Sunday, April 5, 2020

Review of Craft Holsters' Shoulder Holster System With Mag Pouch

Unboxing
  Several weeks ago, I was approached by Craft Holsters to review a holster of my own selection from their catalog. For sake of full disclosure, the offer was that the holster would be provided to me free of charge. But I was given full editorial control--this review has not been previously provided to Craft Holsters so I can give an unbiased review of the product.

     Wanting something for my Beretta 84, I wavered between a cross-draw holster and a shoulder-holster, finally deciding on the shoulder-holster. Specifically, I requested the Shoulder Holster System With Mag Pouch. About a week later, it arrived on my doorstep.

     Technically, shoulder holsters include any holster system using a shoulder strap or shoulder harness. Thus, most chest holsters, such as the Kenai chest holster and the Hill People Gear's Kit Bag (my review of the latter is here), as well as various bras holsters and underarm holsters designed for women, are part of the class of "shoulder holsters" But when most people think of shoulder holsters, they think of something like that carried by Sonny Crockett in the Miami Vice television series, or John McClane in the movie Die Hard.

     Although I hadn't used a shoulder holster in the latter, classic sense of the word, prior to this review, I have certainly read up on them a lot since, and discovered that they have a lot of detractors yet, like the .380 ACP, seem to remain a favorite of a certain segment of the shooting community. In fact, reflecting on it, one of the reasons that I've never had a shoulder holster before now is because by the time I got a CCL and started carrying regularly, about 2000, the shoulder holster had largely fallen out of favor with gun writers. So I started out trying various carry methods employing outside the waistband (OWB) and inside the waistband (IWB) carry, as well as pocket carry, employing a fanny pack, and even some different types of off-body carry, but never considered a shoulder holster. I was so impressed, however, with the comfort of the Hill People Gear Kit Bag and, to a slightly lesser degree, the Kenai chest holster that with this offer from Craft Holsters my thoughts wondered to a shoulder holster rig.

     And so here we are. In this review, I will start out discussing the specific aspects of the Craft Holsters' product, then my experience using it for the past two weeks or so, and, finally, a more general discussion of shoulder holsters. But, in a nutshell, I've been very impressed with the system, as has my oldest son. In fact, after trying it on for a bit, he decided to order his own shoulder holster from Craft Holsters (with his money, not as a gift from Craft Holsters).

      So let's get started, shall we?

Front View

THE CRAFT HOLSTERS' SHOULDER HOLSTER SYSTEM

     Since unboxing of products is important to many people, let me start with that. The holster arrived in a sealed cardboard box, inside a white bag to protect and cushion it, with additional packing material to protect it. Although the product shipped from Slovakia, it arrived within a week of my receiving a shipping notice. I can't say whether this was typical for regular orders, but that was my experience. Like many holster makers, Craft Holsters does not have every model in stock, and I know there may be delays if they have to manufacture a holster (my son's order, for instance, is for a left-handed holster and so there is a manufacturing delay, which is probably not helped by the current Covid-19 outbreak).

       The package included a break-in kit consisting of a leather softener--it is not uncommon for the leather holsters to have to be softened to allow the holster to stretch to properly fit your firearm. In my case, it was not needed. Again, I would caution that because this was not an ordinary order, I don't know if the break-in kit is ordinarily shipped with orders, or if must be ordered separately  [Update: The break-in kit is indeed a separate item that can be ordered here]

Back view
      If you are at all familiar with shoulder holsters, you will probably recognize that the Craft Holsters system is similar to the design of Galco's popular Miami Classic shoulder holster system (albeit at a lower price point). Thus, the system consists of a horizontal holster, a harness, and a magazine carrier capable of holding two extra magazines.

     While not pictured in my photographs of the system, there is also a belt-tie down that attaches to the magazine carrier to help keep everything from flopping around. Although there are some systems that use two tie-downs, others (including the Miami Classic) use just the single tie-down. I elected to not use the tie-down as I felt it was secure enough without it, and my carry plan would generally involve removing the holster when at work (I will explain this in more detail later).

     The Craft Holster system makes use of a blend of leather and polymer parts. There are three different general types of leather used in the system. With the exception of the attachment of the holster to the straps of the harness, the parts used metal snaps to attach together. This is as it should be according to the sources I read. The different straps, to be comfortable and fit well, must be able to rotate slightly as the user moves, which is facilitated by the snaps (or hangers, in the case of the holster itself--see below). I also found the snaps useful for untangling the harness if need be; rather than trying to figure out how things became twisted up, I could simply unsnap a harness piece, unwind it, and then snap it back into place.

