Once again, we’re returning to the realm of load carriage. This post is all about the tactical belt, or the “duty belt” as folks in the law enforcement community might call it. To me, the tactical belt occupies a space between the discreet concealed carry belt and the much more overt battle belt. I’ve saved the tactical belt setup for last, because it’s the one I have the least experience with. But it also might be the most useful of the bunch.
When I wrote up my popular article on battle belts, I mentioned duty belts right in the beginning. For my definition, a tactical belt is different in one significant way: it’s integral to your clothing. A battle belt, at least my version of it, rides on the outside of your clothing and is easily removed. In contrast, a duty belt weaves through the belt loops of your pants and stays with you.
Carrying your gear with a tac belt has some advantages for keeping a low profile and maintaining mobility. But it also comes with a lot of considerations on how you set the belt up.
A Quick Refresher
If you’re new to this series on load carriage, then let me catch you up. I first introduced Scenario X in the opening article on load carriage methods.
Scenario X is the name for our hypothetical natural disaster scenario. I based it on my experiences living through several hurricanes, wildfires, blizzards, and watching what happens to others in similar situations.
In our disaster, it’s been several weeks since your suburban community lost power. Panicked people picked the grocery store clean with days. Law enforcement, at least what little remains, is focusing on the chaos in the densely populated urban areas nearby.
You’ve heard through word of mouth that criminal elements are venturing into nearby neighborhoods to do what criminals do. The lack of law enforcement in the area brings out the worst in people. Off in the distance, you see smoke and hear the sporadic staccato of gunfire.
To counter this threat, you and your neighbors established a neighborhood watch. Some of your neighbors have experience and training, but most do not. You’ve scrounged up whatever equipment you could find, and now you’re outfitting your community protectors the best you can.
If you think this sounds far-fetched, think again. This is exactly the kind of scenario that many people like you have found themselves in following any large disaster or disruption in government services.
A Question of Deterrence Profile
Most of my military background involves nuclear deterrence. While it sounds fancy, the truth is that it amounts to an international game of “biggest kid on the playground.” In another article, I distilled deterrence theory down to the individual level and how you should present yourself and carry your equipment in situations like Scenario X.
One key point in that article is that throwing on plates and heavy load bearing gear as soon as you sense there might be a problem is probably not the right call. It sends too aggressive of a message and is more likely to cause you more problems than it solves early on.
Instead, your plan should be for one of confident discretion.
Speaking Softly and Carrying Sticks
To be honest, early in Scenario X, you will be fine with a quality concealed carry belt and setup. It’s discrete, unlikely to cause alarm, and provides adequate defense.
A battle belt is the logical next step if things escalate and you need a “bigger stick.” But going to an openly visible battle belt comes with downsides. It’s larger, heavier, and definitely draws more attention. Maybe that’s something you want, but early in the event it’s probably not.
That’s where the tactical belt comes in.
The tac belt represents a solid middle ground between the completely discreet CCW belt and the loaded battle belt. Since the tac belt attaches to your pants and sits much closer to the body, it allows you to easily conceal your gear under a jacket or loose-fitting shirt.
A good tactical belt is typically stiffer and supports more equipment than a CCW belt. That means you can carry more ammunition and support gear.
Another advantage of the tactical belt’s integration with your clothing is that it moves with you rather than on you. Set up correctly, it feels as if it’s part of you.
When pair the tac belt with other equipment, like a chest rig, then you have a perfectly scalable solution that works for both discrete carry as well as higher-profile situations.
But you need to know the limitations.
A Brief History of the Duty Belt
I see battle belts as scaled down versions of load bearing harnesses. CCW belts stem from the classic old west gun belts.
The tactical belt is a bit of a hybrid, and I think its origin is closer to law enforcement.
Enter the Sam Browne Belt
I’m behind the curve. Until researching this post, I’d never heard of the Sam Browne belt, though I’d seen pictures of it everywhere.
General Sir Sam Browne was born in 1824 and served as a British cavalry officer in India. In 1858, while fighting in the Indian Rebellion as a captain, Sam Browne led the 2nd Punjab to successfully assault an emplaced 9-pound cannon.
The citation for his 1861 Victoria’s Cross Medal partly reads:
Obviously, there is some “wow factor” with the guy continuing to fight and win after losing his left arm at the shoulder. But the missing arm later caused some interesting problems for Sam over the rest of his life. In particular, he needed a way to stabilize his officer’s saber hanging from his uniform belt.
