Concealment Holsters: An Essential Guide for Men and Women

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Ralph Mroz and Natalie Strong

Whether off duty, working undercover, or simply fielding a question from a citizen or family member regarding CCW recommendations, this guide can offer helpful advice.

Savvy individuals who carry firearms sometimes joke about their collection of holsters gathering dust in a drawer – ones which have been amassed over time, but rarely see the light of day. This accumulation isn’t just a result of frivolous spending; rather, it stems from trying to find the perfect fit. Different firearms necessitate different holster types and the quest for quality adds another layer of complexity. When you factor in the multitude of reasons behind holster preferences, multiplied by the extensive array of manufacturers, you’re left with a handful of holsters gathering dust and only a select few which see regular use.

You can save yourself a good deal of trouble by understanding the variable characteristics of holsters. Here’s a guide to them – Concealment Holsters 101, if you will.


There are 3½ objectives of any concealment holster: security, access, concealment, and the “half” consideration: one-handed reholstering ability.

Security – The holster should hold the gun in place while you are running; while you’re upside down; while you get in and out of cars; and so on. You don’t spend your life sitting still and, in a fight, you sure as heck aren’t standing still.

Access – The holster should provide access to the gun in a short amount of time in compromised positions, such as when you’re rolling around on the ground or strapped in a car seat. Further, the gun should be held in a stable position, so that the draw can be consistent and reliable under stress.

Concealment – The holster should not let the gun be visible or “print” through concealing garments.

One-handed reholstering capability is useful if your hands will be tied up with other things immediately after firing or challenging a suspect with your gun, such as handcuffing or restraining someone (assuming you have arrest authority); holding onto innocents (such as a spouse or children); and so on. This capability is absent in holsters made of thin, floppy material and inherent in holsters made of rigid materials like KYDEX®.

Process and Trade-offs

These 3½ characteristics can sometimes work against one another, so intelligent trade-offs, based on your own lifestyle and threat assessment, are sometimes necessary. For example, retention devices will usually impede draw speed, as will a deeply concealed gun. A comfortable holster may not provide access under some conditions (e.g., most hip holsters are hard to access while seat belted in a car). Thus, realize that finding the right holster for you is a process. Just as you are unlikely to marry the first man or woman you date, you may have to experiment with a few holsters before finding one which is right for you.

Main Types

The most popular holsters are hip holsters and they ride on a belt outside the pants on the strong side. Pancake holsters are made of two pieces of material with the gun sandwiched between them and they have two or more belt slots. “Askins”- or “Avenger”-type hip holsters are made of one piece of material folded around the gun and usually have a belt slot on the rear of the holster and a belt loop sewn on the back of it. The pancake-style provides more leverage on the gun to pull it closer to the body and, thus, is a bit more concealable.

IWB or inside the waistband holsters are worn inside the pants and attach to the belt with loops or hooks. These are the most concealable type of holster, but require pants which are about an inch more in the waist measurement than you normally wear. Some people find them less comfortable than hip holsters and vice versa. Certain IWBs have an extra “flange” or “tab” to the rear to help keep the holster anchored in one place. You may or may not need/like them.

Crossdraw holsters are worn on the off side of the body. They are practical, particularly for people who spend a lot of time in cars, but they are less concealable than hip holsters because they have to be worn in front of the hip bone.

Shoulder holsters are essentially uncomfortable crossdraw holsters. They are acceptable when the gun can’t be worn on the hip, but these are specialty items and are much less popular in the real world than they are on TV. They require an open front jacket, while most hip holsters can be concealed by an untucked shirt. Vertical carry shoulder holsters are best for very large guns. Horizontal carry shoulder holsters are best for normal carry guns and they are worn high near the armpit – not low near the floating rib like so many catalog pictures show.

Fanny packs (worn in front) are useful in hot weather when clothing is thin, but they make sitting and driving uncomfortable and too many of them look like gun packs. If you can, choose a bright color. I even sewed an “L.L.Bean” tag onto mine!

