Concealed Carry Methods: Holsters and Alternatives
Most experts suggest using a conventional belt holster for concealed carry. Breaking that down, we find strong side external holsters the most frequent recommendation. Admittedly, no holster will permit a faster draw from a standing position than a good belt holster, particularly when worn on the shooter's strong side on a dedicated gun belt. A strong side holster on a wide, purpose-built belt is also one of the more comfortable methods of carrying a handgun, as long as a lot of sitting is not required. Cross-draw holsters, inside-the-waistband (IWB) holsters and shoulder holsters are also regarded favorably by most pundits.
These are excellent options in some circumstances, but I do wonder where these guys work, socialize and relax. Don't they ever sit down, attend a function, have coffee with their friends, or drive a car? Isn't it ever summer time where they live? Don't they ever come in out of the rain? Don't they ever do any kind of physical activity (labor or recreational)?
Because if they did any of these things, the first thing they would normally do is take off their coat or jacket and in the process expose their previously concealed handgun to public view. This is not desirable and in most jurisdictions it is against the law. (The legal term is "brandishing.")
Most people live in states that permit legal concealed carry and an increasing number are taking advantage of it. A lot of other people live in places where their Constitutional right to "maintain and bear arms"--that means carry a gun--has been infringed by state or local government, but who have decided to ignore such laws and arm themselves for self-defence. Who can blame them? Honestly, if you and your loved ones were threatened with robbery, battery, rape, torture and murder by a gang of toughs, or even a single psychopath, could you defend yourself without a gun? Sadly, not many of us could.
I am talking about ordinary, law abiding, working or retired people here. People who live normal lives and want to protect themselves and their loved ones, but do not want to disrupt their lives or dramatically change their behavior to do so. People who do all of the things I mentioned above. For most of these people, the conventional holsters recommended by so many experts are just not practical.
Handgun size has a big impact on the viability of the various concealed carry methods. In other words, appropriate concealed carry methods vary with the size and weight of the pistol. The bigger the gun, the harder it is to conceal. The handguns commonly used for personal defense can be grouped in the following general categories.
Full Size Service Pistols
The larger and heavier a gun is, the harder it is to keep concealed and the less comfortable it is to carry. These factors mitigate against full size, service type autos and revolvers (1911's, Beretta 92 series, Browning Hi-Power, Ruger GP 100, S&W "K" and "L" frame revolvers and all similar size handguns). No matter how brilliantly these guns perform when the whistle blows, service pistols were not designed for concealed carry. Indeed, they were designed to be carried in large hip holsters suspended from a wide gun belt. Full size service pistols are, therefore, a poor choice for concealed carry, although some of the carry methods appropriate for compact service pistols can be used for their larger cousins.
Compact Service Pistols
A step down in size are the compact service pistols. These are the shortened and lightened versions of the semi-auto service pistols. Most chamber the 9mm Luger (9x19mm), .40 S&W, or .45 ACP cartridges. I think the first pistol of this type was the Colt Commander. Today, a Commander, at 27.5 ounces and 7.75" in length, seems chunky compared to the new Colt Officers Model (24 ounces and 7.25") or, my favorite, the Glock 19 (21 ounces and 6.85"). Most manufacturers now have "chopped" (shorter barrel and grip) versions of their service pistols. This class of gun is the largest I would consider for concealed carry.
The next group of concealable pistols include the small frame .38 Special snub-nose revolvers (Colt's Detective Special, Ruger's SP101 and S&W's Chiefs Special are the classics), the small .380 ACP semi-autos (Walther's PPK being perhaps the most famous) and the new breed of sub-compact 9x19mm semi-autos, such as the Glock 26, Kahr PM9 and Kimber Solo Carry. The G26, for example, is 6.3" long, and weighs 19.7 ounces. Its size is typical of many sub-compact pistols.
