Introduction to Holsters
A Primer on Available Handgun Holsters
By Brian Fitzpatrick
Holsters can be confusing. Gun stores, gun ranges, police uniform stores, military supply stores, and tactical specialty stores typically stock hundreds of holsters. Maybe I’m picky but these outlets rarely have what I’m looking for when I go holster shopping. As for e-commerce outlets, virtually thousands of internet vendors offer for sale what seems to be an unlimited selection of holster types and styles, constructed from assorted materials, in abundant colors, with countless features, and in varying degrees of quality and price. This includes a huge custom holster industry, in which craftsmen and artisans build holsters to your specifications, often with long wait times.
Most holsters are designed to fit just one specific handgun make and model and to serve a particular role or mission (duty carry, concealed carry, tactical applications, etc.), which often limits their use for other purposes. Holster engineering, technology and manufacturing are constantly evolving, with something better or more utilitarian being introduced almost every year. With care, a quality holster will last for years of use, but when worn regularly holsters do have lifespans. So if you own a holster that suits your needs perfectly, you’ll eventually have to replace it. One thing is for sure. If you’ve recently entered the gun market or you’re just now getting into the shooting lifestyle, the first holster that you buy probably won’t be your last.
This is the first in a series of articles and will survey a wide range of holster types. Future articles will narrow the field to specific holster classifications and cover them in detail. I can’t remember how many holsters I’ve owned during a thirty-four year law enforcement career, twenty-eight years as a civilian and police instructor, and six years as the owner of a firearms and tactical training company. I’ve heard about peoples’ holster drawers. I have packing boxes filled with holsters in my garage and carry a large backpack full of holsters, magazine pouches, and belts to the range when I teach classes. That doesn’t include the holsters that I’ve sold, lost, given away, or converted into dog toys. At some point I’ve owned almost every style of holster, even the types that I now consider to be unsafe or tactically unsound. Yes, mistakes are often our best teachers and I’ve certainly learned through my own mistakes and the mistakes of others. I’ll attempt to share that knowledge.
I sincerely hope that this series of articles will help to clear up some of the confusion for people who need to buy the right holster to meet their requirements. Before we get into the major holster types, it’s important that we first define some terms that describe various holster features:
Gun Belt (aka: Pistol Belt):
As important as the holster itself, a gun belt is specifically engineered to comfortably support the weight of a holstered pistol, extra magazine pouches, and other related equipment, and to provide stability during the draw sequence. Make no mistake; unless you already own a dedicated pistol belt, none of the other belts in your closet will be suitable. For concealment and general range use I recommend a 1 ½ inch wide belt (1 ¼ inch wide if you’ll be wearing a dress suit), constructed from a double thickness of quality leather, nylon or other material to give it strength and stability, avoid sagging, and to prevent your holster from shifting. For this reason, it’s important to match the size of your holster’s belt loops with your belt width. Uniform duty belts might be wider (1 ¾, 2, or 2 ¼ inches).
Outside Waistband (OWB):
A holster that’s worn outside of your pants waistband, attached to your belt. An advantage with OWB holsters is that they provide a stable platform, from which the user can obtain his/her master shooting grip (your shooting grip with finger off trigger) before drawing the pistol. This means that shooters do not have to readjust their grip after pulling their pistol out of the holster. Other types of mid-body carry methods, such as IWB and pocket holsters often require a transitional grip to get the gun out of the holster, after which a shooter must change to a shooting grip before engaging a target.
Inside Waistband (IWB):
A holster that is worn inside of your pants waistband, usually secured to your belt with one or more spring clips, flexible loops, reversed hooks (“J Hooks”) or other device. Buyer beware, only consider an IWB holster that retains its shape after the gun is drawn, thereby allowing one handed re-holstering. Kydex or quality leather, the opening of which is lined with spring metal are common IWB build materials. IWB holsters usually feature a mid to high sweat shield between your body and the gun, protecting them from each other.
