"After my partner hit the door with his shoulder, I went charging into the room and about five feet inside the darkened space, I ran right into a pool table. It doubled me over, and my gun flew out of my hand. It landed on the pool table, and went spinning around, until it hit the bumper on the other end. There I was, staring right down the barrel of my own .38 snub-nose!"
That's one of the first stories I remember my dad telling about his job as a vice cop in the 1950s. Back in those days, they didn't talk much about weapon retention.
These days, weapon retention is a serious subject. And with good reason. About 20 percent of all officers feloniously killed with handguns are slain with their own weapons.
This disturbing statistic is trending up despite the increasing availability of holsters designed to aid officers in weapon retention.
Holsters have come a long way. Back in the day, we had pretty flimsy holsters—often with just a strap or a thumb-break snap. We called them "speed sacks." They would hold your weapon OK, as long as you kept them snapped shut. But if they were "undone," there was a 50-percent chance that your weapon would fall out. Today, holsters have a variety of retention mechanisms, but do they really work?
POLICE asked me to put them to the test, so I contacted six holster manufacturers and asked for a sample of their latest "Level III retention" holsters to examine for this article. Bianchi, BlackHawk, DeSantis, Gould & Goodrich, Safariland, and Uncle Mike's all sent holsters for evaluation.
Admittedly, the testing and evaluation was unscientific. Each holster was examined for fit and finish and then each was mounted on a regular duty belt. Each holster was then tested, meaning that a handgun was inserted, fully secured, then released and drawn numerous times. Testing was carried out in a dry-fire environment, and no live firing was undertaken. Holsters were not adjusted, but were tested straight out of the package. The only exception to this was if the instructions specifically called for an adjustment.
This article is not intended as a recommendation of one holster manufacturer over another. Instead, I will convey general impressions of the finish and usability of the holsters and discuss their retention capabilities and ease of draw.
Bianchi sent me an Accumold Elite Model 7390 2.1 SLS. It was probably the most traditional looking of the holsters I tested for this article. It's a straight up-and-down design with no adjustment possible for holster cant.
I kind of liked the look of this holster. AccuMold synthetic looks a lot like real leather, and the holster actually seems a little soft or padded. The strap is an integral extension from the outer surface of the holster and has a bend to it, which makes it easy to snap over the hammer. This design is enhanced with a wide thumb-break "paddle" for ease in unsnapping.
Like the other holsters we tested for this article, this Bianchi model has an active retention mechanism. When a weapon is inserted, a hinged lever on the back of the trigger guard portion of the holster snaps into place, locking into the trigger guard of the pistol.
In order to draw the weapon, you first break open the thumb-break snap as you assume a shooting grip, then you extend your thumb down to push in on the locking lever, thus releasing the trigger guard lock. The pistol is then drawn straight up and out of the holster. No rocking or twisting is required.
Although the design of the Accumold Elite Model 7390 2.1 SLS retention device is attractive and simple to operate, once the thumb-break is released the lever is the only thing holding the pistol in the holster. If a suspect pushes his hand down between the holster and the officer's belt, it's possible that the lever could be depressed and the pistol withdrawn. This is why an officer can never rely solely on a mechanical device for weapon retention. Mechanical devices can help you keep your weapon, but you also need to know how to physically defeat a gun grab or prevent one with good weapon retention skills.
I actually received two holsters from BlackHawk: The Level 2 SERPA and a Level 3 SERPA Auto Lock Duty Holster.
Both SERPA holsters are constructed of an injection-molded carbon fiber composite that appears to be very sturdy, but looks nothing at all like a traditional leather holster. Unlike the other holsters I tested for this story, the SERPA models have a hard feel to them.
SERPA holsters are adjustable for three different cant positions. The belt loop is really two separate, relatively narrow "straps" of carbon fiber that fold over your belt and attach to the back of the holster with screws.
OK, let's discuss the SERPA retention concept. The Level 2 SERPA holster has no retention strap. When a weapon is inserted into this holster, a lever protrudes into the trigger guard from the front, outer surface of the holster. This is the only retention device holding the pistol.
To draw the weapon, you take a shooting grip and use the tip of your extended trigger finger to push in on a flat lever on the outer surface of the holster. This moves the internal lever and releases the trigger guard. The weapon is then drawn straight up and out. There is no twisting or rocking required, and there is nothing to impede the draw once the flat lever is pushed in. If the holster is inverted when this lever is pushed in, the pistol falls out.
