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Holster Retention and How It Affects Draw Speed

Depending on how you carry and your occupation, your holster may have some kind of retention device. Holster retention is critical for a lot of reasons. For one, retention devices keep the firearm in the holster when you want it to remain there. Secondly, most of us would prefer to prevent, deter, or delay unauthorized access by others when carrying a firearm. Occupations like law enforcement or security, where firearms are openly carried, require some level of active holster retention.

In today’s age, retention isn’t a bad idea for those in and out of uniformed duties — especially for those open-carrying firearms. However, some folks balk at what a holster with retention will do to their ability to respond to a threat. While this is a genuine concern, how much time does retention add to the draw? Since I have a box of holsters sitting at home and some spare ammo, I figured this question was worth testing. Before delving into the types of holster retention devices tested from the draw, let’s discuss what constitutes “retention.”

What is holster retention?

Depending on who you ask, holster retention can mean a lot of things. Overall, retention is separated into two parts: passive and active retention. Passive retention keeps the gun from falling out of the holster if you bend over or fall down. While great for concealed carry, passive retention does nothing to prevent someone else from walking up and snatching the gun from a holster. The primary focus here is on active retention holsters.

Retention has two different meanings. For example, the SERPA’s (left) active retention requires a button to be pressed to remove the firearm, whereas the Kydex holster (right) has passive friction-only retention. [Photo: Tom Stilson]

So, what constitutes active retention? Active retention holsters include a device that requires some kind of hand movement to deactivate the retention, allowing you to draw the firearm. Some examples of active retention devices include thumb breaks and push buttons. However, active holster retention devices can be far more complex than just a thumb snap or button and may include multiple stages to deactivate.

Holsters with active retention devices are classified based on the number of hand movements required to deactivate those devices. While some companies categorize retention levels differently, I defer to the original retention standard set by the legendary Bill Rogers. Rogers, who owned Rogers Holster Company, developed a system for determining holster retention. The Rogers Holster Company was ultimately purchased by Safariland, and his definition of retention levels, along with his holster designs, were later incorporated by them.

Holster Retention Levels

Active holster retention commonly falls into three levels, with some exceptions exceeding three. To determine a holster’s retention level, the firearm starts in a holster with all retention devices activated. Another person would then try to disarm the wearer without deactivating any of the retention devices. If the gun stayed in the holster, it was a “level 1”.

Holster Retention Levels
These three holsters all have different retention levels. From left to right: Safariland GLS (Level 1), SLS (Level 2), and SLS/ALS (Level 3) duty holsters. [Photo: Tom Stilson}

The wearer then deactivated the first retention device, and the other person would then try to disarm them. If the gun stayed in the holster, it was deemed at least a “level 2”. If the gun came out of the holster, it remained a level 1. For each test stage where the gun remained in the holster, it advanced to another level. This testing continued until the firearm no longer remained in the holster because all retention devices were deactivated. This testing method determines a holster’s retention levels. While some may disagree with this evaluation, any methods that deviate from Rogers’ testing methods miss the original purpose behind such testing. The intent was to determine if you could retain your firearm from an attempted holstered gun grab by an attacker — not whether the gun stays in your holster while riding a motorcycle or doing jumping jacks.

Does retention affect your time on target?

A wide variety of holster retention devices exist today. From early “snap-and-rock” Safariland holsters to modern-day holsters for light-bearing firearms, virtually every company offers some kind of retention feature in one of their holster lines. However, do holster retention devices negatively affect your ability to engage a threat? After all, if you need your firearm, it behooves you to quickly remove it from the holster.

To see just how much a retention device affects your time on target, I dove into the trusty box of holsters I’d accumulated over the years and retrieved a variety for testing. After some consideration, the selection came down to being tested in the following order:

  • Standard Kydex; Level “0” – no active retention
  • Blackhawk SERPA; Level 1
  • Safariland GLS; Level 1
  • Safariland ALS; Level 1
  • Safariland SLS; Level 2
  • Safariland ALS and SLS; Level 3

To keep things simple and focused on draw time, I used a standard IPSC target at five yards with qualifying shots hitting the “A” or “C” zones. Times were evaluated from the start beep to the shot and repeated for a total of five shots. I averaged the times with each holster to obtain final results.

holster tested with different levels
With only the variety two decades of holster collecting can provide, the author tested several holsters of varying retention. From left to right: Level 0 Kydex, Level 1 SERPA, Level 1 GLS, Level 1 ALS, Level 2 SLS, and Level 3 ALS/SLS. [Photo: Tom Stilson]

The Results

While I expected a higher retention level to translate to longer shot times, I was somewhat surprised. After some reflection, I realized my assumptions were somewhat short-sighted. The results showed a more important principle at hand — familiarity and comfort breed competence. How do you develop familiarity and competence, though? The answer lies in practice. The fastest time came from the Safariland ALS system, which I’ve carried for nearly nine years as my primary duty holster. During that time, I’d estimate I’d drawn from the ALS holster thousands of times. After so much time on it, it’s second nature to draw from one.

Holster Retention Level Average Draw-to-Shot Time
Kydex             0                      1.45
Blackhawk SERPA             1                      1.31
Safariland GLS             1                      1.34
Safariland ALS             1                      1.12
Safariland SLS             2                      1.43
Safariland ALS & SLS             3                      1.45


While this data falls short of rigorous and thorough scientific standards, it provides some valuable insight. First, we shoot better after a little practice. Whether we are shooting live or dry fire, a few repetitions from the holster can go a long way in improving our performance. This observation supports my oft-repeated mantra that a few repetitions a day keep the mistakes away while reinforcing proper skills.

In an extension of the point above, familiarity with your equipment guarantees more reliable and potentially better performance. For example, my average shot time with the level 1 ALS holster was in the 1.1-second range, with several shots in that string completed in under 1.1 seconds. If retention was the determining factor for speed, I should have performed just as fast with the SERPA and GLS holsters — but I didn’t. Why? Because I had more repetitions on the ALS than I did on any other holster.

Holsters with active retention aren’t for every situation. However, retention devices serve an important role if you open carry for personal or professional reasons. No matter the motivation behind carrying a holster with retention, the device doesn’t matter nearly as much as your capability, competence, and familiarity with your equipment. So, does the retention device truly affect engagement speed with the target? In my opinion and experience, the device doesn’t matter nearly as much as the operator behind it.

The post Holster Retention and How It Affects Draw Speed appeared first on The Mag Life.

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