Hangers at the top of the holster.
     The pieces of the harness connect together on the back with a central piece made of a flexible polymer [update: my wife says that it is a silicone based plastic] with snaps to attach the harness straps (see below). The central piece is lightly textured and very clean looking from the visible side. On the reverse side--i.e., the side that will be up against your back--it is very shiny and slick, but some of the molding marks are visible.

     The hangers and buckles are of a hard polymer, similar to that used with backpacks and other outdoor equipment. Thus, I don't expect any issue as to durability unless I were to deliberately or accidentally crush the pieces.

Detail of the back connecting plate
     As I noted above, there are three types of leather used in the holster system. The holster, itself, is made of two layers of heavy leather that folds around the gun and is double stitched--unlike some other leather holsters I own, including models from De Santis and Galco. The space under the barrel is preserved using a screw and spacer. I don't know much about stitching, so the first thing I did when I opened the box was take the holster to my wife for her opinion as to the stitching. My wife embroiders, quilts and sews, including some professional work for a couple local stores and prototyping work she has done for product designers. Her comments were that the stitches looked good with appropriate tension. And as you can see, a heavy duty thread (heavier than a lot of leather holsters I've owned) was used. In short, the holster appears to be well made and heavy duty.

Detail of thumb break strap on Craft Holsters' leather holster. Note that it is a double layer of leather.
     I also appreciate that the thumb break is made of a double layer of heavy duty leather. This means that the thumb break will remain useful over a long period of time. Some holster makers use a single layer of leather with a metal or plastic reinforcement. But I have another leather holster that is a single layer of leather without any reinforcement, and, through use, the leather has weakened and become so flexible that it is easy to mess up the draw by not getting the thumb strap to release.

Worn thumb strap on a holster for a 1911

De Santis holster with a thumb break reinforced with sheet steel
         Finally, I found it interesting that there is an extra layer of leather stitched across the back of the holster with cuts for running a belt through. This means that if you wanted to take the time to unscrew the hangers from their straps, you could use the holster as a belt holster.

         The magazine carrier is made of what I would consider a medium weight cow leather. It is generic for double-stack magazines, but is well made and, most important, even with the flaps unsnapped, there was enough friction to hold the magazine in place so it didn't simply fall out. That is a good feature. I would rather draw the magazine from the carrier than have to bend over to pick it up from the ground.

        The straps are made of what I would describe as a light weight cow leather. That makes them more flexible and, I would guess, more comfortable to wear than thicker leather straps. The straps are adjustable so you can increase or decrease the length and, if desired, the angle at which the holster and/or magazine carrier ride. As noted earlier, the buckles for the straps are a polymer similar to what you would find used with other outdoor gear.

       So, in short, it seems that the holster and harness system are well built.

MY EXPERIENCE WITH THE SHOULDER HOLSTER SYSTEM

      The first rule of a gunfight is to have a gun, so it has been my belief that if your carrying system is so uncomfortable that you forego carrying, or if it otherwise so inconvenient to use that you avoid carrying, the holster or system is practically worthless. In my October 2019 post on carrying a handgun while hiking or hunting, I noted that one of the issues I have is lower back pain, which is aggravated if I have an unbalanced weight. That is why I was looking at chest holsters for outdoor carry, and is one of the factors I was interested in testing with this holster.

     With the gun on one side and the two loaded magazines on the other, everything balances nicely. I've used this holster exclusively for the past two weeks and I have no complaints: it was comfortable. Admittedly, I generally take it off when I arrive at work (my job is deemed "essential" under Idaho's isolation order, so I am still going in to work), and put it back on before leaving. But I've spent a couple days on the weekends wearing it all day and don't have any complaints.

     It was also nice while riding in a car. The firearm was easily accessible, unlike when carrying in a pocket holster or in a waist holster. And I didn't have the usual discomfort of the gun and holster being pushed into my side by the seatbelt or the seatbelt latch such as when I use a strong side waist carry holster. It certainly doesn't require the complete redesign of car seats.

     Another benefit was that if I had to use a toilet--as in, actually sit down--I didn't have the firearm dragging my pants to the ground or pulling the belt loose. So, something else in its favor.

     Now I know that comfort is a subjective thing, and not everyone agrees that shoulder holsters are comfortable (see, e.g., Greg Ellifritz's comments about shoulder holsters). While researching shoulder holsters in preparation for writing this review, I came across several authors that stated that they simply didn't like the holsters because they were so uncomfortable. But they didn't describe their problems in any detail, nor provide information as to the holster. So I don't know if it was an issue of a poorly designed holster, poor fit and adjustment, too heavy of straps, a general dislike of having weight hang off your shoulders, or what.

