Selecting a quality holster

Using a holster really only involves two movements that are the reverse of each other; the draw and re-holstering. Once practiced, the draw can be done quickly. However the re-holster should never be done with speed. You should only re-holster when you are absolutely sure there are no more targets to engage. Even then re-holstering should be done carefully, slowly, deliberately, reluctantly. The equipment can make a big difference to your success or failure in both movements. Even with lots of practice and good equipment, failures can still happen. Poor equipment can only increase the risk of injury.

Below is some information about finding a good quality holster. It does not cover all types and sytles of holsters, but the same basic qualities can be found in any good holster.

Qualities of a Good Holster

Holsters have been around for nearly as long at the pistol. The technology has evolved well beyond a leather cup that hangs loosely from a sagging belt. Modern materials and manufacturing processes have changed what is considered a quality holster as well as the function. The modern holster does more than simply store a pistol until the gunfight erupts. With new advances in technology come advances in safety.

No matter what the mission the holster must fulfill some basic functions.

  1. Hold the pistol securely during all movements.
  2. Protect the trigger from unintentional manipulation and foreign objects.
  3. Conceal the pistol (if required).
  4. Securely attach to the body.
  5. Not interfere with the operation of the pistol or other equipment.

All of the features are equally important. If the holster fails to meet the criteria, it may not be a good holster.

What is your mission?

First you have to look at what you are using the holster for. Holsters generally fall in the two categories: personal (competition, sport, personal carry and concealment), and professional or duty (military, law enforcement, private security). There are other categories but these are the major ones that are referenced the most.

Duty Holster

Let’s start with the last one first because it’s the easiest, the duty holster. A duty hoslter is a piece of eqiupment, just like the gun. The department will likely dictate what is approved for the holster and the firearm. If they don’t have an approved vendor or issue equipment they will have parameters that the holster needs to adhere to. Which department and what function you have will determine what equipment you get. They may not use the latest greatest equipment, but it is most likely proven to work. The bottom line is follow your department guidelines.

If you have the flexibility to select your own equipment, the rest of the article may help with some decisions.

Bad Holster
Danger! This soft leather holster looks good, but is dangerous. The leather is too soft and does not protect the trigger. It allows the user to insert a finger while the pistol is fully inserted.

Personal Use

No matter what you need your holster for the features of all types of personal use holsters over lap a bit. For non-competative holsters simply follow the guidelines. If you are competing, just like a Duty Holster there are rules. Some competitions allow the use of concealed holsters, while others dictate which brand and model of holster are allowed. We will assume that there is no particular model or brand that must be used, but look at the features that make a good holster.

Materials and construction

First, the construction material is key. The material should be ridged, not floppy or soft. A floppy or soft sided leather or nylong holster might be ok for leaving by the bed, but if you need to carry the pistol it can be hazardous. This does not imply that all soft sided leather or nylon holsters are deficient, but they must be examined carefully to ensure that it will safely suit your needs.

Bad Holster
Avoid generic holster sold in sizes. This one will fit large autos with a 3.5 to 4.5 inch barrel. It is too generic, simply doesn’t fit correctly, and is unsafe to carry .

Generally soft (ones that will flatten out) holster don’t secure the firearm correctly, nor do they properly protect the trigger from manipulation. Small parts (safety, take down levers, hammer, trigger, sights) can snag on the material when removing or inserting the firearm to the holster. This can make it difficult to remove the pistol. Any of these parts snagging can cause a malfunction or negligent discharge. The holster will wear out prematurely and may cause injury as a result. If you plan to use a soft sided holster inspect it regularly for damage, and avoid an inury.

Often soft side holsters are not made for a specific pistol, and are sold by sizes that cover general dimensions. The holster should fit to the shape of the pistol and leave no gaps. Fitting snugly is not always an indication that the holster is a good one. If there are any gaps between the holster and pistol, that would allow a foreign object like a finger to be inserted, this is unsafe and should not be carried. Also soft materials (like nylon or cloth) may not protect the safety mechanism adequately from becoming disengaged accidently.

Rigid materials ensures that the holster will not crush. Realistically we don’t so care much about about “crushing” a pistol, but a collasped holster is useless and dangerous.

A collapsed holster can cause many problems.

This worn leather holster caused in injury when the owner sat in a car. Photo courtesy of It's Tactical
  • Damage the hoslter and cause a negligent discharge when the gun is re-holsterd.
  • Wear the holster prematurely
  • Make re-holstering a two hand operation. In doing so, it can place the support side hand in the path of the barrel.
  • The police and military need to re-holster with one hand. If they need to use two hands, they may be forced to sacrafice control of the situation. This may put them in further danger.

We have discussed what materials to avoid, but what materials should you look for when you select a holster? This is not a complete list but to name a few Kydex (Acrylic PVC), injection molded plastic, composite, reinforced leather and carbon fiber are all good materials. All of these materials are ridged and not easily deformed. The rigidity adds protection against objects that may interfere with normal operations and increases safety.


Level III retention. Top thumb break and middle finger release tab, internal ejection port lock

A loose firearm is a liability and can cause injuries. The typical terminology used for describing retention is “Level I”, “Level II”, & “Level III”. This generally refers to the number of locking systems that the holster uses, however each manufacture has it’s own definition of a “locking system”. A Level I retention holster will have just one locking system, a Level II will use two, and a Level III will have three. The effectivenes of each locking system can vary.

For personal use this might be:

  • A simple tension/friction fit, where the pistol “snaps” in.
  • An interlock like a thumb brake that requires a specific action to release.
  • A strap that covers the back of the pistol the pistol.
  • A finger release button.

