Saturday, May 8, 2010

Holster review: Blackhawk SERPA concealment holster

Once again, another holster comes calling to the Carteach0 Big Box 'O Holsters. Will it find a home there...... Or..... will it pass the tests and see daily use?

This time, a tricky rig built by BLACKHAWK! (Yes, that is how the write it... it's a long story). The SERPA holster is unique in design, having a secondary retention lock unlike any other. The trigger finger activated release is the most obvious difference in the SERPA design, but there are others lurking inside it's precision molded plastic heart.

First, an explanation of 'retention levels'. It's surprisingly simple. If a holster has but one means of keeping the pistol from falling out, it's a level one holster. This can be as simple as an area of the holster that squeezes the pistol, until draw force overco
mes the grip. A level two holster has two distinct methods of retention. A level three... three methods. It's really that easy.

The SERPA concealment holster is a level two rig. It shares this with the entire product line of SERPA holsters, excepting the ultra-trick super retention level three rigs. The first feature that stops your pistol from falling out is a simple adjustment screw that tightens the holster on the trigger guard area of the pistol. Think of it as an adjustable speed bump. The second retention device is what everyone notices right away, the lever deactivated positive locking mechanism. The SERPA design has a super tough finger that automatically latches inside the leading edge of the trigger guard when the pistol is holstered. It makes an audible click on activation, but that can be defeated by depressing the lever as the pistol is holstered.

The only way the pistol can be drawn is with the shooters hand in proper position on the pistol, and with the trigger finger inde
xed along the weapons frame as we've always been taught to place it. Then, simply grip the pistol firmly and apply pressure with the trigger finger as the pistol is drawn. As the pistol clears the holster, the shooters grip is forced to be correct while the trigger finger indexes on the frame just as it should.

The main advantage to this is self evident, and why many police departments choose this holster as standard duty gear. It's very, very hard for a bad guy to take an officers weapon by surprise. It's nearly impossible to snatch the weapon from someones SERPA holster without multiple tries, and no officer will stand by while the bad guy tries that.

Another advantage.... weapons do not fall out of SERPA holsters by accident. They simply don't.

How tough is the locking mechanism? Blackhawk tests the holster by hanging it from a tree with a pistol in it, while several grown men swing from the pistol grip. I understand they are up to three guys so far, and are not sure how to add a fourth to the pile. Like I said... tough stuff.

Okay, so the holster works well to keep the pistol where it belongs till it's needed. How well does it work when you want to draw the weapon? That was the question on my mind as I was treated to a rare opportunity... testing the SERPA holster on a police range, under the guidance of Todd Jarrett. Yes...
THE Todd Jarrett. Four time world champion, nine time national champion.... and a man who just might know something about holsters.

Todd put myself and a handful of other bloggers through our paces, all of us using borrowed Glock 17's and Blackhawk SERPA holsters. He spent about five minutes coaching us on the draw, and the rest of our time was spent doing shooting drills under his supervision and coaching.

Jarrett explained his experience with the SERPA, and voiced the opinion the holster actually improved his draw since he began using it. The reason.... It requires the shooter to have a proper grip when drawing the weapon.

My experience was positive that day, and has been since. With only minutes of practice the draw is positive and smooth, most of the time. Accepted doctrine says it can take three thousand practices to build muscle memory. While I can't argue with that, I imagine it will take less to master the SERPA holster reliably. Any retention holster will have a learning curve, whether it be a thumb snap or Kydex with an internal speed bump. I've had the somewhat embarrassing moment of attempting to draw my paddle mounted Uncle Mikes kydex holster, only to end up pointing pistol, holster, and all at the target.... and that's something that won't happen with the SERPA rig.

The holster itself is formed of a proprietary formulation of polymer and carbon fiber. This allows a semi-flexible holster that retains shape well in any temperature a human is likely to encounter. As for how tough the material is..... well.... it appears nearly indestructible by any means short of open flame or cutting tools.

It comes with two belt mountings.... one that slips on the belt itself, and a paddle attachment as well.
Both attach with screws, and the holster can be mounted at various angles to suit the wearer.

