How to Choose the Right Holster

By David Kenik published on in Gun Gear, How To

The choice of holster is as important, if not more important, than your choice of firearm. A good gun in a bad holster can be compared to a racecar with lousy tires. What may initially seem insignificant is actually a vital part of your safety equipment.

Training gun wrapped in tape and plastic to stretch leather holster

This dummy training gun wrapped in several layers of masking tape to stretch the holster.

There are many facets to a holster’s performance. Obviously, it holds the gun, but it needs to do so properly—not too tight or loose. If your gun is too loose, at best, it can move and be in a bad position, and at worst it can fall out. I don’t want to be put in the position of trying to explain to the little old lady at the checkout counter that I am one of the good guys, and that there is no need to worry, as I pick up my gun from the floor. Not to mention trying to figure out what to say to a responding police officer.

A holster that is too tight could prevent a proper grip, throw off your draw, and derail your shooting. I have seen holsters that were so tight that it was nearly impossible to retrieve the firearm. The better the ‘boning,’ the less tight the holster needs to be. A quality holster is fitted to the gun by boning the features of the gun into the leather, which entails pushing the leather into the feature shapes of the gun with a tool, while the holster is wet and being formed. A properly boned holster will adhere to the trigger guard, slide stop, safety, and other physical features detailed into the leather. The boning provides the fit around the gun and may eliminate the need for a strap to hold the gun.

Good tests for holster fit are running at run at full speed and jumping up and down. The gun should remain firmly in the holster, yet not so tight as to impede the speed of the draw. If you find yourself tugging too hard to lift your gun, you will need to loosen it. If you have an adjustable holster, the adjustment screw will easily change the tension.

Brown leather outside the waistband holster with loops that are properly sized for the belt

having a correctly sized belt for the loop size of the holster ensures a proper fit that will reduce or eliminate the holster’s ability to slide out of position.

If the holster does not have an adjustment screw, and if it is only slightly too tight, there is a simple home remedy. Wrap your gun (or dummy gun) with plastic wrap, and then several layers of masking tape (I use about four layers) and leave the gun in the holster overnight. The extra thick fit should loosen the holster. If you don’t use plastic wrap first, you may need to get the tape and glue off with some adhesive remover. If four layers of tape does not work, try again with eight layers the next night. If that doesn’t work, send the holster back to the manufacturer (if it’s new). If it’s too old to send back, you will need to buy another holster.

In addition to simply holding your gun, the holster needs to do so comfortably. How well the holster and belt supports the weight of the gun has a lot to do with how comfortable your carry rig will be. Thick, supportive leather in the holster—and especially the belt—will keep your gun positioned upright and minimize its flip-flopping around. Nothing is more aggravating to me than my gun flopping around on my belt, not to mention what that does to reduce concealability.

While frequently overlooked, gun belts are extremely important as they greatly contribute to comfort and security. For maximum support, the belt should be double thick to help distribute the weight of the gun. I prefer the buckle holes to be placed 3/4-inch apart rather than the standard 1 inch. The shorter distance between holes offers more gradual adjustment for a better fit. Concealed Carry Clothiers offer gun belts with those features and even added a valuable twist. They reduced the thickness of the belt to a single ply in the front so as to eliminate the thick “gun belt” look.

Brown leather outside the waistband holster with holes too big for the belt

This belt loop holster is larger than the belt, allowing the holster to shift position.

Whichever belt you choose, ensure that it is properly sized for the holster’s belt loops. If you have a 1.5-inch belt opening in your holster, it won’t work well with a 1.25-inch belt. I have seen lots of quality holsters used with wrong size or low quality belts, only to watch the shooter struggle with draws and reholstering.

If all that’s not enough, a holster needs to do all of its jobs with a high degree of concealability. This is where things get tricky. Concealability is derived from the person’s body size and shape, holster placement on the body, and the size and shape of the gun. What works for one person may not conceal as well on another, and what is comfortable for one, may not be for someone else.

Holsters are variously designed for a “straight drop, cant forward” and what some call a radical cant. Some holsters also offer adjustable cants. The forward cant pushes the butt of the gun upward, reducing the amount of the grip that sticks out the back. The greater the cant, the more concealable the gun, but if it’s too far forward getting a proper grip becomes difficult. With the more extreme cants, I find it beneficial to bend over slightly at the waist, which offers a better angle to grip the gun. Personally, I find the best compromise between concealability and access is the radical cant, which angles the gun forward about 20 degrees. It’s enough to keep the butt of a full-sized gun from sticking out the back, but still allows a good grip.

Brown leather thumbreak holster

One argument against the thumb break is that if your dominant hand is hurt, using your non-dominant hand (which can be weaker) to draw from a dominant-side holster may be made more difficult by a thumb break.

A more minor design element is the rise, or how high the gun sits in relationship to the belt. For taller folks, the high rise might be better, but I find I get maximum concealability and minimal movement with standard, non-high-rise designs. The higher the gun is in relation to the belt, the more flip-flop movement there can be. For short people like me, the added height above the belt makes drawing more difficult, as you have to lift even higher to clear the holster.

