The concealed carry holster is a highly personal piece of equipment. In certain ways the holster is more important than the gun you carry. The holster will impact you every day you from the minute you put it on to the minute you take it off. Hopefully you will never have to find out if your pistol choice is up to the job but you'll know whether or not you chose the right holster within the first few days—if not hours--you own it. Comfort, convenience, and concealability--these are the factors we must consider when choosing a holster.
Once you've chosen your handgun or perhaps even before, you must decide where on your body you want to carry it. Carrying off body—for instance in a purse or briefcase, is beyond the scope of an article about holsters, so I won’t get into recommending types of purses or other gun containers here. But if you carry that way, guard that gun with your life because you are responsible for it 24/7. Don’t set down a briefcase or purse and leave it unattended. That’s illegal in some states and it’s irresponsible everywhere. Leaving a loaded gun where others can get to it can lead to tragedy. And do I need to remind you that if you leave your gun unattended it cannot do you any good should you need it in a hurry?
Types of Holsters
Shoulder holsters are not particularly comfortable for me. The harness that crosses your back is particularly uncomfortable with all but the best quality shoulder holsters, and they tend to be quite expensive. If you are heavyset (I am), have short arms, are a bodybuilder, or are a woman with an ample bust, you may not have the range of movement to reach across your chest quickly or comfortably. With a shoulder holster the muzzle of the gun may sweep across people during the draw that you don’t want to point your gun at. You should consider that if a shoulder holster is in your plans.
Why do people choose shoulder holsters? They are practical for anyone who sits for a living whether at a desk or behind a wheel. The vertical shoulder holster (left) is best for longer guns, while the horizontal holster (above) works best only with shorter barrels. With the horizontal rig you've got to make sure the muzzle end doesn't poke through your covering garment at the back even when bending forward. This is referred to as printing, which means that the shape of the gun is discernible through clothing, something to avoid. One other downside of the shoulder holster is that the carry straps which cross your back are not always truly concealed--the thicker ones can print with all but the heaviest covering garment. TV and the movies have made shoulder holsters cool, but that’s the wrong reason to choose a holster.
Ankle holsters are popular for carrying small guns. They come with padding for the leg, and can be adjusted to stay put very well. Pluses for the ankle holster include the fact that unless the gun is very heavy for its size it will not be uncomfortable to carry on one's leg compared to other locations. If you are seated a lot, drawing from an ankle holster is convenient. This holster is also quite concealable if you don't wear extremely tapered pants, as very few people will make a point of staring at your ankles. Ankle holsters work for both men and women under slacks and don’t require much wardrobe accommodation beyond the obvious don'ts—no skirts, no tall boots.
Downsides of ankle carry include the fact that they are only good with very small and light guns, and these might not be the guns we consider as practical for protecting our lives. You can get an ankle rig for some heavier guns but I would recommend not trying to carry more than 25 to 30 ounces loaded weight on one's ankle, both for comfort and to keep the holster from working too had to stay in one spot on your leg. Ankle holsters also allow your gun to get dirty fast. They position the gun only a few inches from the ground, so as you walk around outdoors all that stuff at ankle level ends up on and in your handgun. Be dedicated to routine daily maintenance if you carry this way.
Drawing from an ankle holster when standing is problematic. The second rule of gunfighting is MOVE (the first, obviously, is have a gun). Distance is your friend when you are under attack. With an ankle holster you have to make a choice whether to run first, then stop and draw later, or try to draw now as the attack closes. You either must bend down to reach your ankle or bring your ankle up to meet your hand. You can kneel and draw, but I believe so strongly in movement that I see an ankle holster as only suitable for one thing--the backup gun. If you do carry an ankle holster always wear it on the inside of your leg on the offside ankle. In other words a right hand shooter should wear an ankle holster on the inside of his left leg.
Belly bands and crotch holsters are specialty items, really intended for deep concealment. Deep concealment translates as slow draw, not to mention discomfort for many people. Still, ordinary folks who are not law enforcement professionals making undercover drug buys or infiltrating some hate group do sometimes choose these rigs in order to be able to stick with their usual mode of dress. While I understand that people don't want a concealed gun to drastically change the way they dress, I believe that choosing your carry method based on your clothes is putting the cart before the horse. Someone needs to tell everyone that when you decide to carry a concealed gun for self-defense you are likely going to have to make some wardrobe changes. If you choose instead to go with a deep carry method, you will have to deal with the possible discomfort, but more so, you will have to deal with the lack of speed of presentation. A gun that takes too long to get to is not very useful. Gunfights involving private citizens develop very quickly and are usually over in seconds. FBI and other statistics support this. Food for thought?
