The sands of time fall slowly through the neck of the hourglass at the border, and sometimes they stop entirely. Despite the progress made in other parts of the nation by the early part of the 20th Century, the border Southwest of the 1920s to 1940s looked virtually unchanged from the days before the Mexican-American War, almost a hundred years earlier (1846-48). The endless revolutions, bandit wars, cross-border raids, smuggling, looting, livestock theft, lynchings, military invasions, murder, and “normal” border violence disproved any notion that the days of the “Wild West” were over.
The men of the U.S. Border Patrol rode at the center of this violent drama. To survive in this perilous environment, they had to be quick on the trigger and deadly accurate. To improve their odds, they sought the best equipment, and when they couldn’t find it, they designed their own. It was this spirit of ingenuity, born of necessity, that led to major advances in training, firearms, and fighting leather, to include one of the most influential police duty holster designs to ever grace a Sam Browne. This is the story of that holster.
The Border Patrol: Home of the gunfighters
To assert control of the untamed and still hotly-contested border, Congress created the U.S. Border Patrol in 1924. The agency was small, with less than 300 officers assigned to cover the more than 1,800 miles of southwestern frontier with Mexico, but its impact on life at the border, and the gunfighting culture, was significant.
In the 1920s and 1930s, a U.S. Border Patrolman’s working conditions often bore a striking resemblance to those of a Ranger from the previous century. Officers assigned to border outposts rode lonely, hot, 150 mile stretches of the border on horseback, bringing law and order to a land that lacked both. Working in pairs, they chased down armed gangs of up to 40 men, with no radio, no backup, and only their wits and their guns to keep them safe.
Even those in the well-manned district headquarters were constantly outnumbered. In the 1930s, the hotbed border crossing region of El Paso, Texas only had 42 officers to cover more than 185 miles of porous border. The busy officers fought weekly—sometimes daily—battles with smugglers, bandits and desperadoes. Some of these looked more like military engagements than law enforcement actions, with small armies of Mexicans lighting up the river with rifles and machineguns. From 1924 to 1934, the El Paso District alone averaged one gun battle every 17 days for the entire 10 year span, killing an average of at least one smuggler for every week of the decade.
By necessity, the border men and officers from nearby agencies in the region learned to be fast and accurate with their guns. Anything that stood in the way of deadly efficiency had to be eliminated, so the officers of the southwestern border found themselves, as the leading gunfighters of the era, advancing the state of the art in guns, holsters and skill development.
The Evolution of Fightin’ Leather
Prior to the 1920s, holsters were little more than carrying pouches for handguns. The principal concern was having them fall out during activity, so guns rode deep in the holster and were secured by leather thongs (in many civilian versions) or flaps (in the military designs) to ensure they stayed put.
None of these holsters provided a fast draw, however. In an effort to fix this, El Paso, Texas lawman Tom Threepersons worked with legendary holster maker SD Myres to design a holster with a tight fitting, minimalist pouch, that left the trigger guard fully exposed to allow the finger to get on the trigger early. The pouch was cut low at the top to provide full access to the grip (allowing you to get a firing grip with the gun in the holster, instead of having to fish it out, first) and to allow the muzzle to clear the leather quickly on the draw. The pouch, which rode with its open top at belt level, was canted forward to aid in the rapid presentation of the gun.
The Threepersons design was the first duty holster designed with presentation speed as the primary goal. It sacrificed security (it had no retention features, other than the little bit of friction afforded by the tight, skimpy pouch) and stability (due to its higher ride and short tunnel loop) for speed—a tradeoff that a gunfighter like Threepersons was happy to make. Myres began selling the holster to the public around 1932 and continued to refine the design after its introduction.
Elements of the Threepersons design were carried over into an assortment of holsters from various makers that are collectively described as “FBI pattern” holsters, today. In the FBI design, the Threepersons-style pouch was given a slightly higher ride to avoid poking out underneath a garment. To counter the increased difficulty of drawing a gun from a high riding holster that was worn behind the hip for maximum concealability, the forward cant was increased to about 15 degrees.
