• Red Nichols, Holstorian

Post 35: Holsters have 'alignment' settings

Updated: May 26

A challenge in writing about gunleather, is that we don't always have just the right image at hand to illustrate our point. So we have to use our words instead; and that led to some comically bad old wives' tales before the concept of 'clocking' came along.

This is not about clocking. Maybe another time. This is about what I whimsically call the alignment settings of a holster, and I got the notion from the adjustable settings for the (usually) front suspension of a car and its wheels.

There, the front wheels have settings for caster, camber, and toe-in/out. To me this was the beginning of a way of communicating because the carry angle term 'forward rake', like 'appendix carry', had assumptions built into it that readers weren't 'getting'. Exactly WHAT is 'forward' in forward rake? In the early days that meant 'muzzle forward' so I used those terms for clarity. Then in forums I could see that miscommunication was occurring because the writer assumed that his/her readers knew what was meant by 'forward rake' and sometimes the opposite carry, such as the famous "FBI tilt" used by those agents and the Rangers before them, was meant.

In an automobile, getting certain of these settings into an ideal arrangement makes THE difference in how the car handles in fast corners. Sure, others like toe-in are more about tire wear. But still it's a useful concept in choosing a holster. So here's how I describe alignment in holsters, so that one can choose well by knowing there are ideal settings -- and then there's what is on offer from the maker who is not himself a designer and doesn't know these can be varied. A copyist, for example, who has turned out an excellent copy of Bianchi's Askins Avenger for the 1911 because he bought one made just that way, then fails when translating the design to, say, a Kimber revolver.

Let's start, though, with a mention of ride height. I've mentioned this in another, recent post yet I'll mention it again because it affects the 'front end alignment' concept. For one thing, a revolver is relatively insensitive to ride height because its rear sight is so far behind the trigger area, and the grip itself can be so insignificant if one has, say, a factory J frame round butt. This was the essence of all that was faced by designer/makers like Gaylord in the '50s and Theodore in the '60s. How hard could it be, right? Automatics are a VERY different animal. That rear sight, if your designer doesn't grasp alignment principles, is so far back from the grip that it wants to poke out and 'print' under clothing. One maker described on an older version of his site, the difficulty with what he called 'peeking' of the rear sight. It's quite a troublesome element of great design. Anyway, this is exacerbated by ride height when it is too high -- as it is on JB's original Askins Avenger. The original avenger of '77, which he is happy to take full credit for and I'll let him (!) is so high and its trailing slot so close to the pistol, to compensate for the 'peeking' problem. Well, that led to the need for a 'good gunbelt', didn't it? And we've been stuck with that ever since.

My own, now-discontinued series of avenger-style holsters that evolved over the last decade, is the result of disconnecting all the elements of alignment and reassembling them for ideal results. And ride height was one element: for automatics, the pistol as far down the waist as possible until the knuckle of the second finger barely rubs the uppermost edge of the belt. "As far down as possible" sounds like gunslinger stuff; but not at all. We're simply finding a way to visualize when we are choosing a holster with the best possible center of gravity; and for an auto, that position is 'it' regardless of barrel length. For a revolver -- well, no maker has ever really created an excellent avenger for the revolver. They are so darned wide so get a pancake instead, which is what the Avenger was created to compete against. For a revolver, then, ride height is ideally with the cylinder's length, centered on the trousers belt it is being carried on. Most of the weight and bulk is right there, and on many people that is a narrower part of the torso vs. the pelvis below or rib cage above. Golden.

Ride height out of the way, we're most of the way 'there' to the formula employed by the Texas Rangers' holster makers since the turn of the 20th century. Next, then, we're concerned with caster. Caster on a car suspension is the degree to which the wheel center is ahead of, or behind, the 'axle' (spindle, whatever). Negative caster is what creates self-centering steering on a car: and it's called negative caster when the bottom of the wheel (the muzzle of your pistol) is ahead of the top of the wheel (the rear sight of your pistol) or 'muzzle forward'. So what? For concealment at 4:00 clocking, which is where the Rangers carried their Colt SAAs, we have a 'positive caster' setup: the rear sight is ahead of the front sight. Not used on cars but is on chairs: 'caster' wheels.

Negative caster would be used in crossdraw; or with the holster ahead of the front pocket with the muzzle tipped forward. See how confusing this all gets when trying to use lots of words? So instead, we'll say that a Sunday/Brill holster has 'positive caster' -- rear sight ahead of the front sight -- and for 4:00 carry we will seek that out. The Rangers used an angle of roughly 24 degrees and I use it as well. Not because they were prescient or I am clever, because that angle on all pistols then turns the pistol to its narrowest triangle on your torso; AND presents the grip to your drawing hand.

Now -- realize that you can choose any carry angle you want BUT that angle will force you to change clocking. It's unavoidable if you're in a concealment mode. For example, my preferred 24 degree angle is ideal for 4:00 carry but absolutely horrible for 1:00 carry! So the angle will change as you shift the holster around your waistline; and the reason for negative caster in holsters is that as the holstered pistol passes the trousers seam that runs up your right leg, for example, the muzzle simply must shift towards the front or you won't be able to grasp the pistol properly. Ditto if you try the reverse: start with a negative caster setup at 4:00 -- then try to grasp your pistol. And now the grip will print, and badly, under your clothes.

So that's caster. Now for camber, which is the degree to which the top of the pistol is tipping out over the muzzle, that will nearly always be controlled by ride height, because of the center of gravity. Again, keeping the ride height as I've explained it, means that camber is a non-issue.

That leaves 'toe' which I used to call twist. This one is VERY hard for designers to effect because few of them even know it's controllable. Again ride height affects this, and automatic vs. revolver, too. For an avenger-style it's a killer for concealment; while for the pancake holster that the avengers were created to compete against, it is an automatic non-issue because there is a slot for the belt ahead of the pistol pocket, and one an equal distance behind it. So a well-designed avenger, of which even JB does not presently make, has that back panel so abbreviated and biased towards the fold, that it doesn't overpower the trailing slot and 'twist' the rear sight outwards and print.

Why does the Sparks above ride too high (notice the top of the slot is ahead of the trigger guard pocket, unlike the avenger-style at the end of this piece)? Because it's a literal copy of the Askins Avenger that is also constructed this way; and the belt panel is too wide for the same reason. And so the trailing slot had to be moved far from the main seam and curved 'round when wet: an avenger is unbalanced and pulls the grip in but pokes the rear sight outwards. The slot can stay close to the pistol pockets, and so take up less space along the belt, when the belt panel is correctly narrowed -- that chunk to the left of the yellow line at center should be gone.

See what I mean on my home page when I speak about the science of gunleather? It's more than understanding how to make the materials do, every time, what the maker wants; it's about engineering the design itself so that every holster MUST come out ideally without relying on the craftsman to bend or twist this or that while the holster is wet for molding, for example.

This isn't the last you'll hear from me on this. It's a simple result that is complex to accomplish, so that it will be simple again for you to 'see' it in the finished product :-).


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