Pocket holsters are similar to other deep carry methods but usually a little quicker to get to, normally not uncomfortable, and are concealable with the right size gun, the proper holster, and pants pockets that have some room in them. If you wear your pants like a bullfighter don't consider pocket carry because it will be impossible to draw quickly and the gun will print for all to see. By the way, pocket carry without using a pocket holster is a mistake. Your gun will move around, be impossible to grip and draw after moving around, and in short order lint and other pocket detritus will infiltrate the gun mechanism. Pocket holsters are reasonably priced--if pocket carry is for you, buy a holster. I personally don't like pocket carry because I wear blue jeans routinely, and even with loose-fit jeans I don't feel I can get off a quick draw from those pockets. Pocket carry works better if you wear slacks with pocket openings on the seam, like men’s Dockers for example. Also, my choice in carry handguns runs toward guns in a size that is too large for any pocket. Like ankle holsters, pocket holsters are better for back-up guns.
Belt holsters are the primary method for concealed carry by the most people and are by far the best choice for the most men. That may not be as true for women, but we’ve come to the point where most quality holster makers are offering holsters for women that take into consideration women’s body shape. This means that with a belt holster the body of the women’s holster will be angled outward more than a man’s holster to avoid pushing the butt of the gun directly into a woman’s ribs. Still, most holsters are made for men.
I'm guessing but I think that is the case for three reasons. First, women tend to want to carry in their purse, where everything else seems to go. In general, American women are not socialized to carry things on their body, be it a wallet in their hip pocket or a gun on their belt. I’d like to see a handgun be the exception but this is your decision ladies. Second, many women who carry may not know about the availability of holsters made just for the female body type. Maybe they’d try them if they knew more about them? Third, far more men than women carry concealed handguns. I think that if this weren’t true we’d have more women clamoring for proper holsters that respect the differences between male and female bodies. The bottom line for me is to recommend the belt holster for everyone, however.
Belt holsters usually come in four types: crossdraw, small-of-back (SOB), strong-side (worn outside waistband and called OWB), and inside waistband types (IWB).
Crossdraw holsters have the same problem as shoulder holsters in that the draw means you are likely to sweep your muzzle across innocent bystanders. Then too, if your gun's butt should be visible through an open jacket you are inviting the bad guy to take it away, since you are carrying it in what is a convenient strong-side draw for him. If you can keep a crossdraw holster concealed, they can be quicker to use than a shoulder holster as in most cases they can be carried closer to the front of the body than is the case with the shoulder rig.
Small-of-back holsters are simply a bad idea, and I can't see why anyone would want one. First, when you draw you are sweeping your own body with the gun. Yeah, I've heard people say that with training they can draw in a way that prevents this. My response is that it takes lots of serious practice to develop the muscle memory sufficient to kick in during a life-threatening emergency. If you are that dedicated to practice and being prepared, I dare say you are also willing to use a better carry method than SOB. The other major problem with SOB carry is the fact that if you are knocked to the ground you will likely be unable to reach the gun to draw. Even if you can reach it you will have your weight on it, and possibly the weight of your attacker. Even worse, the gun in an SOB is carried directly over your lower spine. If you are knocked down and land with all your weight on that gun, you may seriously damage your spine. I believe that getting knocked down in an attack is a serious enough threat that I won't consider carrying at the small of my back.
This leaves us with standard OWB and IWB belt holsters worn on your strong side hip. I like and use both. I prefer the OWB for comfort but if I want to wear a short covering garment the IWB of course hides the lower half of the gun, making for better concealment. The IWB also pulls the gun tightly against one's side, helped by the pants and belt. The IWB is comfortable for some, not for others. I have found this doesn't necessarily correspond to one's size. Some thinner folk like them because they have no extra fat being pressed upon by the gun and holster, while others feel their lack of girth means no padding. Some heavier guys like me feel our extra girth provides a nice cushion for the rig, while other heavy men feel the rig and their bodies are trying to occupy the same space, creating discomfort. I wish I could tell you if you can wear an IWB but it is impossible. The only suggestion I can make is to buy an inexpensive IWB such as an Uncle Mike's, Bianchi, or Maverick clip-on and wear it in the course of your day, preferably at home. You’ll know after a short time if the IWB will be comfortable for you. You might also include some range practice and try drawing from under a covering garment. I find the grip of my gun(s) are in approximately the same location whether I use an IWB or OWB, and find little difference in accessibility or draw speed. You might find the IWB appreciably slow and if you do, you have your answer. I use OWB and IWB holsters which place the gun at the same draw angle and which can also be worn at the same location on the body. The more you do things the same the more they become second nature.
A note on the IWB for women--it may not be a practical carry if you have a narrow waist and wide hips. Your hips will press the bottom of the gun outward and the the top of the gun inward--again pushing the gun butt into your ribs. If there are any good IWB holsters made for women I have not seen them. That doesn't mean they don't exist--do check the links at the bottom of my article and see what is out there. I find it impossible to keep up on all the new designs coming out these days.
