The Evolution of Law Enforcement Handgun Holsters


by William Bell

photography by William Bell

July 30th, 2007




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.

Following the 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 cowboys.  Lawmen 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 uniformed duty.

The early 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.  Charlie 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 device.”  

Askins also 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.

Yet another 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.

The Jordan 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 him/her.  Some 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.

The front-break 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!

Other 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 safety. 

My 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.”  

Let’s be careful out there!

William Bell


Modern Replicas

If 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 these classics. 

El Paso Saddlery ( 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 holster.  This 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.

A number of companies make modern renditions of the Threepersons holster, all having a thumb-break safety strap.  Bianchi ( 951-676-5621) offers the Model 5 BHL-2 and Kirkpatrick ( 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.


For Further Reading...

Packing Iron, by Richard Rattenbury

Blue Steel & Gunleather, by John E. Bianchi

Unrepentant Sinner, by Col. Charles Askins

No Second Place Winner, by William H. Jordan

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Law enforcement handgun holsters have gone from the simplistic designs of the Old West that were mere leather “buckets” to today’s multi-security level rigs meant to defeat the “gun grab” attempts on an officers gun by criminals.



This Old West style holster is a variety of the “Mexican Loop” known as the “Texas Jock Strap.”  If you use your imagination a little, you can see how the moniker developed; the holster covered much of the gun, and the only security was a leather hammer thong.



Military holsters in the Old West had flaps to cover the gun for protection against loss and weather.  This model for the 1892 Colt .38 Long revolver had a half-flap which was adopted by civilian holster makers and easily cut off if the owner disliked it.



Holster design took a leap forward in the late 1920s when Cherokee Lawman Tom Threepersons developed the holster that was named after him and first produced by S.D. Myers in El Paso. With a minimum of leather and forward tilt, it was built for a fast draw.



The early '30s saw the introduction of the “Official Border Patrol Holster” by USBP firearms instructor Charlie Askins.  While it covered the trigger guard like earlier designs, it positioned the handgun handle at belt level for quick access and had a safety strap.



Another Patrol Inspector with USBP, Bill Jordan, came up with what we call the “Jordan Holster” in the late 1940s and was THE police holster for many years.  It exposed allot of gun and had a welt built in to the rear of the holster to camber the gun handle outward.



Some police departments like New York City PD had their own special holster designs.  This model by Jay-Pee had a heavy leather strip sewn inside the holster pouch that acted on the revolver cylinder to keep the gun secure from snatch attempts.



In the late 1970s holsters with security features like the “front break” designs became prevalent and in the next decade materials like ballistic nylon began to take the place of leather for holster material.  This rig is what today we’d call a Level II security holster.



Today’s holsters might be made out of a synthetic leather “look-alike” and have such security features as a locking/rotational safety device and tension screw, but shares features with the old Threepersons holster design, like the belt-level ride and forward tilt.



On the left is the CQC Speed Classic from Blackhawk Products; it's a modern rendition of a Berns-Martin design in thin Italian leather.  On the right is the once popular Bucheimer "Paddle-Back" holster, that had a strap on the back with what looked like a shoe heel attached for "easy-off-on" the belt.



Two modern holster with classic design features are (right) the "HiddenHammer" Super Belt Slide from Uncle Mike's for 2" hammerless S&W snubbies and (left) Blackhawk Products CQC injection molded composite holster, with the Serpa retention device; a high-ride that Tom Threepersons himself might have endorsed!