Posted On May 6, 2013 by Print This Post

Adam Firestone Discusses Packing Iron: Tactical and Practical Concerns for Characters Who Carry Guns

We always have a bang-up time whenever weapons expert ADAM FIRESTONE joins us, and today is no exception. His past posts have covered all kinds of weapons our characters might use. Today, he describes both tactical and practical concerns about “packing iron.”

Perhaps the single most difficult aspect of arming a protagonist is explaining to the user just how the character came to be armed in the first place. More often than not, pistols seem to magically appear when needed and are stowed, safely out of sight (and out of mind!) when not. The reality of carrying a pistol is significantly more involved, requiring careful forethought and choice with respect to anticipated tactical requirements, clothing and firearm specific accessories as well as to a character’s unique physiology.

Packing iron (a colloquial term for carrying a firearm) is easy for an author to overlook – and even easier to get wrong. This article will explore the contemporary art and science of carrying a concealed firearm. A later article on this subject will explore the historical carriage of firearms.

There are four elements involved with successfully carrying and concealing a pistol on one’s person. The four must work synergistically and harmoniously with each other, lest consequences that range from the embarrassing to the disastrous ensue.

These elements are:

The character’s clothing;

The pistol itself;

The holster; and

The support system.

A brief overview of each is helpful.

The character’s clothing must satisfy a number of requirements:
It must be in keeping with the character’s idiom. If your character is a fashion conscious New Yorker typically attired in fitted dresses that accentuate her athletic build, suddenly requiring her to wear a loose fitting jacket or jeans is both implausible with respect to the story and a giveaway to a knowledgeable reader.

Conversely, the clothing must lend itself to the concealment of a firearm. This isn’t much of a limitation as pistols can be readily hidden by almost any attire. In the early 1990s, I attended a talk given by a member of the New York City Police Department’s Emergency Service Unit. The detective wore fitted slacks and a sport shirt. Nowhere on his person was a pistol in evidence, nor did his attire offer many opportunities to conceal a weapon. Despite this, I knew he had to be armed as per NYPD regulation. It turned out that his pistol, a Glock 19, was concealed inside the front of his waistband, with the barrel parallel to the zipper and the butt to the right using a special holster that blended the pistol’s outline seamlessly into the surface of his trousers.

Finally, the clothing must allow access to the pistol. Being unable to get to a pistol when it’s needed is the same as being unarmed.

Selection of a pistol is critical for viable concealment. A man with a 58” chest and a 32” or 34” waist has a large array of options, from full size service pistols to ultra-compact carry guns. A 5’2” woman weighing 102 pounds soaking wet will need to carry a much smaller gun to avoid “printing,” or inadvertently displaying the fact of the pistol’s presence.

Holsters come in a broad spectrum of materials, sizes, form factor and intended positions. Basic types and uses will be covered separately below. Of critical importance is that the holster holds the firearm securely and that the design lends itself to concealment. Police duty holsters, for example, are designed to securely carry and retain a firearm, but they are not easily (or at all) hidden by street clothes. Specifics such as where on the body the holster positions the firearm or the relative speed with which the firearm can be presented from one design as opposed to another are part of the user’s decision making process.

Other than shoulder and ankle holsters, which supply their own rigging and support systems, holsters must be supported by a belt.

Typical dress belts available in department stores are not
sufficiently rigid to hold the weight of a holster and firearm (and, often, spare ammunition) snugly to the body. They stretch and sag. The results are unfortunate: The butt of the pistol leans outward, away from the body, indicating to observers that the subject is armed, and when walking or running, the pistol bounces uncomfortably against the hip. Holsters that rely on the tension between the body and clothing usually use clips that snap over a waistband. In this case, the support system is the clothing itself, and it must be sufficiently robust to support the added weight without deforming. In this case, a pair of Levi’s trumps dress pants.

A brief discussion of popular holster types is useful.

Inside the Waistband (IWB): IWBIWB holsters are extremely popular for concealed carry. As the name implies, they sit inside the waistband on the strong side hip and snug the pistol tightly into the body, aiding in concealment. IWB holsters are usually secured by belt loops or clips that sit outside the waistband. As a result of their design, IWB holsters offer the ability to effectively conceal full size service pistols under light cover, such as an untucked t-shirt. IWB holsters allow the user to rapidly present the firearm from concealment.

Belt Slide: BeltSlide Belt slide or “pancake” holsters are worn outside the waistband. They are secured to the user by means of loops or slots through which a belt is threaded. These holsters range from a simple loop of leather (e.g., the “Yaqui Slide”) to designs that fully enclose the firearm. A well-executed belt slide holster can offer almost as much concealment as an IWB. However, they usually require a bit more cover, such as an untucked overshirt. Belt slide holsters offer a marginally faster presentation than IWB holsters.

Pocket Holster: PocketHolster Pocket holsters are designed for small pistols which will fit into a hip pocket. No belt or other support system is necessary (other than that necessary to keep the user’s pants from sagging due to the increased weight). Key issues with pocket carry are breaking up the outline of the pistol in the pocket and preventing lint from entering the gun’s mechanism. As a result, pocket holsters are often shaped like a liner for the pants pocket. Pocket holsters are worn when concealment is of paramount concern, as presentation is relatively slow.

