A good holster is an essential piece of gear for the effective carry of a handgun. A holster will hold your pistol near your body safely and securely when it is not in your hands and keep it ready for a smooth and snag-free draw when needed. Your choice of holster will have a disproportionate impact on our comfort and effectiveness when carrying concealed or openly and so should be chosen with the utmost discernment.
Your holster is more than a “gun-bucket,” as it has to put up with a fair amount of abuse just during daily wear and tear: abrasion, pressure, moisture and more will be all be working against your holster. If it starts to wear out or fail, the retention of your pistol will be compromised.
Modern holster materials like kydex have been seen as a major leap forward in design since they are nearly invulnerable to all of the above factors.
But what about not-so-modern holster materials, like classic leather? Leather is timeless, and not going anywhere anytime soon, at least in the gun sphere.
While not as invulnerable as kydex, leather is still strong, soft to the touch, malleable and well-suited to forming around odd shapes like guns. This living link to bygone eras remains extremely appealing to many shooters and even has a few special perks that can recommend it.
But the big question is, in the face of stronger, lighter, more durable and cheaper kydex, is leather still worth it as a holster-making material, or are we just clinging to the old ways for nostalgia’s sake? In this article, I will try to answer that question as honestly as I can.
What Should a Good Holster Do For You?
We shouldn’t go declaring leather holsters good, so-so or bad without first understanding what we need from a holster, period. I don’t grade my equipment on a curve, and neither should you. I need my equipment to uphold a certain standard so I can do my job and have faith in it. So should you.
I don’t care if the holster is made from nylon, leather, kydex, beeswax or carbon nanoalloy, it just has to meet the standard and do so under adverse use day in and day out. Under those guidelines, something is poor, average, good or excellent. It is adequate to the task or it isn’t.
I don’t allow a subpar holster any slack because it is made from Material X or Material Y. See to it that you do the same. Have standards. Be objective.
No matter what our theoretical good holster is made from, it must be able to secure the firearm in place. This means it can hold it snugly and upright against our body (assuming a belt holster).
For a holster that lacks any active retention mechanisms, this is done by ensuring that the holster is closely molded to fit the specific outline of a given pistol.
Friction is our friend, but this must be done with care: too tight will make the draw glitchy and difficult, where too loose is sloppy and a risk of spilling or otherwise loosing the gun.
Balance is the name of the game, as it is with so many things. We want our holster to retain the gun securely and surely when doing normal activities like walking, running and sitting, but not grip it so tightly that it must be drawn with anything harder than a firm tug (again, other active retention devices not counted here).
The holster body itself and its mounting system must be up to the task of holding the holstered pistol in place without listing or drooping away from its mounting point, our belt. Now, the belt itself must be of commensurate quality too or the best holster in the world will be left to flap in the breeze.
Belts are topic for another article, though. This trait is important so that the gun remains upright and consistently positioned for a repeatable, quick draw but also for security and concealment purposes if applicable.
Another important trait is the mouth, or opening, of the holster. This part of the holster should be completely rigid or nearly so in order for the mouth of the holster to remain open and ready to receive the pistol when reholstering.
If allowed to collapse, this can make reholstering either a two-handed affair (not ideal, as your supporting hand is probably busy clearing garment fabric, etc.) or an operation fraught with risk as you use the muzzle of the pistol to fish around in an effort to open up the holster. Both are not ideal.
The holster must ultimately also be made from rugged and hardy material in order to stand up to the rigors of daily carry and the potentially high-impact environment of a fight.
Any flaw or weakpoint, especially in the attachment point (loops, snaps, etc.) may result in the holster failing and falling from the belt or even being ripped off entirely in a fight with the pistol inside.
Aside from all of these most crucial traits, a good holster can vary considerably in design and options from one to the next. Leather is certainly capable of fulfilling all of these objectives but how does it compare to kydex and other modern materials?
Leather: Pros and Perks
I am only counting decisive material advantages of leather in this section. As much as I love everything about it- the feel, the smell, the prestige and the history- I am far too pragmatic to let a romantic notion of any piece of kit influence my use of it for real world problem solving.
Leather is certainly a tough material, as its use for centuries in the making of clothing, footwear, armor and as handle wrap will certainly attest.
Leather of any significant thickness will readily hold up against abrasion, cutting and tearing unless extraordinary force or a very sharp blade is used. Leather is also reasonably resistant to temperature changes hot or cold, except for long-term exposures.
