What Ever Happened to the Sam Browne Belt?


– By E. Mims Mobley, M.D. –

Photographers have furnished us with images that record history pictorially since Mathew Brady‘s work during our American Civil War. They have also given us photographic vignettes of daily life here and around the world. Norman Rockwell vividly captured Americana with oils on canvas. One of my Rockwell favorites shows a young lad sitting on a lunch counter stool, supposedly running away from home with all of his earthly possessions in a bandanna tied to a stick. He and the policeman sitting on the stool next to him are looking into each other’s face. Running diagonally across the policeman’s broad back from his shoulder to his waist belt is the leather strap that defined the Sam Browne belt.

When I was a kid back in the 1930s, Sam Browne belts seemed almost universally to be part of a uniformed policeman’s attire. During World War I, the belt was a part of the uniform for officers of most of the armies so embroiled and it continued to be part of the uniform of U.S. Army officers right up to the start of World War II. It remains part of a Marine Corps officer’s full dress uniform today, but rarely does one see it on uniformed law enforcement officers, except occasionally when a photo shows a trooper from New Jersey or maybe Massachusetts.

So how did the Sam Browne belt come about? And why is it so named?  Winston Churchill provided the answer to those two questions before I ever thought to ask them, when I began reading his four-volume History of the English Speaking People forty years ago, and my appetite was whetted to learn more.

Sam Browne was a British Army captain in India in 1858, where in battle, he lost his left arm at the shoulder to the slash of an enemy saber. For his gallantry, he was awarded the Victoria Cross. He remained in the army, however, and in 1878 commanded troops at the Kyber Pass in the Second Afghan War and was decorated for his leadership and gallantry there and promoted to general. Between those two encounters with an enemy, having no left arm and hand to stay his scabbard while drawing his sword, he devised a belt crossing from his right shoulder and buckled to his waist belt on the left that held the scabbard in place so he could draw his sword. To honor the old warrior, fellow officers began to wear belts of his design, and after his death in 1901, the Sam Browne belt was adopted as part of the uniform for British Army officers.

As side arms became pistols rather than swords, the same Sam Browne design found utility by staying the pistol’s holster so the gun could be drawn without the opposite hand having to reach across to hold the holster. In western movies, a gunslinger’s draw found speed by the holster’s tip being tied to his thigh by a piece of rawhide. Uniforms for officers wearing pistols in holsters just wouldn’t look right, if the tip of the holster was tied to the thigh, so the Sam Browne belt did the job.

Readers probably wonder why I’m wasting their time by writing about something so trivial. But maybe a brief focus on a bit of trivia might serve to give a moment’s respite from crises brought to us endlessly by today’s 24/7 news cycle. It seems there is a new crisis somewhere in the world every day, if not every hour, especially across the Middle East and the Sahara. And it appears that in Washington our leaders in government present us with one crisis after another right here at home, as a tone deaf Executive and a divided Legislative create them.

The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of The Edgefield Advertiser.

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