In the great gun debates, certain pairings are inevitable. Glock vs. 1911. .45 ACP vs. 9mm. Revolver vs. pistol. Remington 870 vs. Mossberg 500. Open carry vs. concealed carry. Bring any of these pairings up in a group of firearms enthusiasts and a rousing debate is certain to follow. Another such subject for discussion is the ideal material for a firearms holster. Some swear by leather, noting that it has been good for carrying firearms for hundreds of years. Others prefer kydex because of its increased durability and resistance to damage.
Both types have their advantages and disadvantages. Leather has a better aesthetic appeal, whereas kydex is far more utilitarian. Kydex resists stains, cuts, and abrasions, whereas leather requires periodic maintenance. Leather doesn’t catch on edges or wear holes in cover garments. Kydex is impervious to sweat, rain, and mud. Both types have their strong points and their weak points, and the choice of one material over another often comes down to personal preference.
The holsters discussed in this article are both outside the waistband (OWB) holsters for the Smith & Wesson J-frame revolver. The leather holster was made for me by a friend who was trying his hand at leatherworking. The kydex holster is made by Fobus of Israel. The leather holster has a standard metal belt clip and the kydex holster has a paddle clip that attaches over a belt. The kydex holster has an adjustable cant. Using a Philips screwdriver, the holster can be loosened, positioned where the user desires, and tightened in place.
Both holsters perform the primary function of keeping the pistol secure and positioned where desired on the belt. The kydex holster is specifically molded to the Smith & Wesson J-frame revolver with a 2-inch barrel and it does not fit with other revolvers of similar size. Even the Smith & Wesson Bodyguard 38, built to very similar dimensions as the J-frame, will not fit. The leather holster has a bit more give to it and can accommodate revolvers such as the Bodyguard 38 and the Ruger LCR.
The kydex holster has the edge on retention, but does the job a little too well. While the revolver is held firmly in place, drawing requires slow, deliberate motions to release the pistol from the holster. This would be an excellent holster to use if you are involved in strenuous activity, but it comes at the expense of being able to draw quickly. The leather holster has slightly less grip to it, but allows for a fast, fluid draw without catching or pulling. It still holds the firearm firmly, but relies more on the molded leather than friction to hold it in place.
So which is better?
Both holsters have their place in the holster drawer. Both holsters have positives and negatives that should weigh in the decision of which material to choose for a concealed or open carry holster.
Retention: The kydex holster has the edge in retention. It was not about to let go of the J-frame sitting inside. If there’s a lot of running, jumping, or bouncing involved, choose the kydex holster.
Speed of Draw: The leather holster is considerably easier when it comes to the draw, allowing a smooth and fluid presentation from the holster.
Durability: Kydex holster again has the upper hand in durability. It is stain proof, nearly impervious to damage, and resists crushing.
Looks: While this is a subjective assessment, the leather holster – leather holsters in general – are more aesthetically pleasing than cold, soulless plastic.
Customizability: The kydex holster has an adjustable cant, which allows the user to place the firearm at the exact angle they prefer for the draw.
Finish: The leather holster doesn’t have sharp edges to catch on furniture, automotive interiors, or cover garments.
Maintenance: Since the kydex holster does not require any maintenance, it gets the edge here. Leather should be maintained periodically, so if you’re in the habit of neglecting the cleaning, leather might not be your best choice.
Ease of carrying: Since the leather holster doesn’t catch on cover garments and is easier to draw, it has the edge in ease of carrying.
Well, it appears that we’re at a standoff here. Both holsters have their strong points and their not-so-strong points. Let’s take a look at what each of the holsters do well:
Kydex: The biggest positive for the kydex holster is the durability of the material. Where a leather holster might show signs of wear over time, a kydex holster will look the same after five years of constant use. During the course of a day, the holster might encounter sweat, rain, or even an errant coffee mug spill. It must be able to face all of this and still keep right on going. Kydex holsters rule the roost when it comes to competition shooting where holsters need to retain the firearm snugly and endure torture tests of being run all over ranges.
Leather: A good leather holster is a work of art that you can wear. It does require a little cleaning, and should have some sort of weatherproofing applied if used on a daily basis where it might get wet or otherwise compromised. However, very few people would choose a plastic holster to show off their $2,500 custom 1911 or their pearl handled revolver. Leather holsters offer a much wider variety of customization possible – you can have your holster made with an exotic skin, a custom design, or simply a color other than black or gray.
In conclusion, much of the material choice comes down to the personal preference of the person choosing the holster. While some factors like possible abuse or adverse conditions might influence the choice to the kydex holsters, other factors like style or simple familiarity might sway one to the leather. I will admit to a bias for leather, having grown up in a police family where the creak of the leather duty rig and holster meant that dad was home. It’s hard to imagine the quiet, efficient, cold black plastic evoking the same effect.