Handgun Holster Types: A Complete Guide
You want to carry a gun, but which holster is best for you? Check our complete guide to every holster type, pros and cons of each, and suggested models.
When you get right down to it, a gun holster has to do three things:
- It must secure your gun, ensuring it stays in your possession.
- It must protect the trigger, minimizing the chance of inadvertent trigger contact from hands or foreign objects.
- It must present your gun in a consistent position and safe orientation so you can draw the gun effectively while under stress.
In my view, those three functions are in the “needs” category. In the “wants” bucket, you might add factors such as speed of access, concealment, re-holstering with one hand, and ability to draw with either hand. There are many holsters on the market that do a fair job of meeting the three “needs” criteria. It’s the “wants” criteria where things get tricky and tradeoffs have to be considered.
For example, if your most important requirement is absolute concealment, and the consequences of the gun “showing” are really bad, you might choose a holster carry method where access is more difficult (read: slower) than with a traditional belt holster. As with most things in life, you have to carefully consider tradeoffs for your specific situation. Theoretically “perfect” concealment will, by definition, be at odds with speed and ease of access. It’s going to be up to you to choose your best combination of these often-conflicting attributes.
Before we get into carry methods, consider this disclaimer: These carry methods are not equal. Some of these holster categories have drawbacks—sometimes significant drawbacks—but may still be the best for you because of their advantages for your specific needs. We’ll get into some of the issues related to non-traditional carry methods later. Here, we’ll take a look at some of the primary holster styles currently on the market. (All prices listed are MSRP.)
Belt Holsters: Outside the Waistband (OWB)
Think cowboys. An outside-the-waistband (OWB) holster attaches to your belt, and the whole assembly of gun and holster rides outside your pants, generally on your strong hand side. Some OWB holsters ride on the opposite side so the user draws across the body.
You’ll encounter different methods of attaching an OWB holster to your belt, pants or skirt. Most have loops through which you thread your belt. Others, called paddle holsters, rely on a large “paddle” backing that slips between your body and the outer clothing layer. Most are designed with small “nubs” that are designed to catch on the bottom side of your belt so the holster doesn’t come out with the gun when you draw.
OWB holsters offer the easiest and fastest draw available – that’s why all those heroes and villains in spaghetti western movies used them. Quick draws look really impressive on the big screen, don’t they? While you absolutely, positively need a proper gun belt with belt holsters, you can wear your normal pants assuming the belt loops are large enough for your gun belt. Chaps are not required.
Since the entire handgun is kept outside of your clothing, you’ll need to wear either a long shirt or jacket to cover it all. Depending on the size of your handgun, the muzzle may hang five or six inches below the top of your pants. You’ll also need to plan on moving that cover garment out of the way when you draw, without getting all tangled up.
- Galco Concealable Holster, $116.95
- Safariland 6377 ALS Concealment Belt Loop Holster, from $49.50
- CrossBreed SnapSlide, from $48.50
Belt Holsters: Inside the Waistband (IWB)
As the name implies, inside-the-waistband (IWB) holsters fit between your pants and body, sometimes in front of your hip bone, sometimes on it, and sometimes behind. In this category, we can also include appendix-carry holsters, which are placed up front rather than on your side.
IWB Holsters can be made of leather, Kydex, or both. I particularly like hybrid-style holsters, which use a large leather back panel for stability and comfort against your body, while a Kydex gun pocket keeps the gun stable and locked in place. Kydex is also thinner than leather, so the width of stuff inside of your belt is minimized.
The fabric of your pants or skirt hides most of the gun. The only part exposed is the grip. As a result, it’s easier to conceal than the OWB style. You can wear shorter untucked shirts or jackets and easily cover the grip area of the gun. Security is excellent. The holster attaches to your pants and belt but is also held in place by the pressure of your pants or skirt. With an IWB carry setup, your gun is highly likely to stay just where you want it. With one caveat, which we’ll discuss in a minute, access to your gun is excellent: It will be right near your dominant hand.
