I recently got a pair of slightly used Iron Rangers 8111s with the original cork soles. After wearing each for a bit I have noticed some differences in the two boots. The two major ones between these two Iron Rangers is the leathers used and the soles. Those two aspects of the boots will be the main focus of this article.
8085: Copper Rough & Tough Leather
8111: Amber Harness Leather
Both of these leathers are oil tanned at Red Wing's own tannery; S.B. Foot Tanning Company. My understanding of the oil tanning process is that it is similar to chrome tanning but with an extra step of applying oils and waxes that help the leather stay strong and be more water resistant. The tannery itself is located in Red Wing, Minnesota so quality control for the company is top notch as they are right next door.
Personally, I enjoy the Copper Rough & Tough Leather more. It has more character in that the color changes with each scuff and scratch. The patina potential for this boot is great! If you go on r/RedWingShoes you can usually find a post or two showing the aging progression of a person's Red Wing Boots in Rough & Tough Leather. Each person seems to have developed their own unique pair of boots. The Amber Harness seems to have similar characteristics to Chromexcel, albeit without as much color differential. By no means is it a bad leather and has its own pros.
One pro is that it seems to be more flexible than its Rough & Tough brethren. Additionally, the Harness Leather of the 8111s seem to adapt more to a person's ankle making the reinforced heel and backstay more comfortable after being broken in. As you can see below, the opening of the 8111s is smaller than that of the 8085s which results in the boot hugging your ankle more. That to me is more comfortable and provides more flexibility.
When you move down from the ankle, the Harness Leather is tighter around the balls of my feet as well as the bridges. This aspect is a double edge sword as the boots feels snug at first but over the coarse of the day gets to be a bit much. By no means is it overbearing, just a contrasting difference than the 8085s which seem to fit my feet in a more comfortable way and stay that way.
Running your hand over the leather, the Amber Harness feels smooth and waxy. On the other hand (pun intended), the Rough & Tough Leather has a, well, rough feeling. Neither one is "better," although according to what I have read, the 8085s' leather needs less overall care than the 8111s. Red Wing has made two videos (below) that help explain how to take care of each type of leather.
8085s: Vibram Mini Lug Rubber Sole
8111s: Cork/Nitrile Sole
The original cork sole on the Iron Rangers were used back in the day due to its ability to combat slippage and wear resistance. Cork is also pretty lightweight compared to many other kinds of soles and also allows for a boot to maintain a sleek silhouette much like that of more traditional leather soles.
The new Vibram rubber sole that was introduced to the Iron Rangers recently the majority of people seem to prefer because of its ability to provide more traction than a cork or leather sole.
From what I have read, the mini lug sole is something that many Red Wing diehards have been asking for. J. Crew offered a half rubber sole Iron Ranger Model and Brooks Brothers had their own model with a fully lugged Vibram Sole. However, the Red Wing Heritage line itself continued to make Rangers with a nitrile/cork sole for a long time, probably because it stays true to the origins of the boot.
After testing both soles in the frigid winter conditions of Chicago, including snow, ice, and an"Antarctica level" polar vortex, I can agree with the majority on the mini lugs making a difference in terms of helping a person keep their balance on slick surfaces. On icy surfaces, the mini lugs helped, but with either pair I was stepping cautiously regardless and didn't fall. When tracking through about eight inches or so of densely packed snow, it really didn't seem to matter if I was wearing the 8111s or the 8085s. I believe the main difference will be seen in the spring time (assuming that comes) and it starts to rain more. That is where the mini lug will outshine the cork sole by leaps and bounds in my opinion.
In terms of aesthetics, I can really not see much difference and the Vibram sole does not take away from the look of the Rangers. Weight wise, the 8085s maybe a tad heavier but it is very minimal. The cork sole does flex a bit more compared to its counterpart and the shock absorption seems better as well. Again, both of those differences are very miniscule and hardly noticeable.
In the end, I would choose the Vibram mini-lug on the 8085s because of the little extra grip they do provide. I am not totally opposed to the cork/nitrile mix however and find it to be much more weather resistant than a standard leather sole. Although, cork is not my ideal choice as I plan on swapping out the 8111s original sole for a rubber one when it needs a resole. Red Wing might want to continue to offer cork soles for those who want the traditional model, especially if they live in dryer climates.