July 2004

Packing a 1911 .45 Comfortably, Or How To Live With Ol’ Ugly Every Day

Some of the holsters we’ve tried have been useless and some have been as good as it gets. Here’s a brief rundown on several holsters that have served some of us extremely well.

The Bachman Slide is Our Pick for ease of carry of the 1911. Users of this simple but effective rig claim great comfort, ease of carry, and versatility.

Packing a 1911-type .45 auto is something many thousands of folks do every day, with more and more carriers coming on-line, so to speak, every day. Some of us have been carrying 1911s for more years than we’d care to admit, and we’ve been toting them in a great variety of ways, from stuck into the waistband to sheathed in the best leather rigs designed for perfect concealment and comfortable, secure carry. Some of the holsters, or carry methods, we’ve tried have been useless and some have been as good as it gets. Here’s a brief rundown on several holsters that have served some of us extremely well over the years. We touch on only two brands, Sparks and Old West Reproductions, but we are more interested in telling you about what has worked extremely well for us on the street over the years, rather than to show you what’s available — and we’d guess there are hundreds if not thousands of 1911 holsters available — without being able to give experiences with any of them. Perhaps one of these will be just right for you. We hope our discussion will lead to your being able to make a more informed selection when your carry ticket comes through, and you choose to carry Ol’ Ugly.

Background
One of our staff used to compete seriously in IPSC competition, back when Jeff Cooper was running things. Our staffer used a plastic break-front holster that he said worked well for IPSC shoots. Back then, shooters were required to do a retention check in the form of a backward somersault. If the gun stayed in the holster, all was well. If it fell out, you’d have to get a better holster before you could compete. Any good holster permits the shooter to get a firm firing grip on the gun before attempting to take it out of the holster, and with the plastic break-front setup, this was easy and fast. All that was required was to grasp the gun firmly and then punch it forward, up to the firing position. It was not necessary to slide the gun upward out of the holster. Speed was good, and these rigs were popular. These plastic competition rigs, and there were plenty, were generally springy enough to keep the gun within the holster during that odd ground-level snap roll to check retention. But many of these early competition holsters would not pass muster on the street. With many of them, it was found that a blow to the gun from almost any source, even the wearer’s hand or elbow, could cause the gun to overcome the holster’s grasp and fly to the ground.

Back around 1965 or 1970, one of our testers acquired a custom-made piece of steel that fit under the right grip panel of any 1911. This clever gun-retention device had an integral extension in the form of a sort of hook that permitted relatively secure carry of a 1911. The extended steel hook would slip over the belt, and the forward part of the gun went inside the trousers belt. No holster was involved. Several makers have since brought out plastic grips that have a similar molded hook to catch the belt. These work fairly well to keep the gun from sliding down inside the pants, and are about the minimal effective means to carry the big pistol. However, turn the shooter upside down and security for the gun is nonexistent. Also, the gun was not kept in the same position all the time because it could slide on the belt after it was stowed in place, so presentations first required finding the gun.

Another of our old-timers used to carry the 1911 in what is sometimes called the “Mexican” carry, the gun simply shoved into the pants belt. This, he said, was not too bad, but several times his pistol fell out without warning, generally as he got out of a car. The gun, he said, seemed to climb upward out of his belt of its own accord, and quickly find the concrete. This is never good.

Experiences with shoulder holsters have not found our long-time 1911 carriers any favorites. One of us had a Bianchi spring-loaded rig that positioned the gun vertically under the left arm. The forward edge of the holster was open, the gun being held in place by a leather-covered spring that encircled the slide and frame. The holster was quite good for concealment, but was like wearing a harness, its user told us, and some sort of jacket or long shirt was required to keep the gun hidden. If the coat or shirt blew open from a casual breeze, the whole rig was easily seen. The rig and the jacket were not very comfortable on hot summer days. Presenting the gun required a strong pull forward on the gun to overcome the spring that held it in place. This worked well enough, but reholstering the gun generally required both hands. Also, there was a conflict, it seemed, between adequate security and ease of withdrawing the gun. The “Jackass” type rig, as worn by Don Johnson on Miami Vice, had the gun pointing rearward. A few IPSC competitors tried these only to find they were pointing a loaded gun rearward at the spectators. These rigs thus were not very popular for competition. They did require two hands to reholster, a tactical burden.

