Before choosing a holster for concealed carry, it is best to first determine how and where you intend to carry your firearm. Will you carry it on your body or off of your person? Will you carry it on your strong side hip, appendix, or small of the back? Will you carry it inside your waistband or outside the waistband? Then, based on where or how you will carry, determine which make and model of firearm you want to carry concealed. Do all this before selecting a holster for concealed carry.
I’m going to try to be extensive with the article, touching on many topics you might not have considered when selecting a holster for concealed carry. This article is going to focus on helping you choose a holster for your preferred mode of carry, and won’t focus much on helping you choose a mode of carry. Choosing a mode of carrying is a highly personal choice based on many factors such as your body size, shape, lifestyle, working conditions, etc… There is no one size fits all solution when it comes to anything related to firearms, including holster selection.
Table of contents
- Universal truths when choosing a holster for concealed carry…
- Specific ways you can carry your concealed firearm and some of the nuances of selecting a holster for each type.
- Holster Materials
- Holster Terminology and Holster Features
- My personal holster choices…
Universal truths when choosing a holster for concealed carry…
Whether you choose to carry inside the waistband (IWB) or outside the waistband (OWB), or if you choose to carry your concealed firearm off of your body, there are some universal truths when selecting a holster for concealed carry.
1) Always use a holster.
This seems like it shouldn’t need to be said, but it’s not uncommon for someone to toss a handgun in their pocket or their purse and call it a day. Not only is this unsafe, but it can also cause an unreliable firearm. No matter what your mode of carrying, you need a holster.
2) Avoid many “one size fits all” holsters.
You can get away with one size fits all holsters some of the time, such as with a belly band type holster, off-body carry, or even a pocket holster. However for more traditional carry methods, you really should consider a holster designed specifically for your firearm which fits tightly.
3) Always make sure the holster covers the trigger guard (or it’s not really a holster).
Exposed triggers are a safety hazard and exposed triggers are a real thing. It is more common to have an exposed trigger with a one size fits all type holster than with a holster specifically designed for your firearm, but even so, always make sure the trigger is protected. This is also a part of the reason holsters are so necessary with pocket carry and off-body carry.
4) Training with your carry gear.
Let’s be honest. Buying gear is a theory. Taking your gear to a rigorous training class, such as an Alpha Koncepts Defensive Pistol training class, proves or disproves your theory. Don’t fall in love with your gear! It either works, or it doesn’t. If your gear doesn’t work, find other or better gear. You might end up with a few holsters which don’t work for you until you find one that does, and that’s perfectly fine.
Don’t carry with holster A, but train with holster B. If you carry holster A, train with holster A. For example. If you carry off-body every day, using a strong side outside the waist holster during training is doing yourself a disservice. You need to know if your everyday holster works as you intend it, and you need to build muscle memory working with it. Train with your EDC gear.
5) What works for competition might not work for defense.
As we said before about training with your gear, I want to reinforce that if you’re training for defensive scenarios, competition holsters might not be your best choice to train with. It never fails that a student will bring their competition setup to a defensive pistol class. You are cheating only yourself by doing this.
Specific ways you can carry your concealed firearm and some of the nuances of selecting a holster for each type.
Tips for choosing a strong side IWB holster.
Strongside Inside the Waistband (IWB) is likely the most common form of carrying a concealed firearm.
You’re going to carry it more than you shoot it so you do want to find a comfortable holster. IWB and AIWB are probably the least comfortable, but the most concealable. That’s not to say that IWB and AIWB are uncomfortable, they’re not if you select the proper holster. Remember comfort is subjective, and the cliché is true, “carrying a gun isn’t supposed to be comfortable. It is supposed to be comforting.” Hybrid holsters are perhaps the most comfortable, but also can wear down over time.
Sometimes changing the clips on your IWB holster makes a big difference in keeping your holster where you want it. I’ve had holsters with poor clips causing the holster to move around in my pants, and that’s a big problem. Also concealed J clips improve concealability when tucking in your shirt. I prefer good-quality polymer clips, instead of metal, in most cases.
