The Long History of Shoulder Holsters

People have been carrying handguns under and over their jackets with a harness and a holster since pistols have been small enough to do so.

W

hat comes to mind when you first hear the term, “shoulder holster?” Is it Miami Vice? Maybe Doc Holliday or other wild west gamblers? How about undercover cops? Something entirely different, perhaps? The beauty of shoulder holsters is that there’s really no wrong answer here. They’re a piece of equipment with a wide and storied history that is far-reaching and far from finished. Let's get some of the components out of the way. The holster part of a "shoulder holster" is just that, a holster that usually includes some kind of retention strap, often with a thumb break. They can be oriented in a number of ways, vertically and slung low, horizontally and tucked high into the arm pit, or even inverted, with the muzzle pointed toward the wearer's arm pit. The actual shoulder straps that hold the holster to your body are referred to as harness, "the rig," or, when including the holster, a "shoulder rig." Some minimalist shoulder rigs use an single strap that wraps around the shoulder opposite to the holster. Most modern shoulder harnesses are symmetrical with a small strap that affixes to the wearer's belt on both sides for better stability. OLD WEST The image that most often comes to mind of shoulder holsters in the Wild West is that of the gambler, keeping his gun close at hand, easy to draw, yet concealed from others at the table. If things go well, the gun will stay put. If the gambler is accused of cheating, his pistol can make a quick appearance from under his coat. (The fact that he’s got two extra aces hidden in his sleeve is irrelevant.)

Played by Val Kilmer in *Tombstone*
Played by Val Kilmer in Tombstone, legendary gambler and outlaw Doc Holliday, carries a Colt Lightning revolver in a low-slung shoulder holster.imfdb.org

Thomas E. Crawford, known as the “Texas Kid,” recalled this about his escapades: “It was quite common among gunmen and sheriffs at that time to carry one pistol upside down in a scabbard under the arm, with the gun hanging by the front sight. There was no drawing to it. You simply reached under your coat, flipped out your pistol, and fired from your stomach. It was all very quickly done.”

This early use of a shoulder holster is representative of one of the most useful things about this carry method: it makes a gun much easier to draw while seated, which is how pro gamblers spent most of their time.

On the frontier, the shoulder holster was an egalitarian method of carry. Lawmen and outlaws alike embraced the design for its comfort and ease of use.

MILITARY

U.S. soldiers in WWII wearing the infamous M7 shoulder holster for the M1911A1.
U.S. soldiers in WWII wearing the infamous M7 shoulder holster for the M1911A1. They were also known as Tanker Holsters, because they were largely issued to and used by tanker crews who had to work in extremely tight spaces.AR15.com

The desire for a shoulder holster for the M1911 came along just a few years after the pistol’s official adoption. On February 11, 1914, Captain F.B. Holcomb of the 10th Cavalry, Troop “B” submitted a request to modify the standard belt holster so that it could “be suspended from the shoulder instead of from the belt.” He received approval to modify seven holsters for a six-month trial by selected officers.

His trial period was exceptionally short lived. A shoulder holster sample was sent to Rock Island Arsenal where it was examined by the Commanding Officer of the Arsenal; it was then sent to the Adjutant General, who, on March 12—one month and one day after the initial request was submitted—wrote that the modification was “not favorably considered” and that Capt. Holcomb “has been so advised” that “no change will be made.”

Shoulder holsters were well suited for pilots, for whom a hip holster would be cumbersome in tight cockpit.
Shoulder holsters were well suited for pilots, for whom a hip holster would be cumbersome in tight cockpit.US Militaria Forum

It was another 25 years before the idea was again discussed. In May 1939, the Cavalry Board tested two variations of the M1916 belt holster. One utilized a leather back piece and shoulder strap; the other included an additional chest strap. The Board approved 30 to be made without the chest strap at Rock Island Arsenal. They were delivered on July 26 and issued to the 7th Mechanized Cavalry Brigade for testing. Again, the design was rejected.

It wasn’t until U.S. involvement in WWII that the Army Air Corps pushed again for the development of a shoulder holster. The standard belt holster was not convenient when strapped into the confines of an airplane.

In October 1943, the design was finally approved and it became known as “Holster, Pistol, Cal. .45, M3 (Shoulder-Leather)” - or simply “M3” for short. Initially, they were only approved for issue to “Flyers” in the Air Corps.

An American military advisor in Vietnam wearing his pistol in an M7 shoulder holster.
An American military advisor in Vietnam wearing his pistol in an M7 shoulder holster.help.com

The approved material, russet leather, was used by Enger-Kress, Sears Saddle Company, and Boyt Harness Company to fill the orders. All were to be embossed with “US” in an oval on the front.

In December 1944, the M3 was modified with the addition of a pad on the shoulder strap and a chest strap to adjust the position of the holster. This variation became known as the “M7” and it was approved for issue to the Cavalry, Tank Destroyer, and Armored Forces. Still made of russet leather, the M7’s were made by Enger-Kress and Boyt, but not Sears.