Pocket Pistols and Mini Guns
The smallest guns fall into the Deep Concealment or Mini-Gun category. These are the true "pocket pistols," in that they will literally fit into most jacket or pants pockets. These tiny guns include the .22/.22 Mag. mini-revolvers, .22/.25/.32 mini-autos and various derringers. Good examples are the North American Arms mini-revolvers and the Beretta tip-up barrel mini-autos. My favorite, the NAA Black Widow mini-revolver, weighs just under 9 ounces and is 5.75" long. Guns this small can be concealed in many ways, including some unique carry alternatives, which is their great advantage.
CONCEALED CARRY OPTIONS
There are many ways to conceal handguns of various sizes. Here are some worthy of consideration.
Fanny packs are normally worn in front, not in back as the name implies. They offer some of the advantages, particularly in terms of comfort and supporting the weight of a pistol, as a cross-draw holster on a separate gun belt, but with slower access and superior concealment.
Most manufacturers offer two (or more) fanny pack sizes. Service pistols and compact service pistols usually require the large size, while most snub-nose revolvers and sub-compact pistols will fit in small size fanny packs. The smaller a fanny pack is, the less it resembles a gun pack and the less hassle it is to carry. Therefore, small fanny packs carrying snubby revolvers or sub-compact autoloaders are best for unobtrusive carry. I recommend the smallest size your gun will fit into.
The fanny pack has several good points as a method of carrying a concealed handgun. For one, it has its own wide belt that spreads the load of the pistol and makes it much more comfortable to carry all day. For another, it does not interfere with most normal activities and is completely independent of the clothing you wear (no jacket required). It is suitable year around and in any climate. Access is pretty good, you just jerk the corner out and down with your weak hand to reveal your pistol, held ready for a strong hand draw. If stealth is more important than speed, you can quietly unzip the fanny pack and draw the gun with your shooting hand, which is particularly useful when sitting at a table. The fanny pack is attached to your body, so you will not forget it, or be separated from it at the wrong time. You will not inadvertently reveal your gun (flash) as you bend over, or twist to look behind you, which are common problems with conventional belt and shoulder holsters. There are no unusual straps running under your clothes (like with a shoulder holster) to give you away. Your gun will not "print through" your clothing, since your clothing is not concealing the gun.
Fanny packs also provide a handy place to keep your wallet, change and incidentals. They work particularly well in hot weather, when jogging, exercising, or anytime wearing a jacket to conceal a belt or shoulder holster would be uncomfortable and possibly draw attention. Both men and women can, and do, innocently carry fanny packs all the time, so yours should not be remarkable. Reholstering is very easy.
Overall, a fanny pack is my favorite method of concealed carry. However, no method is perfect. The main drawback to fanny pack carry is that it is not suitable for wear with a coat and tie (for men), or evening dress (for women). If you have to "dress up," a fanny pack is not appropriate.
If you are mugged, your mugger may demand you give him your fanny pack, rather than just your wallet, and your gun is in the fanny pack. Two hands are required to draw the gun rapidly and, like any carry system requiring two hands, you could get seriously injured if the second hand is busy doing something else when you need the gun.
Another argument against fanny pack carry is that knowledgeable cops and civilians (usually others with concealed carry permits), may spot yours for what it is. My response to that is, So what? As long as you are carrying legally, cops and other legitimate gun owners are no threat to you. The point is that the general public will not know, will not be upset, does not think in terms of concealed firearms and will not give you or your fanny pack a second glance.
A belt holster on a dedicated gun belt is a non-starter for concealed carry, so we need only consider holsters that attach to the belt that holds up your pants. Belt holsters can be used with handguns of any size, but are particularly applicable to full size and compact service pistols, which have a limited number of carry options. If you are absolutely sure you will never want or need to remove your coat in public, a conventional holster (strong side or cross-draw) attached to a wide trouser belt can work well. The holster should precisely fit the belt. Belt holsters are the best option for a fast draw and reholstering is comparatively easy.
Unfortunately, belt holsters are inappropriate for many civilian concealed carry situations, particularly in warm weather when a coat or jacket is uncomfortable and may appear inappropriate. Quickly and discreetly discarding a holster that is threaded through your pants belt is practically impossible, should it become necessary to ditch your sidearm.
