What this term means when applied to a holster, in essence, is the ability of the person wearing a holster, and the inherent ability of the holster itself, to retain the handgun within the holster. Some people do not get that and think that it is solely the holster's ability to retain the pistol. That is a big mistake, one that could cost you your life.
I was recently looking for a new holster, still am, for my Remington 1911 pistol and for my Beretta 92FS pistols. The manufacturer of one holster contacted me, explaining he understood I had concerns about retention relative to his company's holsters, holsters designed so that they did not use anything but friction to retain the handguns for which they were suited. He assured me that his company's holsters had excellent pistol retention properties and that friction would keep the pistol in the holsters. He missed my targeted concern by about mile, at least.
While I do want a holster that will keep my pistol inside of it with a good amount of friction, I also want an additional method by which my pistol is retained other than by friction alone. This is very important failsafe to me and it should be important to you too. The reason I do not want friction being the only method to retain my pistol in the holster is that I have run into too many situations where friction alone does not do the job. I have seen pistols fly out of friction only holsters as the person wearing that type of holster was running or jumping. I have seen and have had happen to me, pistols being basically ripped out of a holster by something that overcame the force of the friction such as a branch, in heavy brush, catching the grip and yanking the pistol out as the shooter walked on unaware that his gun was about to be yanked out of his holster. I have seen pistols being easily taken away, right out of the holster, from a person wearing a friction only holster, by a person who was assailing the person wearing the holster.
Friction only holsters make it easier for the things I just described to take place. Yeah, they look cool. You can draw your handgun a bit quicker because there are no other retention devices you have to deal with other than the friction caused by the holster itself, so they may be great for certain types of competition and target shooting. The thing is, when it comes to the kind of competition you may face when someone is assaulting you in hand to hand combat, you do not want to have a holster from which the bad guy can easily take away your pistol from you nor do you want a holster from which a pistol can inadvertently fall out or from which it can be easily removed by an outside force such as that of a branch hooking onto it.
So what is the fix for this? It is the addition of at least one or more retention devices to the holster. They can range from a fairly simple design, requiring one step to operate to a fairly complex design that requires multiple steps to operate. The good thing about the added retention device(s) is that having one or more does require at least that one additional step before the gun will come out of the holster. It makes it more difficult for a bad guy or an inadvertent set of circumstances, to remove your pistol from your holster. The bad thing can be that, with certain holsters, it can take so many steps that it takes the holster wearer too long to get the gun out of the holster when needed. So what to do?
What you want to do is to get yourself a holster that strikes a balance between your security and the your ability to draw quickly and that does not endanger you while at the same time keeping the bad guys at a disadvantage if it comes down to them trying to take your gun away. Holsters are often classified by retention level and the levels are usually given as: Level 1, Level 2, Level 3 and up (usually seen with Roman numerals but let's face it folks, the Romans of old are gone and so too should be there archaic numbering system). There often is some confusion with the retention level numbering system and what each number signifies. The confusion is caused by different people assigning different numbers to the varying levels of retention. It is not very confusing though and all you need to do is ask which system is being used to immediately get a grasp of what each number signifies for any particular holster.
For instance, some people call a friction only holster a Level 1 retention holster. Others would say there is no retention device, thus the holster does not have a retention level number and those folks would start Level 1 with a holster requiring manipulation of a retention/release device in order to be able to draw the handgun. A holster like that would be a thumb break holster with which you have to manipulate the thumb-break (usually a snap) to be able to draw the pistol. For the remainder of this article, I will use the following retention level designations:
Level 1: Friction only. all you need to do is draw the weapon.
Level 2: Manipulation of a retention/release device is required to either secure or draw the weapon (note, activation of the device to secure the gun can be either passive or active for any of the following levels but remember you must actively release it to draw the gun). Again, an example of this would be a simple thumb-break holster.
Level 3: Manipulation of a primary retention/release device is required to draw the weapon, but it will remain secure in the holster unless a secondary retention/release device is also activated after the first has be activated. An example of this type of a holster would be one requiring operation of a thumb-release and then operation of a button on the side of the holster with your index or middle finger. Another example is a type with a hood wherein a hood slides over the hammer and you first have to push the hood down (first manipulation), then while holding it down you must push it forward (second operation) to be able to draw.
Level 4: To achieve a higher level, such as Level 4, just continue adding a retention/release device per level as you go up.
You probably can imagine that the higher the retention level, the more difficult it would be for a bad guy (or a fall or snag) to take your weapon out of your holster, thus the more secure it would be at a higher level. You probably also have realized that it will take you longer to draw as more retention levels are added because it will require more actions on your part to release the mechanisms. It would also be much more difficult, maybe even nearly impossible, to draw from high retention level holsters with your off side hand in the event your usual drawing hand has become disabled.
I prefer a single operation beyond just the draw to remove my weapon from the holster. Therefore I tend to use thumb-snap holsters. Through years of experience when others have tried to take away my side are, either in training or in real life situations, I always have been able to retain it. While this includes many, many times in training, it also includes at least 3 times when real honest to goodness dirtbags tried to relieve me of my handgun, at least two times when they had the sole intention of shooting me with it. Had they been more familiar with holster and gun take-aways they may have gotten it but they did not. Then again, the other officers who tried to take it away during training never were able to do it either and they had been trained in gun take-aways and were familiar with the type of holster I was wearing.
