Photo courtesy of iStockphoto.com.
We all carry a pistol on duty, at least I hope we all do. Most of us—again I hope I'm not being overly optimistic here—carry a handgun off duty as well.
How and where we carry our weapons and in what kind of holster can vary greatly, depending on the mission at hand. But no matter what kind of holster we choose, where we position it, or how it's strapped to our gear, there are two requirements for every holster. Number one, a holster needs to keep a pistol secure when it is not needed. Number two, a holster has to let the wearer get to his or her weapon fast when it is needed.
The variety of holsters on the market today is mind-boggling. It seems like nearly every day someone tries to reinvent the wheel and introduces something we've never seen before. Sorting through all the new holsters and spotting the quality gear among the gimmicks and junk usually isn't too difficult a task. Most can be categorized just by picking them up. Others take a little time in the field to show their true colors.
If you're anything like me, you've bought more holsters than you can remember and probably have a box stored in a closet somewhere containing most of those that didn't make the cut. I'll admit, I've wasted a good amount of my government paycheck on these things. The process has been a learning curve, hopefully one that might help all of you zero in on the right holster for you without spending a fortune.
Price vs. Quality
Let's kick this discussion off by talking about what is probably your most pressing concern: price.
Last time I checked no one in the first responder field was getting rich, and "disposable income" isn't a term we're too familiar with. When we spend our hard-earned money on something, we need to know it isn't going to waste.
But price-consciousness can be a double-edged sword and the key is balance. The old phrase "You get what you pay for" is fitting here with a few exceptions. First, a holster doesn't have to be expensive to be solid and functional. You can pay a ton of money for a very fancy holster but what's the point of that? You're not looking to win a dress-up contest.
Your gear has to be functional, plain and simple. Often that can be accomplished at a very reasonable price. On the other side of that coin, some of the cheapest holsters are a disaster waiting to happen. Sure, they'll hold your pistol to your belt on your way to and from the courthouse, but how well will they function when the fight is on and keeping that gun away from the bad guy is paramount?
We've all seen the rigs I'm talking about here. Thin leather or cheap plastic attached with a cheap paddle or flimsy belt loops. And we all know why "that guy" bought "that holster," and it had nothing to do with function and everything to do with the price tag. Don't be that guy. Balance price with quality and don't forget your life is worth a lot more than the price of any holster.
Retention and Reaction
Now that we've cleared the air on the issue of price, let's talk about what makes a good holster. As we have established, we are trying to accomplish two things: security from others and ease of access for us. Often the term "level of retention" is used by manufacturers when describing their holsters. The retention number the manufacturers use such as level one, level two, level three, directly correlates to the number of devices or features that work to keep your pistol in the holster.
Retention, like price, is a balancing act. Too little and the pistol isn't secure. Too much retention can greatly slow your draw. When milliseconds count, as they do in a gunfight, every level of retention you have to defeat puts you farther behind the reaction curve.
One of my favorite sayings and one I feel applies to everything we do in law enforcement is, "How much disadvantage are you willing to live with?" Let's face it, we're almost always at a disadvantage in our line of work. We rarely get to choose the terms, place, or time for the situations we find ourselves in and "absolutes" don't live in our world. There's always a give and take. So the questions you have to ask yourself about your holsters are: Do you feel better about knowing you have a ton of retention to keep your pistol out of the wrong hands? Or would you rather give up some of that security to know you'll be that much faster getting your gun into the fight?
Personally, I prefer a single retention holster. If a bad guy wants to take my gun, he's going to have to be incredibly dedicated and have a high tolerance for pain in order to do it. If that same bad guy wants to shoot it out, I'm confident I can get my gun into that fight quickly because I don't have to defeat a bunch of retention features to draw. Only you can decide what "balance" you are most comfortable with.
Active or Passive Retention
On the topic of retention, here's another factor to consider. Are the retention devices in your holster active or passive?
Passive retention devices have to be manually engaged by the user. These devices include thumb-brakes, hoods, and similar holster features. Unless you engage them, your holster is nothing but a pouch for your pistol.
Until recently, most holsters on the market, including duty holsters, featured passive retention. These passive devices may work very well once activated, but activation requires a conscious effort by the user to ensure they are in place every time the pistol is holstered. Let's say you are in a fight for your life over your pistol with a dedicated bad guy. You'll need one hand to trap your gun in the holster and another to fight your way out of that situation. If during that fight the retention on your gun is disengaged, it is very difficult for you to tell, much less have the opportunity to reengage it.
