Choosing a holster is much like choosing a wife or a husband: There’s lots of candidates out there, but you need to find the one which truly satisfies most of your needs. Further, the one you choose needs occasional, gentle care, to enable it to perform at its best.
I’ve done a lot of leatherwork in my time. I’ve also examined and tested both leather and plastic holsters made by America’s many craft shops and factories. From that background, maybe I can help you make a more-informed decision about which holster, among all those available, might best suit your needs.
When you come down to it, there’s mostly only plastic, or leather, or a hybrid born of both. Each material has its virtues, and each its failings or vices.
The choice in plastic seems limited to either hot-formed sheet Kydex or some sort of injection-molded thermoplastic. A personal test quickly disqualified the least expensive and most popular injection-molded plastic holster of recent memory, because it was just too easy to destroy. A gun-snatcher could tear this holster apart and escape with the weapon more quickly than most gun toters could react to the attack. Although other, stronger, injection-molded holsters have replaced it, none of them is particularly well suited to civilian concealed carry.
The first successful Kydex holster was the Snick, designed and manufactured by Michael Horne in Bakersfield, California, starting in the middle 1970s. It was hot-folded by hand from a simple shape cut from thick sheet stock, included a built-in belt loop, and enabled what was probably the fastest draw stroke possible from a reasonably secure, outside-the-pants-waistband (OWB) holster. But the Snick disappeared from the marketplace because its design over-stressed the Kydex, which would then unpredictably fail along its lines of flexion.
More modern all-Kydex holsters are thin and easy to hide, and almost all of them are designed to keep the plastic from being stressed enough to fracture. However, my personal judgment is that stress reduction requires all of them to be made larger than necessary, and all of them are witch-wart ugly. Also, all of them are too clickity-clack noisy during presentations for practical civilian concealed carry.
Hybrid Kydex-and-leather (and Kydex-and-plastic-fabric) holsters, almost all of them designed for inside-the-pants-waistband (IWB) carry, solve many of the plastic-holster problems I’ve mentioned. The Kydex part of the gun pouch is relatively unstressed, and the clickity-clack is considerably reduced, all because the innermost surface of the holster is relatively soft and pliable. Most hybrid holsters include extensive adjustment possibilities, too. But belt loops of Kydex, or other plastic, are still subject to fracture from flexion, and may have to be replaced occasionally.
A few different kinds of cloth-based and all-plastic fabrics are used to make pocket holsters, some of which include sticky, grippy rubber or vinyl outside surfaces meant to keep the rig securely in the pocket during a presentation. Since the pocket itself is the weight-bearing component of this type of holster, relatively weak pseudo-leather material is an appropriate choice. Its innate waterproof quality permits accumulated dirt to be washed out occasionally, and it requires almost no other care. There are leather pocket holsters too, but they don’t stay in the pocket as well as do those sticky-surfaced synthetics.
Most all-leather holsters are made of vegetable-tanned (so-called “oak-tanned”) cowhide, while a few better-quality holsters are made from vegetable-tanned horsehide. The cowhide used for holsters is usually the full thickness of the animal’s hide, but “horsehide” is actually tanned from the smooth-surfaced muscle tissue just beneath the horse’s skin. Cowhide can be thicker than the thickest horsehide, if that’s important to the holster’s design, and certainly has a much more visually-interesting outside surface. But horse has the reputation of absorbing dye more evenly, and of better resisting human sweat. Both of these materials can be wet-molded to very closely fit the gun that the rig will hold, making it safely retentive for concealed carry without being restrictive. And one of the most important concealed-carry features of all leather holsters is that they are quiet.
A sturdy, durable leather holster needs to be somewhat thick. Generally, the absolute minimum useful thickness for a wet-molded OWB holster is about 1/8″, and its pouch can be made from two layers of any thickness, laminated together by means of both glue and stitching. Note that the stitches in a holster’s interior should be sunken below the leather surface, to protect them from gun abrasion. The sturdiest lamination for holster making would be two layers of equal thickness, but if the leather is of the best possible quality, the inside layer, the lining, could be thinner than 1/16″. A lined holster can help preserve the gun from abrasion, but only if its inside surface is the smooth grain side. Suede is generally not a good holster lining because it tears easily, and it retains gritty dirt.
