How do Tactical Tourniquets Compare?

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Like this article? check out Opie’s Trauma Bandage review here

If you’re in the military and even law enforcement you have probably been trained in the use of a tourniquet to stop hemorrhaging. Most of us just use what is issued and don’t really look at our gear after yearly refresher training. But have you thought about carrying an Individual First Aid Kit (IFAK) when you’re target shooting outside of work or as accident kit in your POV? What if you’re a civilian, with no hands-on experience with tourniquets, who is trying to figure out which one to carry as part of a first aid or EDC kit? 

Looking online I was hard-pressed to find a comparison of more than two of the common tourniquets that are out there. For those of you looking to add a tourniquet to your EDC gear or for a solid piece of kit to ride shotgun with you hopefully the experiences outlined here will help you make an informed decision. 

The four tourniquets that we’ll be looking at are the C.A.T. (Combat Application Tourniquet), SOF-T (SOF Tactical Tourniquet), R.A.T.S. (Rapid Application Tourniquet System) and the SWAT (Stretch Wrap and Tuck Tourniquet). 

To give a little background, my formal medical training is limited to EMT-B in a past life, the Army’s Combat Lifesaver course and some other medical training along the way. I don’t presume to be an expert or speak with anything other than a passing familiarity of the need to keep the red stuff on the inside. I was aided by a close friend who is a paramedic and has extensive tactical medicine training. The “we” referenced below is the two of us.

While tourniquets are going to be used in less than ideal conditions we chose to test these in a controlled environment for unbiased results across the different systems (read: it was my friend’s living room slumped against a couch). Also while tourniquets are used to control bleeding we couldn’t get Household 6 to sign off on dousing each other in pig blood (or the blood of our enemies) for the sake of a realistic test. With that said the following impressions are just that – our impressions. We applied the tourniquets in a manner that we would expect to see them employed. The times listed are for self-application. Times are measured from the first movement until the tourniquet was secured and blood flow was stopped. We won’t talk about what pouch/holster/tie-down method is best to carry your tourniquet. You know your gear and how you’re going to be carrying it. We only want to look at the system’s practicality, effectiveness and ease of use. The following observations and times are the product of our collective experiences and opinions as well as one day of systematic/side-by-side comparison of the following four systems.

C.A.T.

The C.A.T. is one of the most popular tourniquets out there. It is hailed as being one of the fastest tourniquets to employ. Because when you need to stop arterial bleeding you need to stop it right now.

The instructions for the C.A.T. show two different methods of employment – single hand and dual hand. The difference being whether you route the strap through one or two of gates on the system’s buckle. Since the strap is covered in hermaphroditic hook/loop routing it through only one gate allows you to pull the strap out and away from your body pulling out all the slack before your adhere the strap to itself. With the two handed method you can hold the tourniquet in place with one hand while the other pulls the strap up and away to take out the slack. If you try to pull the slack one-handed with the C.A.T. in the two handed configuration you’re in for a frustrating time. 

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Once the slack is removed and secured you turn the windlass (read: rod shaped handle) until the bleeding stops. You then secure one end of the handle inside a provided open topped cradled that resembles the letter C. The end will fall in and with tension hold itself in place. To prevent the windlass from popping out there is a nylon/Velcro cover that is secured on the top of the cradle once you’re done.

Our average time for self-aid application to the leg was 28 seconds

Our average time for self-aid application to the arm was 12 seconds in the one-handed configuration. If you change the tourniquet to the two handed application that time ballooned out to over a minute. Trying to manage the strap sticking to itself while pulling slack out of it and maintaining control of the tourniquet was frustrating. As I was struggling with this I couldn’t imagine myself trying to use the two handed configuration on my own arm.

Why even have two different methods? There are anecdotal reports that if the C.A.T. is used on a lower extremity injury in the one-handed configuration the hook/loop strap can loosen during transport and movement thus restarting the flow of blood. Is that going to happen in a vast majority of cases? No, probably not. But it’s a concern. 

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Well that’s an easy fix you say. Keep it in the one-handed configuration and if you need to you can switch over to the more secure two-handed method. That’s fine if you’re willing to put the time into drilling with the C.A.T. so that when you need it you will remember to route the strap through that extra buckle. If you can train yourself to do that you’re good to go with the C.A.T. On the other hand there is something to be said for a system that works the same way every time. 

SOF-T

So that leads us to the SOF-T. This is the other common tourniquet in use. The SOF-T is similar to the C.A.T in that it is also a windlass design, meaning it has a handle that is twisted to apply circumferential pressure. While there are two models of the SOF-T, the Original with a 1”strap and the Wide with a 1.5” strap. Both feature a consistent application routine, regardless of the method you are using it. This was one of the biggest take-aways during the comparison. The SOF-T has one method of application. There is no additional routing through a buckle if you’re using it two handed or applying it to your leg. 