A strong side belt holster is typically uncomfortable when sitting or driving a vehicle. I prefer a cross-draw holster, since it is more comfortable in a wide variety of positions and can be reached with either hand, in case your strong hand is otherwise occupied when you need to draw your piece.
A holster that rides inside the waistband of trousers can be an unobtrusive method of concealed carry for those thin enough to comfortably wear one. Concealment is superior to an external belt holster or paddle holster, although some sort of coat or jacket must always be worn.
Some inside the waistband holsters are held in place by a spring clip over the waistband and belt, while others come with straps that attach around a trouser belt. Either way, a short barreled handgun and a stiff belt are required for best results. Pants and belts should be purchased in a waistband size that includes the gun and holster. Most inside the waist band (IWB) holsters can be worn cross-draw or on the strong side, depending on the situation and wearer preference. A clip-on IWB holster and gun can be quickly discarded, if necessary. Reholstering can be a problem with a soft (and hence more comfortable) IWB holster.
I find an inside-the-waistband holster, worn either strong side or cross-draw, to be uncomfortable for carrying compact service pistols or .38 revolvers, although many experts recommend such combinations. In general, IWB holsters are most appropriate for thin handguns and thin shooters.
Shoulder holsters are available that carry the gun in either the vertical or horizontal orientations. Relatively long barreled guns require vertical shoulder holsters for concealment, while shorter barreled guns work well in horizontal holsters. Shoulder holsters can be made for guns of all sizes. Access to the gun is generally good, as long as your coat is unbuttoned/unzipped, and reholstering is easy.
Obviously, a shoulder holster requires wearing an outer garment at all times for concealment, a disadvantage they share with belt holsters. If you always wear a coat, and depending on your build and tolerance for shoulder straps, a shoulder holster can be a good choice. Many men find the shoulder holster's straps irritating for extended wear, while women typically have fewer problems with shoulder holster straps. To ensure maximum comfort, a shoulder rig must be carefully adjusted to fit the wearer; ideally, it should be custom made.
Someone who spends most of the day seated and is required to wear a coat may find a shoulder rig appropriate. If you have to carry a large gun under a coat, a vertical shoulder holster is one of the few practical options. It also keeps the gun dry in inclement weather.
These are wide fabric bands, usually including an elastic insert, with a integral holster pouch that are worn under a blouse or shirt. A belly band may be a viable way for a woman wearing a skirt, or a man in formal attire, to carry a small pistol. It shares the basic advantages and disadvantages of a holster shirt, namely a high level of concealment and poor access, but is less expensive and cooler to wear. As with a holster shirt, an outer shirt closed with snaps, instead of buttons, is desirable, since the shirt must be ripped open to access the gun. Reholstering is difficult.
The air marshal, as you might imagine, was designed for use by federal air marshals and it allows good access to one's pistol from a sitting position, even with a lap belt fastened. It is a wide fabric belly band with a cross draw holster pouch supported by a strap over the shoulder that helps distribute the weight of the gun.
It is essentially a variation on the shoulder holster, with a belly band instead of a back strap. The pistol is carried under the weak side arm, somewhat lower than with a conventional shoulder holster. The advantage being it is probably more comfortable than a conventional shoulder holster, as it distributes the gun's weight better and there is no back strap between the wearer and a tall seat back, such as an an airliner seat. The disadvantage is you need to keep your cover garment buttoned at all times.
There is a strap over the shoulder, which many find irritating and the belly band plus shoulder strap effectively cut off all air flow under the shirt. The air marshal is probably most appropriate and comfortable in cold weather or a 100% air conditioned environment, like a jetliner cabin.
The holster shirt usually takes the form of an undershirt with a pocket specifically designed to hold a pistol, typically under the left arm (for right-handed shooters). Holster shirts provide a high level of concealment, coupled with poor access (you normally have to unbutton your outer shirt to get to your gun). Holster shirts are best for carrying lightweight guns; a heavy pistol will cause them to pull away from the body and droop. They also tend to be quite warm, rather like a long underwear top. Holster shirts are expensive and you will need several if you wear them often, as you will need to wash it after every wearing. Kramer's Confident Carry is one of the better known holster shirts.
