Ah, the days of being a young lad.
I owned a single pair of shoes. I’d wear them every day until they were fully destroyed. And then I’d buy another $40 pair and destroy those, too.
It’s not so simple anymore.
Now I worry about things like “quality,” “durability,” and “style.”
They say, “you can never go home again.” Well, they’re right.
With my youthful years of buying the cheapest quality footwear behind me, I’ve developed quite the boot collection. My first “nice” pair of boots was the Thursday Captain, and since then I’ve been researching and picking up extra pairs as I go.
And from the beginning, Red Wing has been on my mind.
I finally bit the bullet and invested in the pair of boots I’ve been wanting for close to three years now:
The Red Wing Iron Ranger.
It’s time to test these bad boys out and see if they’re everything I hoped for. Keep reading for my full review.
Red Wing Iron Ranger Overview
The Red Wing Iron Ranger is the most popular boot in Red Wing’s Heritage collection.
Originally crafted for Minnesota Iron Miners, this boot is all about rugged durability. It’s quite similar in looks to the Blacksmith from Red Wing, though it has a distinctive bulbous toe-cap.
The Iron Ranger has many competitors and copy-cats, but few are bold enough to leave that much room in the toe.
Another classic distinction is the four nickel eyelets and three nickel speedhooks. The bright contrast between the eyelets and the rich oil tanned leather tells you you’re looking at an Iron Ranger.
Things to Consider Before Buying the Red Wing Iron Ranger
The Iron Ranger is an investment. Some balk at buying a boot that’s potentially over $300. I get it. I was the same way.
But when you consider that a minor amount of care will keep these boots humming for decades, it’s not so daunting.
When I went into the Red Wing store, I asked how long these should last. They said the day before someone brought in their Iron Rangers from 1972. It was the 7th time they were being resoled, and they apparently still looked great (certainly not new, but with tons of character).
That’s something you don’t hear about with other boots.
It’s also worth considering your intestinal fortitude before buying the Iron Ranger. The break-in period requires courage, determination, and stamina. You might consider downing a glass of whiskey and biting down on a leather belt during your first stroll around town.
I’m joking a bit here—it wasn’t that bad. But I definitely had blisters and my feet were sore, and my guess is that yours will be, too.
Red Wing Iron Ranger Review
If you prefer watching to reading, check out the full video review we did on our YouTube channel:
“This boot is a beast.”
If you want to know the first thought that popped into my head after putting these on, that’s it.
This boot is a beast.
As I mentioned earlier, I’ve been wanting a pair of Iron Rangers for close to three years now. I’ve seen them out in the wild many times, and I was always jealous. I was familiar with their strengths and weaknesses from a style standpoint before I bought them.
They’re best worn with a pair of raw denim jeans. If you want to go full-out, cuff the jeans to complete the look. I’ve read some articles where people suggest pairing these with a suit, which seems crazy. You could also pair flip-flops with a suit. It just wouldn’t make any sense.
If I could only wear one outfit for the rest of my life, it’d be raw denim, an Oxford shirt, and a pair of service boots like the Iron Ranger. Most of my wardrobe supports that dream. so I haven’t had any problem finding an excuse to wear these out and about.
I’m impressed with Red Wing’s commitment to each product they sell. They offer a 1-year warranty and they have an easy-to-use repair service so you can keep your boots in top shape.
Leather Quality and Care
There are a few varieties of leather used across different Iron Ranger color options, so I’ll only speak to their Amber Harness, Oxblood Mesa, and Black Harness leathers. I discuss the other color options (Hawthorne, Copper, and Charcoal) later in this review.
This boot is made with thick oil-tanned full grain leather and it feels so creamy. It’s immediately apparent that this leather is both sturdy and excellent quality.
The leather tanning process is done in-house by a Red Wing-owned tannery in Minnesota that crafts the leather for all Red Wing companies, including Irish Setter and Vasque footwear.
It’s worth putting some care and attention into any pair of shoes or boots over $150, and there are a few simple things you can do to get the most out of your Iron Rangers.
The most important for this specific boot is getting a set of cedar shoe-trees.
Iron Rangers can start to look a little clownish after a few years if they’re your everyday boot. It’s always best to give them a day of rest every now and then so they can release some of that sweet foot moisture. And without shoe trees, that moisture can relax the leather at the instep and cause a depression leading to the toe-cap.