A holster that’s designed to carry a subcompact sized pistol inside of your trouser pocket. The primary purpose is to provide a safety barrier between the trigger and the outside world. Other pocket holster missions are to prevent the pistol from turning upside down, limiting printing through the pants fabric, and protecting the pistol from pocket lint. A good pocket holster will incorporate one or more design features to keep the holster from coming out of the pocket when the gun is drawn (rough side out leather and a high squared off shoulder).
A numeric reference used to denote the number of separate retention systems that secure your pistol into a holster, preventing it from falling out or from unauthorized access by others:
- Level One—The fit of the holster molded to the gun is the only retention. Many level one holsters feature a retention adjustment screw (typically Phillips, Allen or single slotted head).
- Level Two—One additional retention device, typically a safety strap with snap closure or a spring loaded or manually opening bail covering the rear of the pistol slide.
- Level Three—A second manually operated retention device, typically covert or hidden, thereby increasing security from unauthorized gun grabs. These are most commonly used by police officers assigned to uniform patrol. They require an “extra step” to draw the pistol, which is over and above disabling visible straps or other retention mechanisms.
The angle in which the pistol is carried relative to the wearer when standing upright:
- Neutral Cant (aka: “Zero Degree Cant”)—The pistol rides straight up-and-down with the muzzle pointing at the six o’clock position and the back of the slide or hammer pointing to the twelve o’clock position. This works well with a pistol carried at the dominant side hip or with a front, appendix inside waistband (AIWB) holster.
- FBI Cant (aka: “Rearward Cant”)—The muzzle is canted towards the rear of the shooter’s body with the grip angled forward. This works well with the gun carried at or behind the strong side hip. (Confusion Alert: I’ve seen one holster maker’s website that referred to this as “forward cant,” apparently referring to the grip being forward).
- Muzzle Forward Cant—The muzzle is farther forward ( 5 to 15 degrees) than the rest of the pistol with the grip angled toward the rear of the shooter’s body. This works best with the gun worn either at or slightly forward from the dominant side hip, so that when the shooter sets his/her grip on the holstered pistol, the dominant hand is slightly forward from the shoulder. The muzzle forward cant doesn’t lend itself to concealment, however, it’s the fastest and most natural draw. It’s a good cant for exposed duty carry or competition holsters.
Common holster materials include leather, horsehide, Kydex (a high quality polymer, usually hand molded to a specific model gun), plastic (typically used in lower priced, mass market holsters), and nylon.
This is a device or part of the holster that attaches to the belt. The most common are belt loops or slots on OWB holsters and spring clips on IWB holsters, but there are many other attachment system types. Some holsters have separate backings that attach to the belt and to the holster with screws, allowing the user to adjust for different cants or to facilitate a quick release attachment mechanism. Less common but still available are paddle holsters, an OWB holster which utilizes a paddle instead of belt loops. The user inserts the paddle portion of the holster behind his/her belt and inside of the pants, where it’s held in place by friction. The holster portion of the paddle/holster assembly remains outside of the waistband.
Military and law enforcement personnel and other tactical types often use holsters with an attachment system incorporating MOLLE — a military acronym for Modular Lightweight Load-carrying Equipment — rows of sewn in straps which then mate with the MOLLE field on the users’ plate carrier, external body armor, load bearing vest, thigh rig, battle belt, or other carrying system. I’ll discuss attachment system types in future articles as they apply to specific holsters.
Light Bearing (aka: light-mounted) Holster:
A holster that is designed to carry a pistol with a weapon-light attached. Most light bearing holsters are made to accommodate a specific pistol model matched with a particular model weapon-light (i.e. a Glock 19, 9mm pistol with a Streamlight TLR1-HL gun light). Examples of light bearing holsters can be found in the concealment, duty, and military/tactical groups.
