guide to holster retention

Retention Holsters And Holster Retention Explained

The lay person may hear the term "retention holster" and wonder if some holsters don't have any retention at all. That can be a bit misleading, to be sure. The term "retention holster" is used colloquially to denote a holster that has a bit more retention than the average holster does.

Holster retention in and of itself is a good thing to learn about, since knowing a bit about it can help a person know what to look for in a good open or concealed carry holster.

Passive and Active Retention Holsters

gun holster retention

Holster retention comes in two flavors: passive retention and active retention.

Passive retention is retention force that's inherent to a holster by virtue of its design and construction. To put that a little better, the materials used and the shape of a holster make it hold a pistol to a certain degree. Any natural retentive properties a holster has without having to do anything to it is the passive retention.

Active retention, on the other hand, is user-actuated in that an active retention device has to be engaged.

Some holsters have one or the other, and some have both - it all depends on the design of the holster in question. Usually, a "retention holster" will have multiple retention devices, offering far more security than many standard carry holsters.

Holster Evolution Brings Retention to the Next Level

holster retention levels

The variety of carry holster available to the person wanting to carry a gun has become far more diverse in recent years. Until the advent of molded polymer holsters, the only carry holsters of any sort of quality were leather holsters and at that, leather pancake holsters.

Granted, shoulder holsters were also available for plainclothes police, federal agents and civilian carry, but the truth is that they aren't as commonly used as television and films would have you believe. What the movies don't show you is that few shoulder holster systems distribute the weight of a pistol well enough to carry for extended periods. A lot of plainclothes police would carry their J-frames or Detective Specials in a pocket; some would even have longer pockets sewn into overcoats to carry a 4-inch service revolver.

Anyhow, Inside or outside the waistband designs were both available, but unless there was a retention device of some kind, holster retention came by virtue of fastening one's belt. Since the holster rode high and tight to the body when wearing a leather scabbard or Askins holster, the tension created by the belt would keep the gun secure while being carried.

A greater degree of passive retention was offered, however, with the advent of the molded polymer holster and hybrid holster. Holsters that use this method of construction are precisely molded, instead of stitched. As a result, they more precisely hold to a gun's contours. Some also have adjustable retention by means of a retention screw, though a good number of modern leather holsters do as well. This lets the user clamp the holster down to a greater degree.

While technically passive retention, the user being able to set retention blurs the line somewhat between active and passive retention.

Types Of Active Retention Devices

typers of retnetion holsters

Active retention devices for retention holsters vary from holster to holster, but there are several common types that you'll notice.

  • Thumb break: a thumb break strap is a strap of material, usually leather but nylon and other materials are common enough, with a snap closure on the holster. The loop encloses the rear of the pistol, keeping it from coming out of the holster unless the snap is undone.
  • Thumb loop: a thumb loop functions much the same as a thumb break, except that it's a loop of material instead of a snap. The loop goes over the rear of the slide or the hammer - it's also commonly called a hammer loop - and must be released in order to draw the firearm.
  • Trigger guard lock: a more modern device is the trigger guard lock. Usually it's a small hook or post that catches the interior of the trigger guard. The lock has to be deactivated in order to draw the pistol.

Common trigger guard lock mechanisms are finger or thumb releases. Some are located on the outside of the holster and some are on the inside the holster; the user actuates the button while grasping the pistol and then draws.

Level 1 Retention Through Level 4 Retention: The Retention Levels

holster retention guide

There are also retention levels for holsters, as you may have seen a particular model mentioned as a Level 1 holster all the way up to a Level 4 holster. This is a rating system for holster retention, as some have more than others.

The holster retention system was devised in the 1970s by Bill Rogers, a former FBI agent and police instructor who started his own holster company, making them specifically for law enforcement use. Each "level" corresponds to a rough amount of retention. Under Rogers' scheme, a holster had to undergo a test where someone had to try and get the gun out of the holster as if they were trying to grab it away from the officer.

However, the "rating" system is also used to quantify the number of retention devices. Here's how it works:

  • Level One retention holster: a Level One holster has only passive retention; the friction and "hold" of the holster is all that keeps the pistol in it. Most concealed carry holsters are level one holsters. For true Level One retention, the gun should not be able to be pulled free unless drawn correctly, ensuring secure carry but easy access for the carrier/operator.
  • Level Two retention holster: a Level Two holster has an active retention device in addition to the passive retention of the holster itself, making for two sources of retention. Commonly, a thumb break, hammer loop or trigger guard lock is the device in question. These are very popular for open carry or law enforcement.
  • Level Three retention holster: a Level Three holster has an additional retention device installed. A common design is thumb break or loop in addition to a trigger guard lock. These are also common for law enforcement, and a number of departments nationwide mandate that uniform officers have to carry in a Level Three retention holster.
  • Level Four retention holster: a Level Four holster has three retention devices in addition to passive retention for a total of four retention mechanisms. These are much rarer than Level III holsters and are essentially the ultimate in holster retention. No gun will come out of a Level 4 holster except if the wearer means it. Or if someone got out a blowtorch…

Do I Need A Retention Holster?

retention holster for ccw

Does the average person need a retention holster? In truth, it kind of depends. For concealed carry, a holster with good passive retention - and at that, adjustable passive retention - is sufficient, as this will provide enough hold. A Level II holster is about the most a civilian carrier will ever need for open carry, as this will provide plenty of retention even during arduous outdoor activities.

That said, there are some OWB holsters with only passive retention that can provide more than adequate hold.

Also, few Level III holsters are made for compact pistols and at that, have so many features and safety devices that concealment becomes impractical. Granted, this may be fine if a person is concealing a Glock 19 with a high-ride OWB holster under a jacket or sport coat, but not everyone conceals in this fashion. It is nearly impossible to find a Level III holster that can be concealed with just jeans and a t-shirt.

Level III and certainly Level IV holsters are really the province of military and police personnel, as they are overkill for the civilian carrier.

Really, whether you need one comes down to the purpose you have in mind. The average Joe really won't need anything beyond a Level II holster, as that is perfectly sufficient.

Sam Hoober

About The Author

Born in southeastern Washington State, Sam Hoober graduated in 2011 from Eastern Washington University. He resides in the great Inland Northwest, with his wife and child. His varied interests and hobbies include camping, fishing, hunting, and spending time at the gun range as often as possible.