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L.E. Forum

Duty Holster Considerations

By Sgt Mark Conway
New South Wales Police
Staff Member, PPSC

Unlike competition holsters that are designed mainly for speed, manufacturers of duty holsters for police must overcome needs that are diametrically opposed. They must come up with a design that makes it as difficult as possible for any one but the wearer to remove the gun from the holster yet still permit a smooth rapid draw on demand. A duty holster is subjected to accelerated wear, damage and neglect on a scale never dreamed of by most civilian users. Police routinely knock them, bump them and scrape them against obstacles. The body of the holster is routinely caught or torqued on its shank on seat belts, car seats and chairs. Occasionally, they are fallen on. They are subjected to extremes of heat and cold, soaked in rain and sometimes covered in mud. Maintenance on the user’s part can range from a professional level of care to absolute gross neglect. Yet, the officer who has never given a single moment of thought as to the condition of his holster will still expect it to work flawlessly when the chips are down.

While there are a proliferation of duty holsters on the market today, the chances are your Department will mandate the duty holster you will carry. Holster quality can range from excellent to very ordinary indeed. If you are permitted to choose your own holster, or your Agency is considering changing to a new holster design and you have input into the process, the considerations are numerous. What material should it be made of and what level of retention is optimal? What qualities should the holster possess that are absolute necessities and what simply constitutes manufacturer’s hype?

The following suggestions may be of use:



Traditionally, good quality holsters have been made of leather. It has been the material of choice since peace officers carried single action Colts as their duty weapon. Talk to any holster craftsman, get them to show you any of their finest creations and chances are it will be made of leather. It can be moulded, shaped stitched and coloured virtually any way you desire. Well maintained, leather holsters will last a long time and possess a smell and a feel that literally oozes tradition.

The down side is that, in any Agency a percentage of police will not persevere with the level of maintenance required for leather, and holsters intended for duty use are subjected to harsher treatment than most other types. Leather becomes soft with age, goes out of shape, and is affected by the elements, particularly rain. The surface mars easily and makes the holster a relatively high maintenance item.

As well, leather gear, particularly new leather gear, is prone to generating noise.  People have written nostalgically about the musical creaking that is typical of a leather holster and belt. I have been there and found little that was charming in the sound. The noise is remarkably loud in the small hours of the morning when you’re trying to move quietly.

Problems or not, leather was still the only real game in town until Bill Rodgers, a noted holster maker, developed a method of combining plastic and leather into a laminate and moulding these materials into a holster. The thermolaminate process was sold to Safariland where it is now called Safari-laminate. Other manufacturers such as Galco and Hellweg use similar processes in their holster lines.

Thermolaminates are resistant to moisture, don’t lose their shape with age and are resistant to scuffing. Coupled with good holster design, they are the Rolls-Royce of duty holster materials in terms of appearance, longevity and function.

Problems? Some examples have exhibited a tendency to slump when exposed to very high temperatures. If you live in one of the hotter states and are in the habit of stowing your rig in the boot of your car for long periods in mid-summer, they may not be the way to go for you. The conditions required for this to occur however are extreme.

Other than this, laminates rate highly across the board in terms of their ability to handle conditions inherent in police work.

Cordura is a very popular material for off duty carry, tactical rigs and sporting applications. It is lightweight, easy to maintain and inexpensive to purchase. Until relatively recently, most examples were marginal in terms of retention and made little impression on the duty holster market. The last few years have seen a proliferation of designs promoted specifically as duty rigs, touting higher levels of retention than before and promoting Cordura as an alternative to the more usual holster materials. Some police departments and quite a few individuals have adopted a Cordura rig as their issue holster. Despite this, there are problems with cordura as a duty holster material.
Cordura Holsters and striker fired pistols

A specific retention problem exists with the marrying of cordura holsters and striker fired pistols such as the Glock and the Sigma in that the pistol can be fired whilst holstered. This occurs because Cordura by its very nature is softer than leather or laminate and many designs lack contouring or stiffening in the area of the holster mouth. If a gun grab attempt is made and an offender pulls hard laterally on the pistol’s grip, the effect is to pivot the muzzle of the pistol inwards towards the officer’s thigh.

