First off, just by way of introduction, I've been doing this (CCW) for some 20 years, carrying an H&K P7M8 in particular, or a Glock 30 or 36, and most recently the 1911, more often than any other guns, though at various times I've also carried the Sig P220, Sig P225, H&K USP .45 Compact, Glock 19, Glock 23, Glock 27, and a number of different revolvers. My aim has always been to have reliable, quick access to the sidearm, with good concealment, and with very good to excellent comfort. Obviously, simply wearing a gun means adapting to a minor form of discomfort, since adding a 2-3 pound chunk of metal to one side of your body won't go altogether unnoticed!
Be that as it may, most CCW holders have decided that the annoyance is "worth it." The trick is to minimize the annoyance. While I generally prefer belt holsters, alternative methods of CCW, such as briefcase carry (or for the ladies, purse carry) and shoulder holsters have a very definite place in the repertoire of concealed carry. Without addressing off-body carry reasons or methods here, it can be stated with confidence that use of a shoulder rig for CCW can be a viable choice, even sometimes the best choice, for many folks who choose to go armed.
Some gun "experts" decry the shoulder holster, claiming this carry method to be intrinsically unsafe and the draw innately slower than from a belt holster, and these arguments require a reasoned answer. These aficionados seem to be fond of citing anecdotes about users shooting themselves in the offside arm during the draw or during
holstering of the gun. At the very least, they mention how drawing from a shoulder holster, or even carrying a weapon in a horizontal shoulder holster, constitutes a violation of "Rule 2" ("Never let the muzzle cover anything you're not willing to see destroyed"), and these criticisms are not without some initial apparent merit. Some people do handle guns carelessly. Carrying a horizontally-oriented shoulder holster under your offside arm
does have the gun muzzle pointing at people and things behind you. But (rhetorical question) will the gun go off by itself? Of course not, unless it's mechanically unsound, and who would knowingly carry such a defective weapon? Static carry is therefore an example of administrative weapon manipulation, while the 4 Cardinal Rules really relate to weapon handling, since the same "Rule 2" is broken whenever you store your gun or carry it boxed up in your car, as the muzzle is always pointing at something. It's a "straw man" argument. As for unintended discharging of the weapon while drawing or holstering, these errors are largely avoided by consistent and careful obedience to "Rule 3" ("Keep your finger off the trigger till your sights are on the target"), that is, both of the usual criticisms of shoulder holster safety are TRAINING issues, not innate or unanswerable condemnations of that carry mode. Yet a further criticism pertains to the problem with the gun muzzle crossing ones' offside arm, or crossing persons on that side, during the draw. Such may be unavoidable, in fact, though with practice, the risk can be minimized, again by obedience to Rule 3. 'Nuff said.
As to speed of access, the shoulder holster is genuinely slower to draw from than a belt rig, in most cases. This is simply a fact of this carry method, since reaching across ones' chest, then perhaps having to manipulate some sort of retention device, and only then withdrawing the gun, bringing the other hand up to assume a typical two-handed grip, and getting on target, all takes more time than the more-natural movement of reaching and grabbing-pulling from a "strong side" hip holster.
So why go to the trouble of using a shoulder rig?
For one thing, the well-made, balanced rigs are exceptionally comfortable. Anyone carrying around a heavy chunk of steel all day will find that balance of the carried weight is important. With a belt rig, the gun will always make you somewhat asymmetric, in that, even if you carry an extra magazine (as you should) in an "offside" pouch, its weight won't come close to matching the weight of the gun, so there will almost certainly be a tendency to feel that one side is heavier than the other. A very tightly-buckled, well-made 1 1/2" wide gun belt can help a lot in minimizing the perceived asymmetry, but not everyone can wear a tight belt (the "abdominally-generous" among us), and some folks will never be comfortable carrying a heavy object on one side of the belt, no matter what adaptations they make. With a shoulder rig employing a typical harness (usually a "figure 8" or similar design), the weight of the carried weapon/spare ammunition is distributed across both shoulders, with the holster and magazine pouches or speedloader-dump pouches suspended from the harness on opposite sides. Often two or even three mag pouches or speedloader holders are carried, making the balance more even than with a single mag pouch on the belt, and there may even be an offside "tie-down" strap of some sort to help keep the rig from shifting from side to side. (Some rigs have tie-down straps on both sides, to minimize shift and to minimize the tendency of the suspended elements to "sway" when bending forward.)
