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Everything You Need To Know About Holsters
If you need a holster, and don’t know a single thing about them other than what they are, we’re going to tell you almost everything you need to know.
A new gun owner may eventually want to concealed carry or start practicing with their pistol in a more practical fashion, or maybe even both. You’ll need a holster for that.
But it isn’t as simple as just picking one and being good to go. You have to pick one that’s going to help you do what you want to do with it.
So, let’s go over what you need to know about holsters.
Why You Need A Holster
A pistol needs a holster just like a rifle needs a sling. Carrying a gun in the waistband itself or in a pocket is unsafe.
What a holster does, or is supposed to do, is three primary things, all of which are important.
A holster has to hold a gun. The term that a lot of people prefer to use is “retention.” You put the gun in the holster, and it has to keep it there. A loaded gun has to be secure wherever it is; anything less is dangerous.
A holster has to protect and cover the trigger guard of a pistol.
An unloaded gun has zero risk of an accidental discharge or other negligent use. A loaded gun CAN be accidentally discharged, or otherwise negligently used.
Part of gun safety is to minimize the chances of anything happening that shouldn’t. When it comes to a handgun, that means storing it so nothing can pull the trigger and thereby discharge the pistol.
If a loaded handgun isn’t in a safe, it has to be in a holster. With the trigger guard covered, nothing can touch the trigger. If the gun is correctly secured to the person wearing it, the gun can’t be dropped. That makes the pistol as safe as it can be.
Keeping a loaded gun secure is a critical gun safety practice. Loaded guns need to be securely stored if not being carried, a loaded handgun needs to be in a holster and a loaded rifle or shotgun needs to be carried with a sling.
A holster has to act as a guide rail for the gun to go into the holster…and to come out.
To use a gun effectively in self-defense – or to train at the range or shoot in competitive pistol matches – you have to be able to draw the pistol reliably out of the holster and present it to the target.
If the holster doesn’t, it will compromise the draw. Flubbing the draw in practice doesn’t matter; it’s practice. In competition, your score will suffer.
But in a life-or-death situation…that can be the difference between saving your life (or someone else’s) and not being able to.
Those are the things a holster is supposed to do. If a holster does not do those things, or doesn’t do all of them well, it isn’t worth carrying.
What Types Of Holsters Are There?
There are a lot of different names and types of holsters, but they broadly fall into a few different categories. Let’s go over what those are.
Inside the waistband or IWB holsters are worn inside the waistband. They tuck between you and your pants, and you cover them up with your shirt. They can be worn on or around the hip, and some are made to wear at the front of the waistband, which is called “appendix carry.”
These are the default choice for concealed carry. Concealment is easy, and if you pick the right holster, it can be very comfortable to carry.
Outside the waistband or OWB holsters are worn outside the waistband. You secure the holster to your side with a belt.
OWB holsters can be used for concealed carry, but you have to make a good choice of holster to conceal it. Otherwise, OWB holsters are best for open carry or range use.
For concealment, you want to find a holster that rides high on the belt and tight to the body, so it can be easily covered up. If concealment isn’t something you’re concerned about, then it isn’t as much of a problem.
OWB holsters can come with or without a retention device, meaning an extra safety feature that keeps the pistol in the holster. If you get one that has a retention device, make sure you practice with the holster so you can get the gun out efficiently.
Just like with an IWB holster, you need to pick a good holster…but you also need to make sure you get a good quality belt to go with it. The belt is the foundation the holster rides on, so it needs to be solid as well.
Drop Leg Holsters
Drop leg holsters attach the holster to the upper leg, usually with a belt loop that anchors the holster on the belt along with the straps that secure the holster to the leg.
Leg holsters are great for open carry and competition, but are also very popular with law enforcement and military personnel as a bulletproof vest or a backpack can get in the way of a holster on the belt. This also makes them popular with backcountry hikers and hunters.
Drop leg holsters can’t really be concealed, so they’re only for open carry/range use. That said, they’re also fantastic for wearing a gun if you’re going to be doing more dynamic movement.
