Selecting a Light Bearing Holster

Picture of a gun

Mike Boyle

In recent years, the use of Weapon Mounted Lights (WMLs) has become prevalent in law enforcement. Ultimately, the holster you select to accommodate this accessory is just as important as the gun itself and is no place to cut corners.

Integral accessory rails on popular police service pistols were introduced in the late 1990s and this enabled the end user to affix either a weapon mounted light or a laser aiming device. While both of these technological innovations offer tangible advantages, most departments have come to favor the weapon mounted light source.

The first WML to generate any serious interest for patrol use was the Insight Technology M3 Tactical Illuminator. Prior to the introduction of the M3, WMLs were bulky units and they were incompatible with a traditional style duty holster. Earlier lights were a semi-permanent affair and required tools to mount or remove. Batteries were arrayed in-line, much like a conventional flashlight, and, as a result, the bezel of the light projected well beyond the muzzle of the pistol.

Insight Technology solved the riddle by placing the batteries side-by-side, rather than in-line. This made the light unit considerably shorter. Unlike the first generation of pistol lights, mounting the M3 did not require the use of tools, as it merely slid into the integral rails of the pistol. Today, a number of different manufacturers use this same approach in manufacturing lights for pistols.

One obstacle to the widespread acceptance of WMLs was the lack of suitable light bearing holsters for the patrol officer. When the first WMLs hit the market, the only available holsters were the soft, woven nylon rigs often used by SWAT operators.  These holsters typically lacked the multiple retention features which were in demand for patrol applications. To fill the gap, a few firms marketed a belt mounted pouch containing the tactical illuminator. In theory, the officer would draw his pistol from a standard duty holster and quickly affix the separate light. It doesn’t take too much imagination to see the tactical liabilities of such an arrangement and this idea never gained any serious traction.

Clearly, what was needed was a quality duty holster which could accommodate the service pistol with the light affixed. Progress was indeed slow, but several different models are readily available today. Not only do they boast the same retention features as a standard duty rig, but, in trained hands, they can be very fast from which to draw.  Let’s consider for a moment some desirable qualities of the light bearing duty holster.

Proper Fit

Not only does your chosen holster have to fit a specific brand and model of pistol, but a specific light as well. Recently, I was experimenting with a popular light bearing holster designed around a SureFire X300 Illuminator. When I swapped off the SureFire light for a smaller unit, this new combination proved to be a very loose fit with considerable fore and aft play which compromised retention qualities.

Make sure the holster you select is compatible with both the gun and the light. Sure, a brand other than specified may appear to be just a “little tight,” but poor fit can slow down your draw stroke or even strip the light off the gun. On a positive note, some holsters from Gould &Goodrich and Safariland® will accommodate either the Streamlight® TLR-1® or the SureFire X300. These lights remain the hands-down favorites for patrol applications.

The new SLH Raptor from DeSantis is yet another quality design which can accommodate different lights. I tried my sample unit out with WMLs from INFORCE, Streamlight and SureFire and had no issues whatsoever. This holster will also secure the pistol without the light affixed.


Without question, system durability also comes into play. In many weapon-related areas, I’m a pretty traditional guy, but, like it or not, the days of blue steel and leather are in our rearview mirror. Synthetics stand up to the elements far better than leather and I feel that’s the way to go. Modern synthetics will also hold up much better against a determined gun grab attempt. If you still fancy the look of leather, but with the hard wearing qualities of a synthetic holster, consider a holster crafted from Safariland AccuMold® Elite. Of late, I’ve been working with a Gould & Goodrich X-CaliburX2000 light bearing holster, rendered from an injection molded synthetic. High marks were also awarded to a couple of different Safariland holsters made from their innovative SafariSeven material. Along those same lines, the DeSantis SLH Raptor looks like it could sustain a direct hit from a Scud missile and stay in the game. While these rigs may lack the aesthetic appeal of leather, they will remain in service long after that cowhide rig has given up the ghost.

Optimum Balance of Speed and Retention

Weapon retention and speed into action are not necessarily mutually exclusive qualities. For the most part, the retention qualities of many popular duty holsters can typically be found in the same firm’s light bearing models. Quite simply, if you are happy with the retention system of your present duty holster, looking for a light bearing version with similar qualities is a good place to start.

Ultimately, weapon retention remains a compromise. Many popular duty holsters incorporate two or more security measures to help defeat a gun grab. The prepared officer should practice to the point where the draw stroke becomes intuitive. Can you draw from your holster if you sustain an injury to your dominant hand? My agency issues the Safariland 6360 Level III holster and our quarterly range training frequently includes support hand only draw. Being familiar with this has recently paid dividends when officers had to participate in a force-on-force exercise with marking cartridges which began with participants wearing a boxing glove on the dominant hand to simulate an injury.

