Pistol Holster Types: Terminology and How to Choose One By: Kat Ainsworth

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The number of pistol holster types on the market can be overwhelming. It’s become impossible to simply walk into a gun store or browse a website, grab a holster, and go. Not only do you need to decide how you’re going to carry your gun, but you also need to know what type of material it should be made from, what color you want, and what gun belt to pair it with—the factors are endless. Don’t worry, we’re here to help. When it comes to selecting holsters we’re old pros, and we’re happy to share what we know to try to make the process easier for you. Whether you’re a seasoned shooter or a newcomer, you’ve come to the right place.

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woman wearing a battle belt with pistol holster and magazine holsters
Choosing a holster doesn’t have to be difficult. (Photo credit: Bladetech Holsters)

But First, Holster Terminology

There are a few—or several—words you should know when choosing pistol holster types. This isn’t an exhaustive list but it’ll get you started with the basics.

Carry method-related words and acronyms:

  • AIWB: Appendix Inside Waistband
  • IWB: Inside Waistband
  • OWB: On Waistband
  • SOB: Small of Back
  • Shoulder carry: Using a holster made for wearing across your shoulders. These designs might hold a single handgun on one side of your body and a magazine on the other or one handgun on each side.
  • Cross-draw: The practice of wearing the holster on the opposite side of your body from your strong side, requiring you to reach across your body to draw it.
  • Purse Carry: Using a purse to carry your firearm, typically, but not always, in a purse made for the purpose.
  • Bra Holster: One of a handful of designs made to hold sub-compact and other tiny pistols with an attachment point that hooks over the wearer’s bra.
  • CC: Concealed Carry
  • OC: Open Carry
An example of both a strong side and crossdraw holster from Galco.
An example of both a strong side and crossdraw holster from Galco. (Photo credit: Galco)

Pistol Holster Construction Materials

  • Leather: A holster made from leather of varying types and quality. Most leather holsters are designed from a kind of cowhide, but there are many exotic options on the market as well. For example, Galco produces numerous steerhide holsters and Simply Rugged makes custom holsters from different hides, both common and exotic.
  • Kydex: A holster made from some type of thermoplastic acrylic-polyvinyl chloride. Although Kydex is technically a copyrighted name it’s often used by gun owners to refer to any molded plastic holster design.
  • Nylon: A holster made using nylon meaning it isn’t molded to the shape of the gun but instead holds it a bit more like a pocket. For example, Uncle Mike’s produces quite a few of these pistol holster types.
  • Hybrid: A holster made from more than one of the aforementioned materials. For example, Crossbreed Holsters specializes in hybrid designs made using leather backing and thermoplastic molded shells.

How to Choose a Holster

The first thing to ask yourself when choosing from the many pistol holster types is what it’s going to be used for and how you intend to carry. A holster made specifically for IWB carry won’t work as well if you use it for OWB, and in order to effectively carry AIWB, you need holsters made for that purpose. Once you’ve decided your carry method, these are a few things to look for in various pistol holster types:

  • Retention
  • Trigger guard coverage
  • How securely it holds the gun to your body
  • Concealment, for concealed models
  • Adjustability, for height or cant
  • Durability
  • Strength of attachment points
  • Reinforced stitching on leather designs
  • The mouth of the holster stays open even when the holster is empty
  • Overall safety; look for any feature that might prove dangerous during use

Use a quality gun belt.

Getting a holster isn’t only about the holster itself. Having a good quality gun belt is important; without a well-made gun belt, your holster won’t work nearly as well. Cheap belts that aren’t made to withstand the weight and wear of carrying firearms will sag, twist, and fail to hold your gear up properly. That means it not only gets uncomfortable fast but that it’s harder to conceal, more difficult to keep the gun positioned close to your body, and impossible to trust that the gun will stay where you placed it.

An example of a proper gun belt versus belts not made specifically for carry.
An example of a proper gun belt versus belts not made specifically for carry. (Photo credit: Bigfoot Gun Belts)

In addition, most holsters require maintenance.

Leather benefits from steps being taken to keep it clean and shaped but also has to be watched to be sure it isn’t losing its retention.  Hybrid pistol holster types must be monitored for cracking and separating between the backing and shell. Any holster that uses leather can crease or fold over, making it dangerous to use, so watch for that as well. As for Kydex and other thermoplastics, inspect them regularly for cracks or areas where the material appears to be lightening, which is a sign of a coming breaking point. The bottom line is not to expect your holster to last forever, because it won’t. Monitor and inspect routinely for wear and tear and be prepared to replace it as needed.

Off-Body versus On-Body Carry

Although the majority of carry methods keep the gun on your body, some products are made to be used with what is called “off-body carry.” That covers things like purses, fanny packs, satchels, and anything else that does not directly anchor the holster to your body. Before you consider carrying your gun using an off-body method, check out the pros and cons:

Pros of Off-Body Carry

  • Keeping your gun with you even in form-fitting clothes that don’t allow concealment
  • Portability, because it makes it easy to grab it and go
  • Comfort—there’s no holster digging into your side
  • Carrying larger guns than you might otherwise be able to manage on your waistband
  • Convenience
concealed carry purse
Concealed Carry purses have pockets meant to be used to hold your gun, and only your gun. (Photo credit: Legionary.com)

Cons of Off-Body Carry

  • Having to keep control of whatever your gun is in at all times, no matter what
  • Possibility of other, smaller objects in the holder getting stuck in the barrel or trigger guard
  • Lack of easy accessibility
  • Theft
  • Accessible by people, including children, who shouldn’t be able to get to your gun
  • Difficult to draw
  • Fumbling during firing
  • Challenging to aim if it cannot be fully drawn before firing for defensive use
  • Risking burns to hand if firing from inside the purse/satchel/case
  • Extra training necessary to properly carry, draw, and fire using these methods

Off-body carry is a personal choice and there are certainly times when it’s incredibly challenging to carry on-body. Before choosing to carry your handgun in an off-body product, do your homework. Seriously weigh the pros and cons, and remember, off-body carry must be done with extremely close attention to detail. And remember, you absolutely must retain control of whatever your gun is being carried in at all times.

What holster is best for you?

Now that you know the basics of pistol holster types, you might be wondering how exactly you’re supposed to know which one is right for you. A big part of the holster selection process is trial and error. Every seasoned gun owner out there has at least one box of discarded holsters that didn’t work for them, and most gun owners also have multiple holsters they use for different pieces of clothing (or carry methods). It’s unlikely you’re going to find one holster that does it all and far more reasonable to assume you’ll need various designs depending on whether you’re carrying concealed or openly and how heavily layered your clothing is—or is not.

Be patient. Finding the right holster takes time. And don’t forget a good gun belt, because it can be extremely difficult to make your holster work without one. Before you know it you’ll have an entire assortment of pistol holster types to choose from.