One feature that inspires some level of controversy is the thumb break. While it may appear to be essential to hold the gun in the holster, it is, in fact, not necessary for that purpose. Quality holsters retain the gun quite efficiently by their fit and boning. The open-top design is a testament to their retention ability. The true intent of a thumb break is to deter a gun grab. The snap reduces the ability for someone to grab your pistol from its holster. While it may be possible for someone else to release the snap, pull the gun through the strap, or even break the holster, the extra safety device does act as a deterrent, slowing down the gun grab or possibly even preventing it totally.

The controversy comes in determining if the advantage is worth the trade-off. The thumb break does add some time to the draw. With continuing practice, it may add only a fraction of a second, but it is yet one more thing to practice and therefore one more thing that could go wrong. If you don’t practice, you will add significant time to your draw at a moment when time is of the essence. Another argument against the thumb break is that if your dominant hand is hurt, using your non-dominant hand (which can be weaker) to draw from a dominant-side holster may be made more difficult by a thumb break. This scenario makes a great argument for carrying a backup weapon accessible to your support hand.

holster with gun barrel protruding

If the gun barrel extends beyond the holster, the front sight can snag on the edge during the draw.

The thumb-break issue boils down to one question; how likely are you to finding yourself in a situation where an attacker is attempting to take your pistol from your holster? Compared to private citizens, police officers are far more prone to having the gun taken from them. While the average person may never come into direct contact with a bad guy in his or her lifetime, the police officer will. Secondly, the police officer’s gun is fully exposed to view, while the average person’s gun is usually not known to anyone since it is most often concealed. Most assailants will never know that it’s there until it’s too late.

An exception to that would be when the altercation starts as a hand-to-hand fight. In the duration of the tussle, the concealed holster is likely to be discovered, and possibly dislodged. In that case, the thumb break may go a long way to delay or completely prevent the gun grab. Other than that, the average person is not likely to be in a situation where a thumb break would be essential to survival. On the other hand, if you are willing to practice enough on a continuing basis to make the release of the thumb break second nature, it does add one more level of security.

There is no formula for putting all of these elements together. Lots of us have a drawer full of holsters that we like and dislike to some degree. Unfortunately, it’s a try and see situation. The good news is that many quality custom holster manufacturers accept returns if you are not satisfied. It’s worth buying from those companies just for that opportunity, even if you have to pay more.

Kydex versus leather holster for the same model pistol

Fist (shown here) and other manufacturers, often offer the same holster design in both Kydex and leather.

While leather dominates the market, Kydex has made significant inroads in the last few years. Kydex is a plastic material that has good molding and machining qualities. Like almost anything else, there are those who love it and those who hate it. The advantages of Kydex are that it is relatively inexpensive to manufacture, provides a fast draw because there is less friction inside the holster, and can be designed to be very adjustable.

The expense of Kydex holsters is lower than leather because of the low cost of plastic versus quality leather, as well as the reduction in manufacturing costs and time. Leather manufacturing necessitates that large amounts of the work be done by hand, while Kydex is often machine-made. Kydex does not need much maintenance because it’s plastic. The adjustable tension found on many Kydex holsters, combined with a design that locks in the pistol, but releases as the gun is pulled out, allows a fast draw.

One of the best features of Kydex is its ability to be designed in a manner that allows tremendous adjustability. Since Kydex is a hard plastic, threaded plates and nuts can be molded in, allowing interchangeable and adjustable belt loops. Some manufacturers offer belt loops of different sizes, so the holster can be used on 1.5-inch through 1-inch belts. Belt loops can be exchanged for J-clips, and it is even possible to change the holster from a belt side to an inside-the-waistband (IWB) design. By placing multiple fastening bolts in different locations, the height of the ride, as well as the cant, is highly customizable.

Fist holster with a reinforced opening and body protector.

This Fist holster features a reinforced opening and body protector.

There are two disadvantages to Kydex—lack of flexibility and noise. Because the material is a hard plastic, it will never mold to your body with use like leather will. Unlike Kydex, leather holsters tend to become more comfortable over time as they mold to your body. While some people find that Kydex’s inflexibility makes the holster uncomfortable, especially when worn IWB, this is not my experience. I often wear an IWB Kydex holster for 8 to 10 hours a day with a full-size gun, and find it quite comfortable. Again, personal taste and preference comes into play.

One drawback to Kydex that cannot be discounted is noise. While a leather holster is nearly silent during the draw, the same cannot be said for Kydex. There is a slight sound made as the gun rubs against the hard plastic, and there is a definite noise as the gun clears the molded indentations. While this is not too loud, if you need a quieter draw, stick with leather.

No matter what material you choose, there are some features that are a must for a holster to be considered suitable for carry purposes.

