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Most of us who’ve carried for a while will end up with the proverbial “holster box,” filled with a bunch of gun-carry gear that we tried and just didn’t like. For some shooters, it’s more like holster “bins.” That’s gonna happen. We pick our guns by trial and error to some extent until we find the one that just seems most simpatico with our particular hands and needs. It is normal to do the same with our holsters.

However, once we’ve got just the right handgun and just the right holster, we may have to broaden the carry gear array to cover our needs in less than perfect situations. For instance, I know a lot of guys who don’t particularly care to wear suits and particularly neckties…but they have both in the closet, because there are occasions in their lives when social conventions and dress codes require them to be so attired. The fact is, something similar happens to carry methods for those of us who choose to go armed.

There’s another factor that needs to be taken into account. Few people get through their allotted years on Earth without suffering some sort of injury or disability, even if it’s (hopefully) temporary. Coming home from the hospital in pain and perhaps trussed up with an arm in a sling, a leg in a brace, or a hand in a cast is a lousy time to start thinking about how one is going to protect oneself and family. Therefore, one factor I’ll include in holster wardrobe selection is what I’ll call the “orthopedic element.”

Starters

Most CCW practitioners end up in traditional strong-side hip carry, which usually means just behind the hip so that gun and holster don’t ride gratingly against the hipbone. This slight shift to the rear also improves concealability dramatically. If a right-handed person is seen as facing 12 o’clock, “on the hip” would put the holstered gun at 3 o’clock. Here, it protrudes noticeably under a supposedly concealing garment. Bringing the gun and holster back to just 3:30 not only takes both off the bone and both over soft tissue where it will be more comfortable, but also puts the holstered sidearm where material of the cover garment drapes down from the latissimus dorsi and now conceals much better the fact that one is armed.

The two holsters I’d suggest, both intended for this position, are one that rides outside the belt, and one that carries inside the waistband (IWB). The IWB provides three distinct concealment advantages. One is that if the concealing garment inadvertently rides up, the hem of that garment won’t reveal the holster’s presence until it comes up past the belt-line. A second is that the trousers break up and hide the outline of the holster body itself. The third advantage is that the belt pulls the holstered handgun much more snugly in against the body, reducing bulge and “printing.”

However, the price of IWB carry is a reduction in comfort to some degree. We buy our pants to fit us, and now the pants have to fit us and a holstered gun. As a rule of thumb, pants 2 inches larger in the waist than usual will make IWB carry comfortable. (IWBs also encourage us to carry our guns, because without the holstered gun, the pants fit too loosely.)

What it boils down to is, the holster outside the waistband gives us reasonable concealment under casual or loose-fitting cover garments if the scabbard rides reasonably tight to the body, and also maximum comfort. The IWB gives us better concealment when needed under lighter or more form-fitting clothing. Many also find the outside the belt holster faster to draw from, because the gun is not being held quite so snugly against the torso, and the fingers can more quickly and easily take their drawing grasp.

Crossdraw Holsters

The crossdraw holster—carrying the gun butt-forward on the hip opposite the dominant hand—is nowhere near as popular today as it was in the 19th century and the first half of the 20th. For one thing, many ranges forbid it on the theory that the muzzle is likely to cross a fellow shooter on firing line when the gun is drawn. Some shooting schools also ban crossdraw. So do the rules of some competitive draw-and-fire shooting sports, such as PPC and IDPA. A gun carrying method that you can’t get sufficient practice time with has one strike against it out of the starting gate.

However, certain body shapes and certain situations are very well served by crossdraw carry. The person who anticipates needing to draw while seated—behind the steering wheel of an automobile, or behind a desk—will find a reach to the front of their belt faster, more comfortable, and all-around more expeditious with crossdraw carry.

Many women who have the choice find crossdraw easier. The reason is the hips are higher and more flared on the typical female anatomy than the typical male, and most of the hip holsters have been designed and manufactured for men. On the male, behind the hip carry generally puts the gun butt in the kidney area, and on many females, the same holster will place the butt up in proximity to the lower rib cage, making the draw more awkward. Crossdraw can be difficult for wide-shouldered males with low belts, but the typical female torso will be shorter and narrower, making the reach to the opposite hip proportionally easier.

ssdraw carry also facilitates weak-hand draw very well. One simply turns palm out and thumb back, lifts the gun from the holster, and rotates it to a position with the sights upright once it has cleared the body and is on its way up to alignment with the intended target. The movement is called “cavalry draw,” dating back to the 19th century when a cavalryman was expected to draw his saber crossbody, and placed his revolver on his strong-side hip butt forward where he could theoretically reach it with either hand if needed.

