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Comparison Shopping Tips...

Lately I’ve been looking at purses — lots of purses. I’ve handled concealed carry purses from established names like Galco and Coronado, from less well-known but equally experienced mid-sized makers such as The Concealment Shop and Gun Tote’n Mamas, and from tiny little startup companies. Women interested in purse carry will find lot more choices than were available just a few short years ago, so now it’s time to name names and discuss details.

First the disclaimer: Every one of the purse companies mentioned on this site has sent me at least one product for review purposes. 1 I figure if every company whose products I discuss sends me a sample, I can be just as non-biased as if none of them did so. It’s only when you get free samples from one company but have to pay for others that you’re likely to end up with biased comparisons. As it is, though, I’m equally beholden to all of them, and thus to none of them.

As a rule, I don’t believe purse carry is ideal for everyday use. There are just too many ways off-body carry can go wrong. But there are times and places where purse carry — and only purse carry — makes sense. For this reason, I believe every woman who carries a gun should own at least one holster purse, so she can easily cope with the rare circumstances where on-body carry won’t work for her.

Further, many women will not carry at all unless they can carry in their purses, and most of these women simply will not attempt on-body carry under any circumstances whatsoever. While the advantages of carrying on-body are significant, I’d certainly rather have my friends armed with a less than ideal carry method if the other choice is for them not to be armed at all. Since so many people do choose to carry in their purses, whether occasionally or regularly, we need good, solid information about this common carry method.

So let’s get to it!

Some general design considerations

Concealed carry purse designers have it tough. They need to create purses that:

That’s a tall order, and purse designers meet these challenges in different ways. For example, looking at the dangers of purse snatching, one designer makes crossbody purse styles with metal-reinforced shoulder straps. Looking at the same issue, another designer uses plain straps and suggests women avoid crossbody purse styles. The first company wants to protect customers from losing the firearm to a thief. The second company wants to protect customers from the dangers of fighting with a criminal.

Which is correct? They both have valid points and good reasons for their decisions. Different designs work for different circumstances, and every woman has her own priorities. So I cannot tell you which of these choices is right for you, in your circumstances, based on your own priorities. I can only describe the designs and the reasons the designers chose one feature over another. When there is a fundamental difference in perspective between designers, you’ll have to decide on your own which of these perspectives best addresses your own priorities.

As you make your decisions, think about the possible costs of fighting with a thief to protect your property. Is it really worth risking your life to protect the firearm you carry to protect your life?

Gun compartments

This purple panel came from Galco's Pax purse. It shows how Galco's sewn-in elastic pouch secures the firearm with a
This purple panel came from Galco’s Pax purse. It shows how Galco’s sewn-in elastic pouch secures the firearm with a “removable” retention strap. Don’t remove that strap! It’s an essential component of your firearm’s security system, designed to hold the firearm safely inside this one size fits most holster.

While many ordinary purses have a simple compartment of a size that could hold a firearm in a pinch, a purse designed for concealed carry does much more. These purses feature an internal holster that holds the gun securely while safely covering the trigger guard. This keeps the gun in the same orientation at all times and prevents it from sliding around. When the user reaches for the gun, the muzzle will be pointed in a known direction and the grip will present itself naturally to her hand. She won’t have to fish around for the grip while hoping to avoid accidentally finding the trigger. The compartment allows fast, comfortable access. Some designers also place a premium on discreet access.

Typically, the gun compartment rides near the center of the purse, with an opening at one end. This is particularly true of hobo-style purse designs. But other layouts exist. Some purses allow top access into the gun compartment. In such cases, the end user must ask herself whether she will ever absent-mindedly unzip that compartment as she reaches for her wallet. It’s not a safety concern, since you’re unlikely to draw the gun in such circumstances. But letting others see the firearm could cause a scene that ranges from mildly embarrassing to financially catastrophic.

The gun compartment liner must be sturdy because it is the weak point of any bag, destined to fail long before good leather or quality zippers give way. The liner, together with the surrounding walls, helps support the weight of the gun so it does not slide around inside the purse. Such movement can make it hard to find the grip under stress. It can also be distracting, making it hard to draw the gun. A very loose or flimsy liner can even become entangled with the holster, presenting a physical danger. For this reason, always look for purses with sturdy liners and stiff gun compartment walls.