To solve this problem, Sir Browne devised a leather strap that draped diagonally over his right shoulder. It stabilized the sword’s sheath and allowed him to draw with his right hand alone. The utility of this configuration as well as its distinctive appearance quickly caught on in the early 20th century. Many western world military powers made it part of the official officer’s uniform.
Adoption by Law Enforcement
The Sam Browne belt quickly caught on with American police forces in the 1930s. It presented a sharp appearance and had a strong association with authority figures.
With the police, though, the belt became far more than decorative. To that point in history, officers often carried police equipment in the pockets of the coats. The new “duty belt” with attached stabilizing strap presented an opportunity to mount holsters, store ammunition, and handcuffs.
These images come from the New York State Troopers History page, and clearly show the Sam Browne belt being used as a regular duty belt.
By the 1950s, the police duty belt took shape and the diagonal Sam Browne belt helped support the load.
But there were already some noted issues with this configuration, especially when it came to officer safety. Police One did a great history on the topic, but the gist is that the strap became a hazard.
One instance involved an officer’s support belt snagging on the side view mirror of his car during a foot pursuit. In another, angry rioters used the strap to pull an officer into the crowd. As grappling and very close quarters confrontations became common, departments started removing the strap.
That’s how we arrived at the prototypical modern duty belt. Even though the supporting strap is gone (for most departments), the list of required equipment didn’t decrease. So the belt had to support all the weight by itself.
Later on, as uniforms changed, police officers began directly attaching their duty belts the pants belt around the waist. As more and more equipment became mandatory, the belts grew heavier and heavier, with some exceeding 15 to 20 pounds.
And that’s where we’re going to start the meat of our discussion.
Tactical Belt Considerations
My mantra for describing the purpose of battle belts is that they are for making holes and plugging holes. Everything else is “extra.”
When it comes to a tactical belt, I want you to get even lighter and more minimalist.
When it comes to a tactical belt, the same rules apply. But this time it’s even more so, and I want you to think even lighter and more minimalist.
I got away with adding more extras to the battle belt because it’s much wider, about 5”, and padded. The combination of width and padding helps evenly distribute the load around my waist.
A tactical belt, which either weaves through your pants belt loops or attaches to your pants belt, is typically only 1.5″ to 2″ wide. Most models offer zero padding or support.
Police departments all over the country have been dealing with workman’s compensation claims stemming from 20 lb+ duty belts. They hang on the hips with no padding or support, and become exceedingly uncomfortable over time.
Police Belt Requirements
The average police duty belt usually has some variation of the following equipment:
- Two pistol magazines
- Two sets of handcuffs
- Pepper spray
- First aid kit
- Key keeper
That’s a fair bit of gear to dangle around the waist, and there might even be more.
To be fair, a lot of police departments recognized the problem with overloading an unsupported duty belt with gear. Instead of classic duty belts, many officers now use some kind of equipment vest similar to the military fighting load carrier or even direct-mount equipment to their body armor.
While this configuration is certainly more suited to 20-25 lb duty loads, it’s also one of the sources of complaints about militarized police appearance.
For Scenario X, you’re not operating as law enforcement and you do not have the same policies and requirements.
Building the Tactical Belt
Let’s start with the foundational rule. Your tactical belt should be as minimalist as possible. The goal is a belt that provides you more capability than a CCW belt but remains comfortable for all-day wear.
The first step in building your tactical belt is choosing the style. The market has two paths you can follow here.
The first is a heavy-duty belt that weaves through your pants belt loops and then you attach pouches to it. This is the path that I chose, even though it’s more difficult. I’ll get to my reasoning in a minute.
The second is a two-part belt system consisting of an inner and outer belt. The inner belt weaves through the loops on your pants and the outer belt that attaches to. This is the regular police duty belt style, and law enforcement typically uses some kind of keeper or hook that attaches to the inner belt.
Another alternative replaces keepers all together. Instead, the inner belt is completely covered hook and loop material. The outer has corresponding material on the inside of it that sticks to the inner belt.
Blue Alpha Gear seems to be the most commonly recommended version of this style. This is another very popular option, and one that some of you have explicitly asked me about.
Single or Two-Part Tactical Belt?
To be honest, there isn’t really a wrong answer here. The two-part system offers a lot of conveniences as far as transferring the belt system from one pair of pants to another. You only need to configure the outer belt one time to get it exactly the way you like, and then never worry about it again.
My biggest drawback to the two-part system is that I have an aversion to velcro all over the place.
It’s not just about the noise, though it’s certainly something I’m mindful of. It’s more that things like dirt, hair, and grime get embedded in it over time and it starts to lose its stickiness.
