When carrying a concealed firearm, one of your prime considerations will be the location of the gun on or about your person. The placement of the gun will affect several factors pertaining to its use and carriage: how efficient your draw stroke is, how easy the gun is to defend from a takeaway attempt and how generally aware of it and its visibility you are. The likelihood of injury should you fall or be knocked to the ground will also be affected by the gun’s placement.
There are many locations to carry on your body, but only a few are prime real estate, being effective for the most people most of the time. In this article I’ll discuss the principals of effective concealment, analyze the typically used locations on and off the body for concealed carry of a gun and discuss the benefits and shortcomings of each.
Principles of Concealment
Anyone that needs to carry a gun concealed, whoever they may be, does so for the same fundamental reason: discovery that the wielder is armed will lead to a compromising situation of greater or lesser intensity. For police or military personnel involved in sensitive or undercover operations, discovery may very well lead to immediate violence. For a civilian going about their day or in a setting where such things are touchy, it may mean significant embarrassment or legal trouble.
Whatever the reasons for carrying, the principles of concealment are largely the same. The gun should be as difficult to detect as possible, while still being rapidly accessible when needed, as when required the gun must be brought to bear as quickly as possible. Some modes of carry afford both a great deal of speed and excellent concealment. Others will sacrifice one to gain the other, and a few are just plain terrible in all but the most specific of circumstances.
Before proceeding it is useful to understand what concealed means in the context of the average gun-toting citizen, as the laws governing concealed carry vary state to state and furthermore the law is rarely synonymous with best practices. The objective as a gun carrier should be to carry the most effective gun possible while keeping it as concealed as possible, and by concealed I mean hidden from anyone else I may encounter.
That is admittedly a somewhat imprecise set of guidelines to the uninitiated, so we’ll deduce our best practices by considering other necessary elements in our equipment and mission. The ideal, if circumstances and locale permit, is keeping the gun on my body, not off my body, say like in a bag, pack, briefcase or similar. The importance of easy, speedy access, dictated by body mechanics, means I will try to carry the gun somewhere on or ahead of my hip if possible. It stands that to carry a gun on myself at all, it must not be so big that it will be too challenging to hide it using seasonally and socially appropriate attire. Odd or inappropriate clothing will draw attention and usually incur a social penalty.
If I am afforded the opportunity to wear a bulky or loose-fitting garment, I can conceal a larger gun effectively, or the same gun in a previously less concealable position. Larger guns, up to a point, offer more advantages than smaller ones through such attributes as higher capacity, more effective caliber and affording more grip and easier handling. If I have the ability to carry a proper pistol instead of a tiny backup or pocket gun I should, but sometimes a gun of that nature may be all you can effectively conceal, and certainly beats no gun at all by a wide margin.
Importance of Concealment
Concealed means concealed, hidden, invisible to passersby. Merely covering a gun with clothing, its presence plain enough to see for anyone who cares to look may be legal in your state, but it is very poor technique, and no one is fooled as to what’s under there. I may achieve “acceptable” concealment with a certain gun and holster setup, but a conspicuous bulge or ridge under clothing, even if it is indefinite, will lead to assumptions, or even positively mark me as a gun carrier to some trained or attentive people.
If that level of concealment is all I am willing to achieve, I must assess whether or not my lifestyle and typical environment will allow it: a restrictive location or workplace environment will have more serious consequences if I am challenged than simply being in a public and otherwise permissive place. Note that many concealed carriers fall victim to the notion that because no one has ever mentioned seeing their gun, confronted them about it, or they have never seen someone “make” them, then their level of concealment must be adequate.
This is tricky. It is true that some people, even many people, are blithely unaware of 90% of their surroundings, including whoever may be around them, whatever their intent. But there are plenty of others who do pay attention. Women in particular pay more attention to the details of people then men do, and are more likely to notice anything out of place about someone’s attire. This may affect me, or it may not.
