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September 19, 2011
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Tom Marx Casting a Critical Eye on Weapons Technology and Training
with Tom Marx

Fit for female cops: Vertical and horizontal shoulder holsters

Whether you personally favor a vertical or horizontal shoulder rig, you will be well-served by trying on a few different options before making a selection.

In the last installment, we picked up our look at crossbody designs by moving from the waistline Crossdraws of a still earlier segment to underarm-located, vertical, and horizontal shoulder holsters. I focused on designs, body types, and clothing and didn’t say anything in regard to manufacturers. This time we’ll look at some specific models and makers. It seems that interest in shoulder rigs (especially for women) is greater than I had expected.

Vertical Options
The more-conventional vertical designs are still well represented by the traditional manufacturers. Bianchi proudly touts their spring-mouth, leather-bodied “X15” as setting “the standard for over thirty years” and I believe it, for the first one I bought was purchased by me sometime in the 1970s! I wore it a lot for a number of different purposes and I still have it. But however rugged as it might be, it is that construction and some of the dimensions it projects as a result, that can make this holster difficult for some women to employ. Therefore, this becomes another one of those models that should be “tried on” before making a decision about its suitability.

A broad line of nylon-laminate shoulder holsters has been available from Uncle Mike’s for about 20 years. The laminate was a major move forward in synthetic designs in that instead of merely creating a nylon web “bag” to contain the firearm, they used various nylon fabrics laminated to a foam core to give the holster shape without bulk. This also provided moisture resistance and it created an interior made from one material that held up to the sharp sights and levers on today’s pistols and an exterior, made from a different material that didn’t abrade your clothing. Ignoring their well-made but inapplicable sporting goods models and looking instead at their ProPak Vertical Shoulder Holsters, you might find that depending on your torso length that they could work for you; especially as Michaels worked a great deal of adjustability into the harnesses that carry them.

The people at DeSantis make a vertical nylon rig (the Dragonfly) and while well-constructed, it was purposely designed for severe service and therefore might be a bit bulky for certain activities. Black Hills Leather still makes several very well-constructed vertical shoulder holsters but like everybody else using quality leather to craft their designs, things tend to be a bit pricey and somewhat large. Good leather (especially leather that can stand up to body heat and perspiration) is expensive so they and the others cannot be faulted for this. A simple but very interesting VHS (Vertical Shoulder Holster System) from Galco also falls prey to this same issue. While it too, is well made and surprisingly “tailored” (reduced in mass) in some sizes, it is currently pushing $200 with the other manufacturers’ vertical leather models mentioned here generally retailing for around $150.

I’m afraid that there aren’t a lot of other models to list here for it seems that the vertical designs are just not as popular for LE applications as they once were. They still exist to some degree in the military (perhaps due to tradition) but even there, armor, changes in uniforms, and the availability of other design formats are perhaps lessening its use. We have seen a resurgence of sorts in the sporting goods market where both leather and (primarily) nylon vertical designs have become very popular (and very effective) for hunters who often carry large frame (and often scoped) revolvers in the field.

Horizontal Options
But in LE circles, it is obvious that traditional vertical shoulder holsters have been eclipsed by models that ride horizontally... something that becomes even more apparent when looking at the catalogs of most manufacturers today. The ratio of horizontal to vertical models is astounding and in many cases, the vertical models are absent altogether.

Horizontal shoulder holsters are made in a variety of styles and their features far exceed those found in today’s vertical configurations. They certainly aren’t a new phenomenon (going back pretty far in time) but they really owe their current popularity to two things: a TV show set in Florida and a company that started out in Chicago.

Twenty-five years ago, Don Johnson in Miami Vice became famous to the public for the clothes he wore and he became famous to the firearms fraternity for the gun he carried in the horizontal shoulder rig he wore underneath them. A firm that had started out as The Famous Jackass Holster Company made that holster for him but by then it was called Galco and by then they were no longer in the Windy City. And while the TV show ended its run in 1989, Galco, by then bigger than ever, celebrated its 40th anniversary twenty years later in 2009. They still make that rig (their Miami Classic) for it seems that in some circles today, horizontal shoulder Holsters are more popular than ever.