Most people will carry a strong-side belt holster whether OWB or IWB in one of two locations--right at the side seam of the pants, or further back in what I call the kidney location, over the top of the hollow halfway between your side and your spine. Either one is a good location; access and draw speed are close enough that it comes down to the user’s skill most of the time. The kidney location is probably a bit more concealable in terms of it being unlikely you’ll accidentally expose your gun to others. It might however be more likely to print especially when bending forward. As a former policeman I was very used to carrying a gun right on the line of the seam of my pants when in uniform. A policeman gets used to his elbow protecting his gun whenever situations get a little hairy. I find I still like to rest my elbow against the butt of my gun (through my covering garment of course). This prevents someone from feeling your gun in a close crowd, and so on. It also serves at the same time to keep your garment closed should people, objects, or the wind work to open it. But all considered I believe that there are not enough ups or downs to recommend one location over the other. Try both and decide.
How do you choose holster construction? The main choices are leather (still the most popular holster material), nylon and Kydex. Kydex is quite popular. It is a thin thermoplastic heat-molded to the shape of the gun. They are sometimes noisy and hard on a gun's finish, but they are the most durable holsters made today, as once molded the thermoplastic is rigid as can be and will never change shape. Kydex tends to be less expensive than leather for rigs of equally quality, too. If you carry a Glock or similar pistol where finish wear is unimportant or unlikely, Kydex has merit. There are many good makers. I have an IWB made by SideArmor that I like very much.
Nylon is popular for inexpensive holsters, the best of which are from Michael's of Oregon, AKA Uncle Mike's, as well as Bianchi. An Uncle Mike's holster will develop a memory for the gun and fit better the more it is used. In general these need to be used with the thumb break or strap for best security. Most of these are best used as field holsters not concealment holsters. There are concealment holsters made of nylon but they are not an ideal choice in my opinion for reasons of both fit and retention. Most nylon holsters are not made for a particular gun, but only a range of sizes. Draw your own conclusions from that.
Most leather holsters are made of cowhide, some are made of horsehide. Horsehide is more durable but cowhide is in no way insufficiently durable—they are both very good. Cowhide is also capable of taking boning much better than horsehide. Boning is the art of shaping the holster closely to the shape of the gun. It is a retention feature which I'll get into in a moment, but suffice it to say that if not well boned, a holster will need a different method to keep your gun from falling out. Horsehide holsters cost more than cowhide holsters.
This refers to those aspects of a holster which help to keep the gun in the holster even during hard activity. Leather holsters can be shaped and will retain their shape if properly made. Thus boning is the number one retention feature of leather holsters today. A well-boned holster will fit your gun much like a second skin. If well done this is all the retention you need for a concealed carry holster.
But there are other methods to retain the gun, including straps or thumb breaks. A strap is usually a piece of leather attached to the back of the holster which fits behind the tang or the hammer of the gun and snaps down on the front of the holster. This is a slow and outdated feature that is best for field holsters, not concealed carry holsters. A thumb break on the other hand consists of straps that come up from both the back and the front of the holster body and which meet above the gun's tang or hammer. They retain the gun just like a traditional strap but they are opened by simply pressing the reinforced end of the inside strap inward, releasing the snap. This can be done with the gun hand in a drawing position and with practice is hardly slower than an open-top holster. If you are the kind of person who likes a belt and suspenders, there is nothing wrong with a thumb break.
Some holsters have an exposed screw head on the body of the holster. This is normally what is called a Chicago screw. The screw has a large head. The shaft fits into a receiving socket in the rear of the holster body. In between the front and rear of the holster it usually passes through a vinyl or rubber tube. As the screw is tightened, it compressed the leather, which grips the gun that much tighter. The rubber tube is also compressed, and depending on the location of the tube, it may press against the triggerguard or slide or barrel of the gun, adding friction to the draw.
If you are considering a holster with a Chicago screw, here is a fact that not all makers have grasped. The retention should be solid while the gun is in place in the holster. The moment the gun begins to move out of the holster during the draw all retention devices should stop functioning in order to render the quickest draw possible. Thus a Chicago screw should only be in contact with the gun until you start to draw. If it contacts the barrel/slide at the muzzle end, the moment you draw the muzzle ceases to contact it. If it contacts the barrel/slide just forward of the trigger guard, the gun will continue to be slowed down by friction until the entire length of the slide has cleared the point of the Chicago screw. The only locations appropriate for a Chicago screw in my opinion are at the very end of the barrel/slide, normally contacting the bottom of the barrel/slide, or at the leading edge of the trigger guard. Either of these locations will allow the gun to separate from the tube immediately. I often see Chicago screws behind the trigger guard--or contacting what would be the bottom of the trigger guard. This is improper placement--avoid these holsters. If a professional holster maker doesn’t understand this, what other features did he get wrong?