Of particular concern are the hardened bad guys, the wolves who certainly have more professional experience with and around violence than I do. Many of them are keenly aware of little tells that proclaim “weapon.” These may be garment failures, a small equipment flag like a belt loop or clip, a tic like the periodic pat or brush from a hand to ensure the gun is still in place or the distinctive “clunk” of a holstered gun banging into seat or booth back at a restaurant. Any of them will betray the gun to an interested party.
Some carriers may choose to carry off the body in a pack, bag, purse, briefcase or similar designed for the purpose, one with a compartment specifically for the gun containing a holster to enclose the trigger guard and present the gun for a clean draw. These pieces of luggage are an option, sometimes but rarely ideal, and can complicate matters significantly compared to carrying on the body. They do though typically offer perfect concealment if chosen carefully for the environment and allow the carrying of even a fullsize pistol with extra magazines easily.
They can be accessed and drawn from cleanly but this will of course require practice. Consider too that oftentimes a bag, briefcase or purse may well be the target of the attack. There are more opportunities and expectations to set down or otherwise be physically separated from a bag in public than a holster that is part of my attire. Innocently stepping away from a bag or forgetting it places a loaded gun in the hands of a stranger, whoever finds it. Off-body carry is viable, but recommended only if you have no other option for on-body carry.
It is much more than good manners to keep the presence of my gun a secret; it is a matter of safety, and affords me the element of surprise if the gun is needed in a hurry. But this must be balanced against choosing too small a gun to make concealment cursory because in the event it is needed I will need to be fast and accurate with it, with plenty of potent ammunition to ensure I prevail in the task at hand.
Methods of Carry: Pros, Cons and Considerations
There are many ways to carry a gun on your body, and each of them has a few variations for preference. Before we begin the rundown on placement, let’s go over a couple of concepts to ensure we are all on the same sheet of music. Understand that these are generalities, as differences in a person’s build, height, attire and more will impact the efficacy of any advice in this article.
When carrying on the belt, one can have a holster mounted inside the waistband, IWB, or outside the waistband, OWB. IWB allows better concealment by sucking the gun up tighter to the body, but sacrifices will be made to comfort and a slightly slower draw. OWB allows an easier draw and better comfort, but is much harder to conceal for most with anything except a heavy jacket or coat.
Placement on the beltline itself is best specified by using a clock reference: Your frontal centerline, 12 o’clock, is in line with your nose and belt buckle, and it and vicinity is known as “Appendix-Inside-the-Waistband”, or AIWB. 6 o’clock would be your rear centerline, and is in line with your spine, known as “Small-of-Back Carry” or SOB. So using this reference your right hip is 3 o’clock and your left hip is 9 o’clock. “Strongside Carry” for a right-hander is between 2 and 4 o’clock, and between 10 and 8 o’clock for a lefty. OWB carry is almost universally done Strongside instead of any of the other positions.
Going forward, I will describe locations on the belt for righties. Lefties, mirror the location on your side of the clock. Where should you carry on the belt? Whether IWB or OWB, you will be best served to locate the gun between 4 o’clock and 12:30, with awareness of the gun and concealability generally increasing the closer you get to 12 o’clock. The farther back you go towards 6 o’clock, you will get less awareness of the gun, a slower draw, greater difficulty accessing the gun if seated, and drastically less ability to defend the gun from a grab attempt.
An additional hazard of carrying near or at 6 o’clock is that a severe spinal injury can result from falling on the gun if you trip or are pushed. This is not conjecture: there are more than a few police officers and civilian gun carriers who have been significantly injured or even disabled by exactly this occurrence. Falling on your holstered gun will be painful or injurious no matter where it is placed, but no other location presents as much potential for disaster as this one.
If not carrying on the belt, a shoulder holster is one of the only other options for concealed carry. Shoulder holsters feature a harness with the gun carried under the non-shooting arm, and typically feature an ammunition carrier for under the shooting arm. Shoulder holsters will either carry the gun horizontally, muzzle to the rear, or vertically, muzzle to the ground. Long the iconic piece of gear for police detectives and private investigators in decades past, the shoulder holster only has a place if one is wearing a jacket or coat at all times, and drawing the gun without covering your own body or someone else is difficult or impossible. Not recommended for most.