One of the complaints on the older SOF-T is the tension thumbscrew that is supposed to keep the tourniquet from loosening once it is tightened down. If you set it up too tight it will bind the strap keeping you from removing slack until the thumbscrew is loosened. The workaround for this has been to keep it just tight enough to offer slight resistance as the strap is fed out. The newer “wide” model does not have this thumb screw and instead has a traditional slip gate type buckle similar to what you would find on an instructor belt. 

The application of the SOF-T is very similar to the C.A.T. You place the tourniquet above the injury, pull out the slack and turn the windlass until the bleeding stops. With the SOF-T there is a triangular buckle “catch” that you slip the end of the windlass into. 

Our application times averaged 20 seconds for a self-aid leg application and 16 seconds for the arm. Again this isn’t as fast as the C.A.T. for the arm when it is configured with the one handed application method. While seconds are critical we see the value in having a system that has the same application methodology regardless of how it is used. This is one less thing to forget under the stress of a traumatic injury. 

A quick aside here – there are guys out there that are carrying a CAT up high and a SOF-T down low, catering to the strengths of each. If you train to switch it up depending on where you’re shot then good on you. 

S.W.A.T.

While I tend to cross my eyes at anything labeled “SWAT or “tactical” the SWAT tourniquet actually contains instructions for usage in its name. Stretch, Wrap and Tuck describes the application methodology for this tourniquet. The SWAT is a four inch wide strap of rubber that when wrapped on itself will provide enough compression to stop arterial bleeding. Of the tourniquets tested the S.W.A.T. had the widest footprint which, with an extended application time, would reduce the risk of permanent tissue damage. While most stateside usage will have the victim delivered to advanced care within an hour that is still a positive of this system. 

A feature of the S.W.A.T. worth mentioning are the “tightness indicators” (my term, not the manufacturer’s). There are a series of geometric shapes on the band that will stretch to a different shape when the tourniquet is properly stretched and tightened. Regardless of the shapes you will be making the thing as tight as you possibly can so take it as you will.

As for self-aid application, well, it was rough. Our average times for arm and leg application was 40 seconds. This system can be prone to the tail slipping out if you don’t tuck it in correctly. You need to have enough slack in the last wrap to put the tail under. It’s food for thought. 

To be fair we tried it in a buddy aid capacity for the leg and our results were much better. A successful application took 35 seconds. It’s still slower than the other systems out there but not by much. 

Another thing that we found was that this tourniquet works much better when you take your time and make the wraps neatly and laying on top of one another. I know all things can be trained but in the heat of the moment it is easy to get sloppy and have what looks like a blown out tire wrapped around your limb. 

We came away from our experience with the S.W.A.T. less enthusiastic about it as a tourniquet but we both loved it as a piece of gear. “Whoa whoa, you just got done ripping it. How can you love it?” While I might not love the S.W.A.T. as my go-to self-aid tourniquet I can think of a dozen other uses for it. It would hold a pressure dressing in place. It could be used to secure a splint. The rubber could be chopped up and added to a fire for signaling smoke. You can use it as a loop to hang an I.V. bag from. Seriously, the thing is versatile. So versatile in fact that there are medics that carry a few of these in their kit for all of the other things you can do with it. 

On top of all of this the S.W.A.T. is the least expensive of the tourniquets we tested.  It’s not going to break the bank if you buy one and toss it in your pack to make an improvised water balloon slingshot. 

 R.A.T.S.

The final tourniquet we’ll look at is the R.A.T.S. or Rapid Application Tourniquet System. The R.A.T.S. is made of a ½” flat bungee cord with a metal cleat that serves as the locking device. Using this system is easy. The bungee is attached to a lower corner of the metal cleat. There is a slot on the opposite corner that the bungee is then run through, forming a small arch or loop. You pull enough slack to fit three fingers in the loop. Run the free running end under or around the injured limb, feed the free running end of the bungee back through the loop you made, pull back and begin wrapping. It is recommended that you get at least three sequential wraps (not directly on top of one another) to spread the force out over two to three inches to prevent tissue damage. (NOTE: Guys with THICK legs will barely able to get two complete wraps on their thighs.) Once you’ve got your wraps you just tug the bungee into the locking cleat to secure it. That’s it.

Our average time for self-aid application to the leg was 22 seconds. Average time for the arm was 35 seconds. 

The negatives that we found with this system was the potential for tissue damage if the wraps are spaced too close (on top of one another) or too far (inches between wraps). In fairness that is true of any tourniquet system applied inappropriately. It really comes down to “Follow the manufacturer’s directions.” 

Another negative was that wrapping and stretching the R.A.T.S. requires a fairly wide range of motion. While we didn’t conduct this test in armor we could see how wearing an IOTV or other tactical body armor could hinder your movement enough to frustrate your application. The same would be true of the S.W.A.T. tourniquet. The C.A.T. and SOF-T only require movement of your hand to turn the windlass. 

On a positive note the R.A.T.S. has a very minimal footprint allowing you to tuck this thing in places your other tourniquets won’t go. I originally bought one to try with the Ricci Ankle Medical System to replace a bulkier SOF-T. 

