Everything You Need To Know About Shoulder Holsters
A popular method of concealed carry is to use a shoulder holster. It's certainly been featured on television shows and films, as they've been worn by everyone from James Bond to "Dirty Harry" on the big screen, on "Miami Vice" to "Justified" on the small screen, for open carry and concealed carry, and so many points in between.
It is a viable method of concealed carry for the right person and in the right instance. However, you also need the right holster to do it with. Holster selection is vital, as you will know very quickly whether a shoulder holster is going to work out or if it's destined for the holster drawer.
How do you pick one? By learning what you need to know about shoulder holsters. We'll go over what shoulder holster designs are out there, what features they have and what you should look for in a shoulder holster.
Shoulder Holster Design Features
One of the oldest is the tanker holster, a shoulder holster designed prior to World War II for tank crews, pilots and other personnel for whom carrying with a belt holster was less feasible. The tanker holster is closer to being a chest holster for the most part, as it consists of a single strap or bandolier laying across the body, with a top loop over the head and laying on the opposite shoulder from the gun. The pistol is located at the ribs, with either a belly strap or a belt hook anchoring it in place.
This design has been copied and modified for handgun hunters. Often marketed as an "outdoor shoulder holster," it's a quasi-chest rig for carrying large revolvers with virtually the same design as a tanker holster.
These holster designs, depending on the maker and the wearer, locate the gun either on the front of the body, tuck it against the weak side ribs, or somewhere in between. Concealment is not a priority as it is a duty holster (in the case of military personnel) or as a sling for a hunting handgun.
The classic design for shoulder holster concealed carry, on the other hand, is a bit different.
The typical shoulder holster has two shoulder straps in a figure 8 configuration. The two straps are either sewn together in this fashion, or can be joined by a harness.
The shoulder straps connect to a gun holster and usually to a magazine pouch, most of which hold two. Most shoulder holsters carry horizontally, though some carry vertically. You might find one that offers the ability to carry in either fashion, but these are exceedingly rare.
Some shoulder holsters include belt hooks. As the holster is draped over the shoulders, the hooks anchor the holster and harness to the belt. If adjusted or tailored correctly, that can provide a more comfortable carry, keep the gun from flapping while being carried and also bring the gun closer into the body.
Some shoulder holsters have adjustable straps, which some lack. Some include padding for comfort, others don't.
The classic material choices are leather or nylon. The latter will often have more elastic and may be more cost-effective, but some models are said to have a short service life. Leather shoulder holsters can last longer, provided good construction, but can also be a little less comfortable, depending on design.
Typically, the holster itself is either open-top, for those with a vertical orientation, or includes a thumb break for retention. Some have adjustable passive retention though that depends entirely on who makes it.
There are also "universal" shoulder holsters which are designed to carry nearly any firearm of a particular size. Active retention - usually a snap, hook and loop strap or thumb break - is the only way the pistol stays holstered.
Miami Vice And Shoulder Holsters
Shoulder holsters were something of a niche product until the 1980s, when they were entrenched in the popular consciousness thanks mostly to "Miami Vice," in which lead character Sonny Crockett (played by Don Johnson) wore a shoulder holster called the "Jackass shoulder rig." The company eventually rebranded itself as Galco, and the same holster is available today in several configurations. One is still called the "Jackass," the other the "Miami Classic."
While shoulder holsters did have some adopters prior to that among law enforcement and other people who carried a gun professionally, the belt holster was vastly preferred.
However, what was discovered was that with proper design, shoulder holster concealed carry could be comfortable. If the holster part itself was of proper construction, there can be good fitment of the firearm and adequate retention though it may or may not - depending on design - feature an active retention device.
Today, shoulder holsters still aren't necessarily a default choice of concealed carry holster, though there are people who carry with them exclusively. Some people use them on occasion, either if a shoulder holster is called for or desired. A good shoulder holster definitely works with a suit.
Whether the sleeves are rolled up or not.
The Best Shoulder Holster Use
Any holster is merely a tool, just as a gun is, and like many tools has a best use. The best shoulder holster use is going to be carry under some sort of layer.
Does this mean shoulder holsters are for winter only? Hardly!
Depending on the design and with some adjustment, a roomy untucked button-up can cover the right shoulder holster. A number of people actually carry this way, and through all four seasons. Heck, pair a short-sleeve button up with shorts and you can still use your shoulder holster through summer.
Of course, there is also the classic method of shoulder holster concealed carry, namely under a light jacket. Almost any will do, from a windbreaker to a sport coat to a suit jacket. That three-button may be a little 1990s, but you can pack underneath it. For warmer weather, opt for linen (a white linen suit and a shoulder holster go well together) or seersucker, if you can find it.