This is not a complete a list, many other types of retention may be used as well. When looking at retention device think about how you will use the holster. More is not always better and all retention devices require training. Each level adds another obstacle to remove the pistol from the holster. Of course there is a balance to this. People that are likely to be hands on with bad guys, may want more retention than someone shooting at a local match.

In all cases the purpose for the retention system is to keep your equipment intact during all movements. The minimum retention for any activity should be level 1. The most basic test is to this turn the holster upside down with the pistol fully inserted. If the holster fails to hold the pistol, either the retention system needs to be adjusted or may not be adequate. Each company has its own standards for testing that probably goes beyond this simple test. Check the company information on their particular method of test for more information and determine what you need.

Competitive Shooting

inside the waistband hook
An open frame competition holster.

Most competitive shooting organizations do not allow holsters that attach to anything but the belt. All of them require the holster to secure the pistol and cover the trigger. The standard recommendation is some sort of Kydex or plastic holster. These are all general statements and may vary slightly depending on what organization is running the match.

There is a unique style of holster called a “race holster” it is a light weight skeletonized mounting system that holds the pistol from the trigger guard and the muzzle. Typically they have some sort of cam lock or thumb screw that secures the pistol. These are mostly used in IPSC matches that have high speed shooting requirements. These are good holsters for competition, but are not recommended for personal use. They offer no protection to the outside of the firearm and create a big leaver against the belt. They typically require special belts.

All the options can be confusing and some organizations have specified makes and models of holster that will be allowed. The best holster may not always be the option. If competition is your plan, find rule book before the holster.


inside the waistband hook
This holster uses a unique hook to fasten it to the belt.

Carrying a your firearm every day for protection probably requires concealment. There are some unique things to consider when looking at this. The first is what firearm will you carry? This subject is complex and personal, so we will leave that up to the reader to figure that part out.

Once you have determined what your favorite pistol is, you will need a way to safely carry it during all activities. The same rules still apply but there are some additional things to consider.

Concealment holsters are generally not on the outside of the belt. The most common is called inside the waist band (IWB) or inside the pants holsters. The attachment usually goes over the top of the pants and grabs the belt in some way. Carefully look at the attachment mechanism. Unfortunately this is where the metal clips become very popular. The holster is naturally more stability just from surface area in contact with the body, but beware the metal clip may or may not secure the holster in place during movement or a hands on confrontation.

The use of “J-hooks”, leather loops, and reversed belt loops, are some of the better option. But with that said, you may need to try it with your pistol, your body type, your belt and your holster position to see if it works correctly.

Collapsed Holster
This holster collapsed when the pistol was removed. It made it impossible to re-holster. In this case the metal clip works great, because the holster has no retention.

The construction material is even more important with an IWB holster, because the belt puts pressure on the holster. A flimsy holster will collapse when the firearm is removed. This is a hazard because it requires the support side hand to open the holster, to put the firearm back. This creates all sorts of obvious safety hazards.

Another part of a good concealment holster is does it “print”. Printing is when a casual observer can see that someone is carrying a firearm. Of course this removes any tactical advantage that was gained by being armed and makes the person a target. Even though you may be legally carrying it could also mean an unwanted conversation with the local police. The amount of printing depends on the firearm, body type, location and clothing. All of these are factors of carrying a concealed firearm, but a good holster is still defined by the same qualities. If concealed carry is what you are looking for finding a good holster is easy, finding the right holster might be a challenge.

Belts and Belt Loops

The holster must be attached to the user in some way. Things like clips, Velcro, and string are not good fastening devices for firearms. Leather, Kydex, metal, and other strong materials are good, most of the time.

The hook
This in expesnive holster was found on EBay going for $16. Note the metal clip that goes over the belt. The holster may come off the belt during the draw. For another $10 you can buy a Blade-Tech.

The holster should securely attached to the belt. This is typically done by encircling the belt in some form. Paddle holsters that do not encircle the belt can be effective, but they need to be adjusted to work properly.

Most good holsters have some sort of adjustment to the attachment mechanism and will likely work better than ones that are design for a fixed belt width. To test the security of the holster, practice the draw, run, jump, roll or what ever else you may encoutner while carrying the firearm. If they holster rides up too high, comes off belt or the firearm is lost, it may need to be adjusted or changed. Remember, the holster should stay put during all activities and keep the firearm secure.

The belt is part of the holster system. Any belt used for a holster should be a sturdy and not move during the activity. Loose or flimsy belts may be stylish and comfortable, but they are not meant to carry much more than a cell phone.

This belt is leather with Kydex reinforcement. It looks good and is strong too.

Good belts come in all styles: nylon operator/trainer, and military style belts to nice looking leather belts. When buying a belt it is best to try it on. However, if you order one on line check the sizing chart from the company the can tell you how to account for your type of holster. Note: If you have an IWB hoslter remember to add some extra length for the holster.

Holsters are not fashion accessories, but some people do have different holsters and belts depending on what they wear. This is important if the firearm is concealed.

Other Options

Not all holster attach to just a belt. There are thigh (tactical) rigs, shoulder holsters, “fanny packs”, purses, ankle, belly, vest, and many other variants. Each of these types haves particular advantages and disadvantages. The draw is not difficult, but the techniques used to draw safely from these require an understanding of basic of holster work, and additional training. If you are considering a different style of holster, the same rules still apply for a good holster.

In Summary

A good holster has the following qualities

  1. Hold the pistol securely during all movements.
  2. Protect the trigger from unintentional manipulation and foreign objects.
  3. Conceal the pistol (if required).
  4. Securely attach to the body.
  5. Not interfere with the operation of the pistol or other equipment.

Finding the wrong holster is costly and can even be painful. Always practice the basics, learn the basics, then add to the basics. With out a foundation there is nothing to build on.