By Kjell Rosenberg MD
Everyone has heard the expression, “opinions are like [enter anatomical example], everyone has one.” True. However, the opinion of someone who has extensive experience in successful expert level performance should carry more weight than the average person. A phrase that grinds the gears of every competent instructor is “it works fine for me.” That’s fair, but if your experience is extremely limited compared to the shooter who runs tens of thousands of rounds in matches or high-level training every year, or compared to the instructor who sees hundreds or thousands of guns, holsters, etc. come through their class, maybe their opinion means a little more.
Understand, when one of these experts says a piece of gear is prone to failure they don’t necessarily know that yours will fail. If you barely use the gear, it may never break. Even if you use a low-quality piece a lot, it might still be ok. What they are saying is it has a higher probability to cause you problems. It is with that attitude that I approach this topic of holsters.
Context is also important. What works just fine for casual use at three yards may not work at all under duress at twenty-five. What may not fail when done slowly may crash and burn under time constraints. The information I’m about to share with you is a conglomeration of the best information I could gather from the most experienced and competent instructors and shooters around. I’m not insulting your mother, your heritage, or your pets. I’m trying to give you the best chance for success in what could be the worst moment of your life.
When folks think of purchasing a handgun for self-defense, the last thing they want to think about is all the extras they need to go with it. As a brand-new shooter (in a market not dictated by insane prices) you should expect to spend about $1000-$1500 on getting started with quality gear and training.
$450-$650 for a quality handgun.
$60-$100 for a quality holster
$20-$40 for a third magazine
$20-$40 for a magazine pouch
$40-$60 for electronic ear protection
$10-$20 for eye protection
$30-40 for a belt if you don’t have a solid one
$150 for a beginner level class like CRR’s Pistol Mechanics
$100-200 on range ammo
$30-50 on defensive ammo
$20-40 on maintenance supplies
That several hundred-dollar handgun may seem like enough of an investment right here and now, but it’s not. I hope that by the end of this article you will understand why its not only important to have a holster but a high quality one.
Below are some of the reasons that a quality holster is very important.
- It provides portability of the firearm. This is a vital piece of the self-defense pie. If we want to have the gun with us, we need a way to carry it.
- It provides safety overwatch. A quality holster covers the trigger guard making it impossible to accidentally initiate the trigger.
- It provides safety when not being worn. When I remove my EDC rig from my belt to sleep, I remove the whole gun in the holster. I put the holster in the safe place. This prevents me from accidentally activating the trigger if I grab for it in a hurry and it also gives me a place to put the gun during whatever event has required my attention.
The biggest reasons I have observed for the lack of a good holster are:
- “I’m not going to carry. Its only for home defense.”
- “I bought what they had at the gun store.”
- “I didn’t know any better.”
- “It was cheap.”
My goal in writing this article is disabuse you of the notion that a quality holster is not necessary. Let’s start by discussing #1. Why might you want a holster for a home defense holster? How about we start with how that firearm is made ready to defend your home? In order for a tool to do work it needs to be readily available and in proper working condition. For a defensive handgun that means it needs to be within reaching distance with a magazine full of ammunition also withing reaching distance.
Its not my goal today to describe the myriad of safe ways a hand gun may be stored depending on your personal context. Regardless of how you responsibly and safely store your firearm, the necessity of setting it down at sometime during your emergency is a real possibility. Do you need to use both of your hands? Is the situation over but you are waiting for police to show up? Do you have children or other inappropriate hands that might pick it up if you need to set it down but no where to put it? A holster is the perfect place.
Aside from being an added convenience, a holster is an extra layer of safety. It keeps the gun in my control when I don’t actually need to use it, and it keeps the trigger covered to prevent unintentional discharges. I highly recommend you add a quality holster of this type to your home defense set-up if you don’t have one already.
Before we go any further, it’s probably best that we add create a list of things that contribute to holster success or failure.
What qualities does a quality holster have?
- Durability. A good piece of equipment should last several years through normal wear and tear and not break with a limited amount of hard use. The worst time to realize you have a garbage holster is when it breaks during a tussle when you are fighting for your life.
- Accessibility. If you cannot access it quickly, what’s the point? You haven’t got all day to get ready. Position matters. Holsters that you have to fish up from deep in your pants just to get to the gun would be considered inaccessible.
- The trigger guard is covered
- No design flaws which increase the rate of unintentional discharges such as a trigger-finger actuated retention device such as a serpa style holster uses.