Since you’re stuffing a gun and surrounding holster down your pants, you need to wear bigger pants. And I mean significantly bigger. Generally speaking, plan on buying pants two inches larger than your normal size, or else you’ll be sucking in your gut all day. That gets old. Access to your gun requires that you move whatever garment covers it out of the way first. It’s also not a particularly comfortable way to carry. But, as the saying goes, it’s not supposed to be comfortable, but comforting.
- Galco KingTuk, $76.95
- CrossBreed SuperTuck Deluxe, from $69.95
- Galco V-Hawk IWB Holster, $133.95
- Safariland 5379 GLS Holster, from $46.50
If you’re old enough to remember Don Johnson in his Miami Vice role, you’ll know this one. A set of (usually) leather straps crosses over your shoulders and back, allowing a gun holster and spare magazine carriers to hang on opposite sides of your body. Since the straps are over your shoulders and meet in the back, the idea is that you can cover your gun by wearing a sports coat or jacket.
If you spend your life in a car or at a desk, and will always be wearing a jacket, these are obscenely comfortable. There’s nothing digging into your waist when you sit or get in and out of vehicles, and your gun is easy to reach when you’re sitting. Models with magazine carriers on the opposite side help balance the weight so you’re not constantly leaning away from the weight of your gun.
The biggest drawback is your muzzle. When in a horizontal holster rig, your gun is pointed directly at whatever is behind you. Even with “muzzle down” rigs, when you draw, it’s hard not to have your muzzle pointed at people and things to your side as you bring your gun to target. The whole topic of when it’s OK to use a shoulder holster is too complex for this introductory article, so we’ll have to cover that in more detail later. For now, be aware of the muzzle issue! Also, you’ll need to wear that covering jacket all the time, unless you work in a police station. Barney Miller and crew used these, but they had the luxury of going “bare” while in the office. One more thing: To draw, you’ll have to reach across to the opposite side of your body, which may be difficult if you’re in a physical struggle.
- Galco Miami Classic II Shoulder System, $214.95
- Alessi Holsters Bodyguard Rig, $225
- Alien Gear Shapeshift Shoulder Holster Package, $99.88
Smaller guns, such as J-Frame revolvers and compact semi-automatic pistols can be carried in an ankle holster. These rigs generally use a wide neoprene or padded elastic strap with a holster pocket attached. You wrap the band around your ankle, and the gun is carried on the inside of your support side leg.
Concealment and convenience are generally good. People don’t tend to study others’ ankles, and since the gun is on the inside of your lower leg, any bulges are unlikely to be noticed. With a light or moderate weight gun, it’s a comfortable way to carry, and few if any wardrobe adjustments are required.
Ankle carry is a great way to carry a small backup gun. If you’re ever in such a world of hurt that you need a backup, and you’re on the ground, your ankle gun might be conveniently located after all.
Getting to an ankle-holstered gun quickly may seem easy, but in reality, it’s not. You’ll need to kneel or bend way down to reach it. Once there, you’ll need two hands to draw – one to move your pants out of the way and the other to grab your gun. If an attacker surprises you, your odds of “quick enough” access aren’t so great.
While wearing it, you also need to be cognizant of natural body poses like crossing your legs. When you do that, pants tend to ride up, possibly exposing your ankle gun.
Integrating Clothing Holsters
As millions of Americans have decided to arm themselves, holster companies have gotten exceptionally creative. You’ll find compression undershirts and shorts with holster pockets.
You’ll find jackets and vests with concealed-carry gun and magazine pockets ready to go. You’ll even find pants with break away holster pockets and holsters that attach to brassieres.
