are made with full grain oil tanned leather from the SB Foot Tanning Company in Red Wing, Minnesota (owned by Red Wing boots). 

The leather on each unlined boot is 2mm thick, which is excellent for durability. The Black Prairie leather I have on the Blacksmith is a smooth-finished leather, which means it has very little shine to it. The Amber Harness Iron Rangers are quite matte, too, but not to the same degree as my Blacksmiths. 

Red Wing Blacksmith 7 1

I’ve been treating my Iron Rangers with Venetian shoe cream, though Red Wing recommends boot oil or neatsfoot oil. I wouldn’t treat either of these with Red Wing boot oil as it darkens the leather significantly, though neatsfoot oil likely wouldn’t. 

Venetian Shoe Cream
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Still, I have some Venetian on hand and it does a fantastic job with my Wolverine’s, Thursday’s, and Iron Rangers

I used Venetian on the Black Prairie leather and it added a little shine that dissipated in about two days.

Red Wing Iron Ranger with cedar shoe trees and leather balm

The most important thing for both the Blacksmiths and Iron Rangers is to use cedar shoe trees. Any boot built on the Red Wing #8 last is prone to sinking in the vamp, so to help these boots keep their shape, shoe trees are a must. 

Sole

Red Wing Blacksmith 13 1

Both boots are outfitted with a Vibram 430 mini-lug sole. I’ve had my Iron Rangers for about four months, and even with consistent wear, the heel looks nearly new. Now, I usually don’t destroy boots within four months, but I’m still quite impressed with the durability of the sole to date. 

I’ve had plenty of grip through rainy and muddy situations, and I think this sole is leaps and bounds better than some close competitors

Red Wing Iron Ranger vibram sole walking down stairs

The leather insole is the same for both boots as well. Neither has a lot of shock absorption, so take note if you stand in one place for most of your day. They’re not the most comfortable for long periods of standing, but they do become increasingly comfortable over time. 

Fit and Sizing

Thursday and Red Wing 12

I had my Iron Rangers sized in-person. Red Wing uses a fancy machine to digitally measure your foot—I was recommended a half-size lower. And if a computer says it, it’s hard to deny. 

There’s a tiny fraction more room in the toe of the Blacksmith than there is in the Iron Ranger. It doesn’t make a difference in the fit and feel for me, but I’ve heard it can be a game-changer for narrow footed folks. 

If you have narrow feet, Red Wing recommends going a full size smaller—with the Iron Rangers, your toe might start to feel cramped. But the extra quarter-inch in the Blacksmith is really nice if that’s your situation. 

Break in Period

Red Wing Iron Ranger

I had a rough go with the Iron Rangers for the first two weeks. I was sweating through my thick wool socks at the height of summer in the name of looking cool. Don’t get me wrong: it was totally worth it. 

You’ll have no trouble finding other folks online complaining about their Amber Harness Iron Ranger experiences. 

But the Black Prairie leather was a breeze. The worst the break-in got for my Blacksmiths was a tender (but not blistered) heel. After a night’s sleep, it was good as new. The next time I wore my Blacksmiths, I didn’t have any trouble whatsoever. 

Standout features

Cap-toe

Thursday and Red Wing 41

The Red Wing Iron Ranger has a quadruple stitched cap-toe. For most purposes, this is only important for style, though there is more abrasion resistance with the extra leather. 

If you have a small foot, you may want to avoid the cap-toe as it can visually shorten the length of your foot. That said, neither the Iron Ranger or Blacksmith are particularly flattering if you have shorter feet because it’s a stocky, bulbous boot. 

Hardware

Red Wing Blacksmith 19

The Iron Ranger has nickel-plated eyelets and speed hooks, while the Blacksmith uses brass.

The difference is subtle, but it may be a deciding factor for you. Look at both sets below. Which do you prefer?

Red Wing Blacksmith vs Iron Ranger Boots Side by Side Compared

The Blacksmith’s hardware compliments the leather, and the Iron Ranger’s hardware contrasts. 

Again, there’s no inherent benefit to either—it’s simply a matter of taste. 

Which Boot Should You Get?

If you’re indecisive, I have bad news for you: both boots are equal in all things. It’s up to your personal preference. 

My preference is for the Iron Ranger

I think the cap-toe and contrasting hardware is more tough and rugged looking, which is exactly what I’m looking for in this boot (since I wear them mainly for style). 

It’s important to note that the Blacksmith is usually about $30 less expensive, though I doubt that makes much of a difference if you’re shopping for a $300 boot. 

Red Wing Blacksmith

The Red Wing Blacksmith is very similar to the brand’s super-popular Iron Ranger boot, but it doesn’t have a cap-toe. The Black Prairie leather is gorgeous, and the Vibram sole and Goodyear welt means this boot will last for years and years.

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If you really can’t decide which of these two boots you like better, choose the Iron Ranger. It’s the icon. 

But if you prefer the plain-toe look of the Blacksmith, you’re still getting an excellent value boot—the quality is the same as the Iron Ranger. 

Either way, you can’t go wrong. Unless you skip both of these boots. That would be a mistake. 

Oh, and if you like boot battles as much as you like videos, you’ll love the BootSpy YouTube channel—don’t forget to subscribe.

FAQs

What’s the difference between the Beckman, Blacksmith, and Iron Ranger?

The Red Wing Beckman had a slimmer toe than the Blacksmith and Iron Ranger. Red Wing discontinued the Beckman in favor of the Blacksmith, which is essentially a plain-toe version of the Iron Ranger.

Can you wear Red Wings in the rain?

Yes, you can wear Red Wings in the rain. Most Red Wing boots are Goodyear welted, so they have a significant degree of water resistance. They’re not waterproof, so try not to soak them through, but a few trips into the rain won’t damage them.

How do you break in Red Wing boots fast?

Wear thick wool socks and put as many miles of walking as you can with your Red Wings. With boots this nice, don’t try any zany methods of wetting them down or spraying alcohol on them. Just a few good old fashion marches will do the trick.

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