A second good reason is for weapon access for those people who spend much of their time sitting down, or whose work requires clothing that makes access to a belt holster inconvenient or cumbersome. Especially when driving, access to a typical hip holster or even "appendix-carry" gun may be near-impossible. Some people wear long garments (eg, a lab coat) which might significantly interfere with gun access from a belt holster, and folks in these categories might obviously be better served with a shoulder rig than a belt holster.
Thirdly, some people who have had back or hip injuries simply cannot wear a belt holster without pain, and a shoulder rig or "off-body" carry may be their only choices. Certainly, in these cases "on-body" carry in a shoulder rig is to be preferred over any type of off-body (purse or briefcase) carry, when possible, if only for reasons of security and guaranteed accessibility.
A fourth reason is pertinent particularly to women. Very few women can carry any sort of belt holster with comfort. The shorter female torso and narrower waist make carrying a concealable belt holster a torturous experience, since the gun usually rides high enough to impact the ribs and the breast on that side, and the "ladies' holster" designs that are made to hold the gun away from the body aren't very concealable at all. Most women therefore seem to opt for "purse carry" as a solution, but a shoulder rig potentially provides a very workable alternative for those women who habitually wear a "cover garment" of some sort, such as a vest or suit jacket. The gun is made the more concealable since the female bust constitutes a "shelf" which holds the covering garment away from the body, minimizing the chance of the gun "printing." While in my experience most non-law-enforcement women who practice CCW won't employ anything but purse carry, there are more who will use a shoulder rig than a belt rig.
Last of all, a shoulder rig can be a means of carrying a second gun, which may be important only to those of us who believe that a "backup gun" is a sensible insurance policy.
Shoulder rigs aren't for everyone. Most people (men, anyway) are probably usually best-advised to use a belt holster, since these require less training to use than do shoulder holsters. Shoulder holsters fill a definite set of "CCW niches", though, and fill them well.
One more point does need to be mentioned about choice of gun size for shoulder holster carry. While many fairly small-statured persons can carry relatively large size sidearms in belt holsters with fair comfort and concealability, your body habitus and size will significantly limit the maximum size of pistol you can carry successfully-concealed in a horizontal shoulder rig using only a simple cover garment, such as a vest.
As a fairly average 5'10", 180 lb. man, I find it easy to carry the H&K P7M8 fully concealed (essentially undetectable) in a horizontal shoulder rig, while the Glock 30 is a bit more difficult (the muzzle can sometimes "print"), and guns the size of the 1911 require a leather jacket or coat to be worn, since a sweater or vest simply will not prevent the outline of the gun from being recognized for what it is. If you're 6'6" tall and weigh 300 lb, you can probably get away with carrying a .50AE Desert Eagle in a shoulder rig, but most of us will have to be more conservative! A vertical rig may offer better concealability in the case of some of the larger guns, though, even though access is typically a little bit slower.
Styles and Brands.
I've purchased, owned and used (or tried to use) all of the following, except one, as noted. Many have been for the P7M8, while some have been for that and other guns, as well, that is, I've tried a given maker's rig in multiple examples, for different guns, in some cases.
Galco Miami Classic shoulder rig;
These are mass-produced line items, available modularly. The quality of the strapping leather in my example was mediocre.
The straps on the Miami Classic in particular are narrow, and the advertised carry-fashion leaves the gun and mag pouches suspended too low, interfering with concealment and especially with access. (When worn as designed, the gun will prove difficult to grab quickly, tending to shift away from the grasping hand, and once grasped, the slack built into the design makes the weapon difficult to withdraw.) The overly-loose design makes the rig more liable to shifting from side to side than it should be. The construction of the holster and mag pouches employs thick, rather bulky leather, which makes for a bulky, difficult-to-conceal rig. Considering what you get, they seem rather overpriced, though the rig seems to have many fans among those who have tried little else.
FIST vertical shoulder rig
This company offers another "factory custom" approach to holster production.
