In a previous installments of the “Fighting Leather” series, we looked at some landmark police duty holster designs, such as the Jordan Border Patrol style, the clamshell, and the various front break designs from makers like Berns-Martin, Hoyt, Bianchi, Safety Speed, Rogers and Safariland. Today, let’s look at another popular option for 20th Century police–the cross draw.
It’s clear that the popular cross draw holster had its roots in the military scene.
Author Richard C. Rattenbury, in the seminal book, Packing Iron, notes that “the military’s adoption of [the Colt 1851 Navy Model] pistol for mounted troops in 1855 dictated a change in associated gunleather.” Prior to this time, the larger and heavier guns (a Colt Walker was 15.5 inches long and 4.5 pounds!) used by dragoons and cavalrymen were typically carried on the saddle, but Colt’s new, trim military revolver opened up new opportunities to carry the weapon on the belt. Rattenbury quotes (then Captain, later famed Civil War General) George B McClellan, suggesting in 1856, that American cavalrymen, “should follow the Russian system and always carry the pistol on the waist belt,” after observing this practice in the Crimean War.
Since cavalrymen were already habituated to carrying their sabers on the left–so they could be drawn and wielded by the right hand–practicality dictated that the new pistols would be carried on the right side of the belt. They would be arranged with butt forward, to permit a left-handed draw when the right was already full of sharpened steel, or a reverse “cavalry” draw with the right, when necessary.
Owing to military’s penchant for standardization, this cross draw carry of pistols lasted for many decades. The cavalry troopers who fought the Indian Wars in the American West later deviated from this pattern, and often carried their revolvers in locally-procured, strong side, California or Mexican Loop pattern holsters, with the butt of the gun to the rear, but the cross draw remained the Army’s baseline standard until the era of The Great War. It also remained a popular choice for cowboys and other armed citizens of the era, who often took their cues from the military—sometimes because they were veterans, sometimes because surplus military gear found its way into their hands.
A new home for an old idea
As paramilitary units, it’s no surprise that American police forces were influenced by the military standards of the day, and readily adopted the cross draw holster. This is especially so, because many police forces actually used surplus military uniforms and equipment as the basis for their early police duty uniforms.
Twentieth Century American cops weren’t in the habit of carrying sabers, but the cross draw holster neatly solved other problems for them. As we’ve discussed before in prior installments of this series, American police officers of the era favored revolvers with long, six-inch barrels that increased the sight radius and maximized the energy from their cartridges. This was especially true for the western lawmen who policed non-urban areas where shots could be more distant, and for highway patrolmen who worked around vehicles all day, and needed the best penetration possible.
These large and heavy sixguns were good tools for the job, but they could also be difficult to carry with comfort, especially as police officers entered the motorized era and found themselves seated behind the wheel of a car with increasing frequency. The longer tubes on those sixguns would poke into the seat and jam the gun upwards if they were carried too low on the belt. As a result, cops of the era who didn’t want to switch to shorter, 4” guns usually added a swivel to the holster’s shank or hangar, so it would pivot and lie parallel to the bench seat, or they adjusted the ride of the gun to place it higher on the belt.
The latter solution worked OK, but could make it awkward to draw the gun out of a top-draw design, as the gun had to be lifted so far to clear the muzzle that the presentation became awkward. “Trick” designs like the front break or clamshell holster were good solutions for this problem, because they allowed the gun to come out of the holster with a forward motion, without lifting it, first.
The cross draw accomplished the same feat. It allowed the holster to ride reasonably high on the belt for comfort, while allowing the gun to come out the front of the holster for a handy draw that didn’t involve any high-lifting hijinks.
In fact, the draw from a cross draw holster could be very comfortable and fast, indeed. Legendary sixgun expert Elmer Keith observed that “many fat or big men prefer a cross draw holster and this is also very fast.” He also noted that, “the gun comes out naturally and smoothly” from a cross draw holster (Sixguns, Pages 152 and 170).
