Sam Browne and beyond: A look at duty belts
By Rebecca Stone
In the past, it may have held only a holster, gun and some bullets, but today's hard-working belts must carry an average of 8 to 10 and sometimes up to 15 pounds of equipment, ranging from flashlights, keys and handcuffs to OC spray, batons and duty weapons. In short, duty belts must be strong and have a stiff enough edge to support all the poundage. But they must also be comfortable. A belt that is too stiff or that is ill-fitting can be not only an officer safety issue but a health hazard as well, in the form of fatigue, pinched nerves, sore backs and bruises.
Over time, like most things, the duty belt has undergone changes. But one thing has stayed the same for many officers: They still call their belts "Sam Brownes."
"It's like Kleenex," said Scott Carnahan, of Armor Holdings' Safariland. "The name has become synonymous with the duty belt."
Who was Sam Browne?
As many law enforcement professionals probably know, the belt worn by so many officers is named after British General Sir Samuel Browne (1824-1901). It is described by Webster's as "a belt with a shoulder strap running diagonally across the chest, worn as part of a military or police uniform." Common legend has it that the belt was designed by Browne after his left arm was severed during battle in India. The original strap is said to have helped to stabilize the belt for the one-handed drawing of a saber and also may have helped to take weight off the hips.
That was a different time and sabers have been replaced by smaller but exponentially more lethal weapons. Nonetheless, stability is still critical and weight distribution more important than ever.
The classic Sam Browne, according to many, is the 2 ¼-inch black leather belt with a rectangular adjustable nickel or brass buckle that is backed by two hooks and a tab. Throughout the first part of the 20th century, the strap, or lanyard as some call it, was retained in numerous agencies. But as social climate changed, officers started to find the time-honored strap to be a liability.
As handy as it may have been in the past, law enforcement has all but abandoned the strap for safety reasons.
Field Evidence Technician Steve Willard, of the San Diego Police Department, is also director of the San Diego Police Historical Association. He told POLICE, "We took it off of our regular uniform in 1943 after an officer jumped out of his car to chase someone, only to have the strap hook in the door. He was dragged along side the car as his partner wasn't aware he wasn't completely out."
Deputy Jonathan Anderson, of the Onondaga Co. (N.Y.) Sheriff's Department, described another type of incident that occurred in 1960, in which an officer, trying to control a strike situation, was grabbed by his strap and pulled into the angry crowd.
After removal of the strap, there wasn't much to keep gravity at bay. Willard says he has photos of officers in 1944 wearing their gun belts "John Wayne" style, with them hanging down several inches below the pants belt. "I guess keepers weren't invented yet," he said. San Diego officers retained the strap for dress uniforms until the mid'50s. It was the only way to hold the gun belt up.
The Los Angeles Police Department followed a similar course. Retired LAPD Sgt. Det. Richard Kalk now heads the LAPD Historical Society. He said the LAPD first used the Sam Browne in the late '20s through early '30s. In 1934 or '35 it became part of the standard uniform, with the strap.
He told POLICE that the military at the time mass produced the gear, which was worn by WWI pilots, and law enforcement was able to get it at a good price. According to Kalk, who worked (with Joseph Wambaugh) as an officer from 1961 through 1991, police often adopted uniforms from the military.
From then on they used the Sam Browne with the shoulder strap until it became optional for the class of Oct. 1958. Said Kalk, "They did away with the shoulder strap because suspects were able to grab it." Keepers were put on the belt to keep it in place in lieu of the strap.
Bill Rogers, a former police officer and FBI agent, has been involved in product research, development and testing for Safariland since 1985. He said in the late '60s the Sam Browne was very popular in many departments, but when grappling became common, the strap became a safety factor. "That really killed the Sam Browne for many people," said Rogers.
There are reportedly some agencies whose officers still wear the Sam Browne shoulder strap. In fact, a source from the New Jersey State Police Museum told POLICE that that agency's troopers wear it on a daily basis. "There is nothing that has happened that would make us abolish the wearing of the strap," he said, adding, "It's tradition this is a big heritage issue for the State Police." Most agencies, however, reserve the strap for dress occasions.
Former Chicago police officer Tom Marx, now a representative for Michael's of Oregon, said that Uncle Mike's makes a strap that will break away for departments that want the look without the safety hazard. The company also makes breakaway suspenders, designed especially for police work. These appear to be most popular in the Pacific Northwest, according to Marx.
Said Marx, "It's amazing how many calls we get for suspenders. Someone will see them on TV off a COPS show or something and get interested."
In the interest of officer safety, other changes to the duty belt have been made. These sometimes have gained popularity through the media.
"TV and movies have had an unbelievable influence on law enforcement," said law enforcement trainer, Ed Nowicki, referring to some of the changes seen in law enforcement over the years.