This 15 degree cant was retained in the uniform duty holster that the legendary Charles Askins, Jr. designed for the Border Patrol in the 1930s. Askins (a national champion shooter, and among the deadliest of the Border Patrol gunfighters) designed a holster that placed the canted pouch at the bottom of a drop loop that made the gun ride low, on the hip. The holster incorporated a steel shank to position the holster and help it keep its shape as it hung from the Sam Browne duty belt. In Askins’ Border Patrol holster, the gun was retained in the unfitted pouch by a snapped hammer strap, conceding a speed advantage for a necessary improvement in security for the uniformed officer. The trigger guard was enclosed in the early versions of this design, but later in the 1940s it was opened up a bit, though not fully.
The fastest gun on the border
Bill Jordan—a lanky, six and a half foot Louisiana son—got to the Border Patrol a few years behind Askins. He rode the Rio Grande in the violent interwar period, and returned to the Patrol after an interruption to fight with the Marines in World War II.
Jordan was an experienced gunfighter, but also a renowned exhibition shooter, and a record-holding fast draw artist, who could draw and hit a target at 10 feet in 0.27 seconds from the sound of the buzzer (reaction time to shot!) with a double action revolver. Jordan knew about speed, and the importance of being the first to score a hit in a gunfight. He also knew that none of the police duty holsters in existence could give him the speed he wanted, so he designed his own.
Askins’ Border Patrol holster was the starting point for Jordan when he began working on the holster, in conjunction with S.D. Myres, in the 1940s. He had definite opinions on the qualities of a suitable duty rig, to wit:
Here then are the things that a holster should do: It should hold the gun securely yet allow the maximum speed attainable within the limits of comfort, safety, and security. To do this it must be designed to hold the gun in a perpendicular position and, viewed from the front, with the butt straight fore and aft, slanting neither in nor out; the whole weapon pointing straight at the ground with little or no deviation from the vertical. From a Sideview there should be a definite forward slant.
Since Jordan’s principal goal was speed, it was critical for the holster to hold the gun in the same position and orientation, regardless of activity, so that the shooter’s hand could quickly and naturally find it. The drop loop and lower grade leather of the Askins holster allowed it to flop around and shift position on the belt, making the grip of the gun a moving target. This could delay getting a grasp on the weapon, so a higher grade of leather was chosen for the Jordan, and the steel shank in the Askins rig was extended up through the backside of the loop and over the top of the belt, making the entire drop loop a rigid affair that would hold the gun in a fixed position.
That position would present the gun perpendicular to the ground. In the Askins holster, the angle of the gun (as viewed from the front) would follow the curvature of the hip, canting the grip inboard and the muzzle outboard. In the Jordan holster, the rigid steel shank incorporated a curve that held the gun offset from the body, and straight up-and-down. This curve was combined with a twist that held the gun so that the topstrap pointed straight forward, without angling inboard or outboard. Users were encouraged to bend and twist the shank accordingly, to achieve this ride.
In this manner, the gun was perfectly, and consistently, aligned in the drawing plane. It wouldn’t require any adjustment to get it in line as it was drawn. It simply had to be rotated forward so that the muzzle pointed the target. By minimizing unnecessary movement, the gun could be presented with greater speed and efficiency.
The steel shank in the Jordan holster also eliminated the binding that could occur during a draw from a non-rigid design like the Askins, where the holster pouch tried to move along with the gun. The reinforced Jordan rig wouldn’t budge, and its tighter pouch (designed to be more supportive of the gun than the loose-fitting Askins, and hold it in a consistent position) would release the gun more cleanly.