Paddle holsters are held in place with a paddle attached to the holster which slides inside the pants and is held in place by belt tension on it. Their main virtue is their “quick on, quick off” capability. Most, but not all, are less secure than hip holsters.

Ankle holsters involve significant trade-offs when carrying your primary gun since you can’t move while drawing from them. They do have a rightful place for backup guns, though.

Pocket holsters are an underlooked option. They are a convenient way to carry a smaller gun and require no concealing garment. However, they cannot be drawn from while seated which is a serious consideration.

Small of the back holsters carry the gun severely canted at the center of the back and are not recommended. If you fall backwards, you will be crushing your spine between the floor and the one to two pounds of polymer/steel which compose your gun and the 150+ pounds which make up you. And, then consider sitting for any period of time with them…not a good idea.

Appendix Inside the Waistband (AIWB) holsters carry the gun in front of the body, on the belt between the hipbone and the belt buckle. They have some significant advantages for women and anyone with arthritic shoulders. In my opinion, most folks either love them or hate them, because they either work well for you or they don’t work well at all.


Holsters either have something holding the gun in them other than friction or they don’t. Speed scabbards, or open top holsters, have none and these are generally preferred for concealed carry. A simple – and the oldest – retention device is the thumb break, in which a strap of material over the top of the gun is unsnapped with the thumb as the gun is drawn. These are reasonable devices as they slow down the draw stroke only a bit, but they do make it more complicated which is the real concern. There are many kinds of retention devices available on concealment holsters and they usually involve one or more digits of the drawing hand releasing one or more levers as the gun is drawn. Some are more intuitive than others. 

The need for retention devices is very real for exposed guns, such as on a uniformed police duty belt. They help prevent bad guys from simply yanking a cop’s own gun out of his/her holster. But, the need for such devices is less in concealment holsters, particularly for non-sworn citizens since the gun is (or should be) concealed and no one should know it’s there. Plainclothes police, on the other hand, usually make no secret of the fact that they’re cops, so retention devices on their plainclothes holsters make sense.


Synthetic materials like KYDEX or other injection molded polymers have become the norm in the last few decades. Usually rigid, polymer holsters don’t lose their shape, nor do they get soft and rot in humid conditions and they are slightly faster than leather on the draw. Synthetics are generally preferred by armed professionals (traditionalists excluded) who never know what conditions their holster will be exposed to (e.g., I once had to walk waist deep through a swamp while on an armed plainclothes gig).

Leather is the traditional material for holsters. It can “give” a bit and conform to the shape of your body a little more than a synthetic. The fact that leather will “bind” the gun a little if your draw is not perfectly straight up can be an advantage if you are concerned about retention and don’t want to complicate things with a retention strap. If retention in an open top holster is your preference, the trick is to go with a deep-seated leather IWB.

Slot/Loop Width and Belts

It’s important to match the slot/loop width of the holster to the width of the belt you will wear with it. Some holsters come with adjustable slots/loops and that’s a good feature. But, many holsters come with belt slots or loops which are a fixed width usually 1 3/4 inches. Such holsters are advertised as “fitting belts up to 1 3/4 inches wide” which is wrong; in fact, such holsters will fit only 1 3/4 inch belts properly. It should be obvious that a holster with slots wider than the belt they are worn on will cause the holster to slip and slide around. A good gun belt should be between 1 1/4 inches wide to 1 3/4 inches and reinforced to accommodate the weight of the gun (ordinary belts won’t do so).

Repeat: It’s critical to use a real gun belt with a hip holstered gun! A true gun belt is the foundation of your carry system. Many beginners cheap out here which is a big mistake.


The “ride” of a holster refers to the vertical height at which the gun is carried relative to the belt line. A normal ride holster will have the trigger near the belt line. A high ride holster will have the trigger above the belt. A deep riding holster will have the trigger below the belt. High ride holsters are harder to draw from and, unless correctly designed and executed, can allow the grip end of the gun to flop out away from the body. Short barreled guns will have this tendency even with normal ride holsters, so a good quality holster is critical with them. The ride of the gun, combined with the holster’s cant (see below) will largely determine how comfortably a holster carries a particular gun for you.