A good case in point: With 1974 came a new uniform for the LAPD and a Velcro Sam Browne setup. According to Scott Carnahan, back in the '70s the LARD wanted to get away from the metal buckle because of its reflectiveness, which could potentially make officers a target, especially at night.
He said that Neale Perkins, founder of Safariland, was working out of his garage back then when he developed a belt for the large agency with back hooks and Velcro to get around this problem. The result was a comfortable, buckleless duty belt. Debuted by Officers Reed and Malloy on the popular TV show Adam12, the design reportedly caught on in other parts of country.
And the changes have not just occurred with the duty belt. Said Nowicki, "When Hill Street Blues first came on, baseball caps came in. Then came The French Connection. Till then, no one had an ankle hoster. But Popeye Doyle had one. With Dirty Harry, it was a. 44 Magnum. With T.J Hooker, it was the PR24 baton. TV and movies have even influenced how a gun is held."
Nowicki added that when departments first began issuing nylon gear, officers tended to regard the synthetic with suspicion, thinking their department was trying to save money by buying cheap equipment. He thinks the media has also had a hand in popularizing nylon.
Officer Safety: Squeak and Flash
Today, more and more officers seem to be realizing that nylon gear has definite advantages. It is nonreflective and relatively silent, two features that address concerns expressed by the tactically minded. Some are especially concerned with highergloss gear, such as Clarino (patent leather), seen in some agencies, feeling that it compromises officer safety for the sake of looks.
Nowicki said that there is such concern about noise (leather creaks) and reflectiveness some departments are going in for not only nylon without shiny parts, but also subdued patches, darker cloth badges, and key keepers to cut down on jangling.
Lt. Bill Harvey, of the Savannah (Ga.) Police Department, and Deputy Chief Chuck Mader, of the Bloomingdale (Ill.) Police Department, appreciate the relative silence as well as the nonreflective nature of nylon gear. Mader, who also expressed concern about leather noise said that his department even uses subdued patches and Velcro fasteners - "No shiny stuff," he said. Officer Dan Kalk, of the Aurora (Ohio) Police Department, told POLICE, "The main job of a duty belt is to keep your equipment secure and with you, regardless of what it's made of. Use what's best suited for the job you're doing. Anyone who wears leather, knows it makes noise. We do not use leather for SWAT period."
Many of those who spoke with POLICE pointed out that with the Community Oriented Policing philosophy, the emphasis is not just on being "Officer Friendly." Michael Nossaman, of Varro Press, said with COP these days there is more emphasis on containing and controlling situations before they escalate. This requires tactical skills and, to some extent, tactical gear for patrol officers.
Nossaman has been around the country enough, putting on his company's TREXPO events, to have seen some changes in gear. "I'm seeing a lot more of what a decade ago was considered tactical gear on patrol officers," he said. "We want the world to be tactically oriented to save lives."
Others seem to feel this worry over noise and reflectiveness is an overreaction when it concerns the patrol officer. They think the traditional belts look more professional, command more respect and suit their purposes just fine.
Sheriff Jim Plousis, of the Cape May Co. (N.J.) Sheriff's Office, told POLICE that while the office's bike patrol officers wear nylon, other deputies wear leather Sam Brownes. Said Plousis, "I prefer leather. In more formal settings it looks more formal classier." He said he hasn't run into problems with squeakiness, adding, "I never saw this as a problem when I was on the street."
Officer Suzi Huntington, of the San Diego Police Department, wears a leather Sam Browne and doesn't think noise is a problem either. "I think it's a copout for people who want to switch to nylon," she said.
Officer Pam McCammon, of the Seattle Police Department, Sgt. Brian Stover, of the Los Angeles Co. Sheriff's Department, and Sgt. Robert Hansen, of the Ohio State Patrol, all feel much the same. They are happy with their leather Sam Brownes and haven't encountered problems with noise or reflectiveness.
Sgt. Joe DeBergalis and Officer Larry Dorchak, of the New York State Police, also feel comfortable with their leather Sam Brownes although, said DeBergalis, "We usually just call them gun belts." He said they only call the duty belt a Sam Browne when it is worn with the strap, for dress events.
Lt. Adam Kasanof, of the New York Police Department, told POLICE that the NYPD is now using River belts, which are narrower than the Sam Browne. Kasanof said they are comfortable and rugged enough, though he believes the wider belts tend to be more comfortable and distribute weight better.
Whichever decision is made, several factors must be taken into account and the best equipment chosen for each department's situation.
So, is the pure leather Sam Browne still the preferred duty belt or have more agencies gone over to the synthetics and laminates?
Judging from information gathered by POLICE from calls to various agencies across the country, it may be a fairly even split. Some feel there are geographical preferences.
