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Retention Holsters

Retention Holsters

I got an email from a student recently asking my thoughts on holsters with mechanical retention devices known as a “thumb break”. I sent him back the following response:

Next to the handgun itself, the holster is among the most important elements of carrying a defensive firearm. It is also one of the most overlooked and confusing so after your handgun and ammunition, it’s the most important piece of equipment that you will purchase.

First of all I would not carry a handgun in an outside the waist band (OWB) holster without some sort of mechanical retention device. By considering a holster with a mechanical retention device of some sort (Security Level II) you are certainly on the right track.

There are three levels of security retention to choose from. A Level I retention holster is a leather holster that depends upon friction for it’s retention ability. Passive retention, as it’s sometimes called, is enhanced by the holster being molded to your make and model of gun, which increases the contact all across the gun’s exterior surface. That’s why what I term “one size fit’s most” nylon holsters are not the best choice for every day carry. If a leather holster is rough unfinished leather on the inside, that helps too.

Leather holsters reach their optimum retention immediately after the break-in period and, assuming the leather is of high quality, will remain good for many years with occasional leather treatment. Whatever you do, stay away from gimmicks like sticking your holster in water, or into a warm oven, to adjust the fit. These are more apt to ruin your good leather rig and after spending from $40 and up, most around the $89-$120 range you don’t want to screw it up no matter what some “expert” on the internet tells you.

Although Kydex, or polymer holsters aren’t affected by moisture, they also don’t naturally grip the handgun without tensioning screws. Their holding ability comes from  tightening or loosening these screws so you can get the right amount of friction for a basic level of security. The issue here is keeping the tensioning screws from loosening up as you stress the holster by standing and sitting in different positions throughout the day. They may or may not change enough to notice in one 24 hour period but eventually most change tension at some point so the gun will either slip out of the holster at the most inopportune time or you’ll have to fight the holster to withdraw the pistol. Either way, a bad day could become much worse one.

Level II retention holsters use not only the same friction-based grip on your pistol as a Level I holster does, but now there’s an addition of an active mechanical element, such as a hood, back strap thumb break, or a finger- or thumb-operated lever as well. Some believe that Level II or mechanical-retention systems are only needed for people using open carry holsters. In other words holsters used by armed citizens open carrying or on-duty law enforcement or armed security officers.

‘Aw you don’t have to worry about someone grabbing your gun’, they say. It isn’t likely if your gun is concealed. Professionals that carry a pistol for a living like Massad Ayoob, Rob Pinkus, Corey Graff and many others including myself disagree. Massad Ayoob has noted, “People who haven’t learned to properly activate retention devices call them ‘suicide straps’.” “They will tell you, ‘It’s concealed, so you don’t have to worry about someone grabbing it.’ Rubbish! Your attacker may know from previous contact with you that you carry a pistol, and even where you carry it. He may have spotted it when scoping you out. Or you might get into a fight and the other guy wraps his arms around your waist for a bear hug or throw and feels the gun, at which time the fight for the pistol is on.”

I almost collapsed a man’s windpipe with my elbow as he attempted to grab my pistol out of my holster from behind as a prank. The only thing that kept the pistol from being withdrawn from the holster is the fact that I carry a Bianchi Model 82 undercover holster with a mechanical retention device that I release with my “social finger” as I grip my pistol during my draw stroke. Well, there was that and the fact that the man couldn’t draw a breath.

Personally I would stay away from a holsters having an external release mechanism and is activated by the index finger which has on several occasions caused the user’s index/trigger finger to slip into the trigger guard as the gun is being withdrawn, discharging the pistol and shooting the user through the holster into the hip. I actually saw this happen once in a training exercise. For this reason I do not allow this type of holster in any of my classes where holsters are required. Many schools don’t.

Currently, police officers and armed security officers use at least Level II retention holsters and quite frankly, most use a Level III retention holster. This is NOT necessary for the average citizen permit holder but due to the nature of their jobs and their different types of contact with the public at large it is mandated by most law enforcement agencies and large security corporations. By adding a second active element to a holster, plus passing the tension or friction test of Level 1 security, you get to Level III retention. A number of companies make these in some form. Generally they have a button which must be depressed in order to rock down the hood before the pistol can be withdrawn from the holster.

Whichever Level II holster you choose to use whether it be a thumb break, or otherwise, dry practice your draw stroke WITH AN UNLOADED GUN several times a week. I have done it for years and continue to do so to this day. In doing so I find that I am faster with a Level II retention holster than most are with a Level I holster. Practice makes perfect but only if you practice perfectly so think about each step of your proper 5 step draw stroke. The draw stroke however, is another subject entirely.


This article may be reprinted or re-posted freely as long as the following author’s information is included with the reprinting or re-posting.

Mike Crow is a small arms and defensive tactics expert and the Lead Instructor with href=”http://firearmsclasses.com.com”> Austin’s Tennessee Firearms School</a>. Go to https://www.firearmsclasses.com/training for more information on training for safety, self defense and sport.