I had one of these for the Glock 27, which is a fairly small gun. With the offside angled double mag pouch, I felt like I was carrying a ham under each arm, the rig was so bulky. The design concept is a good one, but the execution is lacking. The leather is dry, (feels like "splits"), and quality was poor as compared to others. In addition, the owner (Jim Murnack) was quite rude and insulting to deal with. (FWIW, in response to a query about FIST holsters on a gun-related bulletin board, I related my experience and opinions, then Mr. Murnack signed on and took umbrage. I emailed him personally, and received some poorly-written, sometimes-incomprehensible insults in return. As it turned out, he had mistaken me for a different person posting to the same thread, and he later apologised, but nonetheless demonstrated a poor attitude for a businessman, in my opinion. He DID take the rig back and refund my original cost, after the smoke cleared, though, and I give him credit for that. It's the only shoulder rig I've ever returned to the maker, and I did so only because he seemed to want to make things right.)
Ken Null USH
This is a "tri-span" harness affair, made of white polymer-cloth blend strapping (conceals well when worn over a white dress shirt), which suspends the gun from one shoulder, with a second strap crossing behind and over the opposite shoulder and attaching to the belt, or to the waistband of the trousers via a clip (included), which tends to minimize what would otherwise be a very "one-sided" feeling for this rig. The holster is a white-colored thin polymer "clamshell" design, and the gun is held muzzle-up (don't worry!), butt down and to the rear, with the trigger guard covered, the gun being drawn quickly by grasping the stocks and applying a twisting movement , which opens the (snapped) clamshell. There's no offside mag carrier(s). The design works best with small, lightweight guns, and the particular version of this rig for the J-Frame S&W revolvers (the "City Slicker") is really a winner. Bigger, heavier guns, even the size of the P7M8, feel unbalanced however, and tend to swing fore and aft with bending and straightening up movements, since the gun isn't tied down in any way.
Ken Null is a real nice fellow to do business with, listens to what his customers want & need, is a real master craftsman, and gets orders out quick (1-2 weeks, usually), doing most of the actual work himself. I recommend his leather gear with enthusiasm, for just about any pistol irrespective of size, though his USH rig is best used for little guns, IMNSHO.
Tex Shoemaker "spring-retention" vertical shoulder holster for the H&K P7 series.
This is (was?) a rig holding the gun in a muzzle down, butt forward position, with a permanently-attached (non-releasable) strap going over the upper backstrap, and the trigger guard supported by a long coil spring (which wrapped around the front of the guard), with the weapon drawn by pushing the gun down against the spring, this permitting sufficient slack to allow the gun to be "rocked" backwards, out from under the retaining strap, and then pulled straight up and back, out of the holster. Sounds ingenious, but it didn't work all that well. For one thing, the series of movements one needed to make in order to draw the gun were not natural or automatic, in fact, they were downright complex. Not what you want in a life-and-death situation. Second, the leather holster/harness was suspended from one shoulder, and an elastic strap supported the rig by passing under the offside armpit, as a loop. I don't know about anybody else, but the feeling of my shirt being pulled up into my armpit all day is very annoying and uncomfortable! This type of design lacks any counterbalancing offside mag pouch, obviously. I'd recommend avoiding ANY design of this type, that is, that supports the holster by looping an elastic strap around the offside armpit.
Shooting Systems shoulder rigs
These are nylon holsters/harnesses, rather better made than some others of similar materials. The straps of the harness lie flat, and are quite comfortable. Of course, the holsters are always of the "one size fits most" variety, and the thumb-break straps, being nylon, are prone to "give" rather than to break open cleanly, no matter how tightly you snug the velcro adjustments down. Not a bad idea for a "field rig", to carry a handgun for hunting/hiking perhaps, but not the best choice for self-defense, when the gun has to be instantly, reliably available. Unavoidable felonious assault is not the circumstance to be in with gear that works "sort of", "some of the time."
