All About Holsters

By Bob Campbell

R N R Gunleatherís pancake holster.
R N R Gunleatherís modern pancake for the classic single action is quite an
accomplishment and an option the author uses often. Photo by Bob Campbell.

Recently a student displayed a holster that had failed in hard use. The belt loop had split. The holster was well designed, but the material and execution fell short. The belt loop was too thin and the leather resembled suede rather than saddle skirting leather. The student admitted that he was not gentle with the holster when he threaded it off the belt after wearing the holster, but the loop should not have split. The tunnel loop on the back of the holster was well worn, but remained integral.

In another class, the paddle of a cheap plastic holster cracked as the owner sat down, a depressingly common occurrence. Both holsters are popular because they are cheap, too cheap. A holster is depends on good design and good construction. A holster is simple, but the term "irreducible complexity" may be applied to load bearing devices. If one part fails, such as a thumbreak or belt loop, the gear is worthless. The design isnít that difficult to get right, it simply requires integrity of purpose and good craftsmanship.

There is little doubt that we began fashioning holsters sometime after the first sharp rock became an edged tool. Men learned how to convince leather not to rot and to form it into a useable pouch. Today, the holsterís usefulness is greater than ever, with a myriad of designs available for every purpose. Holsters carry the handgun, protect the firearm from moisture and keep the firearm from gouging our body. Service holsters are usually thumb break designs worn on the point of the hip. If you look around the police department, you will find that the door jambs have dents at waist level from contact with holstered handguns. For access and speed of draw, the point of hip is a good carry position. However, for concealed carry it is the worst position. If you attempt to conceal a holster worn on the point of the hip under a jacket, the look resembles that of a snake that has swallowed a possum.

When worn under a covering garment, the holster should be a close riding design. As a rule, the cant of a concealed carry holster is greater than with a service pistol. The draw angle must be more severe, because the holster usually rides higher. The draw angle should be a forward rake with the handle in front of the muzzle. The holster should be worn just behind the hip in the kidney position. About over the right rear jeans pocket is a good position. There is a natural indention in the kidney that serves to snug the weapon into the body. There is a compromise in speed compared to point of the hip carry, but with practice the kidney position and a holster carried with the FBI tilt is ideal.

Among the better designs that is flawlessly crafted is a leather high ride pancake holster from Lobo Gunleather. When coupled with a good gun belt from the same maker, this rig rides close to the body, offers good concealment and allows a rapid presentation. The holster should be worn on the belt with the handgun holstered for a day or two in order to break-in the leather.

Another good design comes from Double D Custom Leatherworks. This is a strong side holster in the Avenger style designed by John Bianchi and popularized by Colonel Charles Askins. I am impressed by the solid design and double stitching of the tunnel loop. The holster mouth, or welt, is also praiseworthy. This is a strong reinforced welt that doesnít use a steel insert, but rather layered, waxed leather.

An increasing challenge for holster makers is the handgun with a light rail. Sometimes sharp and capable of impeding a fast draw, the light rail 1911 must be mastered by holster makers. Among a few that have done so is Haugen Handgun Leather. Jerry Evans is a master maker that offers a number of excellent designs for the rail gun and every other popular service pistol.

The strong side belt holster worn over the right back pocket in the kidney position is the best choice for most shooters most of the time. The other types are best considered alternates to strong side carry. However, the strong side belt holster is not always ideal. The problem with the strong side belt holster is that the holster body extends below the belt line. A longer covering garment is needed. While concealment is often good with such an arrangement, sometimes it is not. A possible alternative is the small of the back holster. A more severe tilt is used with the small of the back holster, commonly referred to as the SOB.

To the best of my knowledge, the small of the back position was created to allow security officers at a European airport to carry their SIG pistols under a standard blazer. The pistol is tilted radically. The draw breaks up the locked wrist and the danger of a fall when wearing a holster that covers the spine is all too real. The SOB may be more aptly named than the designer realized. It is supposed to ride inconspicuously under a Blazer with a single layered vent. It is sometimes considered as an alternative to the inside the waistband (IWB) holster for those that cannot acclimate to the IWB.

Another alternative to the IWB comes from DM Bullard. This is a credible holster with a sufficient tilt to allow excellent concealment without resorting to inside the trousers wear. This is a modern design with much to recommend it, crafted in the traditional manner.

The inside the waistband holster offers good concealment. The holster is worn inside of the pants, with the handgun and the holster sandwiched between our body and the trousers. The main advantage is that the holster body does not protrude below the belt line. The IWB allows concealment with only a light covering jacket. The holster body does not extend below the belt line. The IWB must have a reinforced holster welt in order to prevent the holster from collapsing when the handgun is drawn. If the holster collapses the trousers must be lowered to allow the handgun to be holstered again. The IWB should have a reinforced holster welt and a properly designed belt loop. Some holsters use some type of stabilizing foot in the holster design in order to keep the pistol stable during movement. When properly designed the IWB offers a good balance in security and access. There are quite a few cheaply made IWB holsters available. Like the crossdraw if not done properly then we are in a mess with a poor IWB. Choose a credible design from a reputable maker for good results. An outstanding IWB comes from JR Custom leather. This holster spreads the weight of the handgun out over the body, allowing both good comfort and also keeping the pistol positioned properly for a rapid presentation from concealed carry.

The Tuckable holster is a variant of the IWB. The Tuckable is carried under a tucked in shirt, and the shirt is pulled out as the gun is drawn. This type of holster moves the balance between access and concealability toward the stealth side. The Theis holsters illustrated offer a strong Kydex component that retains the piece by friction on the long bearing surfaces of the handgun while the leather component offers good comfort. The IWB holsters offer good concealment and while practice is demanded for the concealed carry draw these holsters offer a degree of speed given practice. The tuckable offers stealth at the price of speed.