The Blackhawk SERPA holster is not terribly expensive, running from $30 to $50 retail, and is available for less occasionally. The holster for this review was supplied by Blackhawk, which saved me from buying one on E-bay. Frankly, they may be sorry they gave me this one, after they find what I plan to do with it next......

There is one idea regarding the SERPA holsters that circulates the web. That is: If dirt, sand, or small rocks get jammed into the mechanism, the pistol cannot be drawn. I have mostly been told "I heard of this guy" stories, and only one "I know this guy" tale of a locked up SERPA. That's not going to cut it for old Carteach0.... I'm going to have to find out for myself!

In the near future I'm going to do something terribly abusive to this holster. It will be buried in a tub of wet sand, dirt, and rocks.... multiple times. I'm going to drag it through the muck down in the creek, and roll around on it in loose dirt out at the training area. To put it simply, I'll do my damnedest to make it fail spectacularly.

It's not that I do any of those things on a normal day (ever), but some folks who buy this holster do. There are tens of thousands of the SERPA line gracing police officers belts every day, and our special forces and seal teams use them as well. I'm sure each and every one can do their own holster torture test just by wearing it to work.... but I want to see for myself.

Look for more here on the Blackhawk SERPA holster. Range time, carry reports, and of course the upcoming torture test.

Meanwhile, what's an old country boy going to do to check out how well such a holster retains the weapon? Why.... go on over to the neighbors and get his buddy to try it out! Watch this short video for a graphic demonstration of how hard it is to take someones weapon away while they carry in the SERPA. This is under no pressure, and with no resistance at all. The second part of the video shows the same man now wearing and using the Blackhawk SERPA holster, and able to draw decently with only a few minutes practice.

Please note: As stated above, BLACKHAWK! supplied the holster for this review. It's possible they might regret such a rash action in the future, but I owe them thanks for their gracious offer. What I don't owe them is a slanted review... I writes what I sees, no punches pulled.


Crucis said...

Art, you may want to check with Brigid on the Sherpa. She carried her Sig 220 in one and had the trigger lock mechanism freeze on her. She was unable to draw her pistol.

It's a first hand experience and something for you to attempt duplication. That said, I have a Sherpa for my full-sized 1911. I don't use it often except at the range for NRA Action Pistol.

Old NFO said...

I've also had one freeze due to grit and sand from the range.

chris said...

I have heard of ranges and training courses that will not allow those holsters on their range. They have had problems with people that draw their gun and as they do, the trigger finger is in a natural pulling position from having activated the holster release. This leads to people putting holes in their feet.

I know that that isnt an excuse for not following the rules but it is a potential problem.

Carteach0 said...

Chris, I would have to see someone do that. After working with mine a while, it's hard for me to put that scenario together. The shooter literally is forced to have his finger along the frame, and not near the trigger with the SERPA draw.

Chris said...

From a quick google search:

And this place does not allow them

Why no Serpa holsters?
An answer from our friend Paul Gomez: Begin Quote “Over the last year, I have developed some serious concerns with the Blackhawk Serpa Active Retention holster design. Various persons have brought these concerns to the attention of Blackhawk on several occasions and Blackhawk has chosen to ignore these very real issues.

The ‘Serpa Active Retention’ design consists of a plastic L-shaped component which functions as the release button [from the outside of the holster] and as the lock [which engages inside the trigger guard]. The short leg of the L-shaped lever pivots inward [toward the pistol], while the locking tab pivots outward to release the pistol from the holster.

According to the Blackhawk website, ”The release is made using your normal drawing motion, with the trigger finger beside the holster body. … As your trigger finger naturally comes to rest on the SERPA lock’s release mechanism, simply push the mechanism as you draw the weapon and it releases the gun for a smooth, fast draw.”

While Blackhawk may intend for the end-user to apply inboard pressure with the flat of the index finger, under stress, shooters tend to push the button with the tip of their index finger. After all, this is the manner in which most people have the most repetitions pushing buttons such as keys on a keypad or phone or ringing doorbells. When the finger pushes in on the release button and the user initiates the upward motion of the draw stroke, the finger tends to stay in motion and as the trigger guard clears the holster, the finger enters the trigger guard and contacts the trigger, with possibly tragic results.