Accessing the compartment

Almost universally, purse designers use zippers to seal their gun compartments, although it is possible to find designs which seal the compartment with Velcro. 2 These hook-and-loop style closures have one significant advantage over zipper closures: they are much less easily spotted even by someone who knows what they are looking for. As an example, I was in the room at the Firearms Academy of Seattle one spring as a group of women were discussing holster purses and passing examples around the room. When an older Coronado purse with a hook-and-loop gun compartment closure was passed around, four different women examined it before anyone was able to identify the entry point or find the compartment. On another occasion, an online friend of mine told of having her purse pawed through by a “security guard” at some event or another; the guard never did spot her concealed weapon although he did confiscate her water bottle.

The negative side of the hook-and-loop style closures is, of course, that getting into the compartment will always make that distinctive rrrrrriiiiippppp sound. This often discourages those whose defense plans include stealthily slipping the dominant hand inside the gun compartment whenever they feel they are in a risky situation. On the other hand, if the bad guy hears you arming yourself and decides not to attack, that’s a win.

Whether the concealed carry compartment features a zipper closure or a hook-and-loop closure, some women find that the edges of the zipper, or the hook side of the hook-and-loop, will irritate their hands when they reach into the compartment. There is little to be done about this, but women who have thin or sensitive skin may want to choose a larger purse, which is more likely to have a generous gun compartment opening that will be kinder on the hands.

If you are looking for a Velcro-closed compartment, check out products from The Concealment Shop. To the best of my knowledge, that company is the only one currently producing them.

To lock or not to lock

Many concealment purses, such as this purse from Galco, feature an integral lock on the gun compartment zipper. Even with a lock, <em>never</em> leave any purse containing a firearm where children or clueless people can reach it.
Many concealment purses, such as this purse from Galco, feature an integral lock on the gun compartment zipper. Even with a lock, never leave any purse containing a firearm where children or clueless people can reach it.

Many concealed carry purses feature a locking zipper to secure the gun compartment (hook and loop openings, of course, can never be locked). On the surface, this seems like a grand idea and it might even be a lifesaver in some circumstances. For example, while on overnight visits to family or friends who have small children, it is extremely convenient to have such a readily-available means of securing the firearm from inquisitive younglings while you are asleep.

There are two significant drawbacks to zipper locks, however. First and foremost, there is a significant risk that a woman will lock the firearm compartment and later forget to unlock it — or that a woman who isn’t quite comfortable with carrying a firearm will habitually leave the compartment locked, thus rendering the gun inaccessible in her moment of need. Similarly, the user may unlock the compartment, and then forget she has done so, later negligently leaving the purse where a child might access it since she “knows” the gun is secured. In either case, the presence of a lock may add a layer of complication into the owner’s defense plans — and in either case, a lapse of memory could have truly catastrophic consequences.

If you choose a purse with a locking zipper, be especially wary of these factors to avoid falling into poor or even dangerous habits.

Galco, Coronado Leather, and Woolstenhulme Designer Concealed Carry make purses with zipper locks, while The Concealment Shop, and Gun Tote’n Mamas do not.

Internal holsters

Three different internal holster configurations from different purse companies. Left to right: Ladies Protection LLC pouch type holsters, Coronado Leather Stealth G4 wraparound holster, and Gun Tote'n Mamas bucket style holster.
Three different internal holster configurations from different purse companies. Left to right: Coronado Leather Stealth G4 wraparound holster, and Gun Tote’n Mamas bucket style holster.

Because guns come in different sizes, internal holsters in concealed carry purses need to handle a wide variety of firearms. Designers have addressed this in different ways. Coronado Leather, for example, produces a “holster” made entirely of elastic and hook-and-loop material. It is designed to be wrapped securely around the outer portion of the firearm and then snugged into place with the hook-and-loop ends before being placed within the compartment. Once fitted, the holster retains its shape and the gun can be withdrawn and replaced at will. The design provides a custom fit for each type of firearm and securely retains the gun without a retention strap. Other makers have addressed this same concern by providing a loose-fitting bucket of soft leather, often with an elastic retention strap, or by offering holsters in different sizes to fit different firearms.