A holster that I find useful comes from JR custom leather. This is the cavalry position holster. Some criticize the holster on safety. However, if you need this type of holster, you know not to touch the trigger until you fire and you do not touch the trigger on the draw. By properly drawing the handgun with the muzzle averted from the body, the muzzle does not cover the body. The cavalry draw is surprisingly popular, but few purpose designed holsters exists for its use.

The crossdraw holster is another popular way to carry a pistol. The crossdraw is a good choice for those who are often seated or need to drive a vehicle. You cannot simply hang a strong side holster on the opposite hip. A crossdraw must be purpose designed for the task with the correct geometry. Those with broad shoulders and a thin waist are well suited to crossdraw use. The crossdraw allows the handgun to be practically at the fingertips when seated or driving.

Speed with the crossdraw is often misunderstood. If we stand flat footed facing the target when drawing at a stationary target, we not only sweep the muzzle across anyone on our non-dominant side, the draw is relatively slow. The proper draw is to angle the non-dominant side of the body toward the target and sweep the hand down and draw, meeting the non-dominant hand quickly and acquiring the target. This way, real speed is possible. In other words, we actually draw into the target rather than across it. Drawing across the target is a disadvantage of the standard crossdraw. An advantage is that, even if the jacket or coat is buttoned, access to the crossdraw remains good. The crossdraw is highly useful, but must be combined with practice to master. The Blocker crossdraw holster is a proven design that has been around for decades. The design has survived by dint of good design and execution. The neutral cant allows the Blocker holster to be used as a strong side holster, but it really shines as a crossdraw.

An increasingly popular type of carry is the appendix carry. The holster is worn in the front of the body to one side of the belt buckle. This is an interesting carry position with some of the advantages of both the IWB and the crossdraw. Quite a few standard IWB holsters adapt to this carry well, although there are also purpose designed appendix carry holsters. Experienced officers know that this is the most common carry position for armed robbers and other thugs, often without a holster of any type, the pistol simply sliped under the waistband ("Mexican carry"). It is a natural draw. It should also be noted that there have been any number of incidents in which thugs have shot themselves using this type of carry with the usual result being the creation of a tenor voice. While there is a bizarre humor in such episodes when they involve our criminal class, it is a mutilation I personally hope to avoid. The appendix carry has its place, but be well schooled in its considerations.

Among the better IWB designs, suitable for appendix use, comes from Sideguard holsters. Fitted with a strong spring steel clip and compact, this holsters is ideal for a snubnose .38 revolver. Well designed and well executed, this innovative leather holster eliminates many of the concerns with less than sturdy belt loops. It is also comfortable to wear.

Shoulder holsters are often seen as sexy and stylish, but are seldom a practical choice. Only the best quality holsters of this type should be used. A quality shoulder holster usually will cost about twice as much as a comparable belt holster. The shoulder loops must be broad enough to distribute the weight of the rig on the body. A horizontal shoulder holster has about the same advantages as a crossdraw, while the vertical type is more limited, but suitable for large handguns.

Shoulder holsters sometimes make the user feel constricted and may actually decrease blood flow. They are indeed a harness and only those dedicated to the type, who feel that it is a true advantage, will prosper with the shoulder holster. The shoulder holster will allow carrying a heavy piece in comfort under a light jacket, but it isn't for everyone. When hiking or spelunking, my current favorite comes from the Working Cowboy leather shop. I could not be more pleased with this traditional design. I often carry my Ruger .44 Special in this holster. When traveling in areas where animal attacks are a real possibility the Working Cowboy shop holster, Cor Bon DPX load and the Ruger give me great comfort.

On other occasions I carry the Ruger in a modern pancake from Eugene Oppes, R and R Gunleather. This holster rides high and offers a good sharp draw. While some may question the deployment of a single action .44 caliber revolver in the 21st Century, there is no stronger handgun and the single action offers a compact package with plenty of power. R and R offers a good option for carrying this piece.

Whatever choice you make in a carry rig, you must practice. Many shooters do not realize that the presentation from leather leads into the firing stance, grip, sight alignment and sight picture. A smooth presentation is vital to achieving a first accurate shot. The holster must allow a full grip on the gun's handle. If you do not get the correct grip and attempt to shift the grip after drawing, you are in trouble.

The holster and the belt must be mated properly to afford good purchase and retention. An excellent design that marries the holster to the belt is the tunnel loop. The tunnel loop is a good design for Avenger type holsters. Originally designed by John Bianchi and named in honor of Charles Askins, the Avenger will hug the body. With the pancake holster it is necessary to use two belt slots. However, these two slots will bring the holster very close to the body with the Avenger design. The closer the holster is to the body, the less relief for the drawing hand, but concealment is the name of the game. A scabbard type may be adjusted for drop by placing the belt loop at a different angle during construction. The pancake, as originally designed by Roy Baker, will feature three belt loops for adjustment.

The holster must also offer good retention. A good test of a holster is for the user to jump up and down a few times to ensure that the momentum of the firearm does not free it from the holster. Few of us use a concealed carry holster with a thumb break and the balance of access and retention is important. A holster must keep the handgun stabilized. When you consider all of the things the holster must accomplish, then you realize that the cheap, off the rack special may not be the best choice. Choose wisely and remember the holster is an investment, not a disposable item.

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Copyright 2011, 2016 by Bob Campbell and/or All rights reserved.