Nothing else looked quite like the Sam Browne belt, worn as part of the U.S. Army uniform between the world wars. The belt was adopted directly from British usage and was worn by commissioned officers only.
When Gen. John J. Pershing’s American Expeditionary Force arrived in France in 1917, officers worked and fought in their service uniforms. The Army had no separate attire for combat like the fatigues of later years or today’s Army Combat Uniform.
While there were pockets on the officer uniform coat that allowed small items to be carried, the uniform offered no practical way for an officer to carry a pistol, first aid kit or ammunition pouch – except in the officer’s hands, which needed to be free.
Edwin Kennedy, Jr., a retired Army lieutenant colonel and an authority on Army
equipment, said in an interview that, “American officers saw their British counterparts wearing a distinctive leather belt with one cross strap over their uniform coats … it was not only handsome but, because the strap crossed over the shoulder it allowed items to be carried without falling or sagging.”
In The Doughboys (New York: Harper & Row, 1963), author Lawrence Stallings wrote that the designer of the belt was a “round bellied British general” named Gen. Sir Samuel J. Browne. Browne, who had only one arm (he had lost an arm fighting in India, and had been awarded the Victoria Cross for that same action), added a shoulder strap to the leather belt he used to carry his sword, pistol, binoculars, and map case.
The shoulder strap served two important purposes for Browne: it allowed him to easily
access his equipment with his lone arm and it took pressure off his waist. But American officers who began wearing the belt – unofficially at first – found that the belt also forced them to suck their stomachs in and stand more erect, enhancing military bearing. Pershing liked the Sam Browne, and after he began wearing it the belt became standard for officers serving with him.
While the Sam Browne was popular with Americans and quickly acquired the nickname “Liberty Belt,” Army Chief of Staff Gen. Payton March disliked the belt. An Army bulletin in October 1917 decreed that Sam Browne belts would not be worn “within the limits of the United States.” A December 1917 Army bulletin authorized “Liberty Belts” for wear in Europe only and stipulated that officers had to purchase them.
New Army uniform regulations in 1921 specified that “all officers” were to “wear the Sam Browne belt at all times when not in quarters.” Pershing had replaced March as Army chief of staff, so the new rule came as no surprise.
When the Sam Browne was worn with a single shoulder strap, the strap passed over the right shoulder and was attached to the belt on the left side. When an officer wanted to attach his pistol, leather magazine pouch, canteen and first aid packet, however, he could attach a second cross strap to the Sam Browne, which passed over the left shoulder and was attached to a belt on the right side. Unless on field duty, most officers wore a single strap Sam Browne.
The Sam Browne began to disappear as a part of the Army officer uniform in the late 1930s and was no longer a common sight in 1941, when the Army issued an officer uniform coat with a cloth belt. Officially, however, the Sam Browne did not go away until June 7, 1942, when change no. 22 to Army Regulation AR 600-35 announced that the leather officer’s belt was abolished. Even then, some continued to wear it.