- You can holster the gun without involving the support hand. Using the support hand in the holstering process is a good way to muzzle yourself. The caveat to this is a pocket holster. In the case of a pocket gun, you remove the holster from the pocket, then holster the firearm, and finally replace the holstered pistol back into the pocket. The position and material of the holster make a difference. CRR recommends a long heavy double action trigger on any gun you are carrying in a pocket holster.
- Materials: The material used to craft a holster is important to safety because some materials do not prevent the trigger from becoming actuated. Materials that are weak or floppy are not ideal (Except for the pocket holsters covering guns with long heavy double action triggers as mentioned above). A good holster is made of material that will stay open when the firearm is removed to allow single-handed holstering.
- Stiff leather holsters are a good option as long as the leather remains stiff. Once the leather starts to cave in on itself, it becomes a safety hazard because it can and will actuate the trigger. Don’t believe me? Google it.
- Kydex. Not molded plastic, but kydex. Kydex is a very strong polymer which molds to a custom fit for your handgun’s make and model. It’s my preferred holster type for concealed carry because of its durability.
- Hybrid. Unless the entire gun is completely encased in kydex with a softer backing attached, leave it on the shelf. It may be more comfortable, but it will let you down. Its difficult to get the retention pressure correct in a hybrid which can cause difficulty with drawing or holstering the firearm.
- Fast: If you can’t get the gun out quickly, what’s the point? Similar to accessible but not the same thing. This is more about things that prevent you from removing the gun such as difficult retention devices or a molded holster that’s too tight.
- Secure: If the tension on the firearm is too loose it could fall out if you are forced to move in a hurry or have to lie down. A holster should also be secure to your belt or body. Losing the gun because the holster falls off is never a good thing.
Retention levels and devices
- Level 1: No device. Tension only. Most concealed carry holsters fall into this category. Tighten the holster so that if you hold it upside down the gun will not fall out but not so tight you can’t draw it smoothly.
- Level 2: An active device such as a retention strap, hood, or thumb break in addition to tension.
- Level 3: Has both active and passive retention devices. Your draw stroke typically requires more than one manipulation to draw the firearm. A holster that requires the index finger to press a button is considered Level 3. Level 3 are the most secure and also the slowest holster to use. Anyone open carrying for work or defense should consider this type of holster.
- Comfortable enough. No holster is “comfortable.” It’s a thing you just have to live with. However, some are noticeably less uncomfortable than others. If it’s too uncomfortable you won’t wear it.
One of the first difficulties you may encounter is finding a quality holster to purchase. Unfortunately, most brick-and-mortar gun shops carry the cheap type of holsters which Condition Red Response does not recommend. Quality custom holsters are more expensive and require more capital to keep on shelves. Unfortunately, most customers do not appreciate the difference so gun shops stock the cheap stuff.
Another problem you will run into with buying holsters off the shelf is the tendency of shops to stock the “serpa” style or “trigger finger release” retention devices. These holsters have a higher incidence of self-injury due to the design flaw of requiring the trigger finger to actuate the release. In a hurry, it is not uncommon for the finger to continue straight into the trigger guard as the firearm is drawn and actuate the trigger as well. There are videos all over the internet of people shooting themselves in the leg when drawing from these holsters.
A problem exacerbated by the generally poor stock in gun stores is simply not knowing what makes a good holster for you. In order to answer this question, we’ll do a deep dive into holster selection.
OUTSIDE THE WAISTBAND
The first thing you need to decide is the question of inside versus outside the waistband. Each type of holster has its place and associated pros and cons. Let’s start with Outside the Waistband holsters or OWBs.
There are three basic uses for an OWB.
- Duty holsters. Law Enforcement Officers typically carry this style of holster. They are generally bulkier, have a Level 3 retention device, and are openly carried where they can be seen. They are frequently “offset” meaning pushed out from the body and “dropped” meaning they sit lower than the belt line to allow faster draw. Because of the added bulk they do not typically make for good concealed-carry rigs.
- Competition holsters. These holsters are usually cut to favor fast drawing over retention. They are frequently also offset and dropped although more streamlined than duty holsters. These holsters can also make good “range” or “training holsters” for beginners who are not experienced with the safe drawing from less exposed holsters.
- Defensive Carry holsters. This is the category we are most concerned with as a defensive training outfit, so we’ll spend the most time here. An OWB defensive carry holster will typically not be offset or dropped in order to be more concealable. Many of the good brands will mold the belt attachments in a curve to fit more closely to the body. Because they sit closer to the body and higher on the belt, they are not quite as fast as competition holsters, but they can still be very easily accessed and therefore good for beginner use on the range and in classes. Some of these will also come with retention devices. We recommend against any retention device which use a trigger finger release (as discussed above).