Kramer Leather shoulder holster
Greg Kramer (whose work I've known since the company was Greg Kramer's Pro Line) makes a nice balanced harness out of soft suede leather, with the straps wider over the top of the shoulder than at the points of suspension for the holster/mag pouch(es). The attachments of the harness straps to the holster/pouch are via a cumbersome weaving of the leather straps through squared double rings, and anchored with Chicago screws. This makes things a bit bulkier than they need to be, but it's not a major problem. The rig I had used bilateral tie-downs, which promptly broke, raising concerns about quality control. Most significantly negative, the retaining strap ("thumb-break" strap) is made to go around the top of the backstrap, beneath the rear face of the slide, rather than directly behind the rear of the slide. This results in an elliptical curve to the strap, which therefore doesn't allow a straight pull to be applied to the snap when the gun is wanted. Pressing on the thumb-break tab results in a mushy, loose "give" of the tab, and the strap doesn't release the gun! I sent the rig back with explanations about the design problem, and received it back with a slightly shorter strap, in the same location, which still didn't work. On calling again, I was given to understand that that "this is the way they do it, and they know best", and that if I wanted a holster with a straight strap going around the rear of the slide, I'd have to "special order" it, at a cost of $125 additional (just for the holster), so I said "no, thank you", and chalked it up to experience. If they would change that aspect of their design, they would be worth considering, though the rigs are overpriced. As it is, their shoulder holster is unsafe, as is any holster which won't reliably permit the gun to be drawn when needed.
Mitch Rosen's Style Master shoulder rigs (several versions, from "economy" to "deluxe")
I haven't owned these, only seen 'em. They're bulky (strap leather too thick), and they were initially WAY overpriced. (Nearly $500 for a stinkin' holster? I appreciate quality as much as the next guy, but come on! They're not as well-designed as some others that cost far less.) After the model had been out for a couple of years, I noted that the price went down to $380, and an economy model has subsequently become available for $135, which seems more reasonable.
Lou Alessi's Bodyguard horizontal shoulder rig
Finally, IMNSHO the simple zenith of shoulder holsters, at least for horizontal rigs. I've had seven of these to date, for different guns, even including one example of the double Bodyguard rig, so I certainly like them! Somehow, Lou manages to produce rigs that use thin flat supple leather strapping for the harness, wider over the shoulders, easily adjustable, non-bulky, and provides a workable and rather unusual "folded" leather offside mag pouch (one or two mags, your choice), with a top-notch horizontal holster, for a "whole is more than the sum of the parts" rig, at a truly bargain price. Lou Alessi is a master leather craftsman of the Old School, and truly knows his stuff. He's also
a real gentleman, a prince of a guy to do business with, and will work with you to produce what you need, assuming you can't find what you need among his existing designs. If you don't like what you get, he cheerfully takes it back, even if you decide "you just don't like shoulder holsters after all", as happened with one individual I referred to him. Lou makes two types of releases for his shoulder holsters, one a traditional thumb break, with the strap going around the rear of the slide, the other a pull-through snap affair which retains the gun by a snap within the front of the trigger guard. This latter design allows one to simply grasp the stocks of the gun and yank. No straps to open or springs or elastic to have to circumnavigate. It's very simple but very clever, and it works. It isn't unsafe at all, and you can't inadvertently seat the gun more deeply in the holster, so there's no way that the snap will contact the trigger. Unfortunately, it isn't available for all guns, since Lou's a little uneasy about making a holster with a retention device inside the trigger guard of guns with single-action triggers without safeties, including the Glock "Safe Action" trigger design, though he worked out an alternative solution to that for the Glock 30 for me on a special order basis. He produced a pull-through type of snap at the rear of the holster (which points toward the front of the body, since this is a form of horizontal-carry rig), with the snap lying against the chest so as not to stick out and interfere with concealment beneath the cover garment. The rig is very secure, and the snap won't open accidentally, yet it releases the gun instantly when pulled.
Matt Del Fatti's horizontal shoulder rig, the SR.
I ordered one of these for the Glock 36, and Matt was kind enough to design an alternative to the typical thumb break at my request (since I hate those things!) by employing a Kydex clip which partially overlaps the rear of the slide. The rig is quite secure, yet the gun comes out with just a firm quick pull, and is very well made, like all Matt's stuff. The offside holds a horizontal double mag pouch. There's no picture of this exact rig on Matt's website, since he also offers the traditional thumb break, and it's this type that's pictured there, but his website pictures shows what the rig basically looks like. It works very well. The offside double horizontal mag pouch employs tension-screw retention, so does away with flaps and snaps, and its tie down strap can be ordered with either of two methods of adjustment (double D-rings or Chicago screws).