Earlier, the “orthopedic holster” element was mentioned. That can certainly key in with the crossdraw holster. Several types of arm and shoulder injury, particularly those afflicting the rotator cuff, can limit the user’s ability to reach behind their hip with their dominant hand for a conventionally placed “strong side holster.” However, a cross body reach may be much easier for that particular patient. I know one gentleman who habitually carries butt-forward on his opposite side hip because accumulated injuries over the years have made it very hard for him to draw from the strong side hip.

While there are specific crossdraw holsters, sometimes with their butt canted to the wearer’s front, any holster that carries the gun with the muzzle perpendicular to the ground when the wearer is standing should do fine. Unless one has particularly long arms, crossdraw works best with the holster slightly forward of the opposite side hip. This may require the user to pay particular attention to concealment, especially when wearing the cross draw rig under an open-front garment.

Appendix Holsters

Carrying toward the front centerline of the belt at the strong side, appendix carry, makes the gun very accessible in tight quarters and close physical combat, and from sitting positions. However, it also points at the groin and the femoral artery, which makes some folks particularly nervous when drawing and holstering. Any straight-up or rearward-tilt outside the belt or IWB holster can serve here, but my colleague Phil Wong turned introduced me to the synthetic Rhino holster, which rides between belt and pants. He notes that by leaning back at the hips, the wearer can glance down through the Rhino’s open bottom and see ground instead of body, assuring that the muzzle does not cross his own anatomy as the pistol is holstered.

Belly Band Holsters

Originally created by the legendary John Bianchi in the early to mid-1960s, and popularized later in that decade by MMGR of New York, the belly band is a 4-inch wide strip of elastic that wraps around the body. It is worn “under the outerwear, and over the underwear.” While sometimes advertised as suitable for wear around the chest or midriff, I’ve always found it’s at its best worn at belt level.

For the person who must wear a tucked-in shirt with no cover garment, this creates a very viable option. With a small gun such as a 2-inch J-frame revolver, I like it just to the offside of midline, next to the navel, butt forward. By leaving the second button above the belt discreetly undone (a necktie covers it), one can gain very quick access. Anything longer than a 2-inch revolver or a very small pocket auto in this location will tend to dig into the juncture of groin and thigh when you bend or sit, however. For a longer gun, you want to wear the belly band positioning the gun just behind your strong-side hip, and count on using the other hand to pull the concealing shirt up and away to clear the path for a conventional strong-side hip draw.

Belly bands can also be useful with beltless clothing, though with sweatpants you’ll want to adjust the band tighter than usual.

Mirror Image Belt Holsters

Before we leave belt carry, let’s consider something a lot of people miss: if our dominant arm (a/k/a “gun arm”) is injured, we want to have a fallback available now. That means it’s always a good idea to have a left-handed holster readily accessible for the right-handed user, and a right-handed holster on tap for the natural southpaw. The gun should also be “opposite hand friendly,” of course, and above all, the shooter should already have practiced and developed skill drawing and firing from the non-dominant hand side.

The expense of a dedicated opposite-side holster is not necessary. An ambidextrous holster suffices. The classic example of a low-priced “ambi” holster is the Sport Target model that Glock offers to fit all their pistols.

Shoulder Holsters

Once primary belt-level carry needs are covered, you may find use for a good shoulder holster. Carried under the arm opposite the dominant hand, they hold the gun in a position quick for either hand to reach. They work particularly well for women wearing unbelted skirts, and for men wearing beltless pants with soft waistbands, or anyone wearing sweatpants. Draw is similar to crossdraw in movement pattern.

Downsides: Many find them all uncomfortable, and some are more comfortable than others. Some guys with wide chests, broad shoulders, and muscular arms simply don’t have the range of movement to reach to their opposite armpit and get a good grasp on the pistol for drawing.

Upsides: Very handy for the seated wearer. The popular “shoulder system” pioneered by Richard Gallagher before he called his company Galco puts accessories such as spare ammunition and handcuffs on the side of the harness opposite the holster. This not only balances the weight, but allows the user to quickly don on or off a full complement of gear.

