The choice of a holster is as important as your selection of firearm. A good gun in a bad holster is analogous to a race car with lousy tires. What may initially seem insignificant is actually a vital part of your safety equipment. There are many facets to a holster’s performance. Obviously, it holds the gun, but it needs to do so properly. If your gun is too loose, at best, it can move and be in a bad position, and at worst it can fall out. I don’t want to be put in the position of trying to explain to the little old lady at the checkout counter that I am one of the good guys and that there is no need to worry, as I pick up my gun from the floor. Not to mention figuring out a good explanation to the responding police officer!
The opposite problem is one that is too tight as it could foul your draw and derail your shooting. I have tried some holsters that were so tight that it was nearly impossible to retrieve the firearm. The better the “boning,” the less tight the holster needs to be. A quality holster is fitted to the gun by boning the features of the gun into the leather, which entails pushing the leather into and around the feature shapes of the gun with a tool, while the holster is wet, during the forming process. A properly boned holster will adhere to the trigger guard, slide stop, safety, and other physical features, detailed into the leather, eliminating the need for a strap to hold the gun in. Kydex holsters are also fitted to the gun, but rather than a detailed boning, the Kydex is press fit into and around the prominent features.
Good tests for holster fit are to run at full speed and to jump up and down. The gun should remain firmly in the holster during these vigorous actions, yet not so tightly as to impede the draw. If you find yourself tugging too hard to lift your gun out of the holster, you will need to loosen it. If you have an adjustable holster, the adjustment screw will change the tension easily. If the holster is leather and just marginally on the tight side and does not have an adjustment option, there is a simple home remedy. Wrap the gun, or a matching dummy gun, with about four layers of masking tape and insert it in the holster and leave it overnight. A trick to keep the adhesive from sticking to the gun is to first wrap it with a Saran-type plastic wrap.
The extra-thick fit of the gun with the tape on it should loosen up the leather. If four layers of tape does not work, try again with eight layers the next night. If that doesn’t work and the holster is new, send it back to the manufacturer. If it’s too old to return, it may be best to purchase another holster.
Leather conditioners are a good option as well. Worked into the leather with a few applications, they do a good job at smoothing out the draw on tight holsters.
To carry your holster all day, your carry rig needs be comfortable. In addition to the size, shape, design, and placement of the holster, comfort has a lot to do with how well the holster and belt supports the weight of the gun. The key to proper support is thick, high quality leather in the holster and especially so in the in belt.
While frequently overlooked, gun belts are extremely important as they contribute greatly to both the comfort and security of your carry rig. The belt is what keeps the holster positioned upright and prevents it from flopping around. Use a belt designed as a gun belt rather than a common casual or dress belt. For maximum support, the belt should be made of two-ply, thick leather to help support and distribute the weight of the gun. A variation of that concept is a Kydex insert between the leather plies to increase vertical stiffness.
Nylon web belts have proliferated in the market in the past decade. While they offer strong support, I prefer the traditional look of a leather belt as it blends in better with casual clothing. No point in trying to conceal only to have the style of your belt divulge your secret!
As far as hole placement, I prefer the buckle holes to be placed 3/4-inch apart rather than the standard 1-inch spacing. The shorter distance between holes offers more gradual adjustment for a better fit.
If you intend on using your belt with an in-the-waist-band (IWB) holster, order the belt 2 inches longer than your normally wear to compensate to the added thickness. Whichever belt you choose be sure that it is properly sized for the belt loops of your holster. If you have a 1.5-inch belt opening in your holster, use a 1.5-inch wide belt. A belt width smaller than the openings on your holster will allow the holster to slid around. I have seen lots of quality holsters used with wrong size or low-quality belts, only to watch the shooters struggle with draws and reholstering as the holster shifts position.
The cant is the angle at which the holster sits on the belt. Holsters are variously designed for a “straight drop,” “cant forward,” and what some call a “radical cant.” Some holster designs also offer adjustable cants. The forward cant—used for strong side carry—pushes the butt of the gun upward, reducing the amount of the grip that sticks out the back. The greater the cant, the more concealable the gun, but if it’s angled too far it may be difficult to get a proper grip.