Some folks assume that OWB means “open carry” but a quality OWB holster can be easily concealed with proper placement and clothing choices. Common “cover garments” as we call them, are anything from loose fitting button-up shirts, open in the front items like coats, overshirts, and vests, to t-shirts or sweaters.
When selecting an OWB holster another important consideration is the position on the belt in which the holster is to be carried. We refer to holster positions as a clock face with 12:00 being front and center at the belt buckle. CRR recommends that a right-handed shooter carry their OWB from 2:00-4:00 and a left-handed shooter use the 8:00-10:00 position for best results. We do not recommend OWB or IWB “small of back” or “SOB” carry for multiple reasons including low speed, decreased safety, and high potential for inaccessibility.
It is also important to pay attention to draw angle. Certain holsters have a cant such as a 10-20 degree “FBI cant” which tips the gun slightly forward. While this makes for a more ergonomic draw at 4:00 (8:00) it creates a bad wrist angle at 3:00 (9:00) and anything forward of it. Historically the FBI cant was introduced to make the gun easier to carry while sitting in car, not for draw speed or ergonomics. Canting the holster can make a proper draw stroke difficult to impossible. CRR recommends “no cant” unless you already know how to draw properly and can test the cant angle of the holster before carrying it.
Belt attachments are another important consideration for carry holsters. For OWB holsters CRR recommends a complete loop around the belt with very little room for play. The loops should be firmly connected to the holster in such a way that they will not break off with reasonable pressure. “Paddles” are fine for range and training use but do not achieve the same level of durability we desire for a belt attachment when carry the firearm for self-defense. One can easily find You Tube videos of paddle type holsters being ripped right off the belt.
INSIDE THE WAISTBAND
Inside the Waistband or IWB holsters were designed specifically for concealed carry. However, with the growing popularity of Appendix inside the Waistband carry or AIWB, some competitors in sports such as USPSA which were previously dominated by OWB competition style holsters are now using AIWB holsters as well. For our purposes we will be discussing IWB holsters in the context of defensive carry.
There are two basic types of IWB carry, AIWB and non-AIWB. What separates the two?
- AIWB carry is forward of the hips. For right-handed shooters this means 12:00-2:00 or 10:00 to 12:00 for Left-handed shooters. The holsters are shaped differently and frequently come with features such as muzzle pads, wings, and concealment claws to improve the fit and concealment of the holster.
- Accessibility: The AIWB holster is far more accessible than the non-AIWB simply due to its position. A person almost always has access to the front of their waist even when belted into a car.
- Speed: Body mechanics and efficiency of motion favor a draw from AIWB. An experienced user will always be slightly faster from AIWB unless they have a physical impairment that prevents the proper motion.
- Retention: People have more strength and balance in the center of their body than the side. This position makes it easier to defend your firearm from an attempted grab.
- Less Telegraphing: You can stage a draw without making your intention known.
- Due to Accessibility and Less Telegraphing it is more difficult for an adversary to “stuff” your draw compared to other types of carry.
- Muzzle direction: With AIWB carry, the muzzle points at the anterior hip/thigh which contains large blood vessels. A gun shot in this area can cause rapid exsanguination. For this reason, an AIWB practitioner needs to have exemplary gun handling skills. Assuming one has a quality holster and a firearm not prone to self-actuation when torque is applied, a holstered firearm should not fire. It should be safe. Unintentional self-inflicted gunshots are typically the result of poor firearm handling with the exception of a rare accidental discharge associated with a compromised internal safety mechanism found in certain firearms.
Many practitioners recommend a slight hip thrust to angle the muzzle away from the body during draw and holster maneuvers. CRR agrees and teaches this methodology in our Pistol Mechanics course. Some practitioners also recommend an external thumb safety on any AIWB carried firearm. CRR agrees that an external safety adds a layer of protection in this context but do not require it in our courses.
- Belt attachments
- Full loops: as with OWB waistbands full loops are the recommended attachments for securing the holster. Loops provide the most stability and retention, hands down.
- Discreet Carry Concepts brand metal clips. The clips are also a good option. They have a hook which clings really well to cloth as well as a J hook which goes under the belt. This attachment is my personal favorite for home defense and exercise holsters as it is quite stable when worn without a belt. I can wear it with sweatpants, scrubs, gym shorts, etc. and count on it to stay in place. When worn with a belt it is almost as secure as a full loop.
