Almost exclusively my method of carrying is concealed, using an inside the waistband (IWB) holster in the appendix position. There are rare times I may carry concealed in an outside the waistband (OWB) holster, but it is definitely not the norm. For many reasons, I find concealed carry preferable to open carry. And for those of you who also solely carry concealed holster retention may not be something you have ever paid much attention to.
For their own set of reasons, those who live in states that allow it, some choose to open carry their firearm in an OWB holster. And some gun owners primarily conceal carry but occasionally open carry.
Both concealed carriers and open carriers should absolutely understand holster retention and, based on their personal assessment, evaluate if they should be using a holster that offers retention.
The Origins of Holster Retention:
Holster retention ratings started in the early 70s and were pioneered by FBI firearms instructor Bill Rogers. Rogers looked at incidents where officers were disarmed during a fight and found that the fatality rate for the officers in these incidents was troubling. Rogers began engineering holsters which incorporated features that made it more difficult for someone to remove the firearm from the holster. As the designs developed, different levels of retention were created based on the number of ways the holster could resist a person from removing the gun from the holster.
In the 80s, Safariland joined forces with Rogers to begin making holsters with various levels of retention for uniformed LEO's. Safariland is still the leader in duty gear for LEO's and in my opinion makes the very best duty holsters you can buy. Safariland and Rogers devised a standardized way of testing holsters to determine what level of retention they had. The test was quite simple. A holster was attached to a duty belt, and a person would attempt to remove the gun by pulling, rocking or twisting the gun for 5 seconds.
If the gun stayed in the holster, it passed and was given a level I rating. If the holster had another mechanism or method that had to be defeated before the gun could be drawn, the test would be run again on just that second mechanism or method. If that method passed the 5-second test, the holster now had two separate ways of passing the 5-second test and was deemed to have level II retention. So on, and so forth, until today there are holsters that are up to level IV.
Here is an excellent podcast interview with Bill Rogers, you may want to listen to:
Because there is no national standardized way to classify retention levels, some confusion in ratings developed. Some believe leather or Kydex type holsters that used friction alone to retain the gun were considered a level I holster. This type of retention is better classified as ‘passive' retention and definitely would not pass the Safariland retention test.
Additionally, some think that each level of retention equals a completely separate mechanism in the holster. This isn't necessarily the case. A single retention mechanism could provide two separate levels of retention if that mechanism required two separate actions to remove the gun.
Why Holster Retention Matters to You:
First, levels of retention are not substitutes for training techniques on how to retain possession of your firearm. One must understand that the holster can be ripped off your belt and then your gun is gone. So instead, levels of retention should be looked at as additional safeguards to help you maintain retention, rather than the primary method.
Some argue that only OWB holsters need a level of retention. I don't totally agree, however, I understand the mindset that may lead one to carry IWB without a level of retention. A person using an IWB holster could be assaulted just as easily as someone with an OWB holster. And it is the fight over a gun that we are concerned about. During a fight, a subject can easily feel and identify a firearm even when carried in an IWB holster. If the attacker chooses to disarm you, the fight over the gun ensues.
The obvious difficulties that come with defending a disarm from small of the back (SOB) can't be ignored. So in this case, perhaps a level of retention (beyond passive retention) would be beneficial. It's not to say that carrying appendix, where it is far easier to defend from a disarm does not need a level of retention but context and training drives your decision.
Full disclosure, I carry concealed with a Kydex holster offering zero retention outside of friction.
I sometimes carry OWB in a pancake holster while conducting classes on the range. There have been times I leave the range and am too lazy to switch back over to my appendix holster for the drive home. Inevitably I have to get gas or stop at the grocery store. Ohio does not prohibit open carry so I could open carry without a legal issue. I usually can still conceal my firearm well enough in a slim OWB holster.
But my ability to maintain possession of my firearm during a fight or if an attacker identified me as a gun carrier and noted the location of my firearm is diminished. Not only does the strong side hip give more opportunity to the bad guy to gain possession of the firearm, but it is a little more difficult to defend against compared to the appendix position. So even though I am carrying concealed, I likely would benefit from a level of retention in this type of situation.
If you are going to open carry you would be foolish not to have at least a level I holster. I can't tell you how many people I have seen open carrying with nylon, uncle mikes holsters, it's cringe-worthy, to say the least. Not only do these nylon one size fits all holsters not offer retention, but they often times don't provide any passive retention and the gun falls out when turned upside down. Think about the backflipping FBI agent. Sweet dance moves, but the problem was his gun fell from his holster onto the floor. Of course, he proceeded to pick it up and shoot an innocent person.
There are a number of incidents where gun carriers were disarmed while open carrying in a holster, or even one time just in their pants pocket. Some of these incidents were not during a fight at all, but rather just a criminal seeing an easy way of getting a gun without having to pass a background check or pay the pesky asking price.
Levels of Retention Will Slow Me Down:
The argument has some merit but it can be overcome. My first department mandated we use the Safariland 070 level III duty holster. It had a thumb break, middle finger release snap and had to be rocked rearward to be released. There was a great learning curve, but I could draw from the holster as fast as others at the academy who were using level I and level II holsters. I didn't care for the rearward draw, because it made it difficult to draw from a seated position in the car, so I ultimately proposed a policy change to allow the use of other holsters. I actually loved the Safariland, level 1 ALS holster as my duty holster. Point is, that for the most part, levels of retention are important and if you train with the holster, your draw time does not have to suffer greatly.
Methods of Retention:
There are some different types of mechanisms used to provide levels of retention. These range from snaps, levers, buttons, and hoods. There are pros and cons to all of them and there are some valid concerns. The problem with buttons and levers is that during a fight dirt and debris could potentially get lodged in and jam the mechanism. This could keep the gun from being drawn. The plus side to these devices is that they are easy to disengage and engage automatically when the gun is holstered. Snaps are a plus because they are not usually susceptible to dirt and debris, but as opposed to the buttons and levers, snaps must be purposely snapped in order to engage the levels of retention.
Additionally, there has been much conversation about the Blackhawk Serpa Holster's method of disengaging a level of retention. The concern is that the button is positioned so that there is a possibility of the trigger finger being in line with the trigger as part of the draw process. I have seen it used safely, as well as unsafely. The reason I mention this specific holster is to remind you to look at not only the methods of retention but how the gun must be drawn.
Make sure it is something that you like and is intuitive. Not all retention methods are good. A retention strap that hinders your draw is no good. If you have a holster like this you should move along to a different one as there are much better options.
I hope this helps clarify the confusing world of holster retention levels and how you can get a holster that will work best for your specific application. Stay safe! Check out our list of the top 21 holsters, here.