A runnin’ iron in the old days of the open range was used a lot more than today and for bad as well as good, but it is still used today, mostly for good. A runnin’ iron is a metal ring usually made of steel or iron. An average size runnin’ iron is about three inches in diameter and about a ¼ inch thick or little more, sometimes less. So it is the shape of a doughnut but the hole is a lot bigger, or in other words it’s like a big ring.
The purpose of the runnin’ iron is for branding. Out on the range calves are born, after the spring calves are born, after the spring branding that was already done in the corrals at the ranch headquarters, so they need to be branded also. Packing a long handled branding iron on a horse is not feasible, so just a steel ring is carried in the saddle bags or tied to the saddle. This ring is small and light weight but can make a brand about as good as the regular branding iron, if it’s used right.
An unbranded calf is called a slick ear because he has no identification tag with a number clipped to his ear like all the other calves that were previously branded. Some outfits clip out part of a calves ear for a mark identification- either way the ears of a new range born calf have no marks, thus the ears are “slick” or smooth.
A “maverick” is also an unbranded, and unmarked calf that has grown considerably bigger maybe even full grown, but has never been branded. On some of the big ranches in the southwest such as Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, etc. - Mavericks are fairly common because they roam immense territory and escape being caught for a year or two or more. Whether it’s a small calf or a maverick they both need to be branded where and when they are caught, thus the runnin’ iron.
The way this is accomplished goes like this: after the slick ear or maverick is roped and captured it is tied up or held tight by horses. A fire is built, and when it’s real hot, the runnin’ iron is placed in the fire at the hottest point. It is allowed to get red hot just like the branding iron, then it is removed and two sticks are inserted parallel to each other into the hole of the ring a little past the far side- one on each side of the ring so as to act like the handle when compressed together. The brand is then drawn or made by “running” the hot iron ring across the animals’ hair and hide in the configuration of the owners brand. In this way, cowboys or a cowboy can brand the owners livestock no matter how far away from the corrals it may be found, be it a mile of 20 miles, doesn’t matter- the job of branding gets done. In the old days of the unfenced west, cattle rustlers used to brand unbranded livestock this way and claim them as their own, or a few dishonest ranchers would do the same. But now days it’s usually on the up and up.When riding big territories of thousands of acres, a cowboy never knows when he might come across a slick ear or a maverick. It’s always very rewarding to give chase, throw a good loop and capture the critter and make a nice clean looking brand for the Boss. This insures the identification is permanent and will be a profit instead of a loss for the owner.