I first put on a uniform and gun for the
purposes of protecting life and property in 1974, and in those
32 some years I’ve seen law enforcement holsters go from being
relatively simple leather “buckets” with a safety strap, to
sophisticated, high security level, handgun carrying devices,
fashioned from various materials.
The goal has been to make modern handgun holsters as safe
as possible from “gun grabs” by criminals’ intent on
disarming an officer. Certainly a laudable act by holster makers, as statistics
gathered by the FBI show an officer who loses his/her side arm
to a criminal offender stands an 80% chance of being shot.
Holsters are now being developed that will read the
wearer’s finger-print and most are rated by “security
levels” that allude to the number of thumb and/or finger
breaks, trigger guard retention catches, tension screws, etc.,
that the holster is fitted with, but even contemporary holsters
still have features that hark back to an earlier era.
What we think
of today as a holster that slides onto a belt has really only
been around for about 150 years.
Handguns prior to the 1850’s were mostly large and
ungainly, not something you would want to strap to your waist.
Some military single shot pistols might be fitted with a
hook for securing the pistol to a waistband, belt or sash, but
holsters were usually carried on the pommel of a saddle for use
by mounted troops. Smaller
pistols would usually be carried in a frock coatpocket, vest
pocket or boot top. Then
Sam Colt invented the first practical revolver and around
1850 came up with Pocket Model and Navy revolvers that were
reliable and comfortable to carry all day long and instantly
became a big hit with law enforcement officers.
tradition of the pommel holster, the first military belt
holsters had flaps that covered the grip handle of the handgun.
While this provided both security and protection for the
weapon, it also increased the time needed to get the handgun
into action. The
flap was usually secured by a “button-hole and stud” type of
arrangement and could involve the use of both hands to prevent
fumbling. After the Civil War as troops moved out to the frontier and
cartridge revolvers like the Colt Single Action Army were
issued, a half-flap holster came into use in the mid-1870’s.
It was more like a wide safety strap and left the gun
handle exposed for a better grip while the gun was still in the
leather. It didn’t take a lot of imagination for a civilian who came
into possession of one of these holsters to take a knife and
whittle off this flap.
As more and
more people migrated to the frontier, saddle makers were called
upon to fashion holsters for the handguns of settlers and
also sought the same source and holsters took on design features
like the California Pattern or “Slim Jim” that followed the
contours of the handgun with a minimum of leather.
Others had wide skirts with slots cut to carry the
holster and form a belt loop and were commonly known as
“Mexican Loop” holsters.
A variation of this holster was the “Texas Jock
Strap” with a leather loop that encircled the holster and also
extended down to the muzzle end. Then there was the “Buscadero” which was rare in the Old
West, but the mainstay of Hollywood “Horse Operas.”
You really didn’t see many lawmen carrying low-slung
holsters with “tie-downs” secured around their thigh like Marshal
Matt Dillon. Most
of the aforementioned holster styles rode high on the belt
keeping the gun secure and out of the way.
Retention devices might be a simple hammer thong, but
usually the gun just rode deep inside the holster and the
trigger guard was covered, save for a small cut-out.
Many officers carried their guns in their pockets.
Despite what you see in the movies, the Earps had
their revolvers in their frock coat pockets at the OK Corral.
Some officers like El Paso Marshal Dallas Studenmire
had leather lined rear pockets put in his trousers to carry his
handguns. Your best bet was not to let the bad guy “get the
drop” on you and have your six-shooter out and ready.
The science of
gun leather took a step forward when a Texas lawman named Tom
Threepersons designed a holster in the late 1920’s or
early 30’s that used a minimum of leather to offer good
portability plus a fast draw.
Threepersons, who was of Cherokee decent and had been an
El Paso deputy sheriff, city police detective and Customs
officer, reportedly fashioned his model from an empty tomato
can. His creation
was what we today would call a high-ride holster for the
strong-side hip carry. The top of the holster was open at about belt level, exposing
the trigger guard, hammer and grips, plus it was canted forward
slightly, in what would later be termed the “FBI Tilt.”