With the more extreme forward cants, I find it beneficial to bend over slightly at the waist during the draw which offers a better angle to grip the gun. Personally, for strong side carry, I find the radical cant, which angles the gun forward about 20 degrees, to be a good combination of concealability and accessibility. It’s enough angle to keep the butt of a full-sized gun from sticking out the back, but still allows a good grip. Cross draw and center carry rigs usually use a rear cant which pushes the butt of the gun downward.
Another design element is the “rise,” which is the height that the gun sits above the belt. For taller folks, the “high rise” design works well. However, being of short stature, I find that a high-rise holster makes drawing more difficult as I have to lift the gun extra high to clear the holster. I find I get better concealability and less flip-flop motion with standard rise designs as well.
One feature that inspires some level of debate is the thumb break or other type of retention device. While it may appear to be essential to hold the gun in the holster, it is, in fact, not necessary for that purpose. Quality holsters retain the gun quite efficiently by their fit and boning. The open-top design is a testament to their retention ability. The true intent of a thumb break or other retention device is to help prevent a gun grab. The snap reduces the ability for someone to grab your pistol from its holster. Notice that I said reduce, not eliminate. While it may be possible for an attacker to release the snap, pull the gun through the strap, or even break the holster, the extra safety device does act as a physical deterrent, slowing down the gun grab or possibly even preventing it completely.
The controversy comes in determining if the advantage is worth the trade-off. The thumb break does add some time to the draw stroke and may foul the draw if the user is not sufficiently practiced. With lots of continued practice, the use of a retention device only adds a fraction of a second, but it is yet one more thing to practice and likewise, one more thing that could go wrong. If you don’t practice and maintain your competence, you will add significant time to your draw at a moment when time is of the essence. If you have ever seen the video that is circulating around the internet of the police officer who took 5 attempts to get his gun out from his security holster, it is easy to see how a fouled draw can get you killed.
Another argument against a retention device is that if your dominant hand is injured, using your non-dominant hand to draw from a dominant-side holster may be more difficult with a retention device. This scenario makes a great argument for carrying a back-up weapon accessible to your support hand.
The retention device issue boils down to one question, “How likely are you to have someone try to take your pistol from your holster?” Compared to private citizens, police officers are far more prone to attempted gun grabs and that’s why they use security holsters—most with several security layers. While the average citizen may never come into direct contact with the criminal element in his or her lifetime, the police officer will—often daily.
Secondly, the police officer’s gun is fully exposed to view, while the average private citizen’s gun is usually concealed and unknown to others. Most assailants will never know it’s there until it’s too late. An exception would be when an altercation includes a hand-to-hand fight.
In the duration of the tussle, the concealed holster may be discovered. In that case, the retention device may go a long way to delay or prevent a gun grab. Other than that, the average person is not likely to be in a situation where a retention device would be essential to survival. However, if you are willing to practice enough on a continuing basis to make the release of the retention device second nature, it does add a level of additional security. It’s another issue where there is no simple answer and personal preference takes precedent.
While leather once dominated the market, Kydex, is quite popular and has made significant inroads in recent years. Kydex is a plastic-type material that has good molding and machining qualities. Like most things, there are those who love it and those who hate it. The advantages of Kydex are that it is relatively inexpensive to manufacture, provides a fast draw because there is less friction inside the holster, and can be designed to be easily adjustable.
The expense of Kydex holsters is lower than leather because of the low cost of plastic versus quality leather, as well as the reduction in manufacturing costs and time. Kydex does not need much maintenance because it’s plastic. The adjustable tension found on many Kydex holsters, combined with a design that snaps in the pistol, but releases easily as the gun is pulled out, allows for a fast draw. One of the best features of Kydex is its ability to be designed in a manner that allows adjustability in terms of tension, cant, rise, and types of belt loops. Leather designs are often adjustable as well, but Kydex holster designs tend to offer more options.
There are two disadvantages to Kydex—lack of flexibility and noise. Because the material is a hard plastic, it will not mold to your body with use like leather does. While some people find that Kydex’s inflexibility makes the holster uncomfortable, especially when worn in-waistband, this has not been my experience. I often wear an IWB Kydex holster 8 to 10 hours a day without issue. Again, holster shape, personal taste, and preference comes into play.
