A Primer On Handgun Holsters, by B.D.


So, you’re standing in front of the handgun holster display at your local gun shop and trying to decide which holster to purchase for adding to your survival gear. The sheer volume of manufacturers, styles, and materials can be overwhelming. Even the specialized terminology can make your head spin. In an attempt to help reduce some of the pain and confusion, I’m sharing my personal experiences and some basic information I’ve picked up along the way that may be worth your consideration before making your next handgun holster purchase. While this information is by no means exhaustive, I hope that it will be helpful and assist those who are less familiar with this particular equipment.

The following experiences and observations are based on my being a handgun owner and enthusiast for almost 20 years. In this time, I have owned, built, and used holsters for both revolvers and semi-automatic pistols in a variety of scenarios. These have varied from a recreational day at the range to hunting, competitive action pistol shooting, and concealed carry.

I’ll begin by clarifying some of the common terminology by providing basic explanations.

INDUSTRY TERMINOLOGY (In Alphabetical Order)

Ankle Holster– A holster specifically designed to be worn on the ankle or calf area, using elastic and/or straps to secure the holster.

Belt Loop Holster– A holster that is secured to the belt using loops, straps, or openings.

Cant– Refers to the angle that the holster rides at when carried.  A straight up cant (or 0 cant) refers to the barrel being perpendicular to the ground or in-line with the leg and torso when in a standing position. A forward cant refers to the rear of the frame/grip leaning forward, while the muzzle is tipped to the rear. A forward cant is commonly used for improved draw ergonomics on the strong side (see description below). A rear cant is essentially the opposite of a forward cant. A rear cant is typically used in cross draw (see description below) applications on the weak side (see description below), as moving the holster from the strong side to the weak side would turn what was a rear cant into a forward cant for the strong hand as it reaches across the body.

Clip-On / Clip-Over Holster– A holster attachment method using a metal or polymer clip to allow for easy on/off use of the holster. These can be used with either inside the waistband (IWB– see definition below) or outside the waistband (OWB– see definition below) style holster configurations.

Cross Draw– A term used to describe a holster that rides on your weak side, but the drawing motion is performed across the body using the primary shooting hand. These holsters can be either IWB or OWB.

Draw– The action of gripping and removing the handgun from the holster.

High Ride/Rise– A holster that is designed to locate the grip of the handgun further above the beltline than a normal (mid-ride/rise) holster. This can be for purposes of concealment, such as when covered by a jacket or shirt, or for preference of draw. A high ride holster worn IWB typically has to clear less space prior to being presented at the target and can therefore provide a faster draw.

Inside the Waistband (IWB)– A holster that is worn on the inside of the waistband (beneath clothing), commonly in conjunction with a belt.

Low Ride/Rise– A holster that is designed to locate the grip of the handgun further below the beltline than a normal (mid-ride/rise) holster. This can be for preference of draw. A low-ride/rise holster can cause interference when riding in a vehicle or in other seated positions.

Mid Ride/Rise– A holster that is designed to locate the grip of the handgun just above the beltline. This is the most common or standard position. Holsters that are not designated as high or low ride/rise are typically mid-ride/rise.

Outside the Waistband (OWB) – A holster that is worn on the outside of the waistband, commonly in conjunction with a belt. This is common for open carry applications and can be used for concealed carry, if in conjunction with an outer garment (jacket, shirt, etc.).

Paddle– This part of the holster uses a component that is broader than the holster itself and often shaped similar to the top half of a ping pong paddle. The paddle portion is slid inside the waistband, while the holster itself rides outside the waistband. The large surface area of the paddle helps to prevent the entire holster assembly from being inadvertently removed from the carry position when the handgun is withdrawn from the holster.

Pocket– A holster that either wrap around the handgun to disguise it as a wallet or holds it in place in a pocket to facilitate drawing from the pocket, while the holster stays in place. Wallet style holsters often provide an opening to access the trigger and allow the firearm to be fired while still inside the holster.

Retention Level I– A Level I holster provides passive retention by using compression of the holster against the firearm, creating friction, which is felt as resistance when the handgun is drawn. Common examples of Level I holsters include leather and/or polymer that have been molded to the shape of the specific handgun to create the compression. Both fixed and adjustable (using a tension screw; see definition below) compression/friction methods are available in Level I holsters. No mechanical devices actively capture or engage the firearm to prevent it from being removed from the holstered position. So, a Level I holster uses a single method of retention– a compression/friction system. Some disadvantages include that the firearm can be disengaged from the holster when not intended by the user. This can occur due to a wide variety of possible circumstances, such as abrupt movement that can be caused while riding a vehicle on rough terrain, running, falling or being suspended upside down. This also means that a child or assailant can more easily seize the firearm from the owner.

Retention Level II– A Level II holster provides passive retention by using compression of the holster against the firearm, which creates friction, plus active retention through using a mechanical device to capture/engage the firearm to prevent it from being removed from the holstered position unless the retention device is disengaged. Retention devices can include a strap, catch, lever, block, et cetera. Level II holsters use both passive and active retention systems.