Next let’s consider how the holster secures to the belt. An IWB will have straps either sewn or snapped to the body of the holster, while an OWB may have slots at the front and rear of the holster body itself. It may also have a loop on the back of the holster body, or a combination of a loop behind the body and a rear slot. Why the rear slot? In order to pull the butt of the gun tighter to your body, increasing concealment. But the holster with slots fore and aft, making for a very flat holster, is the most concealable among OWB types. (A similar type that is becoming popular replaces the slots with loops that go around the belt--see the photo of the El Paso Saddlery OWB below and right.) This style holster was popularized by Roy Baker's Pancake Holsters of Magnolia, Arkansas in the 1970s and is referred to as a pancake style ever since because it tends to be round and flat. Belt loops should match the belt width. If they are larger the holster will tend to wobble. The best holster won’t work with a poorly chosen belt. Carrying a handgun on a pants belt not intended for the job is a mistake. You don’t want to have to continually readjust the holster while wearing it out in public, and you don’t want a carry package that is uncomfortable to wear all day long. You decided to carry a gun for important reasons. If you don’t have a good way to carry it you will start leaving it at home, and that is not what you want.
The belt should fit the holster loops. The belt should be able to support the loaded weight of gun and holster without any movement or sagging. A good belt may be leather or may be nylon belt (like the Wilderness Tactical brand Instructor's Belt) but either way the belt must fit and support the holster. You can buy a belt matched to a holster from most makers and that is an excellent idea, but you don't have to take that approach. No need to spend a mint unless you want to. All you need is a good sturdy belt. One thing to remember is that if you have your belt, you can get most quality holsters with belt slots to fit your belt.
Of the various types of belt holsters available I like the pancake-style best. They are secure, comfortable, and the most concealable OWB there is. Most pancake-style holsters are boned on the front and back. If the holster is simply flat on the back and boned only in the front, it will be more comfortable to wear, and when you strap it on the curvature of your body will pull the holster tighter against your waist, increasing retention. The perfect example of this holster type is the Galco Concealable model.
Let's talk about rake/cant. These terms are interchangeable and refer to the angle of the gun when holstered. Do you want your gun straight up and down? This is described as a neutral cant. The "FBI Tilt" angles the butt forward, muzzle back; this is called a forward rake. Moving the butt back and muzzle forward is referred to as a rearward rake and really has no place in concealment holsters. Though popular for speed shooting games, the rearward rake isn't a good concealment position and frankly I don't find it a comfortable draw. Ideally, the neutral rake is truly the best for speed from a concealed holster. You can keep a stiff forearm and wrist. The forward rake requires the holster to be placed a little further to the rear on your body, and requires you to lean forward and break your wrist. Nevertheless we're talking small difference here, and if you prefer one cant to the other, there is no strong reason for not choosing it. The forward rake is the more concealable of the two, but this is as much because the way holsters are made. Pancake styles, the most concealable OWBs, are almost always made with a forward rake. The vertical scabbard, popularized by the Askin's Avenger as produced by Bianchi and copied by many others, uses a neutral cant. But it secures to the belt with a loop on the back of the holster body and a slot in the rear of the holster that pulls the gun butt in against your body. As I mentioned previously, the double slot style of the pancake is simply going to hold the holster and gun closer to your body. If the makers varied the actual cant between these styles things would be different, but as it is, you pretty much choose the style and get the rake the makers offer. Some of the better custom holster makers will offer you your choice of rake, so take notice of those who do. One that comes to mind immediately is El Paso Saddlery, one of the oldest and finest holster makers in the country.
How much does a good holster cost? You can spend a little, a lot, or somewhere in between. Frankly most holsters under $40 to $50 are going to be cheap and will disappoint you. On the high side, you can easily spend $100 to several hundred on a holster. You get what you pay for, but if you'd rather not spend that much you don't need to do so. I'm cheap and I prefer to spend between $50 and $100 on a holster. I believe there are several excellent makers who make quality rigs in this range. I can recommend Galco, Graham's Custom Gunleather, El Paso Saddlery, and several others. See my list at the bottom of the article for links to companies who make a good and reasonably priced product.
Hopefully you've found some useful information here. I'm happy to entertain questions on the forum's discussion board. I'd like to leave you with one last thought. My opinions are my opinions, nothing more. What works for me may or may not work for you. Odds are we'll like different gear. If you've decided you prefer a holster style I don't like, there isn't anything wrong with it. Practice with it, and if it works and it's comfortable you have a winner. But don't compromise--if you aren't happy with your current holster, the right one is out there just waiting for you to find it.
Holster makers you should check out:
Original Roy Baker three-slot Pancake holster with thumbbreak holds a 4" Ruger Security-six .357 Magnum revolver. Speedloader case is by Safariland.
Holster in title photo at top of article is the I-BAK from Milt Sparks. I-BAK stands for "Improved Baker holster."