If you choose this method of carry, it is best to wear outer shirts with snap or Velcro closure to avoid having to rip the buttons off a regular shirt in an emergency. A cowboy shirt with snaps would be one possible alternative, if it blends into your usual surroundings.
Lower Abdomen Holsters
Thunderwear and SmartCarry are popular brands of lower abdomen holsters. These are pouch holsters on integral belts that are normally worn under an outer shirt that is not be tucked-in. They can also be worn over an outer shirt, but below the beltline. The various SmartCarry models can accommodate guns ranging from 1911A-1 pistols to mini guns and have a waterproof back panel to keep sweat off your gun. Drawing and reholstering are relatively slow with these holsters, as the gun is carried with most or all of its frame below the belt line, so the grip is hard to grab in a hurry. As with IWB holsters, one must buy pants and belts sized to go around a holstered pistol.
The Pager Pal is an IWB, cross-draw holster that clips over the waistband of your pants and carries a small pistol entirely inside the pants, below the waistband. The relatively large outer (clip) portion of the Pager Pal is covered by a pager or cell phone case. A two hand draw is required to hold your pants down while jerking the holster above the beltline by its exposed pager case, so the gun can be drawn. Concealment is good, but access is slow and requires two hands. As with any IWB holster, pants and belts should be purchased in a waistband size that includes the gun and holster.
I have found small of the back holsters too uncomfortable to be practical. Satisfactory when standing, they make it impossible to lean back when sitting or driving a vehicle. They also print badly when the wearer leans forward. They work fine in the movies, because the hero is almost always facing the camera. I do not consider SOB holsters useful for regular concealed carry and will not mention them again in this article.
A thigh holster can be attached to the upper leg by an elastic band, or held in place by some sort of garter belt. The latter keeps a thigh holster from obeying the law of gravity by slowly slipping down the leg and is the correct alternative for a woman wearing a skirt or dress. Thigh holsters are suitable for sub-compacts and mini guns. A thigh holster is generally impractical for men or women wearing pants, as to access it one must drop one's pants. Drawing and reholstering are awkward, but concealment is good.
I have seen ankle holsters for full size .380 autos and .38 snubby revolvers, but I would not like to carry a gun that big in one. An ankle holster impedes normal foot/leg movement, especially if you need to move fast. However, an ankle holster will work for the deep concealment pistols, such as mini revolvers and .25 autos. Such handguns are light and small enough not to be too intrusive. Cowboy boots or similar footwear help to conceal an ankle holster. Ankle holsters can usually be worn with formal clothes (a big plus), as long as the diameter of the lower pant leg is not too tight. (Ankle holsters require at least boot-cut pants legs.)
The pistol may inadvertently be revealed when sitting, especially if you are prone to crossing your legs, unless you wear extra long pant legs that drag on the ground when walking. Gun access and reholstering are awkward when standing, better if seated. Obviously, an ankle holster is not compatible with shorts or skirts.
The Safepacker, by Wilderness Tactical Products, comes in a variety of sizes suitable for almost all types of handguns. It is a rectangular, enclosed gun pouch that can be worn exposed on the belt, since it completely covers the gun. Wilderness Tactical Products offers an accessory belt that effectively converts the Safepacker into a fanny pack and also an accessory strap for carrying Safepacker over a shoulder. The Safepacker can be secured to a vehicle's safety belt when driving. For the user who cannot wear the Safepacker on a belt or strap, it can be carried by hand.
My favorite method for carrying a mini-gun is the belt pouch. Mine is from Uncle Mikes. It will hold a small gun in the rear area and your wallet, change, shopping list, or whatever in the front section. It opens by means of a top zipper. The gun compartment is accessed by a pull away Velcro partition inside the belt pouch. It will work fine with any of the mini-guns and also with the smallest .380 autos (like the SIG P-238). The belt pouch just slides onto your regular belt. I recommend a wide, sturdy belt, such as those sold by Wilderness Tactical Products.
