A shoulder holster is one of the hands-down coolest, most debonair ways to carry a pistol. From James Bond and Dirty Harry Callahan to John Smith and Thomas “Neo” Anderson, plenty of our favorite big screen action heroes have used shoulder holsters to good effect for getting their guns into action while still dressed dapper enough for any occasion.
But more than prop use on the big screen, shoulder holsters have been used for decades by detectives, drivers, protection agents and other armed professionals who need to dress sharp but keep a pistol close at hand. There is no doubting the shoulder holster’s real world chops for concealed carry.
But there is more to effective employment of a shoulder holster than wearing a suit or coat and hanging a pistol in it. Shoulder holsters are one of the most specialized and nuanced methods of carry, and it is all too easy to let the Rule of Cool saddle you with an uncomfortable rig when you might have been better served with a different holster.
I’ll talk to you about the perks and flaws of shoulder holsters, as well as my top choices for good models in today’s article.
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What is a Shoulder Holster?
A shoulder holster is any harness-mounted holster that is worn about the shoulders and carries the handgun beneath the armpit opposite the shooter’s strong hand. The holster may be oriented to carry the pistol with the muzzle horizontally to the rear, vertically pointing down, or rarely vertically pointing up.
Spare ammunition may or may not carried in a pouch on the opposite side beneath the shooter’s strongside armpit, and the holster may or may not have tie downs that attach to the belt to prevent swaying and increase stability.
Shoulder holsters are usually leather, sometimes nylon, but may be hybrids using synthetics for the straps and kydex for the holster or some other arrangement.
Most shoulder holsters feature a thumb break retention strap for security and are constructed in an “X” shape with the straps crossing over the middle of the back between the wearer’s shoulder blades, but some a single-sided “Y” variation with only the holster and tie down strap opposite.
Why the Shoulder Holster?
Shoulder holsters, or shoulder rigs colloquially, are a highly specialized holster despite their overwhelming popularity in popular culture. Shoulder holsters do two things well.
First, they allow you to conceal a gun effectively when your shirt is tucked in and you are wearing some kind of coat or jacket. Second, they are among the very best holsters for quick, unfettered access when seated.
If you are not wearing a coat or jacket most of the time, or seated while armed most of the time, a shoulder holster is in all probability not the best choice for you, no matter how cool and awesome it makes you feel.
But if you are usually dressed up in a suit with a blazer or your average day involves a lot of driving or sitting in a vehicle, a shoulder holster may be your default option if you want to carry a larger handgun. Sure, you can still carry a pocket pistol with a tucked in shirt, but you sure can’t carry a Glock 19 in a pocket.
Pros and Cons of Shoulder Holsters
A shoulder holster can provide excellent concealment when one is wearing a jacket or coat, but only if care is paid to sizing and setting up the holster properly and pairing it effectively with the right outer garment.
Depending on the size of the pistol carried and its orientation in the holster, a shoulder holster can actually be harder to conceal than another kind of holster would be.
A classic example of this kind of concealment failure with a shoulder holster is when carrying a longer handgun in a horizontal position; the longest part of the firearm tracking across the narrowest part of the torso does not offer any advantages for concealment.
Compared to a belt mounted holster and magazines, a shoulder holster can be more comfortable an less injurious long term since it transfers the weight of the gun and spare ammo to the shoulders an torso versus the hips.
The few pounds in weight of the gun and holster may not seem consequential until you carry one day in and day out. Ask any long-time carrier of any stripe and many will, sighing, tell you tales of bad hips and knees caused by the weight imbalance. The torso tolerates this weight far better than the hips.
While we are on the subject, one thing to pay close attention to is the width of the harness’s straps: Thin, 1” straps are fairly common, and will become painful, or at least annoying, in short order.
You may not think anything of it at first but take it from me and others who have carried these rigs for years; you will feel the burn at the end of a long day. Wider straps make a big difference in comfort.
One particular shortcoming of the shoulder holster that other holsters simply don’t have to deal with is that of the need to conceal the harness itself. Sure, those thin, flat straps may be an afterthought (you are wearing a jacket after all!) but they and their crosspiece are surprisingly visible through lightweight fabric.
A jacket cut of heavier cloth will present not concern as will a coat but you will need to spot check and pay attention to your harness if wearing a summer weight garment.
Sitting down in a car, manning a desk or riding a horse, a shoulder holster is always easier and quicker to access than a belt holster. The shooting hand can simply track across the body, acquire the firing grip and draw, with no need to stand up or fidget in the seat to get a grip and make room for the gun to come out.
This is of great importance in a vehicle, especially while belted in, and is the reason why shoulder holsters have often been synonymous with driver’s holster. Even with the seatbelt in place, a little care and prepositioning of the seat belt means the shooting hand can access the pistol with no need to remove the belt and start shifting in the seat.
