I promised a friend interested in concealed carry that I’d write a piece on holsters. I read years ago that most folks have a drawer full of holsters that they never wear. I have avoided that by narrowing my requirements and carefully researching before buying.
For simplicity, I will use the term “pistol” for your carry firearm, although everything said will apply equally well to both semi-auto pistols and revolvers.
Holsters generally come in a few common flavors: leather (cowhide), horsehide (yeah, technically also leather but rarely referred to as such), Cordoba nylon, and Kydex, the latter being a thermo-plastic material. Of course, these materials can be combined into hybrid holsters.
Leather can be molded closely to the shape of your pistol, and then that shape can securely hold your firearm. Done correctly, there’s no need for retention straps across the back of your pistol, which “snaps” into place. I can do handstands (if I could do handstands) with my pistols in their holsters and they wouldn’t budge. Yet, they can be quickly drawn. Leather is also nice to your pistol’s finish, and won’t scratch or mar your firearm’s finish in the short term. Over years, anything that routinely rubs blued finishes will show wear on the pistol. Leather easily provides an FBI cant (10-20 degrees forward) to speed the draw stroke.
Leather molds to your body shape when worn daily for a week or two, providing another advantage. Comfort is the name of the game for daily carry, and I believe that leather provides this without compromising its other qualities. It also feels fine against bare skin and with a good finish will protect your pistol from sweat. Leather is my first and virtually only choice for holster material.
Horsehide works just like cowhide, but is stiffer and theoretically more durable than cowhide. I have one horsehide holster and it took a substantial break-in period before I could easily draw from it. Horsehide also takes much longer to mold to your body shape, so I find it somewhat less comfortable than cowhide. On the up side, a horsehide holster can be thinner than a cowhide holster for the same shape holding ability. Still, horsehide is too stiff for my tastes.
Lots of cheap, generic holsters are made with Cordoba nylon. They are soft and friendly to your firearm’s finish, but have zero retention capability without a thumb-strap across the back. Inside the waistband models can use your belt tension for retention, but I don’t recommend relying on that. Your holster must be able to retain your pistol both on and off of your body, as well as during handstands. Additionally, I haven’t seen many nylon belt holsters that allow your firearm to maintain an FBI or similar cant, which speeds drawing a pistol. A nylon holster may do temporarily while waiting for a nice custom model to arrive, but that’s about it for normal belt carry.
Kydex is very popular. It can be molded for specific firearms, but does not have natural retention capability. Tension is usually tailored to taste with an adjustment screw. It’s light and rigid, making reholstering a cinch. However, because it is basically a hard material, it can mar any finish over time and mar some coatings very quickly. Also, some retention schemes, like the one on the Blackhawk Sherpa series, can be downright dangerous to the wearer without thorough and regular training. So much so that some training facilities do not allow them on their ranges.
I don’t know many (OK, anyone) who wants to wear Kydex next to their skin. That can be an issues in warmer climates, especially for inside-the-waistband carry. I don’t see anything that Kydex can do that leather cannot do better, except that Kydex is generally cheaper. I don’t own a Kydex holster and don’t see that changing.
Lastly, there are hybrid holsters that mix materials. The most prominent combination is leather and Kydex. The Crossbreed SuperTuck in particular has proven very popular because it puts leather against your skin for comfort and Kydex to hold the firearm to save cost. In my mind, such hybrids simply attempt to duplicate features and capabilities already inherent in all-leather holsters. I guess that I don’t see the point when it comes to gear upon which my life may depend.
Leather fulfills my requirements for comfort, retention, concealment, lifespan, and general performance for drawing and reholstering. Plus, it treats my pistols well.
There are a number of ways to carry a concealed firearm: outside the waistband, inside the waistband, appendix, cross-draw, small of the back, shoulder holster, pocket, ankle, and some other clever systems. I will only cover the first three in any detail as I don’t use the rest.
Outside the waistband (OWB) is probably the most comfortable mode of carry. This is how most duty personnel (police, military, security guards) carry. If you’re body type and clothing work well for this, you can conceal a firearm outside the waistband. The problem is that most OWB holsters do not pull the grip of the pistol into your body tight enough to keep it from printing (showing its outline through your clothes). Your cover garments must also be able to cover the entire slide/barrel length when your hands reach over your head as when pulling items off the top shelf at the supermarket. OWB has its place, but I rarely carry concealed this way because of the disadvantages.
Inside the waistband (IWB) likely stands as the most common manner of concealed carry, especially for non-mouse guns. Its advantages include pulling the grip into the body to aid concealment and concealing the entire slide/barrel in your pants so that reaching over your head doesn’t become an issue. Some would argue that IWB isn’t as comfortable as OWB, but I disagree. With a good quality leather holster and gun belt, I find IWB just as comfortable as OWB and a lot more effective. This is my primary means of carry.
