Holsters

Shoulder Holsters for Concealed Carry

Woman raising her left arm and drawing a handgun from a shoulder holster with her right hand

Handgun selection is important. Choosing a caliber and ammunition type is vital. When it comes to concealed carry, the holster will make or break the experience. A holster must keep the pistol secure. The holster must also offer access and speed from concealed carry.

A poor holster will be a chafing nuisance, a well-designed holster will be appreciated for its load bearing and security properties. Many shooters do not take the necessary time to truly explore their choices. Inside the waistband, strong side high ride, cross draw, and appendix carry are certainly among the options.

Man doing camp chores while wearing a vertical leather holster
It is overlooked, but shoulder holsters are good choices for outdoors use, keeping the handgun out of the way when performing camp chores.

The holster should conceal the pistol effectively. This often means different holsters for different climates. Those living in a true four-season climate will use several different holsters for T-shirts in the summer to windbreakers in the fall, and finally, heavy coats in the winter. A lot of thought goes into choosing the holster that is easily concealed, but still offers quick hand purchase when needed.

A cheap holster is a poor choice, even a menace to safety. The holster must maintain security. It should be crafted from high-quality leather, the heaviest fabric, or a hybrid with Kydex.

The Case for Shoulder Holsters

Shoulder holsters should not be chosen on a basis of a trend or because they look racy. I enjoy a well-crafted holster but also think things through. A shoulder holster will serve well for many types of concealed carry.

A properly designed shoulder holster offers plenty of adjustment. You will probably need some help getting the holster properly adjusted, or you will need to adjust the holster by trial and error — adjusting the holster and donning and doffing it repeatedly.

Like most holsters, shoulder rigs have a list of pros and cons. An advantage is that the holster rig takes weight off the hips and lower back. The holster rides on the shoulders and distributes weight on the body. Be certain the holster straps are wide enough for good support and that the holster is snug.

Two shoulder holsters loaded with 1911 pistols on grid paper
If you purchase a shoulder holster, don’t go cheap! Get a good example, well designed, with proper stitching

A properly adjusted shoulder holster should not flap around—especially when you bend forward or sit down. The ideal rig balances the handgun with a magazine or two on the strong side of the body. Be certain the holster you choose has sufficient thickness and a properly designed X-type harness that may simply be thrown over the shoulders and then concealed with a covering garment.

A Holster for all Seasons

During the winter months, I often wear a shoulder holster. During the evening, I simply hang the rig on the bed post. This is pretty handy. You need only throw the rig on, and you are well armed. Some shoulder holsters have a belt attachment and others do not. Vertical types demand a belt attachment while horizontal types do not.

The Should Holster Draw

The draw stroke is an oft quoted criticism of the shoulder holster. While the draw is a valid concern, most misunderstand the proper draw. Standing facing the threat and then reaching across the body to draw is slow, even awkward.

Leather shoulder holster with a safety snap to attach the holster to the belt
The vertical shoulder holster from Galco features a safety snap but may be drawn upwards over the strap

The proper draw begins with the weak side forward and the body bladed to the target. The hand grasps the handgun. With the body bladed toward the target, the handgun is pressed toward the target. The weak side hand is kept out of the way of the draw and then moved to meet the strong side hand in the proper hold. This is very similar to the cross draw.

The shoulder holster draw is executed in much the same manner as a cross draw presentation and demands practice. By the same token when you are seated, the shoulder holster is more accessible than a strong side holster.

Bullard leather shoulder holster with a cowboy revolver
Shoulder holsters come in many designs. This is a Bullard Leather type for the SAA revolver.

Practicing the draw will most often be accomplished in the home with a triple-checked unloaded firearm. When the handgun is drawn, it would sweep others at the range and the horizontal shoulder holster keeps the muzzle of the firearm pointed to the rear—although some have a slight downward angle. This makes some folks nervous.

I would not like to be in an area with an unknown shooter’s muzzle sweeping my body! The horizontal holster is limited to certain size pistols but offers a good solid draw and easy concealment.

Some shoulder holsters do not need belt attachment, if properly designed. A vertical holster is more similar to a cross draw and may be used to carry and conceal larger handguns. Among the most famous is the Bianchi X 15, offered in several sizes for popular handguns.

You should try each — even a cheap type — to see how your body shape and clothing styles supports horizontal versus vertical carry models. Be certain you understand how to adjust the holster for a snug fit. If the holster flips around it will be uncomfortable.

Another choice is whether you wish to deploy single or double magazine carriers. Some makers offer magazine carriers of up to four magazines as well as a defensive knife. These are serious professional rigs that are generally worth their price.

dual shoulder holster loaded with two 1911 pistols
This dual shoulder holster rig from Mernickle holsters is among the author’s favorites.

By the same token, more complex rigs require considerable experience and hand work to adjust the fit and learn the muscle memory to be a benefit and not a hinderance.

Some shoulder holsters feature friction snaps and others use a safety snap to holster the magazine carrier. Horizontal carry demands that the handgun be secured with a thumb break. Vertical holsters usually feature some type of snap or security device.