Can you draw your pistol when wearing gloves? Many duty rigs which work fine with a bare hand come up short when the user is wearing gloves. I’m not talking about the heavy-duty winter gloves, but those thinner models an officer may be wearing to protect the hands. When evaluating the SLH DeSantis Raptor, my draw stroke was fumble-free while wearing a pair of Hatch gloves.It pays to find out ahead of time if your holster is compatible with other gear or clothing worn while on duty.

One feature which I have come to appreciate in a duty holster is automatic locking on return. Old school holsters required one to affix one or more snaps or flip up a hood to secure the handgun. In a close quarter’s confrontation, the advantage of being able to reholster and instantly secure the pistol is another tactical plus.

Choosing a holster for a large number of officers with different physical attributes and aptitudes can be a challenge. Make a realistic assessment of how much time they will devote to become proficient with it.


Safariland has long been an industry innovator and their extensive line includes light bearing holsters for just about all popular service pistols. Best of all, these holsters are available in both high-ride and mid-ride versions which allows the user to decide what best suits their needs.

Another Safariland innovation is the Quick Locking System which enables the user to quickly remove the holster from the belt without removing a half-dozen other accessories. By affixing the receiver plate to the belt and the locking fork to the holster body, one can instantly switch from a standard duty rig to a light bearing model. As a trainer, I often have the need to utilize different types of pistols, both with and without lights, and the Quick Locking System offers that capability.

Of late, there has been considerable interest in pistols equipped with red dot optics. An obstacle for police has been a lack of suitable duty holsters, but Safariland has solved the problem. Last year, Safariland introduced a number of duty holsters which not only accommodate a red dot optic, but an illuminator as well. Initial production was for GLOCK® pistols, with offerings for the Smith & Wesson M&P® now obtainable as well. These holsters are available with Level I, II and III retention and in a variety of finishes.

SureFire has a well-deserved reputation for bringing quality products to the market and the new MASTERFIRE® Rapid Deploy Holster is true to the tradition. The MASTERFIRE is designed to cradle virtually any popular service sidearm with a light rail complete with a SureFire weapon light, red dot optic and even a suppressor. A unique quality of this holster is the light activation paddle switch which activates the weapon light as it is drawn from the holster. Users who prefer manual activation can cancel this feature by placing the switch to the off position. The MASTERFIRE is engineered for a fast, efficient draw and offers Level III retention qualities.

As indicated earlier, most light bearing holsters are dedicated to one or two types of tactical illuminators. The BLACKHAWK!® Epoch accommodates not only the SureFire X300 and Streamlight TLR-1, but the Streamlight TLR-2® with the laser aimer.  I’ve long fancied the combination white light/laser aimer units, but, until this point in time, acceptable duty holsters have been nonexistent. The BLACKHAWK! Epoch changes all that and affords the patrol officer even greater capabilities.

My  intent was not to endorse any specific brand or model as being the ultimate light bearing holster, but to outline some desirable qualities and let the end user make an educated decision.  Material, model of pistol, light, level of retention, and ease of the draw all come into play. I would be naïve to think the budget doesn’t weigh heavily into the equation.

I remain particularly impressed with the various Safariland duty holsters with their proprietary ALS System, both with and without the SLS rotating hood. Over the last month or so, I have been utilizing a Safariland 7390 made of SafariSeven, a unique nylon blend which is impervious to the weather and moisture. Draw stroke is indeed very snappy, yet the holstered pistol is very secure. The ability to carry a pistol with a weapon mounted light and a red dot optic will further broaden the appeal of Safariland duty holsters.

Recently, Tactical Design Labs merged with Gould & Goodrich and their new X-Calibur X2000 light bearing holster is indeed top-shelf. This Level II holster has exceeded all of my expectations and the draw stroke is fast and clean. It, too, would be a very solid choice.

The BLACKHAWK Epoch also looks to be a winner. It appears to be a solid design – both fast and secure. The fact that it gives you the flexibility of going with the Streamlight TLR-2 gives it a leg up on the competition.

DeSantis Gunhide is best known for their innovative and fairly priced line of concealment rigs, but the SLH Raptor warrants a hard look. The fact that you can wear it as a duty rig and also configure it for plainclothes use or as a tactical holster will broaden its appeal.

No doubt, there are other holsters out there which might meet the criteria outlined herein, but choose carefully. Light helps us make informed decisions and having this capability instantly available on our service pistol enhances officer safety.

Captain Mike Boyle served with the New Jersey Division of Fish & Wildlife, Bureau of Law Enforcement, and has been an active firearms instructor for more than 30 years. He has been an assistant police academy director and remains active as an academy rangemaster and instructor. Mike has served on the Board of Directors of the International Association of Law Enforcement Firearms Instructors (IALEFI) since 1996. He is the architect and coordinator of IALEFI’s Master Instructor Development Program.