But what about huggy situations like family reunions or around grabby children? That’s where appendix carry shines. Appendix carry with a high-quality holster like the SmartCarry also works well as a daily carry mode. The slower draw from these holsters provides the only real disadvantage. Everyone who is serious about 24/7 carry should have one of these in their collection.
A variety of other carry methods share varying degrees of popularity. The most important feature to require of any system is that it cover the trigger guard to prevent one from touching the trigger unintentionally. If you are into novelties or classics, have at it. Note that most, but not all, alternate carry methods are only suitable for smaller caliber pistols – .380 ACP or micro 9mm at the largest.
Any holster that attaches to a belt requires a real gun belt designed for that purpose. These belts generally use a double-layer of leather to provide the necessary stiffness. I recommend 1.5″ width for routine carry, as that size will both support a full-sized pistol and fit most pant belt loops. Don’t skimp on the belt.
Here’s a hint on the belt size. Measure your waist including your IWB pistol in the holster plus any IWB magazine carriers. The same goes for the waist size of your pants for IWB carry. I try to buy pants with expandable waistlines so that they can be worn with and without my firearms.
My entire leather ensemble comes from Milt Sparks. After a great deal of research, I found that Milt Sparks products garnered almost exclusively favorable reviews in the community, plus their applicable models had great features that make sense. The downside is that these are custom holsters molded to each specific model pistol and hand crafted just for you. That provides outstanding quality and perfect function, but doesn’t come cheap or quick. They are a small company. As I write this, Milt Sparks quotes a 16-22 week wait for products. Their website lists a few dealers that may have your model on hand, so check with them. I received a holster from Alan Yoast in just a few days.
There are a number of quality leather holster companies that I’ve seen praised on various gun forums. Reading those recommendations may provide important information to inform your choices. I’ve not seen any reason for deviate from my Milt Sparks choice. It is ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
For IWB, I have a Versa Max 2 each of two of my Kimber M1911 pistols. It is by far the most comfortable and stable IWB holster I’ve tried. After over a decade of use, my oldest one looks like it was just broken in. The Versa Max 2 is tuckable with optional clips and molded to my body like a favorite old pair of shoes. Awesome.
For my full-sized Kimber M1911, I picked up a Watch Six, which is made of horsehide. It took a lot of effort to break it in, and I don’t find it as comfortable as the Versa Max 2. But, it’s a good holster and I rarely carry the full-size anyway.
I primarily use a Milt Sparks 1.5″ plain leather belt. These would last forever if they didn’t shrink in the closet. 😉 They come with a “natural bow” in the belt that makes them extremely comfortable right out of the box. In addition, I also use a Wilderness Tactical Frequent Flyer belt made of nylon webbing. I originally bought it for airline travel, but it does a great job as a gun belt as well. It isn’t as comfortable as leather, but it is infinitely adjustable and works fine.
For appendix carry, nothing beats the SmartCarry. They are made by hand and last for at least 10 years. All the seams are tucked in so that they don’t catch when drawing your pistol. Depending on your body type, the SmartCarry handles carrying a full-sized pistol very well. The pocket on the other side of the SmartCarry can hold spare magazines. Two M1911 magazines fit nicely. I would not be without a SmartCarry for each of my carry pistol sizes. Be sure to read their sizing instructions carefully.
Lastly, I recently receive my Mirage holster after a long wait. It turned out to be made of thicker leather than I imagined, so it doesn’t exactly disappear behind your belt without your pistol in it. Perhaps it will after a longer break-in period. OTOH, it does hold a pistol at an FBI cant and works very well as a belt-slide holster. The Mirage goes inside the belt but outside the pants, so it works with pants that you can’t IWB in if the belt accommodates your firearm. Pretty cool.
For OWB, I have an old Dillon belt slide holster similar to this one that works well. It works for all my Kimber M1911 pistols, securely retaining them. There are lots of fancier models by lots of folks, but this one has worked for me for over a decade. I rarely carry OWB, so I didn’t spend a lot of money on that mode.
This has turned out to be a much longer post than I intended. Everything above constitutes my view of the holster universe. Holster choices tend to be very personal. It is said that if you put two snipers in a room, you’ll get at least three opinions. Holster preferences elicit the same outcome from users. Read widely, then nail down your requirements and stick to them. If you buy an expensive defensive pistol and then skimp on the holster and belt, you haven’t done yourself any favors. Price out a full carry package, including the pistol, holster, belt, extra magazine holder, practice ammunition, etc., not just the pistol. By taking a balanced package approach, the life that you save may be yours.