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Red Wing Iron Ranger 8111: Four Year-Review

Stitchdown

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Wanted to share a four-year review I did on my Red Wing Iron Ranger 8111 boots. I've posted the highlights from the review here, as the full review is good and long—but it's packed with a ton more info, photos, impressions, background, and a pretty fun lineup of photos of how other people's 8111 boots have developed different patina over time. Check it out on Stitchdown.

Here are some pics to whet your boot appetites:

Red_Wing_Iron_Ranger6.JPEG



Red_Wing_Iron_Ranger9.JPEG
Red_Wing_Iron_Ranger11.JPEG
Red_Wing_Iron_Ranger14.JPEG


__________________

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: $319

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.

Looks
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.

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.

Rating: 9.5/10

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).

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.

Rating: 8.5/10

Break-In
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.]

Rating: 6/10

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. 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.

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!!!”

Rating: 9/10

Outsole
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.

Rating: 9/10

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—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:

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.

Rating: 10/10

Value
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.

Rating: 9.5/10

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).

Overall Rating: 8.8/10


Again, if you want to read the whole thing and see a lot more photos—including those comparison photos of other people's 8111s, the full review is right here.

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gnatty8

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Great review on a great pair of boots. I wore nothing but Alden for years, and took a shot on Red Wings about 5 years ago, and now they're my go-to boot and I've since bought another 3 pair. My break in experience was about the same, and so much so in one pair, that I had RW swap out the speedhooks for eyelets.
 

Stitchdown

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Great review on a great pair of boots. I wore nothing but Alden for years, and took a shot on Red Wings about 5 years ago, and now they're my go-to boot and I've since bought another 3 pair. My break in experience was about the same, and so much so in one pair, that I had RW swap out the speedhooks for eyelets.

Ahhh, not a bad move on the speed hook switchout! Although long term for me they're just so much easier (the ONLY bad part of having a kid is shoes off in the house now...). My boots progression was kind of the reverse—Thorogoods, two pairs of Red Wings, some Wolverines, then the next three were Aldens. But I got another pair of Iron Rangers (8083s) most recently, and have some Red Wing Moc Toe 8138s on the way. These boots can coexist!

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