A key feature in the hybrid holster is to find a holster with what some call a combat cut. The combat cut makes it easier to access or grip the firearm. The combat cut is simply an area of the holster pad that has been removed thus exposing more of the grip area against your body.
Tips for choosing an Appendix carry IWB Holster.
While I find the appendix inside the waistband (AIWB) uncomfortable, there is no denying the popularity of this carry style. Appendix carry, sometimes called centerline carry would be carried at the 1 o’clock position for a right-hander and 11 o’clock for a lefty. If you choose to carry AIWB, follow the same tips as you would with a strong side IWB holster, however, look at holsters with 90-degree cant, or “no cant”. This means the firearm is straight up and down. Though some people prefer negative cant on their AIWB holsters meaning they lean back slightly. This negative cant is especially comfortable for a cross-draw.
Two features on an AIWB holster that you might find help better conceal larger handguns are a raised area which pressed against the belt from the inside, sometimes called a wing or a claw. The second feature you might find useful is a foam bump to press the lower portion of the holster against your body which then pressed the grip against your stomach. Third, and possibly most important when selecting an AIWB holster, is the adjustable ride height of the holster. However keep in mind while these features may add some concealability, they may also do so at a cost of comfort.
Tips for choosing an OWB holster.
Outside the waistband (OWB) holsters are often carried on the strong side hip. Paddle holsters are an option for OWB if you may have to frequently disarm yourself. Belt loop attachments are a good choice if you only need to put on and take off the holster once per day. I prefer a holster with at least one level of active retention for OWB. This means that at least one button, snap, or lever needs to be defeated to draw the firearm from the holster. Having at least one level of active retention makes it difficult for someone to snatch your firearm from your holster.
Selecting a holster engineered and designed for your model of firearm is very important for OWB carry so the firearm doesn’t shake and rattle around within the holster.
Tips for small of the back carry.
Small of the back (SOB) carry is comfortable, however, if you are seated it is nearly impossible to access the firearm efficiently. If you do choose to carry in the small of your back, holster cant is your friend. Proper cant makes drawing the firearm easier and more comfortable. Look for a positive cant, meaning the firearm is leaning forward. 20 degrees seems comfortable for me for the small of the back.
Avoid the dead center 6 o’clock position. 6 o’clock carry means the firearm is in line with your spine. Falling while carrying in the 6 o’clock position, could cause serious spinal injury, and also makes accessing the firearm impossible. If you choose to carry in the small of your back, instead opt for 4:30 – 5 o’clock.
Small of the back carry can be done IWB or OWB. The same guidelines apply for choosing a small of the back holster regardless if it is IWB or OWB. Though as I write this I do not think I know a single person who carries OWB in the small of their back.
Tips for pocket carry.
Don’t try to place the firearm into the holster in the pocket, instead remove the holster from the pocket first. Insert the firearm into the holster and then insert the firearm with the holster into the pocket.
Don’t carry anything in the pocket where you keep your firearm. Coins paper clips and even lint can muck up the action of your handgun making it inoperable or may cause you to have to remove the firearm first to retrieve whatever item you kept in the same pocket. You do have more than one pocket, use them.
Be sure when you draw the firearm from your pocket that the holster remains in the pocket.
Tips for off-body carry.
The first tip I can give anyone considering off-body carry is this: If you are the kind of person who forgets where they place their purse or can’t ever find your keys; Off-body carry may not be for you. The off-body carry would be carrying in a purse or a backpack, briefcase, or some other type of carrying device that you could easily put down. If you choose to off-body carry, think about how you will draw the firearm, really go through the motions, and stage the firearm in such a way that it can be effectively and efficiently drawn. There are purses and bags specifically designed for carrying a firearm off-body. Get a holster to go inside the bag. In the compartment with your gun, it is probably best not to carry any other items.