I’ve got a rigger’s belt I wore with my uniform for years that has a relatively small velcro section at the end to control the tail. It’s full of human hair and dog fur. I can’t imagine what that would look like after months of serious outdoors use.
That brings me back to version number one, the direct-thread method. I chose to go this way because I find it to be more secure, lower profile, lighter, and not prone to the drawbacks of the two-part system.
The downside is that I have to remove and re-add the pouches from the belt every time I put it on a different pair of pants.
Tac Belt Material
As with CCW belts, the most important thing you’re looking for here is stiffness. The stiffer the belt, the better it supports the gear hanging from it. The trade off is that super stiff belts are also less comfortable to wear.
When it comes down to it, you’re basically choosing between leather and heavyweight nylon. Whereas I think leather looks nice for a day-to-day EDC or CCW belt, I value heavy nylon webbing for a tactical belt due to its increased strength and durability.
My Personal Tactical Duty Belt
Alright, with the background out of the way, let’s get to the nitty-gritty. The step was choosing a new belt to form the base for the project.
A lot of duty belts on the market are 2” wide, which wasn’t going to work for me.
I wanted a belt 1.75″ wide. All of the pants I use for training, competition, and outdoor activity can accommodate a 1.75” belt. Several of my accessories and holsters that I’ve collected over time also have 1.75″ attachments.
Another factor I considered was avoiding hook and loop material on the inside.
You see, a lot of belts out there from companies like HSGI, Tactical Tailor, and First Spear all have a strip of loop fabric lining the interior of the belt. The goal here is that a lot of belt attachment accessories, like First Spears “Missing Link” or HSGI’s one-wrap solution, have hook fabric on the interior so that it locks down on the belt.
On one hand, this is fantastic for keeping pouches exactly where you want them. On the other, it would make the experience of removing and replacing the pouches as I took the belt on and off a bear of a task.
In reality, the belt loops of my pants provide a pretty good “stop point” and help prevent pouches from sliding around.
So what did I end up with?
Klik Belts was nice enough to hook me up with one of their triple-ply 1.75″ duty belts with a cobra buckle for this article.
The cobra buckle wasn’t a requirement, but it’s certainly a nice-to-have.
Klik’s Duty Belt
The belt itself is pretty nondescript. There is no Velcro material anywhere on it, so it’s quiet and won’t pick up grime over time.
The stitching is straight and neat. The triple-ply model has a thick piece of stiff black webbing sandwiched between the two outer layers.
There was a little bit of fraying at the very end of the tail, but nothing that a quick pass with a lighter didn’t clear up.
It’s very stiff out of the box, and actually took a little bit of wearing around to break it in. After a few weeks bumming around while doing chores and rucking, it’s very comfortable.
In all, it appears to be a very well made piece of gear and I’m sure I will get a lot of use out of over the years. There are, of course, a lot of other good belts on the market. There’s only so much you can do with heavy duty webbing, after all, but this one had the right combination of features that I wanted.
The triple-ply webbing and very stiff. The tail end is left as a single layer of webbing so you can quickly adjust it along with the included cobra buckle.
I was a little skeptical of this configuration at first, but it works. I’m actually thankful that its easy to work with, because I found out that none of my pants’ belt loops accommodate the 2.5″ wide cobra buckle. So to get the belt on and off, I have to remove the tail end buckle each and every time.
That’s not the fault of the belt by any means, but it’s something to keep in mind if you want to use a buckle like this on your belt
Tactical Belt Pouches
I’m sure you know this pain, but picking up the belt is only the first part of the battle. The rest comes from choosing pouches and mounting methods. As with the battle belt, the rule is make holes and plug holes, except now we avoid any extras.
So, here are the pouches I’m going with for my first iteration.
- Esstac double pistol kywi pouches with extra gap
- Belt-mounted HSGI rifle taco
- Blue Force Gear belt-mounted micro trauma kit
- KT-Mech CZ P07 holster mounted to a Blade-Tech Tek-Lok
- Belt-mounted HSGI pistol taco
Tactical Ammunition Pouches
Compared to the heavier battle belt, the only major change is deleting one rifle magazine pouch.
For the pistol mag pouches, I decided to give the Esstac Kywi models a try. There wasn’t any particular reason for this compared to something like the HSGI pistol tacos that I already know like and trust.
The “killer feature” of the Esstac pouches is the formed kydex insert that grabs onto the magazine. I’m familiar with this system from my MVT chest rig, and I like it a lot. I needed the gapped model because of the longer floorplates on my CZ magazines.