A modern reproduction of an M7 shoulder holster.
A modern reproduction of an M7 shoulder holster.Amazon.com

Three variations of shoulder holsters for Colt’s Model M Pocket Hammerless pistols in .32 and .380 calibers were also available from commercial sources in Texas and Maryland. The Model M, also known as the General Officer’s pistol, was more of a ceremonial arm than an everyday carry gun.

Production continued after World War II and the color was changed from russet to black in 1956. Manufacturing ramped up on the M7 and it was made by more than a half-dozen different manufacturers throughout the country in order to meet the growing demand from soldiers in Vietnam.

With today’s soldiers wearing protective vests and plate carriers on the front lines of battle, a traditional shoulder holster setup is not feasible. As a result, the concept of the shoulder holster has evolved with today’s military needs.

Holsters that can be mounted on bulletproof vests and armor plate carriers are an adaptation of the shoulder holster system. Accessing a weapon being carried in a belt holster can be cumbersome because of the added bulk of the vest/carrier. Mounting the holster directly to this unit allows for the firearm to be carried in a manner that is both secure and quick to reach.

However, some officers still carry their sidearm in a shoulder holsters of various makes and models while in combat zones, which are usually constructed of lightweight nylon and polymer hardware.

LAW ENFORCEMENT

Steve McQueen in the classic 1968 film *Bullitt* with his signature "upside-down" shoulder holster.
Steve McQueen in the classic 1968 film Bullitt with his signature "upside-down" shoulder holster. This unique holster, and his character in part, were inspired by a real San Francisco detective, who also served as the inspiration for Harry Callahan. This holster was produced in the 1970s by Safariland as the Model 19.imfdb.org

Television shows like Miami Vice and films such as those in the Dirty Harry series catapulted the shoulder holster to law enforcement fame once again on both the big and small screens.

The most obvious benefit of the shoulder holster to the law enforcement community is its ease of concealment for plain clothes officers and those in more formal office settings. It keeps the gun accessible at all times, yet hidden beneath a suit jacket or other outer garment.

Don Johnson in the pilot episode of *Miami Vice* (top) with his original shoulder holster.
Don Johnson in the pilot episode of Miami Vice (top) with his original shoulder holster. It was so uncomfortable Johnson wanted to switch to a belt holster, but stuck with a shoulder rig after Galco delivered one of their Original Jackass Rigs (bottom), which he wore for the rest of the series. The name of the rig was eventually changed to The Miami Classic.imfdb.org

Generally regarded as a primary concealed carry option for decades, the shoulder holster gradually became seen as a viable open carry option as well (similar to the way they are used by the military and hunters) thanks to “Sonny” Crockett’s casual attire in Miami Vice, though he often concealed his Bren Ten beneath a white linen suit jacket.

There have actually been a lot of big screen cops who wore shoulder holsters, including John McClane in the Die Hard movies and Sgt. Murtaugh in the Lethal Weapon films.

Today, you’re probably just as likely to encounter a shoulder holster on an undercover cop as you are to run across an officer utilizing one for open carry in a department headquarters building.

Of course, without an outer garment, a shoulder holster cannot keep a firearm concealed. Plainclothes police officers who spend a lot of time at a desk or in a car can also appreciate the comfort of a shoulder holster, but many may elect to carry a backup firearm on their belt.

David Toschi shoulder holster
(Top) Legendary San Francisco Inspector David Toschi wearing his custom shoulder rig. Below is Mark Ruffalo playing Toschi in the 2007 film Zodiac giving you a good look at the handcuff pouch and spare ammo Toschi carried on his strong side.reddit/imfdb.org

In modern times, shoulder holsters for police officers have fallen out of vogue a bit, mostly over safety concerns. Technically, if you wear a horizontal shoulder holster, you're muzzling anyone who walks behind you at all times. And, drawing from a shoulder holster without muzzling your own weak-side arm is difficult, and it's almost impossible to do without muzzling everything an everyone on your left. Plus, they don't work well with body armor, but they still have their suitable applications for law enforcement.

HUNTING

Handgun hunting is extremely popular. Many of the guns used are large-frame guns chambered in large calibers, which means the guns themselves are big and heavy.

Attempting to carry a gun that weighs as much as a half-gallon of milk (or more) on your belt is a non-starter, unless of course you like to wear suspenders and a belt. As a result, shoulder and/or chest rigs have become popular options for hunters.

The Galco Gunleather Kodiak holster for large revolvers.
The Galco Gunleather Kodiak holster for large revolvers.Galco

Most hunting options are more of a chest rig than a shoulder rig, and they tend to utilize less of a chest strap and more of a waist strap. This is because they are designed to be worn lower on the body than what you expect to see from their cousin-holsters in military use.

The are often open-top designs, but some utilize a cover flap to help keep nasty weather in the field at bay. Other options include cutouts to accommodate scopes mounted on the gun’s top strap. Many also incorporate cartridge loops either on the body of the holster itself or on one of the support straps.

