Having worked through the decision to be armed and having accepted the responsibility for the protection of self and loved ones, the next step is the choice of an appropriate cartridge and handgun. Let’s presume, gentle readers, you’ve decided on a handgun/cartridge combination. Now comes a surprisingly difficult matter: choosing how to carry the handgun.
Virtually all long-time gun owners that actually carry their handguns have a box–or boxes–full of holsters, magazine pouches, and related gadgets that have been tried and put aside for something new, something more comfortable, lighter, or simply better. It’s part of the process, and part of the fun, and it’s absolutely necessary. Regardless of the good intentions and advice of others, it’s difficult to know what will work for you until you’ve had the chance to try it.
What should guide one’s choice of a holster? What will be comfortable, concealable, and most importantly, what you will actually wear every day. A holster that looks great but just doesn’t fit your body or life will be of little use. There are several primary categories of holsters useful for concealed carry, but much depends on the individual–not only their preferences but their anatomy, their unique bio-mechanics, their lifestyle, the climate, and their weapon. Generally, those living in predominantly hot climates have fewer choices than those who live in cold climates, as coats and jackets can effectively cover a wider variety of weapon/holster combinations than a shirt. Shoulder holsters, for example, while looking sexy on James Bond, are generally not a great choice in hot climates. As it is best to carry only one gun, it is best to always carry it in the same holster.
Keep in mind too that when concealment is the primary concern, speed must necessarily take second place. Our contemporary gunslingers—uniformed police officers—wear their handguns on their hips. Many use security (AKA: “anti-snatch”) holsters that make it difficult for bad guys to simply pull their handguns straight up and out of their holsters. Such holsters commonly require the user to perform one additional step between releasing the thumbsnap and drawing the weapon, a movement that releases an internal retention catch, before being able to withdraw the weapon. Of necessity, this slows the draw, but it’s a reasonable balance between safety and speed, which is always a concern for uniformed officers.
While a patrol officer, I put aside fifteen minutes every day on our indoor range before my shift began to practice basic drawing and presentation drills. Because of this daily practice, I was consistently faster—much faster—than my fellow officers, none of who did the same practice (most cops are not gun people). As a detective, I did the same thing, but even though my concealed carry holster held the weapon in place only through friction—I did not have to release a thumbsnap or engage in any other contortions—I was measurably slower on the draw due to the necessity of clearing the drawing path of a sport coat during the presentation (as in drawing and aiming the handgun–weapon presentation).
While on duty, I never buttoned my sport coat, which if buttoned would have slowed the draw even more and would have more obviously “imprinted” the gun against the fabric of the sport coat. The same was true off duty where my choice of holster—primarily pancake or inside the waistband—made my handgun even more concealable, but slightly slower on the draw. Regardless of the cold, I always left my jacket or coat unbuttoned. As cold bothers me little or not at all, this was not a problem, but it surely can be for many people.
Here are the primary options:
BELT HOLSTERS: These come in a variety of materials–primarily polymer, nylon or leather–and styles, and attach to a belt by means of various clips, slots or paddles. Among them, the widely used “pancake” holsters hold the weapon close to the body, but are marginally slower to draw than holsters that are not so body-hugging.
This leather model from Gould and Goodrich, available through Midway USA for about $54 has three slots that allow some adjustment of carry angle on the belt. Notice that the leather is carefully molded to the shape of the handgun. The primary drawback with any leather holster is that when the gun is drawn, the holster tends to collapse–particularly any holster that has been worn for some time–making it difficult to reholster one-handed.
Here is a simple polymer holster and mag pouch available directly from Glock (Under $15.00 each) and other sources. The holster has a built in friction retention device and holds the weapon very closely to the body. The small plastic bars in the belt slots may be cut out for a variety of belt widths, to slightly adjust the carry angle, or to slightly alter the height of the gun or magazine on the belt. Unlike leather holsters, polymer holsters remain open when the gun is drawn, making holstering the weapon easy. While these particular holsters and mag pouches might more or less fit some other handguns and magazines, they are designed specifically for Glocks.
Fobus makes a line of inexpensive, very rugged and effective polymer holsters that allow easy adjustment of the angle of the holster on the hip. This model is a paddle type (about $30.00) that makes it easy to place and remove without having to undo the belt. One merely slides it down onto the top of the belt, the plastic paddle between the pants and shirt. Like the Glock holsters, it has a molded in retention device that securely holds the gun in the holster. Fobus also makes a line of “roto” paddle holsters that allow the angle of the holster on the belt to be adjusted.
This is a Fobus paddle type magazine holder. Fobus also makes single magazine pouches. All Fobus products are lightweight and virtually indestructible.
