A friend recently was asking my thoughts on holsters with mechanical retention devices known as a “thumb break”. My thoughts were:
Next to the handgun itself, the holster is among the most important elements of carrying a defensive firearm. It is also one of the most overlooked and confusing, so after your handgun and ammunition, it’s the most important piece of equipment that you will purchase.
First of all I would not carry a handgun in an outside the waistband (OWB) holster without some sort of mechanical retention device. By considering a holster with a mechanical retention device of some sort (Security Level II) you are certainly on the right track.
There are three levels of security retention to choose from.
A Level I retention holster is a leather holster that depends upon friction for it’s retention ability. Passive retention, as it’s sometimes called, is enhanced by the holster being molded to your make and model of gun, which increases the contact all across the gun’s exterior surface; rough unfinished leather on the inside helps too. That’s why the “one size fit’s most” nylon holsters are not the best choice for every day carry.
Leather holsters reach their optimum retention immediately after the break-in period and, assuming the leather is of high quality, will remain good for many years with occasional leather treatment. Whatever you do, stay away from gimmicks like sticking your holster in water, or into a warm oven, to adjust the fit. These are more apt to ruin your good leather holster and after spending from $60 and up, most around the $80-$120 range, you don’t want to ruin it no matter what you hear from some “expert” on the internet.
Although Kydex or polymer holsters are not affected by moisture, they also don’t naturally grip the handgun without tensioning screws. Their holding ability comes from tightening or loosening these screws so you can get the right amount of friction for a basic level of security. The issue here is keeping the tensioning screws from loosening up as you stress the holster by standing and sitting in different positions throughout the day. They may or may not change enough to notice in one 24 hour period, but eventually most change tension at some point either allowing the gun to slip out of the holster at the most inopportune time, or making it quite difficult to withdraw the pistol. Either way, a bad day could become much worse.
Level II retention holsters use not only the same friction-based grip on the pistol as a Level I holster, but now there’s the addition of an active mechanical element, such as a hood, back strap thumb break, or a finger- or thumb-operated lever. Some believe that Level II or mechanical-retention systems are only needed for people using open carry holsters, like armed citizens open carrying, on-duty law enforcement or armed security officers where the gun is visible and might be grabbed. However many professionals that carry a pistol for a living like Massad Ayoob, Rob Pinkus, Corey Graff and many others including myself disagree. Even if your gun is concealed your attacker may know from previous contact with you that you carry a pistol, and even where you carry it. He may have spotted it when scoping you out. Or you might get into a fight where the other guy feels the gun, at which time the fight for the pistol is on. A level II retention device can help secure your firearm.
If you look for a level II retention holster I would suggest staying away from a holster having an external release mechanism that is activated by the index/trigger finger. This finger can accidentally slip into the trigger guard as the gun is being withdrawn, discharging the pistol and shooting the user through the holster in the hip. I actually saw this happen once in a training exercise. For this reason I do not allow this type of holster in any of my classes where holsters are required and discourage people from buying these.
Currently, police officers and armed security officers use at least Level II retention holsters and many use Level III. This is NOT necessary for the average citizen permit holder, but due to the nature of their jobs and different types of contact with the public at large, this extra level of retention is mandated by most law enforcement agencies and large security corporations. By adding a second active retention element to a holster, plus passing the tension or friction test of Level 1 security, you get to Level III retention. A number of companies make these in some form. Most have a button that must be depressed in order to lock down the hood before the pistol can be withdrawn from the holster.
Whichever Level II holster you choose to use whether it be a thumb break, or otherwise, dry practice your draw stroke WITH AN UNLOADED GUN several times a week. I have done it for years and continue to do so to this day. By doing this I find that I am faster with a Level II retention holster than most are with a Level I holster. Practice makes perfect but only if you practice perfectly so think about each step of your proper 5-step draw stroke. The draw stroke however, is another subject entirely.
Just as there are a variety of things to be considered when selecting a firearm for defensive purposes, there are also a host of things to be considered when selecting a holster for that firearm.
Fit of the Holster to the Firearm
Though it may seem obvious, it has to be said that the first thing that must be considered is the fit of the holster to the firearm. The firearm must sit in the holster correctly. Not just about right but exactly right. You would be surprised how many people I’ve seen with improperly fitting holsters. Firearms flopping around in loose fitting holsters are dangerous. Equally firearms that may actually be stuck in holsters that are too small for the firearm create dangerous situations. Holster manufacturers mold their holsters specifically for particular firearms. A holster made for a Beretta model 92 will not fit a Springfield Armory XD-9. After you select your firearm, don’t pick a holster out of a barrel of holsters. This selection is very important. Consider it carefully.
Generally speaking there are two things to consider with a belt holster.
- Just where on the waist does it position the firearm
- Is it to be worn inside or outside the waistband.