The holster mouths of many of these rigs are a simple ovoid in shape and this results in a gap being created on the shank side of the holster mouth when the pistols grip is pulled outwards. This makes it possible for the offender to slide a finger down into the gap, onto the trigger and pull it!  If the pistol discharges, the result is a severe and debilitating leg wound to the officer involved, lessening the officer’s chances of surviving, let alone winning the encounter. This ‘technique’ can be performed very rapidly and can result in a shattered femur or a torn femoral artery. The problem exists in the main with striker-fired pistols because the retaining strap will prevent the hammer on external hammer designs from rotating sufficiently to the rear to fire.

I mention this simply because it is a further factor to be taken into consideration when choosing a holster design. I am not personally aware of any instance where this has actually happened during a gun grab attempt. I also know that I refuse to carry striker-fired pistols in one of these rigs. You may feel differently and consider the likelihood is too remote to be of genuine concern and that’s fine. Nevertheless, you should be aware that the possibility exists.

Some cordura rigs have a hard plastic exoskeleton that bolsters holster rigidity. I have seen officers attempting to re-holster without looking with these rigs under conditions of stress and end up driving the cordura between the adjacent strips of reinforcing material. The end result was that the cordura was pushed downwards and displaced and the muzzle of the pistol wound up protruding through the front of the holster.

Some police absolutely love cordura and swear by it as a duty holster material.  My personal belief is that cordura is at its best with units such as tactical teams or specialised groups like dog squads where weight is at a premium, not as a general issue for patrol police.
If rated in order of preference the result would be:

1. Thermolaminates
2. Leather
3. Cordura

Basketweave or No Basketweave

A basketweave finish is pretty much a standard in the police community. If you decide that leather will be the material of choice then it’s a smart bet. Asides from looking professional, the stamped design breaks up the surface of the holster to the eye and does a good job of hiding the inevitable scuffs and scratches that the holster will accumulate. It won’t stop you having to clean it, but it will delay the inevitable for a while.
Levels of retention

The retention level of the holster refers to the number of retention devices you have to release or move the gun past in order to draw the pistol from the holster:

An example of a level l holster would be a simple thumb-break device that must be unclipped in order to draw the weapon.

A Level ll holster example is one where a thumb-break is released then the pistol must be moved (rocked forward or rearwards) in the holster to clear some form of internal locking device before it can be drawn.

A Level lll holster is one where three separate retaining devices, both internal and external must be undone or bypassed.
Optimal Retention

For most police, a Level ll retention holster offers the best balance between draw speed and holster retention. The number of the holster retention devices present needs to be balanced with the amount of training time available to ingrain the draw technique. The simpler the draw requirements are, the more likely they will continue to work when conditions aren’t optimal. A Level ll represents a happy medium between too little retention and the problems that begin to occur when the level of retention is too great.

The Safariland SSlll is an example of a Level lll retention holster that permits a rapid draw coupled with an excellent level of retention if a regular practice regime is maintained. For a department who’s firearms training frequency is at least quarterly (monthly is better), or for a committed officer who practices habitually, it is a fine holster. But if, as many do, you work for a Department that requires only annual or twice-yearly qualification with a handgun, chances are that every range practice will bring with it its share of miscued draws.

At one time, for example, Safariland recommended any SSlll user should carry out 200 practice draws with the holster prior to carrying the holster on duty. It should be understood that the majority of officers in most Agencies are not firearms oriented and are generally not prepared to carry out extra training in their own time. Whether we like it or not, a lot of police simply will not practice to this level and more importantly maintain that practice. Above Level ll, the learning and practice curves rise steeply.

The Initial Retention Device

The initial retention device should be large and easy to hit. Any retention device/s that are present must release smoothly and without interference with the draw. Most duty holsters are fitted with some form of thumb snap that has to be released initially. Some thumb snap designs are so small or fitted so closely against the holster that releasing them quickly becomes problematical and may require several attempts to break the snap. This will destroy the smoothness of the draw and greatly slow draw times.  The area that the thumb contacts to release the thumb snap must be sufficiently large that it can be consistently hit and broken immediately on contact.

The fight or fight reflex will draw blood from the extremities such as your fingers and pool that blood into the major muscle groups, readying the body to kick, punch or claw it’s way out of trouble. Consequently, one of the first things that will occur is a loss of manual dexterity. Any holster that requires very precise movements to undo a retention device is not going to be optimal when the firearm has to be drawn urgently. Elevated heart rates above 145 beats per minute are to be expected in survival situations and above this level, fine and complex motor skills deteriorate rapidly. (Levitt 1972) Simple, gross motor skills are the most reliable under conditions of high stress and holsters that are designed to utilise those skills will work for an officer during a critical incident rather than against them.