       One of the articles I read on the topic related that Don Johnson, the actor that played Sonny Crockett in Miami Vice, so hated the shoulder holster that he first used in the series that he was going to switch to a belt holster until Galco's founder showed up with his Jackass Holster (which became the Miami Classic) and correctly set it up for Johnson. So, in that case, it was simply the matter of getting a better designed holster setup and having it properly adjusted.

      If the issue is the pull on the shoulders, I don't know what to say. I've used suspenders periodically for years, and for the past 7 or 8 months have been wearing suspenders daily. So I'm used to the sensation of that pull on the shoulders and it doesn't bother me.

     Another benefit to this holster system is the magazine carrier. Previously, if I had an extra magazine or speed loader, it went into a pocket of a jacket or the day pack I use in lieu of a briefcase, and I only carried one such reload. This holster allows me to have two extra magazines at hand at all times I'm wearing the holster.

     Finally, it allowed me to step up to a more capable weapon. I've used several different carry methods and handguns over the years. After an initial period of experimenting, I eventually settled on a J-frame 5-round .38 Special Revolver for most of my carry needs, occasionally augmented with something larger. But I really wanted to have something with more capacity and quicker reload. When the second generation R51 came out, I purchased it for concealed carry. But with all the problems after its initial release, manufacturers backed away from it and so there weren't many holsters made for it, let alone something that I liked. I tried pocket carry, but it was really too large for the slacks that I wore for work. (In fact, I pretty much have given up on pocket carry with my work slacks since everything prints too easily, even trying really tiny .380s). The Beretta 84 gives me a 13+1 capacity, plus two 13-round magazines as spares. And it conceals better under my suit jackets than my waist holsters ever have.

     In fact, I'm so pleased with the system that I'm considering getting another for one to use with my Glock 34. And, as I mentioned at the beginning of this article, my son liked it so well that he plunked down his hard-earned cash to order one for himself.

    Now I have to admit that I initially struggled with putting on or taking off the holster. Sometimes, when putting it on, the harness might twist; taking it off, I was basically trying to shake it off like a particularly tight coat. But I soon figured out the proper way to put it on and take it off. Initially, you want to hold the magazine carrier with your right hand and lift up so that you can slip your left arm through the left side loop made by the straps and holster. Then grip the magazine carrier with your left hand, and lift it up in front of you so that you can begin to slide your right arm through the loop made by the harness and the magazine carrier and then slide into it like putting on a T-shirt. Taking it off is the reverse. The key, though, is keeping hold of the magazine carrier so that you can elevate the harness and keep it from twisting.

     My carry plan will vary somewhat during the year depending on temperature. During cold months, I normally were a zip-up sweater or jacket even when sitting at my desk. In past years, this has allowed me to wear a hip holster throughout the day. I expect that I will still be able to do this with the shoulder holster, although I have not yet tried the shoulder holster with my sweater/jackets.

     Generally, during the summer, because I ditch my jackets I have in the past either switched to pocket carry or worn it under a sports coat until in my office, and then simply taken off the holster and firearm and kept it in a desk drawer or my day pack until leaving. (I have a private office, so I can easily take off or put on a holster without too much of an issue). I will probably continue this same practice.

USING SHOULDER HOLSTERS GENERALLY

     Shoulder holsters have fallen out of favor with most defensive shooting instructors. This is largely due to liability and litigation issues. Basically, because of the way the weapon is worn, the muzzle will sweep other people as you move about, and the act of drawing will (generally) result in you sweeping the muzzle across the arm on the side of the holster, plus you may sweep the muzzle across others when you draw the weapon and bring it to a shooting position. But these same issues exist with other carry positions as well such as the cross-draw holsters, middle of the back, thigh-holsters and pocket carry (when sitting), and appendix-carry (AIWB).

      With all things firearms related, the carrying and use of a firearm is a series of weighing costs/benefits or engaging in acceptable trade-offs. For instance, I mentioned the other day that securely locking up a firearm is not the same as safe storage because a firearm locked up in such a way that you can't access it when needed is not really safe. Similar weighing of pros/cons and trade-offs are necessary to carrying a firearm.

      I see a lot of discussion from various blogs and forums that there is no such thing as an accidental discharge--only negligent discharges. In fact, it is so often repeated that it has become a truism. Why is this so? Because, it is assumed, even when loaded, a firearm in good condition is inert and will not fire unless someone is manipulating it. This is also why we hear the advice to not try and catch a firearm if you drop it because you are more likely to inadvertently actuate the trigger trying to catch the thing than it is for the firearm to fire upon striking the ground.