The device may be unsnapped on the draw, and the handgun drawn forward. It is usually possible to simply draw the pistol upward and outward of the holster without any concern for the safety retention strap. This draw must, however, be practiced.

The shoulder holster demands more shooter development than practically any other holster. The handgunner must understand how to properly adjust a fairly complex system. The result will be real security, comfort, and superior load bearing.

View of a shoulder holster from the rear of a woman
The horizontal shoulder holster is a good choice for maximum concealment. This is a Galco type.

I cannot stress enough that the draw from concealed carry must be practiced often. The spare magazine or speed loader draw must also be practiced with the same regularity. A covering garment that conceals the holster and which is thick enough not to reveal the handgun under the garment is needed.

Conclusion

The expense of a quality shoulder holster is greater than a standard holster of comparable quality. When all of these hurdles are met, the shoulder holster offers advantages not held by other types including taking the weight off the back, offering a neat trim appearance without the usual bulge about the hips or back, and the ability to carry the handgun and spare gun loads in easy reach when seated or driving.

Do you, or have you, used shoulder holsters? What advantages or detriments did you experience? What tips do have to offer shooters who are new to shoulder holsters? Share your answers in the comment section.

  • Woman standing next to a pickup truck wearing a shoulder holster
  • Galco Vertical leather shoulder holster
  • Bob campbell drawing a 1911 pistol from a shoulder holster concealed under a jacket
  • dual shoulder holster loaded with two 1911 pistols
  • Bullard leather shoulder holster with a cowboy revolver
  • Two shoulder holsters loaded with 1911 pistols on grid paper
  • View of a shoulder holster from the rear of a woman
  • Woman raising her left arm and drawing a handgun from a shoulder holster with her right hand
  • Leather shoulder holster with a safety snap to attach the holster to the belt
  • Man doing camp chores while wearing a vertical leather holster

About the Author:

Bob Campbell

Bob Campbell’s primary qualification is a lifelong love of firearms, writing, and scholarship. He holds a degree in Criminal Justice but is an autodidact in matters important to his readers. Campbell considers unarmed skills the first line of defense and the handgun the last resort. (He gets it honest- his uncle Jerry Campbell is in the Boxer’s Hall of Fame.)

Campbell has authored well over 6,000 articles columns and reviews and fourteen books for major publishers including Gun Digest, Skyhorse and Paladin Press. Campbell served as a peace officer and security professional and has made hundreds of arrests and been injured on the job more than once.

He has written curriculum on the university level, served as a lead missionary, and is desperately in love with Joyce. He is training his grandchildren not to be snowflakes. At an age when many are thinking of retirement, Bob is working a 60-hour week and awaits being taken up in a whirlwind many years in the future.


Published in
Black Belt Magazine
Combat Handguns
Handloader
Rifle Magazine
Handguns
Gun Digest
Gun World
Tactical World
SWAT Magazine
American Gunsmith
Gun Tests Magazine
Women and Guns
The Journal Voice of American Law Enforcement
Police Magazine
Law Enforcement Technology
The Firearms Instructor
Tactical World
Concealed Carry Magazine
Concealed Carry Handguns



Books published

Holsters for Combat and Concealed Carry
The 1911 Automatic Pistol
The Handgun in Personal Defense
The Illustrated Guide to Handgun Skills
The Hunter and the Hunted
The Gun Digest Book of Personal Defense
The Gun Digest Book of the 1911
The Gun Digest Book of the 1911 second edition
Dealing with the Great Ammunition Shortage
Commando Gunsmithing
The Ultimate Book of Gunfighting
Preppers Guide to Rifles
Preppers Guide to Shotguns
The Accurate Handgun
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 (8)

  1. I have have two should holsters and am thinking a out buying a third.

    It is one of my favorite rigs but with some caveats. I don’t use it in the summer, mostly in cooler weather. It’s a deep concealment holster.

    I have many other holsters. Strong side outside the waistband for at the range. Hi ride outside the waistband for situations where I’m wearing something that can cover it. I often wear that when I’m home.

    I also carry wear a cross draw holster underneath overalls. And that one works pretty well also. A comfortable set of overalls—those tend to make your belly look a little big anyway, so people don’t really notice an extra bulge there in your middle and it’s a very convenient spot to keep a gun handy much like a shoulder holster it’s effective when you’re seated seated in a car or a restaurant. Both shoulder rigs and cross draw holstered are comfortable, and give that easy access assurance.

    My favorite should holster is a Bianchi horizontal. I don’t use the belt strap, preferring to keep tight under my arm pit on my left side. It features a thumb snap strap between the hammer and slide, essential for a cocked and locked 1911.

    I don’t typically carry magazines on the other side. I often leave them empty.

    The most important issue for comfort is I found after using this holster for daily carry that the lightest possible gun is the most comfortable. With that in mind my choice for a gun is a Colt Light Weight Officers—mine is a Wilson special edition in 45 ACP. I routinely carry only three rounds, one in the chamber and two in the magazine. Each round weighs 3/4 of an ounce. I’ve even considered getting some lighter weight rounds like aluminum case Blazers with 185 grain bullets. But I’ve never gone that extreme on weight to date. Typically I carry 235 grain SJHP Golden Saber rounds. The net affect is the gun is very very light.