One of the more elegant solutions currently on the market is the Safariland SLS. Not a thumb break system at all but a rotating hood that has to be pressed down and rolled forward to draw. It is fast, consistent, simple to operate and possesses excellent ergonomics - certainly well worth serious consideration in any holster replacement program.

 The Release Must Be Integral With The draw

Releasing the retention device/s present should be an integral part of the drawing process. Any retention devices in use should release at the same time as the grip on the stocks of the pistol or revolver is taken. The old Jordan Border Patrol style holster that required undoing a retaining strap then gripping the firearm is not acceptable for modern policing needs. It was the first holster I ever owned and the speed with the strap undone and tucked away was excellent. That was in 1976 and times and circumstances change.  Any holster design that requires two distinct movements to first unlock the retention device and then draw is not suitable for uniformed use. 

Gripping the Firearm

The hand must be able to take a full firing grip on the stocks of the weapon whilst it is still in the holster. A well-designed holster should allow the firing hand to fully grip the stocks of the firearm in the normal firing grip whilst the firearm is still in the holster. This is central to obtaining accurate shot placement. No portion of the holster body should interfere in any way with the drawing process.

A number of holsters that I have either examined or in one case had to carry did not permit a proper grip on the firearm when it was holstered.  If this happens, one of two things occurs. You either attempt a grip adjustment on the gun part way through the draw sequence or else break the shot with your hand low on the back strap. Either alternative degrades performance, compromises correct technique and shot placement and lowers confidence on the part of the shooter.

The end result is that many police, with no interest or background in firearms and at the range only because they have to be there, record consistently low scores during their qualification shoots. Some of them may realise that something is going wrong for them but lack the ability to diagnose the precise problem. Other officers will simply write off firearms training generally and drawing from the holster in particular, as some form of arcane art fully understood only by those involved in witchcraft. They will consider poor performance levels to be their lot and simply switch off, creating an ongoing problem for those instructors who are required to train them. The holster has more bearing on the firearms training equation than is sometimes appreciated.

Locking the holster to the belt

The holster should come equipped with some form of device that locks the holster rigidly to the belt and prevents it from moving. Duty holsters generally are bumped several times a day on chairs, entering or exiting cars or on furniture. Despite this, they should not move. If the holster shifts on the belt during the draw, the technique is compromised.

Duty Belt Considerations

As a corollary to the above suggestion, the issue duty belt must be sufficiently rigid that the holster can lock into place.  In particular, leather duty belts soften with age and some cordura belts may lack the necessary stiffness from the beginning. There can also be a mismatch between the width of the belt and the width of the belt slot on the holster shank. Any of the above will reduce the efficiency of the draw stroke.

Magazine Catch Cutout

If the duty weapon is a pistol as opposed to a revolver, there should be a cut out area around the magazine catch. Some older holster designs lacked this and bumping the holster could result in inadvertent depression of the pistol’s magazine catch as the shank of the holster was pressed against it. A fast draw followed immediately by the thud of the magazine hitting the floor comes highly recommended if you want to find out just how well you handle elevated levels of stress!

Weapons Retention Training

Whatever holster you choose, training in weapons retention must be mandatory. There is a firearm present at every situation an officer attends – his or her own gun. Any holster can be defeated and some of the worst real life horror stories revolve around officers having their own firearm taken from them and then being shot with it. Firearm retention must be layered, beginning with a suitable holster and then moving beyond that. It should be mandatory for every officer who carries a firearm to undertake a course in weapons retention and learn how to physically control an assailant that is attempting to grab their firearm.


When you reduce it to its base elements, a good holster performs two tasks and two only:

·        It allows an officer to carry a handgun upon their person in their working environment in an easily accessible location.

·        It permits the officer (and hopefully only the officer) to draw that handgun from that easily accessible location in a rapid and timely manner when required.

It is the task of deciding just which of the myriad designs and materials available out there is suitable for you or your Agency that makes the subject fascinating.


[1] SURPURE J. S.  'Heat Related illness and the Automobile’, Annual of Emergency Medicine - May 1982. Stated highest temperature recorded in small car in direct sunlight was 78° Centigrade. Testing based on this information carried out at 80° Centigrade for 24 hours in temperature controlled cabinet.

[2] Referenced in ‘Sharpening the Warriors Edge’ – Bruce K. Siddle (1995)