Leather’s biological nature makes it soft and somewhat flexible, and much nicer to have against bare skin than kydex. This same quality makes leather quiet to draw from: kydex holsters often produce a clickety noise when drawing, whereas leather only creates a shushing sound so beloved by shooters everywhere, and if the pistol is being drawn surreptitiously it is nearly silent.
This is a fringe benefit to some, but to those seasoned gunhands who understand the value of not drawing attention in certain situations it is definitely an advantage.
Leather is also loved for being amenable to a “Goldilocks” level of fitment and retention: not too tight and not too loose. A perfectly fitted leather holster made by a master is truly a wondrous thing when it comes to drawing the gun, and still affords plenty of security so long as things don’t get too wild and wooly.
Leather: Cons and Flaws
Leather’s biggest disadvantage is its lack of long-term wear characteristics and its maintenance-intensive care regimen. Leather is skin, after all, not too different from yours and anything that starts to break down the fibers in the leather will adversely affect your holster’s performance in short order.
Poor quality leather is not very resistant to moisture and even super-grade leather will not endure it forever, especially if it gets soaked or is not allowed to dry out. This will result in stretching or shrinking, and when conditions are just so even molding and rot. Your leather holster can be eaten away by something that would not phase kydex. Additional abuse from repeated soaking with sweat and exposure to things like dirt, dust grit and so on will accelerate decay and wear.
While tolerant of rough weather conditions to a degree, extended exposure to cold can freeze it and make it still or brittle, where extreme heat will dry it out and make it crack; your leather holster will require periodic care in the form of conditioning with holster-specific lotions and leather treatments that will condition the material while preserving its form and rigidity. You cannot simply use most over-the-counter leather conditioners on a holster as these are designed to soften leather and make it supple; that would hurt your holster’s retention for sure!
Leather, once worn and weakened over time, will fold, flop, smoosh and generally not perform like it used to. It just loses its shape, even if it still holds the gun. This is a safety hazard in addition to a loss of performance and should not be tolerated. Once this happens, decommission your leather holster.
But, considering the cost of good gunleather, this is a painful proposition for most folks. Good, top shelf leather holsters can handily run in excess of $125.00. Excellent kydex holsters from the best in the business will rarely top $80.00.
Leather flat out cost more in upkeep and “runtime.” Consider also that the majority of leather holsters do not have any capability to change their position or mounting option and this might become a limiting factor when so many kydex holsters can at the minimum convert from IWB to OWB with little loss of performance.
Lastly, leather’s absorbent nature means that water and sweat will have a much easier time wicking off your body and coming to rest against the pistol it carries.
While not necessarily harmful, some guns and finishes are more vulnerable to corrosion than others (and for that matter some people have far more corrosive body compositions than others) and this can lead directly to rusting and additional preventative maintenance for your carry pistol.
Determination: Is Leather Worth It?
Leather done right is entirely serviceable, even excellent, as a holster-making material. It is entirely possible to obtain a leather holster that will serve you for years carrying your pistol. It is the classic choice, but unfortunately has been deposed by kydex as the premier hardcore holster material.
We know that as long as leather can last, it won’t last forever. Nothing does, but newer synthetic materials have lifespans so much longer than leather even enduring abuse that would make a fan of leather shriek with horror.
Ultimately, if you have the cash, you could make a case for it coming down to preference. But if you are among the user group who trains often, and hard, in all conditions leather will probably let you down. Also do not be taken in by cheapie leather holsters.
Leather is not created equal! Just because a holster is leather does not make it of arbitrarily median quality, as some think. A cheap, $25 common leather holster is not suitable for any kind of serious work, especially just because it is leather and looks, feels and smells nice compared to a similarly priced crappy nylon holster.
If you must have a hard-working leather holster, and are willing to pay appropriately for it, go to town with my blessing. If you just want a good holster and a modestly priced leather one is available for your gun in your desired mode of carry, it is probably acceptable, so go ahead. But if you think that leather will endure the abuse that kydex will, or last as long under most conditions, you are mistaken.
Bottom Line: Quality leather remains an entirely acceptable, even great, holster material for those who desire it, but modern options like kydex offer more advantage for less upfront and follow-on cost. Even so, flaws and all, there are legions of shooters who will not trust their pistols to be packed in anything less than tough and supple gunleather.
Charles Yor is an advocate of low-profile preparation, readiness as a virtue and avoiding trouble before it starts. He has enjoyed a long career in personal security implementation throughout the lower 48 of the United States.