Once you have been shooting a while, you quickly learn how much more efficient a medium size to full size handgun is compared to a small revolver or semi-auto.
The larger handgun will have a more ergonomic grip frame, it will have a longer sight radius, it will typically fire more effective ammunition and it will carry more ammunition than its smaller cousins. A typical medium to full size semi-auto will hold 13-16 rounds of 9mm or .40 caliber ammunition and is easy to shoot well. I have debriefed a lot of people after gunfights, and I’ve never had a single one say to me, “You know, when the bullets started flying I wished I had a smaller, less powerful gun, with less ammo in it.” You need to remind yourself now and then that the purpose of carrying a concealed handgun is to allow you to fight for your life in a sudden, extreme emergency. If you reach for that pistol, it means your life or the life of a loved one is in grave, immediate, mortal danger!
Another thing one quickly learns is that, within reason, gun size is not the determining factor in concealment. A well designed holster will conceal a full size gun easier and better than a poorly designed holster will hide a small gun. As long as you stick with a reasonable size gun, a good holster will adequately conceal it for most environments. For our purposes, when I refer to a medium size to full size gun, I mean a Glock 17/19/22/23, a Smith & Wesson M&P or M&P Compact, a Springfield XD, a Commander or Government Model 1911 or something similar. Personally, I carry a Glock 35 every day, fully concealed. That gives me 16 rounds of .40 caliber ammunition that I can hit well with at speed.
Inside the Waistband
The easiest way to actually conceal a pistol in this size class is the Inside Waistband Holster, commonly referred to as an IWB. The IWB holster can be had in many configurations and in many materials, including Kydex, horse hide, cowhide, nylon and plastic. In this section we will focus on leather IWB holsters made of cowhide or horse hide. Leather IWB rigs are often more comfortable than their Kydex counterparts and are often quieter. They may also aid in retaining the gun in the holster during a struggle. Good leather IWB holsters are available from a number of sources and we will look at some of the better examples.
The grand-daddy of them all is the Summer Special as made by Milt Sparks Leather. The late Bruce Nelson was a career undercover narcotics agent with the California Department of Justice during the 1960s and 1970s as well as an early Gunsite instructor and a master class pistol shot. On a raid one day, Nelson was suddenly confronted by a shotgun wielding dope dealer who appeared from a supposedly “secure” area after Nelson had put his gun away. Nelson was wearing a .45 Commander in one of the flimsy suede metal clip IWB holsters that were available then. As often happens, the holster came out with the gun and Nelson had to furiously strip at the cheap holster to skin it off his pistol. The biker with the shotgun started laughing at the spectacle and surrendered, having taken pity on poor Bruce. Immediately, Nelson set about designing a better holster which evolved into the Summer Special. Nelson became a leather worker in his spare time and made this holster until his untimely death. He also granted the rights to the design to Milt Sparks, and the Sparks Company still makes the holster to this day. The current updated version is dubbed the Summer Special II and is a fine choice. Dual snap loops with one way snaps secure the rig so that it cannot come out with the gun. A reinforced holster mouth makes one handed holstering easy and the holster is sewn smooth side in and rough side out. This gives a slick, fast inner surface and the rough exterior grabs the clothing and stabilizes the holster.
Ken Null in Georgia is a respected leather smith who has been around for a long time. One of Null’s best inside waistband holsters is the UNL. This holster is formed by folding and stitching a large piece of leather to incorporate “wings” around the holster pouch. These leather wings mold to the wearer’s body after a bit, and become fitted to the individual owner. Many users claim this is the most comfortable IWB rig they have used. A belt tunnel secures the holster and the belt tugs the gun in close for maximum concealability.
Kramer Leather makes several IWB designs in horse hide. Horse hide in general is thinner, but stronger than cowhide and is an excellent choice for an IWB rig. Horse hide retains its shape well and seems to be a bit less affected by sweat. Kramer uses Chicago screws instead of snaps. The screws allow adjustment of the hoops to fit different size belts and won’t come unsnapped while you’re wearing the holster.
Back in the 1970s, Lou Alessi made a compact IWB holster for me to fit a Smith & Wesson Model 60, .38 Special with a three-inch heavy barrel. This design was a great departure at the time, featuring belt loops in front of and behind the pouch of the holster. This allowed the holster to be quite thin since there was no leather added over the gun itself. I wore this gun in various undercover and investigative roles, sometimes under just a T-shirt and it concealed remarkably well. Tony Kanaley at Milt Sparks further refined this basic concept into the Versa-Max II which is one of the most widely emulated designs in the holster business today. By placing the belt loops fore and aft of the gun, the entire rig can be very low profile. Also, this wider “footprint” distributes the weight of the gun over a very wide section of the belt. The holster conforms to the wearer’s hip curvature aiding both comfort and concealment. Many of our staff, including my wife, Lynn, use a VM-II to conceal a Glock or 1911 quite well.
