High-Retention Carry Holsters: Strong’s First Chance Gets First
The Peace Keeper H304 beat out holsters from Bianchi, Blackhawk, and Safariland when we strapped them on to see how easy they were to use and how well they deterred theft.
The first defense against being a “weapon donor” is to not let anyone know you have a gun in the first place, by keeping your gun completely concealed. But if you have to bend over to get an item from the bottom shelf in the grocery store, the butt of your pistol could give you away by bulging from underneath your coat or sweater. An additional line of defense against being stripped of your weapon is to carry your gun in a holster that offers retention beyond friction and gravity.
To find out how helpful such a holster might be during a gun grab, we acquired six different holsters that were designed to offer extra security: Strong First Chance Piece Keeper H304, $86; Bianchi 82 Carry Lok B3870, $65; Blackhawk CQC holster with SERPA Active Retention-CF finish No. 410003BK-R, $55; Safariland 0701-74-131, $89; Safariland 0702-74-131, $92; and the Safariland 0706-74-131, $92.
Our test gun for all the holsters except for the Blackhawk CQC was a Sigarms P229 .357 Sig pistol. The CQC was built for a 5-inch 1911, so we used a Para Ordnance single stack. Only the Strong First Chance Piece Keeper was available for revolvers. We mounted the holsters on heavy-ply leather belts from Hoffner’s, Galco, and Wellsmade, with and without internal reinforcement. The belts ranged in width from 1.0 to 1.5 inches.
We wanted to know how well these holsters concealed, how far each holster went in locking down the gun, and what was required of the owner to execute a reasonably fast draw. We also tried to evaluate if any of these holsters provided enough retention to prevent or forestall a successful gun grab. It sounded like we were in for a rougher test than usual.
Here’s what we found:
Strong First Chance Piece Keeper H304, $86
The Strong company of Glouchester, Massachussetts, has been producing law-enforcement badge cases, wallets, and ID products since 1932. Holsters for civilian use are a relatively new endeavor. The First Chance holsters are three-slot pancake holsters available in colors ranging from tan to black or black basketweave, with a lined or unlined interior. There are three First Chance models, and each one secures the gun with a reinforced thumb break. But the Piece Keeper model adds a patented security latch that requires the thumb break to be rotated to the rear before the thumb break can be unsnapped.
Drawing from a holster with the thumb break engaged can become second nature, and we found two ways to draw from the Piece Keeper that provided speed and security. For ultimate speed we hit the latch first, divided the thumb break as we acquired the gun, and drew. You could also acquire your grip on the gun while it was still in the holster, release the security latch, and then divide the thumb break as you draw.
The Strong First Chance Piece Keeper was comfortable, and the three-slot design offered vertical carry or muzzle-back cant. We thought the Piece Keeper was the most concealable of our test holsters and was the most adaptable to different garments and body types. Moderately thick belts measuring 1.25 inches in width seemed to work best. This holster was meant to be concealed, but should someone see it, we think the security latch was not especially obvious.
When we asked our designated bad guy to grab the gun, he found unlatching it from the front to be very difficult. From the rear or side, access was limited, and the wearer had far and away the best angle from which to acquire the latch. Even a gun grabber who was familiar with this design would have to be very fast or very lucky to snatch a weapon from this holster.
Bianchi 82 Carry Lok B3870, $65
Bianchi International is a famous name in holsters and police gear. Started more than 40 years ago by Quick Draw champion John Bianchi, this Temecula, California, company was recently acquired by one of its longtime rivals, Armor Holdings, also known as Safariland.
The Carry Lok, available in black or tan, is primarily a pancake holster made from luxurious worked leather. But inside the holster, attached to the rear weld, was a polymer locking system that held the weapon by the trigger guard. We found that the unyielding nature of the polymer prevented the holster from doing what a pancake holster should do best — that is, follow the belt line and mold itself to the curvature of the body. Therefore, we were limited to placing the holster on a portion of the body that was broad or flat. For most of our staff this meant completely behind the point of the hip. We would have liked the option of carrying the gun directly beneath the arm or slightly forward of the point of the hip for additional comfort when seated.
