I can’t recall a time since I became interested in defensive carry that I would have considered purchasing or using a bad holster. Frankly, I can’t imagine anyone intentionally opting for a bad holster. However, I recall hearing about bad holsters being available in the marketplace from a podcast early in my journey. While it’s taken me quite a while to learn how to evaluate holster quality, being aware that bad holsters exist allowed me to maintain some level of skepticism and afforded me the ability to avoid purchasing and using exceptionally bad holsters. Granted, I’ve accumulated and previously used several holsters that now reside in a box of shame and only come out to educate others on their design flaws. The thing is holsters are a key component of the complete weapon system that a defensive pistol practitioner should not compromise on as it also compromises safety and the ability to put the gun into action. In turn, this means that practitioners should be aware that not all holsters are created equal and learn how to distinguish between the good ones, the bad ones, and those in between so they can decide for themselves whether or not to include it as a part of their defensive weapon system.
Let’s start with understanding what constitutes an acceptable holster design. Various authoritative sources on this topic will present the characteristics of good design differently. While the characteristics will differ in number or granularity, the underlying principles and philosophies are virtually identical. For example, in his book, Concealed Carry Class: The ABCs of Self-Defense Tools and Tactics, Tom Givens provides four elements of proper holster design which require a holster to be comfortable, concealable, secure, and fast. In contrast, John Correia, founder of Active Self Protection, describes three critical qualities of a decent holster in this YouTube video which require a holster to completely cover the trigger guard, hold the firearm securely, and allow access to the firearm reliably. Those two examples present slightly different characteristics based on the same underlying principles.
So what are those principles? Based on my understanding, I enumerate the principles as:
- Safe and secure retention
- Efficient and effective accessibility
- Encourages carry
Let’s look at some examples which should illustrate these principles in practice.
When it comes to firearms, or really any dangerous item or substance, safety is of the utmost importance. As such, it is important that the holster design be one that allows the firearm to be safely inserted into the holster, prevents manipulation of the firearm while it is in the holster, and allows the firearm to be drawn from the holster safely. There is a lot going on here. So let’s break it down further.
Inserting the firearm into the holster is one of the most, if not the most, common action where unintentional discharges happen. Without getting into differences between unintentional and accidental discharges, we know that unintentional discharges that occur when this action is taking place is a result of the trigger being pressed in the process. That is something puts sufficient pressure on the trigger as the gun is inserted into the holster. That something could be part of an article of clothing such as part of a shirt or a draw string on a hoodie or jacket working its way into the holster, but it could also be part of the holster itself. The latter culprit is one of the reasons holsters made from soft supple leather, nylon, or those soft materials are frowned upon. Another danger presented by soft material comes in the form of having the controls on a pistol getting hung up on the material and encouraging the habituation of forcefully inserting the firearm into the holster. Forcefully inserting the firearm into the holster increases the likelihood of a discharge that results from another object that worked its way into the holster such as a part of clothing as previously mentioned. Yet another danger presented by holsters made from soft materials arises from the fact that they almost always collapse when the firearm is not inserted which often requires the use of the support hand to keep them open enough to insert the firearm. That often means the muzzle of a loaded firearm ends up pointed at the support hand briefly which is a no no since a discharge could mean the loss of digits or the hand altogether.
What can we glean from that?
Well chances are that if the holster is made in part or entirely from a soft material then it is likely an unsafe holster and therefore craptastic. Yes, this is a gross generalization, but it tends to hold true more often than not. However, this generalization has, at least in part, led to the common belief that only holsters constructed entirely from Kydex are the only safe holsters. That’s also a gross generalization which isn’t entirely true. There are several safe high quality leather holsters available however these holsters are rigid and hold their shape through years of use. There is also at least one hybrid leather and Kydex holster offered by Black Arch Holsters that I’ve heard reputable sources agree is an exception to the “hybrid holsters are craptastic” rule. A few things these safe non all Kydex holsters have in common are that they are custom made to a specific firearm, tend to have a noticeable lead time, and tend to have price tags well above what their unsafe counterparts cost.
We can take those common factors a bit further and say the following: If the holster is universal or accepts multiple firearms, if the holster tends to have virtually no lead time, or if the holster has a noticeably low price tag, then it is likely craptastic for one reason or another. Again, these are gross generalizations, but they continue to be true more often than not. For example, take an all Kydex IWB (inside the waistband) holster from a manufacturer that I won’t name who has virtually no lead time and is offered for about $50. The Kydex on this holster is thin and rather flimsy. While it won’t collapse on itself and otherwise appears to follow all of the design principles, the holster can be sufficiently compressed with modest pressure that the holster itself comes in contact with the trigger as a pistol is inserted and creates sufficient resistance to press the trigger and fire a shot. I’ve seen this happen to an individual at a range first hand (thankfully the individual was exercising safe holstering techniques which resulted in the projectile safely impacting the ground while only leaving a hole in the person’s pants). Granted this design flaw may only affect the specific pistol the individual was using, but it’s a design flaw and an unsafe holster nevertheless.
