Gun Digest

Conceal Carry: Critical Considerations When Buying A CCW Holster

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When you carry concealed, holster choice will determine how well things work out.

Here's what you need to consider when buying a holster:

Carrying a concealed sidearm involves a lot more than just strapping on a gun, putting on a jacket, vest or some other cover garment and heading out the door and into the world.

A holster fits the handgun snugly, like this formed-to-the-gun belt holster from Greg Kramer. This holds the gun firmly, yet allows for a smooth draw.

You might never need to draw that handgun in an emergency, but if the time ever comes that you find it necessary, your holster needs to work. Alas, some simply are not up to the task, no matter how much hype one might read in an advertisement or on some Internet forum where the level of expertise can often be measured by the nicknames people give themselves.

Having carried a personal sidearm for more than 40 years in any number of positions from the ankle to the armpit, strong side and weak side and even small of the back, and having built holsters for people all over the map, I’ve had the chance to form opinions based on actual experience.

Here are five solid holster considerations for the armed citizen.

#1: Finding The Right Fit

The No. 1 thing to remember when selecting a holster is to be sure it fits both your gun and your body. And don’t forget your wardrobe. People who pick a one-size-fits-all holster are begging for trouble. Your defensive carry holster should fit your gun like a glove, and it must allow the sidearm to disappear completely under a cover garment.

Also, make sure your sidearm is capable of being concealed on your body. Don’t be the show-off who gets the biggest handgun you can find and think you will impress everybody with a big bulge under a jacket or vest, or sport a holster that’s longer than your cover garment. That’s an invitation to trouble.

The author’s well-used rough-out IWB rig has a curved profile, and it has married itself well to his strong-side body curve.

I recommend holsters that are minimal and functional to the task, either belt rigs or IWB (inside the waistband) concealment models. Proper fit involves more than just a snug gun. Well-made leather holsters can “marry” themselves to your physical form, especially the IWB holsters. Carry a holster and work with it a lot, and soon it will feel like part of you — there at the touch but comfortable enough to ignore while going about a daily routine.

If carrying a revolver concealed, I suggest a high-ride pancake-style holster over all others. This rig tends to hug the revolver close to the body fore and aft, and the grip is less likely to tilt away from you, thus printing through your cover garment. The pancake holster can be adjusted forward or rearward depending upon where your belt loop is located.

Of course, for a big revolver — which few people can truly carry completely unnoticed — a shoulder holster is a must. You will want to carry it under a windbreaker or parka to avoid being spotted. I’ve carried a .41 Magnum S&W with a 6-inch barrel in the winter, but in fair weather, that gun stays in the safe.

My daily carry rig for a .45 ACP Commander is an IWB rough-out model. It doesn’t slide around and it carries essentially in the same spot one day to the next. Many, if not most such IWB rigs are based on a designed by the late Bruce Nelson called the Summer Special, offered by Milt Sparks. The rough-side-out Summer Special is a classic minimalist design using only enough material to make it superbly functional.

In addition to Sparks, the top makers of leather concealment holsters include Mitch Rosen, Gene DeSantis, Greg Kramer (who specializes in horsehide), High Noon and Galco, and that list only scratches the surface.

You can sure tell this guy is packing a big gun because the holster is too long and the jacket is too short, so the slightest bending at the waist tells the world there’s a pistol in the neighborhood.

I’ve carried sidearms in holsters made by all of these outfits. They are reliable and certainly represent the best in American craftsmanship.

#2: A Stand-Up Solution

If you carry leather, or a hybrid leather/Kydex rig, never apply any kind of softening agent to the leather. Your rig needs to hold its shape, particularly for one-hand re-holstering. I’ve found that one that retains its original shape is inherently faster, and this can be enhanced with a drop or two of Leather Lightning, a surface treatment sold by Mitch Rosen that will wear off, but it does quicken the draw.

Things to avoid: Neatsfoot oil, saddle soap or anything that contains lanolin. Don’t use liquid shoe polish. If your holster gets beat up as they sometimes do, you can touch-up the appearance with Kiwi or Lincoln wax polish, but remember that those products can leave a stain on your garments, so use some discretion.

Neatsfoot oil and saddle soap are good for boots, saddles and other leather gear — but for concealment holsters that must remain stiff, they are best avoided altogether.

