It's A Material World
September 24, 2010
When it comes to holsters, the right construction makes all the difference.
The incredible rise in the number of CCW holders has been a boon to holster shoppers. Today, there are more holster options than ever before for folks who carry a pistol on a daily basis. It's great to be able to choose between so many ingenious new styles, designs and materials, but all those choices make shopping for a holster more confusing than trying to pick out a new neck tie.
Choosing the right holster style is a personal decision based on your specific mission, wardrobe and body type. Choosing the right material from which to craft that carry rig is not exactly cut and dried either.
Leather has long-been the pistolero's holster material of choice. But the introduction of Kydex rigs put the smackdown on leather's domination of the holster market. Suede, nylon and injection molded synthetics have further cut into leather's market share. Following is my take on the pros and cons of the more popular holster materials.
Ballistic nylon and Cordura nylon holsters are widely used, primarily because they are cheap. That's never been a good selling point to me, but lots of folks must think cheap is a good thing because the flimsy, ill-fitting pistol pouches are awfully popular.
The only nylon rigs I have any use for are those that attach to tactical vests or fasten via hook-and-loop into the pockets of specially made concealment pouches in duffel bags or fanny packs. These applications hide their flaws and are ideally suited to nylon. The only other redeeming qualities I could come up with are that nylon is fairly weather-resistant, fast-drying and easy to clean.
Unfortunately, the list of nylon's drawbacks is lengthy. They soak up moisture, oil and dust, which can lead to corrosion or excessive finish wear. Nylon holsters are flimsy and thus require the user to use both hands to re-holster their pistols. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that most nylon holsters are offered in very general sizes. Consequently, few fit properly. Those crappy thumb breaks that attach via hook-and-loop fasteners to the holster aren't much help, nor are they conducive to a speedy draw.
The oversized belt loops and belt clips that come on most nylon holsters don't hold the pistol in one place on the belt. That makes a fast, consistent draw almost impossible. That slop also allows the pistol to sag away from the body, which makes the pistol's butt stick out and "print"--not a good thing for a concealed carry rig.
Finally, nylon doesn't last as long as Kydex or leather. Quality-wise, Cordura nylon rigs are much better than standard nylon and are usually sewn with long-lasting synthetic threads. New Cordura nylon rigs from companies such as Spec Ops and Tactical Tailor feature Kydex or polymer inserts that give them the improved fit and weapon retention are another step in the right direction, though I haven't seen any models aimed at the concealment market yet.
Kydex is, in my opinion, the best holster material that wasn't sliced off a previously living beast. Kydex is a stiff, stable material that doesn't, in my experience, expand or contract enough to make a difference in weapon fit. That means your gun will slide right out of your rig and into action no matter how hot or cold it is. That may not seem like a real-world possibility, but I recently heard of a situation where an off-duty police officer was shot when he couldn't get his pistol out of a cheap, injection-molded rig that had shrunk around his pistol in extreme heat.
Kydex is not completely immune to extreme heat and cold. After all, it is heated to soften it up so it can be formed in the manufacturing process. "Kydex has a heat deflection of around 170 degrees and is stable in all but the most extreme temperatures," says Blade-Tech's Tim Wegner. "It can be vulnerable to cracking in sub-zero temperatures and can deform in extreme heat. For example, leaving it on a vehicle's dash board in direct sunlight in Phoenix on a 120-degree day could shrink the holster."
But such extreme examples are not likely to occur if you are wearing your holster. After all, you'd be dead from heat stroke long before your holster heated up that much. And, according to Wegner, he has never had an issue with holsters shrinking or cracking in Iraq or Afghanistan.
Weapon retention is another Kydex attribute. It can usually be adjusted with the turn of a screw and, since most Kydex rigs hold the pistol only at certain contact points (usually the trigger guard and ejection port), your pistol comes out smooth and easy once you overcome that initial resistance. And because it is stiff, the holster's mouth stays open so you can easily re-holster your weapon with one hand.
Kydex is also relatively affordable, falling somewhere between good leather and injection-molded holsters. That is primarily because each Kydex holster must be formed from a sheet around a specific gun. That makes for a great fit, and it also means Kydex can be adapted to fit anything. But the time it takes to make a Kydex holster compared to that involved in the manufacture of injection-molded holsters means it is more expensive than mass-produced, injection-molded rig.
On the downside, some folks claim Kydex is tough on finishes. I have noticed that Kydex seems to wear my pistols more around the trigger guard and the high points on the slide, but it takes a lot of draw strokes to make it happen. Keeping your Kydex rig free of dirt and grit will retard that wear, but you will probably notice slightly more wear on blued guns with Kydex than you would with leather. I don't think it's an issue with the polymer-framed, ruggedly finished pistols that are so popular today.
