Inventor – Bret Atkins

Cowboy Hard Hat Invention Information

  • Inventor-Bret Atkins-1996
  • Made in the U.S.A.
  • Patent #-5713083
  • Over 350,00 units sold around the world
  • Named Safety Invention of the Year in 1998
  • Acquired by DBS Management Group 08-12-02
  • ANSI Z89.1-2003 Class G.E.C.
  • SEI Certified

Article about Bret Atkins (

SAFETY EQUIPMENT: His hat was covering a brainstorm

By Phil Garlington, The Orange County Register

Published Wednesday, July 29, 1998

* It looks like a Stetson, wears like a Stetson but it isn’t a Stetson.

BAKERSFIELD, Calif. – A machine-tool sales rep, Bret Atkins would be out on a work site pitching the product when a metallic voice would intone over the yard loudspeaker: “Yo, Bret. OSHA rules. Put on your hard hat.”

Atkins would have to go grumbling back to the pickup to rummage through his safety bag for the ugly dome-shaped headgear. Worse, sometimes his fingers were grimy from handling machinery, and when he’d remove the immaculate white $100 straw cowboy hat he always wears, he’d get grease marks on the brim.

Finally, enough. He slammed into the kitchen after work one day and announced to his wife, Julie: “I’m gonna invent a cowboy hard hat.”

Yeah, right, she said. We all get these million-dollar ideas.

But for Atkins it was the beginning of an obsessive three-year journey that would take him through many failures and to the brink of bankruptcy before he produced the Western Outlaw, an OSHA-approved hard hat that looks exactly like a cowboy Stetson.

It’s become the hottest item to hit industrial fashion since steel-toed boots.

Because of the Outlaw, Atkins was named inventor of the year at the 12th Annual Invention Convention held in Long Beach, Calif., in April, beating out 400 competitors. And since start-up a year ago, his feisty little company has sold 150,000 cowboy hard hats, and has 1,000 distributors worldwide.

Although a construction worker can pick up an Outlaw for 30 bucks in an Orange County safety products store, out on the Louisiana oil rigs they go for $75, and in Saudi Arabia they bring $250 each to the customs-dodging roughneck who smuggles them in from the States a dozen at a time in a duffel, Julie Atkins says.

Chris Nielsen, owner of Bakersfield Glove & Safety, says the cowboy hard hat, which comes in six colors, including international orange, is the only excitement in what usually is a very boring business. “It’s been our biggest topic of conversation.”

But success for the 43-year-old Atkins was at the end of a long dusty trail.

On the very day he got the idea, he made a mold for the Outlaw in his garage, modeling it after the straw Stetson he’d been wearing around Bakersfield since childhood.

The Fiberglas model looked good. Exactly like a cowboy hat. But with any safety product, the crucial hurdle is approval by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. And to get that, Outlaw would have to meet the stringent demands of the American National Standards Institute.

Ten times his hat was tested by ANSI. Ten times it failed. Each test cost Atkins $8,000. All of his credit cards were maxed. To save money, Atkins began testing each new version at home before sending it on to the ANSI lab.

He’d get up on the garage roof and drop a large steel plumb bob through a pipe to see if he could bust the top of the Outlaw. He set the Outlaw on fire with a welding torch. He wrapped the hat in dry ice and stuck it in a freezer chest overnight to see if it would crack.

“At first I thought he’d just give up,” his wife says. “But after each failure he’d just go back out in the garage and start again.”

Though skeptical at first, she admired his gumption and grew to share his vision, even when they were up to their eyeballs in debt.

Atkins used the same kind of patience and persistence he employed in younger days as a bow hunter of big game. He’d be shivering on a stand in a tree, but wouldn’t quit. And then, the trophy buck would step into the clearing.

On the eleventh try, Atkins got the recipe right. The Outlaw passed ANSI with the highest rating, and won OSHA approval.

“At a trade fair in Atlanta an engineer said I obviously must have an advanced degree to figure this out. Obviously, I don’t,” says the laconic Atkins. “I didn’t even go to college at all.”

Atkins quit his job and began making the hats in a small workshop, at the rate of 15 a day.

“I’m not that great a businessman,” Atkins says. “I figured I could make a little bit selling them around Bakersfield.”

Fate, however, had bigger plans. A friend of his wife’s took a hat with her when she attended a physical therapy convention in New York. She was wearing it one morning when she was part of the crowd in front of the studios of NBC’s “Today” show. Host Katie Couric came out to chat, took a liking to the Outlaw, and wore it on air for 6 minutes. “It’s an OSHA-approved Western hard hat,” Couric said plainly to a nationwide audience.

“We didn’t even have a regular office,” Atkins says. “We didn’t have our own phone. Orders were pouring in, and I had, maybe, a dozen hats.”

It was the once-in-a-lifetime knock, and Atkins was home. He quickly found a manufacturer, hired a staff of 10 to field the calls. He lined up distributors all over the United States. “The thing went right through the roof,” he says, still a little awed himself.

His company just got an order from an Australian distributor for 10,000 hats. The Australian Cancer Society likes the hats because of the sun-shielding broad brim.

“In the West, the white and straw colors are the big sellers,” he says. “In Texas and Louisiana the black is popular.” Nobody likes the orange, but Atkins keeps a few in stock for road crews.

Friends have suggested that Atkins now broaden the line by inventing a Greg Norman-style golf hard hat with a shark on it, but he isn’t interested. Getting one ANSI approval was hard enough.

Besides, he doesn’t golf.