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This is one of the most hotly debated topics in holster selection. There are three major choices in holster material manufacture, of them, only two are worthy of consideration by anyone who is serious about carrying a firearm for defensive purposes.

Those materials are leather, nylon, and kydex (or similar plastic synthetic material).

Nylon, whether it is called “ballistic nylon” or not, is used in manufacturing a lot of luggage. It can be used to make a pretty nice duffle bag or soft side suitcase. It can even be used to make a nice rifle or pistol case. That’s all I have to say good about it. Nylon (of any type) DOES NOT make a decent holster in any way, shape, form or fashion. EVERY nylon holster I have ever seen WILL violate at least one, probably two, and sometimes all three of the three basic criteria we outlined earlier. It is completely useless for the serious practitioner, however, if you are planning on your firearm living a drawer someplace, and are NEVER going to attempt to carry it, even to the range, then nylon may indeed meet your needs.

The “newest” player in the holster game is kydex, which is a type of plastic that can be formed by heat to the shape of a handgun. Kydex DOES have a lot of good things going for it. It is very durable material that can take a lot of abuse and temperature variance, which makes it ideal for use in challenging climates (if well made – Fobus holsters are NOT kydex, they are not even a very good grade of plastic, and they CAN break under serious usage).

The first use of plastics in holsters that I know of was by holster legend Ken Null, who made a pull through shoulder carry rig for a small J-frame type handgun using plastic back sometime in the early seventies (may have even been in the sixties). This was followed by a holster called the “Snik” (for the sound it made) that was a sort of a front break piece that carried a 1911 and was manufactured in the late seventies. The use of plastics became more commonplace in the 80’s with the designs of former FBI Agent Bill Rogers using a kydex plastic center covered in thin suede leather to form the holster. This process was later adopted by Safariland, who used it to craft police duty gear, competition holsters, and concealment pieces.

At this point, those with basic math skills will have noted that kydex/plastic holsters have been around for between 40 and 50 years – hence the quote marks around the word “newest”...

Design has come further, and there are now kydex products available that will actually provide a decent degree of concealment. The problem with many kydex products of the past, as well as some models continuing to today, such as the number of paddle mounted kydex holsters, is simple. They won’t conceal the handgun. Period. By design, they ride too low and push the butt of the pistol AWAY from the body instead of into it for proper concealment.

Granted, these designs MAY NOT be intended for concealed carry, and some will work just fine if concealment is not the issue, such as range work, or (sigh) open carry, but they do not, and cannot effectively conceal the weapon.

Other, more recent kydex designs use more of a “pancake” style holster design, with the belt attachment points forward and back of the carry pouch. When a curvature is added to this design it will do a decent job of concealment on an OWB, and this is the type of kydex holster you see most of the “high-speed/low-drag” types sporting. It does not, however, pull the pistol into the body as tightly as a correctly constructed leather holster of the same type design, which is why you see these guys concealing this type rig with an unbuttoned camp style shirt over a t-shirt, “shoot-me-first vest” or some similar loose fitting type garb.

The ability to easily re-holster the weapon IS another advantage of kydex, since it is a hard material, it does not collapse at all when the weapon is drawn. This inherent stiffness, however, can be a disadvantage as well; many do not feel that kydex holsters are as comfortable as leather when worn.

Finally, I would be doing everyone a disservice if I did not address one of the biggest faults attributed to kydex holsters – accelerated wear on the finish of the handgun. Guys, here’s the deal. ANY holster will wear the finish on your handgun, no matter WHAT it’s made of. Friction is what causes wear, and every single time you take your pistol out and put it back in you are rubbing on the finish of the piece. What REALLY matters is FIT. If the holster is properly fitted to the handgun so that the piece does not move around in it during every day wear, then finish wear will be minimized. Oh, and by the way; that means that soft, cushiony nylon “one size fits nothing” holster you bought to “protect the finish” of your blaster? Yeah, not so much. So long as a kydex holster is properly fitted and kept clean on the interior, accelerated wear on the finish of the handgun will not be an issue. (It shouldn’t really be one anyway – if the finish is THAT important, or the pistol THAT valuable, it belongs in a safe, not as an EDC gun.)