Nevertheless, some carefully designed and well-made, but less expensive, IWB holsters are constructed from so-called “center-cut” cowhide, a chemical-tanned, sueded leather which cannot be wet-molded to the gun. The thick and sturdy suede used in the best of these holsters is stretchy enough to form itself to the pistol somewhat, aiding retention. This kind of rig usually also includes formed-wire reinforcement at the pouch mouth, to hold it open and ease reholstering.
If you intend to buy a leather holster, you need to know about the two major leather types: vegetable- and chemical-tanned. As mentioned above, vegetable-tanned cow- or horsehide can be wet-molded into a snug fit. It then dries to almost wooden stiffness. If lots of hard use has made your wet-molded holster soft and loose, it can be re-wet and re-shaped, and it will air-dry snug and wood-stiff again. You can tell if a holster is made from vegetable-tanned leather by looking at an edge. Its edge can be dyed to match its surface, and if it’s not dyed, its center layer will be light brown or tan. The center layer of chemically tanned (“chrome-tan”) leather, which can’t be wet-molded or re-shaped, can’t be dyed, and is always light bluish-gray.
You should also understand how leather thickness is measured. Instead of simply stating the average thickness of the finished, naturally somewhat uneven material, leather is classified by how many ounces it weighs per square foot. Each ounce of weight is roughly equivalent to 1/64″ of thickness, and most high-quality holsters are made of at least one layer of nine-ounce leather, about 9/64″ thick. Lining leather should be at least three-ounce, and six-ounce is better.
Cowhide is most often sold by the side, one lengthwise half of an animal’s skin. It is also sold as separate high-quality parts called the back, the shoulder, the double shoulder, the butt, and the double butt. Horse usually comes in double shoulders and double butts. There is also a wrinkled, stretchy, unusable part called the belly. Backs, which are flat, straight, and of pretty even thickness, are mostly used to make belts. Shoulders and butts are used for holsters. Reputable makers don’t use belly leather for anything, although I did once receive a review-sample holster, one part of which came awfully close.
My own personal prejudice is that a Kydex holster won’t last as long as a leather one. The edges of a metal gun will eventually wear the relatively softer plastic away, and the pouch will either break or become loose. A special vacuum-molding set-up must be used to re-fit a Kydex pouch, while re-fitting a leather holster requires only cold water, a plastic bag, and a towel. I suppose that, in reality, the life of either one is measured in decades, but, as I said, it’s a prejudice.
Both leather and Kydex are softer than metal, and leather is softer than most of the plastics from which many modern pistols are made. Gritty dirt, your gun’s worst enemy, will embed itself into a softer material, either the leather or the plastic of your holster, and from there will scratch a harder surface, the finish of your prized pistol. The remedy for that is to scrub the pouch’s interior with a bone-dry toothbrush once a week. While water and soap won’t harm Kydex, they’ll do terrible things to the fit of a leather holster.
And speaking of wet, keep not only water, but also oil, liquid or semi-liquid wax, and saddle soap away from your wood-stiff, wet-molded leather holster. Keep your leather dry! The only care it really needs is an occasional rubdown, only on the outside, with ordinary hard-cake shoe wax (for instance, a can of Kiwi shoe polish). If you find shoe polish to match your holster’s color, use it. Otherwise, use the “neutral” (colorless) version. Normally, don’t put anything inside your leather holster but your wiped-dry pistol.
All new holsters, and particularly all new leather holsters, are at least a little too tight. Generally, the best remedy for a too-tight holster is to make repeated practice presentations from it. You need the exercise and the familiarization anyway. There are a couple of commercial leather-coating preparations on the market which promise to make your pistol come out as if it were on springs, and to do it right away. And, yes, they really do work. But be careful what you wish for, because it may come true. In my own experience, these Teflon-impregnating coatings do much too good a job, and the gun will no longer be secure in the treated holster, not ever again.