Small of the Back (SOB): SOB SOB holsters are designed to maximize concealment by positioning the gun in the hollow of the spine. They are available in either inside or outside the waistband configurations, with the inside the waistband variant offering the best concealment for large pistols. The price paid for the SOB’s superior concealment qualities is a relatively slow presentation.

Shoulder Holster: ShoulderHolster Shoulder holsters use a harness through which both arms fit, positioning the gun on the user’s weak side. To draw, the user reaches across the body. While deriving a certain cachet from their association with James Bond, Dirty Harry and 1970s police dramas, shoulder holsters have generally fallen from favor. They require significant effort to conceal (usually a jacket, sweatshirt or large overshirt), telegraph the user’s intent to draw and offer a relatively slow presentation.

Ankle Holster: AnkleHolsterAs implied by the name, ankle holsters are worn around the ankle and are intended to be concealed by the user’s trousers. They are useful only for compact or sub-compact firearms and offer an extremely slow presentation. For this reason, ankle holsters are used almost exclusively used to carry a backup weapon. They are rarely, if ever used to carry a primary firearm.

The devil, with respect to the use of firearms in fiction, is in the details. Packing iron is easy to get wrong. However, with a bit of effort an author can exploit nuances and idiosyncrasies associated with carrying a firearm to bolster and support action scenes, character development and the story as a whole.


Adam notes that this is just the tip of the iceberg as far as holsters go. Ask Adam if you’d like more information beyond these “broad archetypes.” (I’m hoping we can persuade Adam to describe his personal rig.)

On Wednesday, RU hosts debut author JENNIFER MCGOWAN.


Bio: Adam Firestone brings more than 25 years of experience with weapon systems including small arms, artillery, armor, area denial systems and precision guided munitions to Romance University. Additionally, Adam is an accomplished small arms instructor, editor, literary consultant and co-author of a recently published work on the production of rifles in the United States for Allied forces during the First World War.

Adam has been providing general and technical editing services to authors and publishing houses specializing in firearms books since the early 2000s. Additionally, Adam provides literary consulting services to fiction authors including action scene choreography, technical vetting and technical editing. In this line of experience, Adam has had the fortune to work with well known authors including Shannon McKenna and Elizabeth Jennings.

Check out Adam’s blog here:

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20 Responses to “Adam Firestone Discusses Packing Iron: Tactical and Practical Concerns for Characters Who Carry Guns”

  1. Morning Adam!

    Wow! Great article! I’d always wondered various ways and wheres to carry a weapon.

    One of our rules at work (and many other places) is to not carry a cell phone on you – customers first, right? I’m amazed at the lengths some of the girls will go to to try to conceal a phone, and some succeed really well. In their boots, in their waistband, etc. It would almost be like concealing a small gun, I imagine. =)

    One thing that never did cross my mind would be the lint factor. Is this something fairly common that could cause a gun to misfire?

    thanks for posting with us today!


    Posted by Carrie Spencer | May 6, 2013, 7:54 am
    • Hi Carrie,

      It’s EXTREMELY rare that lint will cause a firearm not to FIRE. However, there are many cases where the added friction caused by the lint may prevent the gun from functioning reliably.

      This is particularly true of traditional semiautomatic pistols like the Browning Hi-Power and the Colt Government Model due to their relatively tight tolerances and long slide to frame engagement surfaces.

      In contrast, modern semiautomatics like the Glock have very small slide to frame engagement surfaces and as a result, are often much more resistant to lint/dirt related stoppages.

      Hope this helps!


      Posted by Adam Firestone | May 6, 2013, 2:37 pm
  2. Carrie – I never thought about lint! Adam, what about static electricity? Does that cause problems with holstered weapons?

    You mentioned your personal “rig.” Can you tell us about that?

    Also, this could probably make a whole separate post, but at your OVRWA presentation last year you mentioned the rules about traveling with guns. They weren’t what I’d expected! Can you tell us more about that?

    Posted by Becke Martin Davis | May 6, 2013, 11:35 am
    • Hi Becke,

      1) I’ve never experienced any problems related to static electricity.

      2) Personal rig…ugh. Let me start by saying that what and how you carry is a matter of personal preference. Many will expound on the scientific rationales for their choices, but in the end, it’s all about what you feel comfortable with.

      I carry a high capacity, Commander sized M1911A1 style .45 pistol (a Para-Ordnance P-13) in a Milt Sparks 55BN with an FBI tilt on my right hip. On my left hip I carry a Milt Sparks double magazine carrier. Both are supported by a 5.11 Tactical “Operator” belt in ballistic nylon.

      My backup is a Smith & Wesson Model 60 .357 Magnum with a 2.25″ barrel. It simply drops into a jacket pocket.

      Traveling with guns…that really is a whole separate post!!

      Hope this helps,


      Posted by Adam Firestone | May 6, 2013, 2:48 pm
  3. Hi, Adam. I so appreciate your posts and accessibility for questions. This is an area I know nothing about, but I somehow wrote myself a character who carries a concealed pistol. I could use tips.

