Understanding Holster Retention Methods

As if it isn’t hard enough choosing a holster, you have to understand how it actually keeps the gun secured and if that’s right for you. We make it a little easier.

AS IF IT WASN'T DIFFICUT enough to find the right holster for your gun already based on the wide variety of materials, cuts, carry positions, and more, it goes even deeper than that when we start talking about methods of retention.

This is because there are multiple methods and levels that can be seen on any of the myriad holsters on the market. So, what’s right for you? First, we’ve got to understand a couple simple definitions: passive versus active.

Passive Retention

alien gear cloak holsters
This version of the Alien Gear Cloak holsters is mounted on a hook and loop panel and uses only passive retention, which is adjustable with a retention screw that controls the friction between the gun and the interior of the holster. (right) the same holster mounted on the Alien Gear shoulder holster platform, which allows users to add an optional thumb-break and retention strap, adding an element of active retention.Alien Gear

Passive retention is sometimes referred to as friction tension. The only thing holding your gun in the holster is the holster itself. The amount of surface area the material has with your gun determines the amount of passive retention. That is, the better the contours of your holster to your specific gun, the better the retention.

For example, a wet-molded leather holster or a form-fitted kydex holster both provide better passive retention than a generic, shapeless piece of nylon designed to fit a wide variety of guns that match the general size of the holster.

Active Retention

Active retention takes things a step further, working in conjunction with passive retention by incorporating something into the design of the holster that works to - you guessed it - actively retain your gun in the holster.

Some methods of active retention include:

Trigger Guard Lock

This is exactly what it sounds like. There’s a locking mechanism built into the holster in the trigger guard area that blocks the gun from being removed while it is engaged. This provides extra drop security on a polymer handgun holster in addition to friction tension, and for military and law enforcement applications, they make it more difficult for a bad guy to get their hands on your holstered gun.

Generally, the trigger guard lock release is placed in a naturally ergonomic location so that part of your draw hand—usually your thumb or index finger—comes into contact with it and is manipulated with ease when you go to remove the gun from the holster.

On the 5.11 Tactical Thumbdrive holster in the video above, the user pushes down with their thumb while grabbing the grip, disengaging the locking mechanism.

Blackhawk’s SERPA holster uses a lever activated by the user’s index finger before the firearm can be pulled from the holster.

Modified Draw Stroke Retention

Removing a gun from a holster is simple; you just pull it up and out of the holster, right? Not with one that’s equipped with this kind of retention device.

These require the user to manipulate the gun in an alternate fashion to facilitate the removal from the holster. That is, pulling straight up doesn’t work.

Instead, the user might have to push down first, or rock the gun back or forth in order to get the mechanism to release and allow for a standard straight-up draw.

Again this is all in an effort to make it difficult or impossible for a band guy to get a law enforcement officer’s sidearm out of its holster during a struggle or any other situation and requires additional training.

Thumb Break

holsters thumb break el paso saddlery
Thumb breaks can be used with semi-autos or revolvers, like these examples from El Paso Saddlery.El Paso Saddlery

This method is commonly seen on OWB holsters. Like the trigger guard lock, this is exactly what it sounds like. A thumb break is an extra piece of leather, usually a thin strap, that goes over the rear of the slide or behind the hammer and must be disengaged with the thumb of the shooting hand to permit the draw.

On a correctly sized and adjusted holster, the strap on a thumb break will have some tension on it, but not too much, so it can me more easily disengaged but not unintentionally pop loose.

Retention Strap

galco retention retention strap hooks
The retention strap hooks over the gun's external hammer like these Galco 1880 holsters.Galco

The retention strap is a simple loop that hooks over the hammer and must be removed first, otherwise the gun is hung up in the holster. These are generally only used with revolvers, but you do occasionally see them in use with a semi-auto that has an external hammer.

Sometimes the strap attached to a thumb break will also be referred to as a retention strap.

Tension Screw

tension screw on a holster
The tension screw near the trigger guard on this Galco holster increases the grip the holster has on the gun.Galco

In any application, screws are used to draw things more tightly and hold them together better. In this case, it’s the same for holster tension screws. The more you tighten down on the screws, the better the fit and friction between holster and gun.

These can be found on both traditional leather and more modern kydex holsters and in a variety of locations. Some will only have one screw near the trigger guard; others may have multiple screws providing for increased tension all around the holster.

Explaining Retention "Levels"

You may also see holsters listed by different levels of retention. While these can vary by manufacturer, here’s a general rundown of the generally accepted levels—the higher the number, the more ways or retention devices the holster uses to secure the gun in place:

Level I

1791 Gunleather Open Top Multi Fit
This 1791 Gunleather Open Top Multi Fit holster is a Level One, because it only has passive retention.1791 Gunleather

Passive retention only; friction keeps the pistol in place. Most concealed carry holsters, especially IWB models, are level one holsters as well as many polymer holster systems.

