When we talk about concealed carry and self-defense, we tend to talk a lot about guns. We talk a lot about ammo and about strong-side vs. appendix. We might debate a little about spare magazines or holsters or even tourniquets. But we never talk about proper concealed carry clothing, when the truth is it can often have a much greater effect than any of the factors above.
If you’re carrying a modern, quality firearm from a major manufacturer, your choice of brand or model is unlikely to change the outcome of a defensive shooting. The same goes for caliber, and capacity. A bullet from a Glock handgun hits just as hard as a bullet from a Smith and Wesson handgun or a Sig Sauer handgun. What does matter, what can really make the difference between life and death, is having your gun on you and being able to produce it fast enough to meet the threat. This is where dedicated concealed carry clothing comes into play.
The Golden Rule of Gunfighting
Bring a gun. That’s arguably the single most important part of self-defense. Even if all you’re carrying today is a .22LR in your pocket, it can do a lot more for you than the .45 at home in your safe because it makes your belt sag or the Glock 19 you left in your car because it prints too much.
The top reasons even dedicated concealed carriers leave their guns behind are comfort and concealment. Nobody likes having a gun digging into their hip all day, nor do they want to be constantly pulling their belt up. If either of these applies to you, you might be tempted to just leave your gun behind the next time you go out. Folks like to say that carrying a firearm should be comforting, not comfortable, but is it too much to ask for both?
Concealment is the other hang-up; if you’re worried about your pistol printing through your cover garment or bulging out of your pants, you might be inclined to go without, especially if you’re in a less gun-friendly environment. Even if you do decide to carry, you can’t simultaneously worry about your CCW printing and pay attention to your surroundings.
Purpose-designed concealed carry clothing can ameliorate or remedy both of these issues. Good concealed carry clothing is designed from the start knowing that the end-user will have a firearm on them, and adapted accordingly. This means more comfortable carry, more features to support your firearm and accessories, and minimal printing.
Concealed Carry Clothing: Belts
The backbone of a concealed carry wardrobe is a good belt. When we say a good belt, we don’t mean fancy logos or exotic animal hides. We mean a gun belt; one rigid enough to resist sag and torsion, but flexible enough to conform to the wearer’s waist. Too rigid, and the belt won’t fit to your body, creating uncomfortable hotspots on your waist. Not rigid enough and the firearm can sag or torque the belt so that the grip or muzzle juts into your side. The right balance of rigidity can be accomplished in two common ways.
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With leather gun belts, this is usually achieved by using a heavyweight cut of leather, often full-grain. The leather is typically treated differently than standard belts too, to avoid softening it too much and compromising rigidity. If an extra-rigid belt is required (the kind you might need if you tote around a full-size handgun and a couple of spare magazines) makers will typically add a stiffener. This is an additional strip of material inside the belt that resists torque and sag. It can be made out of tough leather, like horsehide, or a synthetic material such as Kydex or nylon. In some cases, even a thin metal strip is used.
Nylon belts are somewhat simpler; since nylon is a synthetic material, it doesn’t need any special treatment; makers simply select a good rigid type of nylon and fashion the belt. For this reason, Nylon belts are typically somewhat cheaper than leather. Like leather belts, nylon models can use an internal stiffener if maximum rigidity is desired.
Both leather and nylon belts are typically wider than your average department store belt. Dress and casual belts from a normal clothing store are typically 1″–1.25″. Gun belts, on the other hand, are usually 1.5″–2″ although smaller 1.25″ models are available. This increased width distributes the weight of your firearm and the force of the belt clamping it to your waist across a larger area, which helps to reduce discomfort, especially over time. If you’ve ever had that feeling of relief after taking off your gun belt when it’s been digging into you all day, a wider belt may be exactly what you need.
Combined, these features lead to more secure and comfortable carry. The added width and stiffness of the gun belt support the firearm, keeping it exactly where it should be. It can also improve your draw stroke. If you’re using a softer leather belt, chances are it’s probably shifting when you draw, rising with the holster until it hits the limit of its movement, at which point your gun finally pulls free from your holster. A gun belt will offer more resistance, keeping the holster firmly in place. This means your gun will start clearing your holster the moment you begin your draw.
Concealed Carry Clothing: Pants
Most folks who carry a firearm will at some point get themselves a decent gun belt, but for many, concealed carry clothing stops there. They’ll cram their pistol into a standard pair of jeans, drop a one-size-too-large shirt over it, and wonder why it won’t get comfortable.
The secret is in the pants. Most clothing is designed to fit a generalized archetype of the average person’s body. Makers don’t typically account for the added bulge of an inside-the-waistband pistol, which means that regular jeans and slacks can squeeze the gun against your body, in addition to the force already being exerted by your belt. This often results in an uncomfortable or even painful hotspot where the muzzle contacts your body.