The Level 3 SERPA is set up the same way, but it also has an additional retention device: A spring-loaded "hood" that is rocked back over the hammer of the pistol and is released by pushing in on a lever on the inside surface of the holster between the holster and the officer's belt up near the hammer. When this lever is pressed, the solid hood snaps forward to clear the weapon. Upon pushing the other lever with his trigger finger, a shooter can then draw his weapon.
How secure is this system? Well, the design of the spring-loaded hood appears to be such that it would be unlikely that a suspect—or an officer—would inadvertently release it during a struggle. The spring-loaded mechanism looks solidly constructed, and the pistol cannot be removed unless the hood is moved out of the way.[PAGEBREAK]
The Max Safe Holster Level III from DeSantis has a very high-tech look about it. It's solidly built from a combination of materials that make it look like it would survive being run over by a truck.
Unfortunately, solid construction has its drawbacks as well as its benefits. The Max Safe is both the shortest and the heaviest of the holsters that I tested for this article.
The DeSantis Max Safe has the most complicated design of any Level III duty holster that I have used. It is not adjustable for cant but has a slight forward angle incorporated into its design.
As for its retention concept, that's where things really get complicated. The weapon is holstered by pushing it straight down into the holster, then rocking it back to engage a security device around the trigger guard. Once this is done, you manipulate a large flap of material, sort of like an overgrown strap that wraps around the front of the pistol rather than over the hammer. This flap incorporates two retention snaps, one that functions as a thumb-break, and the other—set farther rearward on the inside surface of the holster—that is released by your middle finger during a draw. Re-securing a weapon takes some effort and several distinct movements. It took some time for me to master it, as the holster has very tight tolerances. This may become easier if and when the holster loosens up.
To draw the weapon, you unsnap the thumb-break with the edge of your thumb, then you release the finger break with your middle finger. The pistol must then be rocked forward in order to clear the locking device in the trigger guard. Unless the pistol is rocked forward, it cannot be pulled straight up and out of the holster.
This is a very sturdy and workmanlike design, but I found it the most difficult to use and the most uncomfortable to draw from. After several draw/reholstering cycles my hands were pretty sore.
Gould & Goodrich
The Gould & Goodrich K-Force Triple Retention Duty Holster Model K380-226 is well constructed with a three-position adjustment on the belt loop that allows you to change the cant of the holster.
It also has a nice fit on the handgun when holstered. The strap is a stiff, rubbery type that attaches to the outside surface of the holster and extends straight up. To secure the weapon, you fold the strap over the hammer with a cupped hand and then squeeze to snap it. Snapping is a little awkward at first, as the strap apparently has no "memory," but it becomes more natural after a few tries.
When the firearm is holstered, a latch engages the trigger guard. To release the weapon, you pop the strap loose with your thumb, then continue your thumb's downward motion onto a plunger device on the rear surface of the holster. The plunger is pushed down and slightly to the rear as you assume a shooting grip, and the weapon is then drawn straight up and out of the holster. No twisting or rocking is required.
The mechanism is simple to operate and appears to hold the pistol securely. The weapon can be easily drawn despite the three retention elements: the thumb-break strap, the downward action of the plunger, and the rearward action of the plunger.
Safariland sent two holsters for this article. Both of the test holsters were Safariland Model 6360 ALS Level II Plus Retention Holsters. One of them has the optional Sentry feature, which boosts its retention level from Level II Plus to Level III Plus.
Both of the Safariland holsters that I tested are well made and have a nice finished look to them. Both are equipped with Safariland's UBL, or Universal Belt Loop. The UBL has a stripped down, basic look to it, really looking more like an old-fashioned belt "slot" than a loop. However, it works well in practice and is engineered in such a way that it removes the need for tensioning screws to hold the holster stationary on your duty belt.
The 6360 has several retention features. The most obvious is a strap with a false snap that acts as a pivot for the "hood" action of the strap. When the strap is swiveled up and into position, it latches into place and is then released by pushing down on a plunger on the back side of the holster.
Retention device number two is the ALS (Automatic Locking System), which is an internal mechanism that locks into the pistol's ejection port.
The third retention device is the optional Sentry feature. This is a rolling block lever that moves under the thumb-break plunger, preventing it from being pushed down. The Sentry does not move easily, requiring some effort to slide it out of the locked position. An officer on the street might opt to leave it in the unlocked position, unless going into a crowded environment or during prisoner transport.
