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Concealment holsters 101: The complete guide to concealment holsters
By Ralph Mroz
Experienced gun-carriers often joke among themselves about the "drawer full" of holsters that they've accumulated over the years … and don't use. There are several reasons it takes a while to find just the right holster for you; you probably need a few different kinds of holsters for a few different guns; some holsters are well made, while others aren't. Now do all the permutations of these reasons multiplied by the dozens of holster manufacturers, custom holster makers, and semi-custom makers, and you wind up with … well, a whole lot of holsters that you don't use, and a few that you regularly do.
You can save yourself a good deal of this trouble by understanding the variable characteristics of holsters to begin with. Here's a guide to them — Holsters 101, if you will.
There are three and one-half objectives of any concealment holster: security, access, concealment, and the half-consideration: one-hand re-holstering ability.
Security — the holster should hold the gun in place while you are running, while you're upside down, while you get in and out of cars, and so on. You don't spend your life sitting still, and in a fight you sure as heck aren't standing still.
Access — the holster should provide access to the gun in a short amount of time in compromised positions, like when you are rolling around on the ground or strapped in a car seat. Further the gun should be held in a stable position, so that the draw can be consistent and reliable under stress.
Concealment — the holster should not let the gun be visible or "print" through concealing garments.
One-hand re-holstering capability is useful if your hands will be tied up with other things immediately after firing or challenging a suspect with your gun, such as handcuffing him, restraining him, holding onto innocents (such as a spouse or children), and so on. This capability is absent in holsters made of thin, floppy material, and inherent in holsters made of rigid materials like Kydex. Some leather holsters use a metal band around the mouth to keep it open when the gun is out of it.
Process and trade-offs These 3½ characteristics can sometimes work against one another, so intelligent trade-offs, based on your own lifestyle and threat assessment, are sometimes necessary. For example, retention devices will usually impede draw speed, as will a deeply concealed gun. A comfortable holster may not provide access under some conditions (e.g., most hip holsters are hard to access while seat-belted in a car.) Thus, realize that finding the right holster for you is a process, much like finding the right spouse. Just as you are unlikely to marry the first man or woman you date, you may have to experiment with a few holsters before finding one that's right for you.
The most popular holsters are hip holsters, and they ride on a belt outside the pants on the strong side. Pancake holsters are made of two pieces of material with the gun sandwiched between them, and they have two or more belt slots. "Askins" or "Avenger" type hip holsters are made of one piece of material folded around the gun, and usually have a belt slot on the rear of the holster and a belt loop sewn on the back of it. The pancake style provides more leverage on the gun to pull it close the body, and thus is a bit more concealable.
IWB or inside-the-waistband holsters are worn inside the pants and attach to the belt with loops or hooks. These are the most concealable type of holster, but require pants that are about an inch more in the waist measurement than you normally wear. Some people find them less comfortable than hip holsters, and vice versa. A Summer Special-type IWB has the rough side of the leather on the outside to help keep the holster anchored in one place (most leather holsters have the smooth side out.) Some IWBs have an extra "flange" or "tab" to the rear for the same reason. You may or not need/like them.
The Down Under from High Noon Holsters is an example of a rough-side-out Summer-Special type IWB holster
Crossdraw holsters are worn on the off side of the body. They are practical, particularly for people who spend a lot of "threat time" in cars, but they are less concealable than hip holsters because they have to be worn in front of the hip bone.
Shoulder holsters are essentially uncomfortable crossdraw holsters. They have a place when the gun can't be worn on the hip, but they are specialty items, and are much less popular in the real world than they are on TV. They require a an open-front jacket, while most hip holsters can be concealed by an un-tucked shirt. Vertical-carry shoulder holsters are best for very large guns. Horizontal-carry shoulder holsters are best for normal carry guns, and they are worn high near the armpit-not low near the floating rib like so many catalog pictures show.
