Around the U.S. and the world, people carry guns. If they are not working in an overt context, whether legal or not, they will endeavor to conceal the gun, usually a handgun.
They could be another armed citizen going about their day, possibly like you, an off-duty or undercover police officer, or a criminal scumbag or gang member keeping his tools of the trade in a ready condition.
Whoever you might be, consider learning the sometimes subtle tells that indicate the presence of a concealed weapon as part and parcel of enhancing your situational awareness.
You will not always be able to discern the presence of a weapon, especially a knife, but you often can with enough practice. Discerning the presence of a weapon is one thing, discerning someone’s intent is another.
However, in conjunction with certain behavioral and social cues, the fact alone that a certain character is unarmed may be enough of a reason to vacate the area or at least give them a wide berth.
In this introductory article I will explain the different types of signals or cues that may indicate the presence of a weapon, as well as additional considerations you may wish to incorporate into your own carry practices to reduce your profile.
Table of Contents
Indicators: The Symptoms that Point to “Weapon”
Indicators are simply signs that point to a likely presence of a weapon. Indicators come in two broad varieties: behavioral indicators and presence indicators.
Behavioral indicators are things that the person does because they are carrying a weapon. This could be something done to the weapon itself, or because of psychological stress or worry by the carrier over it.
Presence indicators are from the weapon itself. These are things like, bulges, printing or sagging of clothing, or abrasions characteristic of carrying a weapon in the same location consistently. I’ll detail the most common indicators in both categories in the next section.
Indicators can run the gradient from very subtle tells or physical tics like a subtle shift in a garment, to blatant, neon billboard-obvious displays like the gun or knife being revealed after concealing garment failure.
Many times one or two subtle indicators alone will not be enough to say for certain someone is concealing a weapon, but in conjunction with analysis of their attitude and the setting it may be enough for you to make the determination that they are a “probable” carrier.
The type of weapon makes a big difference in how easy it is to hide and, ergo, how easy it can be to spot. Compact handguns and larger can be easy to spot owing to their weight, distinctive shape, and likelihood of being placed in only a handful of locations on the human body.
Typical long guns are difficult or impossible to conceal owing to their length and bulk if not carried in a piece of luggage or under the stereotypical long coat (whose presence is often an indicator all by itself).
Knives are different; low profile, much lighter than a pistol and easy to conceal well compared to any guns, a small knife is very easy to hide even in the wielders hand until it is too late to detect. This is a big part of what makes knives so dangerous.
Most of the indicators discussed in this article will be applicable to any weapon, but will present most often with a pistol. Knives are often small and unobtrusive enough to not engender too much fussing on the part of their carrier and many will ride invisibly in a pocket or waistband until drawn. I will make mention in the specific sections if one indicator applies specifically to a certain kind of weapon.
The Fundamentals of Concealment
Concealment can be achieved in a variety of ways, both on and off the body, but for our purposes in this article we will look at the prime factors that help dictate an individual’s placement of a weapon on their body.
The very first is which hand they use, their “handedness” or dominant hand. It is an extremely high probability that any given person will use their dominant hand to both acquire and employ a weapon.
An easy assumption will be the right hand, as most earth dwellers are. But, as with all things, we should not assume, even on a safe one.
Watch their hands: which one are they holding their phone with? Which side do they keep their wallet on if in a store, or eat with in an eatery? A less reliable tell is a wristwatch, as they are often worn opposite the master hand.
Once you have made that determination that will inform the likely location of the weapon on their body if carried on body.
Right-handed gun carriers will likely carry somewhere on the right hemisphere of the beltline between 12:30 and 6 o’clock, in a right side pocket in their pants or jacket, under the left armpit in a shoulder holster or on the left ankle if in an ankle holster. Reverse all of that for lefties.
Knives will be carried in similar locations, most commonly seen clipped in a pocket or in a sheath on the beltline, close at hand. Note again knives are easy to hide, and can be strapped to a forearm under a sleeve, hanging by a cord around the neck and in a dozen other, inventive and invisible locations.
Once you have determined an individual’s handedness, move on to looking for indicators. If unable to determine their dominant hand you should simply be looking for indicators on both sides of the body.
Behavioral indicators are comprised of tells, body language, things done to the weapon or because the weapon is carried. You will often see these when the weapon in question is a gun.
