Gun Digest

Understanding Holster Retention

The Blackhawk! SERPA CQC Concealment holster features Level 2 retention. Passive retention is provided with the adjustable detent screw on the side for tightness, while the SERPA Auto Lock release on the side represents the active retention element.
The Blackhawk! SERPA CQC Concealment holster features that company's Level 2 retention. Passive retention is provided with the adjustable detent screw on the side for tightness, while the SERPA Auto Lock release on the side represents the active retention element.

Holster retention is an important concept to grasp, whether you open or concealed carry. Here is a look at some general concepts on holster retention.


Leather scabbards have the innate ability to retain the handgun by good ol’ fashioned friction. Passive retention, as it’s sometimes called, is enhanced by the scabbard being molded to your make and model of gun, which increases contact across the gun’s exterior surface areas. If a leather holster is rough side in, that helps too.

Leather holsters achieve optimum retention immediately after the break-in period and, assuming the leather is of high quality, remain good for many years with occasional leather treatment. Avoid gimmicks like sticking your holster in water, or a warm oven, to adjust fit. These are more apt to ruin your good leather than help it. Not to mention making your kitchen stink like a glue factory.

Kydex, or polymer holsters aren’t affected by moisture, but also don’t naturally grip the handgun without some help from tension screws. By tightening or loosening these screws you can get just the right amount of friction for a basic level of security. The trouble is keeping the screws from loosening up throughout the day.

One Mechanism

One way to define a Level 2 retention holster is one which employs the same friction-based grip as Level 1, but with the addition of an active mechanical element, such as a hood, back strap, finger- or thumb-operated lever. Some believe that active-retention systems are only needed for open carry holsters — holsters used by armed citizens open carrying or on-duty law enforcement officers.

A gun grab, they say, isn’t likely if your gun is concealed. Others disagree. “People who haven’t learned to properly activate retention devices call them ‘suicide straps,’” writes Massad Ayoob in the Gun Digest Book of Concealed Carry, 2nd Edition. “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.”

The Leather Slide Holster from Blackhawk! features a thumb break snap that provides a simple, extra measure of retention.

Two Mechanisms

By adding a second active element to a holster, plus passing the tension or friction test of Level 1 security, you get to Level 3 retention. Examples include Blackhawk’s Level 3 rig, which features a push-button activated hood shroud to shield the handgun from a grab attempt coming from the front or back. This level is almost never used for concealed carry as the doohickeys just make the thing too big and bulky for mere mortals to hide well. It is, however, used by law officers and open carry advocates, where the gun is exposed.

Three Mechanisms

A Level 4 holster takes these security measures one-step further, but it’s safe to say such rigs aren’t recommended for the armed citizen. If you need a level 4 holster you’re going into some serious stuff beyond the realm of what this little book can reasonably cover and certainly outside the purview of everyday carry for ordinary citizens.

Editor's Note: This article is an excerpt from The Comprehensive Guide to Concealed Carry Holsters.

Editor's Note: This post has been updated from its original version on 9/24/2014.

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