I’ll dedicate future articles to various categories of holsters based on their design and intended mission and offer my opinion on their strengths and weaknesses. These follow-up articles will discuss the following holster groups:
Holsters designed to carry a pistol covertly underneath a cover garment with minimal printing (outline of gun visible through clothing) but available for rapid deployment in an emergency. Concealment holsters come in many forms, including OWB, IWB, OWB/IWB hybrids, inside pocket, shoulder or ankle holsters, as well as various off-body carry methods, such as purses, pouches, backpacks, sling-bags, brief cases and fanny packs that have hidden gun compartments or holsters.
Outside waistband holsters suitable for concealment will fit very close against your body and they won’t extend too far below the belt line so as not to be visible below your shirt or jacket hem.
General Purpose Holsters (exposed carry or administrative concealment):
These are normally OWB holsters but not covertly concealable because of their length, thickness, or ride distance away from the body. They make good range holsters and are sometimes suitable for administrative concealment, such as on a police detective duty rig when worn with a business suit or with jeans and raid jacket.
Not suitable for concealment or defensive carry, these are big roomy OWB holsters that can accommodate many different handguns. Field holsters are not usually molded to a specific pistol model so the handgun often sits too low to obtain a master grip, fits loosely, and in some cases actually shifts around inside of the holster. For this reason, field holsters often feature a retention strap incorporating snaps or hook and loop material over the back of the gun’s handle. This strap’s placement sometimes prevents the user from obtaining a master grip while the gun is holstered. Field holsters can come in any material but often on the lower end of the quality spectrum, including nylon, leather, or injection molded plastic.
Field holsters are suitable for carrying a handgun while hunting, hiking, working on a ranch or farm, or in other applications where concealment and speed of presentation are not an issue. In some cases, owners of uncommon handguns for which few holsters are available will resort to field type holsters.
Intended for exposed, uniform service handgun carry, duty holsters are constructed of heavy-duty leather or polymers and feature a two or higher retention level. Worn on a Sam Browne, web gear, or other uniform service belt, these holsters can be mounted on belt widths up to 2 ¼ inches. Duty holster belt attachment systems frequently incorporate a longer and/or angled shank, allowing the holster to ride lower and farther away from the body to accommodate uniform jackets, rain gear, external body armor or load bearing vests.
Constructed in a minimalistic, often skeletonized design and worn on the strong side, outside the waistband, competition holsters facilitate speed of presentation while offering limited retention. Competitive shooters often wear these holsters forward from the hip with a muzzle forward cant for the fastest possible draw.
Tactical & Military Holsters:
These are heavy-duty, exposed holsters that ride low—often attached to the belt and the upper leg—to allow for body armor and other military equipment and for ease of access during vehicle operations. Tactical holsters can also be mounted to a plate carrier or other load bearing system in a cross-chest fashion. In most military applications the handgun is a secondary weapon system, with the operator’s rifle being primary. For this reason retention is sometimes emphasized over speed of presentation. In law enforcement applications, however, retention and speed of presentation are equally important.
As we’ve established, if you’re into guns, if you’re interested in applying for a concealed carry permit, if you hunt, if you carry a gun for work, if you’re getting into competition, or if you just enjoy training with guns, then there will likely be more than one holster purchase in your future. Hopefully this article has simplified things for you by breaking down the world’s holster population into manageable groups for you to consider. In future articles in this series I’ll provide detailed information and critical analysis on specific holster types with the goal of helping shooters to make informed decisions regarding their holster acquisitions.
About the Author:
Brian Fitzpatrick is the owner and training director of MV Tactical & Firearms Training, Inc., which offers all levels of firearms and tactics instruction to the civilian and law enforcement communities. Brian is a retired police sergeant with thirty-four years of experience in Los Angeles County, California law enforcement. He has been a civilian and law enforcement firearms and tactics instructor for twenty-eight years. You can contact Brian at firstname.lastname@example.org. For information about MV Tactical & Firearms Training, Inc., go to www.mvtactical-firearmstraining.com.