To draw your pistol from the Safariland Model 6360 ALS Level III Plus, you first move the Sentry rearward to the unlocked position, then push down on the plunger, and swivel the hooded strap forward (there is no snap to undo). Then the ALS lever is moved slightly to the rear, releasing the ejection port, and the weapon is drawn straight up and out of the holster. There is no twisting or rocking required.
This process sounds more complicated than it is. In reality, I was able to draw fairly quickly after just a few practice tries. Reholstering was even smoother: just push the weapon down into the holster, and swivel the hooded strap into place. The Sentry is locked last.
One additional feature of the Safariland Model 6360 ALS Level III Plus is a hood guard, which extends slightly above the holster and is curved to prevent a suspect from "chopping" his or her hand downward to release the thumb-break. I noticed that the position of the hood guard forced me to properly position my hand and thumb for a rapid draw, which is an added bonus.[PAGEBREAK]
Uncle Mike's EVO3 Duty Holster is a solidly built holster that uses a molded polymer shell for its primary construction. The holster is nicely finished for a polymer rig and includes two inserts along the leading edge that can be customized with different leather-like finishes, including a black basketweave design. The belt loop is heavy-duty, with two tightening screws to keep the holster anchored to your duty belt.
There are two active retention devices on the EVO3 Duty Holster that engage a holstered firearm (the manufacturer also lists "holster body fit" as a retention device). When a handgun is inserted into the holster, a flat lever along the inside front edge of the holster engages the weapon's ejection port. After holstering, you fold a hood over the hammer of the weapon. Both of these retention devices are released by pushing a lever mounted on the back of the holster near your body.
To draw the weapon, you make a normal shooting grip and push down and in toward your body with your thumb. As the lever moves down and in, the hammer hood is released, and the ejection port is freed at the same time. The weapon is then drawn straight up and out of the EVO3 duty holster. There is no twisting or angling required.
By the way, the lever must be pushed toward the shooter's body in order to be depressed. If it is just pushed straight down, it will not release. The holster comes with three different height levers so the shooter can customize the holster for his or her individual hand size, a very nice touch.
The EVO3 Duty Holster is simple to operate, and holds the weapon securely. After a few practice draws, the motion becomes very fluid and natural.
No retention holster will ever provide 100-percent security for your duty gun. You must develop a healthy awareness of your surroundings and a survival mindset, focusing on never giving up, no matter the odds. Couple that positive frame of mind with solid motor skill training in weapon retention techniques and you're well along your way to a winning combination.
Whatever holster you choose, practice with it and constantly reinforce your ability to successfully manipulate both your holster and your weapon. If you have a choice, try different holster designs until you find one that works for you. If not, make the best of what you have through regular practice.
And next time you go through a door, remember what happened to my dad and watch out for the pool table.
You Need a Good Belt
There's more to a weapon retention equipment scheme than just a holster: your belt is an integral part of the equation. The most highly engineered security holster in the world won't keep your weapon safe if your belt gives way when a suspect yanks on it.
Understanding the Retention Code
When discussing retention holster designs, it's common to refer to different "levels of retention." You might hear someone say that a holster "offers Level III security." Many different manufacturers use this and similar terminology when referring to their various holster designs.
Each manufacturer describes its holster offerings in a different way, often using some variation on the Level I, Level II, Level III theme. Certain companies use these terms to refer to the number of retention devices that are incorporated into the holster's design, while others have established varying testing protocols for awarding different "level" designations.
5.11 Teams with Blade-Tech for Holster Line
Holster manufacturer Blade-Tech and tactical apparel maker 5.11 Tactical have joined forces to develop the Revolution line of holsters.
Constructed from a proprietary blend of polymers, the Revolution holsters are engineered to offer a lifetime of performance in a wide variety of climates. They won't become soft in temperatures that would bake most holsters, and they won't become fragile even in a Minnesota winter.
The Level I retention holsters are now available in sizes that will fit a wide variety of Glock, SIG, Springfield, and Para pistols. They will fit one- and two-inch belts, and the paddle can be adjusted to your preferred draw angle.
A retired officer and a police trainer for 20 years, Steve Ashley conducts use-of-force and driving classes at a Michigan academy. He is a certified trainer in many subjects and lead columnist for the Training Channel at PoliceMag.com.