The Jackass from Galco is a classic shoulder holster
Fanny packs (worn in front) are useful in hot weather when clothing is thin, but they make sitting and driving uncomfortable, and too many of them look like gun packs. If you can, choose a bright color. I even sewed an "LL Bean" tag onto mine!
Paddle holsters are held in place with a paddle attached to the holster that slides inside the pants and is held in place by belt tension on the it. Their main virtue is their "quick-on, quick-off" capability. Most, but not all, are less secure than hip holsters.
Fobus' line of inexpensive holsters incluse this popular paddle rig
Ankle holsters are not appropriate for carrying your primary gun since you can't move while drawing from them. They do have a place for back-up guns, though.
Pocket holsters are an under-looked option. They are a convenient way to carry a smaller gun, and require no concealing garment. But they cannot be drawn from while seated, which is a serious consideration.
Small-of-the-back holsters carry the gun severely canted (see below) at the center of the back and are not recommended! If you fall (a very likely occurrence in daily life, let alone in a fight) you will be crushing your spine between the anvil of the floor and the hammer of the 1 to 2 pounds of ordinance steel that compose your gun and the 150+ pounds that make up you. And then consider sitting for any period of time with them…not a good idea!
Holsters either have something holding the gun in them other than friction or they don't. Speed scabbards, or open-top holsters, have none, and these are generally preferred for concealed carry. A simple-and the oldest-retention device is the thumb-break, in which a strap of material over the top of the gun is un-snapped with the thumb as the gun is drawn. These are reasonable devices as they slow down the draw-stroke only a bit, but they do make it more complicated, which is the real concern. There are now many kinds of retention devices available on concealment holsters (and more still on police duty holsters), and they usually involve one or more digits of the drawing hand releasing one or more levers as the gun is drawn. Some are more intuitive than others.
Blackhawk's line of SERPA retention holsters are perhaps the most intuitive security holsters on the market
The need for retention devices is very real for exposed guns, such as on a uniformed police duty belt-they help prevent bad guys from simply yanking a cop's own gun out of his/her holster. But the need for such devices is less in concealment holsters, particularly for non-sworn citizens since the gun is (or should be) concealed, and no one should know it's there. Plain clothes police, on the other hand, usually make no secret of the fact that they're cops, so retention devices on their plain-clothes holsters can make sense.
Synthetic materials like Kydex holsters (either formed from sheets or injection-molded) or other injection-molded polymer holsters have taken the market by storm in the last decade. Usually rigid, polymer holsters don't lose their shape nor do they get soft and rot in humid conditions (including perspiration), and they are slightly faster than leather on the draw. Synthetics are generally preferred by armed professionals (traditionalists excluded) who never know what conditions their holster will be exposed to (e.g., I had to walk waist-deep through a swamp recently.)
Leather is the traditional material for holsters and is an excellent choice for armed citizens. It can "give" a bit and conform to the shape of your body a little more than synthetics. The fact that leather will "bind" the gun a little if your draw is not perfectly straight up can be an advantage if you are concerned about retention and don't want to complicate things with a retention strap. If retention in an open-top holster is your preference, the trick is to go with a deep-seated leather IWB, which should be reasonably difficult for a bad guy to get your gun out of.
Custom vs. Manufactured
Manufactured holsters from the top companies, are generally of good to excellent quality. What they may lack is availability for unusual guns, and they tend to come in only one or at most two belt widths (see below.)
Custom-made holsters are generally of superb quality, and there are many good holster makers out there. You can specify the custom touches you want, get them made in exotic leathers, and you can get the holster mated to precisely the correct belt width. You can usually get them modified to suit any specific fit issues you have. You can also get holsters with features that would be too expensive to manufacture in quantity.