With an active system, if your pistol begins to come out of your holster, you only need to push it back in and the active retention devices will do the rest. Or how about snagging your retention on a doorway or seatbelt, causing it to unknowingly become disengaged? You start a foot chase or bend over to handcuff a proned-out suspect and soon find your pistol lying on the ground. Don't laugh, I've seen it happen more than once and every time the officer didn't know it until someone else pointed it out.
One of the most widely used passive retention holsters on the market is the Safariland SLS system. Now I'm not saying that these aren't good holsters. They're great and have worked well for my agency and countless others for many years. But they are old technology and there is a better way.
I currently carry a Safariland ALS system for all of my pistols, on duty and off, and have just approved them for duty use for all my officers. ALS stands for "automatic locking system" and it does exactly that. You push the pistol into the holster and the retention locks it into place, simple as that. In order to draw the pistol out, the retention needs to be held in the "off" position throughout the draw. The ALS is a single retention holster made of Kydex and available for almost every pistol under the sun. Not a Safariland fan? The Blackhawk Serpa, Bianchi "Lok," and a number of other holster brands feature great active retention systems as well.
Overlooked But Critical
In my experience, one of the key features officers overlook when evaluating a holster is the ability to re-holster their pistols. I think we can all agree that the most popular holster for many detectives or those in a plainclothes role has been one made of leather, possibly with a thumb brake retention device. Now once the pistol is removed from that holster, that leather has a difficult time retaining its shape and usually collapses. I can't tell you how many times I've watched officers struggle to re-holster their pistols in these types of holsters. Most have to use two hands to do it and even then they have a very difficult time. Often there are a few "firearms safety" rules broken in the process.
Is this really the holster you want when that gunfight happens? Sure you may be great at drawing the pistol out, but what happens when you only have one free hand or need to holster in a hurry to put hands on a suspect? Hey, plainclothes officers, I know the pretty leather goes well with your suits and ties. But come on, you're cops, not investment bankers. Get some gear that works.
Now that we've decided what type of holster is going to work for us, the question becomes, "Where do we put it?" The obvious answer is on the hip. That is the most common place cops wear their pistols. A strong-side draw, within easy reach is the standard for any uniformed officer.
But how about the tactical operator whose armor prohibits him from reaching a belt-mounted pistol? Or the undercover detective who mounts his holster to a MOLLE carrier so armor and weapon can be quickly donned at the same time, or carries concealed in his waistband? We don't all wear Class A unis with a polished set of duty gear during our shifts. The location of your holster rarely changes the level of retention you'll want, but it may very well dictate the type of holster you choose and the manner in which you draw it.
The key here is to understand the needs of the mission at hand. Once you've got that down, train with your gear in that configuration. How many of us have known a patrol officer who was transferred to an assignment that requires a cross-draw, vest-mounted holster, but the officer never trained with that gear? In case you were wondering, I have my hand up.
As a trainer, I see a liability for the department and a disservice to that officer. As a fellow officer, I worry my friend may be at a great disadvantage during a gunfight. You can't expect to be immediately proficient with that new system any more than you can expect to play the piano after your first lesson.
Remember, when we train with our holsters or any gear for that matter, we are teaching our minds to perform a conscious task at a subconscious level. The first time we draw our pistols, we have to think our way through the process. The hand moves toward the gun, finds the gun, gets a grip on the gun, works through the various retention devices, and finally removes the pistol and brings it up to the eyes. After several thousand draws, we simply make the decision to draw our pistol and the "muscle memory" we've built into our subconscious minds does the rest. This eliminates the need for conscious thought (something that is extremely difficult to do in the middle of a fight) and makes the process faster and much more efficient.
If you spend years training with a duty belt, you'll likely be looking for your pistol on your hip the first few times you try to draw that weapon under stress. If you move the gun, you need to let your brain know where it went.
What Brand to Buy
I realize I haven't spent a lot of time spitting out the names of what I would consider the "best" holsters out there for every application. The fact of the matter is I couldn't do that even if I wanted to.
The gear you choose depends on you. I will recommend, however, that you make this decision wisely and invest the time and training necessary to validate it. If you're going to come to the realization that your holster isn't right for you, that epiphany should occur on the range during training, not in a dark alley during a gunfight.
A.J. George is a motor officer and firearms instructor for the Scottsdale (Ariz.) Police Department.
For More Information:
Don Hume Leathergoods
Fobus USA/Mission First Tactical
Gould & Goodrich
Mako Group/Front Line
Triple K Manufacturing