    I’m not looking to get into a gun fight I’m looking to deal with a problem and get away as quickly as possible.

    Earlier I mention I was thinking about buying a third holster, for at least 20 years, and that would be for the other side to carry two guns. I haven’t really felt the need for that but I like the idea of an even balance of both sides. I’ve been mulling that over for 20 years and still haven’t done it so that will tell you something about how much value our place on it I occasionally will carry a full magazine or two on the other side but it’s pretty rare. Perhaps some day I’ll find a deal on another Bianchi.

    I can carry a full size Gold Cup without any problems if I feel I’m going somewhere particularly dangerous. Then again I avoid such places. I am a fairly big guy 63 245 pounds. I’m pretty happy with just the light weight officer with 3 rounds so that’s my favorite and for comfort and wearing all day weight is a important factor.

  2. I purchased a Alien Gear Shapeshift Shoulder holster and am very happy with it! It’s comfortable, adjustable and offers options to carry 2 guns or 2 gun + several spare magazines. I can swap-out the gun holster for a different sized gun and still use the same shoulder holster.

  3. Dr. Thomas,

    Thank you and your son for your extraordinary service. I too am a vet and trained combat medic, some 30 years ago. Desert Storm was the only one I made before getting out after 10 years. Side note: I finished college it a Masters and wanted a commission. They wouldn’t give me one so I seperated to make more money for my family since I did volunteer and serve one was. But I digress, you said Louisiana. You weren’t one of those taking weapons from civilians protecting themselves were you?

  4. I live in South Louisiana. To say it is hot down here is an understatement. I prefer an IWB or high rise belt holster, but since putting on mucho weight and inches with retirement and the pandemic I can no longer carry in my waistband. Now days I now carry in a shoulder rig. I found the way to carry down here is a T-shirt with the rig over it and a lightweight, oversized (I wear XL so will buy XXL), button-down ‘fishing’ shirt. These cover well and are worn unbuttoned, but I have to button a couple of buttons on windy days. I am working pn losing weight so that I can go back to my waist band holsters, but I do appreciate the convenience and security of the shoulder holster. I have Armadillo Holsters shoulder rigs and find them well made at a decent price. I believe they are a ‘home’ based business and last time I checked they do not have a phone number contact but I have had not issues with them. I recently ordered a holster from Craft Holsters. It was a belt holster for my Taurus 692 3″ but will be ordering their shoulder rig for my G40 MOS. I like the quality I’ve seen from their work so far.

  5. I relied on Ken Knull’s highly concealable & comfortable SMZ shoulder holster during my 28-year fed. career (intelligence, law enforcement, & administration). Since my retirement, I continue to rely on this excellent product anytime I need to be armed with a handgun.

  6. One of my favorite shoulder rigs was one that I used in the mid-late 70s when I was in law enforcement in metropolitan Chicago as a detective and undercover narcotics officer. It was made by a company now long out of business called “Jackass.” The harness had interchangeable holsters and mag holders for my Walther PPK, Colt Commander, or Walther P-38. The actual holster and mag pouches were made of heavier leather while the shoulder straps were soft, thin leather, which was flexible and comfortable. The two shoulder straps were held together in the back by a short elastic tab.

  7. I started out my law enforcement career with a Colt 1911 model 70 in .45acp. My mentor (a senior detective who eventually became chief) gave me that weapon and a very well broken in Bianchi X 15 to house it in. Since then I have upgraded the Pistol and the shoulder rig many times. For a while it was a matched pair of Colts, then a Gold Cup paired with a hand made Bowie Knife for balance. They both served me very well. My Reserve duty as a combat medic allowed me to carry a sidearm of my choice and the Gold Cup traveled with me through Panama, Desert Shield, Desert Storm, The Balkins, Bosnia, and of course South Central L.A. I lost the knife somewhere in Bosnia. I have replaced it with a couple of Gerber Mk II that were a whole lot more dependable. The shoulder rig never failed me. Now, with half a dozen pins in my lower spine, the shoulder rig is all that I can use if I am to carry for any length of time. Galco has made all of my rigs after that Bianchi X 15 fell apart because of age. Yes cross draw and strong hand OWB are fast draws, but there comes a time when having too much weight around your waist slows you down. For me that was around 50 yrs. old and 30 lbs too heavy. I have since lost that weight, and the Gold Cup has been traded off for a Springfield Operator with rail which is very difficult to find a good shoulder rig for. So when I do carry outside the home, I take the light off and grab the shoulder rig. I am comfortable with the draw and while not a speed demon, I hit what I need to when I need to. Under my sports coat when at Church I blend in with the rest of the security team. Someday, my son will inherit my collection of 1911’s and Browning Highpowers. He has his own set of shoulder rigs though. The apple does not fall very far. He is the smart one tho, Navy S.E.A.L. and all that. My Ranger tab does not shine like that trident. But when his team usws shoulder rings, they are Galco construction. I am learning from him. Not all old dogs just sit on the porch.

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