Concealed Carry Basics Part 2: Holster Options

You Have Your Pistol – Now How Do You Carry It?

This is the second installment in the Concealed Carry Basics series. In Part 1, we addressed the factors involved in choosing the right firearm for you to carry. As we mentioned there, people have been carrying firearms for protection since there have been firearms. The practice can be as simple as literally carrying it (like, in your hands) or tucking it into your waistband. However, the first method will likely (at best) lead to a chat with Officer Friendly after he gets a MWaG (man with a gun) call while the second might lead to such pleasantries as a surprise vasectomy. Therefore we strongly recommend not using either method for your EDC.

Many, if not most, folks who endeavor to carry a firearm tend to go through a number of holsters before they find the one that works best for them (or, worse, end up using a bad holster). Thus they end up having to try to sell their used holsters or having the proverbial box o’ holsters tucked away into the back of their closets. Good holsters can be somewhat pricey and a box of pricey holsters can add up pretty quickly to real money.

We’re here to help with some basics on what kind of holsters are available and some considerations to keep in mind when choosing yours. As with the choosing a firearm part, This article is not a primer on what specific holster is best or which one you should get – instead, we hope to help you find one that works best for you and your situation.

If you are starting from scratch, head over to Firearms 101 for the basics on what firearms are, how they work, and commonly used acronyms.

So, you have the firearm you want to carry for protection… what next?

First off, you should definitely use a holster – no questions asked. Sure, some people do just drop a firearm into their pocket or purse or tuck it into their waistband like they just got out of jail and found it in an unlocked glovebox, but it’s a bad idea for several reasons addressed below.  

Basic Styles of Holsters

There are many hundreds of holsters readily available on the market, but they basically boil down to a handful of styles that vary in their features and execution.

The most common holster type which most people will end up using is one that allows them to carry somewhere on their waist. Human arms generally sprout from the shoulder area and dangle downward, placing the hands in the natural position about mid-thigh. Shooting is generally done with the arms horizontal and hands somewhere in front of the chest, so it makes sense to have your firearm somewhere in between those two spots so your hands can grab it on their way there, so the waist is a natural choice.

Holsters that place the firearm on your waistline come in two general flavors – Inside the Waistband (IWB) and Outside the Waistband (OWB). They do exactly as their names suggest.

Small (micro and sub-compact) pistols might fit great into a pocket but, as mentioned above, just tossing it there without a holster is not a great choice. For that, there are pocket holsters.

Other common on-body carry positions make use of other types of holsters such as ankle holstersshoulder holsters, and belly bands or similar wrap-style holsters like bra holsters that hold a firearm in place against your body.

There are also off-body carry options such as purpose-built concealed carry purses or fanny packs that let you keep a firearm nearby or on your person without having it physically attached to your body.

Any of these styles of holsters may come in one-size-fits-all type form factors, where the holster is generically sized to fit any pistol of the same basic size and shape, or they may be specifically fitted to your exact firearm.

Functions of a Holster

What does (and should) a holster do? Duh – it holds your pistol, right? Well… yeah, but it should bring a little more to the table than that. Otherwise you could just stick your pistol in a sock and tie it to your belt.

A good holster must protect your trigger. That’s a big one. If you frequently have a gun on your side, you will be around all sorts of things that are capable of pulling the trigger – fingers, shirt tails, draw strings, chapstick tubes, writing utensils, chair arms, seat belts, or any number of other things that might find their way far enough into the trigger guard to cause a negligent discharge. That’s right, a negligent discharge, not an accidental discharge. If you fail to keep stuff from pulling the trigger of a firearm under your control, you are negligent.

It should also protect your body from the firearm as well as protect the firearm from your body. Pistols can tend to have sharp edges and pointy parts. You don’t want them digging into you all day and being uncomfortable. Likewise, your body is producing sweat and salt and oils and all sorts of other gross body stuff. Your carry gun has at least some metal components that may not be well served by getting covered in that body stuff. Your holster should help keep the pointy parts from digging into you and keep your human-juice off of the firearm. It should also help keep lint, dirt, and other debris from getting into the firearm where it can gum up the works and potentially induce a malfunction.