A lot of competition shooters also use them for that reason. If concealment isn’t a priority, or if you want a holster for when it isn’t, a drop leg holster is a great choice.
Ankle holsters wrap around the ankle and/or foot and lower leg, attaching a gun there.
Because it takes more time to get to, ankle carry is classically reserved for like a small backup gun rather than your primary carry gun. That’s how police and other people have used them for decades.
If you want to use an ankle holster, it’s critical to pick a holster that holds the gun securely AND stays in place on the leg. It also has to be comfortable enough to wear all day.
It’s also critical that you practice drawing the gun. Ankle holsters take extra time to get out and get onto the target, so you need to put in some time practicing it.
Pocket holsters keep a small gun in a pocket. These are absolutely necessary for carrying a gun in a pocket, as it keeps the trigger guard protected and lets you reliably draw the gun.
A pocket holster has to be rigid enough to protect the trigger guard, which has to be fully enclosed to be safe enough to carry in a pocket.
Just as with any type of holster, practice is key. You have to put in some time practicing getting the gun out of the holster in your pocket, as a lot can go wrong trying to draw the gun from a pocket.
Shoulder holsters attach a holster to a harness that goes over your shoulders. You carry the gun under an arm, usually the opposite side to your dominant hand. A right-handed person would put the gun on their left side.
Shoulder holsters are an all or nothing proposition; you’ve either purchased one that works for you or you haven’t. You’ll know soon after trying it on. Adjusting the holster can make it a little more comfortable or a little more concealable, but only so much.
Selection of clothing is crucial, as there has to be enough room to conceal the holster without looking suspiciously baggy. Training is too; an efficient cross draw takes time and practice to become good at.
Belly Band Holsters
Belly band holsters as a class of holster are made as a girdle with an incorporated holster, or a belt for use with a typical IWB holster that you can put on underneath your clothes.
Belly bands can offer an alternative to a traditional IWB holster, or can be used as a concealment option when you can’t wear a belt and pants. This might be for certain kinds of jobs (such as hospital workers) or if you’re going to the gym or something.
A belly band holster can be either a supplemental carry method for some situations or, if you’re using a belt system that holds up an otherwise normal IWB holster, a completely viable carry system.
What Do I Look For In A Holster?
When you’re looking for a holster, there are a select number of things you are looking for. Some are absolute – meaning the holster either does it or it doesn’t – and others are subjective, meaning the holster does something for you or it doesn’t.
But the basics of what a holster has to do…aren’t really arguable. Certain features and so on are, but there are some things that any holster has to do or it isn’t worth carrying it.
So here’s what you look for in a holster.
A Holster Has To Cover The Trigger Guard
For a holster to do its job as a piece of safety equipment, the trigger guard has to be covered so that nothing can touch or manipulate the trigger while the pistol is in the holster.
Carrying without a holster, or with a holster that doesn’t adequately cover the trigger guard, can and has led to negligent/accidental discharges.
A loaded gun has to be made safe. One of the best and most reliable ways to make sure an accidental discharge doesn’t happen is to make sure nothing can touch the trigger. When/if you’re carrying the gun, a holster is what does that.
Make sure you purchase a holster that covers the entire trigger guard, and is made of a material that’s sufficiently hard to prevent anything from manipulating the trigger guard through the holster.
A hard polymer shell of Kydex, Boltaron or other molded polymer is an excellent barrier to cover the trigger guard. Once inserted into the holster, nothing can get into the trigger guard or touch the trigger. Quality leather is as well.
Some other types of durable cloth are also sufficient protection, but rarely is nylon cloth really good enough to keep the gun safe unless you purchase a soft-sided holster with a rigid interior liner, such as molded plastic.
Comfortable Vs Comforting: You Can Have Both In A Holster
There’s a saying that a holster isn’t supposed to be comfortable; it’s supposed to be comforting.
The idea is that you need a holster that works more than a holster that’s pleasant to wear all the time; it’s better to put up with some annoyance and have an effective carry setup than worry about comfort first.
The corollary to that is that your holster still has to be comfortable enough. If you put it on, and start hating life after a few minutes, you’re going to have some issues.