What you don’t want is an exposed trigger. You don’t want the firearm moving around within the carry bag. You don’t want other items bouncing around with the gun. And you don’t want to EVER let the carry bag leave your possession. It might be called off-body carry, but never let the bag leave your person unless it is secured from unauthorized persons such as a locked drawer or locker.
Velcro may help you secure your holster into your carry bag.
There is a plethora of materials that holsters may be made. Some of the more common types are Kydex, leather, molded plastic, or Hybrid. A hybrid is a combination of materials. There are pros and cons to each holster material.
Kydex – Kydex is perhaps the most common material used in the making of holsters. Kydex is a thermoplastic that is easily manipulated. For this reason, Kydex pretty much dominates the custom holster market. However, for some people, Kydex against your body may be uncomfortable. Not all Kydex is the same as Kydex comes in varying thicknesses, and generally thicker is better.
Plastic – Molded plastic holsters are somewhat less common than Kydex in the concealed carry market but more common in the open carry market. Molded plastic holsters, such as the Safariland ALS, dominate the “duty” sector for law enforcement and security.
Leather – Leather holsters are somewhat old school. However leather is a viable option for carrying a firearm. There are still plenty of manufacturers making leather holsters. Leather is comfortable, but leather wears. As leather wears and softens it can become unsafe depending on the design of the holster. If the leather holster collapses after you’ve drawn the firearm, take the holster out of service as it is now unsafe to reholster. If some soft flaps or straps get in the way when reholstering, again take the holster out of service.
Leather holsters have a rich look that some people may wish to achieve. However, for concealed carry, nobody should see your holster. Leather is often used in hybrid holsters because it blends the comfort of leather with the safety of Kydex or plastic.
Neoprene is a very soft and supple material, sometimes used in hybrid holsters, but some holsters are pure neoprene. Pure neoprene holsters will usually collapse upon themselves when drawing the firearm. It can be unsafe to reholster the firearm without removing the holster first. Neoprene is often used in belly bands, pocket holsters, and hybrid holsters.
Holsters are sometimes manufactured from nylon fabric. These holsters are usually of the one-size-fits-most variety and are often frowned upon for safety reasons. In addition like pure neoprene holsters, soft nylon holsters tend to also collapse.
Holster Terminology and Holster Features
As you are shopping for a holster, you may run into some confusing terminology and acronyms. You must understand what you’re getting. I’ll try to define some of the terms and holster features so you can better make an educated purchase.
Appendix Inside the Waist Band. A holster worn inside the pants usually at the 12 o’clock – 1:30 positions for right-handed shooters and 12 o’clock – 10:30 positions for left-handed shooters.
Holster belt clips allows the wearer to attach the holster to their belt or pants. Clips can be made from metal or plastic and can be fastened over or under the belt. There is a very wide variety of belt clips for holsters.
Holster belt loops are similar to clips, although belt loops wrap around the belt. Holster belt loops can sometimes be unfastened and are sometimes fixed in place.
Holster cant means the angle that the holster is worn. The holster cant may be fixed or adjustable. Holster cant sometimes allows for more comfortable carriage or a smoother presentation of the firearm. Cant is a matter of personal preference.
The holster claw attaches to the holster and presses against the back of the belt. In most modes of concealed carry, the claw will press the firearm grip against your body and reduce the chance of printing. Printing is when the shape or outline of the firearm can be seen through the wearer’s clothing.
A drop leg holster is a type of OWB holster that sits well below the belt line. Drop legs holsters are often used for competition or combat. Drop leg holsters provide for much easier access for some shooters, depending on arm length.
Inside the Waist band. IWB is a generic term meaning that the holster is worn in the pants. Unlike AIWB, IWB holsters are usually worn on the strong side at about 2 o’clock to 4 o’clock for right-hand shooters and 10 o’clock to 8 o’clock for left-handed shooters.