If absolute mistake-free concealment is your primary requirement—say, in a work environment where concealed carry is frowned upon—undershirt holsters may provide a better option than no gun at all. Concealment is hard to beat. Unless you regularly hug your co-workers with enthusiasm, no one will ever know you’ve got a gun in your underwear. Vests and jackets offer convenience and comfort, but also at a price, which we’ll discuss next.
If you’re thinking of getting an exterior garment that offers concealed carry pockets, consider this: Do you ever, and I mean even for just a minute, hang your jacket or maybe drape it across a chair? If so, you’re no longer in control of your gun. As for undershirt holsters, when you need to draw, you’ll not only need to reach across your body, you’ll need to open your shirt or blouse first. Unlike in the movies, buttons don’t always just fly off with a vigorous tug.
- Undertech Undercover Concealment shirts, shorts and leggings, from $59.99
- 5.11 Tactical Concealment Jackets, $59.99 to $329
- Flashbang Bra Holster, $49.99
Purse and Bag Holsters (Off-the-Body)
Many new female concealed carriers default to purse carry. Why? Women’s wardrobes vary widely, so a one-style carry approach, such as an IWB holster, doesn’t adapt well to all situations. Plus, carrying in a purse or bag is ever so convenient. If you choose this carry method, by all means use a model with a dedicated holster pocket, because if you carry a gun in the main compartment of a standard bag, loose items can work themselves into the trigger area. Besides, who knows where your gun will end up if deposited in the same compartment as keys, wallet and breath mints? Remember the primary needs of a safe gun holster, which are listed at the beginning?
The number one benefit is convenience. For women, a purse is ever-present, and no wardrobe accommodations are needed. Similar benefits can apply to guys with the use of briefcase or messenger bag holsters.
There are serious drawbacks to purse or other bag-carry methods. First, by definition, these are “off body” carry styles so your gun is not under your direct control at all times. Purses and bags get set down. Even one a few feet away is a potential danger situation in the making. When you’re not in control of your gun, someone else can be, whether child or bad guy. If you carry a gun to protect against incidents such as muggings, it’s far too likely that your bag, with your gun in it, is the first thing to go.
The advent of ultra-compact revolvers and pistols has made pocket carry a viable option. When I say “pocket,” that most commonly refers to your front pants pocket, but it could work well in a jacket pocket too. It’s a convenient way to carry, but, as with any other method, there are pros and cons to consider.
Whatever you do, NEVER carry a gun in a pocket without using a proper holster. It’s dangerous for a number of reasons. Remember, a holster secures the gun and protects the trigger. You don’t want to be fumbling in your pocket for your gun and get your finger caught up in the trigger. Nor do you ever want to keep anything else in your “gun pocket” for the same reason.
If you pick the right gun and holster combination, concealment can be excellent. The main concern is to use a holster that breaks up the outline of the gun so it looks like a wallet or phone. The imprint of a revolver cylinder on your front pants pocket is kind of a giveaway. Gun security is also good assuming that you wisely choose the pocket in which to carry. Front pants pockets provide excellent security against both loss and removal by an attacker.
It’s critical to make sure your chosen pocket is large enough to allow you to draw your gun while under stress. If the fit is too tight, you won’t be able to assume a proper grip on your gun and get it out of your pocket quickly. Pocket holsters are also a challenge from a seated position such as while driving. If you choose a jacket pocket approach, you’ll face the same drawbacks as any other off body carry choice – your gun won’t always be in your possession.
These are the basic types of holsters. We’ve not even scratched the surface of the concealed carry holster universe (I wrote an entire book just on concealed carry methods and holsters.)
Which one is right for you? Concealment and access are extremely important, of course, but there’s a much bigger factor at play: The reason that you’re carrying the gun in the first place. All carry methods are not created equal, and having a gun on or close to you doesn’t mean that it will be useful in the self-defense situation you may encounter.
We take a close look at some of those situations, and how different holsters affect your reaction to them here.
You may have a certain holster type in mind, but is it really the best choice for you? Check these real-life-threat scenarios before you plunk down your money.