Holsters are the kind of equipment that cops often don't give a lot of thought. Some just accept the holsters issued to them by their agencies. Many others probably just pick the least expensive holsters available on the lists of gear authorized by their departments. But I would urge all officers to take a closer look at their holsters and what they need from their holsters.
The variety of duty holsters available to officers today is astounding. Buying a holster is no longer a matter of making a simple choice between basketweave or plain leather and brass hardware or chrome. You can now choose from brushed-nickel hardware, brass hardware, chrome hardware, hidden hardware, basketweave, nylon, plain, clarino (shiny), cowhide, horsehide, plastic that looks like leather, leather that looks like plastic, and the list goes on. Contemporary holsters also offer a variety of security features in retention levels ranging from Level I to Level III.
As a veteran cop who has seen many advances in police gear, both good and bad, I can say without reservation that the changes in holster technology have been for the better.
The question is, in light of the rapidly changing holster technology, what is the best holster for you. I can't answer that question. Only you can. But I can give you pointers that will help you find the right holster for you.
How Does It Feel?
Comfort is a critical concern when choosing a duty holster, and it shouldn't be taken lightly. Remember, you will have to wear the darn thing for up to 12 hours a day.
Try wearing an uncomfortable holster for 12 hours, and you will realize that the slightest bit of bite or poke will be amplified into excruciating discomfort by the end of your shift. That's if you make it the whole shift without tossing it into the river.
So how can you get a real feel for the comfort of a holster? I recommend that you take a sort of test drive. Obviously, the holster manufacturer won't let you wear it for a couple of days on the job without buying it, but you can still test drive it. When it's time for a new holster look at what your fellow cops are carrying. When you see a rig you like, ask your friend if you can try it out for a shift or two.
When test driving that holster, take note of certain comfort factors. Check where it fits on your belt and how it lines up with the seat belt in your patrol car. If, due to your body type, the holster pushes on the seat of your patrol car and causes you to change to a less natural driving position, it's not for you. If this is true, even for the greatest whiz-bang rig that all the cops on your squad are raving about, look for something else. You'll be miserable after a couple days of wearing it.
Assess Your Draw
Comfort also needs to be considered during the draw cycle. Over years of fights, wrestling matches with suspects, falls, resulting surgeries, and just generally getting older, I've found that drawing from a high-ride holster is, for me, literally a pain. My shoulders have lost some of their range of motion. So medium-ride and low-ride holsters now work better for me.
Before you choose a holster, assess your own draw. Don't just buy what you liked before. What worked well five or 10 years ago may not be the best for you now. In my case, after moving to a low-ride holster, I found that I picked up a half second on my draw. I wasn't fighting my shoulder anymore, and my draw smoothed out considerably. And as we all know, smooth translates to fast when it comes to drawing your duty pistol.
Match Holster to Gun
The fit between your holster and your duty gun is also a major concern when choosing a holster. At the risk of angering some of the few manufacturers that still produce holsters that they claim fit, for example, all medium-frame semi-automatic firearms, I have to say to you that any one-size-fits-all holster is junk. They can only cause you problems.
Get a holster that is made specifically for the gun you carry. This is important even when there's very little difference between guns. There is only about an inch difference in the length of a Glock G22 and a Glock G23. But if you put a G23 in some holsters made for a G22, that one inch could mean the difference between retaining your gun in a fight and losing it to the bad guy. Fit means retention.
Fit also has a lot to do with developing a smooth draw. If the holster is not specifically made for your gun, it could easily bind up during the draw cycle.
Additionally, re-holstering your gun in an ill-fitting rig can be difficult at best. You should only need one hand to re-holster, and you should be able to put your gun back in your holster without looking.
Retention Holsters Good and Bad
My agency, the San Diego Police Department, allows officers to purchase holsters with a retention level of I, II, or III from a list of approved manufacturers.