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Purpose-built concealed carry pants like the Operatus jeans from Viktos use a modified denim fabric with synthetic materials to add elasticity to the waist. Instead of squeezing your firearm, they simply stretch around it, reducing the pressure on your body and eliminating hotspots. Combined with a proper gun belt, good concealed carry clothing from companies like Vertx or Viktos allow your firearm to sit on your hip, rather than being crushed into it.
Most of these pants also incorporate additional pockets, which can make it much easier to pack an extra magazine or tourniquet. Some models, like Vertx Defiance jeans, even feature pockets designed to fit AR-15 or similar magazines. It’s not a feature anyone needs for concealed carry, but it can be awfully convenient at the range.
Companies like 5.11, Vertx, and Viktos also offer pants that mimic the look of slacks for those who dress more formally, with the same features and benefits as their jeans.
Concealed Carry Clothing: Shirts
When it comes to concealed carry clothing, belts and pants make the biggest difference in comfort, but a proper cover garment can be the make-or-break factor for concealment. A good concealed carry shirt should minimize the visibility of your firearm without compromising your ability to quickly draw if necessary.
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Unlike pants, though, concealed carry shirts vary considerably depending on your preferences and method of carry. A perfect shirt for appendix carry might be less than ideal for strongside carry, and vice versa. Still, a shirt or cover garment designed with concealed carry in mind can offer better concealment and a faster draw.
Tru-Spec’s Eco Tec shirts are an excellent example. They’re made with a no-snag fabric, reducing your chances of printing from your shirt catching on the texture of your gun. They’re also designed with clever faux buttons, mimicking the look of a traditional shirt, but concealing snaps that can be rapidly ripped open to access your firearm without damaging the fabric or buttons.
Other styles sometimes feature small pockets at the hem of each half of the shirt; these pockets can be loaded with weights if the shirt is worn open, preventing it from flapping in the wind and exposing your firearm. Weighting the shirt also makes it easier to flip out of the way during the draw, since the added momentum will help carry your cover garment clean past your firearm instead of tangling up.
Not all concealed carry clothing needs buttons, though. Vertx offers tank tops and henleys designed specifically to address some of the challenges of carrying a firearm for women. They feature a unique fit designed to reduce printing and help hide your pistol. Certain models also come with Vertx’s innovative WeaponGuard layer; this semi-compression underlayer creates a barrier between you and your firearm, which can be especially important for those who prefer more aggressive textures on their concealed carry weapon.
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If you’ve spent any time perusing concealed carry clothing, you may notice most of the shirts trend towards dark colors and busy patterns; this is by design, rather than accident. Both work against the human eye, making it harder to identify the telltale lumps and bumps that can give away your firearm. The dark colors also contrast less against most firearms, meaning people will be less likely to notice if your shirt rides up and a sliver of your pistol is visible.
Concealed Carry Clothing: Jackets
When it comes to concealed carry clothing, jackets are a godsend. Their relatively loose fit and bulkier materials make hiding even a full-size pistol a breeze, whether they were designed for concealed carry or not. Purpose-built versions do offer certain benefits though, including some that can drastically improve your draw time.
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Most concealed carry jackets feature an abundance of pockets and snaps in addition to zippers, for the same reasons as shirts discussed above. Shoulder holster users in particular can benefit from the rapid opening allowed by the snaps. With a shoulder holster, the only way to access your firearm is by opening your jacket, so anything that speeds up that process speeds up your draw.
The best concealed carry jackets, such as the Vertx Trailhawk jacket, also tweak their design with features like underarm gussets to avoid limiting your range of motion the way common jackets sometimes do. This can be especially important if you need to reach behind your back to draw your firearm.
Perhaps the most innovative feature, though, is the pass-through in the front pockets. This allows appendix carriers to access and draw their firearm through the pocket, avoiding the need to unzip or hike the jacket up past their firearm to draw. It also makes a concealed draw possible, which can be a significant advantage.
Building your Concealed Carry Wardrobe
At the end of the day, no single piece of clothing is going to drastically change the way you carry. But when properly combined, a well-thought-out outfit can make the difference between comfortably and confidently concealing throughout the day and leaving your gun behind. Still, everyone’s preferences and carry methods are different, especially when it comes to clothing. So how do you find what works for you?
At the end of the day, there’s no substitute for experimentation. Trial and error is the best teacher, but starting with clothes designed to help you conceal your carry weapon can shorten the “error” part of that process substantially.
So give it a try; you’ll be glad you did.