Retention Level III– A Level III holster provides passive retention by using compression of the holster against the firearm, plus two separate active retention systems that use a mechanical device to capture/engage the firearm to prevent it from being removed from the holstered position unless the retention devices are disengaged. Level III holsters use a passive and two active retention systems. This increases the holstered security of the firearm through redundancy, but it also increases draw time and the possibility of failing to release both retention systems on the initial attempt, especially if under duress.

Retention Strap– A band fastened to the holster or extension of the holster material used to secure the handgun in place, commonly using a Velcro or metal snap mechanism. This can also be referred to as a thumb break.

Shoulder Holster– A holster that is suspended from a harness worn over the shoulder or shoulders.  The holster itself usually rides under the weak side armpit.

Small of the Back (SOB)– Refers to a holster that is carried in the small of the back and commonly has a forward cant.  These holsters can be either OWB or IWB.

Strong Side– Refers to the primary shooting hand side of the body.  For example, if you shoot with your right hand, the right side of your body would be considered your strong side.

Tactical Holster– Refers to a holster that is worn on the outside thigh of the strong side. Also commonly referred to as either a drop leg or thigh holster.

Tension Screw– Refers to a screw based device mounted within the holster itself that allows the shooter to adjust the draw tension to his/her specifications.

Weak Side– Refers to the secondary shooting hand side of the body.  For example, if you shoot with your right hand, the left side of your body would be considered your weak side.

When considering your handgun holster purchase, the primary materials used in its construction will affect the form, fit, and function of the final product. The following are the most commonly utilized materials by current manufacturers.


Carbon Fiber Reinforced Polymer (CFRP)– As the name suggests, this is a polymer product that has reinforcing material added to lend strength and stability to the product. The woven carbon fiber fabric material embedded in the polymer helps to add resiliency, while reducing the likelihood of fracturing under duress. The material can be molded to the size and shape of a particular handgun to provide a custom fit. The material does not retain moisture and is considered stable within typical temperature ranges.

Kydex®– A thermoplastic material used to produce holsters that are molded to the size and shape of a particular handgun to provide a custom fit. As Kydex® is a polymer, it does not retain moisture. It can be susceptible to breaking under stress in cold temperatures and can be deformed when exposed to high temperatures.

Leather– A natural material produced from animal hide that can either be used to produce generic size holsters or ones that are molded to the shape of a particular handgun to provide a custom fit. Leather is a well known and tested material that is versatile. As a natural product, its composition and quality varies widely. It has the disadvantage of holding moisture and losing its integrity with extensive use.

Nylon– A woven fabric made from synthetic material, commonly Cordura® nylon or Kodra nylon, to form holsters that are generic in size and detailing for a broad range of handgun models based on overall length and width.

While a variety of material options are available in most holster styles, the styles themselves have particular applications for which they are best suited. Below are my thoughts and experiences on some of the strengths and weaknesses of the most common handgun holster styles on the market today.

Style/Configuration Pros & Cons

Belt Loop– As one of the most common OWB holsters on the market, the belt loop has many applications. They are well suited for open carry uses, such as a day at the range, working around the yard, or making a trip into town (if your state allows open carry).

Pros: Holster is strongly secured to the belt and unlikely to be inadvertently removed, easy access to handgun, allows for rapid draw.

Cons: Requires taking off your belt to remove, less readily concealed, bulky when in a vehicle or seated position.

Paddle– The paddle holster offers easy on/off flexibility in combination with the ready access of an OWB holster.

Pros: Easily put on and taken off, easy access, allows for rapid draw.

Cons: Can be removed with adequate force, less readily concealed, bulky when in a vehicle or seated position.

Inside the Waistband– This holster is a top choice for concealment underneath garments, while still allowing for fairly fast access if configured properly.

Pros: Allows for concealment without needing an over garment, such as a jacket, and can be drawn with reasonable speed when configured appropriately.

Cons: Can be removed with adequate force, slower to draw than an OWB holster, can be uncomfortable for some users, including when in a seated position or using a larger frame handgun.

Shoulder– This suspended holster offers concealment with jackets and vests. Some versions include a magazine pouch on the side opposite the firearm.

Pros: Offers concealment and easy access.

Cons: Requires a jacket or vest to be worn for concealment, can be difficult to draw from due to lack of rigid support.

Ankle– A holster that offers concealment for small to medium frame handguns that works well with many different types of pants.

Pros: Useful option when concealment is needed and holsters such as IWB or pocket are not an option.

Cons: Can be slow to draw and may come loose if strenuous movement, such as running or jumping, are required.

Drop Leg/Thigh/Tactical– A leg mounted holster system that is tactical in nature.

Pros: Rapid draw, no issues with being seated.

Cons: No concealment options, can be jostled out of place due to strenuous activities.

Pocket– A concealed holster that is specifically designed to be carried in a pocket.

Pros: Easy to conceal small frame handguns, the draw can be discretely disguised as retrieving one’s wallet, keys, etc.

Cons: Can only be readily drawn from a standing position, slower draw time.

Specialty– The range of special purpose holsters is broad and includes such items as pouches, hip packs, purses, tactical jackets, books/binders, and many others.

Pros: Concealment can be achieved in a variety of ways.