Keep in mind that handguns with added aftermarket accessories, such as higher profile sights, laser sights, flashlights, etc. will not fit standard holsters, most of which are designed for standard handgun models configured as they leave the factory. However, laser manufacturers such as Crimson Trace markets holsters by various manufacturers that fit handguns equipped with their laser and flashlight devices.
This is a Bladetech holster, marketed by Crimson Trace, for the Glock 43 with it’s Laserguard Pro light/laser combination. The inside-the-waitsband holster cost only $20.00 when purchased with their Laserguard Pro–a laser/flashlight device–and fits perfectly. Some holster manufacturers, such as Safariland, make tactical holsters that accommodate lights and lasers as well.
NOTE: A simple trick that will help to condition and ease the draw with leather and polymer holsters is treating their interiors with silicon spray. For polymer holsters, it will help to overcome the inherent friction of molded-in retention devices, but will not allow the handgun to accidentally separate from the holster.
Generally, all belt-type holsters require a substantial leather or nylon belt to keep them in place and to keep the weight of the handgun from pulling the holster outward from the body. By substantial, I mean something wider, thicker and stiffer than belts whose primary purpose is making a fashion statement. Absent a substantial belt, one can always pull a belt very tightly to achieve something of the same effect, but that does tend to turn one’s upper body red.
INSIDE THE BELT/WAISTBAND HOLSTERS: Made of leather, Cordura (the same synthetic material from which high quality backpacks are made) and nylon or polymer, these are among the most effective concealment holsters as they minimize the appearance of a handgun and hold it as close to the body as possible, between the waistband of the pants and the body. They are slightly slower to draw than pancake holsters, but for most people, drawing speed is not the primary concern. They require a belt for proper support, to keep the handgun flat against the body, and to keep the pants from constantly sliding downward under the weight of a handgun. Few, if any, have active retention devices as the pressure of the belt and waistband of the pants tends to keep the handgun firmly in place and a retention device would tend to pull the holster upward, also pulling up the pants, when drawing.
This is a Fobus inside the waistband holster (about $30.00). Unlike most others of this type, its polymer construction allows the holster to remain open, which makes holstering much easier.
This is a DeSantis Sof-Tuck inside the waistband holster (About $20.00). Its leather construction is common, but this particular holster has an adjustable polymer retention device for the belt, which also allows adjustment of the carrying angle. The strip of darker leather sewn around the top of the holster acts as a stiffener to help keep the holster open when the gun is inserted.
ITWB holsters do not require quite as substantial belts, as the function of the belt with such holsters is primarily to provide a place to anchor the holster to keep it more or less in one place. The weight of the gun and holster are primarily carried by the friction of the body and pants.
CAUTION: The photo of the DeSantis holster should call to mind one of the drawbacks of the ITWB holster: sweat. Because these holsters place the handgun directly against the body, particularly in hot climates where they may actually be in contact with skin, sweat can be a significant problem, requiring more frequent–probably daily–cleaning to remove it. Some ITWB holsters feature material between the body and the entire grip, trigger guard and frame of the handgun, which helps with this problem. Stainless steel handguns, or weapons with polymer frames and hardened finishes, such as Glocks, are also less susceptible to rusting due to sweat, but it is always an issue with any handgun carried close to, or in contact with, the body. Cleaning any handgun so exposed must never be confined merely to wiping down the exterior. Interior parts are, in many cases, even more susceptible to rust.
SHOULDER HOLSTERS: Made of leather, Cordura and nylon, polymer or combinations thereof, shoulder holsters are generally comfortable, particularly if balanced by two magazines on the opposite side of the body. However, they do require loose fitting outer garments to properly conceal them and generally cost much more than other types of holsters. In addition, one cannot take off the outer garments without revealing the very obvious holster harness and handgun. They come primarily with vertical or horizontal holster orientations. Vertical holsters are necessary for very large handguns or handguns with long barrels.
This is a DeSantis New York Undercover shoulder holster system made of leather ($182.99). It is available through DeSantis. It comes with a counterbalancing duel magazine pouch, and there are other accessories that can be added.
This is a traditionally styled holster–the X-15–made by Bianchi ($158.75). It is an all-leather holster, and comes in sizes capable of holding even very large revolvers with 6” and longer barrels.
Shoulder holsters made of nylon are generally much less expensive and lighter. They also have the advantage of being easy to clean and maintain
Shoulder holsters are easy to don and remove, and allow the carrying of a handgun and two spare magazines in one convenient package, however, they are useful primarily in colder climates. They also tend to be less effective at concealment than other types of holsters. James Bond can get away with it because the director can adjust the camera angles that determine what one can see of his body, but for the rest of us, shoulder holsters aren’t nearly as effective at concealment as many other types of holsters.