In all honesty I was a little skeptical of the R.A.T.S. and the big claims of it being the fastest tourniquet out there. Our testing didn’t bear that particular claim out. But after testing it out and carrying it around for over five months I’m pretty confident in this system, especially as a small EDC tourniquet. 

Conclusion

Again we wanted to compare more than the two really popular tourniquets that are out there. Our testing methodology was that of two grunts who carry these items as part of their job and wanted to see how things stacked up. We aren’t trying to tell you what system to use or what product to buy. If your experiences with any of these tourniquets is radically different than ours, rock on. Drop a note in the comments section below. We’d love to hear what works for you and why. Hopefully this article will give those who don’t have a preferred system a place to start. 

Before I end, let me just say that if you’ve been carrying a tourniquet and are trained in its use, drill with the thing. Practice using it in situations that are similar to what you’re likely to face. Then toss in some wild cards. Just like shooting, practice primary and support side applications. Mr. Murphy is lurking and he’s a jerk.

If you’re reading this and are looking to add a tourniquet to your gear for the first time, get training. The “how” I leave up to you, your budget and your learning style. The tourniquet is a tremendous life-saving tool when used correctly. Thankfully, with the four systems we looked at, you’ve got some really good options from which to choose.

Like this article? check out Opie’s Trauma Bandage review here

Tourniquets on Amazon

C-A-T Combat Application Tourniquet on Amazon

SWAT-T Tourniquet on Amazon

SOF Tactical Tourniquet SOFTT Narrow on Amazon

SOFTT-W Tourniquet Wide Model on Amazon

Medical Supplies at MTG Tactical

MTG Tactical Med Supplies

Tourniquets on Rockwell Tactical Group 

Medical Supplies

Need a Tourniquet Holder? Check out our Snake Eater Tactical TQ Holder Review …only $20!

Snake Eater Tactical Tourniquet Holster Review
Photo Credit: Reign Precision for Blacksheepwarrior.com

 


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7 thoughts on “How do Tactical Tourniquets Compare?”

  1. For those wondering about the timing methodology used – We did four applications for each system on each limb. The times were averaged with obvious outliers (getting tackled by a toddler while applying a TQ is probably not a real world hazard) excluded from the average.

    As for the lack of blood making things slicker – I hear ya. Again, neither Household 6 would sign off on the usage of blood or a suitable simulated alternative. Looking at the systems I think one could make some common sense assumptions about adverse affects the red stuff would have on them.

    If anyone has any stories, questions or criticisms please post them here. Feedback is how we grow.

    -Opie

  2. Opie,

    Great review. In the past I have worked with the operators and had them do the application to see how well they could put on the TQ since they were fairly unfamiliar with the units (they don’t play around with them as much and only when doing some hands on training every so often). Their times are fairly comparable.

    Out of all 4 I am not a fan of the SWAT. It is similar to one the Marine Corps was issuing in Version one of their blowout kits (it was about 1.5 inches wide) and not a good one handed unit.

    I have not had the opportunity to use the RAT. It looks as if it is too thin to provide a wide swath to put pressure on the artery….I’ll have to order one and play with it.

    Thanks again for the review!

    1. Ross, thanks for the feedback.

      I agree wholeheartedly with your thoughts on the SWAT. The feedback I’ve gotten from medics is in-line with our observations. Good for a pressure dressing and other uses but not their go to tourniquet.

      As for the RATS having too small a footprint, that is a concern. But if you space the half inch strap appropriately you’ll get at least an inch of compression which is the same as the old SOF-T. If you’re able to get three wraps (as recommended by the manufacturer) you’re in the same profile as the SOF-T Wide at an inch and a half.

      Thanks again for the feedback. Any other questions you have, drop them here and we’ll get them answered.

      -Opie

  3. I was just looking over some info on the SWAT-T, mostly because it’s far less expensive than the CAT or SOFT-T, and less bulky. A study printed in Military Medicine from March 2013 found that the CAT more frequently lost pressure after one minute and was painful at times for participants in the study to have applied. The SWAT-T was better at maintaining pressure to stop blood flow and because it was wider it was also more comfortable and less likely to cause nerve damage. Apparently the St Petersburgh (Florida) police have also begun issuing SWAT-T’s to their officers, after having spent something like $23,000 purchasing a few hundred CATs. This was after a shooting incident in which an officer used a garden hose as a tourniquet because he wasn’t carrying his CAT, and it was found that many officers also didn’t carry the CAT because it was too bulky on their patrol belts etc. The SWAT-T’s are being issued as a supplement not a replacement for the CAT, but they are being issued because officers will be far more likely to actually have the SWAT-T on their person as opposed to a CAT in the cruiser. The study did note that the one handed application of the SWAT-T was more difficult. Here’s a link to the article, entitled
    “Tourniquets and Occlusion: The Pressure of Design”
    http://publications.amsus.org/doi/pdf/10.7205/MILMED-D-12-00490

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