The Triad of Handgun Retention

Rolling around on the asphalt at zero dark thirty with some scumbag who just punched you in the face and now has both hands on your pistol trying to desperately rip it from your holster and kill you with it, is not the first time to think about handgun retention. That is the time for action, when all your preplanning and training to prepare for the possibility of defeating an attempted takeaway comes into action. No one thing will allow you to defeat that deadly threat. It will take several different components coming together for you to win the fight for your life and make it home at the end of the shift. Plan and prepare now for what may one day come. That is the essence of officer survival and the task at hand.

The Threat

In 2005, the latest year for which stats are available through the FBI, of the 50 officers killed feloniously with firearms, six law enforcement officers were killed with their own sidearms. Over the last ten years more than ten percent of officers killed in the line of duty by firearms were killed with their own duty pistols (the high year was 2003, in which eleven of the 45 officers were killed with their own pistols, totaling 24%). Numbers only tell part of the story and are cold and impersonal. These incidents include

  • Officer James Prince from North Carolina, killed with his own pistol during a traffic stop
  • Sgt. Hoyt Teasley from Georgia, killed after a suspect assaulted another deputy and obtained a duty pistol while in a correctional facility
  • Detective Sergeant James Allen from Rhode Island, disarmed and killed while interviewing a suspect inside police headquarters; and
  • Lt. James Weaver from Virginia, killed by a juvenile suspect during a prisoner transport.

May God bless their souls! And let us endeavor to learn from these tragedies so that their deaths will not be forgotten! Each officer was killed during a different type of call or assignment in different parts of this country while working for agencies large and small, and all were killed with their service pistol or a handgun of a coworker. When talking about officers killed, these numbers have names and each officer killed leaves family, friends and coworkers wondering what, if anything could have been done to prevent these tragedies.

The Handgun Retention Triad--Mind, Holster, Skills

The Mind - Mental Awareness & Commitment

Mental awareness is first and foremost the best way to prevent attempted takeaways. You should maintain, whenever possible, a safe reactionary gap but when inside this distance (where the vast majority of police shootings actually take place and where all takeaways occur) be prepared for resistance and ever cognizant of your pistol. Try to keep your gun hand free whenever you can. As I recall, G. Gordon Liddy wrote about this in his book, Will. At the start of his FBI career, a wizened agent told him that carrying a gun made him a gunslinger, and gunslingers don't tie up their gun hand. Although we frisk and cuff with our gun hand you must be constantly ready to defend an attempted takeaway of your pistol. Don't get so caught up in the business of a call that you fail to see the warning signs and body language that indicate a suspect's preparation to attack. When that good old cop "street sense" tells you something's wrong with the situation or suspect, listen to it!

If someone attacks and attempts to disarm you, more important than any other component is your will to win. Despite possible injuries, possibly being smaller, not as physically strong or even being outnumbered, you can and must win the fight for your life and retain your pistol. Other officers who have been hurt worse and in more dire situations and have fought their way out, and you can too! Most times an intense will to win can overcome even the most vicious of attacks. You must not relinquish control of your pistol. Bite, claw, stab with your police knife, whatever and however long it takes, you can and must do it! Stoke your soul; there is not a suspect alive that can overcome the will and intent of a well-trained, hard-core street cop! There may be a day to die, but not here and not now, and not at the hands of this scum!

Holster Selection

A recent topic of online discussion among firearms instructors was handgun retention, specifically the issuance of security holsters and handgun retention training.

On one side stand those that believe that security holsters can save lives. They believe that the easier a pistol is to draw for you, the easier it is for the suspect to take your pistol from you. Safariland® developed the "Levels of Security" for holsters a number of years ago. Safariland has designated Level 1, Level 2 and Level 3. The most secure of the security levels is Level 3. In example, these are typified by Safariland's Model 070 Raptor(tm) and BlackHawk®'s new Serpa(tm) Level 3 holsters. The least secure, the Level 1 holsters, typically only have a thumb break to retain the pistol.

On the other side of the debate stand the "security holsters are deathtraps" group. These trainers insist that we should not complicate the drawing process and that handgun retention is a function of training in physical retention skills. This group of trainers believes that a holster with a thumb break or Level 1 is all that officers need to work the street and that more secure holsters are not conducive to drawing the pistol in crisis mode. These instructors have seen officers struggle with these holsters in training, oftentimes resulting in the officers either carrying the pistol without all the safety straps secured or qualifying on the range with snaps undone in order to meet time restraints (which does nothing but cheat the officer of potential lifesaving repetitions and valuable training).

Where do I sit in this debate? Pretty much in the middle, as I like security holsters but advocate an officer having a choice of what they can carry. In my experience, aggressive street officers that practice a lot and are very competent with their sidearm gravitate toward a more secure holster. Those that spend little time in practice tend to carry a less secure holster, and this is how it should be. Officers come in all shapes and sizes, as well as levels of interest in firearms training. While certainly it is true that a holster must securely carry the pistol so that it is not accidentally lost, as well as present a consistent draw, there are a large variety of rigs out there that adequately perform these functions. Officers should have some leeway. If they are unwilling to practice with the holster prior to carrying it on duty and not train consistently, they should be allowed and indeed encouraged to downgrade in security levels.

Instructors should have input, but avoid pushing their own predilections. I've seen instructors that push their opinion or preference as policy in regards to holsters and training. For instance, a new security holster was acquired for testing. When the company rep came by to ask how the trainers liked it, they gave it a scathing review. Upon questioning from the company representative, they admitted they hadn't read the brochure to learn how the holster worked or practiced with it; they just didn't like it (this holster is now carried and loved by a large group of patrol officers in the agency). To those instructors that discourage carrying Level 3 rigs, I would remind them that the holster is that last stage of the retention triad. Security holsters can buy time and have saved lives. As my friend Bruce Siddle of PPCT points out, within 30 seconds of a combat situation, your physical abilities can deplete as much as 45%. When awareness has not prevented the attack and the officer is either exhausted or injured (possibly even unconscious) a security holster can save his life.

  • Although I am primarily referring to duty holsters, plainclothes holster designs have improved and a variety of manufacturers market Level 1 and Level 2 holsters for detectives or plainclothes officers. Too many detectives carry their pistols in non-secure holsters.
  • A final note on holsters. Remember to inspect your duty holsters regularly . With the advent of plastics we don't have the stretching and tearing that used to occur with leather, but we can have cracking and breaking. Regardless of the material, holsters were not designed to last your whole career. Inspect and replace aging and defective gear!
  • Handgun Retention

    Finally, we come to handgun retention training. Whatever method we revolve our survival training around, it must: be:

    1. Based on gross motor skills,
    2. Work under stress, and
    3. Be practiced.

    We should also have plans for when we are on the ground, whether on our back or on top, straddling a suspect, and they attempt to take our gun. Emphasis should be on keeping the pistol in the holster by pushing straight down first and foremost, and then affecting the release. Whether a gross skill such as repeatedly striking down through the suspect's arms or a leverage technique is attempted, it should be able to be done by any officer regardless of size. Remember, physical skills follow the law of diminishing returns, which states that the farther from the training event you get, the less able you are to perform the skill. Even without a training partner, you can and should practice securing the pistol in the holster and affecting the release, which builds a motor program that can be reverted to under stress.

    Maintaining your pistol is a function of all three components of the triad of retention--the mind, the holster and retention skills--not just one part. By always paying attention to your surroundings and suspects, by selecting the most secure pistol that you can quickly draw from, and by learning and practicing your retention techniques, you can keep control of your sidearm and not be victim to it. In the end a triumvirate (you, your equipment and your training), can beat one scumbag any day.

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