With the shoe trees, you’re going to draw excess moisture out and reinforce the structured shape.
I highly recommend a quality set of cedar shoe trees for any boot you want to take good care of. These Strattons are the best I've found. The spring is firm, but not overly so, making them easy to take out, and the design means they'll fit a wide range of your boots and shoes.
For $20, I highly recommend a set of cedar shoe trees for any boot you want to take good care of, but it’s especially important here.
Red Wing recommends their own boot oil for care, though I’m not a fan of how much this product darkens the leather. I prefer Venetian leather balm on my service boots. It’s shine-free and doesn’t darken the leather too much. Here’s my full guide on how to care for the Red Wing 8111.
After testing 10 of the most popular leather conditioners, Venetian came out as my top pick because it nourishes leather, doesn't change the color, and actually adds a decent amount of weather resistance as well.
I’ll probably oil my Iron Rangers once a year to boost their water resistance, but otherwise use leather balm the other two-three times I treat my boots.
As of 2016, the Iron Ranger comes with a 430 mini-lug Vibram sole. I was reading through some earlier reviews of this boot and a common complaint was with how slippery the sole was whenever the conditions were wet.
With the added lugs, Red Wing has beefed up their slip-resistance a significant amount.
But this sole really stands out because of its durability. I’ve been wearing my Iron Rangers for a few weeks and the soles still look practically brand new.
Unlike similar service boots, the sole and the heel are completely made of the same material. So rather than having a wooden insert as part of a stacked heel, the sole is entirely made with Vibram’s hardened rubber material.
There’s still a leather and cork midsole like the original version which your foot will eventually sink into. I’m still working into mine, but after two weeks it’s already much more comfortable than when I first tried them on.
Fit and Sizing
I picked my Red Wings up at an official store so I was able to get my boot sized on some pretty futuristic foot measuring technology.
If you have a Red Wing near you, it may be a good idea to go in and get your fit from a professional. But if you’re not near a retailer, people generally have the same experience I did, which is: get a half-size smaller than your normal sneaker size.
So I’m a size 10.5 in sneakers, and in most of my other boots I wear that 10.5 size, too. But I fit into a size 10 Iron Ranger. It’s a little tight at first on the sides of my feet, but the leather stretches there the most, so even if you feel some pressure, it’s an issue that will break in.
This is the only real downside I can see to this boot. You know when you think about what it would be like to go back to high school and you shudder a little? Well I get that same feeling when I think about what it’d be like to get a new pair of Iron Rangers today.
I’ve gone through two weeks of breaking these in. And I don’t want to repeat it any time soon.
The inside of the boot is unlined. The rivets are exposed. The heel is stiff. The sole is as firm as a disgruntled man’s handshake.
And the first two weeks have been rough.
But they’re starting to become comfortable. As the leather breaks in, and as my feet start to sink into the sole, my Iron Rangers are starting to feel like they were custom-made just for me.
I’ve seen a similar story across several reviews, and it’s exactly what the gentleman who sold me my Red Wings told me would happen.
The way I see it, the break-in period is a good way to bond with other Iron Ranger owners. They say people who go through a traumatic experience together have a special connection. I’m still waiting to see someone out on the street with their Red Wings on so I can verify my theory.
Other Color Options
The photos you’re seeing are in the Amber Harness leather, but Red Wing also offers this iconic boot in a light wheat “Hawthorne,” Copper, and Charcoal rough-out leather.
I was tempted to get a rough-out leather option because I love how rugged it looks, but I figured I’d be putting my boots through enough to get that beat up patina over time anyway.
Rough out leather is somewhat similar to suede in that it’s the underside of the hide (rather than the smoother, outward facing part of the hide). But it’s much thicker and more durable than suede—less finicky, too.
In my research, I found that a lot of people had a much easier time breaking in their Iron Rangers in the Hawthorne, Copper, and Charcoal colorways due to the softer leather. Brown, Black, and Oxblood are all made with Red Wing’s classic in-house oil tanned full grain leather.
What do Other Reviewers Say About the Iron Ranger?
Iron Rangers are amongst the most beloved boots in America today. They appeal to boot purists, hipsters, and workers alike.
The Amber Harness Iron Rangers have racked up thousands of reviews at the time of writing and they have a stellar 4.5-star average.
