Any RevolverGuy who grew up like I did, watching a steady diet of the 1970s police drama Adam-12, will certainly remember those Blue Knights, Malloy and Reed, each drawing a Combat Masterpiece revolver from a clamshell holster that sprung open like magic every time our heroes needed to draw down on some counterculture scumbag. The image of those great sixguns being drawn from the trick holsters was pure TV magic!
But it wasn’t just a slick show for the tube. One of the hallmarks of Adam-12 was that the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) worked very closely with Universal Studios to ensure that the program was technically accurate. They had a small army of advisors who worked with scriptwriters, actors and directors to ensure that scenarios, uniforms, equipment, tactics and terminology were authentic. The actors received careful coaching from real lawmen, who taught them how to look and act the part.
So, when Malloy and Reed switched from the Model 14 and Safariland #11 top draw holster to the Model 15 and clamshell holster for Season Four, it wasn’t just for the sexy optics. The LAPD had just switched to the shorter guns in 1969 (which were “neutered” to remove the single action capability, like all LAPD revolvers starting in that year), so the characters who portrayed them on TV would too, and it made sense they would carry the guns in clamshell holsters, which by this time had become an LAPD icon. Malloy and Reed may have brought these clever holsters into the public consciousness in the early 70s, but the clamshell holster story goes back much further. It’s a story fit for a RevolverGuy, so join me as we turn the clock back to rediscover this lost gem from law enforcement’s past.
Springs and things
The inventor of the clamshell holster was Mr. Frank C. Jewett, whose patent for the design was granted on 10 October 1933. In Jewett’s design, the pouch which held the gun was split into two halves along the front seam, which were joined at the rear by a powerful flat spring that was biased to open the halves in butterfly fashion. In operation, the two halves were folded together against the spring pressure and were held closed by a latching mechanism in the front seam of the holster. To open it up, the user inserted the index finger of his gun hand into the area of the trigger guard, and pushed inwards on a camouflaged button (that was hidden underneath a layer of leather, just forward of the trigger face) to release the latch, at which point the halves rapidly separated under spring pressure, releasing the gun.
Speed and safety
Jewett hoped to accomplish several objectives with his novel design. The most obvious was a fast and unobstructed presentation of the gun. At the time of the patent, most uniformed police officers (especially those who worked the highways and rural areas) favored revolvers with long, six inch barrels, which were carried in open top pouches and secured by a safety strap. To draw these guns, officers had to release the safety strap, pull them upwards from the pouch until the long barrels cleared the top of the leather, then rotate them to orient the muzzle towards the target.
This didn’t happen very fast. Operating the safety strap was a motion that took some time, and the officer could not establish his grip to draw the gun until this step was complete. When drawing the gun upwards, the long barrels slowed things down, and sometimes the tip of the barrel or the front sight would snag on the mouth of the pouch as the gun was rotated, frustrating the effort to make a clean and smooth draw.
In contrast, with Jewett’s design, the shooter established a normal grip on the gun and punched the hidden button with the fingertip almost simultaneously, at which point the gun could be rotated into the firing position without first having to draw it upwards. The design essentially saved two steps (strap release and upward drawing motion), allowing the shooter to get the gun into play much more rapidly.
Jewett’s design also made significant improvements to security. The two halves of the clamshell were shaped on the inside to fit the gun tightly, so that when the clamshell was locked closed, it would be extremely difficult-practically impossible—to pull the gun out the top of the holster. By hiding the release button from public view, and locating it in a place where access was naturally restricted by the trigger guard, the design made it difficult for someone who was not well-versed in the holster’s operation to get it open. Whereas the typical open top, safety strap, police holster of the time did a poor job of preventing the uninitiated from snatching the gun out of the pouch by simply gripping the gun and pulling on it with great force, the Jewett clamshell did an admirable job of defeating this kind of disarm.
Furthermore, the tightly-fitted interior of the holster helped to prevent cylinder rotation, which made the Jewett design resistant to accidental discharges while the gun was still in the holster. This feature, along with the enhanced retention and security features, gave the holster an edge in safety compared to other contemporary designs of the era.
Production of the Clamshell HOlster
Jewett’s holster was initially produced by the Speed Safety company (which took its name from the two unique qualities of the holster design) from 1932 until somewhere around 1942-43, at which point some of the production rights were sold to another company that operated under the similar name, Safety Speed. The Safety Speed Holster company (est. 1945) operated out of Montebello, California, and became the giant in the clamshell holster business, producing them into the early 1990s. They probably produced more holsters of this design than any other company, and cemented their position as a leading manufacturer of police leather goods.
However, they were not alone in the business. The Jewett family married into the Stanroy family, and a collaboration resulted in Stanroy-marked clamshells that competed with Safety Speed. The Stanroy Holster company of Bakersfield, California began production around 1935 and continued until sometime into the late 1960s, with the company establishing a new address in Compton, California, along the way. Of note, the Stanroy facility was near a wrecking yard, which provided an ample supply of auto fenders to stamp into holster frames.
The C.A. Hoffman and Sons holster company also manufactured clamshell holsters beginning around 1936, out of Arlington, California, and there was a host of others that joined them. One of them, an obscure outfit named Jicarilla Apache Tribal (J.A.T.) Industries (located in Dulce, New Mexico), had the notable distinction of producing clamshells for the LAPD under contract, beginning in the late 1960s.