A photographers vest is available from a number of sources (mine is a Domke). They are generally light in weight with multiple large pockets, usually with zipper, snap or Velcro closure, and therefore provide a secure method of carrying a concealed gun. The front zipper pockets of mine will accept a G26 or Detective Special size gun, but not a G19. I carry extra ammo in the weak side front pocket to equalize the weight distribution. Access is adequate. The other pockets can be used for pens, wallet, change, checkbook and other stuff that is handy to have with you. In this regard, a photographer's vest is similar to a fanny pack, serving as a general purpose carrier. Fishing vests and general outdoors vests can be used similarly. The photographers vest's negatives are similar to those for the fanny pack: it does not go with more formal attire and very knowledgeable shooters may suspect why you are wearing one.
Pocket holsters are available for small handguns and I recommend their use for pocket carry. A pocket holster allows acquisition of a full firing grip, prevents "print through" and keeps pocket guns in a consistent position. Different pocket holsters are designed for different shapes of pocket, so you must match a pocket holster to both your gun and your pocket. An alternative to the front pants pocket is the thigh or cargo pocket found on some types of pants.
While most handguns are too big for a normal pants pocket, many will fit in a coat pocket. Not just the traditional trench coats seen so often in movies, but many leather jackets and parkas have pockets large enough to hide a gun. A gun in a coat pocket may be accessible when a gun in a belt or shoulder holster is buried under a closed coat in cold weather. On the other hand, the weight of the gun on one side may cause a jacket to visibly sag and make it feel unbalanced. Carry extra ammo (an ammo wallet is handy for revolver fanciers, as it is flat) in the pocket on the other side to equalize the weight. If you choose to carry a gun in your coat pocket, be sure not to leave your jacket somewhere, or check your coat in a restaurant; you are morally and legally obligated to maintain control of your gun at all times.
The wallet holster literally replaces a wallet with a heavy leather sandwich that snaps around the pistol. Most have cut-outs that allows firing the gun without removing it from the wallet. NAA offers a dedicated wallet holster for their mini revolvers. Carry it exactly as you would carry a wallet. Obviously, wallet holsters are suitable only for the smallest handguns.
One possibility for the smallest mini-revolvers is the special belt buckle. These are designed to hold the smallest .22 short/1" barrel model mini-revolvers. The one I have seen was from Freedom Arms and it looked like a large cowboy belt buckle. A stud on the front releases the gun into your hand. Pretty neat, except for the caliber of the gun it carries. There is also a belt buckle from North American Arms and theirs fits either standard or magnum frame NAA mini-revolvers, but does not conceal the gun within the buckle like the Freedom Arms version does.
The holster grip is a device that replaces the standard grips on a NAA .22 LR mini-revolver and folds closed in a manner similar to a pocket knife. It is designed for pocket carry and if it "prints" in your pocket, people will think it's a pocket knife. Deployment would seem to be a little slow, since before you can even start to aim, you must remove the mini revolver from your pants pocket and unfold its grip.
Lanyards and Neck Chains
A lanyard ring can be installed on all NAA mini-revolvers with birds head grips and the gun then hung around the neck, under the shirt, by the NAA lanyard cord that incorporates a quick disconnect at the gun end. Neat, and with a little custom work, the idea could also be applied to most mini-autos or derringers. Anything worn under the shirt is probably not going to be too quick to access, however.
OFF BODY CARRY
By "off body," I mean carry methods that are not firmly attached to the body and might, in the course of normal use, be set down somewhere. Such devices include all sorts of back packs, purses, shoulder bags, briefcases, day planners and sundry impromptu carry methods. (Almost anything you could reasonably carry could be used to conceal a gun. A camera case, shoe box, hollowed out book, Christmas package, or even a paper bag.)
