Holster How-To: Picking the Best One for You

Make sure the holster you choose has these 6 crucial features before you spend your money. Your life could depend on it.

An example of a Galco Gunleather Federal Holster.
An example of a Galco Gunleather Federal Holster.mfg photo

You're in the market for a holster? Good. We'll assume that you've read Part 1 of this series, which explains the various types of holsters there are today, and Part 2, which looks at how various holster types may—or may not—be suitable in various real-life threat scenarios.

Now you’re ready to pick the best holster for you. As you look at individual models, remember that there are three things your holster MUST do:

  1. It must secure your gun, ensuring it stays in your possession at all times.

  2. It must protect the trigger, minimizing the chance of inadvertent trigger contact from hands or foreign objects.

  3. It must present your gun in a consistent position and safe orientation so you can draw the gun effectively while under stress.

Before we get into specific features and attributes, we ought to talk about the big rule of thumb: Avoid the temptation to skimp by picking an inexpensive holster. I know, holsters aren’t glamorous, and spending big coin on a holster isn’t nearly as satisfying as blowing a bunch of C notes on a really sweet gun. However, you need to spend as if your life depends on it, because it just might. Don’t be shy about spending $50 to $100 (or more) to get a quality holster. Yes, it’s worth it. While you’re at it, be sure to buy a real gun belt. A holster is only as good as the belt it’s attached to, so get one designed for carry. Even thick and wide department store belts won’t cut it—they’ll get soft over time and allow your holster to flop around.

There are so many “types” of concealed carry styles that trying to cover the specific pros and cons of each would give the phone book a run for its money in terms of page count. Instead, let’s talk about various features to look for when evaluating a holster of any kind. Many holster attributes apply to different style of holsters, so we should be able to cover the important stuff more efficiently.

Here are the six features to check for as you search for your holster:

1. Proper Material

This Blackpoint outside-the-waistband holster
This Blackpoint outside-the-waistband holster is built like a tank and uses both leather and Kydex components. Note the screw nearest the center – that’s for adjusting the tension on your gun. Loosen it for an easier draw or tighten for more gun retention.mfg photo

You’ll find holsters made from leather, Kydex (thermoplastic), injection molded plastics, hybrid styles that blend leather and Kydex, and softer materials like suede and flexible nylon.

In my opinion, the choice between leather and nylon boils down to personal preference – there are plenty of truly outstanding holsters made from each of those materials. Leather might be more comfortable, but Kydex is immune to moisture and sweat. Kydex is also lighter and thinner, so if you’re carrying inside the waistband, the overall width of gun and holster might be smaller and more manageable. Then again, Kydex against raw skin is not the most pleasant sensation. They don’t make boxer shorts out of Kydex for a reason. As you’ll see by the photos here, I use leather, Kydex, and a combination of the two, so it’s really a personal preference decision.

Be aware that genuine Kydex comes in sheets that are carefully shaped and molded to a specific gun model. This differs from injection-molded designs, in which other (usually lower quality) types of plastics are melted and poured into a mold. This method also produces exact fits, but is likely not as tough and durable as Kydex. Injection molding offers lower cost, but at a “price,” so to speak. Details matter.

I’m not at all a fan of those soft one-size-fits-many holsters. You’ll see these everywhere for $15 or so. On paper, these sound great. They’re super-comfortable and, therefore, appealing to new(er) concealed carriers. But this approach partially violates all three of those requirements for what a holster must do. Most also have lousy attachment clips that just slip over your pants or belt and tend to come out with the gun during a vigorous draw. Also, as we’ll talk about next, they require two hands to reholster your gun. As for the one-size-fits-many design, this approach partially violates all three of the requirements for what a holster must do.

2. Reinforced Mouth

This Don Hume PCCH inside-the-waistband holster
This Don Hume PCCH inside-the-waistband holster has a minimally reinforced mouth, so reholstering might require two hands.mfg photo

No, I’m not talking about a talk show host. A holster with a reinforced mouth—the opening where you insert the gun—uses material that keeps that opening ready for reholstering. Soft leather or suede holsters can be really comfortable, but the minute you remove your gun, the holster mouth collapses, especially if it’s an inside the waistband style. To reinsert your gun, you need to use two hands – one to open the holster mouth and the other to holster your handgun.

People get cranky about using holsters without reinforced mouths because in the unlikely event you’re ever involved in a shooting, you may not be able to use two hands to reholster your gun. You certainly don’t want to be standing around with a gun in your hand when the police arrive. Of course, this is a very unlikely scenario for most of us, and there are other ways to safely get your gun out of your hands. For one, you could place it on the floor and stand on it. Just saying.

The more practical reason to avoid holsters without a reinforced mouth of some sort is that you can’t effectively train by drawing, shooting, and reholstering repeatedly. Most instructors will discourage use of a “soft” holster in a training class. Not only is using two hands to reholster a few hundred times tedious, but it’s also unsafe to you and other students.

If shopping for a leather holster, look for one with either a metal band stitched in the mouth or, at least, a double-thick leather mouth area. Kydex holsters don’t require separate reinforcement because the material maintains it shape naturally.

3. Good Gun Fit

A good holster will be molded to fit every contour of the handgun
A good holster will be molded to fit every contour of the handgun. Note the section to the upper left of the Sig logo – that wraps over the decocking lever on the Sig P229.author photo

Most holsters rely on perfect fit to keep your gun secure. Quality holsters made from leather or Kydex will be painstakingly molded to every contour of the handgun. This prevents the gun from rocking and moving in the holster, but also keeps it in place via friction. With a good Kydex holster, you’ll actually hear and feel a “click” as the gun is seated into position. That’s because the plastic is molded around the gun’s contours, such as the trigger guard.