What Works
Here’s three 1911 holsters we’ve found that work very well indeed. Two are by Milt Sparks Holsters, Inc., and one by Old West Reproductions, a company famous for authentic cowboy leather. Our staffers have used these three rigs for years, and they’ve never let anyone down. Here is a discussion of their benefits and limitations.

Old West Reproductions’ Bachman Slide, $75. Our Pick. Old West Reproductions (406-273-2615,www.oldwestreproductions. com) is the cleanest manufacturing facility we’ve ever seen. Its owner, Rick Bachman, keeps the place looking like he’s just cleaned it in preparation for a visit by a dignitary, or by a TV camera crew. The reasoning behind the cleanliness is simple, said owner Bachman. He said he doesn’t have time to go looking for a tool among a bunch of clutter on his bench, so he puts each and every tool back where it belongs after he’s done with it. Several years ago Tech Editor Ray Ordorica stopped by Bachman’s shop in Florence, Montana, and inspected one of Bachman’s newest holsters designed to carry the 1911. It was a simple-looking rig, consisting of two pieces of leather carefully molded and sewn to wrap around the middle of a 1911. The pistol’s grips stuck out the top and its slide stuck out the bottom. But the trigger was covered, which is mandatory for any good carry rig. The holster held the gun securely, yet it could be withdrawn easily. The simple rig had belt slots in back, and could be positioned over one of the belt loops on one’s trousers to help keep it in place. Ray asked Rick Bachman what the holster was called, and Rick said it was the “101” model. Ray said it reminded him of the old Yaqui Slide, but seemed to be a better design, and suggested it be called the “Bachman Slide.” That is now its official name.

That early copy of the Bachman Slide has been worn nearly every day for almost four years, and has proven to be the most comfortable means of packing a 1911 its owner has ever experienced. It is versatile, in that it can be worn as a cross-draw rig as easily as strong-side carry. It will pack almost any configuration of the 1911, short and light, or long and heavy. The gun is retained well (by friction) during almost any activity, yet is easily presented when needed. The gun may also be readily reholstered with one hand. Because the gun and holster are carried outside the trousers belt, a long shirt or jacket is needed to hide the setup. Its owner lives in a cold part of the country where outer wear is common, so this rig works very well for his concealed-carry needs. It’s also ideal for field use, where the need for concealment is not mandated by law.

The Executive’s Companion, by Sparks, is fairly comfortable and excellent for concealment. It carries the gun lower on the belt than the Summer Special. One-hand reholstering is as easy as it gets with this rig.

The beautifully simple Bachman slide is not without its limitations, though. It does need a long shirt or jacket to conceal the gun. Some types of front sight can drag on the edge of the leather, especially those with undercut front blades. But those sights are not found on carry-type guns. This holster’s owner has slanted front sights on all his 1911s, and front-sight drag has not been a problem for him at all. In fact, the natural motion of the hand and gun during presentation sweeps the sight rearward, so there is never any drag from it. There’s some leeway for the gun to move along the belt, but it’s not a problem, says its owner. He wears this holster on his right (strong) side just behind the hip bone. One trouser-belt loop is hooked between the two main carry points of the holster, permitting the rig to move about 3 inches backward and forward. In practice, the owner says this has been more of a help than a hindrance, because the gun can be easily shifted to the most comfortable position when seated in an easy chair, or when driving, toting a pack, and the like. The holster has no rake. The gun is carried vertically, which requires a bit of getting used to, before being able to make anything like a fast presentation. This works better than a raked holster for weak-side presentations, and of course makes this rig viable for cross-draw carry.

Its best features, says its owner, are its lightness and simplicity, the fact that unmodified trousers may be worn with it (inside-the-waistband holsters require bigger pants), and it comes off and goes back on easily. It also packs any 1911 with adequate security and comfort, and also features outstanding quality of manufacture for pride of ownership. Old West Reproductions also offers several new designs in field and hunting holsters, like the Working-Man’s Crossdraw, that offer a traditional-looking but totally practical means of packing a handgun in the field. The company’s website shows a small amount of what’s available. Not shown, for example, are the newest rigs for double-action revolvers. Also, nearly unique in the industry, owner Rick Bachman will listen to requests, and if possible will incorporate your personal desires or needs into your personal holster, and that includes personalized decoration, within limits. Old West Reproductions is a one-man operation, so you may have a slight wait for your specialized needs, but we think you’ll be way more than happy with the results. The Bachman Slide is one of the best 1911 holsters we’ve experienced. Our test-holster’s owner generally carries a Colt CCO in the Bachman Slide and often forgets he’s wearing a gun, the setup is that comfortable and efficient. We think you’ll like this holster as much as we do.