In my opinion, Kydex's only real disadvantage is also its greatest strength--rigidity. That stiffness doesn't allow Kydex to conform to your body like leather. That's not an issue with well-designed belt scabbards, but Kydex is too stiff to make it suitable for inside-the-waistband holsters. I tried one for a while, but it was so stiff and unyielding I never could get comfortable with it inside my waistband. But for a belt scabbard, Kydex is darn tough to beat.
Injection molded holsters are inexpensive rigs made of various nylon, polymer and carbon fiber blends. They are so inexpensive because once the cost of the mold is absorbed, the manufacturer can crank out holsters in far less time than it would take to form a rig from a Kydex sheet. If the manufacturer uses a good polymer, injection-molded rigs are every bit as stable and strong as Kydex.
Though the better injection-molded rigs are made from materials that are stable in extreme temperatures, caveat emptor, because they are not all created equal.
Stick with known brands such as Blade Tech, 5.11 Tactical, Uncle Mike's, Fobus or BlackHawk's carbon fiber-composite rigs to be safe, and understand that you may not quite get the same strength and weapon retention from an injection-molded holster that you would from a quality, molded Kydex rig. Of course, the odds of the average citizen ever noticing the difference are very slim.
Leather has been the holster material of choice since warriors carried swords for sidearms. It's still so popular today because it is so damn good.
Perhaps leather's most significant attribute is beauty. No synthetic holster can match the sheer beauty of a handcrafted, leather rig. Leather can be dyed in a variety of colors, with black, tan, and cordovan being the most popular. And leather holsters need not be just made of cowhide. Some makers use horsehide, which is denser and more impervious to moisture than cowhide. It is as attractive as cowhide yet much better suited to harsh environments.
More exotic skins such shark, ray, ostrich and elephant all make fine holsters on their own or serve as gorgeous trim accents on hand-crafted leather rigs.
When cared for properly, leather ages well. Over time, it develops a rich patina that cannot be duplicated by any synthetic. You must be careful not to let your leather rig get too wet, but if you keep it clean and dry, it will last forever.
A nicely crafted leather rig also excels in the weapon retention department. Custom, hard-molded rigs will keep your pistol in place in all but the most extreme physical gyrations. In fact, many custom holsters require a brief break-in period because they can actually be too difficult to draw from at first.
Less expensive leather rigs still possess many of leather's finest qualities. However, many large-scale manufacturers employ tension screws or thumb breaks to secure the weapon. I do not advise buying a thumb break-equipped holster unless it is the only type you carry. However, tension screws are just fine and have the advantage of allowing the user to compensate for wear and the ravages of time.
Leather is especially suited to concealment holsters because it is relatively thin and conforms to the wearer's body. That attribute lets leather holsters ride nice and tight against your body.
Leather is also a more comfortable material for inside-the-waistband holsters than Kydex because it is thinner and softer. Many inside-the-waistband holsters are made with the rough side out to prevent corrosion-causing perspiration from getting to your pet pistol's finish.
Though it's not a requirement, most quality belt scabbards and all quality IWB holsters have a reinforced mouth to make it easy to re-holster your weapon with one hand. This is essential as it leaves a hand free when re-holstering and it allows the user to keep his or her eyes on a potential threat instead of looking down to find the holster mouth. It also prevents the possibility of the trigger on certain pistols being fully depressed by the holster while re-holstering.
If you're in the market for a new holster, I suggest you consider the type of holster you'll be wearing before you choose the material.
For belt scabbards, you would be well served with quality leather, Kydex or injection-molded polymer. For harsher climes I would lean toward polymer or Kydex, while leather would get my nod when extreme weather was not a factor. I also prefer leather for guns that wear rich, lustrous blued finishes, which seem to suffer in Kydex rigs.
For inside-the-waistband holsters, leather is my hands-down favorite. I use both cowhide and horsehide rigs. It doesn't matter to me whether they have the rough or smooth side out; both do an outstanding job of keeping my pistol locked in place and easily accessible.
Leather also gets my vote for pocket, shoulder and ankle carry. It is durable, quiet, soft and provides the proper amount of weapon retention. Kydex tends to stand too proud for deep concealment. It's also a bit too hard to wear so close to the body. However, some new, ultra-thin Kydex pocket holsters are every bit as concealable and comfortable as leather.
For specialty applications such as vest holsters, holsters hidden in bags, and fanny packs, nylon is tough to beat. Its light weight and low profile make it easy to conceal, and those specialty applications render its flaws irrelevant.
Like everything to do with concealed carry, the right holster material for you really comes down to personal preference. But a little research will make it easier for you to make the right decisions.