    She’s petite (5-4, athletic and finely boned). In one scene, I’d like her to wear a leather catsuit while riding a motorcycle. I’d assumed an ankle holster was the best scenario for concealment, though I hear what you’re saying about slow presentation. Would that make sense, and can you recommend an ankle holster and pistol model I can research for some verity?

    Would your answer be different if she wore cowboy boots?

    In another setting, she’s teaching a running class and wearing a t-shirt, sweatpants, and running shoes. In this situation, what kind of holster and pistol make the most sense? (The concealment is more important than rapid access.)

    I appreciate this might be more detail than you’re willing to provide in a blog comment, so would be grateful for any help!

    Posted by Jan O'Hara | May 6, 2013, 4:07 pm
    • Hi Jan – Thanks so much for joining us today! Adam gave a talk for my RWA chapter last year. Initially I thought the information would be useful primarily for authors of romantic suspense. I was amazed how many people were clamoring for information for books of all different genres. It’s fun because no matter how off-the-wall our questions are, Adam either knows the answer right off the top of his head or he knows how to get the information. I was always nervous about writing action scenes because I had no experience with them. Thanks to Adam, I feel much more comfortable now! (Or I will once I get back in the writing groove again. Still struggling with that…)

      Posted by Becke Martin Davis | May 6, 2013, 8:15 pm
    • Hey, Jan!

      Your first comment ended up in our spam folder. Our apologies.

      Posted by Jennifer Tanner | May 6, 2013, 9:20 pm
      • Hi, Jenn. *waves* No worries. My spam filter has been acting oddly of late. It happens.

        Becke, I’ve talked to some gun enthusiasts, but Adam is so qualified, I’d feel reassured to write around his opinion. And yes, I hope you get back to writing soon.

        Posted by Jan O'Hara | May 6, 2013, 9:32 pm
    • Hi Jan!

      The catsuit will be a problem as there isn’t much room where you can store or hide a gun, especially on chambered in an effective caliber. One option would be a small pistol in a neck rig. You can see examples here:

      The problem there is that you are limited to very small pistols. The largest caliber you’re going to get is .380 ACP, and it’s not known as the best man stopper out there. At all. By any stretch.

      I wouldn’t do an ankle holster because there’s simply no place to hide it in a tight cat suit. And they border on tactically useless…

      Now, if you can change her catsuit into a pair of tight pants and a fitted jacket, the world of IWB SOB holsters opens up, and we can put just about anything back there…

      Feel free to contact me offline and we’ll tall.



      Posted by Adam Firestone | May 7, 2013, 10:37 am
  4. more thing, just cause I’m nosy. =) Could you really shoot your piece THROUGH your ankle holster? (Saw that in a movie once) Wouldn’t it cause powder burns at the very least?

    Adam, I’m not a suspense author, but every time you’re on here, I come up with some great story ideas…=)


    Posted by Carrie Spencer | May 6, 2013, 5:56 pm
    • Hi Carrie,

      It would be difficult. While most have open fronts, they shield the trigger, so the pistol would have to be at least partially removed from the holster.

      If you were ever in such dire straits that you needed to fire through a holster, you would have far worse things to worry about than powder burns…

      All the best,


      Posted by Adam Firestone | May 7, 2013, 10:40 am
  5. Hi Adam!

    This is very useful information. I was wondering if an experienced eye could detect if someone was holstering a gun. That is, in some instances, would the weight of the firearm change a person’s gait?

    Thanks for another great post.

    Posted by Jennifer Tanner | May 6, 2013, 9:28 pm
    • Hi Jennifer!

      Modern pistols – and carry pistols especially, don’t weigh that much. What experienced eyes can see is how the gun’s outline prints on clothing or what type of clothing the person is wearing.

      Pistol butts are notoriously hard to conceal, more so than barrels, and good carry rigs will always tilt the gun so the butt presses into the hip.

      That being said, I can wear my full size .45 under a loose fitting t-shirt, and nobody is the wiser.

      All the best,


      Posted by Adam Firestone | May 7, 2013, 10:44 am
  6. Jan – Sorry about the post getting stuck in spam. Hopefully it’s not up twice now, since I think Jen and I just took it out of spam simultaneously.

    Another friend of mine said she’s been unable to post here today and her post is NOT in the spam folder. I hope no one else is having this problem!

    Posted by Becke Martin Davis | May 6, 2013, 9:29 pm
  7. Augh! I’m only seeing it once, but my computer has been acting weird today. Google Chrome, what’s up? I used to love this browser, but not lately.


    Found the duplicate and deleted it. I hope to heck I didn’t delete the original, too!

    Posted by Becke Martin Davis | May 6, 2013, 9:41 pm
  8. Thanks so much for visiting with us today, Adam! And thanks for another fascinating post!

    Posted by Becke Martin Davis | May 7, 2013, 12:06 am
  9. I gave my wife a concealment shirt and she loves it. Thanks for all the great info.

    Posted by mat | July 2, 2013, 9:22 am
  10. Where can I get that pocket holster Tha Seecamp sets in??

    Posted by Mike Beadles | September 23, 2015, 4:18 pm

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