More recently, Matt was agreeable to further customizing the same design for me, with the rear holster strap arising from a level on the holster well below the muzzle, similar to the idea of the Galco "Jackass" holster, but with the leather extending all the way to the end of the muzzle. This results in a holster that naturally tilts muzzle-up at about 45 degrees, thereby minimizing the fore-aft distance over which the pistol can print, with improvements in concealment resulting, yet the gun is still readily accessible on the draw. It's easily now my favorite shoulder rig for the Glock 36.
Skunkworks shoulder rig
I had one of these made for the Glock 30. It's a nylon harness, Kydex holster type. I believe that the owner-maker, who was (is?) an itinerant trainer of some sort, has gotten out of the holster business, so this review isn't particularly pertinent, but is included here for completeness' sake. The harness was, frankly, crap, and made of nylon webbing, while the holster was bulky but reliable, and retained the gun well but released it easily without straps. I ordered it with, and paid in advance for, a double magazine pouch, and after 8 months or so (!), I eventually received it with a single mag pouch, and the maker never returned my emails, so I never got any satisfaction on this one. (If you ever want to order a Kydex rig and are considering doing so from any guy who says he's the previous operator of Skunkworks Kydex Holsters, be careful! His quality was merely so-so, but his business practices were awful.)
Survival Sheath Systems Triple Magazine shoulder rig
I had one of these made for the Glock 36. Nylon-velcro harness, thin Kydex holster, with the advantage of very good gun retention without straps or thumb breaks, yet instant release with a solid yank on the pistol. The trouble with Kydex holster items, however, IMNSHO, is that they're stiff and inflexible yet rather large in some cases (including this one, with the offside carrier for three horizontally-held magazines), which means that they tend to print more than similar but more compact leather items under a cover garment, at least that's been my experience. This one is probably the best of the Kydex shoulder rigs, nonetheless, and the owner-maker, Bob Humelbaugh, is a very nice fellow to deal with.
Lou Alessi's Fieldmaster vertical shoulder rig
This is an excellent and well thought out rig which allows the vertically carried gun to tilt forward on the draw, and is otherwise retained in upright position by a form of pull-through snap at the front of the holster. The one I have is for the fullsize 1911. The internal tilting holster is held and supported by the outer holster frame, which contains the straps which attach to the harness, and the base, a sort of large strap-loop which attaches to the pants belt. The offside holds a double horizontal mag pouch with snap-flap covers and a leather loop tie down strap. It's fully adjustable, very comfortable, very stable and surprisingly concealable, at least under a mildly-bulky vest or jacket, though the bulge on the gunside isn't altogether unobvious, and of course it's not as readily concealable as a horizontal rig carrying a smaller pistol like the H&K P7M8.
Quality is impeccable, as with all of Lou's work. Lou says it's meant for carrying "in the field", and he's made a lot of them for soldiers in Iraq and other areas overseas, but it can definitely serve for CCW with a bit of care and consideration about cover garments. I've used mine, in cordovan, as such quite a bit.
Aker Comfort Flex Model 101
This is a shoulder rig made by an established "cop-leather" company. Because it uses a holster suspension approach like that of the Galco Jackass (muzzle-up tilt), I decided to try it out. I found the folks very nice to deal with by phone and email, but unfortunately they weren't up on their facts. I ordered the rig for the Glock 36, and was told that the rig made for the Glock 17/19 would definitely fit he Glock 36. It didn't, not hardly. It DID fit the Glock 19 easily, but the thumb break strap couldn't be made to snap around the back of the slide of the Glock 36 with any amount of pulling and stretching. The muzzle protrudes past the end of the holster quite a bit, just as with the Jackass. The offside inverted double mag pouch held the mags a bit loosely, even for Glock 19 mags. The stitching and construction quality were a notch beneath those of a custom rig, but still quite good. The holster can only be had with a thumb break for retention, and my recent use of this one reminded me how detestable those things are. Unfortunately, there's not enough free leather in front of or below the trigger guard to even attempt to modify the holster to employ a tension screw for retention, and Aker won't do ANY custom work or modification, so consider accordingly.