According to Bianchi's Roy Huntington, a former San Diego Police Department officer, "In certain areas, it's leather or it's nothing." He believes that traditional leather models seem to be more popular in the Midwest and on the East Coast, while in the West there appears to be greater interest in newer nylon belts. In still other areas, Clarino is favored.
Phyllis Gould, of Gould & Goodrich also sees geographic variations. She said the company sells more highgloss Porvair ( a protective synthetic coating over leather) on the East Coast and more basketweave on the West Coast.
Nowicki, Carnahan and Huntington also cite generational preferences. Said Huntington, "Older cops still go more for the leather. Newer guys go for the newer technology."
Brian Stover, of the Los Angeles Co. Sheriff's Department, illustrates the point. He told POLICE, "I've grown up with basketweave. It's been a staple for me for a long time. I think most older officers stick with leather. Maybe it's because I'm old and decrepit but I like the leather. It's comfortable enough"
In general, though, some feel nylon is gaining ground.
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 popularity of Bianchi's Accumold, a three-layered ballistic nylon laminate partnered with the company's LeatherLite (leather lookalike).
"The big quandry 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 downside is they don't wear as well. 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 highquality 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 lookingleather 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 Sam 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 plain, basket weave 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 weatherproof, scuff-resistant polymer. It will be offered in plain or basket weave. 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 AdvantagePlus belts in abrasion-resistant, genuine ballistic nylon.
Don Hume Leather Goods manufactures pure leather products made from cowhide no laminates. Company representative Dawnese Harper told POLICE, "The Sam Browne is very popular from coast to coast." She added, however, that the Velcro fastener doesn't sell as well as brass and nickel 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.
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/Berkeley 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 belt 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 rim row 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 semiautos, 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've gotten the belt to fit.
Nonetheless, while Safariland sells both leather and nylon, Rogers told POLICE "Of everything we've tested, leather is best. If I had a choice of nylon and leather, I'd pick leather any day."
Considerations for Women
Donna Milgram, executive director of the Institute for Women in Trades, Technology and Science (National IWITTS), often conducts seminars for women in policing. She told POLICE that while women recruits in the academy may be reluctant to complain about duty gear fit, Milgram has found that most working female officers have reported problems. A couple of years ago IWITTS conducted a survey in three departments. Results indicated that one-third of women officers had problems with uniforms and equipment fit, which they reported. But due to the fact that problems persist, solutions seem to be slow in coming.
Said Milgram, "It's so important for academy instructors to be aware." She added, "A lot of departments don't realize there are dedicated women's sizes." She said many probably don't think about it. "It's important to educate departments as injuries can be severe and permanent. There are options," she told POLICE.
Milgram points out in the report, Police Equipment and Uniforms Sized to Fit Women, that most gear is designed for male officers and is based on tests with male officers, and cut down versions don't really work for women. Said Milgram, "Improperly fitting equip, and uniforms pose a health and safe hazard which could endanger the lives of police officers and of others."
Milgram urges manufacturers and department management to be on hand sizing checks when uniforms and equipment are issued in the academy. She also urges departments to look for vendors that offer women's sizing.
Officer Jackie Slater, a four-year veteran of the Bloomingdale (Ohio) Police Department wears nylon gear and like the lighter weight. But, she said "Women have smaller waists and can't fit all the equipment on the belt. There' just not enough space, so I keep some things in the car. I make sure I have the important stuff on the belt. But it's crowded." Slater, who carries a knife her pocket, admits that this situation can impact safety. "Like gloves. If I go to scene and need them immediately in a bloody situation, I can't go running out to the car."
Suzi Huntington has similar problem in that she simply has no room for the additional equipment she's given. "They keep handing me stuff and I put it in the trunk. I carry pepper spray, a radio, hand cuffs on my left and the gun on the right, with extra magazines up near the buckle." But Huntington said that she will often keep the taser and nunchakus in the trunk of the patrol car.
Both Slater and Huntington said they make adjustments for their shape and size, carrying some of their gear at different angles than do the men. They say, however, that smaller men can run into similar difficulties.
Both women also told POLICE that the fact that they have shorter waists than men also affects gun carry and hence draw. But they said they have learned to compensate for this and have no problem.
"Just because we have hips it causes problems," said Huntington. "You have to break in your hips after vacations. Women get a lot of bruises." She says it's not just the belt itself but the combination of the way the belt loops are aligned. This affects where the keepers are placed, causing the belt to sit either too far forward or too far backward. This in turn affects where the gun sits.
But, Huntington said, "It should not be an issue. It's something you train for. You've had this thing on since day one in the academy. The times people have gone for my gun, I've been right on top of it. Everything's so close to my body.
"The problems I have come from the sheer weight from all this stuff." Huntington said that she has suffered from sciatica a couple of times, from pressure on the sciatic nerve. But she adds, "It's just part of the job. You get used to it the weight and the way things sit."