Today, Galco makes about a half dozen styles that vary primarily in regard to harness types. DeSantis also makes more than one leather Horizontal model although they do mention that their C.E.O. is perhaps more applicable to women. Additionally they offer several synthetic designs. Uncle Mike’s makes two different versions of their laminated nylon Horizontal Holster that differ in regard to the harnesses that they employ. All of these are worth at least taking a look at in order to see if such an approach might meet your needs.

Retention Considerations
Remember too, that BLACKHAWK! makes several horizontal and angular shoulder holsters with one that is particularly intended for concealment applications. BLACKHAWK! also makes a harness to convert their successful SERPA Belt Holster to a Horizontal Shoulder Rig. While the user must be careful and realistic as to just how large such a gun-and-holster combination can be when carried in this manner, I do like the idea of a “self-locking” design for it eliminates one of the biggest problems with the horizontal concept: the fact that it generally takes two hands to put the gun away. With this BLACKHAWK! conversion, the weapon is merely reinserted into the extremely low-profile SERPA holster body and it automatically “locks” into place.

It should also be noted that such a “true” locking device, when secured, is not as prone to the unintentional releases sometimes seen with weakened, defective or partially secured snaps occasionally found in Horizontal designs. And in theory, this concept should also be more resilient to attack from the front than the conventional thumb breaks used in most of these holsters; as the release on a SERPA would not seem to be as readily accessible to an assailant.

Safariland is moving in the same direction with both their “ALS Shoulder Holster System” and their “Gun Quick” Shoulder concept. (Now, if only Galco would consider this approach by employing their M4X MATRIX Auto Locking Holster in something like this!). Safariland’s sister company, Bianchi Leathergoods, offers several leather and synthetic Horizontal models but they are of a conventional, non-locking configuration.

Upside-down rigs are still made today as well. The better ones, like the muzzle-up shoulder holster by C. Rusty Sherrick and its predecessor, the now-discontinued-but-still-somewhat-available, Bianchi 9R, can trace their lineage to the Berns-Martin models of decades ago. They are of a clamshell design and they employ a spring and not elastic to retain the weapon. Please note that specific design features are outside the scope of this article but the use of elastic in the holster bodies of any of these models should be avoided due to the damage done to them by the moisture and heat given off by the body. Some of the shoe (elastic-like) gore materials are more resilient to such things but even they can break down over time in ways unseen to the user.

My recommendation is to stick with springs.

These two models are generally employed with smaller and short-barreled revolvers and therefore are not prone to torso length (height) issues. They carry the gun vertically (albeit upside down) so thickness across the upper chest and shoulder region is not a problem. And they position the butt of the gun to the rear, pretty much eliminating interaction with the breast; something that can be a problem with horizontal models. In most cases, they put the weapon literally within the armpit. However, the use of this style, like everything else we are studying in this series must be examined carefully for depending on breast size, arm length and range of motion, it might not work for all women. For even with knowledge of the proper drawing techniques used with such a design, some people might not be able to reach the weapon or successfully execute the draw because of their individual physical characteristics.

Looking Ahead
Next time we’ll see how this directly under-the-arm (often armpit) location can lead to holsters that can be fitted directly on to one’s body armor and utilized for deep cover and second gun concealment.

About the author

Tom Marx left the Chicago Police Department in 1988 to become an instructor at the Smith & Wesson Academy. After several years of teaching full time both nationally and internationally, he shifted roles at Smith: first to a series of technical positions and then as Head of their Domestic Law Enforcement Operations. He left S&W to organize a Law Enforcement Division for Michaels of Oregon as well as to help design much of their police-related duty gear. Leaving Uncle Mike’s, Tom became Director of Intellectual Property for BLACKHAWK Products Group; focusing on the patent efforts for all of their divisions. Today, he is a consultant in various firearms, accessory and training matters. Throughout the years, Tom has continued to lecture and instruct both inside and outside the US with such diverse groups as ILEETA, IALEFI, WIFLE, LETC, NDIA, the NRA, and Team One Network. .

Contact Tom Marx.


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