For an officer in a seated position, the cross draw holster offered a significant advantage over a strong side holster, because it was faster and easier to draw from. When drawing from a strong side holster in a seated position, a shooter has to lean forward or twist the body to create space for the elbow to travel to the rear, so the hand can find the gun. The shooter can flare the elbow out to the side, instead, to facilitate the grasp without creating this space, but the presentation becomes more awkward and slow.
In contrast, a seated person can easily reach across their body and grasp, then present, a weapon carried in a cross draw position in the confined space of a car. Importantly, for threats that present on the driver’s side of the car, it’s also unnecessary for a right-handed officer to track the weapon across the steering wheel and dash to aim it towards the left, as the gun is virtually pointing in that direction already when the presentation is complete—just a little rotation of the wrist, as the elbow drops, will quickly point the gun at the driver’s side window. For a cop concerned about being ambushed in the patrol car, this was a very favorable characteristic of the cross draw as a duty holster.
The cross draw also provided good access to the gun with the weak hand, in the event the officer’s strong hand was injured or otherwise occupied. Keith had noted this in 1961, when he advised dual-wielding shooters in Sixguns that, “with cross draw holsters either gun can be used with either hand by simply bending the wrist or reaching back under the butt of the gun with the fingers.”
Fast-forwarding almost 70 years, trainer Mas Ayoob also notes that the cross draw position is friendly to shooters with injuries that might negatively influence a strong side carry and draw. Got a bum shoulder that interferes with your ability to raise a gun up and out of the holster? The cross draw fixes that nicely. Got a hip or back injury that makes carrying on the strong side painful? The cross draw allows you to carry a reasonably-sized, fighting handgun on the other side without much difficulty.
The cross draw holsters also came with their own set of weaknesses, though.
The first issue with the cross draw is that it could take extra time to present the gun to the target, depending on the orientation of the shooter’s body. If an officer could blade his body and place his gun side towards the opponent, he could get the gun out and have it on target fast, but if he began squared off to the threat—or worse yet, bladed in the opposite direction, to protect his gun by moving it out of the suspect’s reach—the gun would have to track across a longer arc to get the muzzle on target, and this motion could also be more easily fouled by an opponent at close quarters, who only had to pin the officer’s sweeping arm across his body to “stuff” the draw.
That lateral tracking of the gun was a significant concern for police trainers and administrators for safety reasons, as well. Although a safe and effective cross draw presentation can be made without endangering others (see the photo sequence above), most coppers who drew their guns from cross draw holsters would swing the gun from holster to target in a lateral arc that would muzzle fellow officers and innocents along the way. As police firearms training became more commonplace and formalized in the years following World War II, there was less enthusiasm for a holster that encouraged such unsafe handling practices when officers were lined up side-by-side on the firing line. Nobody wanted to be placed on the gun side of an officer with a cross draw during training!
In the field, butt forward carry of the gun was problematic when dealing with suspects in close quarters. In the traditional “field interview” position, with the gun side bladed to the rear, a cross draw holster would conveniently orient the gun in a way that a suspect could easily grasp it. Blading the opposite way would reverse the presentation of the gun, but also place it closer to the suspect, which was equally unappealing, from a weapon retention standpoint.
As American police came under increasing attack in the violent 1960s and 1970s, this critical flaw became even more apparent, and doomed the cross draw’s future as a uniformed duty holster. A tragic example of the cross draw’s most glaring deficiency occurred on August 5, 1972, when California Highway Patrol (CHP) Officer Kenneth D. Roediger, from the East Los Angeles area office, was fatally shot with his own gun by an ex-con he was trying to arrest. During the vehicle stop, Officer Roediger and the suspect got into a struggle, and the suspect landed on his back in the street, with Roediger straddling him on top. As Officer Roediger tried to pin the suspect’s shoulders to the ground with his hands, in preparation for rolling him over for handcuffing, the ex-con reached up and drew the officer’s revolver from his cross draw holster, then shot him through the heart with his own gun.
