About that time, “tactical” shooting matches were becoming popular, and the International Defensive Pistol Association (IDPA) was just being born. These promised to be more realistic venues for testing defensive shooting skills than traditional shooting contests, and like many other people, I decided to give them a try. I also wanted to test my equipment choices, including my holster.
Of course I wanted my holster to be concealable, but I also wanted it to be suitable for the concealed carry competitions I was shooting. At the matches, I watched closely what experienced shooters were using, as well as looking at resources such as the IDPA-approved holster list. What I ended up with seemed to be perfect.
As it turned out, it was good for only one thing: shooting matches.
I reasoned that gun games were the ideal test of that skill, and I tried a number of holsters to hone my drawstroke after the buzzer sounded.
I started with a holster that had a pronounced forward lean, which many refer to as an “FBI cant.” I picked this holster because it is very concealable. By rotating the gun forward, the lateral dimension of the gun’s profile shrinks slightly, making it easier to conceal.
It was concealable, but in competition it had a frustrating flaw: as my hand dropped to the gun, I had to rotate my wrist forward to get a proper firing grip. That took time, and once the grip was achieved, pulling the gun out wasn’t easy. I had to pull it forward as well as up. The contortions necessary to do all that made the drawstroke both awkward and slow.
The solution, as better shooters explained, was to get a holster with no cant that carried the gun straight up and down. They explained that when I rotated my hands from the surrender position — which was the normal starting position for all the shooting contests — to the gun, I’d be able to get a perfect firing grip and lift the gun directly out of the holster. My draw speed, they promised, would increase.
They were right. At one match, I recorded several successive draw-to-first-shot times of well under a second using this new holster and a Colt Python. No wonder everyone recommended the straight-drop holster!
There was a problem, however: a concept known as “context.”
Reality Sets In
As I learned more about what really happens during violent confrontations, I realized that the matches I enjoyed shooting weren’t terribly representative of the conditions under which I expected to defend myself.
That’s because the defensive tactics fraternity has learned a lot about the realities of defensive encounters in the last ten years or so. Clinical research has taught us a huge amount about the chemical, electrical, and blood flow changes that occur when the body is faced with a lethal threat, and backing that up are the ever-increasing numbers of dash-cam and surveillance camera videos that support what scientists have been telling us.
One of the body’s natural reactions to a lethal threat is to lower its center of gravity. As that happens, the upper body bends at the waist, bringing the shoulders forward to achieve the necessary balance to keep from falling over. That forward bias puts the body in a position to respond to any perceived threat as well as to move efficiently.
Defensive handgun instructors at the forefront of realistic training have long been teaching the need to get off the line of attack as soon as possible — even before the gun is drawn. Some call it “lateral movement,” others call it “getting off the X,” but all agree that it’s in the defender’s best interest to move quickly and decisively relative to the attacker.
As it happens, that kind of movement is facilitated by the body’s natural reaction of lowering the center of gravity and bending at the waist. In fact, it’s next to impossible to move quickly and forcefully without doing those things first!
Whether from natural reactions or trained responses, when defending yourself from a lethal threat, you’re very likely to assume an aggressive, forward-leaning posture even before you start to draw your gun. If you’re serious about training realistically, you’ll adopt that posture during all your practice exercises.
When you do, you’ll find that it dramatically affects your holster choice.
Change of Venue
In shooting competitions, there’s no threat stimulus, and certainly no need (or sometimes even allowance) to move off the line of attack. Virtually all the drawing I did in even the most tactical of competitions was from a straight standing position, because there was nothing triggering my body’s desire to get low.Remember that “FBI cant” holster I originally tried? In competition, the awkward drawstroke cost me time relative to the other shooters. It didn’t work well because the canted holster isn’t in line with the normal movement of the arm and body when in a standing position. The straight-drop holster, on the other hand, was. It allowed a solid grip without wrist contortion, and I could pull the gun straight up. This maximized the speed of the draw and is why “experts” in the game liked them. They weren’t wrong, because that holster design works well for competition. It fits the context of the activity.
When I started injecting realism based on the body’s natural reactions into my training, the context changed. I now drew my gun not from the calm posture of the shooting range, but from the lowered/forward posture that is normal for someone facing a lethal threat. The holster that worked well in the competitive context wasn’t so good when training realistically.
That’s because a gun carried on a belt tends to stay in the same place relative to the hips, regardless of the position of the upper body. The shoulders, which carry the arms, move forward relative to the hips.
The normal threat reaction posture, with the center of gravity lowered and the upper body leaning forward, moves the gun backward relative to the shoulders and arms. The gun’s exit path from the holster changes in relation to the arc of movement of the hands and now has to be pulled toward the rear to release it from the holster.
That’s not the direction in which the arm has the most strength. This movement also contorts the wrist and is counter-intuitive. The mind wants to bring the gun toward the front, where the threat is, rather than toward the back.
When I started my drawstroke from where I expected to be in an actual fight — from that threat reaction posture — my straight-drop holster felt as if it locked my gun into place. It was difficult to remove, and I found myself rising to a more upright position just to get the gun out of the holster. That sort of defeated the purpose of the realistic training!
Changing Old Habits
When I realized this (and it took me about a year — I’m a stubborn learner), I changed to a forward-canted holster. That design was not suitable for competition but perfect for realistic defensive shooting practice because it conformed to what my body was most likely to do in a real life-or-death struggle.The canted holster puts the exit path of the gun closer to the natural movement the hand is likely to make from an actual defensive posture. Put another way, the canted holster places the gun in the position the body is going to find itself in during a fight! It works better with the body’s natural reactions and trained responses than the straight-drop holster does. That makes it easier and more efficient to use under the circumstances in which I expect to defend myself.
Our body’s natural reactions affect not just how and what we train, but what we train with. Any piece of hardware you carry, whether it’s a gun or a holster, needs to work well with what your body is going to do naturally.
That’s not to say that anything else is absolutely unworkable, because that would fly in the face of recorded history. People have successfully defended themselves with all kinds of guns and holsters. Can you use a straight-drop holster for defensive encounters? Certainly, but you need to understand that your hardware choice affects your efficiency. The more efficient your response, the less time you’ll be exposed to danger and the less chance you’ll have of being injured or killed during the confrontation.
Again, it’s all about context. What works well in the controlled environment of a shooting match is not necessarily what will work well in a fight, and vice-versa. The variable? Our body’s natural reactions when under threat.
Pick your gear for the fight you’re likely to have, not the one you want to have. Test that gear under realistic conditions, the kind under which you’ll actually fight, rather than the make-believe conditions of the competition shooting range.