Try this little experiment: extend your index finger, making a fist with the rest of your hand, and slowly sweep your hand along your waist. Notice that your index finger is nearly vertical when it is around your hip joint, points forward if it is forward of the joint and points to the rear when it goes behind the hip joint. The farther you go from your hip joint, the greater the angle from the vertical your finger is. This experiment will give you the angle or “rake” of the holster you need to select depending upon the part of the waist where you plan to wear it.
Here’s something else to consider.
Most holsters have been designed for the build of a fairly athletic male, of at least average American size. This may not be very realistic for most and is certainly not the same build as most women, but in any event, that is the way it works.
The most common concealment holsters have a tilt known as the FBI Rake that tilts the muzzle of the gun to the rear. These types of holsters are designed to be worn behind the hip on the gun hand side. These holsters are quick to access and provide a direct path to the sighting plane. They generally do a good job of tucking the grip area of the gun into the relative hollows of the anatomy of a physically fit male. This position places your gun where you can cover and protect it with your elbow.
Some of the problems that may come into play with the FBI rake holster (worn behind the hip joint) include having the butt of the weapon grinding into the ribs and the lack of adequate concealment. These are the result from mismatches to the body size and/or shape.
One answer to these concerns is to shift the holster to different positions along the waist moving from under your firing hand side around toward the front:
- The Appendix Position is where the holster is placed forward of the hip joint, still on the gun-hand side. This position is popular with many women. The downside to this is that the firearm is flashed to the entire world every time the coat or jacket starts to open. It does however offer good concealment to women in the drape of a loose pullover garment, rather than a coat or conventional shirt. Another downside to this carry mode is that it may be uncomfortable when you are seated.
- The Front Cross-Draw Position is a real compromise but this particular position places the butt of the grip somewhere near the line of the navel. It requires more of a lateral arc to bring the muzzle on target but with practice can be quite effective. In the right holster, it may actually be useful for people who work seated. In the wrong holster or with a long handgun it can be extremely uncomfortable when seated. Concealing the firearm is usually compromised with this method.
- The Standard Cross-Draw position is one where the firearm rests butt forward on the opposite hip and can offer great concealment. The concealment is even greater if the holster is worn behind the hip joint. A downside to this placement is that it requires a long reach to acquire your grip. Unfortunately for you, an assailant to your front has very easy access to your firearm. This position requires a very large lateral arc to bring the muzzle of your weapon onto your target and you could possibly have your arm pinned to your torso when you reach for your weapon rendering you defenseless in a CQB (close quarters battle) situation.
- The Kidney Position is an exaggeration of the FBI Rake position, moving to the rear. This position enhances concealment for the slim user and will get the firearm out of the armpit or ribcage for the short-waisted among us. The downside here is that it takes more lateral motion to withdraw the firearm from the holster and will likely make your weapon at least somewhat inaccessible when seated. This position may also make sitting a bit uncomfortable.
- The Middle or Small of the Back Position (S.O.B.) is an extreme version of the kidney position. Yes, it is highly concealable but the downside is that it not only adds to the lateral component of the draw stroke but also places the weapon right over the spine. Should you fall onto your back or be pushed up against a wall or solid structure of some sort you now have an opportunity to do serious damage to your spine.
Remember that little finger pointing experiment? The angle or rake of the holster needs to fit the position where you place it on your waist!
As long as we are dealing with holster design, lets consider the choice of how high or low the holster rides on your waist. Some holster manufacturers even offer the choice of lateral offset to help keep the butt of the weapon out of your ribcage. Conceal-ability can be affected by these options.
Warning- Positions like the “Cavalry Draw” (butt forward on the gun hand side) or Small of the Back with the grip frame down will result in the muzzle of your firearm crossing your own body as you draw under stress. Remember safety rule #1? “Always Keep the gun pointed in a safe direction”
Wearing Your Holster Inside or Outside the Waistband?
Inside the Waistband (IWB),
When the holster is held inside the waistband (IWB), concealment is normally increased in two ways:
- Because most of the length of the holster is covered by the pants/clothing, the upper body garment (shirt, coat, etc.) only has to conceal the portion of the gun projecting above the waistband and the loops holding the holster to the belt.
- Because the belt goes outboard of the holster, the gun is pressed closer to the body and usually does not appear to project as far to the side.
The downsides to IWB holsters include:
- Requires a longer belt and about 4 inches larger waist size for the pants.
- Women and some men may find the butt angled too sharply into the ribcage if worn in the FBI position.
- The muzzle end of the holster may pinch a roll of fat when seated. This problem may be minimized with a design having a “flange,” like the Executive Companion from Milt Sparks or the Undercover Special from Ken Null.
Most IWB holsters are manufactured with an FBI rake, and some manufacturers offer a choice of rake, but if you do not like these it may take a custom holster to get the rake you need for your carry position.
Outside of the Waistband
Holsters worn outside of the waistband and the belt may pose challenges such as:
- The covering garment has to come lower to cover the entire holster or length of the firearm.
- You may need a wider belt to stabilize the firearm in the holster. This is particularly true for semiautomatics with heavy, high-capacity magazines, which place much of the gun’s weight above the waistband.