Concealment is easier with a small pistol, as with any concealed carry holster design. However, the right shoulder holster can also make carrying a full-size pistol easier. The chest holsters that handgun hunters or people who tote a backup gun in bear country wear? Some of them find it makes packing that S&W 500, Model 29 or Ruger Redhawk easier.
Design Features And Why They Matter For Shoulder Holster Concealed Carry
However, you should know that shoulder holster concealed carry is not as simple as just putting it on and throwing a layer on over it. It usually takes a little more than that.
This is where shoulder holster selection becomes critical. If you pick one that is well-suited for you and the pistol you'll carry with it, then you'll be successful in carrying and concealing. If you don't, then you will not.
Start with orientation. The gun you carry will either be carried horizontally or can be upright if you carry with a vertical shoulder holster. This matters as barrel length and overall length will determine whether a tell-tale bulge appears under your shoulder or if the gun doesn't print through your cover garment.
If you're carrying a small, compact pistol such as a S&W M&P Shield, then a horizontal orientation will not be a problem. If you're carrying a 1911...you're likely going to print. However, the slim frame of the 1911 conceals easily if oriented vertically, which has made a shoulder holster for 1911 pistols a very popular accessory for that pistol.
Ride height also matters, or at least the ability to adjust it matters. A lot of leather shoulder holsters are built to hang the gun just under the arm, which can produce a tell-tale bulge on some carriers. Generally, the taller you are, the worse this will be. Being able to lower the holster can put the gun in a more concealable location.
You also want to pay attention to the straps. Are they made of a comfortable material? You have to wear this thing for hours at a time, so it had better be comfortable for you. Are they adjustable? If it doesn't fit you well, then it's going to wind up in the holster drawer to gather dust, so being able to adjust it will keep it usable.
Note how the straps are joined. Some are stitched together, but others use a harness of some sort. Clover harnesses are fairly common for this purpose, and in truth are somewhat ideal. A harness allows the straps to articulate and fit the body.
Does the shoulder gun holster have belt hooks? These are actually a desirable feature. One thing that shoulder holsters are known for is flapping with motion, which can be annoying. Belt hooks anchor the holster and keep this from happening. They also pull the gun in a bit tighter to the body, which helps you conceal the pistol better.
Take a look at the holster itself. Is it a universal shoulder holster, made to carry any gun of a certain size?
The latter will give you better fitment and will generally retain the pistol better. The former will generally be less expensive.
What To Look For In A Shoulder Holster
What you want out of a shoulder holster is a blend of certain attributes. Granted, personal preference is going to be important; you may find one you like more than others. However, shoulder holsters are known for certain failings, as any holster design is.
First is looking for comfortable materials, which you'll notice right away. Leather shoulder holsters made of suede or softer grains are preferable. Nylon and neoprene can be quite comfortable, but often come at the cost of durability.
Adjustability is indispensable when it comes to a gun shoulder holster. Shoulder holsters live and die by the fit. If you can't get it to fit you satisfactorily, you aren't going to wear it. Getting a tailored shoulder holster can get a good fit, but expect to shell out. However, an adjustable shoulder holster lets you get the fit right without the lead time and expense.
As to orientation, a select few shoulder holsters allow you to wear the gun horizontally or vertically though most just give you one or the other. As a general rule, subcompacts are concealable in a horizontal position, but the larger compacts (about the size of a Glock 19) and full-size pistols must be carried vertically. Not only does this prevent obvious printing and flagging the person behind you, but also keeps you from feeling an enormous metal (and/or polymer) goiter every time you move your arm.
Belt hooks or tie-downs are also a good feature to look for. These anchor the holster, keeping the gun from flapping with movement. They also help spread weight across the shoulders a little more evenly, which is a common complaint of users. If carrying vertically, this will bring the gun tight to the body, which will aid in concealment.
Fitment is also important. There are "universal" designs out there that will sort of work, in a cheap sense, but the fit is usually anonymous at best and an active retention device will be all that holds the gun. Any holster should fit the pistol well, as that means the holster is secure, which it must be as gun safety while carrying is of paramount importance.
As to retention, active retention devices are almost a requisite of many shoulder holsters. For horizontal carry, they're practically required unless sufficient passive retention can be applied. For vertical carry...passive retention (adjustable passive retention is preferred) is sufficient.
This also applies to magazine carriers, which are normally attached to most shoulder holsters. You should have good fitment and any active retention device should be functional, and keep magazines secured. Ideally, passive retention would be sufficient. Many have vertically or horizontally-oriented magazine carriers, but some position the opening to face the ground.
Also, you don't know if you're going to like carrying with a shoulder holster. Therefore, you'll want to purchase one from a company that offers a generous returns policy.