I considered also using an Esstac Kywi rifle mag pouch as well, but I just couldn’t sacrifice the versatility of the Taco. This configuration allows me to carry two pistol magazines of any type as well as my choice of 5.56 or 7.62 rifle magazine.
The Esstac pistol pouches have a plain MOLLE backing, so I also picked up a pair of Esstac belt loops. I like these things a lot. They securely weave in and out of the MOLLE loops and leave a rigid 1.75″ belt loop on the back.
I’m seriously considering grabbing more of these to try on other pouches for this belt.
The HSGI and BFG pouches use an adjustable hook and loop closure to wrap around the belt.
Tac Belt Medical Pouch
My requirement for a tactical belt medical pouch is that it needs to be small, easily mount to a belt, and quickly deployed regardless of where it’s mounted. Since I usually mount all of my first aid pouches on the rear, I don’t want anything that has to be “used in place.” In other words, the pouch has to either detach itself, or its contents are quickly removed.
The BFG Micro Trauma Kit is purpose built for this application. I’ll do a further review on it in the future.
This is the exact same holster that you saw on the battle belt. It’s a KT-Mech Akela attached to a tek-lok. I simply released it from the battle belt and mounted it to the Klik belt.
There’s a lot to be said for modularity like that.
In all, I really like the Akela, but I’ll admit that it doesn’t have the same satisfying click as my Vedder holster that I use for CCW.
The last pouch here is a single HSGI belt-mounted pistol taco. I can use it for a flashlight, multi-tool, another spare magazine, or really anything about that shape.
To be honest, the reason I jumped on it this early was so that I can put together a comparison between the pistol tacos and the Esstac Kywi pistol pouches. That will be for a future article.
So How Does it Feel?
I’m not going to lie to you, the first time I put the belt on was a bit of a chore. The HSGI pouches and holster were no issue at all, but the Esstac belt loops are very stiff.
I wouldn’t be surprised if the triple-ply material of my belt also factored into it, though.
Once I figured out the process of weaving the pouches on between each belt loop and got everything set up, though, I was very pleased.
My first thought after closing the buckle and moving around was just how light this belt feels compared to my battle belt. Everything moves and bends along with me.
All of my pouches are more or less exactly where they would be on the battle belt, so all of my muscle memory remains intact. It just feels….more comfortable.
Tactical Belt Drawbacks
As much as my first impression was “ooooooohhh,” I also want to be honest about some other stuff. This kind of belt is definitely not something that you’re just going to put on and take off when you feel like it.
When I go to matches or classes, it’s easy to undo the buckle on my battle belt and set it aside for lunch or breaks. With a tactical belt configured like the one in this article, I’m more or less committed to wearing it all day.
Similarly, if I want to change the pants I’m wearing, it involves removing everything and rethreading it on again over the new pants.
The two-part tactical belt mitigates that problem, though.
Another consideration is clothing. Since this kind of tac belt is also my pants belt, you have to keep a couple of things in mind. First, putting extra weight on the belt drags your pants down with it. So keep it light.
Secondly, it limits the kind of clothing I can wear around it. To remain quick and effective, everything has to be tucked in with no jacket or other loose clothing in the way.
This would be fine if I was the kind of guy who wears a combat shirt or something similar all of the time, but I don’t. I think this kind of belt is better suited to warm climates where you’re not wearing any kind of outer layer.
Unless, of course, you’re trying to conceal the belt. In that case, it works great, and is much less visible under something like my Vertx smock.
Tactical Belts vs Battle Belts
Now we get to the tough question: which do I think is the better way to go?
To be honest, I think they are both good options, but for different reasons. Whichever I choose depends a lot on the circumstances in front of me. Keep in mind that I’ve got many more years working with the battle belt.
I think the battle belt, which is self-contained and rides on the outside of the rest of my clothing represents the “do all” solution. It’s comfortable enough, brings a lot of capability to the table, and it works all year regardless of how many layers I’m wearing.
The tactical belt represents the minimalist super lightweight path. I think it really shines either when the weather is warm and I’m not wearing any additional layers. Or, alternatively, I’m trying to conceal the belt under a jacket.
If I found myself in Scenario X next month, my honest inclination is that the tactical belt is the better option. In the early stages of Scenario X, I’m more likely to value the discreteness of a tactical belt while not giving up much capability to the battle belt.
I’d like to run the tac belt through some classes and competitions over the next several months to get an even better feel for it, but I fully expect it to perform extremely well.
Over to You
Ok, now that I’ve gotten deep into the weeds of this conversation, let me know what you think works better for you and why. The interesting thing about gear is that everyone has different experiences, body shapes, and expectations. So what works for me might be very different than what works well for you.