I am aware of two instances where trained personnel have shot themselves using this holster in conjunction with Glock pistols. In August of 2004, a situation occurred with a live weapon that resulted in the shooter losing a 10cm piece of her femur. The other occurred with nonlethal training ammunitions in a force-on-force event in April of 2005. The impact of the NLTA was in the same area as the actual gunshot wound previously mentioned.

Following each of these events, Blackhawk was contacted and advised of the problems observed and concerns raised. In the first instance, they claimed that they were unaware of any previous issues with the design and insisted that the design had been ‘thoroughly tested by law enforcement and military personnel’.

After the second event, they were contacted by at least two people. Again, they stated that they were unaware of any concerns and had heard nothing similar from any sources.” End Quote

Carteach0 said...

Curiouser and curiouser. I have been reading reports falling on both sides of the 'lock jams' issue. Some report it happening, others report entire police departments using them for years without problems.

In the near future I'll be doing my own testing to see for myself. Of course, it will be written about here, with photos and perhaps video as well.

Lets see.... where did I put my washtub full of sand and muck?

Geodkyt said...

Well, a design flaw that could lead to catastrophic failures does not need to be common to be real.

Once it happes to you for real, your probability of experiencing failure has just become 1.0. The fact that everyone else you know didn;thave that problem is irrelevant -- you ARE having that problem.

"My holster got dirty and won't let me have my gun anymore becuase it is mad at me," is a failure with lethal consequences, if it happens to you the one time you need it to work.

The nature of this design is such that designing this flaw away is problematic -- open up the tolerances to allow sand to fall away, and you just set yourself up to suffer the same fault from small pebbles and twigs. Try and put a flexible but sealed envelope around the mechanism, and it will invariably end up with a hole, and then form a dandy collection bag for grit. And so forth.

Short of severe corrosion of major mechanical damage, I have yet to see a decent quality thumbreak snap that I could not get open. (I've had a few that were monsters to get closed unless you lined them up just so -- but none that wouldn't open if properly tight.)

Of course, I generally carry semiautos with any mechanical retention latch, snap, or hook when using a quality belt holster (especailly IWB). I DO use thumb breaks for my horizontal shoulder rigs and revolver holsters. But I'm not as worried about a snatch attempt as a patrol officer would be -- I'm not wrestling bad guys in the alley behind the bar at 3AM.

Cops, especially uniformed officers, NEED high security retention rigs. They (becuase of teh nature of their duties) must approach potential bad guys and interact with them, often at arms range.

The typical armed citizen? Eh, maybe not so much. The armed civilian needs to know that his gun will stay attached to him at least under any reasonable set of occurances. I find that (aside from horizontal shoulder rigs and revolvers) that an OWB holster with detailed molding or adjustable tension, or almost any IWB I've tried, will hold the gun pretty securely. I've slipped down a flight of stairs and not lost a Commander in a Milt Sparks SSII.

I have heard of a retention rig with a static hook to engage the trigger guard exactly as the Serpa does, and a spring loaded lifter that pushes the muzzle up, so the pistol stays tensioned against the hook.

Draw is push down, rotate butt outboard a hair to clear hook, withdraw. ISTR that it only needed to move about 1/4" down and less than 15 degrees outboard to completely clear the hook, and teh topside of teh hook was profiled so you could effectively just shove the gun straight down, and it would slip over the hook on it's own. Gun doesn't depress far enough for the hook to come remotely near the trigger.

I have not tried that rig (right now cannot even remember WHAT it was called -- it's been over a decade since I read about it in a gun rag, and asked a buddy of mine who was the local PD Gear Queer) -- but it sounds like it does exactly what the SERPA does, without as great a risk the release meachinsm gets fouled and you cannot draw.

The moving part of the mechanism is able to be loose enough that no grit can foul it, yet tight enough to keep the big crap out that CAN foul it, as it is protected from twigs, pebbles, and minor Jovian moons by the fact that the gun in the holster acts like a dust cover. A failure caused by crap in the mechanism is less likely, and if it occurs at all, will likely prevent you from holstering your weapon in the first place. This, I can live with.

How many men have been killed becuase they couldn't holster fast enough, versus those killed becuase they couldn't draw their weapon in time - or at all?

Your mileage may vary.