A.E. Nelson Model 58H shoulder holster and mag pouch
A.E. Nelson is another established "cop-leather" company. I ordered their 58H holster and corresponding double mag pouch with tie-down strap as separate components in this case, and avoided ordering their harness, since I already had several spare Alessi Bodyguard harnesses, and the Nelson harness for this rig looks kind of goofy to me (perforated with big round holes). This is a vertical shoulder holster which I ordered for the Les Baer Stinger/Colt CCO (basically a Commander-length slide and barrel paired with an an Officer's Model butt, that is, a moderately-compact 1911-pattern gun), which turned out basically OK, but quite thick, which tends to ruin one of the prime advantages that the 1911 has for concealment, its thinness. The holster uses a heavy spring clip which surrounds the gun at the level of the triggerguard for retention, rather like the arrangement on the Bianchi X-15 holster, and the pistol pulls out toward the front on the draw. The front of the holster is open down to the last two inches of barrel length. This method of retention certainly works, but adds significant thickness to the design. The lower end of the holster is held onto the belt by a leather loop. The Nelson holster somehow contrives to make the forward-positioned pistol butt protrude out to the side quite a bit, even moreso than does a fullsize 1911 butt when that gun is carried in an Alessi Fieldmaster rig! I haven't quite figured out the particular details of the design that cause this yet, but it DOES hinder concealment. The offside double mag pouch has snap flaps to fit compact or fullsize 1911 mags (not custom to the particular gun for which the components were ordered, in other words), and can be oriented four different ways, with mag floorplates up, down, front or back. Like all such "try to please everybody" designs, it's suboptimal for use in any of the four possible orientations, which isn't to say it's not serviceable, just that the result is more of a compromise than it should be.
Frankly, I can't recommend the overall setup, at least not for serious CCW. It might work sufficiently well for "casual" CCW, that is, when it doesn't really matter if someone notices a bit of a bulge or protuberance (for instance, it might work for plainclothes cops wearing sport coats), but for those of us who want genuine, "no questions" concealment, it's not quite the ticket, at least not for me.
Lou Alessi's Guardian Shoulder Rig
The Guardian seems to be a less well-known Alessi shoulder rig design than the Bodyguard, but it's particularly well-suited to (and in fact only available for) compact revolver carry.
I have one for the J-frame 649 and another for the 2.25" barrel SP101, and can't adequately convey in a post just how well they work. Like all of Lou's holsters, the design shows excellent understanding and intuition. The gun carries butt-down (and to the rear), muzzle up, and the topstrap sits at the very front of your offside shoulder, very high, basically just in front of the armpit. The holster uses a clever minimalist thumb-break that simply "runs into" your thumb when you reach to grab the pistol's grip, making release almost automatic, without the usual artificial and sometimes difficult thumb movement needed to release typical thumb breaks on typical horizontal rigs. No accidental dropping of the gun is possible, though, due to a second breakaway snap just beneath the barrel, which will only release the pistol when the butt is pulled; this fully releases the gun from the holster, and the entire draw takes a fraction of a second. The rig is eminently concealable.
The harness is essentially identical to that of Lou's Bodyguard shoulder rig. Wide straps over the shoulders taper to narrower straps at points of attachment to the holster and to the offside ammo pouch/speedloader carriers (with a tie-down strap on that side), making it a "balanced" rig. The ammo holder pouch is a clever sort of "dump pouch" for separate rounds, which are held vertically in a pocket that angles forward when its cover flap is unsnapped, but won't let the loose rounds fall out. They can then be grabbed singly, in pairs, or three at a time, according to your preference.
Because this rig holds a revolver vertically ("upside down"), there's no occasion for fore-aft "printing" of the gun through the cover garment, and this particular rig may offer the single best combination of concealability, accessibility and comfort available for the carrying of a compact revolver in a shoulder harness.
The foregoing comments represent only my own experience and opinions regarding shoulder holsters.
There are a number of other makers whose work I haven't tried, and their lack of mention here reflects only my own lack of experience with their work, not any sort of tacit condemnation.
I also have considerable personal experience and opinions regarding belt holsters (of which I've had several dozen to date, from just about everybody), both OWB and IWB types, as well as considerable experience in alternative modes of CCW, but that's outside the area we're addressing here.
Correspondence is welcome. Hope the above represents some helpful information. Best of luck in your CCW trials.
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