A classic position for a small gun is on the ankle in a special holster for the purpose. An ankle carried gun is going to be much slower to access and draw from than a belt carried gun, but it remains a good location for a small, light backup gun. An alternative would be pocket carried, viable only for very small guns, or very large pockets. Note that any gun carried in the pocket should be carried in a pocket holster in order to keep the gun from rotating ruining the draw.
Whichever location you decide on, the quality of both your belt and holster will be important to your comfort and success. A rigid gun belt, designed to bear the weight of a holstered pistol, will keep the gun upright and close, reducing strain on your hips and aiding concealment. Likewise, a fitted leather or kydex holster designed for concealment will be a boon both for your comfort and for hiding the gun. Any holster should be fitted for your specific gun to ensure a level of retention when moving, including running, or jostled.
Regarding material, leather is traditional, and works well, but higher quality examples are usually more expensive than comparable kydex holsters. It is however soft to the touch and some prefer it for IWB carry. A disadvantage with leather is that it will require more care than kydex and under equal use will lose its retention qualities faster. Leather is still completely viable if one is willing to invest in quality.
Kydex is a rigid, thermally-formed synthetic, and is the modern holster material of choice, owing to its complete imperviousness to moisture and overall ruggedness, although it can snap or shear if stressed too far. Its biggest advantage is it can be precisely molded for any conceivable gun and will retain its shape, allowing a great level of retention that will last pretty much forever unless the holster is heated past a certain point. It’s hard and unyielding shape can make IWB carry somewhat unpleasant however.
Use discretion before selecting any of the soft, “one size fits all” nylon or neoprene holsters, as they will often lack the desired retention or concealment characteristics needed for daily carry, and their attachment systems are typically very flimsy.
Speaking of attachment systems, pay attention to their characteristics before selecting a good holster. Snaps should be heavy duty and not release easily, and any solid belt loops should be made of thick and rugged material. Clips and hooks may be ok, but will need to be tested carefully to ensure that the holster and all does not come free with the gun during a draw. Some holsters allow the attachment fittings to be adjusted in such away to increase or decrease the angle, or cant, of the holster on the belt for user preference.
Some holsters are designed to be “tuckable” meaning a shirt can be tucked in around the gun to aid concealment with more formal clothing or rigid dress codes. Note that the effectiveness of holsters like this varies greatly depending on wearer build, the attire, size of gun and how much slop you can stand in your tucked-in shirt. They almost always work better when carried up front in the appendix position.
Positioning in Detail
The following is a detailed look at several of the most common carry positions, and their pros and cons. Note that exact placement of the gun varies depending on individual body type, holster and attire. Consistency is a virtue, but you should become familiar with most of these as different activities and modes of dress will demand different solutions. One of these positions will probably become your default with an different one either serving occasions you carry an alternate gun or are dressed outside of your norm. One more reminder, these positions are “clocked” for righties. Lefties, flip it.
All photos show IWB holsters. Pistol in all photos is a fullsize Sig P226R. For the strongside photos it is equipped with a WML.
Strongside (2:30 to 4:00)
photo above: Strongside Concealed
photo above: Strongside Revealed
photo above: Strongside Side Revealed Closeup
The quintessential position to carry a pistol. Strongside carry allows a very good, quick draw whether IWB or OWB, good awareness of and good defense of the gun. Its principal disadvantage is that it is adding width and bulk to our widest point, especially when matched with magazine or speedloader carriers on the opposite hip and this can make concealment with closer fitting garments very challenging depending on the holster.