This may take the form of altered movement patterns, shielding the location of weapon from frontal notice of bystanders, or reflexively nervous pats or pulls to ensure a gun remains in place, be it in a holster, stuffed in a pocket or tucked in a waistband.
Some are more overt, and may take the form of the carrier vocalizing the presence of or their willingness to use a weapon during an argument or confrontation, e.g. “I’ll f****** cut you, man!” or “Don’t make me shoot you!”
Obviously, anyone who flashes or acquires a grip on their weapon is obviously armed and should be treated accordingly as the situation dictates.
Below are common behavioral indicators.
A person carrying a weapon that is self-conscious about it, either from inexperience or nervousness, will often try to keep their body between an oncoming observer. This takes the form of a curious rotation, either of the torso or the whole body in place to block the weapon’s location from direct line of sight.
For instance, a carrier with a gun or knife on their right side will turn to the right when approached head on or standing face to face with someone, thus moving the weapon behind the mass of their body, and out of sight from the nearby person.
A related form happens when someone is moving in for a hug or to put an arm around the carrier; this leads to a quick jig where they will reposition themselves to minimize or eliminate the hugger feeling the weapon of the huggee.
The Block may also take the form of conspicuously positioning anything carried in the hands to one hip or another in order to shield the weapon in the same way.
Again symptomatic of new or nervous carriers, even old professional carriers will fall victim to this inadvertently or by necessity after the weapon or garment has been bumped or disturbed.
This indicator takes the form of exactly what it says on the header: a hand patting or brushing the location of the weapon to confirm either its continued presence, concealment status or simply for mental reassurance.
This could be directed to any of the locations above, but rarely an ankle, as that is easily visually confirmed by the carrier.
People that carry a weapon on their hip will often develop a movement quirk when in close quarters to people or objects on the side the weapon is carried on: due to the fact that the weapon, especially a gun, again, increases the width of the hips, most carriers will invariably go through a period where the weapon will smack into people, countertops, door frames and the like with a loud clunk or clang until they learn to account for this instance.
Some develop a little swerve or jink where the carrier swings their hips out and away from the obstruction to prevent contacting it with the weapon. It is highly noticeable and odd looking once you know what to look for.
Often seen when someone is carrying a gun. Even light guns are heavy, and usually uncomfortable. Adding insult to injury, unless carried holstered on a good gunbelt they have an aggravating tendency to slide, shift, rotate and flop in pockets or waistbands.
You’ll see the carrier reach for the gun, furtively or not, grip it, and adjust it to or fro to reposition it in order to increase comfort and security.
This will present commonly when a small gun is carried in a pocket or in the front of the waistband without a holster. This tell is a frequent occurrence when someone is carrying in the waistband with no holster, commonly called “felony carry.”
A Clipped Stride
This one can be subtle. Expect to see someone carrying a gun or large knife on beltline or ankle show a somewhat shorter stride on the side that they have the weapon, i.e. a right handed carrier with the weapon located accordingly will not step as far with their right leg compared to the left and typically not swing their right arm as far as the left arm.
This is much easier to notice if someone is walking perpendicular to you.
Happens when running, clambering or doing anything that may lead to the weapon coming out of pocket, sheath or holster, or the carrier anticipates that this may occur; you’ll see them actually acquire a grip on the weapon, usually through the clothing, to hold it in place.
This is done to secure the weapon against The Drop, discussed later under Presence Indicators. Spoiler Warning: it is exactly what it sounds like.
Reluctance to Bend Over
Commonly seen when a carrier has a gun on the beltline between the hip and 6 o’clock. They will not bend over when standing to pick up a dropped item or anything low to the ground, as doing so will allow most garments to shift or stretch, thus revealing the gun to the eye or by severe printing. Watch for them to take a knee or squat instead.
Sure, it might just be bad back, but perhaps not. If you see someone bending over, keep an eye on their waistline and back area and you will easily see a large handgun or sheathed knife printing. Also keep one eye on jacket/coat pockets as a weapon carried there will create a noticeable droop off the body when leaning over.
Unwilling to Remove Concealing Garment
In a setting when a garment like a coat, jacket or similar would be removed, either for wearer comfort or social etiquette, any refusal to do so is suspicious, and indicative of a weapon either concealed at the waist, under the arm or within the garment itself.
This could result from a too warm office or reluctance to remove a coat when sitting down to eat.
Presence indicators are signs and cues of the weapon itself. Presence indicators are mostly visual but can be auditory.