Secure retention is an absolute must for an acceptable holster. This can be accomplished with passive retention, active retention, or both. Passive retention comes from friction between the firearm and the holster. Active retention involves another mechanism that “locks” the firearm into the holster and must be intentionally disengaged to allow the firearm to be removed from the holster. Notwithstanding, the retention mechanisms should still allow for the firearm to be reliably accessible and not introduce the possibility of an unintentional discharge. Retention allows not only to keep the firearm securely on our person while we perform our typical day to day activities, but also during extraneous activities such as grappling with an assailant or say… performing backflips on the dance floor like that FBI agent did that one time at a bar in Denver, Colorado. In the case of open carry for defensive purposes (which I’m not a fan of in the context of the armed citizen), active retention is a must as it prevents or at least makes it more difficult for the firearm to be removed from the holster by a third party. Retention should be an all the time thing, not just when the holster is worn properly, as having the firearm fall out of the holster when having to pull down our pants or when the holster is removed can have negative consequences as well.
In terms of retention, we can generally say that, if a gravity or a few shakes of the holster is sufficient for the firearm to come out of the holster, then it is likely that the holster is craptastic. Additionally in terms of active retention, if the holster is a SERPA or uses a similar mechanism that involves using the trigger finger to apply pressure to release the firearm, then the holster is almost definitely craptastic. I won’t get into details around the SERPA holsters and why the design is unsafe, but know that most ranges and instructors have banned their use on their premises and in their classes due to the history of associated unintentional discharges and failures when a small amount of debris works its way into the mechanism.
Another aspect of safe and secure retention is that the holster should also prevent foreign or external objects from entering the holster while the firearm is inserted. John Correia gets into this in the video linked near the beginning of this post. While it’s virtually impossible to prevent small debris from entering the holster completely, the goal should be to prevent larger objects from easily working their way in there and potentially manipulating the trigger. Furthermore some objects could interfere with the normal operation of the handgun after it is drawn from the holster or induce an immediate malfunction. None of these things is a good idea. As such, we can say that if the holster allows objects to enter the holster while the firearm is inserted, then the holster is probably craptastic.
Access to the firearm comes down to being able to completely and fully establish a master firing grip with the strong hand while the firearm is in the holster and the holster is worn in its intended manner. That is to say, if the holster or clothing is an obstacle that prevents the master firing grip from being established, then the holster is almost certainly craptastic. In some cases, one may be able to make adjustments to the holster attachment system to alleviate the interference. Drawing the pistol without a full master firing grip can lead to the pistol being dropped, delay getting shots on target while the grip is adjusted, or results in shots missing the target due to a poor grip. None of those are desirable outcomes which can be easily avoided by using a well designed holster that allows the establishment of the master firing grip and wearing the holster as intended.
If the holster is uncomfortable, difficult to put on, difficult to take off, then the holster is likely to discourage regular all day everyday use and therefore has craptastic attributes. These are not likely going to be a big deal to those who are dedicated to the armed lifestyle and are willing to wear an uncomfortable holster that may or may not be difficult to don or doff, but it poses a problem to those who are new to the lifestyle and may result in opting to leave the gun at home in a sock drawer on that dreadful day when they actually need it. It may also discourage practice and training. As such, if the holster is in any way shape or form a “pain” and one finds themselves putting off arming themselves, then it’s probably time to shop for a new holster.
Truth be told, I’ve enjoyed using the word “craptastic” as I’ve written this as it’s made me chuckle far more than I probably should have. Notwithstanding, we have explored several examples of what makes a holster craptastic. Even so the hardest part of this is admitting that one’s holster is to one extent or another suboptimal. It’s easy to dismiss any of these with the infamous “well that’s never been a problem for me” argument and keep on using a holster that exhibits one of these flaws or shortcomings. I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve done that. The reality is that we don’t often finish the argument that should actually be “well that’s never been a problem for me yet”. The operative word there is yet. It hasn’t been a problem for me yet. Knowing that the design flaw carries one or more real risks, why not eliminate the risk by replacing that holster with one that doesn’t have the same design flaws? I get that high-quality well-designed custom holsters are expensive and oftentimes have extensive lead times. However, that cost and time is far less than the price and duration associated with the consequences associated with any of the negative outcomes associated with the use of a craptastic holster. If the holster is unacceptable, then get an acceptable one. If a holster is acceptable, but kind of crappy in some way, then consider getting a better one. Don’t settle for a bad holster when good and great ones are available.