     My point with this is that this idea of the inert weapon also holds true if the firearm is resting in a holster. We don't go around afraid that the weapon on our belt holster will suddenly and by itself fire a round toward the ground that will ricochet and injure someone; and those using AIWB carry don't worry about the gun suddenly, by itself, blowing off the family jewels. Likewise, simply because the firearm is being carried in a shoulder holster does not mean that it will suddenly go off by itself and injure or kill an innocent bystander as we walk down the grocery aisle or bend over to grab a packet of cheese from the dairy display.

     Rather, as with all firearms, the danger is most acute when drawing or holstering a weapon due to a stray finger depressing the trigger. This didn't use to be as great an issue as today. I was reading an article the other day from the Revolver Guy blog discussing why the front of the trigger guard was removed from "Fitz" revolvers. The author noted that you could get away with this because of the heavy double action trigger pulls, adding: "Like most of the cops trained in the revolver era, I was taught to always have a finger resting on the trigger of a drawn revolver….and that was a mere 32 years ago in 1988. We really didn’t figure out how important trigger finger discipline was until the popularity of the Glock pistol." This suggests, then, that the solution might not be to discard the whole idea of a shoulder holster, but to be more careful of your selection of a firearm: i.e., use a double-action revolver, or a DA/SA or DAO pistol.

      And if you are afraid of shooting yourself on a draw, you can add lifting your non-shooting arm into the air when drawing so it is above the level of the muzzle of the firearm. This doesn't have to be raising your arm like you might raise a hand before asking a question, but a "chicken wing" that gets your arm and elbow up and out of the way.

     Some other common criticisms of the shoulder holster is that it is too easy for an attacker to fowl a draw, provides easy access to the firearm by an attacker, and that it can be difficult to draw if you are pressed against a wall or on the ground. There is merit to all of these, but the reality is that all concealed holsters allow easy access to the firearm simply because they generally lack any sort of retention beyond a thumb-break strap and/or friction. For concealed carry, the biggest defense against someone grabbing your gun is their not know you are carrying, and my admittedly limited experience is that the shoulder holster is easily equal or superior to other forms of carry for concealment.

      As for fowling the draw, a lot depends on circumstances. If it is you against a single attacker who has gotten up in your face, I believe that the standard retention response of blading the body so that your gun hand is further from the aggressor, and using your off hand (or elbow) to keep the attacker at some distance should work.

     As for being forced against a wall, or being on your back on the ground, I would have to respond that your reaction may well depend on what the attacker is doing. For instance, I think that middle of the back carry would be the worst places to have to draw a gun if you were on the ground with an attacker on top of you, yet George Zimmerman was able to get his gun out and shoot St. Skittles (Trayvon Martin). This was because Martin was so intent on punching Zimmerman and smacking his skull against the concrete, he wasn't paying attention to what Zimmerman was doing with his hands.

     So, let's look at the pro's of using a shoulder holster. The biggest benefit I see listed is that you have easy access to the weapon when seated, whether in a car or at a desk. This is a big deal for me because I work at a desk during the day, and my travel to and from work is by a vehicle. The most dangerous time for me to be attacked is when traversing the transition space of a parking lot to get to or from my car, or while I'm in a vehicle. Thus, the shoulder holster actually works better for me than my two most common carry methods in the past: strong side waist or pocket carry. And, as one author has pointed out, "shoulder holsters would benefit the physical disabled, especially those who are wheelchair bound. Unlike a strong-side belt holster, drawing from a shoulder holster is much easier when seated."

     Another commonly listed benefit of wearing a shoulder holster is for cold weather carry. In cold weather, especially if you are wearing an outer coat long enough to cover your butt, it can be difficult to access a handgun carried at the waist level. My experience has been that for quick access, I either need to keep my coat unzipped (which largely defeats the purpose of wearing the coat) or carry something like my J-frame revolver in one of the coat pockets. Shoulder holsters, on the other hand, offer quicker and easier access to a concealed weapon in cold weather.

     The shoulder holster is also generally regarded as being better for carrying heavier firearms because of the weight distribution provided by the shoulder harness. As I noted above, since I have lower back problems, it has been much more comfortable to carry my weapon in the shoulder holster than in a belt holster.

       If you fancy using a long barreled weapon, a vertical or 45 degree canted shoulder holster gives you more room to work with than you would have with a belt holster.

     Another advantage--at least with this Craft Holster system or similar system--is that my firearm and spare ammunition are carried by a single convenient package that is easy to get on and off. And I don't need gun belt: I can wear my slim dress belts.