Another drawback to Kydex that cannot be discounted is noise. While a leather holster is nearly silent during the draw, the same cannot be said for Kydex. Depending on the design and materials, with some Kydex holsters there is a slight abrasion sound as the gun rubs against the hard plastic or as the gun clears the molded indentations. If you prefer a quieter draw, choose your Kydex holster with that in mind or stick with leather.
Injection molded plastic is another material that has become quite popular. There are some injection molded holsters that are quite good and generally have the same characteristics of their Kydex brethren.
Regardless of which material or type of holster you choose, there are some design features that are quite valuable for carry holsters. The holster should cover the entire length of the barrel/slide. For IWB carry, it eliminates skin burns from hot metal. For on-the-belt carry, it protects the gun and the front sight. In both cases, the full-length holster prevents the front sight from catching on the holster during a draw.
In most instances, a short gun can be used in a long holster, such as a 4-inch gun into a holster designed for a 5-inch, but not the other way around. For this reason, I usually purchase a holster for a full-length gun, even if my initial plans are to use a shorter length barrel. Also, the longer length holsters stabilize the gun better against the body, and I find them to be more comfortable.
A “must” feature is a holster’s ability to remain open while the gun is out of the holster. This is vital because if the holster collapses, it will require two hands to reholster, putting you in danger of lasering yourself. You may even have to undo your pants to get the gun back in the holster. With on-the-belt holsters, it is usually not an issue but for IWB use, use a leather holster with a reinforced opening. For the most part, Kydex and injection molded holsters stay open without issue.
Another “must” feature is the ability to get a full grip while the gun is holstered. A good draw starts with a good grip. You need to be able to obtain a proper purchase on the grip while in the holster as you won’t be able to effectively change your grip during the draw or while shooting. Ensure you can reach around the entire grip and place your hand properly up against the bottom of the trigger guard without the holster or belt getting in your way.
One feature that I prefer is a body shield. This is a tang that is extended upward beyond the side of the holster and rests against the body. Besides keeping shirts clean, it offers three significant advantages; Reholstering is easier with a body shield because you can press the gun sideways against the shield and use it to guide the gun into the holster. Second, it helps to keeps the shirt from being pushed down into the holster. Third, it protects the gun from body oils, sweat and the salt that the body secretes. The tang also provides an additional advantage for guns that have external safeties as the body shield prevents the safety from being accidentally deactivated by rubbing against the body.
Women have additional holster considerations because of their body shape. Often, the placement and cant angle of men’s holsters are uncomfortable for women and are difficult to draw from since women’s waistlines are often higher than men’s, and may angle inward. Some holster manufacturers make holsters designed specifically for women that don’t hug the gun in as close to the body as holsters designed for men.
A holster must perform all of its functions with a high degree of concealability as well. This is where things get tricky. Concealability is derived from the person’s body size and shape, the holster’s placement, and angle on the body and from the size and shape of the gun. What works for one person may not conceal as well on another.
I find that most people, especially those new to carrying a gun, are too paranoid about concealment. I have been carrying concealed for over 25 years and nobody has ever noticed a thing. Just follow some basic rules. Wear a concealment garment long enough to allow normal movement, kneel rather than bend over, and use your support hand to reach up rather than gun hand and you will be fine!
There is no exact formula for putting all of these elements together. What is comfortable for one person may not be for another. Lots of gun folks have a drawer full of holsters that are liked and disliked to some degree. Unfortunately, it’s a try and see situation. The good news is that many quality holster manufacturers accept returns if you are not satisfied. It’s worth buying from those companies just for that opportunity, even if you must pay a little more.
What considerations do you take into account when choosing a new holster? Share your answers in the comment section.
Sign up for K-Var’s weekly newsletter and discounts here.
Probably the best written article I’ve ever read about holsters. None of the “this here’s the bestest holster fer ya” written by a guy who’s 6′ 2″ with 0% body fat. One thing that I think may be in error, on the last slide show, there’s a caption about a “thumb break” design holster that I think is really a Level 2 retention holster but the scene shifts to quickly for an old guy like me to be able to tell. I have holsters of kydex, leather and nylon, some of all three for the same gun, ’cause, like many people, I tried one and threw it in a drawer or the type of clothing will determine with is the correct holster to use at that time. Always place and practice with it several times before going out.