The late, great, leather master craftsman, Lou Alessi, also collaborated with pistolsmith Dane Burns to design one of my all-time favorites, the GWH. For six years, I wore a full size 1911 every day in an Alessi GWH and my good friend Southnarc wears a full size 1911 fully concealed as a narcotics investigator in a GWH, usually under a casual shirt. Comfortable and fast, the GWH is a subtle design. Alessi Leather is always backlogged for months as most of their production goes to government alphabet agency customers. In looking for a substitute for the GWH, I discovered 5-Shot Leather who offers the Inside Burton Special, a derivative of Lou’s design, well executed in quality leather. This would be an excellent choice for all day wear with a 1911 or similar size handgun. Alessi also makes the PCH which is a rather ingenious and very comfortable IWB.
In addition, Alessi also offers the Talon holster line which combines a leather IWB with reinforced mouth with a nylon locking belt clip. The Talon clip actually secures the holster in place as the tip of the clip fits into a recess in the holster, and I’ve never seen a Talon holster come out of the pants with the gun. The Talon will work without a belt, although it works well with one. To be honest, I have seen the Talon clips break after extensive use. Flexing the clip while putting it on/off stresses the nylon and it will eventually break. When that happens, Alessi will cheerfully replace the clip, but that is one reason I use no equipment from any maker that clips onto the belt. My gear all slips on the belt and stays there.
Matt Del Fatti is a retired sheriff’s deputy who is also a true artisan in leather. Matt’s designs are thoughtful and well executed and his attention to detail is outstanding.
A fairly new maker, Crossbreed Holster, offers an interesting hybrid holster that combines leather and Kydex components into a very adjustable rig. The height and cant (tilt) of the holster can be adjusted to suit the user and the broad leather pad shields the user’s body from safeties and other levers on the gun. The leather can be trimmed to suit the user’s preferences. You will probably want to trim some of the leather above the holster pouch to prevent it curling outward after a bit of wear.
Garrity’s Gun Leather offers an IWB very similar to Alessi’s GWH, as well as double loop IWBs similar to the Sparks VM-2. Garrity’s workmanship is first rate.
Among the mass production holster makers, Galco offers a very functional IWB holster known as their Royal Guard. The Royal Guard is constructed of horse hide making it thin, but sweat resistant. In function, it is very similar to the Sparks Summer Special II. You can get these immediately to tide you over until your hand made custom rig comes in a few months from now.
As Bruce Nelson learned many years ago, the cheap, flimsy, IWB with a cheap metal clamp should be avoided at all costs. These rigs are always poorly designed, are usually made of cheap, thin material and often come out with the gun on the presentation. Stay away from these things.
Here we’ll look at a properly worn IWB rig to give you an idea of what it should look like. Note how the belt tugs the gun/holster in close and tight to the body. Most of the weight of a loaded semi-auto is in the butt and many outside the belt holsters allow the gun to tip away from the wearer’s torso, making concealment difficult. In an IWB rig, the belt is on the outside, tugging the gun/holster in nice and close. In the photo you can see how the gun/holster scarcely protrudes at all. Even a shirt would conceal this gun fully. Note also that the belt loops and the belt are matched. These are 1 1/2 inch belt loops and a 1 1/2 inch belt. That locks the rig in place preventing shifting as you go through the motions involved in your daily activities. It also keeps the holster at the same angle all of the time, aiding getting a firing grip on initial contact. This is, of course, a critical component of a fast, secure, concealed, carry presentation.
For more information and more pictures, I recommend a discussion forum called The 1911 Forum. Specifically, an excellent thread can be found at http://forums.1911forum.com/showthread.php?t=196181. Holster info is found in the sub-forum entitled Holsters, Magazines & Accessories. The moderator of the forum is Tony Kanaley of Milt Sparks.
Also, be aware that the high quality leather makers mentioned in this article are small shops of four or five employees, or even true one-man shops. Their production is, therefore, severely limited. The excellent IWB holster designs recommended here, such as a Sparks VM-2, or an Alessi PCH are complex designs that cannot be built in a few minutes. The result is that all of the better makers are back-logged on orders, from six months to a year or more. The end result is worth the wait. If you’re in a hurry, check with Lightning Arms. Craig and Audrey at Lightning Arms are great people to work with and they stock high class leather from Alessi, Del Fatti and others. They may have what you need without the long wait.
Outside the Waistband
We have taken an in depth look at leather Inside Waistband holsters for daily concealed carry. There are shooters who find the IWB design uncomfortable or who just don’t like that carry mode. For them, there are a variety of Outside Waistband (OWB) holsters. Now we’ll take a look at the development of this type of holster and the current options.
The concealed carry of handguns for self defense has been going on since the development of handguns began. John Wesley Hardin designed a concealment shoulder holster in the 1880s, and pocket holsters were common at the turn of the twentieth century. The first modern looking holsters that actually conceal a handgun under normal urban men’s clothing seem to have appeared in the 1920s. During this time period an awful lot of men routinely carried a handgun. There was pressure to move away from the “Frontier image” and concealed carry started becoming more and more common. Legendary Western lawman Tom Threepersons devised a holster, originally for open carry, that was soon adapted to concealed carry by making the belt loop for a somewhat more narrow pants belt instead of the 2 ½ inch to three-inch wide gun belt normally worn for open carry. The Threepersons holster is still commonly encountered today, although there are much better designs now available. The main drawback of this design is the belt loop, which is simply part of the holster body, folded over and stitched (see photos). This allows the butt of the gun to tip away from the wearer’s body making concealment more difficult. El Paso Saddlery first made this holster to Threepersons’ specifications in the 1920s and still offers it today. Various other manufacturers made very similar designs and this type was the standard right up to the 1960s.
