What cops need to know about 'levels' of holster retention

Folks have been confused about holster retention ratings ever since manufacturers started using them, so let’s take a few moments to explore and clarify this important subject

I recently had a confusing discussion about holsters. The difficulty stemmed from the fact that my partner and I each had a different understanding of what the term “Level III Retention” meant. Folks have been confused about holster retention ratings ever since manufacturers started using them, so let’s take a few moments to explore and clarify this important subject.

Back in 1973, former FBI agent and police instructor Bill Rogers started designing and building some excellent duty holsters that incorporated improved retention capabilities. In an effort to quantify these improvements, Rogers created a testing protocol in 1975 that awarded retention “levels” to holsters.

When a much younger Safariland purchased the Rogers Holster Company in 1985, they adopted both Rogers’ successful holster designs and his retention rating system. As Safariland matured into the industry giant that it is today, more people gained exposure to the concept of holster retention levels and the practice of rating holsters became more commonplace in the industry.

The Original Tests
Rogers’ test was very simple in its original form. A person would don his holstered firearm (using a suitable belt) and ensure all the security devices were properly engaged (snaps closed, straps in position, etc.). An “attacker” would then grab the firearm by the grip  while attempting to remove it from the holster by shaking, pulling, and twisting the firearm (as in a gun grab attempt) for a period of five seconds.

The attacker would not try to disengage the security devices (i.e., unsnap a snap), but would try to remove the gun from the holster by pulling it straight up, to the rear, to the front, and away from the body. If the weapon successfully remained in the holster and the holster stayed attached to the wearer, then it was deemed a Level I holster.

If a holster passed this test, then a second test was warranted. This time, the wearer would take the first action required to disengage the primary security device on the holster as part of a normal draw, then leave the holster in that condition for five seconds. For example, if a traditional thumb break-style holster was going to be tested, the wearer would take the first step of unsnapping the thumb break and leave it unsnapped for the test. If the gun stayed in place after five seconds of tugging, then it was deemed a Level II holster. If it came out, the holster remained at Level I.

If a holster required further steps to disable the remaining security devices and complete a normal draw, it would be subjected to yet another five-second attack after the next action in the draw sequence was taken. At the time the test protocol was created, Rogers’ SS3 — later sold by Safariland as the Model 070 SSIII — was the only holster in production that could pass this level of testing.

With this holster, a thumb break (first action) and trigger guard snap (second action) were both released prior to the five-second attack, but the holster’s molded ejection port detent retained the gun in the holster, so it was therefore designated as Level III — the only one of its type for quite some time.

As technology, materials, and designs improved, the Rogers/Safariland system for rating holster retention evolved. Some criteria changed, and additional test requirements were added, (which had to be passed before a holster could even be rated as Level I) but the basic model of identifying how many five-second, Level I-style attacks could be resisted remained unchanged.

By the mid-2000s, Safariland had even introduced the first Level IV and V-designated holsters, indicating they were capable of resisting four or five Level I-style attacks (respectively) as their security devices were disabled step-by-step, in sequence.

Confusion Grows
Over time, some people in the industry mistakenly assumed that the number in a holster’s level rating indicated the number of security devices on the holster. In the Rogers/Safariland system, this is not correct, because one device may have multiple modes that allow it to resist multiple Level I-style attacks. Unfortunately, this error was sometimes encouraged by makers who adopted this kind of protocol when assigning ratings to their own products.

Some makers have assigned retention ratings to their concealment-type holsters, and a few have given designs without any security features (i.e., friction-only retention) a Level I rating, even though they could not pass the first test in Rogers’ protocol. Neither Rogers nor Safariland have ever used their system to rate anything other than uniformed duty holsters.

Because there are no industry standards for rating holster retention levels — as there are for rating concealable body armor protection, for example — companies are free to develop their own protocols for testing and ratings. As such, retention levels are not directly comparable across the industry, and things can quickly become confusing.

Buyer Beware
So, if you’re shopping for a holster — as an individual or as an agency buyer — you need to go beyond the ratings and advertising hype by fully understanding how the various security features work. You also need to ask hard questions about the specific tests and criteria that a manufacturer uses to rate their products. Until the industry unites around a single standard, it’s not enough to assume that Brand X’s Level III rating denotes a comparable level of security, durability and quality as Brand Y’s Level III rating.

Your choice of duty gear is too critical — and your safety too important — to be influenced by clever marketing. Ask tough questions, get the details, and make sure you’re comparing apples-to-apples.

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