When a firearm is correctly concealed, meaning it isn’t printing and nobody knows you’re carrying it, there isn’t as much worry about someone snatching it from your holster since the won’t know its even there. A Level I holster also allows for a quick, snag-free draw under stress with the least amount of training necessary and makes carry methods like IWB appendix practical.

Level II

TB Casual gen 2 Three Slot Leather holster
The TB Casual gen 2 Three Slot Leather holster from KIRO Holsters has a thumb break, making it Level Two.KIRO Holsters

A Level II holster has some form of active retention device in addition to the passive retention, which could be a thumb break, hammer loop, or trigger guard lock (see above). These are very popular for open carry, military, or law enforcement applications.

Level III

safariland-three-holsters
These Safariland Level Three holsters contain multiple retention devices, including hoods and straps.Safariland

A Level III holster is essentially just “Level II + 1,” which could mean, say, a thumb break or loop in addition to a trigger guard lock or the addition of a hood that flips over the back of the slide or hammer that must be disengaged with the thumb. Again, these are popular with law enforcement and some military users and some police departments in the U.S. require duty holsters to be at least a Level III.

Level IV

And, a Level IV holster is essentially a “Level III + 1,—and they are like unicorns ready for battle. You likely won't see many of these out in the wild or at your local range, but they are out there and used by some law enforcement agencies and military units.

These holsters could include a thumb break, trigger guard lock, and an altered draw stroke and/or a hood. Simply put, that gun is not coming out of the holster unless God himself decrees it.

While the levels above all seem pretty secure, there are attacks than can overcome them, and some bad guys know this. To help combat this, a Level IV holster's security devices typically must be disengaged in the proper sequence, or it isn't happening.

Keeping the Holster On Your Body

In addition to the types of retention that keep the gun in the holster, these are the types of retention systems used to keep the holster on the body of the wearer during use and during the draw—because if draw your gun in a self defense situation and the holster comes with it, it could cost you your life.

Clip-On

IWB holsters from CrossBreed
These IWB holsters from CrossBreed attach with clips. (left) CrossBreed SuperTuck IWB holster and CrossBreed Reckoning IWB Concealed Carry holster.T. Logan Metesh

This method of retention is designed to clip directly to the wearer’s belt. They’re easy to attach and simple to remove, but are sturdy nonetheless and do their job well. The clips form to the belt and provide retention that keeps the holster in place during the draw.

Hooks

Galco holster
The hook passes behind and under the belt, protruding slightly from the front, like on this Galco holster.Galco

These are designed to sit between the fabric of your pants and your belt, with just the hook going underneath the bottom of the belt and protruding slightly in front. These are often seen on IWB holsters and their purpose is to use simple opposing mechanical force to keep the holster in your pants when drawing the gun. The advantage of these over loops is that you don’t have to un-snap them or thread the belt through them.

Loops / Slots

El Paso Saddlery Company Snap-Off Elite holster
These loops on this El Paso Saddlery Company Snap-Off Elite holster snap around your belt to hold the holster in place.El Paso Saddlery

Loops can be found with or without snaps. Generally, when the loops don’t have snaps, the holster is designed for OWB carry and you thread your belt through them to keep the holster in place. These kinds of loops can also be called slots.

galco cop 3 slot holster
Unlike loops with snaps, slots like those on this Galco COP 3 Slot holster require the user to remove their belt in order to remove their holster.Galco

If the loops do have snaps, they are usually incorporated into an IWB holster and they are looped under or over the belt before being snapped into place. This lets the user add or remove the holster without having to completely undo their belt from their pants and are often the only parts of an IWB holster that are visible.

Paddle

galco gunleather ple unlined paddle holster
A paddle fits inside the waistband and catches on your pants with a small hook like this PLE Unlined Paddle holster from Galco Gunleather.Galco

Paddles are designed to be very easy to take on and off, but only when intended. The paddle fits down into the user's beltline and spreads out slightly to distribute the weight of the gun and fit the curve of the human body.

Inside of the curved paddle is a small hook that catches on your pants material when attempting to draw your gun. This keeps the holster in place during the draw, which is just as important as keeping the gun in place when not drawing.

To remove it, the user simply applies a bit of outward pressure to the paddle, opening up its small amount of spring tension. This creates enough room to pull the paddle’s hook out of your pants without it hanging up on the material.

Info Overload

I know that’s a lot of info to throw out there, but thankfully, it’s fairly simple to understand!