When it comes to carrying our guns, there’s no doubt that we want them to stay in our possession. Most of us rely on our holsters to hold them there securely. Holster retention is what keeps the gun secured in its holster and is an aspect we must acknowledge if we are going to carry a gun.
My first acknowledgment of holster retention came years before I even started shooting. I was a teenager working as a hostess at a restaurant; as a customer was leaving the restaurant, a gun flew off of some part of his body and ended up landing five feet away from him.
I wasn’t familiar with guns at the time, but I knew enough to know that typically guns were carried in holsters – but weren’t holsters supposed to hold the gun in place? How did this gun just fly across the floor in front of me?
This is where holster retention comes in play. Retention encompasses quite a few characteristics, including keeping a gun from flying across a restaurant floor when your jacket tugs on it. If you were to slip on ice and fall, you wouldn’t want your gun or holster to be separated from you. You also wouldn’t want a stranger or attacker to grab your own gun out of your holster.
As you’re doing your holster shopping, you may see some terms floating around like “passive,” “active,” and a whole assortment of “levels.”
Here’s the thing – there is no set standard in the holster industry for all of these terms. In order to make educated buying decisions, it’s important to distinguish what these terms may or may not mean.
Vocabulary Lesson & Retention Devices
You’ll find that some terms used when referring to holsters mean different things to different people. Even holster companies use these terms loosely, so be sure you clarify what these terms mean to the person or company using them.
Here’s a quick rundown of what these terms generally mean:
Retention Holster: a holster that has qualities or mechanisms that are intended to prevent the gun from being drawn or obtained by anyone other than the intended user, or prevent the gun from coming loose from the holster
Active Retention: mechanisms on a holster that “lock” the gun in place and must be activated by the shooter in order for the gun to be drawn
Holsters with active retention are useful in that they can potentially stop someone from obtaining your gun and using it against you. On the other hand, if you have not properly and regularly trained to disengage all active retention devices during your draw stroke, you may not be prepared to effectively draw your gun during an attack and under stress.
Passive Retention: a holster that, due to its design, has retention of the gun and holds it in place, but does not require a manual “unlocking” of a retention device other than the draw itself; this could include the friction that holds the gun in place
The accessibility that a passive retention holster offers is appealing – it means there are less barriers you have to worry about when you need to quickly draw your gun. It also means that there are less barriers for someone else to grab your gun.
There are a number of different attributes that a holster can have that qualify as a retention device. This can be broken down into two categories:
- Retention devices that keep the gun in the holster
- Retention devices that keep the holster attached to the carrier
Some examples of retention devices that keep the gun in the holster:
- Thumb Break/Retention Strap
- Retention/Tension Screw
- Trigger Guard Lock
- Altered Draw Stroke Retention
- Mechanical Locks
Some examples of retention devices that keep the holster attached to the carrier:
- Loop (with or without snaps)
- Hook/J Hook
- Quick attach mounting systems
The biggest misconceptions in holster terminology come from holster retention levels. You’ll see companies advertising Level 1 holsters, all the way up to Level 4 holsters (and maybe even higher); the higher the level, the more retention and security offered. The issue is that one company’s Level 3 holster may not even qualify as a Level 1 holster according to another company’s standards.
The biggest issue that comes into play here is when law enforcement agencies don’t distinguish between these level systems and issue a new holster that may not be conducive to the needs of the department.
Even those of us who aren’t in law enforcement should be aware of the differences so that we can make the best decisions as gun owners.
For many holster companies, the level of retention on a holster directly corresponds to the number of retention mechanisms that keep the gun from coming out of the holster.
Safariland stands out as a company that has a completely different system for determining retention. Let’s evaluate the rating systems of two popular companies, Safariland and Blackhawk:
Safariland’s Holster Retention Levels
The Safariland Model 6360 ALS/SLS Level III Duty holster requires two different motions of the thumb to release the gun: depress and push forward the SLS hood, then activate the additional thumb lever by pushing it back in your natural draw motion.
In 1975, Bill Rogers and his company, Rogers Holster Company, developed a testing system that evaluated duty holster performance. This drew from a demand for duty holsters that made it more difficult for an attacker to obtain a police officer’s firearm during a physical altercation.
When the Rogers Holster Company was sold to Safariland, the security rating system remained a standard protocol that all duty holsters developed by the company underwent and is still used today.
The Security Rating System is a physical test that a holster must pass in order to meet the standards of one level, and continue on to the next level of testing, instead of quantifying the retention mechanisms. The full description of their retention testing can be found here, but here’s a quick summary:
Level I Test: Force is applied in all directions to the grip of a gun that is holstered and attached to a person for 5 seconds. After the 5 seconds, the gun must be still in the holster and attached to the operator; the operator must also be able to effectively draw the gun under appropriate time restraints after the 5 seconds. If the holster meets these requirements, it has qualified as “Level I” and can then continue on to Level II testing.