In the 60s, Roy Baker designed a radically different type of belt holster which he dubbed the “pancake.” This was a very flat holster, made of two pieces of leather stitched together, with a belt slot cut in front of, and behind, the pistol. These dual slots allowed the gun to be pulled up much tighter and closer to the wearer’s torso, aiding concealment greatly. Today, all major holster makers offer variations of this basic design. As mentioned, this design is much more concealable. It also tends to be more comfortable as the widely spaced belt slots spread the weight of the gun over a wider section of belt.
The Galco “Concealable,” the Alessi “Belt Slide,” and the Milt Sparks “CC-AT” are excellent examples of updated versions of the traditional pancake design (see photos). The Alessi holster in these pictures was made for me by Lou Alessi in the 1970s and it allowed me to carry a four-inch barrel, .357 revolver, fully concealed in a suit or sports coat. Note the extension that protects the clothing from the rear sight and hammer spur of the revolver—a nice touch.
Another similar design is the abbreviated belt slide like the Galco version called the Quick Slide. This is a minimalist holster that leaves much of the gun exposed. Well-designed examples like the Galco Quick Slide still retain the gun well and allow the use of similar handguns of different barrel lengths in the same holster.
Some pancake style holsters use slots cut to allow the belt to thread through them. Others, like an excellent holster from custom maker Matt Del Fatti, have closed loops which the belt passes through. The Alessi CQC-S and its copies have snap loops fore and aft which allow easy on/off, but are still basically pancake holsters.
Modern holster pioneer Bruce Nelson not only designed the famous Summer Special IWB rig, he designed a high riding concealment OWB holster he called the Number 1 Professional Model. This holster has a very close fitting belt loop on the back of the holster body and a trailing belt loop or slot on a leather extension behind the pistol. The purpose of the trailing loop is to pull the butt of the gun in closer for better concealment. The Milt Sparks #55BN (BN, for Bruce Nelson), is a currently available rendition of Nelson’s design as the Alessi DOJ model. Don Hume makes a derivative of the Nelson design in its JIT Slide. Although it is very inexpensive and not made of the same quality leather of a Sparks or Alessi rig, the JIT is a very serviceable concealment holster.
Rusty Sherrick, a custom holster maker in Pennsylvania, makes a couple of horse-hide holsters that are updated versions of the traditional Threepersons design. The Rangemaster Special was designed to carry a full size pistol comfortably and allow a natural draw stroke without a lot of shoulder rotation. The Speed Draw was designed to give maximum draw speed from a holster that is actually concealable with a full size gun. Both were designed by me and executed by Rusty.
One ingenious design I’ll mention is the Milt Sparks “Mirage” holster. This is actually designed to be worn between the belt and the outside of your pants. The belt passes through a slot in the outer body of the holster. This is a very concealable rig. One advantage is that if you take the gun off and lock it away, the holster can stay on your belt and no one will notice it. I have worn a full size 1911 in one of these under a T-shirt.
Kydex holsters and those made of similar materials can be much less expensive than quality leather holsters and the wait time tends to be much shorter for Kydex, even with custom touches. Since it is a very thin material, Kydex IWB holsters can be made thinner than a comparable leather design, enhancing both comfort and concealment. Here in the sunny South, a major advantage of Kydex is resistance to sweat. Perspiration will not soak through a Kydex holster nor will it degrade the holster over time.
Some Kydex holsters are noisy, making a distinct “clack” when the gun is drawn. This could theoretically cause problems when stealth is needed, but I think the issue is over-stated by many. Kydex is much rougher on the finish of your pistol than leather, causing faster finish wear on the gun. Blued guns and some of the baked-on paint-type finishes will exhibit wear very quickly when carried in Kydex. Kydex is affected by high heat, so never leave your rig in a parked car.
CAUTION: Many cheap, inferior holsters are available, such as Fobus line, which are not made of Kydex. They are flimsy plastic that breaks easily and should not be used for serious purposes. The accompanying photos show a number of quality Kydex holsters and their features.
A good concealed carry holster has to meet four criteria: it must be comfortable, concealable, secure, and fast. There are a great number of excellent designs today, allowing the user to find the one that fits their body and clothing style. Find the proper holster and you’ll find that carrying an adequate defensive handgun is far easier than you may have thought.
[ Tom Givens is the owner of Rangemaster in Memphis, TN. For over 30 years Tom’s duties have included firearms instruction. He is certified as an expert witness on firearms and firearms training, giving testimony in both state and federal courts. He serves as an adjunct instructor at the Memphis Police Department Training Academy, the largest in the state. Tom’s training resume includes certification from the FBI Police Firearms Instructor School, NRA Law Enforcement Instructor Development School, NRA Law Enforcement Tactical Shooting Instructor School, Gunsite 499 under Jeff Cooper, and more. ]
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