The Clamshell HOlster In Service
The clamshell holsters were first adopted by Southern California lawmen in the pre-war years. They were a particular hit with officers in the various city and county motor units, and the California Highway Patrol (CHP), who favored the six inch revolver and needed a design that was secure, yet fast into action. When the LAPD settled on six inch .38 Special revolvers in the late 1930s, they also embraced the clamshell, issuing the Safety Speed model by the 1940s.
In the post-war era, the design continued to grow in popularity, particularly in Southern California, the heart of clamshell holster production. By the 1950s, the clamshell was a SoCal law enforcement staple, with a host of agencies and individual officers falling for the appeal of the spring holster.
But no agency was so fully committed to the clamshell as the LAPD. After a brief flirtation with Bucheimer top draw swivel holsters in the early-to-mid 1960s proved unsatisfactory, the LAPD returned to the clamshell in the late 1960s and issued them well into the 1970s. At a time when major agencies like the CHP had already traded their clamshells for breakfront designs, the LAPD stood by their old favorite. Even after the department finally switched to a high ride breakfront holster made by Bianchi in the mid-1970s, Los Angeles police officers were allowed to purchase their own clamshells and use them on duty, which they did with great enthusiasm into the 1980s.
The LAPD’s love for the design was influential, and helped to spread the popularity of the clamshell holster beyond the state’s borders in the post-war years. Yet, while clamshells made their way onto police Sam Brownes all over the nation, Southern California always remained the center of the clamshell holster universe.
Weaknesses of the Clamshell Holster
As popular as they were, the clamshell holsters had weaknesses that couldn’t be ignored.
The design required the user to put his finger into the trigger guard to release the gun, which led to some negligent discharges when officers fumbled the draw. While placing the trigger finger into the trigger guard during the draw was a commonplace practice during this era, and was encouraged by almost every popular police holster design of the 1940s through the early 1970s (such as the Jordan-style police holster), it created a special hazard in the clamshell holster. Because the gun was left unsupported by the holster when the clamshell opened up, there was a tendency for the trigger finger to grip the trigger in an attempt to keep the gun from falling, especially if a proper grip had not been achieved before the release button was activated. Also, it was easy for the pushing motion of the index finger to continue after the gun had been drawn, with the finger now on the trigger. Some officers, due to a lack of training/practice, inattention, or stress-induced error, managed to negligently pull the trigger with enough frequency that the holster caught the ire of police administrators.
Reholstering a gun in a clamshell holster could be an awkward affair, that usually involved two hands. The gun had to be carefully placed in the proper position, and the two halves squeezed together until they latched. Some officers perfected a method where the gun was placed against the outer shell and held in place by the thumb, as the fingers pushed the clamshell together against the side of the leg, but this could be difficult to execute when the other hand was busy controlling a suspect, and impossible to do on the move. As a result, many officers were forced to tuck guns into their belts or use some other inefficient (and potentially dangerous) workaround when the gun was no longer needed, such as trying to cuff a suspect using only one hand. The effective requirement to reholster with two hands was a big weakness of the clamshell.
There were other potential hazards with clamshells. The spring made a “pop” when the clamshell opened, which could potentially be an issue (some officers learned to restrict the opening of the clamshell with the support hand when noise discipline was important).
Also, almost all of them were built as swivel holsters, where the holster body hung low from a belt loop, connected to the loop by a rivet. As such, they shared the faults of all swivels. The holster would beat your leg to death if you didn’t hold it when you ran. Worse yet, the rivet sometimes broke, sending the holstered weapon flying on the run, or leaving it behind on the seat of the car, or—God help you—leaving it in a criminal’s hands during a struggle. To help overcome this weakness, some enterprising officers (and later, manufacturers) peened the rivet and installed a cotter pin to prevent a separation.
Additionally, since the holster body was made of stamped steel covered with leather, there were occasions where a fall or crash (typically involving a motorcycle officer) resulted in the revolver getting trapped in the crushed holster. This required a careful surgery to cut the holster apart, to get the gun out. The problem was exacerbated by some models that used aluminum shells, in lieu of the steel, to save weight.
Yet, the most damning problem with the clamshell holster is that it had a disturbing tendency to open up on its own, dumping the gun onto the ground. This was most likely to occur during a foot chase, when the holster bumped against the leg and the jarring motion tripped the latch at the front of the holster. This could happen when the holster’s release mechanism was worn from use, or out of spec because the holster body’s alignment had shifted over time. Some agencies, like the LAPD, had armorers who could inspect and adjust clamshell holsters to ensure more reliable operation, but the design weakness was never perfectly addressed, and it was one of the key reasons that clamshells were eventually prohibited for duty use (as LAPD finally did, in the mid-1980s).
Despite all of these issues, the clamshells remained very popular for decades. They had their warts, but so did the other police duty holsters of the 1930s to 1980s (and beyond). Yes, clamshell coppers had to hold onto their holsters when they ran, had to get them readjusted once in a while so their sixgun didn’t go tumbling, and often longed for a third hand when it was time to reholster, but they thought the tradeoffs were worth it to have the fastest rig around for a six inch duty gun.
Besides, they had panache. A clamshell wasn’t your average, pedestrian, top draw rig. It was sexy, and reeked of the gunfighter mystique. If you wanted to look cool, it was your huckleberry. Drawing a revolver from a clamshell wasn’t just an action, it was an event! With a pop of a spring and a flash of motion, a bad guy immediately found himself staring down a sixgun barrel before he could even blink!
And that didn’t just look cool . . . it was cool.
Note: The author would like to thank LAPD Sergeant Kevin Ahlemeir and Vintage LA Coppers for their assistance with this article. Please see the website at: http://www.vintagelacoppers.org