The holster was first produced by S.D. Meyers in
El Paso and over the years dozens of holster makers have copied
it, some adding a safety strap and later a thumb-break for
security. It was
the basis for the first official FBI holster and remained in
service with that agency for many years. I
have packed Threepersons-style holsters at various times in my
career and Don Hume used to make a really nice rig for
1930’s saw another innovation in duty gun leather, the
“Official Border Patrol Holster.”
This holster had the rearward rake of the Threepersons
and FBI rigs, but was made for the uniform Sam Browne
belt and designed by U.S. Border Patrol firearms instructor Charles
Askins was a throwback to the Old West gunfighter and he was
also a fierce competitive shooter.
His holster was of the drop loop variety and unlike the
Threepersons scabbard, it had a covered trigger guard and a
safety strap. The belt loop was of “tunnel” style and formed from the
leather inner lining of the holster that wrapped around and over
the shank portion which was stitched onto the rear of the
holster. The loop which was thus formed was fastened together by two
brass snaps, which allowed the holster to be removed from the
belt with out having to take the belt off and maybe other items
too like cartridge loop slides or handcuff cases.
I was given an
old Meyers River Belt and Border Patrol holster by a retired
Border Patrolman when I went to join up with the Patrol in 1982.
I put it on at the BP Academy, but the firearms
instructors told me to get rid of the old relic and find
something else. I
did, but later on when I got to my duty station, I would
occasionally wear it for nostalgia's sake.
One night I forgot I had it on instead of my more modern
high-ride, thumb-break and when I went to draw things just did
not work out right. Best
to stick with one holster and train with it than switch around
and come up short when the “excrement hits the oscillating
experimented with another holster during his Border Patrol
service; this one was made by Berns-Martin and if you
rookies think the break-front holster is a fairly recent
innovation, think again. Designed
by one John Martin in the 1930’s, this holster covered
almost all the revolver, save the handle and was open in the top
and front and held closed by a safety strap that ran across the
front of the holster. To
draw, the strap was unfastened and the gun “popped” out
through the front, rather than being pulled out of the top.
Askins found this produced a pretty fast draw and a side
benefit was that the trigger guard on the revolver was enclosed
in what amounted to a pouch, which aided in handgun retention,
especially if someone tried to grab your gun from the rear as if
you were wearing a conventional holster.
Due to limited production, it didn’t become popular,
but about 40 years later the same basic design was used by Bianchi
to develop their first front-break holster.
Border Patrolman, this one named Bill Jordan, designed a
holster that was the mainstay in police service for the better
part of three decades. The
Jordan holster resembled the Askins holster to a large extent,
but like the Threepersons holster, it exposed the trigger guard
of the revolver. A
wedge and later an integral welt was made into the rear of the
holster pouch which cambered the handgun grip out and away from
the body and aided in a rapid draw.
It had a steel insert inside the shank of the drop loop
that extended up into the “tunnel-style” belt loop, making
it rigid. You could bend this insert and make the holster stick out
even further from the body of have a more pronounced tilt. A safety strap was provided for security.
This was “The
Holster” when I was a young cop, just like “The Handgun”
was a Smith & Wesson Model
19 Combat Magnum .357, which Bill Jordan also had a hand in.
Made at first by S.D. Meyers, it was also produced by Don
Hume, the company most often associated with the Jordan Holster
and River Belt Big, which Bill also created.
Back then, cop lingo included what we called the
“un-snap situation.” This
usually occurred late at night when you’d made a vehicle stop
and as you walked up to the car, your “gut” told you to
reach down and pop the snap off the safety strap of your Jordan
holster to facilitate a quick presentation.
holster was later adapted for semi-automatic pistols and
modified with a thumb-break safety strap and is still around in
a more modified form, but the traditional Jordan holster has
gone the way of the revolver in law enforcement circles.
