One of the benefits of working in the firearms industry is that I get to work with all sorts of people. As an instructor, I sometimes have the pleasure of training citizen shooters. They may be looking for help learning how to use a pistol to defend their homes or carry concealed. At the other end of the spectrum, I also have the honor of training some of the most experienced and hardened warriors in the world. Those folks use weapons much like a carpenter uses a hammer (and view it in much the same way.)
Each of these groups makes equipment and training decisions through their own paradigm, and that keeps instructors like me on their toes. For example, civilians might have basic questions about topics that experienced operators understand viscerally, and vice versa. In short, different groups like this have different priorities and needs.
Also read: 12 Reasons To Carry A Gun
Recently, while teaching a group of civilian shooters self-defense concepts, one of those "different paradigm" questions came up. As I started to give my stock answer, it occurred to me that it was a good opportunity to address the topic in depth. After all, I'd gotten this question a thousand times in the past.
The question? “If I needed to carry my pistol exposed off the range… you know, for real… what’s the best way to do it?”
While open carrying a pistol day in and day out is nothing special for law enforcement and military folks, the same thing can be complicated for civilians. When it comes to open carry, most shooters only consider the question of what equipment to buy. Equipment choice should be the last step in the process, however, as factors like societal norms, weapon retention, and integration with other gear come into play. The process of deciding whether or not to consider open carry should start with an honest assessment of the needs of your mission. Consider the following questions as an example:
Do you anticipate needing to carry a pistol as a backup to a rifle at some point?
Might you carry exposed on your ranch in secluded areas?
Will you participate in tactical training that requires exposed carry?
Are you simply considering open carry as an option should circumstances dictate, and the need arise?
All of these missions are perfectly reasonable, but all of them necessitate different approaches to mindset, training, and equipment.
Carrying a gun is always a serious responsibility; however carrying one that everyone, everywhere you go, knows they have now access to raises the stakes a little bit. Maintaining the security of your pistol becomes a primary concern, and complacency in this area can have serious and immediate consequences.
Also, carrying an exposed gun in public can create a false sense of security if you let it. If a criminal will attempt to take a police officer’s pistol away from them in times of relative normalcy, what do you think they would be willing to do to take yours if they do not feel constrained by the law or feel a pressing need to arm themselves?
Just like in the CCW realm, the mere act of being armed does not mean you will not be challenged or prevail during a confrontation. Getting your mind right, and clearly thinking through the training and equipment you will acquire, are more likely to produce a positive outcome than just strapping on a gun and going forth to do good.
TThe skills involved with using a pistol from an exposed holster aren’t very different from those needed for performing the same act from a concealment holster. In most ways, it’s actually much easier. The primary reasons to seek additional education specifically on shooting from an exposed holster are to develop the neurologic pathways for drawing from your specific holster, and learning how to defend your pistol from being taken away.
The first, developing the specific pathways for the exposed draw, is obvious. If you are planning on using an exposed pistol as a backup to a carbine or rifle, you also need specific training in transitioning from the long to short gun. This training is pretty straightforward and easy to find and is simple to maintain once you have developed a basic skill set.
Learning to defend your pistol from a determined attacker, however, is a whole other ball game. The training required to defend your gun in the holster is hard, both to find (for a civilian) and to undergo. Training to defend your gun from an attacker is serious business, and can involve some physical exertion and pain. Despite these challenges, if you plan on carrying exposed, you owe it to yourself, your family, and innocent bystanders to suck it up and get it done.
Getting the right equipment for carrying an exposed pistol can be both the most straightforward and most confusing part of this exercise, all at the same time. It seems to be a law of physics that no matter how much research you do, how many people you ask, or how many internet reviews you read, you will still end up with a box of unused holsters in your gun room. Unfortunately, I don’t have a solution, but I do have a way to minimize the pain.
I break exposed holsters down into two base categories: belt holsters and tactical holsters. A belt holster is any holster that places the backstrap of the pistol’s grip no lower than the bottom of your belt. A tactical holster is one that places the backstrap of the pistol’s grip below the belt.
When choosing from between these categories, I have a very simple rule of thumb: If I cannot cleanly draw the pistol while wearing whatever other gear I will be using (tactical vest, heavy coat, chain mail vest, corset, or whatever), I will use a tactical holster which lowers the butt of the gun just low enough to get a clean draw, and no lower. In other words, the belt holster is my default position unless other equipment requires something different.
Contrary to what you may have seen or heard, lowering the pistol on you leg does nothing to increase draw speed. Draw speed is a function of smoothness, not the height of the holster at the belt. A belt holster is also easier to defend from a disarming attack. Which leads us to the other important factor in choosing a holster: security.
Law enforcement and military equipment manufacturers have made monumental strides in this field in the last 20 years, and modern security holsters are offered in a variety of retention levels. There is much argument about “levels” of holster security, but I generally ignore these and just get a holster that offers a good balance of position on the belt and mechanical security features that I can train to a high level of proficiency with.
My current choice of a belt holster is the Raven Concealment Systems Phantom holster and the Safariland ALS system for a tactical holster. There is also a large aftermarket in the Safariland 6004 hood type retention system, which is very serviceable if budget is a concern.
Whatever type of holster you choose, keep in mind that training and equipment are forever linked in a never-ending circle of priority. You have to train with what you use, and choices in what you use can be informed by your training. If you think about your needs and decide what training and gear will work best for you, then train your butt off. You will find having the ability to carry your gun exposed can be a useful tool when the situation calls for it.
I hope I’ve given you some food for thought.