- Sometimes longer AIWB holsters are more comfortable than shorter ones depending on where the muzzle end interacts with your body. I’ve found that a holster made for a 5inch M&P is more comfortable for me than a 4.25 inch. Don’t use my body as an example though. Test your own. The idea is that when you sit down, the holster goes past your pubic bone rather than poking it.
- Unlike an OWB holster, a high riding IWB holster is easier to draw from because the belt won’t interfere as much with getting your grip.
- It’s the stock of the gun that makes it difficult to conceal for most people. A 5” barrel conceals as easily as a 3” barrel but a stock for a 17-round magazine is harder to conceal than the same gun with a 12-round magazine. A thin gun will conceal easier than a wide gun. Don’t worry as much about the barrel as the width and stock length when choosing a concealed carry firearm/holster.
- AIWB carry without a waistband: Enter the PHLster enigma. This carry rig is our preferred method of carry from a “belly band” style. The Enigma comes with its own waistband and allows you to attach a custom kydex holster to it eliminating the need for a waistband. It is highly concealable, relatively comfortable, and very functional. The enigma can ride high enough to prevent “printing” in the crotch of your pants as well. This holster was developed by PHLster and they have a plethora of educational materials on how to conceal this and other holsters. I recommend you visit their website and take advantage of that opportunity whether you buy this rig or not.
- Non-AIWB IWB holsters. These holsters are carried in the same location as OWB holsters: 2:00-4:00 for right-handers and 8:00-10:00 for Left-handers. The same concept of angling or canting the holster also applies. As with the other style of belt holsters, we recommend full loops of kydex or leather for belt attachments. Avoid hybrid style holsters, the good ones add bulk which decreases concealability, and the bad ones increase chances for failure due to invasion of soft material into the trigger guard and excessive tension preventing a smooth and timely draw.
OTHER HOLSTER POSITIONS
(disclaimer: This information is purely academic for me having never seriously carried either format)
- Shoulder holsters: As a rule, CRR does not recommend any shoulder holsters for beginners for the following reasons.
- Safety. The muzzle must cross you and possible others to draw the gun unless you do an extremely slow series of abnormal movements similar to drawing from a small of back holster.
- There is a trade off between security and speed which is exaggerated in shoulder holsters compared to belt holsters.
- In close quarters its easy to stuff a draw from a shoulder holster and the process of drawing clearly telegraphs your intention.
- If you are going to carry this way you need to spend a lot of time figuring out how to draw safely.
- Ankle Holsters: (my information on this topic comes from the writing of Greg Ellifritz and Claude Werner)
- Simplicity. You are almost assuredly wearing pants. Therefore, little else needs to be done to conceal the holster. No special garments are required to conceal the gun. Caveat: You may need to purchase pants that are wider at the ankle or slightly longer that usual to prevent printing and difficulty drawing the firearm.
- Convenience. Depending on your position, it may be more convenient to draw from an ankle than a waistband. Consider sitting, the fetal position, etc. Caveat: This is probably a rare occurrence compared to the convenience of having a belt holster. But it has been a popular place to conceal a back-up gun or “BUG” for police officers for this reason.
- Can’t conceal it if you’re wearing shorts.
- Requires flexibility and coordination.
- Less convenient/slower than Belt holster most of the time.
One last tip on ankle holsters as back-up gun sheaths: Consider carrying it for draw with the non-dominant hand since it’s likely you need the back-up because your dominant hand and gun are out of the fight.
While this list is hardly comprehensive CRR recommends the following holster vendors when searching for a quality item.
Disclosure: We receive no payment or kickback from any holster companies.
Even if you choose a different vendor, viewing the holsters made by these companies will give you a better idea of what a quality holster should look like. I hope that I have convinced you that a holster, a good holster, is a necessary part of a complete firearm-defense pie. As always, avoid gimmicks, listen to the people who use and abuse the gear, seek out and train with the best instructors to make sure your gear works in your context. The self-defense pie isn’t cheap. Each slice is a little salty, but it’s also not prohibitively expensive to buy quality gear and it could mean the difference between your loved ones living or dying. How much is that worth?
Recognized sources include but not limited to: Team CRR, Tom Givens, Karl Rehn, Greg Ellifritz, and Claude Werner.
Copyright 12/19/22 Kjell Rosenberg