Quality leather holsters are "hand boned" to fit. This process involves a guy with really strong hands using tools to press fit the leather to each contour of the specific handgun. You’ll be surprised at how well a good holster secures a gun even without any special retention gizmos.

4. Reliable Snaps and Straps

This leather Bianchi model
This leather Bianchi model uses a top strap with a sturdy snap. It helps keep the gun in the holster and prevents the hammer from moving. It’s shown unsnapped here for visibility.author photo

Some holster designs have additional features to keep a gun secured in the holster. You’ll notice that most, if not all, law enforcement holsters have a retention device such as a strap or lever that locks the gun into place. During the draw, the user deactivates the retention lock so the gun can come out. While police officers need that feature to prevent evil dudes from gaining control of their gun, retention straps or mechanisms are useful to concealed carriers also. Retention features might be desirable for those with active daily routines, bike and motorcycle riders, and those who spend a lot of time in the outdoors. These features may also be desirable, if not always necessary, for unconventional carry methods, such as on the ankle or undershirt.

Snaps and straps on belt holsters are pretty straightforward. You’ll find models that feature a top strap that loops over the grip of your gun, keeping it securely in the holster. Models like the Galco Fletch High Ride Belt Holster have a thumb break strap on the body side. As you grasp your gun, your thumb is in a perfect position to push the snap open.

This Galco V-Hawk inside-the-waistband holster
This Galco V-Hawk inside-the-waistband holster won’t come off your belt, but the snap loops allow you to put it on without threading your belt through loops.author photo

Where you have to be extra careful is with non-traditional carry methods. For example, I see undershirt holsters that use Velcro straps to secure the gun. Think about how that works when trying to draw your gun under stress. With one hand, can you not only get underneath your outer shirt, but also reach across your body, undo a Velcro strap, and remove the gun?

Ankle holsters have a similar challenge. You’ll see some models that use a sturdy leather strap with a metal snap on the “leg side” to keep the gun in the ankle holster pocket. Others might use Velcro to perform the same function. In the snap design, as you grasp your gun, your firing hand thumb can easily pop the snap open. Can you do the same, one handed, if it’s a Velcro strap that attaches on the outside of the holster?

5. Good Security

paddle holsters
Paddle holsters can be put on simply by sliding the paddle down the inside of your pants or skirt. Sooner or later, the whole paddle will come out during a vigorous draw, so I try to avoid this mounting system.mfg photo

One of the primary jobs of a holster is to stay put! When you walk, run, do the Hokey Pokey, or draw a gun with enthusiasm, the holster should stay right where you expect it to. If you decide on a belt holster, I strongly recommend that it have belt cuts or loops, which allow the holster to attach securely to your belt, rather than rely on slip-on clips to do that. Yes, threading your belt through holster loops and pants belt loops is a pain, but it will stay put.

Paddle style holsters are super convenient for putting on and removing your gun. You just slide the paddle down the inside of your pants rather than hook the holster onto your belt. Most models have little nubs that protrude under your belt. These help keep the paddle holster in place when you draw. Here’s the problem: A paddle holster will probably work just fine for a few holster draws here and there. But, as you go about your daily business and move around, things tend to shift and adjust. At some point in time, you’re likely to find that your entire holster pulls out when you try to draw your gun. I see this in training classes all the time when students draw and reholster hundreds of times over a couple of days. Sometimes, gotchas like this are only apparent with a higher volume of activity.

There are holsters that offer the best of both worlds: easy attachment and removal, and security. I use a Galco Side Snap Scabbard and V-Hawk all the time. Both models use belt loops with durable metal snaps. Just run the leather straps under your belt and over the top where they snap securely to the holster body. Even though snaps are used, the geometry is such than an accidental “unsnap” is very unlikely.

6. A Strong Mount

Galco Concealable model.
Many outside-the-waistband holsters use cut loops for the belt. Note the redundant stitching everywhere on this Galco Concealable model.mfg photo

One of the biggest failure points on holsters is the mount. Leather holsters generally use cuts through which you thread your belt, or leather loops to attach to your belt. Most of the time these are plenty durable. Kydex and hybrid leather/Kydex holsters may require plastic parts for the actual holster mount. As you go about your daily business, doing things like sitting, moving, getting in and out of cars and such, you’re going to apply stress to your gun and holster with the full weight of your body. Make sure these parts are built tough. Sticking to reputable brand names and paying for quality go a long way when it comes to the longevity and durability of these unsexy details.

Avoid Gimmicks

Galco KingTuk
Attention to detail counts over time. Note the brass screw backings on the Galco KingTuk. They won’t rust or corrode with exposure to moisture.author photo

Beware of holsters and carry approaches that could be sold via slick infomercials. Someone is always inventing a new way to carry a gun that “solves all the problems of concealment and comfort.” The easiest way to evaluate new product ideas is to carefully weigh them against the three holster functions listed at the beginning of this story. Most of the new and exciting gimmick holsters will quickly lose appeal as you carefully think through safety, security, and function under stress.

The Bottom Line

That old adage about getting what you pay for is absolutely valid when it comes to gun holsters. And, there’s a big risk with using a poorly constructed holster. While a cheap holster might save you a couple of Andrew Jacksons, it can completely negate the value of your gun, ammunition, and your entire investment in practice and training. If it fails, sticks, or binds at the moment you need it most, you really didn’t come out ahead by saving a few bucks, right?