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Joseph asks:

I recently purchased my first handgun (an S&W M&P45 full size) and wanted to participate in the monthly Combat Shoot/Steel match at the local Fish and Game range. However, I need a holster but I don’t know what kind would be best to use. What do you recommend?

Why does it seem like I can’t open my mailbox these days without seeing a new question sitting there that I know for sure will get me into trouble with some portion of the firearms community? Oh well, here we go…

Let me preface this by saying that I’m not going to recommend any “race” holsters. If you want to trade off some safety for speed go ahead, but you do it at your own risk. I don’t use a race holster and unless you’re in the top 5-10% of shooters at your event you won’t really see any benefit from one.

When you’re looking for a holster for competition use there are a number of factors that you need to consider. The first one is that whatever holster you choose needs to COMPLETELY COVER THE TRIGGER AND TRIGGER GUARD in order to be legal in most competitions. There are some holsters that ONLY cover the trigger and triggerguard (the aforementioned “race” holsters) which are legal but still unsafe in my opinion, especially for newer shooters.

  • Retention is the biggest concern. The holster needs to keep the gun from falling out even under the most strenuous conditions, like jumping over obstacles or during a sprint from one station to the next. I realize that in steel challenge the gun won’t actually be in the holster very long, but a dropped gun or one that falls out of a holster is usually an instant match disqualification even if you’re not the one playing at the time. I’ve known loose holsters to be the cause of a number of unhappy trips home even among the top competitors, and it seems dumb to gamble your whole day on using something that doesn’t have active retention.
  • Active retention means that a physical device of some sort is holding your gun in the holster, and no matter how hard you try you won’t be able to pull it straight out. Disabling the retention depends on the model of holster, and there are definitely some that do it faster than others and safer than others, but it’s usually accomplished by pressing a button conveniently located near somewhere your fingers already naturally go.
  • Speed is second (or third, whatever) on my list. You need to get the gun out of the holster quickly, and that means an outside the waistband kydex (or similar plastic) holster. A rigid plastic holster will keep the gun exactly where you expect it to be, and an outside the waistband approach means that you can get your whole hand on the gun easier than if you needed to move some of your squishy flesh out of the way. A stiff leather holster may be able to do the job, but in my opinion plastic is the way to go here.

So what specific holster do I recommend?

I used to be a huge fan of the Blackhawk SERPA style holster. It’s a well made kydex holster that uses active retention and has a seemingly obvious means to defeat the active retention — you hit a button positioned where your index finger would be when you draw the gun. However there are issues with the design of this system, issues which have caused multiple people to accidental pull the trigger and discharge their weapon in an unsafe manner. I refused to believe it myself until a former special forces soldier did it on the practice range right next to my foot, and after that I vowed to never use one again.

This is my current favorite for “best competition holster” — the Safariland ALS holster. It provides a solid active retention system that is easily defeated by an intuitive mechanism, with the control placed right next to your thumb. It has worked for me for nearly a year now, and while it does take some getting used to I’ve grown to like it.

That’s my opinion on the matter: active retention kydex or plastic outside the waistband holster.

Admittedly, in Steel Challenge the handgun won’t be in the holster very long, but I believe in using the same gear in every competition style so I wanted to recommend a holster that would be great for every style of competition. Heck, it would even work in IDPA if you conceal it correctly.

[Email your firearms-related questions to “Ask Foghorn” via [email protected]. Click here to browse previous posts]

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    • No, it is not.

      But in my opinion it’s a small price to pay to be safe in the knowledge that your gun won’t go flopping out of your holster no matter how many hurdles you jump or how long you hang upside down.

      I’ve seen people lose guns from as little as sliding face first into a prone shooting position — it happens more often than you’d think.

  1. In my duty class competing days, blade-tech was one of the reigning champs. It retained by molding and tension screws, which was sufficient for everyone I ever saw in semi-acrobatic IDPA style maneuvers. Button activated and similar holsters are simply usually too slow, unless you practice a LOT. I have used safariland SLS and I agree it was about as fast as button-actuated holsters get, and damned easy to reholster and secure without looking, muss or fuss. All that said, almost any system works will if you train into it long enough and hard enough. But if speed is a score-able factor, it’s darn tough to win with active retention systems.

  2. “There are some holsters that ONLY cover the trigger and triggerguard (the aforementioned ”race” holsters) which are legal but still unsafe in my opinion, especially for newer shooters.”

    Why exactly? If the gun can’t fall out and the trigger can’t be pressed, how is it less safe? I’ll give you impractical for every day carry but unsafe is simply not true.

  3. Nick,
    Do you also use that holster for EDC? Personally I’ve always been in the camp of (unless competing in the big leagues) that your EDC, or one of them, and comp holster being the same is a bonus. Training with the holster improves both your day to day carry and your compition use.
    Of course that doesn’t work with the “deep concealment” holsters, but many holsters used for EDC and CCW work well in comps. The added bonus is not needing to spend ammo money on a designated comp holster.