Level II Test: The holster must have first passed the Level I Test before it can be tested for a Level II rating. The primary securing device of the holster must be deactivated or disabled, then the same test as Level 1 is implemented. The holster doesn’t have to pass the complete test to qualify as Retention Level II: “If the holster exhibits the ability to further secure the weapon in a meaningful way after the primary lock is disengaged then it qualifies as a Retention Level II™ security holster.” It can then go on to Level III testing.
Level III, Level IV & V Test: Once a holster has passed Level I and Level II testing, it can be tested for Level III retention. With Level II retention testing, you disable the primary locking device and run the Level I test; for Level III retention testing, the second motion or action that is required in order to draw the gun must be simulated or disabled. Again, the holster doesn’t have to pass the complete test, but exhibit the ability to secure the weapon in a meaningful way.
If the Level III Test is passed, the testing can be continued on by further disabling any additional locks and performing the same test.
To help the holster buyer determine what level they may need, Safariland describes each level as follows:
Level I – Moderate Retention
Level II – Enhanced Retention
Level III – Optimum Retention
Level IV – Exceptional Retention
Level V – Maximum Retention
BLACKHAWK! SERPA Holster Levels
The Blackhawk SERPA CQC Concealment Holster implements the company’s patented Auto-Lock technology. The index finger must activate the Auto-Lock release to draw the gun.
As you can see, the Safariland testing system isn’t quite as simple as you might think. The Blackhawk rating system is a little more straightforward. Here’s a brief description of their holster level system:
Level 1 “Passive Retention”: Level 1 holsters have passive tension from an adjustable detent screw that provides tension on the trigger guard. No mechanisms need to be disengaged and only a regular draw stroke is required.
Level 2 Auto Lock Active Retention: Along with having the same passive retention as a Level 1 holster, a Level 2 holster also has the SERPA Auto-Lock technology. The SERPA Auto-Lock is an internal locking system that secures a gun when holstered by engaging the trigger guard. The gun cannot be removed from the holster without the user activating the unlocking mechanism. This requires the shooter to use his index finger on the finger tray to disengage the lock during the draw stroke.
Level 3 Thumb-Activated Pivot Guard: A Level 3 holster encompasses the same features as the Level 1 and 2 holsters, but with the addition of the pivot guard. The pivot guard is a hood that sits over the rear of the firearm that must be released before the gun can be drawn; a pivot guard thumb release button is located where the thumb will be able to press it during the draw stroke.
What kind of retention do you need?
Where and why you are carrying will determine whether you need a retention holster or not and what amount of retention you’ll need. Taking a look at retention needs only, here are some considerations for holster selection based on use:
Law Enforcement: An agency will determine what holster best suits its needs, but typically this involves a holster system with multiple retention devices. Because most officers will be open carrying and are at a greater risk of being involved in a physical altercation where someone may attempt to take their firearm and use it against them, more steps must be taken to ensure that their weapon will remain securely attached until deployed.
Concealed Carry: The common sentiment is that if you are carrying a gun concealed, such as inside the waistband, passive retention is the acceptable level of retention needed. An attacker shouldn’t be able to see that you have a firearm, so in theory you shouldn’t need to worry about someone attempting to take your weapon.
In his book GunDigest Book of Concealed Carry 2nd Edition, Massad Ayoob makes the point that an attacker may know that you are carrying a concealed firearm because he knows from previous interactions that you carry or he may have seen it without you realizing it. Ayoob also notes that if you end up in a fight with an attacker, they could discover the gun during the altercation and attempt to disarm you.
There are inside the waistband holsters available that offer extra retention, such as the Safariland 575 IWB GLS™ Pro-Fit Holster that has an active retention device that must be deactivated by the middle finger during the draw. DeSantis also offers a leather inside the waistband holster with a thumb break that must be unlatched before the gun can be drawn.
Off Body Carry: Off body carry techniques like purse carry are highly debated primarily because the purse can easily be stolen or negligently left unsupervised and the gun is usually not accessible for a quick draw. Wherever your gun is, it should be secure, the trigger should not be exposed, and it should not be welcoming to someone with sticky fingers. There are a number of proponents and opponents of off body carry as well as manufacturers designing products specifically to meet the special needs of this carry method.
If your gun is in a holster specialized for purse/off body carry, it should secure the gun in the holster as well as secure the holster to a wall of the bag so that neither are freely floating. If you have ever carried a purse on any type of consistent basis, there’s a good chance you have had to dig through it to find your wallet/keys/whatever weird item you felt necessary to put in there. For some reason, purses tend to start collecting anything and everything and an attacker isn’t going to pause his attack so that you can find a gun that’s floating around somewhere in the depths of your bag.