If you’re going to bother with getting the concealed carry permit, getting the gun and the self-defense ammo and what not, what you don’t want to do is finding yourself finding reasons not to carry.
“I’m only going to the store.” Or “well, they don’t let me carry in the office.” Or what have you.
Does that mean anything will happen? Actually, it probably won’t. Unless you live in a high-crime area, the chances you’ll ever need your concealed carry gun are low…but the thing about carrying a gun is that when you need one, you REALLY need one.
So how do you set yourself up to carry every day, without fail? You start with a holster that’s comfortable enough to carry every day.
The Holster Should Be Made For Your Gun
Another feature that any decent holster should have – with some exceptions, which we’ll touch on soon – is that it has to be made for your make and model of pistol.
If you carry a Smith and Wesson M&P9 Shield, you need to purchase and use M&P9 Shield holsters. If you carry a Glock 48, you need a Glock 48 holster. If you carry a 1911, you need a 1911 holster, and that’s it.
When the holster is made for the gun that goes into it, the contours, shapes and otherwise of the gun are held in place by the holster.
Friction is part of what holds a gun in a holster. For there to be enough for the gun to be held in the holster, it has to adhere to the gun. And how does it do that? By being made to adhere to the exact make and model gun you carry.
Now, are there some exceptions? Yes, there are some limited exceptions.
A universal holster design can work if it’s made to fit a very specific size class of pistol.
In other words, if a universal holster is made to fit subcompact pistols that use a single-stack (ie single vertical column of bullets) magazines, then it can work because it will have enough tension.
However, the fact of the matter is also that there are so many holsters at affordable price points that there’s pretty much no reason NOT to get a holster that’s made for your specific make and model of pistol.
Make Sure You Get A Good Belt
Another thing to know about holsters is that they are just what holds the gun in place. What holds the holster in place – unless you carry with one of the holster types mentioned above – is a belt.
Your holster needs to be supported by a good, strong belt. The typical belt you’d buy at a department store is not going to be strong enough. You need an actual gun belt.
Now, you can get a gun belt for range use or you can get one for daily carry. Plenty of them work well for both, but some are a bit better than others for one instead of the other.
Typical gun belts are made of dual layers of leather or of hard woven nylon like scuba webbing. Most are either 1.5 inches or 1.75 inches in width, so a little bigger than most fashion belts.
Some are reinforced with an insert like a band of hard polymer or a spring steel insert running throughout the belt for additional rigidity.
The belt is the foundation the holster rides on. It holds the holster in place while you’re carrying and walking around, and it keeps the holster stable for drawing and reholstering. Therefore, make sure you start with a good foundation.
There are a few features to most holsters that you should know about. These are design elements to be aware of so you know how a holster works if and when you get one.
Holster retention is how the gun is held in the holster. It breaks down into two categories: passive and active.
Passive retention is when the gun is held in the holster just from friction alone. You put the gun inside the holster, and the holster is tight against parts of the gun like the slide, the trigger guard and so on.
Active retention is a mechanical device that holds the gun in place. It has to be undone (the typical term is “deactivated”) to get the gun out of the holster. This can be a strap over the back the gun, or a lever or block against certain parts that hold the gun in the holster.
Some holsters have adjustable passive retention, which means you can loosen or tighten the holster as needed or wanted.
Most holsters only have passive retention, which is all that’s needed (and more) for most uses except heavy dynamic movement.
Active retention is good for when you’re going to be wearing your gun while very physically active, if you’re going to be open carrying, and is required for people who carry a gun in a professional capacity such as police, armed security or military personnel.
Modern holsters are made either entirely or partially with molded polymer. The plastic part is usually called a “holster shell.” The holster you buy might have a half-shell or two shells attached to each other.
Some holsters are fully made of polymer, and others – called hybrids – have a soft base for comfort with a molded shell attached to it.
Holster shells are usually molded for a specific make and model of pistol. That ensures the holster fits the gun perfectly and retains it in the holster.
The manufacturer will usually make the gun mold so that there’s a sight channel, so you can draw the gun straight out of the holster. Typically, they’ll make several versions of the mold with or without a weapon-mounted light or laser, so you have that option available.
