When it comes to duty gear, in some ways we've come a long way since the days of the town marshal pushing aside the swinging doors of the saloon and announcing everyone must check their guns at his office. In other ways we haven't come very far at all. Many departments around the country cling to the traditional Sam Browne belt. Some even have kept the cross strap, even though most refer to that strap, running from front to back over the right shoulder, as the suicide strap. But the Sam Browne still works well, especially considering that it was designed in the 19th Century, and its original design was spot on when it came to load bearing.
One Tough Captain
General Sir Samuel James Browne, then a captain in command of the 2nd Punjab, attacked a 9-pounder cannon that was holding off his advance. His left arm was severed by a sword. He succeeded in preventing the cannon from being reloaded and, in doing so, won the battle.
The citation for the Victoria Cross awarded for Browne's actions reads in part: "in an engagement with the Rebel Forces under Khan Allie Khan, on the 31st of August, 1858, whilst advancing upon the Enemy's position, at day break, pushed on with one orderly Sowar (horse soldier) upon a nine-pounder gun that was commanding one of the approaches to the enemy's position, and attacked the gunners, thereby preventing them from re-loading, and firing upon the Infantry, who were advancing to the attack. In doing this, a personal conflict ensued, in which Captain, now Lieutenant-Colonel, Samuel James Browne, Commandant of the 2nd Punjab Cavalry, received a severe sword-cut wound on the left knee, and shortly afterwards another sword-cut wound, which severed the left arm at the shoulder, not, however, before Lieutenant-Colonel Browne had succeeded in cutting down one of his assailants. The gun was prevented from being re-loaded, and was eventually captured by the Infantry, and the gunner slain."
Sam Browne had trouble carrying his sword after his injury and designed the hard leather belt with the shoulder strap to keep the sword from moving around so he could access it with his remaining right hand. He stayed in the British Army and invented the belt system now carrying his name. Later, when British Officers began carrying the heavy .455 Webley Mk IV pistol, the strap remained to mitigate the gun's weight. So, the duty belt you probably wear was named after one tough dude and a pretty resourceful one, too.
Traditions are a wonderful thing for police departments. They give us perspective on where we came from, where our priorities should be set, what our role in society may be, and where we should be going. While the Sam Browne system is a part of our traditions, the updated versions are more practical in modern policing.
Mostly, departments have forgone the "suicide strap" out of concern for officer safety—after a number of incidents where it was used to swing an officer around or in one case to pull an officer into a crowd of unruly striking union protesters. Still, that traditional Sam Browne remains a part of many departments' formal dress uniform for special events and color guard deployments.
Wheel Gun Days
Belts became stiff in order to support the holsters and all the other safety gear we carried. The revolver was the usual issued duty gun throughout the United States up until the early to mid-1980s, thus dictating the design of our duty gear. We carried six rounds in the gun and 12 more in pouches or later in speed loaders totaling 18 rounds. That's right, just one more round than a single magazine load for a Glock 17 pistol and equal to the G17 with one in the chamber. At my agency if you got caught with one more than authorized, you just earned yourself two days on the beach without pay and a reprimand in your jacket. Back then cops were so tough we'd grab the suspect by the collar and insert the bullets manually. Okay, maybe we just thought we were, but it makes for really good war stories.
There were improvements to duty gear during that period, mostly firearm driven; however, they were gradual. At first, external leather loops held your spare ammo. Some were part of the holster system while others consisted of a slab of leather folded over the duty belt and snapped at the bottom. It was a very slow method of reloading as you could only access one cartridge at a time. They gave way to dump pouches. The dump pouch consisted of one or two small leather pouches that would hold six rounds each. The pouch would rotate forward and dump the six rounds into your waiting hand, allowing for a faster reload of your six-shot revolver. Or, while standing in inspection formation you could reach over and unsnap your buddy's pouch and watch six to 12 rounds hit the floor just before your sergeant came in to inspect. It might have been funny then, but when some ne'er-do-well tried to do it during an arrest the humor was quickly lost.