The shoulder holster also offers an “orthopedic” use option. A little over 20 years ago, my lower back went out on me big time. My physician advised me to wear nothing of any weight at the waist at all, to prevent pressure in the lumbar area. I asked about a shoulder holster, and he said with a straight face that this would be okay so long as I wore one on each side.

I thought at first that he was kidding, but he explained that weight on the upper body on one side but not the other would cause the body to compensate by canting slightly in one way or the other, which would interfere with healing in the lumbar region. I put together a “Franken-holster” that held matching aluminum alloy S&W .38s under each arm, but soon replaced that with a modified Gallagher design that held a loaded Colt Lightweight Commander .45 under the left arm, balanced by two loaded magazines, a Galco handcuff carrier, and a Spyderco knife clipped to the harness under the right arm. This balanced exactly, and got me through the healing process.

Lower Abdomen Holsters

A small handgun secreted in the groin area has long been a favored carry among undercover police officers, and unfortunately also among criminals. This is because it puts the gun at an intimate “no-touch part of the body” which, in our culture, most people doing a pat-down search will avoid. There is, of course, a price. It’s slow, usually requiring the support hand to pull the waistband of the pants forward to clear a path for the drawing hand. It positions the gun in such a way that the muzzle is often pointed at parts of the body one is particularly unwilling to expose to a contact gunshot wound should something trip the trigger while it’s there. It can also be particularly uncomfortable, being especially so for those who have excess flesh in the abdominal area. Not my choice, but as they say on the internet, your mileage may vary.

Many have gone this route because, while it is legal for them to carry, they are in a situation where they will suffer severe social and/or occupational repercussions if they are found to be armed. For the undercover cop being patted down by suspicious criminals while “in role,” those consequence can even be fatal, making the below the belt holster a more desirable option for them.

Pocket Holsters

For the person who can’t always wear a cover garment or un-tucked shirt, a small handgun in a pocket holster makes huge sense for “all day, every day” wear. Many pocket holsters are ambidextrous. They’re great for carrying a backup gun on the non-dominant side of the body, where the support hand can reach it if the primary hand is taken out of the fight. The pocket holster also allows you to stand harmless-looking with a hand in a pocket in an iffy situation, and only you know that a gun is already in your hand and ready to deploy if things suddenly go south. Downside: the pocket holster is not easy to access when seated, and one that fits too loosely can allow the gun to slip out of the pocket if you fall to the ground or even just take a nap on a sofa.

Ankle Holsters

Because it’s a far reach from a standing position, few experts will recommend an ankle holster for primary carry. However, it’s an excellent spot for a backup gun. It’s easier to reach when you’re down on your back, since the leg is no longer bearing the body’s weight and can easily snap the gun up to the reaching hand. It’s also easier for most seated people to reach than a hip holster, particularly when seat-belted into an automobile’ bucket seat, or sitting in an armchair.

Orthopedic use? It offers potential for people in wheelchairs, but with the warning that it’s not a great idea to wrap something around an ankle in a way that can interfere with lower limb circulation, particularly if the person has lost any feeling in that limb.

Perspectives

Like many lifelong Handgunners, I’ve accumulated more holsters than I’ve kept count of. I travel a lot, which brings baggage limitations. What a traveling firearms instructor carries in the suitcase is a reasonable predictor of what a new pistol-packer might find useful for starting out.

I’ll generally have two handguns with me. For the primary, I’ll have one outside the belt holster, and one inside the waistband. That covers a pretty broad array of concealment needs and dress code variations. For a long time after the lower back healed, in case of a relapse I also put a shoulder rig in the suitcase. For the little backup gun, I’ll generally have a pocket holster and an ankle rig. The pocket holster will usually be on when I wear pants with cargo pockets where I can put other stuff; the ankle rig works better for me when I’m wearing sport slacks or suit pants and pocket space is at a premium.

Finally, being a “righty,” I’ll have either one more ambidextrous holster or a left-handed holster along for the primary handgun, in case I sustain an injury to the dominant hand or arm. (Been there, done that.)

Your needs may vary, but if nothing else, the above commentary may provoke thought as to a practical “holster wardrobe” to have on hand. Versatility and possible unforeseen adverse circumstances are all good reasons to consider having multiple carry options on hand and “familiarized with” before they’re actually needed.

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