We found that the hold offered by the lock was very strong. But there was no attempt to disguise the lever that released the gun or even shield it from incidental contact. We found it possible to release the gun or disrupt the lock by hitting the lever on a door knob or wall molding.
Also, the only finger on the strong hand that could easily engage the release was the middle finger. Trying to draw the gun with the middle finger subtracted from the grip, even temporarily, was very difficult, we thought.
Blackhawk CQC Holster w/Serpa Active Retention-CF finish No. 410003BK-R, $55
The Blackhawk Products Group based in Norfolk, Virginia, offers a huge catalog of tactical gear suitable for police and military use to the public. The CQC holsters are constructed of carbon fiber, come in a variety of colors, fit most pistols, and accommodate both right- and left-handed shooters. Holsters with the Serpa Retention system start at $45, but we paid $55 for the carbon model with basketweave finish.
The Serpa retention system holds the gun by the trigger guard, clicking into place automatically as you insert the weapon. To release the gun, you simply take your normal three-finger hold on the grip of the weapon, and with the trigger finger along the outside of the holster, press on the panel to release the weapon. To return the gun to a secure position, simply drop the gun back into the holster. There was no need to move a lever or secure a strap. The release, although in full view, was subtle nonetheless.
We lent one of our CQC holsters to a member of a SWAT team from a major metropolitan police force. He enjoys USPSA practical shooting, and he used the CQC during a match. His draw with the CQC was so fast that it was hard to see how the gun was disengaged. Angle of cant forward and back was adjustable thanks to the belt plate that can also be replaced with a paddle for inside-the-waistband attachment. We shy away from recommending paddle carry for holsters that are supposed to supply a higher level of retention, but the option was available.
The belt loops on our CQC were large, and even though inserts are supplied to adapt the holster to different-size belts, our policeman friend reported that he never really felt it matched up well with anything but a large gun belt.
Our final reservation could be a deal breaker for anyone without the cool nerves that training and battlefield experience impart. In our opinion, it is conceivable that under stress the action of pressing the release panel with the index finger could be carried over into accidentally pressing the trigger. Furthermore, the chances of this happening would be multiplied during an attempted gun grab where, in an effort to control the weapon, two hands are attempting to close on the same grip.
Safariland 0701-74-131, $89
Safariland, the Ontario, California–based division of Armor Holdings, Inc., manufacturers not only holsters, belts, and other components, but it is also the leading manufacturer of bullet-resistant vests for law-enforcement officers.
Our test holster, hereafter referred to as the 0701 for quick reference, is a mid-ride concealable duty holster designed to be used with a 1.25-inch or 1.5-inch reinforced leather belt. Mid-ride design was desirable because it tucked the gun away, reducing the possibility of exposure should the over-shirt or sweater ride up.
The owner’s manual recommends mounting the 0701 on the Safariland L820 or L830 concealment belts. Using the proper belt was important for two reasons. First, we found the 0701 holster mounted the gun high enough on the belt so that the gun had a tendency to “flop” or fall away from the body if the belt was not sufficiently stiff.
The second reason the belt must be reinforced is because removing the gun from this holster demanded a stable platform for the wearer to overcome two levels of retention. One level of retention was by a strap around the trigger guard. This strap was secured by a snap designed to be undone by the middle finger as it indexed the grip of the gun. Despite having to use the middle finger, which also is the main digit pulling the gun, we found that operating the release created very little distraction to our grip.
However, the second level of retention, created by locking on to the ejection port, was the heart of this design. If you remember a technique called the rock back, in which the draw is executed while the shooter leans to the rear, then you are on your way to drawing from the 0701. To free the gun from the locking mechanism after the trigger guard has been released, the gun needed to be rocked back while still in the holster. Safariland recommends practicing with their holsters until each draw of an unloaded gun requires an elapsed time of no more than two seconds. It sounds easy enough until you try it with anything but the most stable belt mount. In fact nearly any variation from the proper angle will make it easier to rip gun and holster together from the belt than putting the gun into action.
One part of this holster we did not like was the mounting plate. The plate was a flexible reinforced synthetic laminate that didn’t like being threaded with any belt we had in our collection. In the end we found that the 0701 was pretty fussy about its mounting position and stability. We worked up quite a sweat practicing with this holster. But we have to say that if your work truly puts you in danger, we think the extra time in training with the 0701 holster is well worth the effort.