Typical materials include Kydex and Boltaron (nearly identical plastics; it’s basically PVC just like the pipes you find at the hardware store) and in some cases, molded nylon. Nylon is the more durable material, so opt for that if you have the chance.
A Good Base: Hybrid Holsters
Hybrid holsters have a base that a molded shell attaches to. Some bases are good and others…aren’t so much.
The original hybrid holster base is leather. It’s comfortable, but the leather will eventually wear out and need to be replaced since it’s literally a flat piece of hide.
Other bases use several layers of material, usually with a backing material for cushioning. While they’re comfortable, you need to make sure the holster base has a stiffening material such as a spring steel core.
A reinforced hybrid holster base will have a bit more rigidity and longevity, so it will last longer and will be far more functional in the long run.
The sweat guard or sweat shield is a bit of material that covers the rear of the slide and the frame. It puts a bit of material between the gun and you, so you don’t feel these parts of the gun.
For modern striker-fired pistols…it’s arguable whether or not having one is necessary. Some don’t feel the need. Others like having that extra bit of material there, so that’s down to personal preference.
With hammer-fired pistols, it becomes a little more necessary, as it keeps the hammer from digging into your side as you go about your day…which can be annoying.
Attachment: Belt Clips, Ankle Wraps, Shoulder Harnesses And Leg Straps
How the holster attaches to you does matter.
Most holsters attach to the belt and/or the waistband. While there are many proprietary variations on the design, they almost all fall into a few categories.
Fold-over clips are a piece of material (typically spring steel or molded polymer) that go over the waistband and/or the belt. They can be narrow or wide, and a holster can come with one or two in most cases.
Belt loops are another common attachment type, which you pass the belt through. Typically they’re considered slightly more secure than clips, but also typically take longer to put on or take off since the belt must be passed through.
Snap loops – also called “pull the dot loops” – are a bit of a middle ground between the two.
It’s a closed loop, but can be opened and closed for ease of use.
Paddle attachments, found on paddle holsters, are a large plastic paddle that’s inserted behind the waistband or between the belt and the waistband.
They make putting the holster on and taking it off faster, but tend to be a little less stable than other attachments.
Ankle holsters attach to the ankle/lower leg with straps. Some are a simple strap or wrap, and others have more of a garter-style design. A select few are closer to an ankle wrap, cupping the heel as well as the lower leg above the ankle, which is the most stable to wear.
Shoulder holsters drape a harness over the shoulders. Some have an articulating center harness, some don’t. You want to have adjustable straps or get a shoulder holster tailored for the proper fit.
Some shoulder holsters have belt hooks, which help to anchor the holster in place somewhat. This keeps the gun from flapping when you walk, so it’s a good feature to have.
Drop leg holsters have thigh straps – which attach to the leg itself – and a belt loop, which attaches to a belt. Many have a single belt loop, but it’s better to have two with articulating buckles. That way, the holster moves with you and will be more comfortable.
Choosing A Holster
How you choose a holster is fairly simple.
First, you pick one that suits what you’re going to do with it.
Are you going to conceal and carry with it? Is it just for range use or open carry? Or do you want it to do all of the above?
So start by figuring out what you want to do with the holster, just like you would with buying a gun (is it for home defense, is it just for target shooting, is it for concealed carry, or do you want to do everything with it) or any type of product, really.
Second, you look for the features that you want.
Do you want an OWB or an IWB holster? Does it come with the kind of belt clips you want to use? Does it come with active retention if you’ve decided you need it?
After you’ve narrowed down a holster that suits your intended purpose, and has the features you want in one, it’s time to make the purchase…but that’s only the beginning.
Once you get the equipment you want and need for whatever your purpose might be…it’s time to find out if you’ve made the right choice.
Ultimately, gear either works for you or it doesn’t, and the only way to find out is to get out there are put it to the test. Carry with it. Train with it. Put it to actual use.
When you’ve found a holster that you can carry with every day, without any real issues, and that works on the range doing live fire or dry fire in the home, then you’ve found a quality holster.