Don’t Overlook Shoulder Holsters

To many, shoulder holstersA shoulder holster consists of straps connected in a manner similar to a backpack, with the actual holster mounted to a strap on the right or left side. are about as popular as spoiled milk and as useful as a dial telephone or typewriter. But I’m an advocate of shoulder holsters, or “underarm” holsters, as some refer to these designs. I acknowledge their weaknesses; however, their strengths outweigh their weaknesses. Anyone contemplating concealed carryConcealed Carry is the practice of carrying a concealed weapon on one’s person in public. Concealed firearms can be carried on a person’s body, typically in a holster, or off body in a purse, backpack or other specialized concealment accessories and garments. should be well informed about all aspects of these designs.

Shoulder holster, a revolver, and extra ammo

A well-known example of shoulder holsters is this Ross vertical carry holster, made in South Africa and fitted for the author’s 5-inch Smith & Wesson Model 29. The speed loader pouches are a unique aspect of this design. Instead of the customary pair of speed loaders, this holster will carry four, with two to a pouch—certainly more than the average service load of .44 Magnum ammunition.

For the most part, leading authorities condemn shoulder holsters. Their reasons are numerous, but the main objection is comfort. There is no question that shoulder holsters are not for everyone.

Many shoulder holster designs are uncomfortable, while others are probably too complicated for the average user. They may require too much attention in order to get the design to fit properly.

Anyone contemplating any kind of shoulder holster needs to understand that they are different from all other holster designs in terms of ready fit. Hip holsters are pretty much good to go the moment you take them out of the packaging. Shoulder holsters are far more involved.

You have to work with each specific design to make sure it fits comfortably before deciding whether or not its application will work for you. And unfortunately, you may have paid a great deal for a product you feel does not meet your needs. This, in my view, is perhaps one of the greatest shortcomings of the shoulder holster. Few merchants will accept their return after they have been worn for even a short length of time.

A.E. Nelson Should Holster design holding a N-frame Smith & Wesson Model 657 .41 Magnum revolver.

This A.E. Nelson design was purchased off an internet auction site. After taking the time to get it properly adjusted for the author’s body style and profile, he feels it is more comfortable than a comparable hip-mounted holster for his N-frame Smith & Wesson Model 657 .41 Magnum revolver.

My personal opinion is that wearing a shoulder holster is much like wearing a light backpack or book bag. There are backpacks that can be tiring in very short order and there are those that work well, even with moderately heavy loads, for far longer. The key seems to be in getting everything in tune with your body style and profile. Getting any shoulder holster properly fitted requires patience, time, and trial and error. A full-length mirror also helps.

You have to watch and examine how the holster hangs along your sides as well as how badly it prints once you put on a covering garment. Go through a series of movements and then go back to the mirror and see how well everything stays in place or where it moves to, so you can figure out further adjustments.

Shortcomings of Shoulder Holsters

Probably the biggest group of critics of shoulder holsters are range trainers, instructors and organizations offering action-oriented handgun competition. The reasons are simple and they all start with the word, “SAFETY.”

Firearms instructors routinely work with a line of shooters facing an impact berm. Almost all shoulder holsters operate like cross-draw holsters, meaning that during the drawstroke, the gun at some point will be held horizontally and pointed straight away from the side of the shooter.

A.E. Nelson shoulder holster featuring a spare ammo carrier on the off-side.

This A.E. Nelson shoulder holster is a vertical design that also features a spare ammo carrier on the off-side. The difference in this instance is the use of individual cartridge loops versus the more commonly seen speedloader pouches. In most instances, cartridge loops work as well as speed loader pouches and are easier to conceal.

If you are standing to my left and I experience a negligent discharge while removing my blaster from its (left side) shoulder holster, you stand a good chance of catching the bullet. Such things have a tendency to ruin reputations and drive insurance rates through the roof. Not to mention really complicate the rest of your day.

The same goes for most any competition venue requiring the use of a holster and a handgun because of the proximity of the range officers and onlookers.

It would also be appropriate at this time to mention that the drawstroke itself, from almost all shoulder holsters, has some specific safety requirements because of the ease with which one can point a firearm at parts of one’s own body. The big thing to remember is that the shooter must learn to “chicken-wing” the off-side arm and hand during presentation, so that as the muzzle clears the leather it also doesn’t cross the upper off-side arm or shoulder. Yes, it complicates things, but not nearly as much as a bullet hole will.

Another negative with shoulder holsters is that they are slow in the draw stroke. Whoever labeled some of the older vertical carry, spring-clip designs “quick draw” either had a terrific sense of humor or really believed in the use of an oxymoron. Compared to modern hip-mounted holsters, the draw stroke from most shoulder holsters can be measured by sand dripping through an hourglass. They are not quick affairs.

Another problem with shoulder holsters is they are relatively low-security arrangements if discovered and someone makes a “snatch-and-grab” attempt for your weapon. The problem is the same one found with the cross-draw holster: the butt of the gun is presented toward the grabber, which makes it easier, if not outright convenient for them. The biggest security aspect to these designs is to make sure they are not discovered, noticed or known.