Finally, the speed loader came into existence, and like many improvements to our duty gear it was born in the competition arena. Speed loaders held six rounds in position to be reloaded into a revolver all at once. You could become lightning fast at reloading with some practice, but it's still not as fast as slapping a 17-round magazine into your semi-auto.
Speed loader pouches were normally carried in front on the primary hand side of the duty belt. The reloading technique was to release the revolver's cylinder lock with the primary hand thumb and while pointing the barrel upward and holding the gun in your non-primary hand you'd hit the ejector dropping the spent cartridges on the ground. The primary hand accessed the speed loader while the off-hand would rotate the gun to point the barrel downward. You'd line up the new cartridges with the cylinder and shove the new rounds home, slap the cylinder shut, and re-enter the fight. The position for accessing extra ammunition has changed with the adoption of the semi-auto duty pistol so the off-hand accesses the ammo now in the form of extra magazines.
Sometimes traditions must give way to practicality. That's the case when it comes to the traditional Sam Browne. Unfortunately, with the equipment carried daily on patrol the leather gear alone can reach upwards of 15 pounds. The suicide strap helped distribute the load to at least your right shoulder. Now without it, all that weight is on your hips.
Up until 2001 our leather gear remained virtually unchanged, except that we were required to carry increasingly more stuff on our belts. Magazine pouches, double cuff cases, mace and now OC carriers, radio holders, cell phone cases, flashlight holders, baton/PR-24/expandable baton holders, vinyl glove holders, Taser holsters, Taser cartridge holders and weapon holsters all added to the weight. You need a mule to help carry that kind of load.
But in 2001, Bianchi International, now a part of Safariland, introduced AccuMold Elite. Now, there was a leather-look product that combined the strength and durability of synthetic yet provided the professional appearance of leather the law enforcement community needed. The greatest advantage was that the new product was half the weight of traditional leather. You could hear department risk managers celebrating all over the country. The extra weight carried by cops led to a great number of worker's compensation claims for injured backs. Now there was a solution for mitigating at least some of the weight and the injuries.
Around the same time as the introduction of the synthetic duty gear someone finally figured out the female officer's figure was different than that of a male officer. Wow, what a revelation.
Duty belts were introduced that were angled properly for a female officer's hips, so that the bottom of the duty belt would not dig into the officer's hip and the top no longer had a half- to full-inch gap. They also figured out that holsters for female officers should have an angled spacer to allow their duty weapons to ride straight up instead of angled inward. The spacers make a smooth draw more easily accomplished.
Some of the more progressive departments throughout the country and overseas are re-thinking the patrol officer's uniform in general. They're moving away from the traditional look and are now taking into account the comfort of the cop on the beat. It's a tough process to go from traditional to casual. Resistance from the traditionalists on the department as well as from the community is to be expected. Most folks, and especially cops, don't like change, but many departments are coming up with a compromise by using the patrol load-bearing vest.
One of the main challenges is designing a system that does not present a "militarized" look since many of the ideas for a load-bearing system come directly from the military. Many of our safety equipment items are moved from the belt to the vest. The vest can display the officer's name and a badge and even look very similar to a regular uniform shirt. Magazines, glove carriers, cuffs, and other items can be placed in customized pockets on the front, sides, and rear of the vest, taking weight off of an officer's waist and distributing it to the shoulders. Some samples of load-bearing vests also incorporate pockets for your ballistic panels, thus providing an integrated system that can truly make your life easier and much more comfortable.
It's great to have history and the traditions most associated with the police officer. Much of that history is what the public sees and how they perceive the mantle of authority and command presence projected by an officer in uniform. But, those traditions and that history need to give way to practicality. Cops can't always be good at their job if they're injured and uncomfortable. It makes us cranky and the people we serve don't particularly like or deserve cranky cops.
The changes in our duty gear have come a long way from the adoption of the military Sam Browne duty belt shortly after World War I to what we wear today. But they need to go a lot farther to help officers carry the loads of equipment we now carry.
Dave Douglas retired from the San Diego Police Department as a sergeant and the department's rangemaster. He held positions in various assignments there including patrol, investigations, bombs and arson, and training. He is a long-time contributor to POLICE Magazine.