A light bearing holster means that the holster may receive a firearm with a weapon-mounted light. Just as most holsters are fitted specifically for a unique model of firearm, so too the holster must be fitted for the firearm and the light combo. If you intend to carry a weapon-mounted light (WML), then you would need a light-bearing holster.
The magazine release cover covers the magazine release button on the pistol to prevent the magazine from falling out accidentally. Alternatively not having a magazine release cover allows the wearer to purposely release the magazine while the pistol sits in the holster.
O’clock refers to where on the body the holster is worn. For example, 12 o’clock would be your navel or belly button. 3 o’clock is your right hip, 6 o’clock is your spine or gluteal cleft, and 9 o’clock is your left hip.
If the holster has an optics cut it means that an area of the holster has been removed to accommodate for a red dot sight (RDS) mounted to the slide of the firearm. The wearer can sometimes remove this area themselves with some holsters, but not all. Note that because some RDS are larger than others, you may need to specify your RDS when ordering your optics-ready holster. It also matters if your RDS is mounted forward of your rear sight or in place of your rear sight.
Outside the Waist Band. OWB is a holster that is worn outside the pants instead of inside the pants. OWB is not typical for concealed carry due to printing. OWB is more common for open carry, duty and competition.
Red Dot Ready holster is another name for optics cut that means that the holster is designed for a pistol with a red dot sight.
Holster retention refers to how well or the method how the holster keeps the gun in place. There are two types of retention, passive and active. Passive retention is most common with IWB holsters and relies solely on friction and pressure. Active retention means some sort of button or lever must be defeated before the shooter may remove the firearm from the holster and is most common in OWB holsters. Not all OWB holsters have active retention.
Holster ride height is how high or low the firearm and holster sit on your person. Some holsters have adjustable ride height. If not you may get the option of selecting low, medium, or high. How high or how low you select for your ride height makes a difference in concealability, comfort, and access. Too low and accessing the firearm may be difficult.
The small of your back (SOB) is the curvature in your spine which creates a gap where some people choose to keep their holsters. Generally, this is the 5-7 o’clock position. Note 6 o’clock may be dangerous. If the wearer were to fall, the impact of the firearm against the spine could cause injury.
Speed cuts, sometimes called combat cut means an area of the sweat guard has been removed to allow the shooter to better achieve a proper grip. This cut is most common with hybrid-style holsters like Crossbreed and is a matter of personal preference.
Strong side refers to the right side hip for right-handed shooters and the left side hip for left-handed shooters.
the sweat guard protects the firearm from the sweat and natural oils of the shooter. This is most typical on Kydex holsters. A high-cut sweat guard will typically cover the entire slide of the pistol. A low-cut sweat guard could be even with the wearer’s belt line. If unsure which to get, opt for the high cut as it is easy to remove material, but not easy to apply new material to the holster.
A holster wedge is typical for AIWB. The wedge attaches to the back of the holster and presses against the wearer, which in turn presses the grip tighter to the shooter’s body which limits the printing of the grip. Holster wedges are available in various shapes and sizes and may or may not be necessary according to the shooter’s body size and shape.
The holster wing is synonymous with a holster claw. The wing presses against the back of the belt and may aid in concealment.
My personal holster choices…
There is no one size fits all solution when it comes to anything firearm-related. What works for me may not work for you. What works for you might not work for me. There is theory and practice surrounding my choices, which as previously stated is highly personal and based upon my body and my lifestyle. However, I carry at my strong side hip, approximately 2:30-3:30. I began with hybrid holsters in 2014. Though I still find a hybrid holster to be more comfortable, in 2021 I did transition to Kydex for several reasons.
I am currently experimenting with an optics-ready Kydex holster with a claw that is light bearing and has a high sweat guard. For me, the holster works well, conceals well, and is comfortable enough.
There are many fine holster manufacturers of comparable quality, so don’t be married to any brands. Vedder is a fine manufacturer of Kydex Holsters. For outside the waistband, I use a Safariland GLS with active retention.
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