So, why couldn't any of them successfully take my gun away from me? The safety or retention/release device, even though only a Level 2 device, one requiring only a simple and single manipulation to release it, was enough to allow me the time to take defensive pistol retention actions. I will not explain them in this already long piece, just suffice it to say that having a thumb-snap gave me the split second I needed to hold onto my pistol and foil the take-away attempts. Once I was in the defensive mode, you can bet I fought to hold onto it and to get the advantage in the situation, and I fought with everything I had in me. I have a scar on my left bicep, to this day since about 1982, from where an illegal alien bit me. After realizing he was not getting my gun away from me easily, he resorted to other measures, that bite, to attempt to hurt me to make me give up my defensive hold on my revolver. Let me just say, he was unsuccessful beyond that bite and he lost the battle although I was scarred for life by what doctors at the time called a superficial bite mark (oh
If I was going to go above a Level 2 retention device, I would opt for a Level 3 at most. I would not go any higher than that because I believe that wearing a holster above Level 3 retention is asking for trouble. Even a holster at Level 3 can sometimes be difficult for the wearer to operate properly above it, I think can cause a nightmare. Depending on the actual retention/release types (I do not mean the level but the actual type of releases such as thumb-snap, lever, push button, twist, hood, and so on) it is at a Level 3 or above (and remember, I mean by the levels as I described them previously) that it would very likely become difficult, dependent on the type of retention device, for you to draw with your off hand should your usual drawing hand become incapable of drawing your weapon. With a Level 3, it would probably be fairly easy to open the hooded type retention device with your off hand, but trying to release the retention devices when it has both a thumb-snap type and a push-button type release might be much more difficult. Beyond Level 3, well, maybe somebody could do it proficiently with the off hand but the skills required to operate a holster of a higher Level than 3, regardless of retention device type, often involve at least one release and sometimes 2 that need(s) you to use fine motor skills to operate it properly. Fine motor skills, even in your usual drawing hand, may be impaired simply by the stressfulness of the given situation so it even may be difficult to draw from a Level 4 holster even with your strong hand.
Fine motor skills, as opposed to gross motor skills, are much more difficult to perform while under extreme stress. Gross motor skills come to you much more naturally under such stress. Believe me when I tell you, when you realize your life is being threatened and you need to get it right to live, you will be under extreme stress. As opposed to some Level 3 and almost all higher level retention holsters, many retention Level 2 holsters only require a gross motor skill to release the retention device (some do require a fine motor skill though, be aware of that). For example, most thumb-snap holsters do not actually require your thumb to precisely land on the snap to operate them, in fact many do not even require your thumb to be involved at all, but will open if you operate the device with the heel or even the blade of your drawing hand. The heel or blade of the hand hitting the release, as opposed to your thumb hitting a cherry spot, to open the release is a gross motor skill as compared to a fine motor skill. Those holsters allow you to draw almost as quickly as a Level 1 holster but do afford some additional retention properties.
Before closing, let me finish up by saying there are other considerations in choosing the best holster retention level for you. Whether or not you carry openly or concealed can make a difference in the choice you make. An openly carried holster, while not necessarily a target for a bad guy, certainly does allow others to see your holster and to see just what type of retention device, if any above mere friction, that it uses. I would never recommend open carry in an unconcealed Level 1 retention holster (friction only). If you choose to carry openly, or if you are a la enforcement officer who must carry openly while in uniform, I strongly recommend a Level 2 retention holster at the minimum but strongly would recommend that you consider a Level 3 retention holster, one that you have determined you can operate proficiently with either hand. Carrying concealed can be a bit different. Others can not usually predetermine what type of holster you are wearing. So, should you get in a hand to hand confrontation and someone tries to take away your concealed handgun, there could be less of a chance they will have figured out beforehand how to overcome the retention device. Thus, you may decide, that if you carry concealed, you might want to opt for the minimal retention level that affords something more than merely a friction hold or in other words, a Level 2 retention holster. The decision is up to you if you are getting a holster for personal use and may or may not be up to you if you are a LEO. If you are the one who decides what level of retention you can use, and what type of retention device you can have on your holster, I would advise you to make the selection with care by educating yourself about available holsters, their retention levels and the types of retention devices with which they are equipped.
Ultimately, you probably are the one who has to decide on what level of retention you want in a personal holster and maybe the one to decide the same in a duty holster. The best way to do so is to try a number of various holsters with different retention levels and with different types of retention devices. Then make up your mind after having educated yourself as to their different properties and how easily you can operate them and how efficiently you can defend your pistol in them from a take-away attempt. If you are a law enforcement officer, or in the military, you may or may not have a choice. If you do have a choice, you should also make a similar educated decision. In either case and regardless of in what type of holster you ultimately decide to carry your handgun, or in what type you are mandated to carry it, you should practice pistol retention techniques (learn them from a professional firearms instructor if at all possible) while wearing it and while having someone trying to do a gun take-away from you (also learn those techniques from a professional firearms instructor and make certain not to go overboard and hurt one another). Use of a "red or blue gun" (plastic or hard rubber non-firing practice gun, often totally red or blue in color) is highly recommended for such practice. Making an educated choice as to retention level and retention device type can go a long way toward selecting the right holster for you. Getting the right retention level holster for you, along with the right type of retention device(s) for you, can go a long way to assuring your pistol is secure while at the same time allowing for you to have a quick and efficient draw if needed.
All the best,