Your holster should keep your firearm where you put it. That isn’t just to say that it keeps it approximately somewhere on your hip, or in the vicinity of your underarm, or wherever else you decide to carry. It should keep it exactly where you put it and where you expect it to be. Whatever carry position you choose, you should practice drawing from that position. You will develop muscle memory that will help you employ your self defense tool of choice quickly and effectively if you get into a situation where fractions of a second count. You will not be well served by reaching for your pistol at the 3 o’clock position only to discover that you have to fumble it out of the 5 o’clock position it has slid around to.

Carry Position and IWB vs OWB vs Off-Body vs Alternative Position Holsters

Every carry position comes with trade-offs. As with pretty much every other aspect of choosing your CCW gear and methods, you have to find what works best for you. It’s OK if the first thing you try doesn’t work best for you as long as you end up with a setup that works and allows you to comfortably, confidently, and safely carry your firearm.

Given that somewhere on the waist is the most common location to carry, you then have to decide how you will carry on your waist if that is the option you go with. Will you carry inside or outside the waistband? If you don’t wear an untucked shirt or a jacket, IWB may allow you to conceal better. If you generally dress with something that can be used as a cover garment, OWB may be more comfortable since you don’t have extra stuff jammed into your waistband. OWB may arguably also allow for faster access to the firearm, but it could also draw extra attention to you as it may be more likely to print.

Will you wear your holster strongside – somewhere between 3-5 o’clock for right-handed carriers? Will you carry at your 6 o’clock Small of Back (SOB) – palm in or palm out (note that palm-out SOB carriers tend to point the muzzle at themselves during the draw stroke). Will you carry crossdraw with the holster grip-forward on your weak side to reach across with your strong hand (something popular with people who spend a lot of time driving or otherwise seated)? Or will you carry appendix IWB (AIWB) between 12 and 2 o’clock (a position that offers very quick access and good concealment if you are in shape, but positions the muzzle to be variably pointed at your femoral artery or your baby maker)?

If you went with a large hand-cannon type CCW piece or if you watch a lot of Miami Vice, you may be considering a shoulder holster. Typically worn under some kind of jacket, shoulder rigs allow for decently concealed carry of larger firearms, but move the size and weight burden of the pistol to your back and shoulders, which may be uncomfortable for some. Ankle Holsters are considered by some and, while often seen in use for back-up guns (BUGs), some people choose to carry their primary concealed handgun thusly. Keep in mind, however, the involved, awkward process of kneeling, lifting the pant leg, and drawing required of holsters of this variety. They do, however, conceal quite well since they do not create new lumps around your waist or chest.

Growing in popularity as of late are alternative methods of on-body carry such as belly bands and bra holsters. Rather than a traditional holster these types generally involve a pouch meant to hold the firearm integrated into an existing undergarment or an added band that you wrap around and secure to your body.

For those that just don’t want to have a firearm attached to them but want one (theoretically) within reach, they may choose off body carry such as with a purse, satchel, backpack, or fanny pack. Yes, it relieves the strain of an extra couple of pounds pulling down on one side of your body, but it also comes with some caveats. One is that you may not have your off-body carry receptacle with you when you need it (such as you being at the water cooler when your briefcase is under your desk or you being at the Chex while your purse is in the cart next to the Lucky Charms). Importantly, keep in mind that violent street crime unfolds fast and often involves (or starts as) a purse snatching. If a bad guy is intent on taking your stuff and giving you a beating, if grabbing your bag is step 1, not only can you not defend yourself, you also gave him another weapon.

Materials and Features

Major Component Materials

Since time immemorial, holsters have been made from leather – or, rather, the skin or hide of some dead animal – and that practice continues today. Leather is tough, hard wearing, and looks good. While the leather most commonly found in holsters comes from steer, other animals also contribute to the industry. Perhaps the second most common leather comes from horses, whose skin has a more dense grain which creates a more moisture-resistant, rigid product. Various other skins, such as buffalo, shark, ostrich, alligator, kangaroo, and so on, are also used, either for their structural characteristics (such as being more or less rigid or waterproof) or simply for cosmetic reasons (such as dying better or just plain looking cool. Leather might comprise the whole of the holster, or it may be used in just some components of the holster such as the backers of hybrid holsters or to add to the aesthetics.

