Selecting a Holster for Concealed Carry

Two leather gun holsters

Mike Boyle

No matter what your rank or assignment, just about all law enforcement officers have a need to discreetly carry a handgun.

Clearly, investigative officers and agents would be ill-served to use a duty-style holster when wearing soft clothes while trying to conceal a handgun. Along similar lines, a great many officers choose to carry a firearm when off duty. In both of those situations, selecting a carry rig which keeps you under the radar is of great importance.

Today, there is a wide variety of holsters in different styles which are well-suited for concealed carry. While holsters made of leather are in wide use, other materials such as KYDEX® and Boltaron® have become very popular for the crafting of first-rate carry rigs. If you understand the criteria for selecting a proper holster, even a service-size pistol can be concealed when wearing plainclothes.

An observation I have made over the years is that many individuals fret over the smallest detail when selecting a $900 pistol for concealed carry, but settle for the first inexpensive holster which comes down the pike. Like many other commodities in life, you typically get what you pay for. Inferior holsters often raise concerns relative to safety and have poor concealment qualities. For many years, I have taught in an academy which trains plainclothes investigators and detectives and, very often, the holsters the recruits are issued are a very poor choice for their mission. This is especially true for females as differences in body shape often require a different style of holster.

Qualities of a Good Concealment Holster

My dictionary defines the word conceal as “preventing something from being known or noticed.” If our goal is to blend in as best we can into polite society, effectively hiding the gun is a top priority. With that said, I make a distinction between a holster worn by a plainclothes officer wearing a windbreaker with “Police” stenciled on the back and a badge clipped to the belt and a true concealment rig. Under a heavy winter parka, almost any type of holster will make the cut. But, when our covering garment consists of a suit jacket or an untucked shirt, greater attention to detail is required.

Our next consideration is weapon security. With rare exception, most quality concealment holsters are cut for a specific brand and model handgun. The holster can have some sort of active locking device or be specifically molded to the shape of that particular firearm. Placing a pistol in a holster it wasn’t designed for is an invitation to disaster as any sort of violent movement can cause you to lose the gun.

Back when the Earth was flat and we all carried double-action revolvers, holsters which left the trigger exposed were very common. In the age of striker-fired pistols with short trigger actions, that is a no go. Not only must the trigger and trigger guard be entirely covered, but the holster must be constructed in such a manner that sticks, twigs or even fingers can’t find their way inside and touch the trigger.

Your chosen holster must also provide ready access for a fumble-free draw. Can you achieve a firm and final shooting grip as soon as your hand hits the holster? If not, it’s time to move on as there is simply no time to adjust your grip on the draw stroke. If your holster is equipped with a retention device, release must be intuitive and not slow down the draw.

In the not so distant past, soft suede, clip-on IWB (Inside the WaistBand) holsters were very popular. Retention issues aside, one of my concerns is that, once you draw the gun, the holster collapses and a one-handed return is impossible. The harsh reality is that there are times when you have to reholster quickly and transition to another level of force or handcuff a subject. Many soft pancake-style holsters often suffer from this defect and should also be avoided. The ability for the user to return the gun to the holster with one hand is critical.

The last element is user comfort. Quite frankly, if your concealment holster isn’t comfortable, you need to find something else. Forty plus years of carrying a concealed firearm on my strong side hip have made me very particular about holsters. With rare exception, IWB holsters are out for me. Some officers have no issues at all with Appendix IWB (AIWB) carry and, while I can discreetly carry a small gun is this manner, a full-size service pistol is out of the question. We are all put together a little bit differently and that may very well dictate what sort of holster you can wear over the course of a long day.

Holster Construction

Any holster selected for a law enforcement application must be durable. For weapon security, it must maintain its form over the long haul and stand up to the hard knocks of police work. Inferior materials, poor stitching and compromised security devices should not be utilized.

Leather holsters dominated the scene for years and, despite the increased use of synthetic materials, they still have much to offer. Most manufacturers use cowhide to craft their holsters and there are indeed some excellent concealment holsters available rendered from this classic material.        

Holsters made of KYDEX were introduced about 30 years ago and currently command a huge part of the market. KYDEX is a thermoplastic acrylic polyvinyl material which is extremely hard and is resistant to water and solvents. Because it is thermoforming, it can be molded to just about any shape which makes it a good choice for holsters. Today, there are literally hundreds of firms, including major manufacturers and small cottage industry shops, turning out KYDEX holsters.