The forward cant of the Askins holster was retained in the Jordan to aid in a speedy presentation, and so was the low cut top that allowed the muzzle to clear leather fast. Jordan was sensitive to shaping the pouch in a manner that protected the gun and its rear sight, which would become increasingly important in the 1950s as adjustable-sighted guns (like the S&W Model 19 that Jordan inspired) became more popular in law enforcement. However, nothing would be allowed to interfere with the grip. To quote Jordan, “. . . the holster should be so fashioned as to get easy access to the butt and trigger . . . in this respect the best description I can give of the desired effect is, when you reach you just get a handful of gun.”
A wedge of leather (later changed to an internal welt) in the pouch helped to maintain the gun’s vertical position in the front-to-rear drawing plane. That wedge/welt also created a gap between the fully-exposed trigger guard and the back of the holster, to allow the shooter to get his finger into the guard and on the trigger early in the draw.
In a nod to practicality, Jordan allowed a safety strap to be added to the speed rig, to help retain the gun during vigorous activity. However, unlike the Askins holster, which placed the strap behind the hammer spur, the strap on the Jordan was positioned so that it was in front of the hammer spur. In this manner, it was easier to clear, and less likely to get trapped and foul the draw.
The Jordan holster was designed to work with a thick, wide gun belt that fit the loop of the holster snugly, to hold it in place without sagging. Leather craftsmen S.D. Myres and Don Hume, who popularized and perfected the Jordan holster design, also fashioned matching, billeted, “Jordan River Belts” that met these requirements, which became almost as popular as the holster itself.
The Jordan holster represented a significant advance in quality of manufacture and design. In an era where some commonly-used police rigs were called “suicide holsters” for their numerous design and material flaws, the rock-solid Jordan was an exceptionally welcome replacement.
The Jordan was strong and tough. Some police holsters of the era weren’t, and more than one old timer has a story about the time that the rivet in their swivel holster broke, leaving the holstered gun lying on the seat when they got out of the car. Others could tell you about a cheap holster that was literally torn off their hip in a violent struggle when the leather or stitching gave way. This didn’t happen with the sturdy Jordan rigs.
The forward cant made them comfortable in a seated position and fast to draw from. The design struck a good balance between access, security and speed for the modern day copper.
The great weakness of the Jordan holster was the safety strap which had to be unsnapped before the fast handling qualities of this speed rig could be unleashed. Jordan recognized this from the start, advising:
Most officers normally carry the weapon with the strap over the hammer, removing it only when they feel that quick action might be imminent. This process should be reversed, and the gun snapped in only if strenuous action— running, crawling, climbing a box car, etc.—is anticipated. In such cases there will always be time to secure the gun, whereas there might not be time for unsnapping it if it was needed in a hurry.
This kind of practice may have been suitable at the height of banditry, smuggling and gunplay at the border in the 1930s, but for the majority of American police officers in the last half of the Twentieth Century, it would have been foolhardy, irresponsible, and downright dangerous to go about their duties with the safety strap unsecured. They knew that life on the streets was unpredictable, and danger often came without the warning that Jordan described. They also knew that a sizable number of cops were shot with their own guns, and that Murphy rides in every squad car, constantly looking for an opportunity to hook your gun butt on a steering wheel or seatbelt as you go out the door.
So, the darned strap stayed snapped most of the time, which made it more difficult to get the gun out quickly. Some makers lengthened the tail on the strap so an officer could slide the edge of his thumb or trigger finger underneath it, and pop the snap by sweeping the hand upwards on the way to the grip, but a lot of straps required the officer to claw it open with the fingertips, and dump it out of the way before drawing. This was an operation fraught with error, proving that Jordan was correct when he said, “there is no way to draw a gun secured by a safety strap without running a risk of winding up with your fingers full of strap.”
When things looked like they were getting dicey, some officers would unstrap the gun to avoid this, and make it ready for a clean draw, but this could increase the risk of losing control of the gun if the situation turned into a wrestling match, instead of a shooting—especially because it could be tricky to snap it back in, quickly.
Cops being cops, a lot of officers would pop the snap before a string of fire during training or qualifications, to simplify and speed the draw. This led to bad habits that could (and sometimes did) doom them to failure when they had to draw for real in the field, with a gun that was snapped in.
