Monday, June 9, 2014

Holsters I Have Loved: BLACKHAWK! SERPA!

Why do people hate SERPAS so much?
(Full disclosure: my first SERPA was provided free by BLACKHAWK!, while my second was purchased at the gun shop. Both are gone now.)
I suspect that some of the Serpa hate is very sincere flattery being practiced as people imitate shooters and trainers they respect. But many reputable training schools actually ban the Serpa nowadays (with most willing to make exceptions for students who are issued Serpas by their employers.) But that's weird, right there, right? Why are there trainers banning Serpas in their classes while law enforcement agencies and entire military branches issue/mandate their use?

There are three basic issues that scare certain users away from the Serpa, all three documented, like all indisputably true things, on the internet:

  1. If a grown man truly wants to deny you your sidearm, he can simply rip the Serpa holster off its paddle attachment. Presumably, at that point, he can draw it if he knows how, or he can throw it off in the distance. Either way, it will only end up as a funny story if you survive. Now, this is one of those things that a police officer or a soldier has to think about, and if we're being honest, I don't. When I carry a firearm openly, I'm generally on private property among friends. Notice the dichotomy? That's going to come up again.
  2. If you need to use a sidearm in the mud, in the sand, or grappling with some dude on a gravel driveway, it is known that a small amount of crud that finds its way behind the retention-release lever can lock it up solid. The good news is that your pistol will not be taken and used against you. The bad news is that you will not use your pistol. I honestly don't know the odds of this happening, but they're not zero, and apparently it's not uncommon to see one lock up so badly that it literally has to be cut or broken off the pistol. Here comes that dichotomy again: I never once, in all the years I owned a Serpa holster, allowed it to get any dirtier than any of the other dusty stuff in the same drawer, so I never saw this problem for myself. But then . . .
  3. The big one: I think it's hard to prove a causal link, but undeniably, several people have shot themselves while drawing from a Serpa holster. It would be even harder to prove, but if there's a holster that is statistically more dangerous to the user on the draw than on re-holstering, the Serpa is likely the only candidate. And it's possible, at least in my mind, that the Serpa is no more dangerous than other holsters in this regard. But a whole lot of people, most of them far more experienced and expert than I am, have concluded that there's something about using the trigger finger to press that lever on the draw that leads people to curl that finger inward, which leads to sheepish limping and application of direct pressure to gunshot wounds.
Now, here's where that dichotomy comes in: I never carried the Serpa with a serious worry about a gun-grab attack, so I never tested whether it could be ripped off the paddle plate. I never carried it in the dirty and gritty real world except on the range at the Gun Blogger Weekend where I saw one for the first time, and nobody was going to the ground there. And I'd like to say I never encountered a safety issue with my trigger finger going where it shouldn't on the draw, but I'm just not sure. I never had an accidental discharge with either of my Serpas, and I never noticed my trigger finger in an unsafe place. But does that mean it never happened, or that I was lucky enough not to shoot myself in the knee when it did? I honestly don't know. 

So . . . why do people love SERPAS so much?
Well, if you don't know about those three issues (and most Serpa users don't, I think) what's not to love? We're talking about an American-made, inexpensive, high-tech holster. The paddle attachment has much to recommend it, so much so that Dragon Leather Works uses it as the basis for their paddle holsters. The paddle is wide, the "claws" on the paddle just will not let go of your pants/belt, and although there are concerns about it breaking, Blackhawk's not alone there. I broke the paddle on my Comp-Tac International the very first time I tried to put it on; been running it with the belt slots ever since. I hear good things about Safariland's paddle system, but I haven't tried it for myself. If it's not a whole lot stronger, I'm tempted to try to develop a stronger, reinforced paddle attachment I can then sell off to holster makers. I think it could be worth tens of dollars, which might explain why makers haven't made that change themselves.
But I digress. Why do people love Serpas so much, aside from very low cost, availability in every gun shop across the land (right across the aisle from the FOBUS display) and the "Made in America" bonus? I can't speak for military or law enforcement procurement people, exactly, but I think the average guy with a Serpa carrying a 1911 in a Burger King or behind the counter of a gun shop is basically buying a feeling. Carrying a gun openly in public, or even on a private range or in competition if you're not used to it, can be an exposed and vulnerable feeling. Even with a concealed firearm, newly-minted CCL's are known for checking and re-checking, certain that the gun has shifted, been removed by a street urchin, or simply popped right out of the holster. It's not rational, but the feeling is real. A holster with a definite retention mechanism--one that's got a lever you have to push and everything--provides a feeling that I have Done Something About This. I have addressed the issue of my gun falling out of the holster in public or being snatched out of the holster by some robber who got the drop on me. Having Done Something About This, I can now stop worrying. I am allowed to feel better and go back to being comfortable. The fact that those worries are perhaps not all that practical (or, to be less kind, rational) doesn't really enter into this decision.

If you're reading this, and that description makes you uncomfortable, keep in mind that I'm saying that I felt that way about the Serpa. In fact, I wrote that last paragraph in the general 2nd person "you," and I just went back and put it in the first person just so that would be clear: I'm talking about me . . . and a lot of people I think are doing the same thing I was doing.

Why did you throw yours in the trash?
I try not to make decisions based on being fashionable on the internet, but I'm susceptible to influence just like anyone else except for Judge Mills Lane. No doubt, peer pressure squeezed and molded me as shooters, trainers and writers I respect weighed in with their verdicts on the Serpa. As trainers and training schools banned the Serpa, it also made sense to consider what the ones I was hanging onto were for--I wasn't going to wear them to those schools, right? And I wasn't going to be shooting the pistols they fit in competition . . . nor did I need a retention holster for that purpose. In fact, I had little use for a retention holster at all. The fact that I was switching pistols factored in, too; even if I did decide at some point in the future that I needed a retention holster with a paddle mount, I would still have to purchase another one, 'cause neither of the Serpas in my possession fit Glocks.

In the end, that was the deciding factor. I didn't need the Serpas for anything at the moment, and if I did find myself in need of a retention holster, I'd need to buy a new one--at which point, the Serpa would have to beat out other designs like the widely-recommended Safariland ALS series on a level playing field. These holsters just weren't for anything that I needed done anymore. I'm still honestly not terribly worried about the trigger finger issue, and if I were issued a Serpa for some kind of job, I'd make it work. But I'm not being issued one, and if there's even some danger in that retention mechanism, there's just not anything on the other side of the scale to balance it out for me.

(But you're not going to catch me pretending like I didn't think the Serpa was super-cool a few years ago, because dammit, the Serpa was super-cool a few years ago.)

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