The “cant” of a holster refers to how tilted forward from vertical the gun rides when carried in the holster. A straight drop holster has zero degrees of cant and carries the gun vertically. An FBI cant holster has a cant of between 10 and 20 degrees. Some holsters are severely canted to 30 degrees or even more. While more cant aids concealability a bit, the main reason for it is to make the gun 1) comfortable to carry and 2) easy to draw. The preference of cant and ride is individual. I prefer a cant and ride such that the backstrap of the gun’s grip lies in line with, and just below, my floating rib. Other people have different preferences.

Women and Concealed Carry Considerations

Some women have a difficult time with concealment holsters and dressing for concealed carry is not intuitive. Women tend to be shorter waisted than men, making their draw stroke more difficult. They also tend to have greater hip flare, resulting in the grip of the gun being severely angled into their rib cage which in turn results in discomfort and difficulty in drawing. With different body types, comfort levels and a large variety of women’s clothing options, the path to concealing a firearm can be difficult for some to navigate. In times past, manufacturers have tried turning a man’s holster into a “woman’s holster” by either adding a wedge between the body and gun to compensate for the hip flare, or by lowering the ride of the holster. Both “solutions” compromise concealability. Obviously, the slimmer and longer waisted a woman is, the more likely it is that she can use a man’s holster satisfactorily, but many women find them unsatisfactory to some degree.

All of this assumes that a woman will carry her gun on her hip on a belt. However, women often don’t dress in ways which will accommodate that mode of carry. For some ladies, off-body carry, such as in a purse, with all of its serious inherent disadvantages, may be the best option. On the belt, if her attire so allows, most women find that a crossdraw or AIWB holster is the best option.

After spending years of learning through trial and error (and training), Natalie Strong, the founder of “Elegant and Armed,” a blog which blends fashion and women’s safety, shares some of the tips and tricks which she has picked up along the way.

Common Holsters for Women

KYDEX – Typically clipped to a belt and worn with pants which have belt loops.

Bellybands – Worn around your natural waist or hips and do not require belt loops, making them great for athletic wear, skirts and dress pants. Bellybands used to be known as “soft” holsters, due to the lack of trigger cover. However, many newer models support the use of a KYDEX holster for better protection.

Bra Holster – Worn just under a bra at the front or side of your body. (A larger cup size typically helps with concealment.)

Thigh Holster – Placing the firearm on the inside or outside of your thigh, this type of holster is perfect for skirts and dresses.

Ankle Holster – Great for carrying a smaller gun under flared pants or a maxi skirt.

Concealed Carry Purse – Great as a backup holster should you need to temporarily disarm in a public restroom or dressing room. Also helpful for those outfits which don’t allow you to carry a gun on your body. A good quality concealed carry purse should always have a separate pocket for the gun and a holster secured in place.

How to Build a Concealed Carry Capsule Wardrobe

Instead of styling an outfit to conceal your gun every day, Natalie suggests building a Concealed Carry Capsule Wardrobe. A little preplanning will save from decision fatigue and ensure you have a section in your closet which will always conceal your firearm.

When selecting a holster for your wardrobe, she recommends starting with the one you perform best with and styling as many outfit combinations around that holster as possible. Often, this can be a KYDEX holster connected to a belt which protects the trigger, places the firearm near your hands for quick access, and stays in place when you draw the gun.

Next, choose other holster types to fill in the gaps. For example, if you wear a lot of dresses, you might want to add a thigh holster or concealed carry purse. Make sure to be realistic so no matter what you wear, you have a method to carry your gun.


One major barrier to women’s concealed carry is that wearing a gun just isn’t comfortable. Unfortunately, no magic holster exists which will feel 100% comfortable right away. It takes time to get used to the feeling of carrying a firearm. Still, there are things which ladies can do to make the experience better.

