Concealed Carry

First Time to Conceal Carry: Holster Basics

Small of the back holster

If you are a concealed carry beginner or considering getting your concealed carry permit, you’re probably aware that you will need to start holster shopping. The world of holsters is overwhelming and confusing—so many to choose from!

A holster holds your concealed carry firearm securely in a place on your body that should be comfortable, easily accessible, and keep your gun concealed. The function of the holster is to cover the trigger guard in order to prevent an accidental discharge. Holsters also protect your gun’s finish, keep your gun secure, and provide a stable platform for easy carrying.

Demonstrating appendix carry in an inside of the waistband holster
Demonstrating appendix carry in an inside of the waistband holster

All concealed carry veterans will tell you that they have a drawer or box full of holsters that they purchased, but never carried. If your holster is not comfortable, you just will not wear it. Unfortunately, holster buying ends up being a process of elimination. More than likely you will buy a few duds before finding the right one for you. My first word of advice is to ask you to give up your search for the “perfect” holster. It just doesn’t exist. Weather, wardrobe, and activity level may require different holster types. For your first holster, your best bet is to buy one that will accommodate your most regular and routine day. With that being said, this article’s purpose is introduce you into the world of holsters—what they are made of, where they are worn, and definitions of words you will see in holster specifications.

Different Types of Holster Materials


Leather is the traditional material for gun holsters. You will be able to find a variety of leather from cowhide, to horsehide, to exotic animal skins. I have seen leather holsters dyed virtually almost every color, even pink, but the majority of leather holsters are tanned or black. Leather holsters are durable, hold their shape, and are comfortable because they will conform to your shape. Because leather molds easily, leather holsters fit the exact shape of your gun. The downside to leather holsters is that they are susceptible to moisture from weather, humidity, and sweat. Leather holsters may also become too worn during time and will not retain your gun properly.


Gun holsters are made of a few different types of plastics. You will find injection-molded plastic, thermolaminate, plastic/leather hybrids, and Kydex®. Most of the big-name holster companies will have their own thermolaminate plastic with propriety names such as Safariland’s SafariLaminate™ and Bianchi’s AccuMold®. Kydex is a high-strength plastic. All of these plastics used to construct holsters are strong, durable, lightweight, and waterproof. They offer excellent retention, a low profile, and are generally quick to draw from. These plastic holsters, like leather, will match an exact fit for your gun. One disadvantage to a hard plastic holster is the comfort level. They do not conform to your body shape and may be uncomfortable if you have to sit all day. So far, Kydex holsters are only available in black.

Ankle holster
Ankle holster


Nylon or ballistic nylon holsters are the most inexpensive. They usually offer a “universal” fit in just a few sizes fitting small, medium, or large-framed semi autos or revolvers or measured by the gun’s barrel size. Nylon holsters are lightweight, easy to clean, and flexible. Nylon will hold up to moisture from sweat and weather, but will most likely wear more than leather and plastic. You will probably find that nylon holsters need replacing more often than leather and plastic, especially if you choose nylon for your everyday carry holster.

Holster Types

There is a surprising number of places on your body to conceal your firearm and there are plenty of holsters to accommodate your preferred method.

Ankle Holster

Wear an ankle holster under your pant leg around your ankle using elastic or Velcro to fit. It usually has an extra strap, also made of elastic or Velcro® worn right under the knee to keep the ankle holster in place. You can wear the ankle holster on the inside or outside of your leg, but the inside may restrict movement. Ankle holsters are best for smaller, lighter weight guns, or for back-up carry.

Inside the Waistband or IWB Holster

Inside the waistband holster
Inside the waistband holster

An inside the waistband holster goes around your waist between your pants and your body. A clip that you can wear over either your belt or the waistband of your pants secures it. The grip of the gun sticks outside of the pants, while the barrel stays concealed inside. You will see some of these inside the waistband holsters described as “tuckable” which means there will be a space between the holster’s clip and the holster so that you can tuck your shirt into the empty space.

Inside the pocket holster
Inside the pocket holster

Inside the Pocket Holster

An inside the pocket holster is best for smaller, thinner guns. These holsters are usually flat on one side and intended to lay flat against your body in the pocket. Usually an inside the pocket holster is a simple pouch with no retention—more on retention later. Pocket holsters general purpose is to protect the gun’s finish, cover the trigger, and keep your gun from printing. Printing is when the outline of your gun shows through your shirt or pants.

Belt Holster, Outside the Waistband or OWB Holster

Belt or outside the waistband holster
Belt or outside the waistband holster

A belt holster is the most traditional style you will find. The belt holster is a standard holster secured to your belt either by a loop sewn into the holster or by a clip. Belt holsters usually have a 2-inch belt loop, designed to thread through your belt. Traditional belt holsters are what you see in cowboy action shooting, westerns, and on law enforcement agents. They are not the best for concealing.

