Kydex holsters have become a mainstay in today’s shooting sports. Everything from competition gear, tactical equipment, and accessories are now made from the molded material. It’s flexibility in colors, prints, and shapes give it a wider level of application. In this second part to an ongoing series, What Goes Into a Product, this post will explore kydex. This will give you, the consumer, a better idea when looking for the right holster, sheath, or carrier.
Kydex is a thermoplastic acrylic-polyvinyl chloride (a type of plastic that reacts to heat) initially developed by Rohm and Haas Company in the 1960’s. Back then it was intended to line the interior of commercial aircraft (ever stared at the interior wall of the window seat, ya that). In the shooting industry this has translated to holsters and sheaths for guns and knives since commercial introduction in the 1970’s. Kydex as the source company, currently manufactures over 40 different types of thermoplastic sheets, each with its own properties and cost.
There are three factors which affect the quality of kydex; thickness, grain, and ability to withstand temperature. Likewise, some kydex consists of low-cost, budget plastics (re-ground or recycled sheets). This recycled material results in lower-cost products with lower performance standards than higher-cost, higher-grade thermoplastics. Two types of kydex sheets that are the most popular with companies are KYDEX T and KYDEX 100. KYDEX 100 is considered “The Gold Standard” for thermoforming. It is tough and durable, and offers excellent formability, rigidity, break and chemical and high temperature resistance. Steven Cleverly, Chief Holstersmith at Spectre Holsters LLC, which is owned by Americas Armory, Inc. in Warrington, MO had this to say,
We use a combination of the .080” and .093” Kydex 100 as well as .093” Holstex for our Carbon Fiber print holsters. We prefer the greater thickness of both materials because it increases the lifecycle of the product due to flex and climate, and is certainly more impact resistant for incidentals.
The .08 thickness offers the best balance of durability, weight, and all-day comfort. Kydex has a hardness of 90 on the Rockwell R scale (gun barrels are between 26-40 Rockwell). This hardness, combined with a grained surface, increases kydex’s abrasion resistance. All that means it is a lightweight, durable polymer that is easily formed when heated.
Kydex and Its Many Uses
Engineered from pure polymers; extruded sheets of kydex don’t contain blended stiffeners. Kydex will last longer than cheaper plastics and is less likely to damage your firearm, no matter how many times you slide the gun in and out of the holster or sheath (although holster wear will still happen over time). Because of its flexibility when heated, kydex can be used to make holsters or sheaths for anything from firearms, knives, handcuffs, chewing tobacco cans, or even hot sauce.
To create a kydex holster or sheath, manufactures heat a sheet of the plastic in an oven and mold it around a pre-made form or template. Once cooled, the manufacturer will cut off the excess material and polish the finished edges. Creating a kydex holster is a labor-intensive process that requires considerable expertise, strict quality control, and precise temperature. The kydex must also be properly cooled to avoid warping. On the whole, kydex manufacturers generally fall into three categories; novice, professionals, and masters.
- Novice: Generally these kydex hobbyists have a small workspace in their basement or garage and use wooden forming blocks with C-clamps, or use a seal via a vacuum cleaner to maintain pressure on the heated kydex as it cools. Their products, while functional, often lack finished details (like polished edges) or have an insufficient trigger guard or height on the frame. These drawbacks can be overcome with time and experience.
- Professional: Often working out of a dedicated space, the Professional kydex manufacturer uses more advanced techniques. The Professional leverages molds and larger grade vacuum sealing techniques that generate more negative pressure and contour the kydex to a greater degree. The hallmark of a professional kydex business is they are able to generate more consistent results in a repetitive manner. At this level most small businesses offer a wide array of options given each is made by hand, and can be individually made-to-order.
- Master: These are individuals or companies that have attained the highest degree of commercial kydex production. Many incorporate commercial-grade methods of heating the kydex, and use CAD development and aluminum templates with high-pressure presses to meet the highest degree of detail. While many of these companies have streamlined their production process, often it is done so at the expense of custom orders.
As the growth of kydex holsters and sheaths has grown, so too has the market for support devices (belt loops, clips, paddles, screws, fasteners, grommets, and low-profile appendix “claws”). What sets the Master kydex manufacturer apart from the others is their ability to not rely on third-party companies to provide them with these parts, but rather produce their own unique add-ons. For the most part, these third-party add-ons are easily identified given they share a common design or manufacturer. This doesn’t diminish its durability, but again the difference between a Master kydex manufacturer and others is the ability to stand out from the crowd.
Over time, any gun repeatedly drawn in and out of its holster will show signs of finish wear. Leather holsters tend to wear on a wider area of the gun, and the tannins in the leather is slightly corrosive. A kydex holster will wear on the contact points where the gun “clicks” to lock in. The problem with kydex holsters is there are many Novice manufacturers, and many of them are great and put quality in their product as if it was their own. Yet, there are some that are inexperienced and fail to pay attention to the finer details, whether it is an IWB holster or an OWB holster. A quality holster manufacturer will design the retention of the gun to the trigger, and not to the slide. The only time kydex will fail as a holster is if it either improperly cared for or poorly designed. If severely stressed, the plastic may develop cracks. If left out in a high temperature environment, say the dashboard of your car on a hot day with the windows up, the kydex may reach “working temperature” and deform.
Mr. Cleverly offered some simple Do’s and Don’t in terms of care to kydex holsters and sheaths:
A holster is just like your firearm in the sense that you must keep it clean and free of debris for it to work properly. I know that there are people out there that wear their sidearm all day and when they get home, they simply take it off and put it away. You must periodically remove your firearm from its holster, unload it, safely wipe down the exterior, then peek the inside your holster for similar debris. Dust, Lint, and even yesterday’s crumbs will find a way to get in. Simply blowing out the dust or wiping it with microfiber towel will do the trick. If you had a rough day a the range and spent more time in the mud than on target, then a little “Dawn” and warm (NOT HOT) water will take care of it.
- Do not use solvents or oils. Some solvents like brake clean, gun scrubber, and similar will breakdown the kydex fast. Avoid oils especially inside the holster. It will trap dirt like flypaper and the goal is to have a clean place to carry your favorite sidearm.
- DO NOT PUT IT IN THE DISHWASHER!!! While this seems obvious, this has happened. In order to produce kydex products, the materials need to be heated to a certain temperature for a preset amount of time, then it is formed. If you were to put your holster into the dishwasher for one cycle then the Heated Dry Cycle will result in lost money, holster, and a very angry spouse.
In the end, you need to consider the kydex manufacturer just as much as the design, features, and material. Get a feel for their customer service, committment, and experience. Kydex can make a remarkable and unique product, that will last for years. But like all quality products, you should consider all aspects before committing your hard-earned money.