Belts – According to Natalie, she used to hate wearing belts, but after switching from mid-rise jeans to a higher waistline, her eyes were opened to the real problem –    placement. The belt and added weight of the gun were putting pressure right on her hipbones and, by the end of the day, her hips were sore and bruised. So, if you find belts uncomfortable, try different waistlines to see what works for your body type.

Chaffing – A piece of metal rubbing against your skin all day can lead to irritation, especially if your grip has a lot of texture. Whether you’re using a holster connected to a belt or a bellyband, try layering a tank top under your blouse and tucking it between you and the gun to protect your skin. Similarly, when wearing an off-the-shoulder top, a bandeau bra worn around your hips works great.

Thigh Holster – Thigh holsters are great for wearing under skirts and dresses, but some are more comfortable than others. The first one Natalie tried consisted of an elastic band around her leg, but she soon discovered that when walking, both the elastic and gun scratched her opposite leg. She has since opted for a pair of thigh holster shorts which protect both legs from chaffing. 

Concealment Tips and Tricks

When carrying a concealed firearm, the point is to keep it hidden. Therefore, women want to dress in a way which avoids “printing” or showing an outline of the gun through their clothes. Here are some tips to help camouflage a firearm.

Concealed Carry Belts – Natalie mentioned that she struggled for years trying to make regular fashion belts work for concealed carry. Many were too flimsy which meant that she had to tighten her belt beyond a comfortable level just to keep the gun from tilting away from my body. Her solution was to wear belts designed specifically for concealed carry and now they are all that she uses. Concealed carry belts are more structured, support the weight of your gun and keep your holster close to your body.

Holster Adjustments – A common cause of printing is that the grip of the gun can angle away from your body. The simple addition of a holster wing helps tuck the grip closer to your body for better concealment. Similarly, when thetop of your holster tilts away from your body, try connecting a holster wedge with VELCRO® to your holster to correct the issue.

Concealment Camisole – Natalie’s struggle with printing inspired her to create the Concealment Camisole, a top designed with special shields to prevent showing an outline of the gun through your clothes when you carry a holster on your body.

Patterns – Selecting a patterned or textured shirt is a classic concealment technique which, like camouflage, helps break up the outline of your gun. Not to mention, your choice of pattern says a lot about you and helps express your style.

Layering – An underlayer like a compression tank top can help press the gun closer to your body to prevent printing. One of the easiest ways to improve concealment is by adding an outer layer such as a jacket or sweater. Plus, it’s helpful to have an extra layer at hand for unexpected situations such as your shirt getting wet or the wind “blowing your cover” by pressing your shirt against the gun.

Bottom Line

If you are a man, the best bet is to go with a normal ride, FBI cant (or straight drop), pancake-style speed scabbard and a quality gun belt which mates to it properly. Women are probably best advised to start with a crossdraw or AIWB holster. From then on, you can experiment with other holsters if you feel the need to tweak a characteristic. Remember, it’s a process!

Visit for more information about creating a capsule wardrobe.Ralph Mroz was a police officer (part-time) in Massachusetts for 20 years, seven of which he was assigned to his county’s drug task force. He has taught at a number of national, regional and international law enforcement conferences. Ralph now has three books available on Amazon: Street Focused Handgun Training (Volumes 1, 2 and 3), as well as two republished books, Defensive Shooting for Real-Life Encounters and Tactical Defensive Training for Real-Life Encounters.

Natalie Strong is the founder of “Elegant and Armed,” a blog which blends fashion and women’s safety, inspiring others to embrace concealed carry with style. Natalie is a certified NRA pistol trainer, a member of the Professional Outdoor Media Association (POMA), and a writer for USCCA’s Concealed Carry Magazine. She also has a passion for developing products to help women truly be elegant and armed. Through product reviews and information articles such as “How to Create a Concealed Carry Capsule Wardrobe,” she encourages women to be proactive in their approach to safety.