Tactical thigh holster
Tactical thigh holster

Thigh, Drop Leg, or Tactical Holster

Worn outside the pants, thigh holsters do not conceal your firearm. You will see these types of holsters on military personnel. A strap that connects to your belt secures them.

Shoulder Holster

A shoulder holster incorporates a harness that crosses against your back and through both arms. Usually a shoulder holster has a holster on one side and a magazine carrier on the other side. The only way a shoulder holster conceals your firearm is if you wear it under a jacket or suit coat. A shoulder holster should fit right under your armpit.

Shoulder holster
Shoulder holster
Pancake holster
Pancake holster

Pancake Holster

A pancake holster is a flat-style holster worn close to the body at the waist. These holsters are easy to spot, because they look like they have wings. These wings are what enable the holster to have such a low profile.

Fanny Pack

Worn around the waist, these holsters include a pouch for your firearm and usually other pockets to carry ID, money, and extra magazines. The fanny pack incorporates its own waist belt. These holsters offer a variety of “universal” fits and do not fit one specific model of firearm.

Fanny pack holster
Fanny pack holster
Belly band holster
Belly band holster

Bellyband Holster

Constructed of stretchy material the bellyband secures around your waist by Velcro and incorporates a sewn-in “universal-fit” holster. Depending on size, you may wear a bellyband around your waist, hips, or chest.

Specialty Holsters

There are a few companies out there making specialty concealment garments and holsters, such as UnderTech’s underwear with built-in holsters, the Flashbang bra holster worn clipped to a bra, and built-in shoulder holster undershirts from 5.11 Tactical.

Gun Placement

There is a variety of positions to carry a belt and inside the waistband holster. There are a few definitions of where and how the holster fits.

  • Cant or rake—the angle at which the gun sits measured in degrees
  • Ride—where the holster lies on the belt relative to the gun’s trigger
  • High ride—much of the gun will be visible above your pant’s waistline
  • Strong side—the same side of your body as the hand you use to shoot. For example if you shoot right-handed and you carry a strong-side holster, you will be carrying your holster on the right side of your body
  • Support or weak side—the opposite side of your dominant hand
  • Crossdraw—a holster worn on your support side. When drawing your gun, you will use your right hand to draw from a holster you wear on the left side of your body.
  • Small of the back or SOB—a holster designed for SOB will sit at the center or just off-center of the small of your back. Usually SOB holsters have an extremely severe cant where the gun rides almost horizontally for a quicker draw
  • Appendix carry or AIWB—this carrying position is on your appendix, which is in front of your body, just off-center from your belly button

There is also behind the hip and on the hip carry. When people talk about what position they put their holster, they talk about it like a clock. The 12 o’clock position would be right in the middle of your front, under your belly button, then clockwise going to your right. For example, appendix carry would be 1 to 2 o’clock.

Small of the back holster
Small of the back holster

Levels of Security or Retention

Since one of the holster’s main purposes is to retain and secure the gun, holsters come in a variety of retention levels. Generally found described as Level I retention, Level II retention, Level III retention and so on. The levels of retention prevent someone from easily taking the gun from you. Level I is the most basic of retentions, Level II will incorporate two different retention devices, and Level III will have more. The higher the level of retention, the more difficult it will be to release the weapon from the holster. The more retention devices on a holster, the more practice it will take to draw your weapon quickly.

Types of retention are:

  • Thumb break—a thumb break is a strap that will cover over the trigger guard held down by a snap or a button. It should be designed so that you can do both, unsnap and draw with one hand.
  • Retention screw—a retention screw is generally adjustable for how much retention you want on your firearm; it requires you to pinch the holster to secure the gun.
  • Open top—an open top holster has no retention device at all.

This should help cover many of the basics of holsters, though any article will more than likely leave something out. For a more through guide to buying a holster, read our blog post, Finding the Right Holster. Do you have any questions about holsters that I left out? Let us know and we will find the answer.

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 (14)

  1. I learned so much I’ve been a concealed for going on 8 1/2 yrs. I carry at all times. Thank you for sharing this information which Ed me considerably! Ty

  2. Why no mention of a favorite of mine, the paddle holster? Easy on, easy off. Secure thumb break retension and concealable.

  3. It is very interesting and informative as well. I found what I was looking for a long time. Thanks For Sharing we have the best concealed carry holsters on the planet! (IWB) In waistband, ankle and pocket holsters.

  4. Excellent all around advice. The one piece of advice I’d add would be the idea that you might have to alter your wardrobe a bit to accommodate the “concealed” part of concealed carry. On-body carry sometimes requires the shirts to be purchased in a slightly larger size or slightly longer to better coverage. The same goes for pants with IWB carry.

  5. Wow! This is an amazing article. Very detailed with lots of great information for first time concealed carry permit holders. People often think that you walk into a gun store, buy a gun, and you’re ready to roll. These considerations are most valid and very important. Thanks for spreading the good word.

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