OWB holsters will rarely work here for concealment, unless one of the newer body-hugging types are used with a looser cover garment. IWB is definitely workable with the right holster, but you should expect to experiment with slightly different positions until you find your “just right” location that allows the best concealment and tolerable comfort.
photo above: BTH Concealed
photo above BTH Revealed
photo above: BTH Side Closeup
Some carriers, especially our older generation of lawmen, like to carry the right behind the hip, usually about 4 o’clock. This is acceptable for most, as it offers better concealment from the front, but do take care: the farther the gun moves towards your 6 o’clock, the less peripheral awareness you will have of it without turning your head to see it. You will rarely be able to feel your garment hitched up over your pistol.
This is not the only consideration if you carry behind the hip, but just something to be aware of.
Appendix Inside-the-Waistband / AIWB (12:00 to 1:00, appx.)
photo above: Appendix Concealed
photo above: Appendix Revealed
photo above: Appendix Closeup
Currently experiencing a renaissance of sorts and much arguing among professionals and enthusiasts owing to when or if this position was ever employed by anyone other than stereotypical criminals and if it was, whether or not the reasons for it falling out of favor were well-founded. Whatever the results of that debate, this position allows one to conceal a larger gun easily in the front of their pants (save your jokes, people!) and offers a very quick draw once practiced. It is usually seen with a piggybacked ammo carrier just to the side of the gun, sometimes attached to the holster as a unit and sometimes separate.
Another advantage is excellent peripheral awareness of the gun owing to it being, very literally, under your nose and this makes for good defensibility, being located centrally on the front of the body. The belt buckle can be slid sideways away from the gun and holster to improve comfort and decrease overall thickness on the beltline. Disadvantages are it can be a little fiddly to get comfortable when seated for long periods of time, it may require a holster optimized for this carry position for best comfort and the concern that any negligent discharge upon holstering may result in a gunshot wound to the genitals or higher probability of striking either the femoral artery or other major vessels in the groin or pelvis.
The argument against AIWB for this factor alone is significant, and usually argued for and against one of two ways: for the detractors, they argue that no one is immune to making a mistake, and in the event that one causes a negligent discharge on holstering your chances of sustaining a critical injury are higher than the same occurrence with a strongside holster. Proponents will cite the methods advantages for good concealment even with larger guns and heightened control, arguing that the “crash-on-landing” is only ever a worry from complacency, lack of training or both.
My opinion is that a life-changing wound can occur upon discharge no matter how you manage to screw up holstering your gun, and I am a believer in holstering with deliberation and caution to prevent exactly this kind of disastrous event. I do not myself utilize appendix carry, but would not hesitate to do so if it fit my needs best and I trained to the standard with that setup.
Small of the Back / SOB (6:00-6:30)
Sort of the mirror image of appendix carry, SOB carry places the gun nearly upside down, with the magazine well upwards and grip raked strongly toward the shooting hand side. The idea is to suck the gun up tight to the body and allow the natural drape of the garment off the shoulders to handily conceal it. A fair idea, and obviously completely hides the gun from anyone to your frontal arc, but in practice this placement is fraught with risks and deficiencies.
First, the drawing hand has a long way to travel just to reach the gun, then one must come all the back around with it to present and fire. Second, you will have no peripheral awareness of the gun: it is placed in the one spot that we are all blind, right behind us. You could be experiencing total garment failure and never know till everyone in Chik-Fil-A has had a good look at your nice piece. Third, defending against a takeaway attempt with the gun in this position, if not impossible, is going to set you against every possible disadvantage. You are attacked form behind, cannot ID and assess your attacked and now cannot even get to the gun he is trying to take away. If you should get a grip on it and your arm is intercepted here, he will have every mechanical advantage over you.
Accessing this position while seated is very difficult, especially when seat belted into a car. Lastly, as mentioned above, the placement of the gun, an exceedingly dense unyielding object, directly over the spine is a recipe for disaster in the event of a mundane tumble or fall, to say nothing of being tacked and driven to your back. There are more than a few permanently disabled cops and civilians out there who paid the piper after falling when carrying small of back.