3. Design Considerations:
I’m not going to recommend one style of holster to you over another. That’s a choice that only you can make. Rather, it’s my job to help you understand the holster-design elements which will assist and support your self-defense efforts, and also those other elements which could impede either your draw stroke or reholstering, or make the rig harder to conceal.
While either hot-molded Kydex or wet-molded leather probably does the best possible job of retaining a pistol, other materials also work well enough. The emphasis is not on which material was used, but rather on how well the material was arranged and shaped. I believe that the most important question in your mind should be: “Does this holster allow me to quickly grab my gun in a firm and secure full firing grip, before ever beginning a presentation?” If you have to struggle to wrap your fingers around your gun’s handle, or change your grip in mid-draw, or if your fingers are always getting scratched by the holster’s edge, then I suggest that you need to try some other rig.
The next most important consideration is whether the holster stays in place, firm and unmoving, while you sit, bend, walk, jump, and run, and also while you quickly grab and present your pistol in panicked self-defense. You don’t have the time to do a search. Your gun must always be exactly where you expect it to be, every time that you reach for it. And your holster should always stay behind while your pistol is being removed.
The third-most-important design issue is whether or not the mouth of the holster’s pouch will remain open when your pistol isn’t in it. You may not think it’s a necessity, but being able to make a quick, smooth, one-hand reholster is truly almost as important as your draw stroke. It will save you time, discomfort, and maybe even your life, as the cops arrive to clean up after the fight in which you were just involved. They won’t know who the bad guy is, and they’ll be expecting to arrest “the man with the gun.” That shouldn’t be you.
Some holster manufacturers cut corners by making a sort of generic leather holster shape and size, and then using water, a set of sample gun-forms, and a cold-vacuum press to mold this generalized holster to fit several different sizes and shapes of pistols. While this technique will work properly for as long as the resulting holster stays wood-stiff, it is at best inelegant and un-craftsmanlike, and it’s poor-quality work. When you look closely at the pouch, you can see that its line of stitching does not follow the pistol’s shape, so it’s pretty easy to avoid.
A “safety strap” is not necessary on a properly designed and constructed concealed-carry holster. The pouch’s close fit is the best retention device. If your pistol has a safety lever, your holster itself, and not some separate strap, should keep that safety lever from slipping down into its “off” position and its hammer from dropping. If your rig doesn’t pass this test, find another holster. If you open-carry, a safety strap might discourage or frustrate a bad guy’s gun grab, but not for long. The main use of a safety strap is to keep the gun in its holster during strenuous physical activity or extreme motion, for instance while riding a horse.
A belt holster worn either OWB or IWB permits the quickest, most decisive presentation. All other types require both hands and longer reaches, and all of that slows your draw stroke down. Carrying a shoulder holster, wearing a bra holster or a chest-strap rig, using an underpants pouch, or wearing an ankle holster all call for very special preparation and lots of extra practice. There may be good reasons why you need to use a deep-concealment carry device like these, but you really need to think carefully about its advantages versus its drawbacks before you commit yourself to one.
Most clothing-like deep-concealment devices use one-size-fits-all, cloth or elastic holster pouches. Be warned: The true meaning of “one-size-fits-all” is that one size fits nothing. While some of these rigs, particularly the SmartCarry, come in two or three sizes, their size range is still incapable of properly placing each and every different pistol in exactly the right orientation for a swift, sure draw stroke. Instead, the user must modify the rig’s pouch, either by doing a bit of sewing or by stuffing scrap material down into its bottom. Elastic rigs are the worst in this respect, and I’ve never seen one that could be successfully modified.
And finally we come to off-body carry. Let me make it simple: If at all possible, don’t. You will inevitably put your briefcase, purse, backpack, or portfolio down somewhere, and at least temporarily lose track of it. That’s exactly the moment when little junior or a snooping co-worker will look into it, perhaps to your eternal regret. And think of the result of a purse-snatch. Do you really want to give some cheap crook the gift of a loaded gun?
I hope that this long and long-winded essay will be of some use to you, as you examine the many different choices that confuse your search for a useful holster. If you disagree with any of my points, or if you have information to add, please post your thoughts here. If you have unanswered questions, please post them here as well, and I’ll do my best to answer them.