Boltaron is yet another thermoplastic material well-suited for holsters. Advantages of Boltaron include an even higher resistance to impact than KYDEX and it stands up very well to extreme cold and chemicals and is highly abrasion-resistant. Companies using Boltaron to build holsters include Alien Gear Holsters and Safariland®.

Strong Side Belt Carry

While there are exceptions to every rule, strong side belt carry is best for most applications. This is especially true for uniformed officers who spend their working days wearing a Sam Browne duty rig and then switch off to an alternate handgun on their own time. Your firearm is in the same familiar location and draw mechanics are just about the same as the duty rig.

One quality often not considered when choosing the concealed carry handgun is the angle the holster secures the gun on the belt which is referred to as cant or rake. Most off-the-rack concealment holsters feature an FBI cant where the butt of the pistol is angled forward and the muzzle to the rear. With an Outside the WaistBand (OWB) holster, it does indeed offer the best concealment qualities when worn under a light covering garment, but it comes at a price. Many users will find the draw stroke is awkward, particularly if the holster rides high on the belt. This can be especially problematic for female officers/agents who are best served by holsters specifically designed for women users.

Clearly, not everyone is handicapped with FBI cant holsters, but there are alternatives if that style does not suit your needs or physique. Straight drop or neutral cant holsters are a viable alternative. The pistol is carried vertically on the belt and, for many users, this makes for a more efficient draw stroke. Taking it one step further are holsters where the muzzle is forward and the butt is to the rear. When wearing this style of holster, I position my carry rig just forward of the strong side hip which makes for a very efficient draw stroke. On the downside, concealment can be just a little more challenging.

In addition to holster angle, you also need to consider how it rides on the belt. Lower riding holsters are the fastest to draw from, but may be inappropriate with business attire or most casual clothing. Holsters which ride high on the belt offer the best concealment qualities, but efficient weapon access can be problematic for some users. Some manufacturers offer holsters where the end user can adjust both angle and ride height to best suit their needs.

Inside the Pants

Without question, carrying a firearm in an IWB holster strikes an ideal balance between weapon access and maintaining the lowest possible profile. Because the slide and/or barrel is hidden beneath the user’s waistline, the casual observer will not be able spot the gun, providing of course that a proper covering garment is utilized.

 Traditionally, IWB holsters were worn behind the strong side hip. Of late, AIWB holsters have become very popular. These holsters are worn forward of the hip, near body centerline.  Both rapid access and the ability to retain your pistol in a violent, physical confrontation are superior to other modes of carry.

But, like all things in life, there is both an upside and a downside to IWB holsters. As long as the end user can wear such a rig in relative comfort, even a large full-size service pistol can be carried. With the right holster, I have been able to carry a full-size 1911 pistol in polite society and no one was any the wiser. The operative term, however, is comfort. For many users, worn body parts and physique may take the IWB option off the table.

Shoulder and Cross Draw Holsters

The most popular styles of shoulder holsters are vertical; the gun is carried straight up and horizontal with the butt forward and muzzle pointed to the rear. Although I don’t consider shoulder holsters to be the best choice for most applications, they do fill some roles very well. They can be a good choice for officers/agents who spend a good part of the working day in a seated position or wearing certain types of clothing.

To my thinking, horizontal shoulder holsters are at their best with small- to medium-size handguns. For full-size pistols, a vertical shoulder holster is a better bet. A few of my associates wore large, service-size pistols in a vertical shoulder holster with their everyday suit and tie without putting up any red flags.

My concerns with shoulder holsters include weapon retention and drawing the firearm in extreme close quarters. With the gun worn on the support side, one has to reach across the body to draw and this could be problematic when the threat is inside your personal space.

Much like shoulder holsters, cross draw holsters can fill a useful niche. Again, should your mission require you to be in a seated position, such as a protective detail or on surveillance, a cross draw may be just the ticket. The key to success is moving the gun closer to body centerline as opposed to wearing it on the support side hip.

Less than Optimum

Throughout my career, I often used an ankle holster to carry my backup handgun. My rationale was that, if my primary gun goes down and I haven’t been taken out of the fight, I may have been able to move to cover and access my final ring of safety.

When you consider that a great many armed confrontations unfold in close quarters, I feel that ankle holsters are a poor bet for a primary handgun. Quite frankly, even a world-class athlete cannot get down and draw fast enough to counter a threat in close quarters.

Pocket carry is yet another possibility. I will confess to carrying a snub revolver in this manner when visiting non-permissive environments where I can be legally armed, but want to stay under the radar. However, if there is an alternate solution, I would explore that first.

