In the last installment, we stepped away from specific models to look at a number of related issues that I felt needed to be addressed before we moved completely away from belt and waistline holster positioning and the use of traditional covering garments. Before that, we looked at “Building on What We Know” and the employment of strong side but in-front-of-the-hip, waistline holsters for women. Then, because sometimes other factors come into play, we moved away from that location and studied “crossdraw” models that were worn along the waist but “across” the body on the “weak” (non-dominant/non-primary) side and were designed to be drawn by the strong, dominant, or primary hand as it reached “across” the body to access the firearm.
This time around, we will stay with the idea of crossbody carry, but we’ll begin to look at different regions of the body, besides the waistline, where this can be accomplished. Probably the easiest way to do this is to start at the top and work our way down.
History, Evolution, and Male Carriers
Shoulder holsters easily date back to the 1800s. Even back then, all kinds of reasons could sometimes make it more convenient to carry the gun (generally) in a vertical manner under the “weak” (non-dominant/non-primary) arm with the muzzle pointed downward and the gun “reversed” so that the butt faced forward in order to facilitate its purchase by the “strong” (dominant/primary) hand. But looking at who the principal gun carrier/shoulder holster users were back then, and during most of the decades since (traditional military personnel, police officers, detectives, bad guys, and sportsmen), we see yet another piece of equipment that as it evolved, was not generally designed with women in mind.
Even in some of the more streamlined versions that we see in vertical shoulder holsters today, their mass and overall sizing (let alone that of the guns they are intended to carry) often will not combine well with the lighter, generally more-tailored covering garments worn by many women.
Back to Basics (and Body Types)
Furthermore, their lengths (heights, actually) are frequently at odds with the shorter torsos found even on taller women. And their harness systems are normally sized for male shoulder structures and are often designed without thought toward their the being placed over the fabrics, straps, undergarments and tops that again are common to female plainclothes carry. Additionally, it should be recognized that beyond these more specific issues, basic concerns such as arm length, breast size, and overall body contouring can make vertical shoulder holsters the wrong choice for many women and this needs to be recognized this upfront.
Please note that I am not saying that a vertical shoulder holster won’t work for you. What I am saying (as I have with many of the various carrying concepts we are considering in this series), is that one needs to be extremely objective in considering such a model for their (particular) use. Just because it works for the next person in line, doesn’t mean that it will work for you. And just because some people tell you that you have to live with certain drawbacks in order to reap the overall benefits doesn’t mean that they know what they’re talking about. Any of these holsters needs to fit, fit comfortably, actually conceal the weapon, and allow you to both produce it and return it as needed, with no life-endangering restrictions.
If the shoulder holster body is too long, if it is too bulky, if its harness can’t be adjusted for your physique, or if you cannot get it to sit comfortably on you or to integrate with your wardrobe, then (as I have said before) you need to be able to walk away from it and look for something else.
Horizontal shoulder holsters might not go as far back in time as the vertical models but for the benefits they provide (they virtually eliminate the torso height issues and can, if designed properly, reduce bulk), they too can be problematic for women. Out of all the holsters we will look at, this is one that really cries out for objectivity. Even men attempt to carry handguns that are “longer” (from muzzle-to-butt) than they are “wide” (from front-to-back) and for many (not all) women this is an even greater problem. Disregarding the additional depth to one’s profile that breast size can add, most women are still “narrower” thru the shoulder, armpit, pectoral region (where the gun is carried) than their male counterparts. Does this mean that they can’t use this design? No, it just means that once again, they have to be realistic as to what kind of gun they might be able to carry within it.
Furthermore, with both vertical and horizontal designs (although perhaps seen more often with the horizontal models), the lack of knowledge in how to properly wear and draw from a shoulder holster can cause even greater problems for women because of the cut of their clothing and, again, their breast size. As we discussed with crossdraw holsters, not understanding the draw can lead to the holster being worn too far forward in an effort to make it easier for the user to “reach” the gun. Typically, open front suit coats and jackets will more easily reveal a gun carried in this manner. Such positioning will also make the gun an easy target for attack. And such positioning can be extremely uncomfortable for some women because of interference with their breasts.
Comfort and Potential Pressure Points
Even some men find that they can never get used to a hard, generally sharp-edged handgun worn under the arm and, in some cases, alongside the rib cage. It goes back to that idea of a carried gun acting like a pressure point control tool that we discussed in the second installment of this series. Women not only have that problem but (especially with many horizontal designs) they might also face the additional issue of the hammer, tang and grip (or gripframe), pressing against or digging into the side of their breast. This is another reason why a given model should be “tried on” before buying and “tried on” with a least one of the covering garments with which it will be used for it can aggravate such matters in this case by pushing the gun even further into the body when worn over it.
