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The name and technique come from the gunleather used by the cavalry of both the United States Army and the Confederate States Army, during the Civil War. The pistol was in a covered holster carried high on the cavalryman's right side, but was placed butt-forward for crossdrawing by the left hand. The pistol was considered by the Army to be a secondary weapon, with the right hand used for the saber. Placement on the right permitted an alternate method to be used, allowing the right hand to draw the pistol if the sword were lost in battle.
In practice, however, the "alternate method" became the standard, with the sword being left in its sheath until the pistol and its spare loaded cylinders had been expended.
Later, it was found that the reversed holster can be more comfortable, especially when worn while sitting down, than the normal type holster. In addition, cavalry draw can be performed while sitting, as well as retaining the original off-hand cross draw capability. For these reasons, the FBI used the cavalry draw when they were equipped with short .38 Special revolvers.
Cavalry draw is performed in three steps:
- Rotate the wrist, placing the top of the hand toward the shooter's body.
- Slip the hand between the body and the butt of the pistol, grasping the pistol's stocks in normal shooting grip.
- Draw the pistol, rotating the wrist to normal orientation as the arm is brought up to shooting position.
With practice, the cavalry draw can be as fast or even faster than drawing from a normal, butt-rearward holster, because of the assistance of the body in placement of the hand on the pistol stocks.
Not all cavalry used this method of draw, or located their holsters on the right hand side of the body. In the 'Manual of Arms for the Sharps Rifle, Colt Revolver and Swords (1861)', which was used by the Union Army, the revolver would have been worn on the left side, in front of the sabre-hook. To draw the revolver, the soldiers were instructed to 'pass the right hand between the bridle-arm and the body, unbutton the pistol-case, seize the pistol at the butt, draw it'.
- Worthington, T., Gen. "Manual of Arms for the Sharps Rifle, Colt Revolver and Swords (1861)". Applegate & Co. No. 43 Main Street. 1861. Retrieved 25 November 2012.