Other holsters commonly found hanging on the pegs at your gun store or sporting goods section prominently feature nylon. Again, either just portions or entire holsters may be made from this material. Nylon is often found in more inexpensive holsters for several reasons: One is that it’s inexpensive material. Manufactures can buy it by the massive roll and cut it to suite the holster model being made without having to source the product from purveyors of dead animal skins. Another is that nylon holsters are frequently of the generic one-size-fits-all variety mentioned above; rather than being molded for a specific firearm, it is essentially just a gun shaped pocket that holds just about any roughly similarly size/shape of pistol. Points one and two lead to point three: manufacturers can crank them out by the boatload and retailers can carry just a few models to cover a wide range of firearms.

The next iteration in holster materials was injection molded plastic or polymer. This is found in Fobus-type holsters, as shells for hybrid holsters, and, often, with the freebie holsters that are sometimes included with firearm packages like the Springfield Armory Essentials kit or Canik’s setup. Molten plastic is injected into a mold and hardens into a form-fitting holster for a specific (or closely matching) firearm. It’s the 21st century – you’ve used plastic and you know what it’s good for, what it can and can’t do, and what it holds up to.

One of the more recent evolutions in holster making brought us Kydex – a thermoplastic originally designed for aircraft interiors. Kydex is waterproof, scratch resistant, low friction, and easy to work with – the latter characteristic leading to an explosion of everyone and their brother making Kydex holsters (some more well executed than others). Kydex comes in thin, flat sheets that can be heated to soften them and then pressed around firearms (or molds) to provide a low-profile, lightweight, form-fitting holster. Once again, you might find entire holsters made of this material, or just some components such as the shell part of a hybrid holster.

The last major material that we will mention is neoprene. A.K.A. wet-suit material. Neoprene is an eminently waterproof spongy, foam like material that can have a tendency to not stand up to friction or tugging very well, so you wont generally find it in major components unless it is reinforced. This material is often used as padding between layers of soft holsters or in hybrid holster backers as a cushion or moisture barrier.

Just like in choosing the right firearm for you, choosing the right material means finding the one that works best for you. If you have sensitive skin, you may not want a hard Kydex shell stuffed inside of your pants. If you sweat a lot, you will probably want a full sweat guard that completely separates the entire slide (and possible even the grip) from your body. If you always wear undershirts, you may not need a sweat guard.

You Keep Saying “Hybrid” Holsters. What does that mean? 

Hybrid holsters are – just as the name implies – a hybrid of two or more types of materials comprising the major components of a holster.

Most often this means a softer, backer made of leather, neoprene, or some combination thereof that goes against your body and a rigid polymer shell that faces away from your body that holds the firearm.

These types of holsters offer the comfort of a softer or padded material against your body and a more rugged, form-fitting shell to hold and protect your firearm.

Shown at left is a N82 Revenant hybrid holster which features a sandwiched suede/neoprene/leather back with a Kydex shell.

Belt Clips and Loops

Most holsters that will reside in the vicinity of your waistband will need some sort of attachment device to keep it where you put it or, at a minimum, keep it from falling down your pants leg a la Plaxico Burress. This attachment device can be something as simple as slots in the leather through or leather/polymer clips which your belt is threaded (either of which require partially undoing your belt to don or doff the holster). It could also be open ended clips of polymer, spring steel, or spring wire that reach over and clip under your belt, a paddle that goes inside of your trousers, flexible snap-open/closed loops, or even cammed gadgets that clamp onto your belt or waistband – none of which require undoing your belt to put on or take off the holster.

The idea isn’t just to keep the holster in place while you are going about your daily routines, either. If you ever find yourself in a situation where you need to use your CCW, you likely need it quick, fast, and in a hurry. Picture this – a knife-wielding baddie pops out of the alley several yards ahead of you with the promise of a good gutting if you don’t fork over your wallet and your first born kid. You put your practice and your gear into action, lift your shirt tail, grip your pistol, give a firm upward jerk, and point your entire holster at the bad guy because the whole thing came out instead of just your pistol. Bad news.  You need your holster to stay put and only the pistol to come out.