Final Thoughts

For concealed carry, I utilize a pair of pistols and a snub revolver and have a few different holsters for each. Depending on the social setting, season, type of clothing worn, and what I expect to be doing, I select the holster which fits my needs. After many years of trial and error, I’m convinced there is no one holster which is going to make the cut for every conceivable situation.

Finding what works best for you may require a little bit of experimentation. But, if you find that holster doesn’t hide your gun or proves to be uncomfortable, it’s time to move on. A quality holster combined with a good belt will help keep you safe and go unnoticed as you go about your daily routine.

Captain Mike Boyle served with the New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife, Bureau of Law Enforcement, and has been involved in firearms and use-of-force training for over 40 years. He has been a police academy director and rangemaster and remains active as an instructor providing basic, in-service and instructor level training. He is a member of ILEETA and NALEFIA. His book, Everything You Need to Know About Police Firearms Training, was recently published by Blue360 Media.

Photo by Garett Sitz on Unsplash

The Photon Holster from Alien Gear

Alien Gear continues to be a true innovator in the design of holsters for concealed carry applications. Not content to follow in the footsteps of others, this Idaho-based firm has blazed their own path in a very competitive market. Best of all, Alien Gear turns out a very wide range of styles of holsters for just about all of the popular pistols which might be used for discreet carry and makes them available at a very reasonable price point.

New this year is the Alien Gear Photon, a design crafted from injection molded polymer which can be worn as either inside or outside the waistband. At the present time, it is available for popular small carry pistols from GLOCK®, SIG SAUER®, Smith & Wesson®, and Springfield Armory®, and I’m pretty confident that this list will grow larger in short order. Both light bearing and non-light bearing models are available. One of the dilemmas facing holster manufacturers is the fact the holsters must not only fit a specific gun, but also the light used. Placing your pistol – with or without a light – in a holster not specifically designed for it is a dangerous practice which can compromise safety. With the light bearing models, the Photon is still cut for a particular gun; however, the holster will accommodate a variety of different weapon-mounted lights without compromising safety.

Being a wrong-handed user, I am happy to report that the Photon can be easily set up for either right- or left-handed operation. Very often, us southpaws cannot find a holster on the rack and we have to place a “special order”; however, the ambidextrous Photon resolves that issue. Both a paddle attachment for OWB carry or clips for IWB use are included in the package. Detailed instructions along with a provided hex key make exchanging the belt attachment an easy task.

Another nice touch is the fact that the Photon can be adjusted for cant and ride height. For OWB carry and traditional IWB carry, many users favor an FBI cant with the butt of the pistol angled forward and the muzzle to the rear. Personally, I prefer a vertical orientation of the holster or, when circumstances permit, a cant with the muzzle angled forward. The Photon allows me the ability to change holster angle to best suit my needs. Along similar lines, ride height on the belt for both IWB and OWB carry can be adjusted as well. By having this wide adjustment range, the Photon can be set up to fulfill a wide range of applications, worn with different types of clothing, and be equally suited for female and male agents/officers.

Many users who favor AIWB carry have come to favor a sidecar for the carrying of a spare magazine. Alien Gear offers a dedicated sidecar magazine attachment which can be easily mounted to the vacant holes on the side of the Photon holster. This ensures that the extra magazine will be readily available and placed in the perfect spot for an efficient reload.

My sample Photon was cut for a Springfield Armory Hellcat® OSP and I was very eager to see how it all played out. I experimented with both inside and outside the waistband carry and the Photon does indeed deliver the goods. Although I am comfortable carrying a snub AIWB style, I prefer to wear a pistol behind my strong side hip in a more traditional IWB position. The fact that the end user can adjust ride height and angle to suit personal preference gives the Photon great versatility.

The light bearing version of the Photon will accommodate most of the small tactical illuminators made by Streamlight®, SureFire®, Viridian®, and others. My sample was matched up to a Streamlight TLR-7® Sub which proved to be the perfect companion. It is very important to recognize that the light bearing version of the Photon should only be used with the illuminator affixed to the pistol, as using it without, forfeits retention qualities. Once you insert your pistol with the light affixed, the exact degree of retention desired can be fine-tuned by adjusting the screws at the rear of the holster body.

Alien Gear has clearly hit one over the fence with the introduction of the Photon holster. A wide range of adjustments, ability for IWB or OWB carry, and the fact that it will harbor a wide variety of white lights place it squarely in the winner’s circle. For further information on the Photon, check out