    • MD, yes, it’s terrific training to compete with your EDC, and for most of us, competition is great just for training. But if a shooter wants to WIN competitions, EDC almost never cuts it. The speed differences are usually enough to make the difference between placing and not placing. That said, there are some choice kydex EDCs like the old FIST holster offerings (don’t google “fist” when your wife is looking), that I’ve used to achieve respectable results, but not top-ranked results. The more concealable and suitable the kydex is for EDC, usually the slower it is for comp.

      • All things equal, a OWB will always be faster than an IWB. However if you EDC and spend lots of time practicing with your gear (like you should) then you will be faster with whatever you EDC than almost any other holster right off the bat. For someone like the person who emailed Nick I would recommend one good all purpose holster for now. Once he is more skilled and competitive then go ahead and start getting comp use only gear. Over all we are in agreement. When I’m shooting a “friendly” match or for fun I use my EDC. If I’m seriously competing for ranking or prizes then I have a rig and gun set up just for that (which sadly has not been used near as much as I would like lately). Most shooters don’t have the time/money/training/range access/understanding significant other for that sort of commitment. For them, I feel, the best holster is the holster that they know best and have the most practice with. As for Nick, I am wondering if he EDCs his comp holster since he picked a holster that can be used for EDC and what his views on the multi-use vs. designated comp holster are.

        • We definitely agree substantially. I didn’t intend to write my previous post with such a “lecturey” attitude. Probably part of the downside for being an instructor for too long. Just a side note. Younger shooters (say under 40) don’t know how good they have it. There was not a fraction of comp and concealment holster options as there are today. Same goes for gun options. When I started carrying, there were almost zero small duty pistols. There was ONE DA .45. There were zero chopped .45s. Maybe two DA 9mms. Alloy frames? Almost unknown. Glock? Polymers? Not yet on the drawing board. Kydex was a future dream. The semi-revolutionary safariland SLS system wasn’t even a stain in designers’ pants. IWB meant a suede pouch by bianchi. If you had bux and knew someone, Milt Sparks’ Summer Special, which I never found particularly special in any way except price. Ok, there I went again down the lecture path. Carry on, fellow gunner.

  4. IDPA maintains a list of holsters they have assessed are suitable for competition. It’s a great starting place for new competitors and directing them to that list is the best answer to the question. Race holsters commonly used in IPSC do sometimes ‘jettison’ guns, even when bending over to pick up brass, and are definitely not a good choice based on cost, safety or overall utility compared to a basic Kydex OWB or IWB holster, which will work for competition and concealed carry.

    Your advice will unfortunately play out like this: new competitor takes your advice, buys an expensive ALS holster, spends a bunch of time learning the draw, goes to a match. He or she will be the only competitor there with a retention holster, and will spend the day answering the question “why did you pick that?”, suffering the embarrassment of having to answer “some anonymous gun blogger writing under a pen name told me to”. The new shooter will note that despite your paranoia, he or she sees no guns falling out of holsters, and the new shooter will note that his or her draw is much more difficult and complex than everyone else’s. After the match is over, the competitor will ask others what kind of holster they use, put the ALS in a box in the closet (eventually selling it online at a loss), and start over with a Kydex OWB.

    As for your experience seeing someone lose their gun while running and sliding into prone — it’s much safer to draw first and then move, assuming you are shooting a pistol-only stage. 3-gun and multigun may require more specialized gear, that might not be necessary for a standard pistol match.

  5. I agreee with Mr. Leghorn’s general philosophy, however, I believe that an active retention holster is overkill.

    With that in mind, I believe that the best holster for a new shooter wishing to engage in the shooting sports is a basic Fobus paddle holster. Cost is about $25, it qualifies for free shipping from Amazon, and it works great. It is holds the gun securely and is reasonably fast. I have several for guns that I don’t regularly use in competition, but like to use occasionally.

    The other nice thing about the paddle holsters is that they hold your gun securely even if you do not have the best belt. Many new shooters don’t have a proper gun belt. ( – instructor belt – own the best for $40) The paddle basede Fobus will sit better than something that is supported only by your belt.


  6. I disagree. While paddle holsters are most comfortable for open carry, I find that a belt loop attachment is best for a race holster. A paddle can be very secure, but you definitely don’t want to find out the hard way that it may not be THE most secure. Also, completely custom kydex holsters with adjustable retention are ideal for race holsters, as they are made for your specific firearm. Even if you buy a plastic holster, whether is be made from Kydex or injection molded plastic, if it is meant for 3 different firearms, it will not be as secure as one made for your gun only.

    • Dana, it soudnst like we are answering two different questions. Maybe we are.

      The heading asks what the “best” competition holster is. And your response is certainly right on the mark.

      But in the opening paragraph, the author indicates that he’s basically never competed in any way with a holster before. And for that kind of person, who is still figuring out what they do and do not like, the fobus is a low cost way to get started. When he figures out what he likes he can buy it. Or do as I did, I made my own holsters once I figured out exactly what I wanted.

      I actually own and use an ALS like Foghorn mentions. But I think it adds needless complexity to a situation where someone is still learning to draw properly.


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