A practical belt, or duty belt as it is called in law enforcement, occupies the space between concealed carry belt and a full-on military battle belt. A practical belt keeps the things you need handy and should be tailored for your needs.
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For concealed carry with nothing but a holster and maybe a mag pouch, you can mount everything on your clothing. If you are going to add a trauma kit and a rifle mag etc. attaching all this to your belt loops is less desirable. A practical belt, as I use one, rides on the outside of my clothing and is easily removed and expanded.
While there are many variations on the market, I am fond of a local company, Essential Tactical or Esstac. Their excellent Shooter’s Belt is an Inner/Outer combo with a1.75″ COBRA® Buckle. Each side of the belt adjusts with a range of 5.5″. Their KYwi Pouch system is light, rugged, and simple. All of this is made in Washington USA for a lifetime of hard use.
Esstac is known for its high functioning minimalist design. The origin story is an American classic. Stuart Wilson started as a competitive shooter. He wasn’t happy with the belts and pouches available on the market and he believed he could make better gear. As Wilson developed the first Esstac products, fate forced his hand. He was crushed by 2,500 pounds of sheet metal at his construction job and he had to find a new career.
Wilson started selling his handmade pouches on eBay. Today there is a factory on Camino Island Washington. When COVID hit, they used modern medical technology, protected his employees, and remained open. As schools closed, Esstac started a childcare facility on-site to help his dedicated workers.
My Evolution to Modern Gear
Over the years, in Army Special Forces and Law Enforcement, I have run a number of different rigs. Working in the tropical jungles of Central and South America, I used a belt and harness system providing cooling airflow. I could carry heavy loads and support the weight on my shoulders.
In temperate climates, vests and plate carriers came in fashion, I moved magazines to my vest and minimized my belt load to survival stuff, a pistol with a couple of magazines, and a small trauma kit. Drop leg holsters got the load below the vest. Survival gear was stowed in various pockets.
In Afghanistan, I shifted to a plate carrier and began carrying more on my belt. This enabled me to modify my gear as the situation and mission changed. The plate carrier rode higher, we could use a higher holster and get rid of leg straps.
As a SWAT officer, I used a plate carrier and a duty belt. I evolved a modular system. I carried three rifle magazines flat on the front of the plate carrier. As needed, I add a radio, an extraction tool, a trauma kit, or a hydration system. On the belt, I carried a Safariland holster with a 3-inch drop plate, three pistol mags, one rifle mag, handcuffs, ASP baton, trauma kit, multi-tool, and a dump pouch.
As an instructor, I need to wear the same gear as my students. With a plate carrier and a modular belt, I can carry the magazines and dump pouch I need for demonstrations, the trauma kit for range emergencies, and a multi-tool to keep guns running. I fly to classes carrying this gear and wear this stuff for a week at a time. Anything that I am not using comes off.
I train year-round at many latitudes. I bring rain gear and cold-weather gear everywhere I go. I have never seen any way of putting a garment over your gear that works. I want my armor and belt to fit over my protective clothing so I can access it. The belt matches with an inner velcro belt in the loops of my pants. The belt is expandable. If I need another layer of warm clothes or a rain parka, I can let the belt out to fit on the outside so I can access all of my gear.
Let’s build a practical belt. You need to start by identifying your mission. What are you doing? What do you need? Your belt should be minimalist and stick to what you need. The goal is a belt that provides you the capability you need while remaining comfortable for all-day wear.
What I have evolved is an adjustable belt with three pistol magazines, one rifle magazine, a trauma kit, multi-tool, flashlight, and a dump pouch. Anything else I need goes in a pocket, on a vest, or in a rucksack. This stays outside my clothing. As you can see, I am not overly concerned with color coordination. You can spend more and get matching gear, but I prefer to use the best pouch on hand and not worry about color.
You have to start with a stable base. When you reach for a magazine, you need the pouch to be right where you put it with no shifting. A two-part belt system consists of an inner hook/pile belt that weaves through the loops on your pants and the outer belt that attaches to. The outer belt has corresponding material on the inside of it that sticks to the inner belt. This gives you stability while also allowing you to expand the belt to fit over clothing without the inner velcro.
I am a fan of the “happy mag” technique. This means that you select an optimum location for efficient re-loads and put a pouch there. When you need an emergency re-load, you go there and when time allows, you refill that pouch by pushing spare mags forward. That is your primary pouch. My handgun mag is in front on my support side and my rifle mag is at 9 o’clock on my support side. I am right-handed.
The Esstac KYwi pouch is an elegant union of Kydex and nylon design, which offers a great combination of retention and quick magazine removal. KYWI is the formed Kydex Wedge Insert which provides integral retention through pressure and friction to secure magazines without bungee cords or straps (which can snag).
KYWIs are available for pistol magazines and rifle magazines in both 5.56 and 7.62. Each KYwi Pouch has two key components: the nylon pouch and Kydex Wedge Insert. The unique hand-formed Kydex inserts provide just the right retention to secure a loaded magazines with an immediate release with a sharp pull of the magazine.
The insert has a stripe of aggressive velcro on one side. When connected to the pouch shell, it forms a solid lock up. The pouch is sized to apply a precise tension to the KYWI. The hourglass shape holds a magazine in place even upside-down. When you put a magazine in a pouch, it needs to stay there until you need it.
The wedge expands to accept the magazines and locks them into place. When the magazine is removed, the wedge compresses, leaving a thinner profile. The top is held open so you can put mags back in the pouch to shuffle magazines forward.
The KYwi Pouch has MOLLE webbing on both sides for mounting and stacking pouches. I picked Esstac belt loops to attach the pouches for my belt. They weave into the MOLLE loops providing a low profile and versatile yet solid mount. The belt loops are designed to be used with a rigger style belt and form arigid 1.75″ belt loop on the back to a direct belt mountable pouch.
Esstac on the Range and in the Field
When I first set up my ESTAC Shooter’s Belt, I was impressed with the quality. Everything went together easily, and the stitching was clean. I love the Cobra buckle and the combination of the outer belt’s stiff plastic liner with the inner belt’s is aggressive velcro holding everything together.
Esstac is known for its quality. Most of their work is done by hand using fittings and jigs. They use heat cutters, melting the nylon threads, so they won’t fray. Most orders are custom made, they only keep a few items in stock.
I sized my belt at the factory, so everything fit perfectly. You can’t just use your pants size. You need to measure your waist where your belt rides, over your pants. The Cobra buckles are secured to the belt with adjustable velcro folds allowing adjustment. The belt isn’t one size fits all, the trick is to get a size that fits with regular pants but sizes up to go over cold weather gear within the range of adjustment.
Esstac’s KYwi belt loops are easy to use and effective in holding the pouches in place. They weave through the MOLLE webbing on the back of the pouches and are easily replaced if damaged and it is easy to swap pouches if needed.
The KYwi Pouch’s magazine retention is excellent while providing ease of access with no extra steps. 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.
Esstac is a great company, and their gear is among the best in a crowded market. It is American-made for a lifetime of rough service. My Shooter’s Belt and KYwi Pouch system is light, rugged, and simple. It has the potential to evolve with my needs for years to come. You will probably find it meets your needs too.
Photos courtesy of Mark Miller