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Sam Browne: Shifting Gear

Do you want a good, stiff belt? Or is comfort your main concern? If you're like most officers on the job, what you need is both.

November 01, 2000  |  by Rebecca Stone

What Manufacturers Say

"There's a steady trend away from natural leather and toward synthetic leather looks and ballistic weave nylon," said Huntington. He pointed to the pop-layered ballistic nylon laminate partnered with the company's LeatherLite (leather lookalike).

"The big quandary is product life vs. comfort," said Huntington, adding that safety also enters into the picture.

Said Huntington," Most new synthetics make products about 30 percent lighter than traditional models. The Nylon has shorter service life. But," he added, "There are new products on the horizon to address that."

Huntington, however, prefers the lighter belts. While he admitted the inherent strength of the traditional belts: "I've seen heavy leather belts stop a bullet," he added, "When I quit wearing leather and went to nylon, it changed my life. Suddenly, I was comfortable!"

On the flip side, Carnahan said, "Leather is flexible and breaks in better. It's stronger."

While Safariland's belts are technically no longer pure leather, the base part of the belt is high-quality leather. The outer coating is a protective urethane, said to lend extra strength to the belt, on top of making it easier to maintain. Together, the materials are called a "Safarilaminate." According to Carnahan, the belts still look like the traditional Sam Browne. He says sales are about half and half, with the traditional looking- leather beating out nylon by a slight margin.

Gould &Goodrich reports similar findings. "Leather outsells nylon in the general marketplace as far as we can tell," said Gould. It's the best value over time and very comfortable." Her company sells three distinct lines of duty belts, including nylon.

Said Gould, "The Same Brownes are tanned specifically to conform to the body and to provide a firm platform to assist smooth draw." The leather gear is available in plan, basketweave and Porvair. A Sam Browne style belt is also available in ballistic nylon or nylon web.

Debuting this month, and so new it doesn't have a name as of this writing, is a new duty belt that looks like leather, but is actually a weather- proof, scuff resistant polymer. It will be offered in plain or basketweave. Hard-molded accessories will also be available in the new material. Said Gould, "The belt has a special backing, and won't crush or roll but flex and conform to the body. It's so flexible, you can actually freeze it and then tie it into a knot."

The company also offers Phoenix Advantage-Plus belts in abrasion- resistant, genuine ballistic nylon.

Don Hume Leather Goods manufactures pure leather products made from cowhide- no laminates. Company representatives Dawnese Harper told POLICE, "The Same Browne is very popular from coast to coast." She added, however, that the Velcro fastner doesn't sell as well as brass nickle buckles.

She said while the company sells mostly black, it does occasionally do special orders of "Sheriff Brown" for certain areas where the dark brown color has been used for years.

Ergonomic Considerations

Several officers who spoke with POLICE said that either they or others they knew had experienced back trouble.

According to Ira Janowitz, PT, CPE, an ergonomics consultant at U.C. San Francisco/ Berkley Ergonomics Program, "The problem of duty belt discomfort is a significant health and safety issue for uniformed personnel nationwide."

Janowitz, who conducted a study a few years ago, in part on police duty belts, explained that the discomfort is due to pressure placed on the hip, pelvis and lower back and is exacerbated by the belt's edges, the loop or shank between the belt and holster, and the grip of the weapon, especially troublesome when officers are seated in patrol cars.

Other problems cited by Janowitz include weight of the gear on the duty belt, rigidity of the belt and holster system, location and shape of the belt buckle, holster and loop or shank, vertical location of the holster in relation to hip and pelvis and cant of the weapon. Janowitz told POLICE that these problems appear to multiply for women.

Janowitz said that for duty belts critical factors include adjustability, flexibility, width, weight, stability and buckle. He said that traditional Sam Browne belts are less adjustable because of belt hole placement than a nylon belt with a Velcro closure, such as Uncle Mike's Ultra Duty (Nytek) Belt, which, incidentally, came out a winner in the study.

For flexibility, he said, "rounded, padded edges on top and bottom conform to the body and distribute load better."

Study results also indicated that a narrower belt increased officer comfort. As for weight, Janowitz found that a leather duty rig is about 1.3 pounds heavier than a synthetic counterpart. In looking at stability, he discovered that the use of keepers can be a problem, especially for narrow- waisted officers. Because space is at a premium for other types of gear, there may not be room for keepers. A Velcro inner belt eliminates this problem and, according to Janowitz, adds stability. He also found that buckles shorter than the regular 2 7/8- inches high are more comfortable for sitting in the squad car, especially if they have rounded edges.

Janowitz concluded by recommending that officers should be permitted to wear nylon belts as they have several advantages over the traditional Sam Browne.

Safariland's Bill Rogers noted decades of duty belt equipment accumulation as leading up to current potential discomfort. He also cited changes in weaponry as being responsible for adding weight, saying that semi- autos, which many departments have gone to, require officers to carry more magazines.

And the poundage isn't going to disappear. Varro's Nossaman, mentioned the increasing trend toward technology, pointing out that many officers now carry palm-sized computers, smart meters to read VIN numbers on cars, and various types of wireless communications systems- often on their belts along with everything else.

Rogers is working on solutions to this problem of poor fit, in which only the leading edges of a belt come into contact with the body, usually at the hips. This can result in pinching. His invention involves pliable tubing on both edges of the belt that will flex independently with the wearer's body, while also providing a strong platform. The result of his work is scheduled to debut this month at the International Chiefs of Police Conference and Exhibition, in San Diego. But, for a regular Sam Browne, Rogers suggested, "Buy a leather belt. Soak it in warm water over night. Put the equipment on it and go to work- while it's wet." He said that leather belts eventually will fit the body. But nylon never really will.

Of Rogers' wetting technique, Tom Marx cautioned that the construction of the belt should be taken into consideration. He also noted that body shape can change, so this can pose a problem once you have gotten the belt to fit.

Nonetheless, while Safariland sells both leather and nylon, Rogers told POLICE, "Of everything we've tested, leather is best. It I had a choice of nylon and leather, I'd pick leather any day."

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