One of the things The Everyday Marksman emphasizes is mindset over materials. Avoiding the chase for newer, better gear and learning to use what you have is a valuable message that has helped me get to the range more often and improve as a shooter. As you become more familiar with your gear, you not only learn what does and doesn’t work for you- but why. Such valuable lessons guide your future purchases from a place of extensive experience.
I recently discovered some real issues with my current gun belt setup and decided it was time to see what else was out there.
I’m just a responsible civilian firearms enthusiast. My main interests in the shooting world lie in recreation, competition, and self-defense. In that order. I’m someone who tries to get out to the range about once a month, shoots in a variety of matches, and gets to at least one training class in any given year.
I have no military or law enforcement background, but I would consider myself an experienced “regular guy.” My goal here is to provide a helpful data point for folks in a similar spot. For full disclosure, I paid for the belt and pouches featured in this post myself.
Previous Gun Belt Configurations
Way back in 2011, I found myself interested in action pistol events like USPSA. I jumped in with both feet shooting matches at my local club in New Jersey where I was as a green a competitive shooter as you could find.
There was barely a budget to speak of, so I got what I thought I needed and showed up to learn and have fun. I was running Condor nylon mag pouches and a SERPA holster on a cheap leather belt from a big box store.
I quickly learned through experience and advice from fellow shooters that I needed to make some changes. Out went the SERPA and in came a cost-effective offering from Blade Tech.
I couldn’t afford highly adjustable Kydex single mag pouches, so I substituted with a pair of Uncle Mike’s plastic double mag pouches. That let me replicate the securability and repeatability of the higher end offerings without breaking the bank.
A stiffer belt was also in order to better carry the weight of my equipment. For that, I went with a CR Speed 1.5” Competition belt. The majority of the shooters at my club were using that particular belt with a lot of success.
Fast Forward 8 Years
I’ve used this setup for USPSA, action pistol club matches, classes, and too many range sessions to count. The system evolved through all of that.
When I moved to Texas, and didn’t have the same firearm and magazine ownership restrictions, I finally purchased my first AR15. That meant adding a pair of Blade Tech AR pouches for training and carbine matches. That resulted in two regular setups for the belt that I ran frequently:
- Two double magazine pistol pouches and my holster for pistol events
- One double pistol pouch, two AR pouches, and my holster as an option for rifle and two gun-related activities
Thus far, it’s been a versatile combo. However, the system was a hodgepodge of stuff added over time as I expanded what I was using it for. It was a great gamer belt that made it easy to change pouches over from pistol to rifle and back again. But the belt ends overlap in multiple places to lock the belt in place rather than use a buckle.
For me, that overlap made for a pretty bulky setup, not to mention it was a chore to put on and line up correctly. It also uses a small velcro keeper to hold the belt straps in place, which never felt strong enough as I slowly found myself adding more weight to the belt.
The Uncle Mike’s pouches’ belt loops and the Tek Loks on my Blade Tech pouches created large areas of interference between the velcro of the inner and outer belts. That limited the amount of velcro that could connect over a fairly large area making the security issue worse.
When loaded down, anything beyond a light jog could cause the velcro to sheer off and the belt to flop around. When I considered pressing the belt into a class or match that was more physically demanding or a defensive scenario, I knew it wouldn’t hold up. The setup started out just for use at indoor pistol matches and I was now trying to force it into a whole slew of activities I hadn’t planned for.
It was time to reassess things.
A lot has changed since 2011, both in the shooting world and in what I know I need out of my belt setup. I wanted something that I could still snap on and off easily while still being able to lock in place.
No overlapping of the belt ends and something that didn’t use a velcro keeper to keep the belt from coming loose. I shoot a lot of different matches and classes for rifle and pistol, but I can’t afford dedicated belts for each setup.
I wanted something versatile that would let me swap out pouches easily, but would still be at home at a match, class, or in an emergency. So, in short, I wound up in another Jack-of-All trades, master of none situation. But now I was armed with knowledge and experience and wouldn’t be making it up as I go.
I landed on a lightweight tactical belt concept and got to work to see what my options were.
Sourcing New Kit: Enter Esstac
Hat tip to Matt for his battle belt article and Sunshine Shooter for his after action report from Desert Brutality 2019. The community at The Everyday Marksman was great for letting me learn about their setups and let me pick their collective brains.
Another important piece of this journey is Matt’s article on tactical belts.
After a lot of looking around, I ended up going with Esstac for their 1.75” Shooter’s Belt and KYWI (Kydex Wedge Insert) pouches. There are a lot of great belts on the market, but a few factors contributed to me going with Esstac for both the belt and pouches.
You can find a lot of rigger-style belts online, but very few in local stores by me. That makes it difficult to try them on for fit. Sizing charts and adjustability vary from company to company and not all of them are as clear as they could be.
I found Esstac’s sizing guides easy to understand, and quickly confirmed at home with a measuring tape. The extra .25″ of width on the 1.75” option provides more velcro real estate and more liner material to bear weight compared to my current belt, while still fitting the loops on my everyday pants and shorts.