- The contours of the gun may be more obvious, making concealment more difficult.
- The holster may block access to pants pockets.
Remember the Belt!
The holster is only one half of the carry system. The belt is the other half. It is not a bad idea to order a belt from your holster maker to ensure that you get a belt that is designed to support your choice of holsters. Among other things, the width of the belt should match the belt slots of the holster. A holster worn outside the waistband will require a more substantial belt than one worn inside the waistband.
Paddle holsters are outside the waistband holsters that do not use loops to secure them to a belt. Instead they use a paddle that rides inside the waistband to which the holster is fastened, over the top of the waistband. This last factor tends to make the holster ride fairly high, a potentially undesirable feature for the user of one of the larger handguns.
These holsters were originally designed for ease in putting on the gun/holster and removing it during the day. Some require the use of a belt and some do not.
While the manufacturers must provide some means to ensure that the paddle does not slip out of the pants during the draw leaving the holster on the gun, you cannot expect a paddle holster to resist a gun grab as well as a loop-secured holster. I would not consider a paddle holster for open carry.
Belt Holster Information For Women & Men
From what I have observed (and from what my wife tells me) most women find belt holsters to be most comfortable when worn in the Appendix or Front Cross-draw positions. As mentioned above, this is due to the combination of rounded hips and short waist and their tendency to stick the butt of the weapon into the ribs or the armpits of most women who try to use FBI canted holsters.
Most women can easily conceal an IWB holster in this location under a loose, un-tucked shirt or blouse, such as a golf shirt. Such a garment will usually drape from the breasts, giving plenty of cover to the gun.
As previously discussed, when the holster moves forward of the hip joint to avoid this problem, the rake must be adjusted accordingly. Sometimes a straight-drop holster will work but usually it will take a forward-rake holster to do the trick.
It’s plain to see that for women, as well as for men, one size does not fit all.
Some Other Types of Holsters You May See
It’s been my experience that no holster will be faster than a belt holster on your gun hand side unless you’ve already got your hand on the gun for the draw. That being said, there are a variety of holsters for various specific purposes.
Ankle Holsters are really not a good place for a primary weapon but the ankle is not necessarily a bad location for a backup weapon. This type of holster is accessible when seated, especially if your car’s seat belt blocks access to your primary weapon. This type of holster gives you good access to your weapon if you are knocked to the ground on your back and can pull your knees toward your chest as you roll.
Pocket Holsters are not a first choice location for a primary weapon either. They will however, most likely work well as a backup.
Shoulder Holsters while looking kind of slick (in the movies), bring with them the disadvantages of a cross-draw along with the fact that it tends not to be as concealable in real life as they are in the movies and when wearing it you might be muzzling someone that could be standing behind you.
Fanny Pack Holsters. You might as well wear a sign that says; I’m packing. Most fanny packs carry the same disadvantages of a front cross-draw with slower access. Plus, you don’t want to have to use two hands to withdraw your weapon.
Off-Body Carry like a gun-purse. Not a bad option but maintaining control of your firearm may be a concern here. You take on a lot of responsibility when you carry a gun; carry it where you can keep control of it.
Drawing from a purse can be difficult. If the purse isn’t designed for concealed carry, you may find yourself rummaging through your purse with your head down at the very moment when you most need to have your head up and be scanning the area around you for trouble.
Even if the purse is designed for concealed carry, unless the center compartment is very sturdy, it is possible that other objects in the purse can negatively affect your ability to draw the gun.
Remember, it isn’t enough simply to have a gun with you. If you’re going to use the gun to save your life, you have to be able to get to it. The thing to keep in mind is that if you need the gun at all, you will very likely need it in a hurry.
The lesson here is that if you carry in your purse, you absolutely must practice getting the gun out, so that you will be able to do it as efficiently as possible if you ever really need it. And you must practice doing this under realistic conditions, with all the other stuff you routinely carry in your purse along for the ride.
Face It. Finding the Right Holster Will Most Likely Be Frustrating
Everyone who carries a gun will eventually collect a drawer full of holsters. I can’t think of anyone that I know that is still using the same holster that they first bought when they decided on a firearm to carry. Every time they changed firearms they went through the same process all over again. It’s like a natural law.
Your best friend may swear by the high dollar holster that they carry but, until you know that it’s the design that’s right for you considering your habits don’t buy it.
A word of Caution:
Be sure that you can acquire a full firing grip on the handgun while it is still in the holster. Most likely you will not have the time to shift your grip after you have withdrawn the firearm. If you haven’t drawn with a full firing grip you may be forced to shoot without the gun in its proper position in your hand. That translates to misses on target.
Make sure that the mouth of the holster remains open when it is empty, under a variety of conditions of use. You and your holster both contribute to the ability to re-holster your gun one-handed with your eyes on the threat. This is a crucial gun handling skill that could be impeded by the wrong equipment.
Good luck in your quest!!!