Placement and number of the attachments also plays a larger part than you might think in how the holster wears and conceals. A single, narrow, weak clip placed directly over the handgun might not just make the entire apparatus thicker, it may also allow it to rotate in undesirable ways. Making that clip wider or improving how well it clamps on can help mitigate that movement. On the other hand, placing a wider, flat clip directly over a part of your body that isn’t flat (e.g. the angles of your hips around 2 or 4 o’clock) might make them more noticeable. Moving that single clip over the trigger guard instead of over the slide might help tuck in the grip for better concealment. Spreading the weight of the whole contraption out over two clips or loops can help distribute the weight and prevent sagging, but it yields a wider overall footprint (but thinner, with the clips not placed over top of the pistol).

Some attachments work better than others and some of that can depend on your holster type and garment choices (including your belt – stay tuned for Part 3). Dress like you normally do and go holster shopping. Most places should let you try on the holster before you put your money on the barrel. If you are shopping online, many makers give you some time period to try it out and make sure it works for you and, if it doesn’t you can return it.

Some IWB holsters like Sticky and Remora holsters don’t even make use of clips or loops, instead relying on friction and pressure from your waistband/belt to keep it in place.

Retention

To have retention, or not to have retention. That is the question. Retention is a feature of holsters to resist drawing of the firearm unless some intentional action is performed, ostensibly by the wearer. This can range from no retention at all through four levels of passive retention to active retention.

Pretend you shelled out $45 for a metal drink tumbler and you darn sure want to make sure you get every bit of use out of it for that price, so you strap it to your belt so you can drop the muzzle of your pistol into it and use it as a holster. You can just grab your pistol and pick it up. So can anyone else, like the shady hooligan behind you in the grocery line while you’re trying to decide between a Baby Ruth or a Snickers. If someone were to pick you up by the feet and turn you upside down, it would simply fall out. Your holster has no retention.

Most decent holsters should probably provide at least Level I retention, or passive retention. This is usually achieved mainly by friction – a good, close fit between the leather or kydex of your holster and the surface of the firearm. Often, the form fitting nature of the holster not only has a close fit on the surfaces of the handgun, but has depressions that will fit into depressions on the firearm, such as behind the trigger guard or at the ejection port. Being gently shaken while held upside-down from the feet shouldn’t cause the gun to fall free and it should be more difficult for a snatch-and-grabber to draw it from your holster.

Level II retention holster provides the above but also adds an element of active retention into the mix. Level III features two active retention elements in addition to passive retention, and Level IV adds a third. Active retention measures on a holster can include various schemes such as hammer loops, thumb snaps (thumb breaks), hoods, and trigger guard locks activated by pressing a button. Each increased level makes it more difficult for someone else to snatch your handgun, but it also adds more steps for you, the wearer, to draw your own firearm. You need to find a balance of how comfortable you are in releasing the retention devices and how paranoid you are about someone trying to take your holstered firearm.

Concealment

Concealment goes hand-in-hand with a number of other topics addressed above and, of course, your firearm choice will play a large part in this. No matter how good your holster is, you probably won’t be able to conceal that .50 Desert Eagle as well as you can that S&W Bodyguard .380.

Some of the adjustments and considerations that you make for comfort and ease of use will also affect concealment, such as the cant (the angle at which your pistol sits). For instance, a severe forward cant at 3-4 o’clock might conceal well and be comfortable to draw but, moved to the AIWB position, the forward cant will hide well but be difficult to draw while a neutral or backward cant might not hide as well.

Ride-height (how deep or shallow your holster/handgun sits relative to your waistline) also has a big impact. Obviously a pistol stuck completely down into your pants will be hard to spot, but it will also be hard to get to. A very high ride height will be easier to get to, but how well it conceals will depend on your clothing and body type.

Since the slide/barrel of the handgun will be down the pants parallel to the wearer’s leg for the most common types of carry, that part matters less for concealment than does the perpendicular grip of the firearm, which is typically the most difficult part to conceal. All manner of gadgets, devices, and protuberances have been devised and added to holsters – from claws to wings to wedges to cleverly placed angled clips – that all mostly seek to accomplish one thing: Pull the grip and/or butt in tighter to the body. The most comfortable place for a pistol to ride might just be magically floating in free space 3″ away from your body, so putting pressure on one spot to pull a part of the gun closer to another spot on your body might not be moving in the right direction if comfort is your main concern. Like everything else, this a balance that you will have to work out for yourself.