A couple significant points should be made about all of the carry methods that do not firmly attach the gun to your person. You could be separated from your gun at the very moment you need it most. Briefcases and purses are particularly vulnerable, as they are regarded as valuable targets for theft by criminals (i.e. purse snatching). The other consideration is that it is perfectly possible to leave your briefcase, shoulder bag, day planner, etc. somewhere and forget it. Alternatively, it could be stolen during a moment of inattention. What is the likelihood that a person carrying anything by hand won't set it down somewhere at some point during his or her day? This could be disastrous if it contains a gun. Only people who NEVER forget a coat or misplace a purse should consider carrying a gun in this manner. Few people qualify, certainly not me, and I do not use or recommend off body carry. Never the less, here are some reasonably common off body carry methods.
Day Packs and Knapsacks
A possible way to carry a large gun is in a day pack. You see people with these light knapsacks everywhere. Women carry them shopping, kids carry them to school and hikers often wear them. You could carry a gun in one with no one the wiser. As long as the pack stays firmly attached to your body at all times, firearm security is adequate. The problem with any sort of pack is that rapid access to your gun is practically impossible and the pack must be removed, making it vulnerable to theft, to access your gun.
Purses and Shoulder Bags
There are versions for women and men, designed to hold all the stuff purses usually hold. The models designed specifically for concealed carry have a special gun compartment, usually held closed until needed by Velcro. You rip the Velcro open and slip your hand into the opening to grasp your pistol. Such purses seem appropriate for someone who works in an office or other place where a fanny pack is inappropriate. Gun purses can be made large enough to accommodate any size handgun and even a very small ladies purse can be used to conceal a mini revolver or .25 auto pistol. A wrist lanyard can help prevent the theft of small purses. Tiny, decorative ladies handbags are acceptable in almost any social setting, including with formal attire.
Another carry method for office workers or other persons who use them is the briefcase. I am not speaking of the typical hard side briefcase that is hinged along the bottom, but of the special leather or Cordura type designed for carrying a gun in a special area. Like the holster purse, most of these use Velcro for closure; you can access your gun by ripping the Velcro panel open. Most briefcases are big enough to hold full size service pistols.
One briefcase not intended for carrying a concealed weapon, but which works pretty well anyway, is the Lowe Pro. Made of Cordura, it has a double (two way) zipper across the top and pouches inside intended for notebooks, pencils and so forth. Some of these fit guns up to a snub-nose .38 revolver quite well. The top zipper can give you rather unobtrusive access to the gun, even when carrying the briefcase by its double handles, if something in the environment does not look "right."
A very special briefcase that deserves mention is the ingenious model from HK, designed to carry their compact SP89 or MP 5k sub-machine gun. This thing looks like a regular hard side briefcase, but it holds the sub gun firmly inside, barrel lined up with an unobtrusive hole in one end of the briefcase. There is a trigger built into the handle and special provision inside to channel spent brass from the ejection port to the bottom of the case. You can fire the whole magazine without ever opening the case or removing the gun! Of course, the entire inside of the briefcase is taken up by the gun and the mechanism, so it will not function as a regular briefcase. Note: BATF considers this to be a Class 3 destructive device. I have been told that the Secret Service uses these on their VIP protection details. Now you know why some of those Secret Service guys following the President around are carrying briefcases.
A special day planner, one of those Leatherette books with zipper closure, a calendar, address book, notepad and so forth that you see people carrying around these days, can also serve as a way to conceal a firearm. I have seen advertisements for special versions of these that include a compartment for a gun. Or, a person could modify a standard day planner for the purpose. I believe the specially made-for-the-purpose models still retain their original function, while one modified from a typical Cambridge (or other brand) planner might need to be pretty well gutted to hold a pistol.
A creative person can devise many unconventional methods for concealing a small handgun, particularly a mini revolver. Some that I have heard about include inside a cigarette case, hanging from a cleaning brush pinned under a large collar and up a sleeve. I hope some of the concealed carry methods mentioned in this article are helpful and provide food for thought, even if they are usually ignored by most experts.
Copyright 1997, 2015 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.