They will usually take the form of a disturbance, failure or anomaly in the way a garment looks or behaves on the body, but could also be spotting a piece of support equipment, like a loop or strut on a holster, or the obvious pocket clip of a folding knife.
More subtle, it could be slight damage left on a garment from the aforementioned things: when worn repeatedly, holsters, sheaths and clips will leave small, well-worn signs on otherwise pristine clothing.
These tracks are obvious tells that the individual is a habitual carrier, and you can bet they have a weapon on them then as well, if perhaps in a new location.
Bulging or Printing
Good examples of a bulge in a concealing garment. In picture No.1, the weapon, a fullsize semi-auto carried IWB is detectable via a the smooth area with the pronounced, straight ridges, highlighted in yellow.
The same gun viewed from the rear. The bottom of the grip is easily seen from the behind.
Same gun again, a little harder to spot form the front. Look at the indicated areas on the carrier; you can see a slight flare by his right elbow. That is the grip of the pistol.
The most common and easily spotted indicator, aside from cover garment failure, larger knives and most guns will betray their location by a conspicuous lump through a garment or by showing a ghost outline when fabric is stretched too tightly across it.
Bulging and printing may result from poor carry methodology (placement, holster/belt selection, garment choice, etc.), or the way the carrier is standing, sitting or moves. Check all the proscribed locations mentioned earlier in the article for the symptoms above, and also look out for tightening of fabric across that location.
Look closely at the right pocket. See the shape of the compact revolver carried often there? If not, can you notice the much lighter “balding” on the denim?
Now highlighted. Gun is a S&W Mod. 36 J-frame.
The pattern, color, weight and type of clothing all help or hurt concealment. Most patterns, especially geometric shapes help hide bulges and printing. Heavy, puffy garments help greatly.
A garment wet from rain or heavy perspiration may not behave as it normally does dry, exacerbating a bulge or by becoming translucent, revealing the outline of the weapon. Wind may press or pull a garment across a gun. A weapon in a pocket made even heavier from wetness will sag precipitously (no pun intended) and be more noticeable than usual.
Guns are often carried in jacket pockets or hoodie pouches. This example is flagrant printing and drooping significantly. How does color and texture affect the outcome here? Would a lighter gun be a better choice?
For guns pocket carried in a jacket or pants, unless it is a flyweight gun, you will often see one pocket hanging lower than the other perhaps in addition to printing as described above.
This may also occur on one side of the pants or the other for a heavy pistol carried on the belt, especially OWB. The printing in a pocket can be reduced or eliminated with a pocket holster or flat gun, but unless the carrier is savvy and uses counterweight in the opposite pocket this will betray them.
Same picture above, close-up with weapon highlighted. Gun is S&W Mod. 36 J-frame.
Knives are often too light to cause drooping, but some heavier examples will. They are more often spotted in a pocket by printing, or from their ubiquitous pocket clips.
Look carefully here. What can you see?
Close-up of above. Low profile loops of holster are indicated. Hard to spot against a like color and texture belt, but still a giveaway. A brown leather holster or colored kydex loops would be much easier to see against the belt. The Devil is in the details.
This comes in two flavors: seeing the weapon itself, or the unmistakable indicator of something used to carry the weapon. For the weapon itself, it could be the result of a garment failure, where it has been hitched or pulled away from the weapon, revealing it to bystanders.
Less obvious but still very visible indicators are things like pocket clips for knives and certain spare magazine carriers as well as loops, straps, clips or hooks placed on or around the waistline and/or belt.
What’s this? Hard to say, a metal clip of some kind. This location is commonly used for carry of weapons, and even though none is visible or indicating through the garment the smart money is on a holster or sheath of some kind.
If you cannot positively ID the mystery attachment, assume it belongs to a holster or sheath.
A close-up of the front right pocket of a pair of jeans. Look at the frayed stitching at the arrow and the odd wear in the circle. Both were caused by the habitual carry of a pocket knife.
If you carry a pocket knife with a clip regularly, take a look down at the pocket you carry it in. Notice anything? See that little patch of frayed fabric and loose stitching? That’s our snitch, an indicator even if you don’t have the knife in place.
Same applies for guns; they’ll create unusual, well-defined wear marks on belts and waistbands of pants as well as nibbling little pinholes in concealing shirts or jackets. With a good eye, these wear indicators are easily spotted.
It is clear to see how that happens now: the clip has rubbed the hem of themain pocket, while its presence puts pressure against the Zippo carried in the smaller pocket.