GunLink Holster Reviews

The GunLink team is pretty much always strapped, which give us a lot of time to test holsters in real-world environments. We aren’t high speed operators but we always have a firearm (or several) on us and we ride in cars, mow the lawn, get in and out of chairs with arms, walk into door frames, fall asleep on the couch, go shopping, and do all other other stuff that everyone else does. This gives us plenty of opportunity to use a variety of holsters how you would use them and gather information about how they perform.

Find some of our reviews below and keep your eyes out for new ones being added all the time.

  • Alien Gear CloakTuck 1.0 IWB Hybrid – A good, cheap, sturdy IWB hybrid holster based on a 2-clip leather backer with a Kydex shell. Holsters for some models now come with injection molded shells instead of formed Kydex. Shells are removable and swappable to accommodate different handgun models.
  • Alien Gear CloakTuck 2.0 Neoprene/Kydex Hybrid – An interesting idea, but terribly executed. Similar to the 1.0 but the backer is a reinforced sandwich of fake leather and cheap, thin neoprene. Ours didn’t hold up well. No longer in production.
  • Bravo Concealment BCA OWB Kydex – An all-Kydex OWB holster available with traditional belt loops or pancake wings. Despite being an OWB holster, these pull the weapon in tight enough to conceal under a t-shirt. Surprisingly affordable too. Bravo Concealment is definitely one of the top-shelf all-Kydex holster makers.
  • Bravo Concealment DOS Torsion IWB/AIWB Kydex – An all-Kydex IWB with a “twist.” Wearable with one or two clips (both offset from the frame), strongside or AIWB, the DOS Torsion swings the pistol grip inward for better concealment. Minimalist design doesn’t add a lot of extra bulk.
  • Fobus OWB Paddle Holster – Relatively inexpensive, readily available injection molded paddle holster. The several we have had held up well over the years. Easy on, easy off, some models feature adjustable passive retention. Unless you wear a jacket or baggy shirts, this OWB is probably too thick for really concealed carry.
  • Kinetic Concealment KC Baby IWB Hybrid – A single-clip-over-frame hybrid IWB with Kydex shell and multi-material leather/neoprene backer from the guy that actually holds the patent for the “Multi-Material Handgun Holster.” Well built and sturdy but lacking some of the features that could have really helped hide the larger handgun we tested it with.
  • Massaro Holster Works American Purebred IWB Hybrid – A well thought out and versatile IWB hybrid with reinforced neoprene backer, nearly invisible belt clips, and “military grade” Velcro-adjustable/removable Kydex shell that can also be used as a night stand/vehicle/off-body holster.
  • N82 Tactical Original, Original Tuckable, and Professional IWB Hybrid – The original lineup of holsters from N82 Tactical. Single clip-over-frame IWB hybrids whose backers are a comfortable sandwich of suede, neoprene, and leather that covers the whole gun, including grip. Features either a snug, heavy-duty elastic pocket for the pistol, or a polycarbonate shell with unique “twist to release” active retention.
  • N82 Tactical Envoy IWB Kydex Hybrid – Similar to the N82 Tactical Pro IWB hybrid but, instead of the polycarbonate shell with active retention, features a Kydex shell with passive retention.
  • N82 Tactical Revenant IWB Kydex Hybrid – A “combat cut” version of the N82 Tactical holster that leaves the pistol grip exposed to more easily attain a firing grip from concealment. Available with either polycarbonate or Kydex shell.
  • Sticky Holster Clip-less IWB (Initial Review – GL Blog) – Constructed from a sandwich of nylon, neoprene, and “sticky material”, this is a clip-less IWB holsters that rely on the high-friction outer material to hold it in place with just the pressure from your waistband/belt. Sounds crazy, but it’s one of those see-it-to-believe-it things. Plenty of people use these as their primary holsters, but I am too active for it to reliably stay in place as an IWB. Works great for IWB if you aren’t running and jumping a lot, and works great as a pocket/purse holster.
  • Sticky Holster (Forum Thread) – Follow up on how the Sticky Holsters wear over time, additional products, and custom holsters.
  • Viridian TacLoc OWB Paddle Holster – An injection molded plastic OWB paddle holster. Far too bulky, in our opinion, for concealed carry. The Viridian version of this holster is application specific, but this also essentially serves as a review of the parent holster, a BLACKHAWK! CQC Level II Retention Holster.

 

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