The holster must cover the entire length of the barrel. If not, the front sight can easily catch on the holster as you attempt to draw. You can put a short gun into a long holster, such as a 4-inch gun into a holster designed for a 5-inch, but not the other way around. There are many holsters that have the barrel sticking through. These may be acceptable for range use, but they are not suited for carry.

Mitch Rosen ARG holster with chrome 1911 pistol inside

A properly designed holster, such as this Mitch Rosen ARG holster, does not block the grip in any way.

A second ‘must’ feature is the holster’s ability to remain open while the gun is not holstered. This is vital because if the holster collapses it will require two hands to reholster. Not only do you endanger yourself because of lasering, you are at a severe disadvantage when dealing with an attacker.

Holstering a gun into a collapsed holster requires extra attention, and will distract you from your more important task. Therefore, it is essential that a belt holster be made of sufficiently thick and stiff material to remain open. For IWB use, the holster needs to be reinforced. For the most part, this is not an issue for Kydex holsters, as the stiff plastic remains open. Talk to the holster manufacturer and ensure it fits all of your needs before you buy.

The last, but certainly not least, feature to look for is the ability to get a full grip while the gun is holstered. A good draw starts with a good grip. Be sure that you can reach around the entire grip and place your hand properly up against the bottom of the trigger guard.

One feature that I insist on is a body protector. This is a tang that is extended upward, beyond the side of the holster that rests against the body. Not only does this keep the gun from making my shirts dirty, it offers three significant advantages. Reholstering is easier with a body protector because you can motion the gun sideways, pointing downwards, (not toward your body), pressing sideways against the protector, and use it to guide the gun into the holster in the proper direction. Second, it keeps the shirt from being pushed down into the holster, which would make reholstering or drawing difficult. Third, it protects the gun from body oils, sweat and the salt that the body secretes. The tang also provides an additional advantage for guns that have external safeties, because the body protector prevents your torso from accidentally releasing the safety during normal movement.

Women have additional holster considerations because of their body shape. Often, the placement and cant angle of men’s holsters are uncomfortable for women and are difficult to draw from since women’s waist lines are often higher than men, and may angle inward.

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I find that with holsters, as with most things, you get what you pay for. The best-fitting and most comfortable holsters that I own, I bought from custom manufacturers. They did cost more and I had to wait longer to get them, but I will wear them for years to come. I already have too many holsters relegated to the dresser drawer, after less than proper consideration before my purchase. Hopefully, this article will spare you from making my mistakes.

Do you prefer Kydex or leather? Do you run a straight drop forward cant to your holster? Do you use an ankle or shoulder rig? What about off body carry? Share your answers in the comment section.

David Kenik is the owner of Armed Response, author of the book, Armed Response, and co-author of the Armed Response Video Training Series. www.armedresponsetraining.com

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The mission of Cheaper Than Dirt!'s blog, "The Shooter's Log," is to provide information-not opinions-to our customers and the shooting community. We want you, our readers, to be able to make informed decisions. The information provided here does not represent the views of Cheaper Than Dirt!

Comments (17)

  • Robert

    |

    Bought Ruger EC9S with grip laser! Can’t find holtster to accommodate the laser ! Can you recommend one?

    Reply

    • HW Stone

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      Blackhawk makes a Laser Holster that fits it, but if it fits you and your lifestyle is another question.

      Reply

  • Russell

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    informative article. i am new to concealed carry. What is meant by the term “lasering” here’s how it was used in the article.
    “A second ‘must’ feature is the holster’s ability to remain open while the gun is not holstered. This is vital because if the holster collapses it will require two hands to reholster. Not only do you endanger yourself because of lasering, you are at a severe disadvantage when dealing with an attacker.”

    Reply

  • Terry Nixon

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    I find IWB Kydex holsters seem to be more uncomfortable than leather ones. As a cop for many years I carried a variety of weapons in many different holster rigs. For totally inconspicious carry while wearing full length trousers a 5 shot revolver in an ankle holster was very good, but the pancake holster with a thumbsnap was probably the most secure and available if you were clothed so that it could be concealed. I am not a fan of the elaborate holsters that have leather facing the body and kydex to hold the gun. Leather is still best IMHO.

    Reply

  • Michael

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    While I have a couple of favorite guns that I like to carry, I tend to carry depending on what I’m wearing. Therefore, I have several holsters to use. I’m a big guy so I’m not a fan of iwb carry. I like the forward cant with leather holsters. I also use concealed carry fanny packs, vests and even ankle holsters. Again, depending on what I’m wearing, summer or winter clothes, etc, etc. Probably my favorite is a Wilson Combat EDC X9 with a Galco leather forward cant holster. I liked your article and explanations for different carry options. Very helpful for someone just starting to carry. For the rest of us, we already have that drawer full of holsters like you, lol.

    Reply

  • Ingolf

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    Excellent article with many useful tips.

    Reply

  • Cameron

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    I’ve recently started thinking about an OWB holster for my Springfield, as we have open-carry here in Texas. This is a great article with some finer points that I hadn’t considered before.
    Thank you!

    Reply

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