The 1960s and '70s
saw a rise in law enforcement officer line-of-duty deaths, too
many due to guns taken away from the officer and then used on
departments like New York City Police issued special holsters
with security features. The
infamous “Suicide Special” made by Jay-Pee for the
NYPD had a heavy leather strip sewn on the inside of the holster
that caught on the outside edge of the revolver cylinder when
the gun was fully holstered.
A twisting motion on the gun grip was required to free
the gun and it was not especially fast, but kept the gun fairly
secure. Most New
York cops learned it was best to have the gun in hand and hidden
from view behind their leg when the “pucker-factor” was in
the uncomfortable level.
holster was one of the first answers for a “snatch-free”
holster. I tried
the front-break holster when they started coming out in the late
1970s and I had a “Judge” Model 2800 by Bianchi that not
only had a front-break and thumb-break, but a cut-outs in the
sides of the holster which enclosed the cylinder for added
safety. I vividly
remember a day at the range when I was a trainee deputy sheriff
and was packing my “Judge” holster which contained a 6”
barrel revolver. My
first draw of the day resulted in the gun popping out of the
holster and out of my hand almost simultaneously.
The “Tachipsychi Effect” took over as I watched my
prize stainless steel Smith do slow cartwheels in the air and
land on its muzzle in the dirt a few feet in front of me. I can still hear the “hoots of derision” from my fellow
trainees and the firearms instructor to this day.
Later when I was a firearms instructor for U.S. Customs,
I saw similar techniques performed by some inspectors when we
adopted a semi-automatic 9mm pistol and a front-break holster.
Those small 9mm’s didn’t look nearly as impressive
flying through the air as did my 6” stainless .357 Magnum!
innovations began to take place in the late 1970s as leather
gave way to ballistic nylon and later other synthetic materials
like Porvair and even plastics.
Outfits like Michaels of Oregon…”Uncle
Mike’s” made entire rigs out of nylon including the holster,
gun belt, ammo pouches and all the rest.
Very soon other manufacturers began to follow suit and
many departments dropped their heavy Sam Browne leather belt and
accoutrements in favor of lighter weight (and cheaper) nylon
outfits. At the
turn of the 21st Century, more mechanical-type safety
devices have largely supplanted the front-break holster designs,
allowing a more conventional draw, with two or three levels of
present duty holster (yes, I’m still wearing a blue uniform,
gun and badge) is a high-ride outfit made out of a leather
look-alike material. The
holster shape, tilt and function reflect the influence of its
Threepersons, Askins, Jordan heritage.
The biggest departure from its 20th Century
forbearers is the swiveling safety strap that is released to arc
forward, out of the way, by a push-button device hidden from
casual view on the inner side of the holster.
As far as I know however, nobody in law enforcement has
yet to coin the phrase, “This is a push-button situation.”
be careful out there!
reading this article has you hankering for one of these
holsters from yesteryear, there’s two things you can
do…haunt the used leather boxes you find in my gun
shops and gun shows, or purchase a modern replica of
Paso Saddlery (www.epsaddlery.com
915-544-2233) still makes the 1920 Tom Threepersons
holster and a rig they call the Patton #5 that is the
spitting image of the Askins Official Border Patrol
is high quality leather and there are a variety of
finish and stamping options.
They can also fix you up with cowboy rigs in case
you want to dress the part of an Old West lawman.
number of companies make modern renditions of the
Threepersons holster, all having a thumb-break safety
951-676-5621) offers the Model 5
BHL-2 and Kirkpatrick (www.kirkpatrickleather.com
800-451-9394) has the TL-240.
They also make the closest thing your are going
to find to the Jordan holster today and that’s their
Model TL-238 which has a thumb-break in place of the old
safety strap. TripleK
619-232-2066) also has their Lightning Model which is
also a Threepersons style. Both Kirkpatrick and TripleK also do western rigs like the
Mexican Loop and Texas Jockstrap.
Steel & Gunleather, by
John E. Bianchi
Col. Charles Askins
Second Place Winner, by
William H. Jordan
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