In the event your leather holster gets wet, let it air dry. Living in the Pacific Northwest has given me plenty of experience with wet holsters. It’s an environmental hazard, especially in late fall and winter, that you could get wet. Drying it out with heat can damage the leather.

#3: Hoards Of Holsters

Resign yourself to the fact that you will own more than one holster for your carry piece. I don’t know a single serious handgunner who doesn’t claim ownership to a box of holsters.

Don’t use a softening agent on your carry leather. Neatsfoot compound is good for boots, shoes and other leather, but your carry rig needs to retain its shape and rigidity.

Most defensive handguns can be carried in different places on the body, in different holsters. It might be in a belt rig one day, a shoulder holster the next, and — depending upon the gun — in a pocket holster or IWB holster the following day.

For my J-frame S&W .38 Special, I own the following: a Mitch Rosen ankle holster, a Rosen deep cover rig he calls The Workman that I designed and a Gene DeSantis pancake-style holster. The Workman was the original “tuckable” holster.

My Model 19 S&W snubby rides comfortably in an old Bianchi or DeSantis, in a vintage upside-down Safariland shoulder holster, or in a personally built high-ride belt holster.

Kramer offers a paddle holster that slides on and off and rides outside the pants while anchored to a wide leather paddle reinforced with a thin piece of Kydex. The paddle forms to the body and it’s quite comfortable. A snap strap goes around the belt to hold everything in place.

#4: Quality. Period.

Don’t buy cheap, flimsy holsters. They collapse immediately when the handgun is drawn, and then you cannot easily re-holster, if at all.

When it comes to Kydex, Blade-Tech turns out a good example of a lightweight, tough, inexpensive holster that’s impervious to weather while holding the pistol snug.

A good holster remains open at the top to allow for one-hand re-holstering. This is accomplished frequently by stitching a piece of thin spring steel between two layers of leather at the top around the opening. Holster makers use different approaches, but the result is the same: The holster always remains open.

You should be prepared to pay up to 15 to 20 percent of the price of your handgun for a reliable, high-quality leather holster. My first carry gun was a little Beretta for which I spent about $10 for one of those clip-in soft suede holsters that only some personal modification has saved from the trash bin.

There is a big “however” to this rule. Kydex holsters, or combo Kydex/leather rigs, or even holsters that combine leather and polycarbonate are less expensive, and they are popular, especially with newer-generation armed citizens.

That’s not an insult; it’s simply a fact of life. I prefer leather, others don’t. Rigs from Blade-Tech, CrossBreed, N82 and others meet certain budget limitations. After all, not everyone can afford a $900 defensive sidearm, and thankfully, a lot of manufacturers build quality concealment handguns for much less. The same goes for holster makers.

#5: Subdue The Sweat

The holster should have some sort of sweat shield between the gun and your shirt or skin. This “ear” comes up on the back/inside surface of the holster to prevent, or at least diminish, contact with the gun. It might be a narrow extension, or it might be a couple of inches wide to cover as much of the inside surface of the concealed handgun as possible.

This not only prevents chafing of skin or wear on your shirt, it reduces the likelihood of snagging during a draw. That sweat shield also provides a guide of sorts for re-holstering with one hand when keeping your eye on the target, which is sometimes necessary.

A good IWB rig will have a sweat shield like this to keep the handgun away from the shirt or body.

What about retention devices? Some holster designs use tension screws to keep the handgun in place, while others utilize a traditional thumb break that comes up over the hammer or rear of a striker-fired pistol.

I’ve found that a good IWB holster will retain the handgun by belt tension and therefore doesn’t need a retention device. And this is a good time to mention belts: Get one that supports your holster. Thin dress belts are no good for concealed carry. Most holster makers also offer belts. If you don’t care for such a belt, I suggest a good Western belt made from decent leather.

Another design feature to look for is how the holster covers the trigger. You want the trigger covered for safety — that should be a given.

Final Draw

Be prepared to shop around before selecting a holster. Pay attention to the little things, such as stitching and how the edges are burnished. A holster is an investment, and you want the best you can afford.

A holster is a critical component of your defensive equipment, and it just might make the difference in a gunfight because, as the late Bill Jordan observed, there’s no such thing as a second-place winner.

Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in the Concealed Carry 2018 issue of Gun Digest the Magazine.

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