Vertical and Horizontal Shoulder holsters are somewhat unique in that there are not only the usual concerns involving the covering garments but also additional ones related to what’s worn underneath the rig. For most men and some women, this isn’t a huge issue. But for many women it again requires more thought than just choosing a holster that “fits”. They have to look seriously at the clothing they intend to wear along with it — clothing that’s often required because of one’s job, activity, or working environment.
Clothing as a Contributing Factor
But first let’s consider the covering garment only and use just one example (there are many) of a typical business suit. Nothing overly fitted and nothing overly fancy. First, if the jacket/coat/blazer is designed or (due to your use, intended) to be kept buttoned, a shoulder holster might be the wrong choice altogether. Not only are their issues with unbuttoning such a garment under stress as part of the drawing process, but even some loosely fitted designs can be pulled tightly against the holstered weapon when buttoned making it uncomfortable to wear and the gun visible to others.
If the jacket/coat/blazer is designed to be worn open — I believe the more preferable situation — some thought must be given as to how open the jacket can be. When unbuttoned, most men’s single-breasted suit or sport coats open to about the same degree with the only differences resulting from whether or not they are a two button or three button design, which affects the opening in regard to both the width and the angle. Otherwise, there is not a lot to get use to when going from one jacket to another within a man’s daily wardrobe. For example, if a man sticks with two button designs, switching from one coat to the next requires little more than acknowledging differences in overall fit (perhaps affecting range of motion) and weight (possibly affecting movement) because the width and angle of their openings remain relatively constant.
But women’s jackets not only vary in regard to fit — a separate subject by itself for “fitting” or shape-defining tailoring might preclude the use of a shoulder holster altogether — but also with regard to length, and perhaps more importantly, also in regard to the overall width and angle of the opening. In some cases, the shape of the opening and how the garment might be designed to remain either open or partially closed on its own can also be a factor. This is another reason to actually try the holster on with at least some of the things you will be wearing with it before you make up your mind.
And while all of this seems like I am stating the obvious, it really needs to be clear that not only won’t some of these jackets work with a shoulder holster for the reasons given above BUT the subtle but radical differences that exist among those that do work, can still affect the draw in such ways that unless the user safely reorients themselves with whatever they are wearing on any given day, they could find themselves in more trouble reaching for the gun than they were in when they actually realized that they needed it in the first place.
As an example, in my classes, I routinely show my students — who are generally used to their gear always being locked into the same place whether standing, sitting, or moving because of the way it fits to their duty belt and the way their duty belt is anchored to their pants belt — how belt holsters and shoulder holsters routinely “move” out of their expected “place” when the officer is not merely standing on the range facing their target but is perhaps seated or undergoing some sort of physical activity. Pant belts shift along with the hip structure they’re attached to (taking the holstered firearm along with it) and shoulder holsters not only move correspondingly with the wearer’s arms and upper body but the covering garments can push and shift the gun around to an amazing degree as well as outright blocking access to it in the worst cases.
This is truly an eye-opening experience.
As to those items worn under the harness, in the last segment of this multi-part series, I touched on certain fabrics that could be problematic with any holster, primarily in terms of wear. Here, lighter garments shouldn’t be worn out by properly engineered shoulder harnesses but they generally won’t do much to add comfort, in that silks and certain synthetics won’t help dissipate the pressure that edges of such harnesses and straps can present. And poorly designed rigs, can indeed wear or cut thru certain clothing fabrics over time.
Additionally, most shoulder harness concepts have moved — at least in part — to broader, load-bearing type structures, rather than the original-leather-and-later-elastic straps that were commonplace for almost 100 years. But they can still be problematic for women. While almost all of them are made from supple-enough materials so that they lie flat and flex with one’s body movements, they can be of the wrong size and shape for many female users.
Further, again recognizing that most of these models were designed for men, there are also some issues regarding how these panels sit upon the non-covering garments. Most men would wear a conventionally shaped dress or casual shirt, golf shirt or T-shirt — and in some cases a dress or casual shirt over a T-shirt. But layering of such garments is less common for women. And while sweaters might be worn alone or over a shirt or blouse, more common might be sleeveless blouses, tank tops, and strap-type tops. All of which could be problematic when worn in conjunction with such designs. There are also the straps on certain undergarments to deal with in this respect as well.
Finally, and not always applicable to certain soft clothes applications is the wearing of body armor. The adjustable harness not only has to be fitted differently for use with and without armor but it also needs to be determined if it is even compatible with the armor.
Ran a little long this time as I thought that the understanding of this concept made more sense to get across than my personal thoughts and recommendations about particular brands and models. We’ll try to look at that the next time when we also begin to consider belly bands, groin carry, thigh holsters and ankle rigs.