Take away a cowboy's horse and you've got a lonesome cowboy. Take away his six-shooter and you've got a defenseless cowboy. But take away his hat, and what you're left with is a dude in too much denim—a dressing-down that used to drive Bret Atkins crazy. A sales rep for a machine-tool company, Atkins got sick of being told to trade his $100 straw Stetson for a hard hat every time he went out to drilling rigs and other work sites.

"I just came home one day," says Atkins, 43, "and said to my wife, 'I'm going to make a hard hat that looks like a cowboy hat.' " The result: the Western Outlaw, a hat that would have made Jesse James proud, not to mention safer. It's selling so well at $28 to $34 (and up to $250 on Saudi oil rigs) that Western Hardhats, the company Atkins started in September 1996, has grossed close to $2 million this year. "I figured I was going to sell like 10 hats to friends and people I work with," says Atkins.

The son of an oil worker and a contact lens technician, Atkins, who lives in Bakersfield, Calif., first tried bonding fiberglass to a straw Stetson; it burst into flames. After a year, and with financial help from friends, Atkins met federal hard-hat specs with the polypropylene Outlaw. When Katie Couric wore one on the Today show in February 1997, sales took off. "The money was a shock," says Atkins. "It wasn't anything I was used to."

Atkins quit his $35,000-a-year sales job in April and now spends his days at sales conferences and trade shows, where no one ever, ever asks him to take off his hat.