You’ve got the handgun, the ammo, and the accessories. You know your laws and responsibilities—federal, state, and local. You’re ready to buy the best holster and start carrying tomorrow.
At least, that’s what you thought.
For new gun owners, the holster market can be a confusing, convoluted trap of unexplained abbreviations and incompatibilities. For any given pistol, there may be hundreds of different holster options, each claiming to offer exclusive comfort and safety features that somehow elevate their performance. If you don’t know exactly what you need, you’ll have a hard time finding it without some outside guidance.
That’s why we’re here to help. In this blog, we’ll detail everything you need to know to choose the best holster for your needs.
First, let’s look at the different kinds of holsters available on the market.
Types of Holsters
Generally, there are two types of holsters: concealable holsters and open carry holsters.
Concealable holsters are sleek and lightweight, disguising the lines of a firearm against your body for maximum concealment. This category includes IWB (inside-the-waistband), AIWB (appendix), OWB (outside-the-waistband), pocket holsters, ankle holsters, shoulder holsters, and belly bands. If you plan to carry a concealed pistol, you will need to purchase the right holster to fit your pistol and lifestyle.
If you don’t care about concealment, open carry holsters are the better option for hunting, competition, or duty-carry. Open carry holsters are all about speed and stability, making it easier for you to draw your pistol for split-second engagements. This category is mostly belt holsters, though there are also shoulder holsters and ‘tactical’ holsters for more niche cases.
How to Choose Concealed Carry Holsters
When choosing a concealed carry holster, the first consideration is your pistol’s size. Large pistols are harder to conceal, so you need a holster design that accommodates your sidearm’s size, weight, and ideal placement.
To help you decide, here’s a quick breakdown of the seven most common types of concealable holsters:
IWB holsters are your standard option. These holsters sit inside your beltline, usually on your strong side at the 3 o’clock to 5 o’clock positions. In many ways, IWB holsters are the ‘traditional’ option for concealed carry, suitable for a broad range of sidearms ranging from pocket-sized to full-size.
If you’re just starting in concealed carry, or if you have a subcompact or compact-sized pistol, an IWB holster is a great all-around pick.
AIWB is a specific subcategory of inside-the-waistband holsters. AIWB holsters are worn at the front of the body, near the 1 o’clock position. AIWB holsters have a faster draw than strong side carry, but the position of the muzzle can leave some men a bit nervous. Holstering accidents are rare, but an AIWB holster will point the muzzle towards your groin and femoral artery.
If you are comfortable with trigger discipline and weapons handling, AIWB is the preferred choice of many high-level experts and professionals. If you’re not confident in your safety, maybe stay away from AIWB until you’ve had more practice.
Oh. And as a last note.
If you’re rocking the ‘dad bod’, AIWB will not be very comfortable. Your pistol will press right up into your gut whenever you sit down. It does not feel good.
OWB holsters sit high on the outside of your belt, usually covered by an untucked shirt or jacket.
OWB holsters have a lot of great benefits. They’re comfortable, versatile, and can accommodate almost any size pistol. If you want to conceal a full-size pistol without changing anything in your lifestyle, OWB holsters give you that option.
The only downside is concealability. OWB holster can only be concealed by an untucked shirt or jacket. If you like to tuck your shirts, OWB concealment will require a change of wardrobe.
Pocket holsters are a unique design for only the smallest handguns, like derringers or certain micro-compacts.
The name is self-explanatory. Pocket holsters provide safe coverage for pistols that fit in your pocket. Most pistol holsters are just a nylon scabbard, which protects the trigger guard. They are neither expensive nor complicated.
If you have a pistol small enough to pocket-carry, and you intend to pocket-carry, you MUST use an appropriate pocket carry holster. If you carry without a holster, any bump, snag, or pocket change can put pressure on the trigger, which is very unsafe—especially when the pistol is pointing directly at your femoral or kneecap.
Ankle holsters are a niche option, usually only used for a backup pistol.
The benefit of an ankle holster is convenience. If you wear pants every day, an appropriately fitted ankle holster can help you conceal a subcompact or micro-compact handgun with ease. Ankle holsters are not suitable for larger pistols.