No matter what shoulder holster you employ, you must be aware of the fact that they are far from optimal when it comes to drawing from one without allowing the muzzle to cover your own body, the most egregious offender in this case being the muzzle-up vertical arrangement which sees the muzzle pointed directly into the armpit.
The other variations can be drawn from without muzzling yourself, but this requires considerable practice to make wrote procedure and far more in order to enable you to do so quickly and at speed.
With a horizontal shoulder holster it will be easy and likely to track the muzzle across the support side arm at the bicep, while with the vertical muzzle-down shoulder holster it is probable that the arm will be muzzled somewhere when the muzzle pops up after it clears the holster mouth.
You must train to avoid this by lifting the support side elbow up and clear as the gun moves toward the ready position. Lest ye dismiss the issue as only a chance of a “graze” to an arm, I will remind you that major blood vessels run through both upper and lower parts of the arm and severing either will be a quick death.
Extremity wounds are a leading cause of death from bullets. Don’t be one of them.
Lastly, shoulder holsters are just not as fast and sure as a draw from a pocket or belt line. The need to reach across the body akin to a traditional crossdraw takes time, and bringing the gun back across to the ready position and building a two-hand grip takes more.
Physical attributes are a major factor in determining the viability of any given shoulder holster setup: if you are very fat or very muscular, or simply lack much mobility in the arms and shoulders, your draw from a shoulder holster can be difficult under ideal circumstances.
Shoulder holsters rely on a “sweet spot” where the gun may be positioned for ideal concealment. Moving the gun out of this position to increase ease of access will quickly render concealment impossible.
Ultimately, a shoulder rig can work great in the very specific contexts laid out above if it works for you. If you are unlucky, or just choosing a shoulder holster because it is cool, you are likely to be disappointed.
The Best of the Best Shoulder Holsters
Galco Miami Classic
One of the most iconic and imitated configurations in the world, the horizontal Miami Classic from Galco features famously high-quality leather construction and the “spider” x-harness, which features four point mobility for maximum comfort and concealment.
Originally seen on the TV show Miami Vice, this classic option is the image of what a shoulder holster is for many shooters.
The Miami Classic features a holster with thumb break and similarly closed ammunition carrier. Despite its old school heritage, the Miami Classic is fully modular and both holsters and ammo carriers can be swapped. Tie downs are optional upgrades as are cuff cases and flashlight pouches.
Available in black or tan at your preference for semi-autos and revolvers. Revolver shooters can choose from dump pouches or speedloader cases for their spare ammo.
Galco Classic Lite
Galco’s budget offering is one that is no less worthy of the name: using the same fitment and hardware as their more expensive models, the Lite makes use of lightweight center cut steer hide for reduction of bulk and price.
The Lite features horizontal positioning and a single spare ammo carrier, either for a pistol magazine or a dump pouch.
The same 4-point spider harness is used and all stitching and attachment points are completely solid and done with exacting care. You can get this nice rig in any color you want so long as it is natural. If you need a quality, affordable leather option, this is one of the only ones worth checking out.
A vertical shoulder holster combing leather an innovative retention mechanisms. The X15 is designed as a gun-only rig, and is at its best when packing a large revolver or long semi-auto.
An elastic and leather harness is 3 point adjustable for ideal fit and is very comfortable even when hauling a big shooting iron and the bottom of the holster features a strap that loops over the belt to totally prevent the holster from flopping around under movement.
The X15 tucks the gun in very close to the body and keeps it secure via a detachable thumb break and spring-loaded leather clamshell construction.
This allows the user to set their desired level of retention and for less intense activities the spring retention mechanism is more than adequate for holding big guns in place.
Comfortable and secure, Bianchi’s X15 remains one of the best for minimalist carry of large handguns.
High Noon Holsters Equalizer
A rare kydex shoulder holster, the Equalizer from High Noon Holsters is of entirely conventional horizontal configuration, but the use of kydex makes this a very thin rig for carry, even with its double magazine pouch.
The magazines are carried at a slight upward angle for better retention while the holster itself makes use of a thumb break.
The harness crosspiece is an open square that features four independent attachment points allowing a high level of flexibility and mobility for each strap. Tie downs are an optional feature though one that must be specified at the time of construction.
Available for semi-autos only at this time, but many models and colors are available.
Shoulder holsters are an icon of cool in the gun world, but serve some very important real world duty for low profile concealment beneath a jacket or coat.
If you need a holster for dressed-up carry or just for wear during those long drives or longer days at your desk, a shoulder holster may be just what you need.
Tom Marlowe practically grew up with a gun in his hand, and has held all kinds of jobs in the gun industry: range safety, sales, instruction and consulting, Tom has the experience to help civilian shooters figure out what will work best for them.