     Finally, I've seen a couple authors argue that it can be more discrete to prepare to draw your weapon. "[F]rom a tactical standpoint, the act of calmly folding your arms at the first hint of danger to enable your firing hand to access a shoulder-holstered pistol draws a lot less attention (not to mention requires tremendously less effort) than drawing from a strong-side hip holster."

CONCLUSION

     In short, I liked the holster, it appears to be well made, and it solves some issues I had with other carry holsters. I would recommend it to others.

MISCELLANEOUS SOURCES

    Some interesting and/or useful articles on shoulder holsters I came across while researching the topic:
      Glamourized in movies and TV programs, the shoulder holster has seen tremendous advancements in design and popularity since their original development more than a century ago. Consisting of a harness encircling both shoulders and suspending a handgun from beneath the armpit of the support hand, today's shoulder holsters are available in a wide variety of models that orient a pistol in several ways—offering the wearer great versatility—thereby making shoulder holsters ideal for someone who is seated for long periods of time. Perhaps that is why they are popular with law enforcement/military pilots and armored-vehicle personnel, along with members of a security details assigned to vehicles. Therefore, it is understandable why shoulder holsters would benefit the physical disabled, especially those who are wheelchair bound. Unlike a strong-side belt holster, drawing from a shoulder holster is much easier when seated.
          In addition, from a tactical standpoint, the act of calmly folding your arms at the first hint of danger to enable your firing hand to access a shoulder-holstered pistol draws a lot less attention (not to mention requires tremendously less effort) than drawing from a strong-side hip holster. They are also one of the only types of holsters that don't require use of a belt—which could be advantageous for someone with limited fine motor skills or those with lumbar spine injuries.
            Models that combine magazine pouches/ammo carriers with a holster comprise a complete shoulder system—a concealed-carry complement comprising a single piece of gear, as opposed to multiple pieces that need individual placement on a belt. Also, since a shoulder holster carries the pistol beneath the support-side arm, the nature of its design makes it one of the easiest holsters to draw from with your weak hand should you become injured during a gunfight. However, be sure to raise your nondominant arm during the draw to avoid sweeping yourself with the muzzle.
               Sporting an ambidextrous, half-harness design, easy-to-manipulate tiedowns and an innovative spring-retention system, the author considers the Safariland 1090 Gun-Quick shoulder holster ideal for CCW permitees who may unable to use traditional shoulder holster due to insufficient fine motor skills.
                 When I first began carrying concealed, it took me some time to settle on the type of firearm that offered a balance of comfort and practicality. (I even made a shoulder holster of my own design to use while at Gunsite many years ago.) The one long-standing constant was my use of a shoulder holster. No matter if I was relying on my crutches or my wheelchair, a shoulder holster provided an optimal level of quick access, concealment and comfort. As time passed and birthdays passed, it forced me to restrict my use of shoulder holsters in lieu of alternative methods of carry as a result of developing a duke's mixture of arthritis and degenerative-disk disease in my spine. Nonetheless, I still find myself turning to shoulder holsters these days—especially during winter and fall months when jackets are worn. Although their service is primarily geared more toward short-term use, such as an impromptu decision to catch a movie or run an errand, I take comfort in knowing a shoulder holster puts everything I need to defend myself in a single piece of gear that is easy to don and quick to access when seconds count.
                   Lastly, pistol-packing females naturally gravitate toward shoulder holsters because most hip holsters are designed for men, and as a result they ride too high on a woman's body. Along similar lines, selecting a shoulder holster serves a practical as well as a stylish vein in that it saves them from having to wear manly looking pants that contain belt loops wide enough to accommodate the type of belt needed to comfortably retain a handgun, holster and spare-ammunition pouch. According to an article written by Massad Ayoob in the August 1999 issue of Guns Magazine, women also have a genetic advantage when it comes to shoulder holsters. Unlike men who can have difficulty reaching across their chest to grip a shoulder-holstered handgun, for some reason women's arms tend to be more limber enabling them to reach farther toward their support-side armpit. It turns out holster designer/quick-draw artist Chic Gaylord brought this phenomenon to light back in his 1960 book, "Handgunner's Guide." It also served as the basis for his Dynamite shoulder Rig, which was originally designed for policewomen.

            3 comments:

            1. How well do you think the holster would work on a semiautomatic pistol with aftermarket TRUGLO TFO sights? The sights are not really beveled like the factory sights and have relatively sharp corners. Do you think they would dig in when the pistol is being withdrawn?

              ReplyDelete
              Replies
              1. In looking at the construction, I believe there is enough of a peak where the leather is stitched together to accommodate those sights (having compared with similar Ameriglow sights on my Glock).

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              2. BTW thank you very much for this article. I am so glad to see something online besides you-know-what.😊

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