The biggest flaw of ankle holsters is accessibility. In self-defense situations, even fractions of a second can make the difference between escape and injury. Your draw must be swift, deliberate, and decisive. A real attacker isn’t going to wait around while you kneel, roll up your pant leg, and draw a handgun.
So, as we said, ankle holsters are best for carrying back-up pistols. They just aren’t fast enough to be your main line of defense.
Plus, if you live in a hotter climate, you’ll be stuck wearing pants all summer, which is really just no fun.
Shoulder holsters may conjure the image of old school cops and action movies, but they’re still a sensible option for cold weather.
Shoulder holsters are worn like suspenders over your base layer, positioning the pistol in a holster beneath your arm. Shoulder holsters can be comfortable if properly adjusted, distributing the weight of your handgun over your shoulders and upper back. Like OWB holsters, shoulder holsters can be very forgiving for larger pistols, but concealment will depend heavily on your wardrobe.
If you live up north or regularly wear a jacket, a shoulder holster might be a suitable choice.
Many truck drivers also favor shoulder holsters because they won’t be blocked by a seat belt. If you spend a lot of time on the road, shoulder holsters might be your best option.
Belly Band Holsters
Belly bands are essentially elastic bands that act as both a belt and a holster, holding your pistol close against your midsection.
The main benefit of a belly band holster is its wardrobe flexibility. You don’t need to wear a gun belt, so you can wear a belly band with gym shorts, sweatpants, or even leggings. If you enjoy a casual or fitness-friendly attire, belly band holsters are worthy of consideration.
That said, they are not without drawbacks. Some find these holsters to be uncomfortable—especially with larger handguns. Belly bands are best paired with small, lightweight handguns like polymer subcompacts or micro-compacts.
How to Choose Open Carry Holsters
Just like concealed carry holsters, open carry holsters encompass a wide variety of designs, which can satisfy almost any user or preference.
The biggest difference between a true competition holster and your average OWB holster is the position adjustment.
Competition shooters pursue speed and consistency, which means they need a stable holster platform that emphasizes draw speed and grip. A good competition holster features a modular mounting system, allowing the user to position the holster at the perfect distance and angle.
In a competition setting, these features are invaluable, but if you’re just walking around town, they’re a bit too flashy. Unless you want everyone staring at your high-speed sporting equipment, you’re better off wearing a more subtle OWB.
All the benefits described in our concealable section still apply.
Shoulder holsters can be comfortable, but you need to adjust the harness for optimal fit. They handle weight well, and if you dislike the rigidity of gun belts, shoulder holsters can be flexible with your wardrobe.
The biggest reason to use a shoulder holster, though, is if you spend a lot of time seated—especially if you’re driving a vehicle. Seat belts will block most average belt holsters, but a shoulder holster will be unaffected.
Drop leg holsters, chest holsters, and backpack holsters all fall into this category.
Again, the biggest difference is the mounting system. Tactical holsters need to be adaptable to the user’s kit. Body armor and belt rigs can interfere in the draw stroke of a traditional belt holster, so tactical holsters will allow the user to move their sidearm to a better position.
The most common option is the drop leg, which hangs below the belt, strapped to the outside of the user’s thigh. If you wear a large tactical belt or carry a lot of gear on your side, a drop leg may be necessary for draw clearance.
Ideally, a drop leg system will sit high and tight on the thigh. Wear it too low, and you’ll find your pistol bouncing around with every step.
Understanding Retention Levels
One important distinction between open carry holsters and concealable holsters is the prevalence of retention levels.
Retention level describes the number of ‘retention methods’ that keep the pistol inside the holster. These methods traditionally include friction, trigger locks, and thumb releases.
All holsters—including concealed holsters—will have friction retention. If they didn’t, your gun would fly out of the holster every time you jumped.
Since all holsters have friction retention, they are all at least ‘level 1’ retention.
If a holster has additional methods, the number increases accordingly. For example, a holster with a lock becomes level 2. Add a thumb break, it becomes level 3. Any additional method would make it level 4.