Some internal holsters include a separate retention strap that attaches to the holster with a hook-and-loop fastener. Place this strap over the back of the semi-auto’s slide or over the hammer of your revolver, not over the top of the grip, so you can get your hand on the grip without holding onto the strap. Ideally, you will break the strap free with your dominant right thumb, so set the strap up with the bulk of its extra material on the outside of the holster. Leave just enough material inside the holster to attach the strap firmly to the inside wall.

The majority of concealed carry purses feature a loop panel along the interior walls to which the hook-covered internal holster attaches, allowing the holster to be positioned at different angles or different depths to suit different firearms and to accommodate the angles at which different women might reach into the compartment. However, this is not always the case. Galco stitches their internal holsters into the liners of the carry compartment. This sacrifices flexibility of holster placement, but perhaps improves overall security.

The Coronado Stealth G4 holster lies flat when not in use. It can be wrapped snugly around firearms of many different sizes to provide a stable ride and secure trigger protection inside Velcro-based gun compartments.
The Coronado Stealth G4 holster lies flat when not in use. It can be wrapped snugly around firearms of many different sizes to provide a stable ride and secure trigger protection inside Velcro-based gun compartments.

When the purse features a Velcro-based compartment lining, you can use an internal holster from any company you choose. This is the quick and easy fix when you don’t like the one that came with your purse, or when it does not properly fit your firearm. Many companies offer hook-covered internal holsters at minimal prices — less than $15 or so in most cases. My favorite is the wraparound Stealth G4 holster from Coronado Leather.

Oh, by the way, there’s also a little secret for placing Velcro-based holsters inside the compartment: put your unloaded firearm into the holster, then wrap a piece of paper around the outside of the holster before sliding it into the compartment. The paper prevents the hooks on the holster from mating up with the loops on the interior wall until you’ve positioned the gun at the depth and angle you prefer. Once the holster is properly positioned, slip the paper out of the way and the holster will immediately grab its spot on the wall of the compartment.

Shoulder straps

As I mentioned earlier, there are at least two schools of thought about shoulder straps on concealed carry purses. When selecting a concealed carry purse, you need to understand what the choices are and why they matter, because your purse selection will dictate your defense tactics.

Gun Tote'n Mamas offers reinforced purse straps for added security. I slit open the strap in this photo to show how it works.
Gun Tote’n Mamas offers reinforced purse straps for added security. I slit open the strap in this photo to show how it works.

Some concealed carry purse designers, such as Gun Tote’n Mamas, reinforce their straps with thick wire or a metal cord inside the strap. These cords are not readily visible, although if you examine the strap carefully with a knowing eye, you can usually spot them. The purpose of the cord is to defeat the slash-and-grab purse thief. Because there is a firearm inside the purse, the reasoning goes, the user needs to retain the purse and defeat a purse snatching. Many (but not all) purses with this reinforced strap will be worn crossbody, and will thus become as much a part of the user’s clothing as an attached fanny pack would. With or without a reinforced strap, crossbody carry has some significant advantages, including a very marked improvement in the woman’s ability to casually keep control of her purse in situations where a woman with a different type of handbag might look awkward holding onto it.

There is a downside to reinforced-strap designs. Because the reinforcement is not visible to most observers, a thief who intends to slash the purse free is not deterred from trying. He is only prevented from succeeding. The user might end up fighting with an armed criminal over a purse that she cannot easily dump in order to escape the situation unharmed.

Does this mean reinforced straps are a bad idea? Not at all. It simply means that the user must know that her choice of purse means that she may need to master some basic hand-to-hand skills as well, and that she will need to practice getting the gun out of the compartment from various awkward positions in order to deal with this type of potential problem. How extreme is this risk? That’s a judgment call: most purse snatchers will not have plans to stay and fight if the purse does not immediately rip free. Their more likely plan is simply to grab and go, continuing their intended flight even if the grab is unsuccessful. As a result, it is quite possible that the added security from the reinforced strap which prevents a purse snatcher from getting the firearm may be worth this trade-off for a woman who understands what her choices are and has a plan to cope with such a situation if it happens. See the article titled Leap Day, 1988 for one example of what such a mindset might look like… and see the article Purse Snatching Is Violent for examples of what the risk actually entails.

