Selecting a carry holster for a new favorite handgun can be a dizzying task. But for this bit, we’ll focus on the type of material a holster can be built with. There are three common materials: nylon, Kydex and leather. Each material has its strengths and weaknesses. And all range in cost from very affordable to very expensive. Choosing the right holster will depend on what you need the holster to do and how much you want to spend.
Nylon/Synthetic holsters are affordable and readily available ($10+). Some holsters are soft sided (Nylon) and some are hard formed (Synthetic). They are commonly mass produced in general sizes and retention is provided by a nylon strap held with Velcro or snap. Some holsters are able to provide a snug enough fit to hold the gun in place through friction alone. Nylon holsters are often used by civilians, law enforcement, and military in a variety of carry methods depending what the task requires. The features of each are reflected in their cost. Some features are built in magazine pouches, extra straps or attachment methods, and color and design/aesthetic additions.
Nylon/synthetic holsters are weather resistant and can stand being rained on and muddied up. A simple wipe or wash is all that’s needed to restore it to presentable. The downside is they can be torn up with sharp objects. Fence wire, thorns, and hard edges can snag the material and wear it down. The Velcro on the retention strap will also weaken and become ‘unsticky’, making its replacement necessary. If friction was the main method, normal stretching of the nylon will loosen the fit.
Nylon/Synthetic holsters will wear the gun’s finish mostly at the leading edges of parts (muzzle, front sight, slide releases and/or safeties). The frequency of draws will influence the rate at which the finish wears. And, while not often realized, oils, grit and grime that finds its way inside the holster will be absorbed into the fibers and will constantly rub against the gun unless it is cleaned out.
Kydex is a thermoplastic sheet material (‘acrylic-polyvinyl chloride alloy’ for you nerds out there) that forms a strong, rigid exoskeleton. Kydex holsters are affordable, albeit more expensive than Nylon/Synthetic holsters. Prices start around $25 and go up based on brands and features. Kydex sheets come in a variety of colors, though holster makers may have a few colors they use exclusively. Retention is provided by friction at contact points on the gun. Some models even use mechanical locks built into the holster which latch onto the trigger guard or require a certain draw motion in order to release the gun. While not common, it is necessary to mention that mechanical locks can fail.
Kydex makes for an extremely durable, stable holster that is lightweight. It can withstand moisture, grime and other dirty things. And can be easily cleaned with soap and water or a common household cleaner (ammonia-based cleaners not recommended due to remaining residue).
Holster wear is a question that immediately comes to mind when Kydex is mentioned as an option. A well-made Kydex holster will wear the contact points used for retention. Those areas include the trigger guard and ejection port. Unlike leather or nylon, the Kydex should only make contact on particular spots of the gun rather than snuggly held in a blanket of material. Similar to other holsters, the wear that the gun receives will depend on the frequency of draws.
Leather has been around for a long time and is a very common holster material. Prices of leather holsters have a broad range, starting at a $20. The cost will depend on the craftsman, brand, fit, finish, leather type and overall quality. Some brands are mass produced; some are semi-custom and custom made.
A properly built leather holster will withstand some use and abuse from wear and weather. But as with the two above materials, it is important to keep the holster dry and clean to prevent grime build up. This is particularly important to leather as oils will work to break down the fibers of the holster. This will eventually create a loose fit.
Leather holsters often use friction as a retention method. The better the holster is molded (and boned) the better the retention will be. Another option is a thumb break. It’s a strap that extends behind the slide and snaps secure. A third option is a locking mechanism. Some brands use a mechanical lock similar to the idea used on Kydex holsters. A gun will show holster wear in leather. Like nylon, leather wears a gun on the leading edges like the muzzle, front sight and dust cover/frame.
Holsters are also formed to hold a certain level of rigidity to the leather. This enables easy one hand holstering. Over time, the leather will lose this rigidity and the leather will stretch and move. The frequency of draws will influence how long the leather will last. The other significant factor is the quality of the leather used and how the holster was built and is maintained. Leather comes in a variety of colors; most basic is black, brown and natural. Makers sometimes offer custom dye services to suit customers’ needs.
From these three basic materials come holsters that serve a variety of purposes for a variety of gun owners. While each has a specific niche, all perform the job a holster should. Incredibly enough, innovative minds have found ways to marry these materials to create all new holsters with qualities all their own.