CCW Weekend: Active Retention Devices

Guns and Gear | Contributor

By Sam Hoober, Alien Gear Holsters

Some people wonder if active retention is necessary for all holsters, or at least for OWB carry and/or open carry. A limited (but still present) number of incidents where an open carrier has been assaulted and deprived of their pistol have been noted, so it does happen.

What is active retention, anyhow? Active retention (as opposed to passive) is a retention device on a holster that has to be manually disengaged in order to draw the pistol from the holster. In times gone by, it was almost the only thing holding it in.

In the 19th century, pistol holsters for belt carry were either open-top or were of the military-style flap design. The latter featured a snap-locked flap that draped over the gun, and the former was often little more than a leather pouch about the same size of the gun. What held it in was a bit of a tight fit around the frame and trigger guard and, of course, gravity.

In the 1930s, rancher, tracker and lawman Tom Threepersons collaborated with the SD Myres Saddle Company to create a new holster design. The Threepersons holster or Threepersons rig featured an open trigger guard and with a loop that went over the hammer. This provided a little more retention than a simple leather pouch, but fast-enough access if things went sideways.

A hammer strap, with a snap-button attachment, would later be added and the Threepersons rig superseded by the Jordan holster design, created by USBP officer (and Marine Corps veteran) Bill Jordan. In the 1950s, lawman and holster maker John Bianchi created the thumb break snap design, which is still common today.

Since then, active retention has evolved considerably. Let’s go over the basic devices.

Most active retention devices break into two categories: trigger guard catches and straps that cover the back of the gun.

The former are fairly simple. The holster has a lever arm with a bump on it that catches inside the trigger guard. In order to draw the pistol, the lever has to be actuated. The lever’s placement depends on the holster design. Some locate it on the top of the holster itself, requiring the user’s index finger to actuate it. Others have it between the belt and the top of the holster requiring the draw-hand thumb to actuate it. Some, such as Level III holsters required for police duty, feature both.

Some are a push-release that you push down toward the ground, others require manipulation with the trigger finger or trigger-hand middle finger. Again, it all depends on who makes it. They are effective, as the pistol cannot be pulled free of the holster.

The latter likewise takes different forms. The oldest were the hammer loops and top straps first featured on Threepersons and Jordan rigs of the 20s into the 50s, though both are still made today. The snap strap of the Jordan holster places the snap on the holster itself, requiring a sweep up into the firing grip to pop the strap.

Bianchi’s thumb break design placed the snap on the interior of the holster, to the left of the hammer. This design is easily deactivated by driving the thumb into the strap, which pops it free.

Today, these have been replaced in modern duty holsters with slide hoods. Often made of rubber or plastic, these cover the rear of the slide of a striker-fired pistol. The user pops it off with a thumb as they get a firing grip on the gun.

There are still a limited number of makers who produce Threepersons and Jordan rigs, but the thumb break is still a very popular accessory on leather OWB holsters. Typically, the former holster styles are made for revolvers only (though some make them for Gov’t frame 1911s) and are expensive, as anachronism can become an expensive hobby.

Personally, I prefer active retention devices on the interior (body side) of the holster and that are thumb-actuated. This makes deactivating the retention device intuitive, as my hand is getting there for a firing grip anyhow.

Now, do you need active retention?

This is worth some discussion. For the typical citizen, arguably not unless you’re open carrying either out in public or in the outdoors. In public, it’s a good idea to have the pistol as secure as possible and certainly if traipsing around the backcountry in an active fashion.

Retention of the weapon is, of course, crucial.

You might see retention levels mentioned in literature. The quick version is that Level I is just passive retention from the holster itself. Level II is passive retention plus at least one active retention device. Level III has two active retention devices, and then Level IV has three in addition to passive retention of the holster itself.

A few open carriers have been targeted and strong-armed out of their pistols. This is why many police officers are mandated to wear Level III (or IV) retention holsters. Military personnel also wear holsters with Level II or III retention and so do armed security guards and armored truck personnel.

This is up to you to decide. If a holster is custom-molded for the pistol you’re carrying, and features adjustable passive retention, you can get quite the hold on a gun by tightening it down, but in those circumstances (open carrying in public and/or in the woods) an active retention device is a good idea.

Additionally, you must train with the holster. Drill the draw, then do it some more. Should the moment of truth ever arrive, you must be able to pull your pistol to defend yourself.

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Sam Hoober is Contributing Editor for, a subsidiary of Hayden, ID, based Tedder Industries, where he writes about gun accessories, gun safety, open and concealed carry tips. Click here to visit


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