FANNY PACKS: Usually made of Cordura, nylon, some combination of these or leather, these devices are normally worn with the pack on the front of the body or on the hip. Depending on their release/opening mechanism, they may afford a rapid draw. Some use zippers, other have various Velcro mechanisms whereby the shooter simply tears the Velcro seals open by grabbing and pulling the front of the pack, exposing the handgun. Anyone wearing a pouch that opens by means of a zipper should thread a length of knotted parachute cord through the zipper tongue so it can be found easily by feel.
Obviously, fanny packs allow the convenient carrying of a handgun, magazines and other common items with little concern for wardrobe. These are a particularly good choice for hot climates, but avoid units that place the belt release buckle on or near the back. It’s far too easy for a bad guy to make off with the pack, thinking he’s getting a billfold, only to find an entirely unexpected windfall. If you know how to sew or have friends that do, it’s not hard to adjust even these packs to better position the release buckle to the side or front of the body.
This is a Bulldog fanny pack available from Midway USA for about $15.00, or directly from Bulldog. Like shoulder holsters, they allow handguns and magazines to be carried in one, easily donned and removed package, but are far more concealable than shoulder holsters.
This is a DeSantis Gunny Sack available through Midway USA for about $55.00 or directly from DeSantis. DeSantis was among the first to popularize such holsters and produces a full line of excellent holsters and other accessories of all types.
Fanny packs can be a very good choice for women, whose clothing options tend not to be as numerously carry-friendly as those of men. As I mentioned earlier, many belt holsters require a substantial leather or nylon belt to work properly, which in turn requires wide, substantial belt loops, something many women’s pants simply do not have. In addition, women’s torsos tend to be shorter than men’s, making some belt holsters ride too highly for comfort. A pancake holster that rides just above the waist on a man can put the butt of the handgun in a woman’s armpit. Women’s generally smaller waists also make some holster types uncomfortable. An unobtrusive fanny pack accessorizes well with pants and skirts alike, as long as they’re not too formal, and can double as a small purse. “Formal fanny pack” is probably something of an oxymoron.
Keep in mind that some police officers and tactically aware people will suspect anyone wearing a fanny pack is carrying a concealed weapon, but so many people carry them for reasons other than carrying handguns they generally draw little, if any, attention. I often wear a fanny pack and have yet to notice a police officer paying it any attention.
POCKET HOLSTERS: This type of holster is an outgrowth of the many small, light handguns—“pocket pistols,” commonly chambered in 380 ACP—now on the market. As long as pants aren’t too tight, they will neatly conceal a handgun. Obviously, if a given handgun won’t easily fit in a pocket, such holsters won’t work. This commonly relegates such holster/gun combinations to back pockets, or the thigh pockets of BDU-type pants, which are now exceedingly common. Some guns/holsters will fit in front pockets, but are generally more obvious and less comfortable.
Such holsters are commonly made of Cordura and nylon or leather. Special care must be taken with them as they can tend to promote rust since the handgun is worn so closely to the body. The configurations of some of these holsters, combined with some handguns, conspire to make the imprint of the gun more obvious through clothing. Experimentation is the key, and the holsters tend to be so relatively inexpensive this is not normally a problem.
This is a DeSantis Nemesis pocket holster made of cordura and nylon. The handgun depicted is a Ruger LCP. The holster is available through Midway USA for about $16.00 and also direct from DeSantis.
This is a pocket holster I made of Cordura. Notice that it neatly fits a S&W bodyguard .380 ACP pistol and also holds one spare magazine.
REMINDER: No one should carry a semiautomatic pistol without at least one spare magazine. The magazine is generally the weakest link, and a semiauto with a damaged magazine is little more than a very expensive and hard to load single shot pistol. Any decision on holsters must of necessity also be a decision about how to carry a magazine or magazines. Do not simply toss a loose magazine in a pocket, particularly a back pocket. Sitting on it can easily bend it, and the pocket lint and other flotsam and jetsam in pockets can cause handgun malfunctions.
The holster is essentially a pouch with a double layer of Cordura with a thin layer of polyester batting between. It is the same size as a common wallet, and works beautifully in most pants, particularly BDU types, where in the thigh pockets, it is all but invisible. No closure or retention device is necessary as gravity and the pocket keep things in place. It also has a pocket for a driver’s license and concealed carry license, etc. I have about $5.00 in materials in the holster. Sorry: I don’t have the time or inclination to make or market these, but anyone with basic sewing machine skills can easily fabricate one. This particular type of holster absolutely hides the shape of the handgun, looking like nothing more than a wallet.
The primary weakness of such holsters is that they are slow on the draw. They must usually be withdrawn from the pocket to allow the handgun to be drawn or reholstered; THIS IS A BASIC SAFETY ISSUE. It is too easy for the trigger finger to find its way into the triggerguard when holstering blind, and thrusting the handgun into the holster can cause a discharge. However, if the wearer is tactically aware—in condition yellow—as all who carry concealed must be, they should be able to anticipate the need for a handgun and old west fast draws will be unnecessary.