Cons: The handgun is less secure, in that it can be taken away from the owner while still in the carry object (hip pack, purse, book, etc.), and can take more time to draw.

While I’ve tried not to focus on particular brands and models in general, I would like to share some of my personal experiences with a few particular holster models that I found to be noteworthy, based on performance at both ends of the spectrum.

The Good, The Bad, and The Really Ugly

Blackhawk! SERPA CQC– This OWB retention level II holster that is made from durable CFRP and comes with both a belt loop and paddle mounting option. The retention system is easily and ergonomically released by depressing a finger paddle in the area of the frame just above the trigger guard, placing the hand in the proper position to safely draw the gun and present it at your target without changing your grip. In addition, Blackhawk! Offers a SERPA Quick Disconnect System that allows the holster to be attached to other mounting systems, such as a drop leg configuration. I believe that the versatility and security of this holster will make it a valuable piece of equipment for hunting, recreational use, open carry around town, or in a SHTF scenario. This holster rates near the top of the good category of my book.

Versacarry®– This is a skeletonized IWB style holster that is essentially nothing more than a polymer clip with a barrel retention plug. By sliding the barrel of the handgun firmly onto the holster plug, the handgun is held in place with a Level I retention system. The plug is connected to the polymer hanger and clip system that function similar to other IWB belt clip systems. The lack of additional materials to cover the handgun means that the holster adds very little width and bulk under the concealment clothing. It also results in the firearm coming into direct contact with your skin, so this may cause discomfort for some users. I have only had this holster for a short time, but I’ve found this to be very comfortable and practical for IWB applications. I give this holster a good rating for function.

Homemade Leather Holsters– When it comes to simple utilitarian holsters, such as a level I retention belt loop holster or pocket holster, I have found that building my own hand crafted holsters from good quality cow hide leather produces satisfactory results. I have come to value the ability to craft holsters that are the specific size and configuration that serve my purposes well. With just a little research and practice, I discovered that building custom leather holsters is fairly straightforward and very affordable. If you take your time and do it well, you can produce a rather good holster. Try to cut corners or rush through the process and you’re likely to end up with a rather bad holster.

Thunderwear– This specialty holster is a hybrid system that I can best describe as a cross between an IWB holster and a flattened hip pack shaped fabric pouch. Worn as a pocket below the waistline and in front of the groin area, it acts like an IWB holster without any clips or other components sticking above or clasping onto your belt. However, while the concept seems sound, I’ve found that I could never get comfortable with a handgun pressed firmly against the area just above my groin. I also found that it was susceptible to creating an awkward appearing print through certain types of clothing. While I believe that this holster has its merits, it did not become one of my favorites. For me, this holster falls into both the bad and really ugly categories.


The unique ergonomics of each person will dictate the style and configuration of holster that will offer the most benefit. For example, the length of one’s arm as it relates to their body’s waistline and where they wear the waistline/belt of their clothing can significantly impact the ergonomics of the holster position. If you prefer to wear the waistline of your clothing near your bellybutton, as compared to around your hips, the difference in location that a high ride versus low ride holster would place the grip of your handgun can be significant.

In order to best determine which holster will offer you the most value for your particular situation, I highly recommend trying out as many styles as you can get your hands on before you make a purchase. Whenever possible, I have borrowed a friend’s holster or visited a gun shop that allows customers to try out their products before buying. As a safety note, always remember to test out holsters using training handguns or an unloaded firearm. No matter how familiar you are with the handgun, you are not used to the holster, so play it safe.

Remember to consider all of the possible scenarios in which you may utilize your handgun holster before deciding which style(s) may be best for your particular application. Based on my own experience, I have found that a normal week of concealed carry may involve the use of three different types of holsters in order to best fit the circumstances of each day or outing. For example, if heading out in normal business attire wearing a pair of dress pants, I’ve found that an ankle holster works the best for me. I might come home and change into a pair of jeans for an evening out and switch my carry handgun into a pocket holster or decide that because I’ll be seated most of the time that evening, an IWB holster would offer better access to my handgun. If purchasing multiple holsters is not an option for you, consider the most common situations in which you are likely to carry your handgun and select a holster that would work well for the majority of your likely situations.

When it comes to your survival gear for a SHTF scenario, it is my assumption that concealed carry and recreational use holsters will become far less important than those holsters that accommodate practical, tactical, and hunting applications. Given this line of thinking, I have selected the Blackhawk! SERPA CQC line of holsters for my survival equipment. I believe that employing a holster system that is durable, offers quick, yet secure access, and that can be carried in a variety of methods will be the most versatile for the array of scenarios that are most likely to present themselves should TEOTWAWKI arrive at our doorstep.

Final Thoughts

Practice, practice, practice. Let me say it again, practice with your holster. It is very important that you build your familiarity, confidence, and muscle memory with your new handgun holster. Given that the life of you and/or your loved ones may depend on your ability to safely draw your handgun and present it on target with all urgency, you don’t want to be figuring out how to extricate it from underneath your clothing or how to disengage the retention system when it is needed most. So become familiar with it now, and it will enhance your level of security and the peace of mind that goes with it.