As for the pouches, I also went with Esstac for their Double and Triple Pistol GAP KYWI pouches and a 5.56 Double KYWI Shorty. I went with the GAP option to give me a little extra room between my pistol magazines to make drawing them out quicker and easier.
I shied away from taco-style pouches with bungee cords. This is a popular option for a lot of people and they are especially versatile. I personally liked how slim they were and how many offered a velcro backing, but I wasn’t a fan of how tricky it could be to reinsert magazines. I also have personal concerns about wear and tear to the exposed bungees, as well as their elasticity over the long term.
The plastic and Kydex pouches offer a lot of repeatability and security, but there were downsides there too.
I previously mentioned how Uncle Mike’s pouch loops and Tek Loks created interferences with the velcro for the inner and outer belts. The hard plastic pouches also projected outwards from the beltline. The Blade Tech AR pouches were the worst offender due to their large overall depth with the Tek Lok mount in place. This made for a clunky setup.
Based on my personal preferences, the KYWIs looked to combine the trim dimensions of a taco pouch with the retention capabilities of Kydex. Esstac also offers trim, hard plastic belt loops designed for use with their pouches on a belt. No need to consider MOLLE webbing and a compatible belt to weave pouches into to secure them in place. The loops would allow for the quick and easy pouch changes that were important to me.
The company’s founder, Stuart Wilson, confirmed in a video detailing the system that the belt loops are in fact designed to be used with a rigger style belt without creating substantial velcro interferences.
It looked like the best of both worlds and a well thought out system, so I dropped the coin and crossed my fingers I made the right choice.
Esstac First Impressions
I was not disappointed when my belt and pouches arrived. Inspection revealed that the stitching on the inner and outer belt are extremely clean and sizing info was dead on. The velcro on the belts is aggressive and provides an extremely secure connection. The outer belt’s stitched-in plastic liner provides a good balance of stiffness and flexibility.
What do I mean by this?
When loaded up with full magazines and a holstered pistol the belt didn’t sag or fold. When not in use the belt didn’t try to aggressively flex outwards against the velcro and straighten itself. The belt provides solid support without fighting the user.
My favorite feature is the Cobra buckle setup. This isn’t new tech in the gun belt world, but it was my first time getting my hands on a belt that had them. The Cobra buckles lock up guarantees the belt won’t come loose compared to the overlap method of my previous setup.
The belt also isn’t a one size fits all affair. The Cobra buckles are secured by the belt and the tag ends of the belt are then secured in place by a layer of velcro. Adjusting the tag ends provides a great amount of wiggle room for changing waist sizes and seasonal clothing choices.
I found the pouches well-made and feel like quality. Each KYWI pouch has two key components: the nylon pouch and Kydex wedge insert.
The interior of the pouch features a length of aggressive velcro on the stitched on the side facing the belt. The stitching is clean and reinforced in weight-bearing areas. The removable Kydex insert has a length of velcro adhered to one side. When connected to each other, they provide a rock-solid lock up.
When a magazine is in place, the wedge expands to accept it and locks the magazine in place. When the magazine is removed, the wedge returns its original shape and compresses back in towards the shooter, leaving you with a much trimmer arrangement when they are not in use.
Esstac’s plastic belt loops are both clever and effective. They are a simple yet sturdy loop that weaves through the MOLLE webbing on the back of the pouches. I should note that you will need to remove the Kydex insert in order to install them, but that process is simple and straightforward.
These belt loops are compatible with most traditional MOLLE backed pouches, but Esstac includes a disclaimer that they may not work with all pouches. I found that they worked with Maxpedition Rollypoly dump pouches, but would not work with my First Spear SSE pouch. Its probably safe to guess that if you have a traditional MOLLE backed pouch they are very likely to fit, but of course buyer beware.
Impressions in Use
This setup has accompanied me on multiple range sessions, a 2 gun match, and numerous dry fire practice sessions. While not exhaustive testing, I think the belt and pouch quality has become evident through regular use.
The overall pouch arrangement presents a very trim overall appearance. Magazine retention has been excellent for both the AR and pistol pouches, with mag insertions a breeze. The lock-up between the inner and outer belts, when loaded up, has been tight. I’ve experienced no wiggling loose or shearing when on the move. And it has been very easy to swap pouches in and out as needed.
Since these pouches hold their magazines very close to the beltline, there have been some quirks that I did not encounter with my previous setup. When taking a knee or going prone with 30 round magazines in place, they can poke you as you get into position. It’ll take some getting used to and possible adjustments to how you move may be needed.
Because I frequently swap the pouches around, I have noticed that the edges of the keeper loops are starting to fray and fuzz. Despite that, they continue to be structurally sound. I don’t consider this a quality issue, but just general a wear and tear item to be aware of as you use your belt.
At the end of the day, I am confident in the belt and pouches and recommend them without hesitation. I’m comfortable that this setup can work for me in what I need it to do. I think Esstac deserves a long look if you are in the market for a new belt or pouch.