Most of the negative comments were due to discomfort in the break-in phase. A common complaint was that the boot was too narrow. In my experience, they do fit a bit narrow, but so long as they’re not cutting off circulation, a snug fit on the sides is desirable. As the boot breaks in, it will stretch out on the sides a decent amount and you should end with an excellent fit.
Red Wing Iron Ranger Alternatives
Thursday Boots Captain
The Thursday Captain is our favorite service boot and it’s our top recommendation for this style. For the record, the Iron Ranger is higher quality than the Captain. But the Captain is roughly $120 less expensive.
For a detailed comparison between these two boots, check out our Boot Battle on YouTube:
Durability is a major consideration for me, but style slightly outranks it for me. The Thursday Captain has a more narrow toe-box so it has more versatility.
The Iron Ranger has a more rugged and bulbous look, which suits certain people’s style more, but it’s definitely less refined looking.
The Thursday Captain is an excellent deal. Made with Thursday's Chrome leather from Le Farc tannery (often compared to Horween Chromexcel), these boots are still holding up well after five years of wear. When (if?) these ever wear out, I’ll be getting them again.
Wolverine 1000-Mile Boot
This argument packs as much heat as the XBox vs Playstation debate.
Neither are right or wrong. Both boots are American classics, rugged, and as durable as you can get.
The Iron Ranger comes with a toe-cap by default, whereas the 1000-Mile boot doesn’t. However, if you like the toe-cap look, Wolverine makes a toe-capped version.
The biggest difference is in the leather. Wolverine uses Horween Chromexcel leather for their 1000-Mile, which is one of the best boot leathers on the market. Otherwise, there are a lot of similarities between these two boots.
The Wolverine 1000 Mile Boot is like an all-star team of America’s best boot-making materials. The Horween Chromexcel leather and Vibram heel cap offer rugged durability that can easily go for 1000 miles---or a decade, whichever comes first.
My Thoughts Overall On Red Wing Iron Ranger
What I Like
The Iron Ranger is made with thick full-grain oil-tanned leather made in-house in Red Wing, Minnesota.
I love the durable 7mm Vibram mini lug sole.
A gusseted tongue helps keep the exposed rivets from tearing up your ankles.
Overall, the construction and craftsmanship are second to none.
These boots have longevity and legacy.
What I Don’t Like
The break-in period is lengthy and difficult.
Competitors like the Thursday Captain can “dress up” better than the Iron Ranger.
The toe-cap can become “clownish” over the years if you don’t use shoe trees.
Who is Red Wing Iron Ranger for?
If you’re ready to invest in a rugged, durable, and stylish boot, the Red Wing Iron Ranger is a fantastic choice. Just be careful because many people end up with a boot addiction after picking up their first pair of Red Wings.
The Red Wing Iron Ranger is an American classic.
It’s up there with the Levi 501 and the Ray-Ban Clubmaster.
And it’s easy to see why.
With in-house oil-tanned full grain leather, a durable Vibram sole, and the iconic bump toe last construction, the Iron Ranger is as durable as it’s stylish.
I’d been wanting a pair for years. Well, I finally ponied up the cash and made my investment. I’m so glad I did.
While the break-in period was rough, I’m getting to the tail end now and I can tell that these boots will still be a go-to a decade from now.
They require a small amount of care—mainly just adding in shoe-trees to keep the vamp from sagging. But if you condition your Iron Rangers two or three times a year, you can expect excellent longevity from your boots, too.
Are Red Wing Iron Rangers comfortable?
Iron Rangers aren’t comfortable at first. They require a break-in period that lasts anywhere from two weeks to two months. But once they’re broken in, they fit like a glove.
Are Iron Rangers worth it?
Yes, Iron Rangers are absolutely worth the investment. These are high-quality boots made with the best materials.
Do Red Wing Iron Rangers run big?
Yes, the Iron Ranger runs large. I recommend getting a half-size smaller than your normal sneaker size.
How long will Iron Rangers last?
It depends on how well you care for them and how you use them. If you’re using them for everyday wear, they can easily last several decades if you condition them two-three times a year, add shoe trees, and resole them when needed, too.
How long does it take to break in Iron Rangers?
The worst of the break-in period was over after two weeks (eight wears). They’re still breaking in, but they no longer cause blisters or excess rubbing.