Retention holsters are great for keeping bad guys from taking your gun, but they can make it difficult for you to make a smooth draw. If you carry a Level II or Level III holster, you darn well better be practicing with it. It takes anywhere between 500 and 2,000 correct draw cycles to embed the muscle memory necessary to successfully draw your gun under extreme stress.
I would have retired a very wealthy man years ago if I had a nickel for every time I watched an officer on the firing line do what we rangemasters refer to as the "Level III boogie." It's a very similar dance to the "hot brass down your neck" boogie but it does not include the turn around and point your gun at the range staff step.[PAGEBREAK]
I know you've seen this dance, too. All the hopping up and down is usually not caused by the equipment, but it happens due to the stress of qualifying on a timed course of fire and not being familiar with the holster. Now multiply that level of stress by about a zillion and you are just beginning to approximate the stress of a real gunfight.
Retention level is one of those areas that requires some significant introspective soul searching. You have to weigh retention and ease of draw for your personal situation and ability.
For years I carried a Level I holster. Maybe I'm a klutz, but no matter how often I practiced, I could never manipulate the snaps and levers efficiently enough to get the gun out of the holster rapidly. Even more so, I really had a problem re-holstering the gun to a secure condition with anything above a Level I.
Don't let peer pressure get the best of you here. Know what your retention level limitations are and embrace them. Get a holster that you can work quickly and every time. If it's a retention Level I rig, work with your defensive tactics instructors to improve your gun retention techniques.
If you have been a cop for more than six months, you probably have fallen in love with one particular holster. It fits just right, you can draw well from it, and it is comfortable to wear.
But don't get so attached to your trusty, old holster that you overlook wear. After about two years of knocking around a patrol car and banging into your locker every night, a holster just wears out. It loses its rigidity and ability to retain the gun.
Some older holsters may even mold around the gun too much and cause problems with ease of draw. Leather will soften over the years. I know you're thinking soft leather is a good thing, kind of like a great old pair of boots or shoes, but that does not translate well to the world of holsters and leather gear.
It's not just leather holsters that are affected by this kind of wear. High-tech, carbon-fiber plastic holsters can also break down over the years. While leather softens, plastic holsters have a tendency to become brittle.
In either case, inspect your holster often and buy a new one when your older holster starts to show too much wear.
And remember, holsters will age differently in different climates. Weather plays a big part in holster wear.
Hot and humid climates tend to break down the fibers in leather holsters at an accelerated rate. Horsehide does better under humid conditions than cowhide, but it too breaks down over time. Hot, dry climates impact plastic holsters, causing them to become more brittle faster than in mild climates. They tend to off-gas the binding agents and plasticizers at a faster rate. Once this occurs, they will break or chip at wear points.
The metal parts of a holster also wear out. Some of the new Level II and Level III rigs include springs, tensioning bars, or levers. They need to be inspected, maintained, and sometimes lubricated to keep them functioning properly. If a functioning part on a retention holster breaks or locks up from rust, it can ruin your whole day, if you get my meaning.
The other area where condition is often overlooked is the support structure for your holster, the belt. A well-constructed duty belt should always be matched to your duty holster.
A good duty belt needs to remain rigid. This provides a foundation for the holster. An inexpensive, soft, or ill-fitting belt will not allow a well-made and well-designed holster to function properly. The same weather conditions that make holsters wear out make belts wear out too. Generally, wear makes a duty belt too soft. A soft belt or one that is too small for the holster will flop inward during your draw, and that will make it very hard for you to rapidly bring your gun from your holster to on-target.
Buy a good holster. Make sure it is comfortable and that it fits the specific gun you use. Get the retention level you like, not what your friends like. Inspect the rig weekly and maintain it so it remains serviceable. And above all, practice with it.
If you do these few things, a good holster should last a good long time and serve you well. But watch for wear and when your holster does wear out, replace it.
Sgt. Dave Douglas is the rangemaster of the San Diego Police Department, a veteran law enforcement officer, and a Police contributing editor.