The final material commonly used for holsters is leather. Now, I’m going to go out on a limb here and guess you might already suspect that I am somewhat prejudiced towards leather. What with my owning a company that makes leather holsters and gear, having carried leather holsters for over thirty years, and made them for well over twenty years I will admit to a certain fondness for the stuff. That being said, leather, like all other materials used for holster making, does have both advantages and disadvantages to it.

Leather has been used for firearms carry for as long as firearms have been carried. I recently read a humorous post on-line about David’s leather holster in his battle with Goliath (he called it a “sack”). Like kydex, leather can be molded to the form of the handgun, providing a weapon specific fit that has built in retention. The degree of molding can vary – some manufacturers use a hydraulic press type device to mold leather holsters. This does not provide the same level of mold and fit that a hand-molded, bench made product will. It is both faster and cheaper to mold the holster this way, but the fit is not the same. Molded holsters of this type will often be fitted with a retention screw to tighten down when (not “if”) the holster gets too loose, or a safety strap of some type to hold the piece from falling out. Generally, they are on the lower end of the cost spectrum for leather, and are often made from thinner layers (or “weights”) of leather to facilitate the molding process.

More than any other medium used, leather can provide both comfort AND exceptional concealment to the user. With proper care, a well-made leather holster can last for years of constant use. For outside the waistband (OWB) applications leather will form to the body as it is worn, much like a good pair of boots breaks in and shapes to the foot. Because of this reason a properly constructed leather OWB holster will always fit closer to the body than kydex. For inside the waistband (IWB) use, the leather provides a nice degree of cushioning against the hard surfaces of the handgun, still while shaping to the body. This gives both additional comfort and concealment. Depending upon how important concealment is to you, leather has a definite advantage over kydex, especially in paddle holster design, and most users will find leather IWB’s to be considerably more comfortable than kydex models.

Detractors of leather often authoritatively state that leather “will wear out” and imply that this is something that happens moments after you strap on your new holster for the first time. Guys, ANYTHING will wear out. That being said, with proper care a well-constructed leather holster will last for years of use. I recently had a holster I had made for a fellow officer given back to me. The guy who gave it to me was actually the SECOND officer to use this holster; the first gave it to him upon his retirement. The second officer carried it for years after, until he too eventually retired. While he still carries, he no longer carries the piece this holster was made for. When we kicked it around a bit, we figured the lifespan of this holster as somewhere between 21 to 24 YEARS. And it is still serviceable.

Gang, how many of you are still running gear made almost a quarter-century ago? Yeah, that’s what I thought. Leather is naturally abrasion resistant (motorcycle LEATHERS, duh), and cannot be “broken” as a cheap plastic (not kydex) holster can. It will, with proper care, hold its shape and retention for years beyond what some may think. The Fusion Paddle we demo at shows is a perfect example of this. The prototype for this model, it is 12 years old, was carried for 10 years, and has been the demo used for this model since its introduction. I have literally no idea how many THOUSANDS and THOUSANDS of presentations have been made with this holster, but it is still going strong. I would not hesitate to wear this holster again should I ever go back to carrying the 1911.

There are, however, some circumstances where the durability of kydex is superior to leather. If you are working and carrying in a marine environment where constant moisture is a factor, kydex might be a better choice. Same applies to a “rain-forest” (what we used to call a jungle). Continuous damp/wet conditions that do not allow the leather to dry out will cause the material to degrade more quickly. That being said, with most of us living in urban/suburban conditions, where the moisture is likely limited to our sweat and the occasional rain shower, this IS NOT an issue. Again, as previously stated, your selection should be application driven, based on YOUR needs, not what the guy at the range, or the guy on the video says is best. Look at ALL the options, then make an informed decision.