LAPD Officer Sara Faden wears a department-issued plain Sam Browne. "The belt is as comfortable as can be, except for weight," she said, adding that the belt took about a year to stretch to where it conformed to her body.
But she too experiences belt-inflicted back pain. In fact, she said that LAPD officers even have a name for it: Sam Browne Syndrome. Faden, who goes to a chiropractor occasionally, said, "I'd say about 85 percent of officers go there men and women."
Law enforcement trainer, Kat Kelley deals with this subject in many of her presentations on training and equipping the female officer for survival. "I've had numerous women tell me they've had problems with their backs sciatica."
Kelley and some others question the effectiveness of the Sally Browne types of belts, which are cut on the bias and designed with a curve to accommodate women. Said Kelley, "Women are not all cut the same. I can't wear a Sally Browne." But she acknowledges that at least manufacturers are making an effort to come up with alternatives.
Conversely, Gould said, "We have a number of customers who feel the Sally Browne has a great advantage. It's true that not all women are shaped the same. But most women are not shaped like men."
Kelley cites tile drop holster as one sign that solves some of the problems resulting from the fact that women tend be shorter waisted than men. This physical reality causes women to have to draw higher and inhibits a smooth draw, gun sometimes digging into the ribcage and canting out at an angle in the holster over a woman's hip structure. "I used to have to walk the gun in my hand to adapt before I had a drop holster," said Kelley
She says a drop, holster allows lower/smoother draw. Spacers, available through some manufacturers, can also help the gun hang straight. She said moving the holster forward on the belt can be a quick fix.
According to Kelley, sitting in the car can also be an issue, with all the extra equipment in the car interfering with all the equipment on the officer. That must be taken into consideration as well.
Comfort and health are not the only products of a good fit. Accuracy and speed are also affected and these are tactical issues.
"An agency has an obligation to fit employees with correct equipment " said Kelley. Like Milgram, she thinks that a lot of agencies just don't know what's out there and available.
It's obvious that there is much variation in belt wear among agencies nationwide. Most professionals agree that sizing, proper fit and adequate maintenance are crucial. Many also pointed out the importance of equipment placement and urged officers never to wear items, such as cuffs, on the back, in the spine area. But regardless of what is worn and where, consistency is important. Many, like Ed Nowicki are concerned with safety when switching to unfamiliar gear. He cautioned, "The new security holster may be completely different than the old one. The draw may be different. Practice with duty gear. Find how to wear the gear and don't change.
"When you're under stress, that's when it's going to be a factor. You're going to revert to your training. You want to be able to use your gear without looking at it."
Nowicki advised officers to seek out those with similar body shapes and good professional attitudes for advice. Said Nowicki, "Even if the department supplies all the gear, you can still make small modifications. And practice with your body armor on!"
- Scott Carnahan: "Make sure you have a belt that will fit with all the gear on. Also make sure it has the flexibility to adjust up or down for seasonal variations. Look for good quality and comfort. Comfort is key."
- Ed Nowicki: "Look at department standards and policies. If given latitude, don't go strictly by price. Is it too good a deal? You may end up having to replace it sooner. Look at quality. Look at other officers and ask them questions. Try the gear if possible."
- Tom Marx: "Look for strength at the vertical plane. Make sure it will support the equipment you carry and doesn't sag or work limply. Is it comfortable to wear? Look for balance of strength and flexibility."
- Phyllis Gould: "Stick to the 2 ¼-inch belt instead of a narrower belt. It helps hold the holster in place for a smooth draw. Be sure the belt is long enough. We build extra length into belts to accommodate accessories."
- Officer Suzi Huntington: "The biggest consideration is finding a small enough belt. Some women have to cut a man's belt down and poke extra holes in it.' She said that retailers don't carry smaller belts in stock and feels they should be aware of this need.
How do officers keep their gear looking good? Here are some of the individual methods we found that people have been using over the years in caring for their duty belts, as well as manufacturers' tips for care of some of the newer materials. We should caution readers, however, that this is anecdotal information ad that we do not endorse any particular method as some are seen to be potentially harmful to product integrity, particularly in the case of leather. When in doubt, consult your manufacturer.
Black shoe polish, Saddle soap, Leather paint, Mink oil, Leather dye, Leather Luster, Furniture polish, Soap and water, Apple polish, Lemon polish, Liquid floor wax, Light bleach solution, Brass cleaner, Neats foot oil, Spit, Streak-free glass cleaner, Plasticoat leather shine.
Wash in warm, soapy water and air dry; Decontaminate with 10 percent bleach solution or antibacterial soap.
Damp cloth, Dish soap, Lemon Pledge, Soft brush, Decontaminate with diluted bleach solution, Send out for professional job.
Mild soap and water; Silicone-based product like Armorall, Decontaminate with light Clorox solution.