If you're in the market for a belt holster for concealed carry, there are a few basic questions you need to ask yourself to help narrow down your choices, because the holster market has never been more crowded. First, what material do you want it to be made out of, and second, what kind of attachment method will work better for you?
While there are custom holsters out there made of everything from sharkskin to alligator, most belt holsters are made of either nylon, animal hide or plastic (Kydex, injection-molded polymer and similar constructions).
I would generally consider most nylon holsters to be entry level. They aren't tightly molded to specific firearms but rather to firearm models.
For example, a nylon holster for a 1911 will generally fit every manufacturer's 1911, whether it has a frame rail or oversize sights. Because nylon stretches, most nylon belt holsters use some sort of retention (thumb-break strap) device.
Why are nylon holsters still popular? They are inexpensive. Further, because so many holsters now are so tightly molded to individual guns, the fact that nylon holsters can fit whole families of guns is a good thing.
Most animal-hide belt holsters are made of leather. While less of the work has to be done by hand these days, treating leather takes time and effort, and leather holsters are not as inexpensive as you might think. As far as I'm concerned, there is no holster that looks as nice or authentic as a leather holster.
Leather is stiffer than nylon. Many manufacturers put a reinforcement around the mouth of their leather holsters so the user can re-holster with one hand or without looking at the holster.
Leather is not without its faults, however. Leather holsters tend to be molded to specific firearms and can be tight when new.
If you strap on a holster only once a week or so, your holster will give you years of trouble-free service. If, on the other hand, you wear a gun all day every day, you will find that after a few months the leather begins to stretch and wear—and in time may not provide as snug and secure a fit as it once did.
Sweat will stain a leather holster, and they can be scratched. I sat on my holsters in a car all day, five to six days a week for more years than I care to remember, and they stopped being pretty long before they stopped being usable.
For a number of years I wore a 1911 in a horsehide holster. Horsehide seems to be the best of both worlds: It looks like leather and wears like plastic (almost). It is much stiffer than leather and stays that way longer.
The downside? Cost. Apparently horsehide is even tougher to work (or perhaps more expensive to get) than leather. Galco's Royal Deluxe Belt Holster in horsehead runs $179, and the Kramer Vertical Scabbard I wore for years currently retails for $138.
When a number of companies are offering nylon or injection-molded plastic holsters for under $30, it's hard to justify spending that much on a holster. But you get what you pay for.
Plastic holsters are the most recent segment of the market. There are several different types of plastics and methods of manufacture. Injection-molded holsters—produced, as the name suggests, by injecting liquid plastic into a mold—are the least expensive of the breed. They used to be cheap compromises, but with advances in modern manufacturing, that is no longer the case. Blackhawk's excellent Serpa holsters, for instance, are injection-molded.
Some of the first "plastic" holsters were made from Kydex, which is a thermoplastic material that is molded around the shape of a gun. It is thick and durable, but the extra hand work means Kydex holsters are more expensive than injection-molded holsters.
Plastic holsters have really taken over the market, for several reasons. First, they are less expensive than leather. Second, they can be made to fit specific types of firearms very closely, and security features (such as the Serpa lock) can be engineered into the holsters. Unless you actually break the holster, it won't stretch or wear out and will lock your gun up tight all day every day.
The downside to plastic holsters? They have no soul. They are generally ugly and are simply tools. I know old shooters who simply love their battered leather holsters almost as much as they love the guns in them, and you just won't find that feeling when it comes to a plastic holster.
Some plastic holsters are now offered with different finishes to sex them up a bit (camo patterns, carbon fiber finishes, etc) but there's only so much you can do.
A few companies are now making leather holsters with plastic inserts, or plastic holsters wrapped in leather, in order to get the look of leather with the performance of polymer. This to me is the best of both worlds, but for some reason these holsters aren't as popular as I'd expect them to be.
Loop or Paddle?
When it comes to methods of attachment, there are generally two: the standard belt loop and the paddle. I prefer belt loops because they are more secure and tend to lock up the holster more tightly, but a belt-loop attachment requires something a paddle does not—a belt.
I'm not sure when the paddle holster was invented, but I remember seeing them at least as far back as 1989. Paddle holsters feature a large, rounded curving surface designed to fit between the holster and the wearer's body and help mount the gun.
While they can be used over belts and usually have hooks on the underside to hold onto the belt, a belt is not necessary. The paddle can be shoved between the pants and the wearer, and I've seen a detective wearing one over his sweatpants.
The other main advantage of paddle holsters is that they can be pulled right off without having to undo your belt. What they lack in mounted rigidity, when compared to a belt loop, they make up for in convenience.
Several manufacturers, including Blackhawk and Safariland, now include both belt loops and paddles with their holsters. This is a great idea, especially if you're not sure which you're going to like better or you like to change your method of holster attachment depending on your dress.
I've worn a belt holster every day for the last 15 years, and I've learned a few important lessons. The first is that a quality belt is as important as a quality holster. The belt needs to hold the holster tightly to the body and keep it in the same place. The stiffer the belt, the better.
The second is that life isn't fair. Pistols on the strong-side hip, outside of the belt, are the easiest and quickest to draw, but they are also the hardest to conceal. If you are short and fat, it is going to be that much harder for you to conceal any type of pistol on your hip.
Be aware of your limitations. You may have to dress around your gun, carry a smaller or slimmer gun, or both.