A woman who opts for a design with straps that are not reinforced must understand that her choice puts her firearm at risk from a slash-and-grab type of purse snatching. By the way, although many concealed carry purses are designed to be worn crossbody, by no means are all designed to be used this way. Hobo, tote, knapsack and many other handbag styles are also available. And many companies produce purses with adjustable straps so the user can tailor the strap length to suit herself. Styles with shorter straps place the owner at risk of losing a firearm from a standard purse snatching, not just from a slash-and-grab type. Again, when selecting a purse you’ll need to decide which of these practical concerns take priority for you, and choose your style and your strategy accordingly.

One more strap-related note: because concealed carry purses are almost inevitably heavier than is comfortable, wide straps are almost a physical requirement for shoulder-carried purses. If you can find wide straps that are also padded, so much the better.

Galco, Coronado Leather, The Concealment Shop, and Woolstenhulme Designer Concealed Carry all offer purses without reinforced straps. Gun Tote’n Mamas offers straps in various lengths with reinforcement.

Left, right, or ambidextrous?

As left-handers know all too well, most of the world is designed for the convenience of right-handers. Concealed carry purses are no exception to this rule, and the majority of concealed carry purse designs work well only for right hand access. Many companies ignore this question altogether, which is understandable as lefties make up only roughly 10% of the population and only around 4% of shooters require left-handed carry devices. On the other hand, several companies have clearly considered this issue and their catalogs claim their purses are ambidextrous. Unfortunately, a lot of times when this claim is made the companies are — how shall I word this gently? — lying through their teeth. There are sterling exceptions! I want to give a special shout-out here to Gun Tote’n Mamas, one company that has obviously put a lot of thought into making truly ambidextrous designs that really do work as well for left-handers as they do for right-handers. Thank goodness there’s still some truth in advertising!

Concealment purses such as this Galco Paige are usually designed to ride on the right-handed user's left shoulder. You draw by stabilizing the purse with your left hand while opening the gun compartment with your right hand.
Concealment purses such as this Galco Paige are usually designed to ride on the right-handed user’s left shoulder. You draw by stabilizing the purse with your left hand while opening the gun compartment with your right hand.

Usually, a concealed carry purse designed for a right hander will be carried on the left shoulder, or crossbody with the bag landing on the left hip. The gun compartment zipper rides facing forward, where it can easily be accessed by the right hand. To draw, you stabilize the purse with your left hand while yanking down the zipper with your right hand. Then you get a firing grip on the gun with your right hand and pull it out in a motion that looks and feels a lot like drawing from a crossdraw belt holster.

Now here’s where handedness comes in: most purses have a decorative side that faces away from the user’s body as the purse is carried, and a plainer side that rides against the user’s body. The outer face usually has design elements such as extra pockets, fancy zippers, or other features, while the inner face remains undecorated.

As a result of these two facts — the way a concealed carry purse is designed to be used, and the typical purse style which provides only one decorative face — concealed carry purses are almost universally designed backwards for the left-hander. If you are left-handed and carry the purse on your right shoulder with the decorative face outward, the zipper faces the rear where you cannot easily reach it with your dominant left hand. If you wear the purse on your left shoulder with the zipper forward and the decorative side out, you can’t get a firing grip on the gun or safely draw it with your dominant left hand. You could carry the purse zipper-forward on your right shoulder so you can draw the gun left-handed — but then the decorative side of the purse will face your body and the ugly plain side will face the world. Ugh. Further, designs with a sewn-in holster always place the holster and retention straps to suit the right handed user, not to suit the lefty, and you cannot move those holsters because they are sewn in place. And yet the companies’ literature will often still claim that the purse is “ambidextrous” because after all, you could swing the purse around and get in there left handed — if you were a contortionist, or didn’t mind habitually carrying your purse ugly side out and looking like a weirdo!