Whatever the specific design may be, their versatility has made them quite popular with big bore handgun hunters

Shoulder or chest holsters for hunters keep large-frame revolvers at the ready while not interfering with other gear.
This is the Guide's Choice Leather Chest Holster from Diamond Custom Leather. Shoulder or chest holsters for hunters keep large-frame, heavy revolvers at the ready while not interfering with other gear.Diamond Custom Leather

CIVILIAN USE - OPEN AND CONCEALED

The average armed citizen has also embraced the shoulder holster. Granted, it isn’t as widely used today because of a change in dress standards, but it does remain a popular option for everyday carry in certain situations, like when you’re wearing business attire as a cover garment. James Bond carried his Walther PPK in a shoulder holster concealed beneath his tux most of the time.

There was a time, however, when shoulder holsters were much more popular in the civilian market. In decades past, men more often than not wore some kind of jacket or sport coat, no matter the season. Rounding out your sharp-dressed appearance with a high quality leather shoulder holster was a no-brainer for many. They’re easy to conceal when you’re wearing an outer garment of some kind - especially one that’s designed to be worn all day, in and out of doors.

The Galco Miami Classic shoulder right.
The Galco Miami Classic shoulder holster with a double magazine pouch on the opposite side of the holster.Galco

ACCESSORIES

The most obvious accessory for a shoulder holster relates to extra ammunition. This can include magazine pouches, speedloader pouches, or dump pouches for loose rounds. To balance out the weight of the gun, ammo carriers of any kind are designed to be worn on the opposite side of the body. The most common options accommodate one or two mags or speedloaders, but Galco does offer an option that holds four magazines. They say it is designed for those “heading into combat zones” or for people who “must be discreetly yet heavily armed.”

If your daily loadout requires you to carry handcuffs, there’s even an option to outfit your shoulder rig with a cuff holster.

Galco SHUKA
The Galco SHUKA (Shoulder Holster Universal Knife Accessory) allows you to carry a fixed blade knife in its sheath on a shoulder rig.Galco

ADVANTAGES and DISADVANTAGES

As with any holster, there are advantages and disadvantages.The way you dress on a daily basis can have a big impact on whether or not a shoulder holster is a good option for you. Covering a shoulder holster with a sport coat will never look out of place or draw any attention to the method of carry. Wearing an outdoor jacket indoors when others around you have removed theirs will likely cause some people to wonder why you won’t take it off.

Here are some things to keep in mind if you’re looking to utilize a shoulder holster:

Pros:

  • Comfortable due to design and weight distribution
  • Ease of access/draw when sitting
  • Easily concealable with an outer garment

Cons:

  • Impossible to conceal without an outer garment
  • Hard to access gun if pinned against a wall or the ground
  • One of the more expensive holster options on the market

TODAY'S OPTIONS

Just like any other holster on the market today, options abound. There are countless makers to choose from and even a variety of materials - leather, kydex, and nylon are all available.

Galco is one of the more well-known makers of leather shoulder holsters, but almost every leather holster company offers a shoulder system. Galco alone offers seven different varieties on their website. Other companies, such as Alien Gear and Safariland (which now owns the Bianchi brand), also offer numerous designs in leather and other materials.

The Blackhawk! Shoulder Harness Holster Platform updates the carry method with a nylon and Kydex construction.
The Blackhawk! Shoulder Harness Holster Platform updates the carry method with a nylon and Kydex construction.Blackhawk!

Leather is considered the traditional material for a shoulder holster. With the rise in popularity of kydex, it is becoming more common to see components being made from this material, such as the holster, ammo carriers, or cuff holders, and many manufacturers have ditched the cowhide for easily adjustable nylon straps and pads.

The straps are obviously not made of kydex. Because there’s simply more to them, shoulder rigs are an expensive carry setup. As such, you can opt for an entire shoulder system made from nylon, including a soft holster, if you’re looking for an inexpensive option. Regardless of the material you choose, one thing holds true: you get what you pay for.

One of the big benefits of a shoulder holster is that it doesn’t lock you into a certain manner of dress. As long as you’ve got some kind of cover garment, you’re good to go.

Today, there are also products on the market that offer the benefits of a shoulder holster while also making them way more concealable. These include belly bands, corset holsters, and concealable t-shirts. Like shoulder holsters, they provide you with the option to carry in less traditional ways and can be used without wearing a belt and with almost any kind of clothing, from a dress to jogging shorts.

The AlphaHolster Bellyband.
The AlphaHolster Bellyband.amazon

WRAP-UP

No matter what your application, there’s a shoulder holster option available for it. Even so, you may find that this method of carry just doesn’t work for you. Noted Border Patrol Agent Bill Jordan was one of those people. In his 1965 book, No Second Place Winner, he gives his opinion: “Its greatest value is for plain clothes use and for carrying large, sometimes scope-sighted, guns on hunting trips. I have never found one which I could wear with comfort.”

So, are you more like Dirty Harry or Bill Jordan? There’s only one way to find out...