GUN PURSES: For those women that constantly carry a purse, the purpose-made concealment purse is a viable option. They allow not only the carrying of the usual contents of any woman’s purse, but actually allow a reasonably rapid draw.
This model is by Gun Tote’N Mamas (don’t you love that name?) through Midway USA and costs about $96.00. Midway has a wide variety of models and colors available, and of course, such purses are made and marketed by a variety of sources. They tend not to be small evening purses, but many are quite stylish.
There are, however, a number of issues with purse holsters. Once a handgun is placed in a purse, the character of the purse immediately changes. It can’t be allowed out of one’s immediate grasp. Purses are easily forgotten, lost, or stolen. If you’re in a restaurant, you can’t simply put it on the floor near your chair. It must be in your lap and the strap tucked under—or better, around–your leg. You also have to be careful to load your purse so that nothing interferes with the acquisition and drawing of your handgun; this is why purpose-made gun purses, with their dedicated handgun pockets, are a good idea. Keeping the handgun pouch clean and free of debris is also another mandatory concern. Handguns carried this way tend to collect a great deal of dust and lint (and other mysterious, feminine substances), so may need more frequent cleaning. This is generally a far more serious issue for revolvers than semi automatic pistols.
Any handgun that is not directly carried on the body presents special safety concerns. This is illustrated by the tragic 2014 death of Veronica Rutledge, who was carrying a handgun in a purpose-made carry purse with a zippered compartment for the handgun. She left the purse unattended in a shopping cart, the gun zipped in the gun compartment, for just a few seconds, which was sufficient time for her two-year old son to retrieve the handgun and shoot her in the head.
OTHER HOLSTERS: There are a variety of other specialty holsters for a wide variety of weapons. Among them are ankle holsters, which work best only for very small and light weapons, and of course, require the wearing of appropriately loose fitting and long pants. Other types include holsters attached to wraps that allow them to essentially disappear against the body, holsters that position a handgun essentially in the front of the body below the waistline (these tend to make me a little nervous as parts to which I am attached—physically and emotionally–reside there), various vests, coats and similar articles of clothing with built-in holsters, and a variety of other clever types for special purposes. Relatively new on the market are holsters that consist of little more than a rpolymer clip with a post that inserts into the muzzle of a handgun. They are very lightweight and are, for the most part, ITWB holsters. Versacarry is the best known manufacturer. Some companies even make bras with holsters included between the breasts (insert your own size joke here). As one might imagine, these are limited to pocket pistols. Two of the most famous holster makers are Bianchi and Safariland. Circa 2017, Bianchi is owned by Safariland, though still markets holsters under the Bianchi name.
PUBLIC RESTROOM ISSUES: Those that carry concealed weapons have another concern not shared by their unarmed friends: public restrooms. Whichever kind of holster you carry, you must develop consistent habits to deal with the possibility you will misplace or lose your handgun. This is a real problem in bathrooms. Many years ago, one of my fellow officers left his Walther PPK in its holster on the tank of a toilet in a lawyer’s office bathroom. When he realized his mistake and returned only a half hour later, it was gone. It was never recovered.
If the handgun can remain on the belt or inside the pants, the problem is essentially solved, but never allow a handgun in its holster to sag below the level of the partitions between stalls; such things are easily grabbed when you’re in a very poor position to resist or pursue. If a handgun is in a purse or fanny pack, simply hang it around your neck while conducting your—ahem—business. Putting a purse or fanny pack on the floor is, again, an inducement to a quick snatch and dash, and don’t for a second doubt that many thieves look for just those opportunities. It’s also best to avoid accidently dropping one’s handgun–or anything else–into the toilet. I know more than a few folks that have done that.
In addition, when engaged in a bathroom, you’re not in a great position to defend yourself. Criminals know this too. Always have your handgun in an easily accessible position, and if necessary, worry about cleaning up later. I know: Eeeeuuuww! Your mindset and willingness to immediately do what is necessary to end an attack at any time or place will determine your survival. The rest is easily handled with soap and water.
FINAL THOUGHTS: Be cautious about buying holsters in the same shop where you purchased your handgun. Unless you’re certain their offerings are of the brand and type you want, you will probably end up with whatever the dealer has on hand, and relatively few shops have a large and diverse selection. Such holsters tend to be among those that will eventually be relegated to a box on a shelf. Of course, if they’re not expensive, there isn’t much harm done, and there is something to be said for the fun of experimentation.
With the Internet, it’s easy to search for and browse all manner of holsters and accessories, and the photos and information provided help to make informed decisions.
The final article in this series, dealing with flashlights, laser sights and other issues will be posted next week. I hope to see you there.