Two semi-automatic handguns, a revolver, and a leather shoulder holster

Shoulder holsters are a terrible idea if you’re wearing one and find yourself in a social situation where everyone else in the room proceeds to removes their coats and jackets. To avoid embarrassment, you’ll have to excuse yourself, go to a bathroom and more or less undress. Then you are faced with the problem of what to do with the gun and holster and where to store it while enjoying your host’s hospitality. I have found myself in such situations more than once, and the solution has always been tricky. Usually, a trip to the vehicle is required, with the end result leaving you unarmed and far from your tool of defense.

The last objection is that I personally believe shoulder holsters (with one exception) don’t go well with small handguns. Handguns the size of the common five-shot .38 Special snubnosed revolver or smaller can easily be concealed in a pants pocket, so why go to a system that has so many pitfalls versus one that is not tied to a covering garment?

The sole exception to this rule has to be the K.L. Null Holsters Model SMZ, which is an extremely lightweight but well designed minimal shoulder holster system that will work well next to the skin and under the lightest of covering garments. It also works well in a hot, humid climate which is an area where most shoulder holsters fail miserably.

Okay, with all these problems and drawbacks why would anyone even consider these things?

Related: Nevada Gun Leather Company — Upside Down Shoulder Holster

Advantages of a Shoulder Holster

A well-designed, well-fitted shoulder holster works exceedingly well for heavy handguns. In fact, in my opinion, they work better than hip-mounted holsters because they spread the weight of the gun over a larger area of the body. Take for instance my favorite handgun, the 4-inch Smith & Wesson Model 657 N-frame .41 Magnum revolver. Carrying it on the hip requires a thick and wide waist belt. Even after hours of use, it’s not unusual to suffer discomfort in the small of the back or side. I have found that a good, well-adjusted shoulder holster makes it easy to carry this heavy revolver for days on end with little effort or concern.

Revolver and a leather shoulder holster

If you are one who appreciates long-barreled handguns, the shoulder holster may be your only option for concealed carry. I’ve concealed carry N-frame Smith & Wesson revolvers with barrels as long as 8-3/8 inches. Granted, I had to wear a goose-down vest as a covering garment (mainly to cover the “toe” of the holster, as it would stick out the bottom of anything shorter), but considering the extremely low ambient air temperature, everyone else was wearing similar clothing. The gun was never noticed. Even with barrel lengths of 6 inches or so, a shoulder holster is about the only practical means of concealing the gun.

When I took an executive protection course with the Tony Scotti School of High-Performance Driving, someone asked what was the best way to carry a handgun while driving. The driving instructor said simply, “A shoulder holster.” Our shooting instructor didn’t like that answer, but it’s true. A shoulder holster is not trapped by the seatbelt and it allows the defensive handgun to be available in a variety of circumstances. Only the ankle holster is as freely available while seated in a vehicle, but it is restricted to much smaller handguns.

As a farmer, I’ve found that shoulder holsters are really the only answer if I want to be armed with a handgun. Like the executive protection specialist, I’m involved with motorized vehicles, but added to that is the fact I also have to continually work on these vehicles.

If you have to crawl under a piece of machinery to tighten bolts, check transmission fluid levels or reset rock trap doors, the hip-mounted holster acts like a gravel scoop. If the gun is heavy and hip-mounted then the whole rig will pull your pants low.

With a simple covering garment like a zippered-front hooded sweatshirt, I can use the shoulder holster when I work around machinery without catching the butt of the gun on levers, electrical lines, hydraulic lines or even chains of various nature.

The covering garment and the shoulder holster act like the ultimate flap holster in extremely dusty or dirty environments, as I’ve learned many times over the years. The combination of the two keeps the gun far cleaner than even the best flap holster, and you do it all to no one’s knowledge.

Shoulder holsters for ammo and a semi-automatic handgun

The shoulder holster also offers advantages for those not working around machinery. When working with a rifle from the prone position while wearing a handgun, the shoulder holster compared to the traditional hip-mounted holster makes it far easier to roll over or move about when flat on the deck than a hip-mounted holster allows. Invariably, the hip holster will dig and catch on things, even plain grass. Meanwhile, the rifle shooter wearing a shoulder holster can concentrate on his long gun and sight picture with handgun retained completely and easily out of the way.

Several shoulder holster designs offer complete systems in the sense that the holster, the gun, some spare ammo and its carrier are all contained within one package. If an emergency arises when you are not armed it is more than handy to be able to grab this one item and have everything you need as you exit the premises.

Another hidden advantage to some designs is their versatility: they will accept and safely carry concealed handguns. Unlike many hip holsters, shoulder holsters such as the old Bianchi X-15 can work with several different pistols conveniently and safely. The bonus is the user is able to work with the same holster system regardless of the gun chosen.


Many believe that shoulder holsters are from the era of wide whitewall tires, propeller airplanes and vinyl records, but the truth is, the basic design when done well and adjusted properly offers benefits not found with any other means of safely carrying a concealed weapon over a specific set of circumstances. It is truly a timeless concept and one I appreciate over all others.

Related: Find the perfect holster for your gun…

[ Frank W. James, a certified police firearms instructor, is the author of Effective Handgun Defense from Krause Publications. He maintains a blog at and posts regularly on subjects ranging from agriculture, world affairs and other events, as well as his thoughts on shoulder holsters and gun related topics. ]