If the holster you are using in your bag doesn’t secure the gun sufficiently, you face the possibility that your gun may come loose from the holster and end up with the trigger exposed. Something in your purse could catch on the trigger causing a negligent discharge. Maybe even you could be the one accidentally pulling the trigger when digging through your bag. You will have to determine what method offers the best retention.
One other consideration is the retention of the purse/bag to the carrier. If your purse is not secured to you at all times, you do not have retention of your firearm. All too often women will set their purse in the buggy while shopping and turn their backs to reach for an item, giving the perfect opportunity for someone with sticky fingers to grab your bag AND gun. Even if you have your purse attached to you, a mugger could easily snatch your bag, especially if the straps are not slash resistant.
Open Carry: Open carry is a hot topic, even between gun owners. While some states don’t allow open carry, the states that do allow it seem to have gun owners divided on whether it’s appropriate or not. The fact is, if you are open carrying, you face the risk of someone attempting to remove your firearm from your possession. Your firearm is your responsibility, so if you do plan to open carry, your equipment decisions should not be taken lightly. You may think that your situational awareness is top-notch, but you might consider using equipment with additional retention devices anyway.
Competition: Competition partially relies on what the rules and requirements are for that particular venue of shooting. Passive retention, typically from the trigger guard, is a common feature since a competition shooter is not worried about an active threat attempting to take their gun. Because some competitions like 3-Gun are very physical in nature, the concern that a gun will be knocked out of the holster has caused some shooters to use a holster that has an added retention device. The fear of a safety violation, and furthermore a disqualification, give some shooters enough reason to choose an active retention holster. Look to the top shooters in your sport for guidance on gear; sponsorships aside, successful competitors are usually using the safest, most effective gear.
There is a feature seen on some competition holsters that is a type of lock that is activated when not shooting so that the shooter has the mobility to change out targets and move around freely without worrying about losing their gun. When it is time to shoot a stage, the lock can be disengaged and the shooter does not have to take an extra step to release their gun during the draw.
As we’ve discussed, holster terminology isn’t always black and white, so let’s look at a few topics that may not have a definitive answer.
The Holster Shake: A sales tactic that I’ve seen many gun store employees (and some customers) do is what I like to call the holster shake. The employee puts a gun in a kydex holster, flips the holster upside down, and – yep, you guessed it – shakes it. They are doing this to prove that the holster is of such great quality and retention that your gun won’t fall out, and therefore make a sale. This “test” shouldn’t be your interview process for a holster. Just because the gun doesn’t shake out of the holster doesn’t necessarily mean it’s safe or functional. Consider the specific use the holster is for, and evaluate your needs from there.
Holsters with no retention: There are a whole bunch of holsters out on the market that may not exactly line up with these definitions of retention, but might have retention qualities because of the way they are carried.
Pocket holsters, for example, are sometimes just a piece of fabric that the gun slides into, and doesn’t really mold to or lock in the gun; it mainly just protects the trigger guard and prevents printing of the gun. If carried in a pocket that is tight enough to hold both the gun and holster in place, then it can be argued that this method offers adequate retention.
An inside the waistband holster that does not have any active or passive retention to hold the gun in place could still offer retention when carried. If worn in conjunction with a belt that offers enough pressure to keep both the holster and gun in place, then it may be considered to have viable retention.
Leather Holsters: There are high-quality leather holsters that are molded to fit a specific gun and sometimes even require a break-in period. Would one of these specialty leather holsters be considered a retention holster, especially if it had no type of active retention device such as a thumb break? Earlier I said that passive retention could come from the friction that holds the gun in place, so it is possible that the holster’s design could offer passive retention. It ultimately comes down to each individual’s definition of retention.
Counter-productive Retention Devices: The whole point of a retention device is to make carrying safer – what about the products that are potentially dangerous?
Caution should be taken for guns that have a grip safety, such as some Springfields and 1911s. Holsters that have a retention strap that sit on the backstrap of the gun could deactivate the grip safety.
Some holsters have an active retention mechanism that is designed in such a way that the movement to deactivate them makes the shooter more prone to a negligent discharge. Holsters like this require diligent training – that’s if they are not already banned on the range you shoot at.
It’s important that no matter what holster you are using, it is safe and you are competent in using it. If your holster does not hold your gun securely, what good is it? Adversely, your gun may have multiple retention devices, but if you have not properly trained with it, you are putting your safety and the safety of others at risk. Not all holsters are created equal and some mechanisms added for retention are even considered dangerous by some.
Knowing how holster terminology varies will help you determine what holster works best for you.