Object Advent Calendar Day 10

Sam Browne Belt

A2014.27

Sam Browne belt of Field Marshal the Earl Wavell

For today’s object we have an iconic piece of uniform, having been worn by armies across the globe: the Sam Browne belt. Invented by General Sir Samuel James Browne VC after an incident that occurred during the Indian Mutiny, this piece of uniform consisted of a wide belt worn around the waist, which had a narrower belt, attached via a D ring, which was worn over the shoulder. Now no longer used by service personnel in action, mainly due to the risk of strangulation by an opponent (in some circles the Sam Browne became known as ‘the suicide belt’), it has retained a function as part of the ceremonial uniforms of certain units, such as the Canadian Mounted Police.

Before the invention of the Sam Browne belt officers carried their sword attached to their waist belt via a metal clip, called a frog. Whilst functioning perfectly adequately as a device for attaching the scabbard to the belt, the frog failed to secure the sword in place; as a result it tended to swing around quite wildly, especially when engaged in combat or when charging the enemy. It also meant that an officer had to hold the scabbard with his left hand if he wished to draw the blade.

For General Browne holding the scabbard was not an option, following a skirmish near Seerporah in 1857. During an attack Captain Browne, as he was then, was serving with the 2nd Punjab Irregular Cavalry, when he saw mutineer cannon in the process of being reloaded. He immediately charged the gun hoping to put it out of action, but was attacked by its crew. During the fight, for which he was awarded his Victoria Cross, he received two wounds, a sword cut to the knee, and a blow to his left shoulder which cut his arm off. He went on to survive his injuries and continue his military career, but without a left arm he was unable to draw or control his sword properly.

As a result he designed the belt that was named after him which fixed the sword in place, exactly where he wanted it, and allowed him to draw the weapon one handed. Seeing the use of this piece of kit, which also included a pistol holster on the right hip and a binocular case around the neck, other officers in the Indian Army began to copy it. Soon it became standard for officers in the Indian Army, who, upon taking it overseas during the 2nd Anglo-Boer War, proved its worth to officers in the British Army, and soon after that war concluded, in 1902, it became a standard part of British Army uniform.

Infantry officers, particularly during the First World War, occasionally wore a variant of the Sam Browne belt which included two straps which crossed at the back and came down over the shoulders. This was supposedly invented in 1878 by Lieutenant Sir Basil Templer Graham-Montgomery, 5th Baron Stanhope, whilst serving with the 60th Rifles. A controversy exists as to who invented their belt first, and if one copied the other. Unfortunately neither of them took out patents over their inventions, and whilst both men have modern defenders who use contemporary accounts to back up their claims, neither side has been able to settle the argument satisfactorily.

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About blackwatchmuseum

The Museum of The Black Watch offers an insight into one of the British Army's if not the world's most famous fighting units. Scotland's Black Watch is an elite military regiment whose history stretches back almost three centuries.
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