So, the strap was a big problem that was never satisfactorily addressed until the vastly superior thumb break (introduced as the “thumbsnap” by John Bianchi in 1958) became more popular, and replaced it, wholesale.
The offset Jordan holster could be awkward for some officers who spent a lot of time in patrol cars, particularly after seat belts became standard equipment in the early 1960s. Fortunately, the forward cant which helped to make the Jordan holster fast, also helped to keep the butt of the gun away from the back rest. It still ran into the seat back, but at least it wasn’t as bad as it could have been with a more neutral cant.
While current doctrine requires a shooter to keep his finger off the trigger until the weapon is aligned on the target, there were no such inhibitions in Jordan’s day, when double action revolvers with heavy triggers reigned supreme, and getting a finger on the trigger early could make a lifesaving difference in speed. Analyzing high-speed photography of Jordan’s draw sequence shows that the lawman got his finger on the trigger at the start, and was already pulling it as the weapon was being oriented to the target, timing the operation so that the hammer fell at almost the exact instant that the gun was properly indexed. This masterful execution of coordination and timing was essential to firing the gun at the lightning fast speeds demonstrated by Jordan.
This routine would give a modern day firearms instructor a case of the vapors, but it was standard practice back then (and even well into the autopistol era, for many agencies equipped with DA/SA autos). Even so, it occasionally led to negligent discharges and self-inflicted wounds among officers who lacked the skills, expertise and timing of a gunman like Jordan.
The Jordan Holster: An Instant Classic
Despite these issues, the combination of a thoughtful design, quality materials, superior workmanship (Myres, Hume), and the endorsement of a modern day giant with a badge, destined the Jordan holster for success.
Almost immediately, the Jordan became the ne plus ultra of police duty rigs. While other designs enjoyed regional popularity—for example, clamshells and breakfronts on the Left Coast, and abortions like the Jay-Pee on the East Coast—the Jordan holster was the dominant uniformed duty rig in American law enforcement from its introduction through the late 1970s (and even the 1980s, in some areas). Almost every maker of police leather goods had some kind of Jordan variant in their catalog, usually labeled as a “Border Patrol” style.
When the classic Jordan holster was replaced by more modern designs that incorporated thumb break safety straps, retention features, new synthetic materials, and other improvements in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the influence of the earlier design was clear. All of these new rigs still retained a lot of Jordan features. Even today, in the age of the bottom feeder, there isn’t a single drop loop, uniformed duty holster that doesn’t owe some aspect of its design to the Jordan.
Not Done Yet
The Jordan is no longer a viable rig for the modern police officer, but it’s a true classic that changed the course of police holster design, and we continue to stand in its shadow today. One of the many pleasures of being a RevolverGuy is that we get to celebrate the highlights of an America that has since passed. When we shoot a classic revolver, or draw it from a classic holster, we’re connecting in a meaningful way with people, places and history that have been forgotten by most Americans, but are worth remembering.
Revolvers are just plain fun, and RevolverGuys understand there’s value in that, even if they aren’t the cutting edge in technology. Revolvers, and the fine leather holsters crafted to carry them, speak to the soul in a way that plastic autos and holsters never will.
I know I’ll never ride the river under the desert moon in search of smugglers and bandits, but when I strap on my Model 19 in my Jordan holster, I can almost smell the mesquite campfires and hear the whispered voices in the brush on the other side of the riverbank. I can also hear the sage advice of a departed lawman, delivered in a Louisiana drawl, reminding me to think fast and shoot straight, because there’s “no second place winner” in a gunfight.
Askins, Colonel Charles. Texans, Guns & History. Winchester Press, 1970.
Askins, Colonel Charles. Unrepentant Sinner. Paladin Press, 1991.
Bianchi, John. Blue Steel & Gunleather. Beinfeld Publishing, 1978.
Jordan, William Henry. No Second Place Winner. Police Bookshelf, 1989.