It's important to match the slot/loop width of the holster to the belt you will wear with it. A minority of holsters come with adjustable slots/loops, and that's a good feature. But many holsters come with belt slots or loops that are a fixed width-usually 1¾-inches. Such holsters are advertised as "fitting belts up to 1¾-inches wide." That's wrong; in fact such holsters will fit only 1¾-inch belts properly! It should be obvious that a holster with slots wider than the belt they are worn on will cause the holster to slip and slide around. A good gun belt should be between 1¼-inch wide to 1¾-inches. Wide belts may be OK for casual wear and out West, but for business attire 1¼ -inch unit may be more appropriate. While some manufacturers may offer selected models with 1½-inch slots/loops, if you want to wear a 1¼-inch belt, you'll have to look for adjustable manufactured models, or go the custom route.
It is critical wear a proper gun belt with your hip-holstered gun. Gun belts come in widths of 1¼-, 1½-, and 1¾ -inches. Some are tapered in the front to a thinner width. They are usually double-thick leather or leather reinforced with a synthetic material. There are also some all-synthetic belts available. A proper gun belt will support the weight of the gun (which ordinary belts won't), and they provide enough vertical leverage on the holster to prevent it from flopping away from the body. Repeat: it's critical to use a real gun belt with a hip-holstered gun!
The "ride" of a holster refers to the vertical height at which the gun is carried relative to the belt line. A normal-ride holster will have the trigger near the belt line. A high-ride holster will have the trigger above the belt. A deep-riding holster will have the trigger below the belt. High-ride holsters are harder to draw from, and unless correctly designed and executed, can allow the grip end of the gun to flop out away from the body. Short-barreled guns will have this tendency even with a normal-ride holsters, so good a quality holster is critical with them. The ride of the gun, combined with the holster's cant (see below) will largely determine how comfortably a holster carries a particular gun for you.
The "cant" of a holster refers to how tilted forward from vertical the gun rides when carried in the holster. A straight-drop holster has 0-degrees of cant and carries the gun vertically. An FBI-cant holster has a cant of between 10- and 20-degrees. Some holsters are severely canted to 30-degrees or even more. While more cant aids concealability a bit, the main reason for it is to make the gun 1) comfortable to carry and 2) easy to draw from. The preference of cant and ride is individual. I prefer a cant and ride such that the back-strap of the gun's grip lies in line with and just below my floating rib. Other people have different preferences. Likewise, you may find that you prefer a different cant and ride for different guns, due to their differing grip angles and shapes.
Women have a very difficult time with concealment holsters. Women tend to be shorter-waisted than men, making their draw stroke more difficult, and they tent to have greater hip flare, resulting in the grip of the gun being severely angled into their rib cage, which in turn results in discomfort and difficulty in drawing. Many manufacturers turn a man's holster into a "woman's holster" by either adding a wedge between the body and gun to compensate for the hip flare, or by lowering the ride of the holster considerably. Both "solutions" severely compromise concealability. Obviously, the slimmer and longer-waisted a woman is, the more likely it is that she can use a man's holster satisfactorily-but almost all women find them unsatisfactory to some degree. Some custom makers make belt holsters designed around a woman's anatomy, but they generally work only for smaller guns.
All of this assumes that a woman will carry her gun on her hip on a belt. But women often don't dress in ways that will accommodate that mode of carry. For them, off-body carry, such as in a purse-with all of it's serious inherent disadvantages, may be the best (but not a good) option. On the belt, if her attire so allows, most women find that a cross draw holster is the best option.
The bottom line for women's concealed carry is usually to go either with a cross draw hip holster, off body carry, or a smaller gun concealed where her mode of dress will allow. Of course, the smaller the gun, the more difficult it is to shoot. Women just plain have a harder time of it!
If you are just starting out in concealed carry, the best bet is to go with a normal-ride, FBI-cant (or straight-drop), pancake-style speed scabbard and a proper gun belt that mates to it properly. This set-up will work acceptably well, if not perfectly, for most men. From then on you can experiment with other holsters if you feel the need to tweak a characteristic. Remember, it's a process!