There are still a few proponents of this mode of carry out there, but they are a minority, and I do not recommend it to any students. I have yet to encounter an individual facing a set of circumstances that would mandate this mode of carry and no other.
Shoulder Holster Carry
Shoulder holsters as mentioned above are predominately only viable when wearing a jacket or coat at all times. Otherwise it is not concealed at all! A good shoulder rig, as such setups are called, is typically comfortable, but does not offer much in the way of a speedy draw except an advantage when seated, as the closure of the hips has no effect on holster’s position. Shoulder holsters are also easier to catch a glimpse of than you might think, even compared to most belt holsters, as any drifting or blousing of the upper garment will reveal the gun or the rigs straps to onlookers.
Additionally, the design of a shoulder holster will almost always include additionally active retention mechanisms, typically a thumb break, that adds a little more complexity to the draw. Carried horizontally or vertically, combined with the retention device and this rigs tendency to sway and bob even when strapped down to a belt create problems when trying to achieve a consistently glitch free draw. Remember too that it is very challenging to draw from either type of shoulder rig and not muzzle yourself or a bystander.
A pseudo-variant of the shoulder holster is the chest holster, carried on a similar harness that places the pistol, often a large one, on a platform that rides over the breastbone. While not concealable except under a zipped coat or jacket, these have found a home with hunters using large bore handguns or those who work outdoors in extremely cold climates. These holsters work well for their purpose and are excellent when driving or on horseback, but are not applicable to most gun carriers objectives and are only mentioned here for completeness.
Shoulder holsters, while very cool, are not a primary choice for most, and you should carefully assess your other options before choosing this method.
If you have a very small gun, or huge pockets, pocket carry makes sense. Pocket carry is convenient: you don’t need to strap anything on, just drop the gun and holster into a pocket and take off. Another advantage is it can allow you to preemptively grip your firearm, especially in a voluminous jacket or coat pocket and not tip off anyone watching that you are gearing up to employ your pistol.
Pocket carry also allows you to hide a gun very well, assuming it does not print badly, as lumps are expected in people’s pockets owing to the amount of stuff we carry all over the place. The biggest disadvantage to pocket carry has more to do with our garments than any holster or gun combo: all pockets are different! Your subcompact 9mm and top-quality pocket holster may work like aces in one pair of pants or a certain coat, but another is too tight, or the hemming around the lip of the pocket on one coat snags your gun every draw. Rarely will any pocket carry setup not need any testing and tweaking.
It obviously necessitates the smallest guns, but if you put in the time to triple-check the viability of your gun, holster and garment, pocket carry is a fine solution, just one that will need some forethought to take full advantage of.
If you need to carry a backup gun, and in the pocket is not workable, an ankle rig is usually your only choice short of carrying a duplicate gun on your opposite side. Holsters of this type are carried on the inside of the non-dominant leg. Similar to the pocket carry solutions discussed above, ankle carry’s efficacy is largely dependent on the interplay of gun, holster and pants (obviously shorts are a no-go! Well, you could, technically, but…).
Drawing from an ankle holster necessitates leaning or crouching down, hitching up the pant leg and then acquiring your grip on the gun to draw. Like the pocket holster, if the cuff or hem of the pants is too tight, it will foul on the holster or gun, snarling the draw, and if one is drawing from an ankle holster you will already be sacrificing speed. Your rig must be tested with the exact garment you will wear to conceal it in order to ensure as quick and clean a draw as achievable.
If you are running clothing tucked in, but still wearing long pants, the ankle rig may be the go-to choice before you make the decision to carry off-body. Ankle rigs vary greatly in comfort levels, most being pretty comfortable when properly adjusted, but they turn laborious is you are on your feet or walking for any length of time. The weight of the gun also makes a huge difference: ounces count here! Very long term carry of an ankle gun (or any gun) can cause or aggravate joint or other musculoskeletal issues.
If there was ever a time to spring for a flyweight titanium or scandium frame gun, this is it!