Sparks Executive’s Companion, Model EX, $77.50. Buy It. Milt Sparks Holsters, Inc. (www.miltsparks.com, 208-377-5577), consists of five people, all dedicated to making outstanding leather goods. Our first encounter with the brand was many years ago, when we saw mention of Sparks’ holsters in the writings of Elmer Keith. Some years later, in 1977, one of our staff met Milt Sparks at the first IPSC Nationals. Sparks, a competitor in the event, was a friendly chap who happened to have a reputation for making some of the finest leather goods ever seen. Put it this way: If a holster was good enough for Elmer Keith, it was a darned good holster. Current owner of Milt Sparks Holsters, Inc., is Milt’s former partner Tony Kanaley, who has done a fine job of keeping Milt’s standards up. He and his staff are constantly testing new products in competition and on the street to make sure they’re good enough to offer in the company line. Several of us on the Gun Tests staff have owned quite a few Sparks holsters and belts over the years, and they’ve all been of excellent and durable quality. Two of our holsters were made specifically for 1911s, the first of which is the Executive’s Companion, as Sparks calls it. This is a black, smooth-leather rig with a large, flat surface of leather that makes it one of the most comfortable inside-the-waistband (IWB) rigs we’ve tried. It has a metal band sewn into the top leather to keep the holster open with the gun withdrawn, a serious consideration for an IWB rig. Belt pressure tends to close the holster, which can make one-handed reholstering difficult or impossible. Not so with this setup.

As the company’s website notes, this holster places the gun slightly deeper in the waistband than does the company’s Summer Special (discussed below), and that places the metal-reinforced holster mouth directly beneath the belt. In that position, the band of steel is greatly needed to keep the mouth open. The holster also has a strip of the holster leather extending above the belt, which helps keep your shirt out of the way when reholstering. In our experience, it’s very easy to return a gun to this rig. The large leather surface also goes a long way toward dispersing pressure from the sharp edges of the gun without it gouging the wearer in the side. If you’ve never worn a gun, you probably won’t realize it’ll be on you for many long hours of every day, and any rig that adds to the comfort of its wearer is going to be that much more likely to be worn.

The owner of this holster used it when he attended Thunder Ranch for five intense days, a few years back, and did most of his shooting from concealed, wearing a sports jacket over the gun. This proved the merits of the holster quickly, he said. More than 500 rounds were fired in five days, and the holster did a great job of holding the gun in place comfortably and securely. The owner especially liked the forward rake of the holster, which permitted quick presentations without straining the elbow. About the only complaint, one common to many strong-side rigs, is that the elbow often bangs into the cocked gun, which can be painful.

Its owner told us he doesn’t wear the rig much any more because he found it to be too much holster for every-day carry. The leather was bigger than he needed, and he didn’t like all that leather when there was no need for concealment. Another minor problem he experienced was that he had to buy his pants a size or so too big to make room for the holster. If he didn’t wear the holster, his pants didn’t fit. That’s one thing for all potential gun carriers to be aware of if you choose any type of inside-the-pants carry. The EX also didn’t move to match the wearer’s slight changes of position, he said, and in all-day carry that got to be uncomfortable. The gun stayed in one place, which, while ideal for competition, was not ideal for all-day carry. His carry rig today is the Bachman Slide, which he said solved all his problems.

In our brief trials to verify the owner’s comments, we found the Executive’s Companion did everything a holster is supposed to do. It carried the gun securely in one spot, thanks to its snug (and changeable for different belt widths) belt strap and the large leather backing that seemed to cling to one spot on the wearer’s side. The gun rode low inside the belt and was well concealed (even better than with the Summer Special), with the grip tight to the body yet easily grasped. The gun was always in the same position whenever you wanted it. The grip angle from the degree of rake seemed to be a little more comfortable than on the Summer Special, but that’s something you quickly get used to. The gun was easily reholstered with one hand. In our brief comparison tests, we found the Executive’s Companion to be a bit less comfortable than the Summer Special, because its large leather back made us always aware we were carrying a gun. This was most noticeable when seated. We thought the Executive’s Companion would be our first choice for carry when wearing a suit. Its well-made, well-designed slick black leather looks good in any company (even if unseen!) and gives great security and confidence. With a black gun in a black leather holster, anyone glimpsing it might easily overlook the fact that it’s a gun, and that’s sometimes a big help.

