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
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.
Cordura Holsters and striker fired pistols
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
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.
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.
If rated in order of preference the result
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
©2004 The Police Policy Studies Council. All rights reserved.