So my advice to left-handers looking for a concealed carry purse is that you look very carefully at the actual designs. Do not trust advertising literature or website verbiage, which almost universally mislead the left-handed consumer. Instead, look at the photos and design sketches to visualize how you would use the product as a left hander. If you cannot figure out how it could work, steer clear and purchase a purse that you know will work for you.

Purse makers have addressed the handedness issue in many ways. Some offer very plain purses without a decorative face. Gun Tote’n Mamas offers pass-through gun compartments with a zipper at either end, while other makers create left-handed and right-handed versions of the same purse style ( The Concealment Shop). These solutions are worth pursuing, and we hope to see many more of them.

If you are purchasing a concealed carry purse as a backup method or alternative carry device, you’ll probably want to purchase an ambidextrous design even if you are not left-handed and even if you do not consider yourself ambidextrous. The added flexibility of ambidextrous capability means that the purse could also function as your everyday holster if you ever become injured in your dominant hand, wrist, arm, or shoulder — exactly the sort of circumstance a backup carry method would be intended to cover.

Size matters

One of the complaints frequently heard about gun purses is, “It’s too BIG!!” Although purse size styles change with the changing seasons, most women have a preferred handbag size that they’ll return to whenever possible. Since that preference isn’t always for the large or oversized, it pays to shop carefully.

Fortunately, this is a concern that concealed carry purse makers have finally addressed in recent years. Several companies are making smaller purses suitable for carrying smaller firearms. This is excellent for those who require a smaller purse. Unfortunately, a smaller purse definitely means you’ll be carrying a smaller, more difficult to shoot handgun, one which may not be comfortable to practice with or powerful enough to do the job you need it to do when you need to do it. Furthermore, a smaller purse almost inevitably features an uncomfortably small opening to the gun compartment, more likely to abrade the hand and also much more difficult to draw from in a hurry. For this reason, be especially wary of purses that seem too small to be true; they might also be too small to be useful.

In addition to fashion or style concerns, an oversized purse tempts women to put a lot of other junk and stuff inside it, adding painful weight to the purse straps. A large purse easily accommodates a full-size firearm that is more comfortable and easier to shoot, but a full-size firearm also weighs a lot more than the tiny little pocket wonders that a smaller purse typically accepts. The added weight tempts you to set the purse down at every possible opportunity, increasing the risk that the purse will be left somewhere inappropriate or that the firearm will simply not be available when it is needed most.

When shopping online, pay special attention to the measurements given in the catalogs. A lot of catalogs don’t provide background details to give a sense of size or perspective in their product photos, but nearly all of them provide measurements. If you’re in doubt about whether the purse dimensions listed in the catalog will work for you, get out a ruler and a large piece of paper and trace out an approximation of the purse on the paper using the measurements given in the catalog. Is it too small? Too large? Or just right for your purposes? 3

A question of fashion

Finally, we get to the question that most women ask first, “Is there such a thing as an attractive concealed carry purse?” My answer to this is an emphatic YES. Just a few short years ago, there really were very few choices available to women who wanted to carry a gun in their purses, and the designs — while attractive in the classic sense — were fairly boring and uniform. Not so today! These days, whether your style is classic or modern, sporty or flirtatious, trendy or more staid, you should be able to find a concealed carry purse that suits your fashion sense and your lifestyle.

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Footnotes

  1. In some cases, the company sent me one freebie to keep for myself, along with several other products to review and send back. In others, the company sent several samples to keep, with the understanding that I would also be using them to display during the annual women’s holster event at the Firearms Academy of Seattle in their women’s study group. See my complete FTC Disclaimer for more details.
  2. Errr, excuse me. I meant to say, “… with a hook-and-loop style of closure.” Velcro, of course, is a brand name and not all such purses would be designed around that particular brand of hook-and-loop closure. Just to please any patent or copyright attorneys reading this, I also put “adhesive bandages” rather than Band-Aids on my children’s owies, and I’ve never, ever Xeroxed a copy for the boss. Bleh!
  3. In working on Cornered Cat purse reviews, I did not simply grab the manufacturers’ measurements. Rather, I measured the purses for myself. In a few cases, I found the numbers were wildly off. Dunno what else to say about that.