Concealed carry holsters rarely go beyond level 1, while open carry holsters are more varied.
Most tactical or duty holsters—especially those marketed towards military and police—are retention level 2 or 3. This is to prevent disarmament, as an attacker could attempt to pull the user’s pistol and use it against them.
If you are planning to open carry as a civilian, additional retention is worthy of consideration. With a Level 1 OWB holster, there’s little to stop someone from walking up behind you and taking it. In this situation, a level 2 holster can save you, but it will require a lot more practice and dexterity to achieve adequate draw speeds.
If, for some reason, you want additional retention, level 3 and level 4 holsters are readily available. Level 3 is manageable, but level 4 can feel like overkill. We generally do not recommend level 4 holsters unless they’re required by law or a department regulation.
Kydex vs. Leather vs. Nylon
Nowadays, most holsters are made of Kydex, leather, or nylon.
Kydex is a moldable thermoplastic, which holster manufacturers fit to the exact shape of your gun. Generally, Kydex is the ideal material for most on-body holsters. It’s durable, lightweight, waterproof, and scratch resistant. At room temperature, Kydex is completely rigid, ensuring optimal retention and safety when carrying a firearm.
There are few downsides to a Kydex holster, aside from the fact each holster must be form-fitted. In most cases, you cannot use one holster for multiple guns. Each firearm must have its own holster, and each holster must be fitted to accommodate any accessories, such as flashlights or threaded barrels.
For a more traditional experience, leather holsters are still widely available. Shoulder holsters, for example, are almost always leather, while leather belt holsters remain a popular choice for both OWB and IWB carry. Of the three materials, leather easily wins on the style, as holster makers can product beautiful works of art that pair well with a suit or other formalwear.
However, leather loses to Kydex when it comes to retention and friction adjustment, and leather tends to be heavier and warmer than the other material options. Ultimately, the decision comes down to form or function.
If you’re on a tight budget and can’t afford a custom-fitted holster, nylon holsters are cheaper than either Kydex or leather, though they provide some worthwhile benefits. Nylon holsters are not model-specific, so you only need one holster to carry multiple handguns of a similar size. When it comes to comfort, nylon can either be soft and comfortable or sweaty and abrasive, depending on the quality of its construction.
That said, Nylon has its drawbacks. Nylon has less retention and wears out much faster than either Kydex or leather. While a quality leather holster can last a lifetime, nylon holsters may fray and fade within a few years. Nylon won’t win any beauty pageants either.
Each material has its own unique benefits and weaknesses, but if you’re just getting started, we recommend Kydex, as it usually offers the best long-term performance.
Concealed Carry Clothing and Gun Belts
Regardless of how you carry, the holster is just one part of the equation.
Throughout this article, you’ve seen multiple mention of wardrobe and gun belts, which serves to underscore their importance. If you don’t have the right clothes or support system, you will not get the best from your holster.
Concealed carry clothing is a great option for new or experienced carriers alike, incorporating special features that make it easier and more comfortable to carry a gun. Don’t let the concept fool you either—these clothes don’t have to be overtly tactical. Often, concealed carry clothing looks just like the clothing you’d find in your average department store. The only difference is a bit of reinforcement and trim to help fit your holster.
Regardless, if you plan on carrying a belt holster, you will need a quality gun belt. Your average leather belt simply isn’t strong enough to carry the weight of a holster and pistol without sagging. Gun belts are thicker and stronger than traditional leather belts, allowing the weight of your firearm to be distributed evenly without making your pants droop.
Gun belts come in a wide variety of styles, colors, sizes, and materials, so there should be one to match any fashion.
WARNING: The thickness of your gun belt MUST MATCH the size of your holster clips. If you are uncertain about your belt or clips, refer to the manufacturer’s published specifications.
We hope this guide helps you in your quest for the best holster.
As always, if you have questions about the contents of this guide, our team is happy to help out! Just click the ‘chat’ button on the right side of this page—or contact us on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter. We’ll be happy to help out however we can, whether it’s for holsters or something else.