The Sparks Summer Special has rough-out leather to help keep the holster in the same relative position, and to put smooth leather against the gun. This rig is brown, and requires a brown belt for best “invisibility.”

Sparks Summer Special, Model SS, $62.50. Buy It. This rig is probably the standard by which all other concealed-carry 1911 holsters are judged. If the Sparks Executive’s Companion goes well with a suit, the Summer Special goes well with jeans. The Executive’s Companion would go well in a Cadillac. The Summer Special drives a Jeep. It’s that type of rig, and looks the part too. Long ago, Milt Sparks improved Bruce Nelson’s basic design by adding a set of sight rails and a second belt loop. There’s a metal stiffener in the top of the holster to ease reholstering. The rough side of the leather is out, to help keep the rig’s position within the clothing, and to put the slick side of the leather against the gun. The snaps on its twin loops are one-directional, to make sure the setup does not come undone but still permits easy placement of the holster onto the belt. In practice, our user of this holster never undoes the snaps, but instead threads his belt through the keeper loops, with one of his trousers’ belt loops between them. This, he says, does an excellent job of keeping the holster and gun exactly where they are put.

The forward rake of the holster makes for an easy presentation of the gun. Reholstering in practice is not quite as easy as with the Executive’s Companion, we found, but entirely workable. The holster is still tight enough that the gun would not slide out when inverted, and that’s after about ten years of occasional wear. The light weight and small “footprint” of the SS makes for comfortable wear, more so than the EX, we found. Some users of this rig have complained the gun rusts from sweat in the heat of summer. Another Sparks design called the Heritage is similar to the Summer Special, but features a waterproof liner to keep sweat off the gun, though it is significantly more expensive than the Summer Special.

Putting this holster on with a trouser-belt loop between the two hanging straps is not all that easy, we found, though far easier than with the half-blind belt loop of the Executive’s Companion. It helps considerably to have the gun in the holster when putting it on. The EX was stiff enough by itself that it didn’t need the gun to help get it into place, but the SS was flexible enough that we wanted the gun in it. However, if the pants-belt loop was ignored, the Sparks holsters were then much easier to put on. A flexible belt made it still easier, but concealed carriers seem to prefer stiff belts.

We found our normal trousers felt uncomfortably tight with this or the EX stuck inside them. For a few hours’ wear one’s normal pants would be okay, but for all-day wear we’d get the next-bigger size trousers. We liked the look and feel of the Summer Special. It was small enough and took up little enough space against our hide that we thought it would be fine for all-day wear, with the right pants. The rough leather gripped the clothing and the holster tended to stay in place, even without the help of the pants-belt loop.

Getting the gun out of the holster required noticeably more force than with the Executive rig. Gun retention with the Summer Special was excellent, we thought. A few presentations on the range got us familiar with the holster’s rake, which some thought was a bit too much. However, we quickly adapted to the holster and felt it would be a fine all-purpose carry rig, something thousands of users have proven to be the truth over the past several decades. The rake serves two purposes. Obviously it makes it easier to get the gun out, but it also brings the extended pistol butt higher and closer to the body, making for better concealment. We liked this holster a lot, and in conditions where we’d like more concealment than the Bachman Slide offered, this would be our first choice of the two Sparks rigs tested. One item we noticed is that the SS’s natural brown color showed up glaringly against a black belt. For best optical concealment, match the belt color to the holster. One final item is that the Executive’s Companion and Summer Special both looked exactly like holsters when the gun was not in them. The empty Bachman Slide could have been a holder for almost anything, and that can make a difference of big importance for some folks.

All instructors drill into their students that it’s a good idea to pack a spare magazine. Be sure to have a gun for your gunfight, but also don’t run out of ammo. Spare mags are generally carried on the side opposite the gun, to help balance the weight. Both Sparks and Old West Reproductions make one- or two-magazine carriers that will match the holster and that make spare-mag carry easy. The best ones, in our experience, have open tops — no flaps — yet retain the magazines well with friction alone.

One final note: Both shops mentioned are small operations. They don’t generally keep much stock on hand, so you may have a wait after you place your order. We have found the wait well worthwhile. With either company you’ll get more than you paid for. Long after you’ve forgotten the price you’ll still have some of the most functional, well-made leather working for you, all day, every day.