Safariland 0702-74-131, $92
The thought of including a paddle holster, a device that does not connect via solid loops to the belt, seemed like it would be out of place in the high-retention world. But a holster with the easy-on and easy-off convenience of a paddle plus an upgrade in retention might be a good product to have.
The security system on the 0702 consisted of an internal lock that connected with the ejection port of the pistol, as the telltale contour on the outer body of the holster would attest. To our satisfaction, the paddle clamped on to our belt and pant like a barnacle. The paddle was wide, and the surface facing the body was smooth. The side touching our pants was covered by suede leather, and a hook-like catch on the body of the holster kept it anchored by poking material through a window in the paddle. The holster was meant to be applied by entering the rear edge of the paddle inside the belt line with a sweeping motion, rotating the holster into place. A spacer kit and Allen wrench was available should anyone wish to change the distance between the holster and the paddle. But in stock form the fit was so secure that we found that taking off our pants and prying the paddle away from the pant material was the easiest way to remover the holster. Nevertheless, in our estimation only the perfect combination of belt and pant would make the necessary platform stable enough for consistent performance.
Of the three Safariland holsters in the test, we had the most trouble inserting our P229 and drawing it from the 0702 holster. All the Safariland holsters in this test were lined with suede, and the manufacturer recommends repeated draws and a coat of silicon to speed things along. But we never really were able to get comfortable with this holster, no matter how well it seemed to fit on our belt. Sometimes it felt like we were making progress, and other times the fit seemed more stubborn than before. Inserting any of today’s TDA or DAO pistols required extra effort to make sure the slide did not shift when putting it this tight-fitting holster. It is possible that some pistols might be better suited to this holster than our Sigarms P229, but we felt that in this case the fit was simply too tight.
Safariland 0706-74-131, $92
The 0706 holster was the same holster body as the 0702, but it was fitted with belt loops instead of a paddle. The result was the holster rode lower on the belt line than it did when connected by the paddle. Both the 0706 and the 0702 required a rock-back motion to release the weapon. This meant that a gun grab from the front was almost impossible. In fact, only the criminal who knew how to line themselves up to index the grip a perfect 90 degrees to the wearer’s belt would have a chance of dislodging the weapon from behind. But despite the difference in mount we found that the 0706 was just as difficult to use as the 0702. In comparing the 0702/0706 models, which share the same design in terms of shell with the 0701, we found structural differences that in our opinion made the 0702/0706 holsters more difficult to live with.
All three holsters required rocking the pistol backward toward the trigger guard to release the gun from the point of retention at the ejection port. However, the rear portion of the 0701 was open except for at the bottom and willingly opened further during the draw. The 0702 and 0706 models were backed by a solid block that inhibited movement.
Also, inserting the gun into these two holsters was made more difficult due to the shells of the 0702/0706 holsters, which were noticeably more rigid than the one found on the 0701.
Gun Tests Recommends
Strong First Chance Piece Keeper H304, $86. Our Pick. We think the Piece Keeper was rugged yet refined, with a subtle and effective locking system.
Bianchi 82 Carry Lok B3870, $65. Don’t Buy. Despite the use of rich leather, the Bianchi Carry Lok was difficult to mold to our body shapes and proved uncomfortable. The lock was too obvious and made it difficult to draw the weapon, in our opinion.
Blackhawk CQC holster with SERPA Active Retention-CF finish No. 410003BK-R, $55. Conditional Buy. This was a handsome holster that provided quick acquisition and adequate retention. But we are wary of using the trigger finger to release the gun.
Safariland 0701-74-131, $89. Buy It. If you mount this holster on the proper belt, we doubt even the cleverest criminal will be able to take this gun away from you.
Safariland 0702-74-131, $92. Don’t Buy. We are not sure if some pistols fit this holster better than others, but despite its good looks and remarkably secure paddle, the 0702 was not to our liking. It was simply too hard to draw the gun from the holster.
Safariland 0706-74-131, $92. Don’t Buy. As with the 0702 holster, we feel that the problem is not with the level of retention but with the level of convenience.