A gun routinely carried in a pocket without a pocket holster will emboss itself through the fabric creating wear where the gun rests. These are very noticeable in jeans or khakis.
My favorite, and the one I am most alert for in a public setting like a restaurant. Anyone who carries a gun, but sometimes a larger knife on or behind the hip who sits down or leans against a hard surface will create a loud, distinctive clunk sound when their weapon contacts the surface they are sitting on. Keep your ears open next time you are at a restaurant and you’ll hear this at least once.
Once you notice this, you’ll start hearing it everywhere. Chances are you do it yourself if you carry a pistol. Don’t be that guy or gal!
Don’t mind me!
The Dreaded Drop. The Field Goal. The OMG. If this occurs in a public setting, the jig is up, and someone typically needs to leave the premises. This will occur under a few different sets of circumstances, and this assumes the weapon was not in someone’s hand:
1) something snags the weapon and plucks it from the body. It tumbles to the floor.
2) the weapon was poorly secured, usually in the waistband with no holster or sheath and it works free under movement, falling to the floor.
3) the weapon hits the ground at a bathroom stall because the carrier is pulling their pants up or down or removing an upper garment, dislodging the gun. Don’t laugh: it’s shockingly common. Pray it does not happen to you.
If this happens the carrier is usually mortified and, if a good guy, will promptly apologize and head for the exit. This is not a guarantee, but expected behavior to avoid scaring the horses, so to speak.
Detecting a gun in a bag, briefcase, purse or something similar is challenging. Any bag that does not belong in the setting is a yellow flag, especially one large enough to carry a long gun.
Certain types of worn bags, like fanny packs, should be treated as instant indicators that the owner is armed unless you are at a tourist hotspot or they are riding their bicycle. Similar to unwillingness to part with a garment, hesitancy to part with a bag should be treated as a likely hiding place for a weapon, specifically a gun.
Ok, you’ve positively confirmed someone has a weapon on them. So what!? In seriousness, in a civilian setting it does not mean much on its own. After all, you are carrying a weapon yourself and I’ll presume you mean no one any ill will.
You need to keep that fact in mind, but also see if they are presenting any behaviors that give you cause to worry: Are they minding their own business, acting like the average person would in the same circumstances?
Do they seem unusually worried, or anxious? Are they glancing around, looking over their shoulder or staring into space? Are they sweating, pale or antsy? Anything that may tip their hand as to their mindset or intent must be paid careful attention.
If you detect a weapon on someone and they are presenting behavioral cues or mannerisms that suggest evil intent or derangement you should take action to improve your chances.
Either reposition yourself, or just leave. If you have a sincere, well-founded belief that someone is about to do something bad, calling the police is probably warranted. Better some embarrassment for a headspace check than an outbreak of violence that might have been preempted.
Again, even directly sighting a weapon on someone does not mean you or anyone else is in danger; context is everything, and especially in America a large fraction of the citizenry is armed more or less all the time.
Review the indicators we covered and keep them in mind when working on your own carry setup. Chances are you are inadvertently guilty of at least one of the above or probably several indicators above.
Have a trusted friend or loved one observe you as you mime doing things you would normally throughout your day so you can determine exactly how far you can push your concealment envelope. Having them observe you discreetly for the same while out in public is also beneficial.
Now that you know what seasoned professionals, experienced bad guys and clever civilian carriers look for, you can reverse engineer your approach to ensure you prevent or minimize these indicators on your person.
Nearly any concealed weapon can be detected under the right conditions if you pay attention. Conversely, a skilled carrier with an easy to conceal weapon can keep it hidden until it is deployed at speed.
Improving your skills at weapon detection is just another component of situation awareness to increase your chances of identifying an attacker before they strike, or keep tabs on who else in the room may respond to a criminal act.
You can practice these skills anytime you are around strangers in a public setting, and also use them to sharpen your friends’, partners’ and your own concealment methodology.
Do you commonly spot concealed weapons on your daily travels, or no? What do you think is the biggest indicator that someone is armed? Let us know in the comments below!
Chad Nabors specializes in firearms, with a strong focus on concealed carry and pistols. His background is in commercial sales and training, and armor development and testing. He has trained many citizens on the pistol from basic to advanced skills. He is a vociferous proponent of the 2nd Amendment, and believes that defense of self and family is a moral obligation. He can be reached at grimgunner (AT) gmail.com.