Tragically, the holster had been given to Officer Roediger by his highway patrolman father. As a result of this incident, the cross draw holster was banned for uniformed duty use by the department (interestingly, the clamshell holster remained in service for a while longer–grandfathered in for those officers who had already placed them into service—but wouldn’t last much longer, either). Many other police departments took notice of this and followed the influential agency’s lead, also banning the cross draw for patrol.
The cross draw would survive a short while longer in the CHP and other agencies as an off-duty option, or as a holster for plain clothes officers (like detectives), but its days as a uniformed duty holster were over.
In the heyday of the cross draw, the design was produced by all the popular makers of police leather. Clark Holster—located in Los Angeles, CA—had an early interest in this design, since it was Edward E. Clark who held a patent (dated 13 September 1932) for a front-draw holster that was held closed by spring tension. Even though his patent drawings portray a holster with the butt of the gun carried to the rear, this concept was readily adapted to the cross draw holster.
Rivals Lewis and Hoyt Holster (also of Los Angeles) made their own variations on the design. Ace Holstorian Red Nichols notes in his essential reference, Holstory, that Richard Hoyt was once employed by E.E. Clark as a salesman, circa 1930, so he may possibly have gained his appreciation for the design while employed there. It appears their fellow Kansan Ed Lewis was influenced by his association with Clark and his products as well. Interestingly, while the Clark and Lewis designs route the spring below the cylinder, Hoyt’s version of the cross draw routes the wire spring around and above the cylinder, starting below the bottom edge of the cylinder, then following the leading edge of the holster around the mouth of the pocket, at the top.
Nichols notes that later on, Bucheimer-Clark (founded by the acquisition of Clark by J.M. Bucheimer) improved on the basic design (as executed by Clark and Lewis) by increasing the length of the spring that was sewn into the holster body, so that it reached the top of the cylinder pocket. This increased spring tension helped to improve the retention qualities of the holster.
In later years, police holster giants like Safety Speed and Safariland (with the assistance of E.E. Clark’s son) introduced their own cross draw designs, with at least Safariland making them into the 1980s, before they disappeared.
Many of the cross draw holsters—particularly those made for plain clothes, or concealed, carry–were made without any kind of retention strap. The only retention for the revolver was provided by the strength of the spring, and (in the case of the Hoyt, and others who copied the Hoyt trademark) the squared cylinder relief inside the holster.
Most cross draws that were designed for uniformed duty use included some kind of flap or safety strap though, to secure the weapon in the holster. This safety strap was typically designed to be popped open by the trigger finger of the shooting hand, as it swept the gun forward and out of the holster. Some of the concealment versions used these straps as well, but they were more common on the uniformed duty holsters, it seems.
My experience in playing with the Safety Speed version you see in these pages indicates that the safety strap could have benefited from a longer tab, to help pop the snap more easily, but it’s still rather ergonomic and it seems like it affords a much faster presentation than the “suicide special,” “gun bucket” top draws that were so popular in police service in the same era from the ‘30s to the early ‘70s. It was a lot sexier, too!
Outside of the shoulder holster, the cross draw style of holster has largely disappeared from the gun scene today. There’s a few models out there from custom makers—like Sam Andrews— that are still available, but you’re unlikely to see many of them in the catalogs of the most popular, mass-production makers. The ones you’re most likely to find are the so-called, “dual position” field holsters, like the Galco Switchback, that offer an extra belt slot to permit cross draw carry for hunters and other outdoorsmen.
The days of opening the F. Morton Pitt or George F. Cake police supply catalogs and seeing a host of cross draws for duty and off-duty carry are long gone, but there’s no doubt that the cross draw was an influential and popular police duty holster, that earned the sobriquet of “Fighting Leather” in its day!