The Ultimate Firearms Destination for the Gun Lifestyle

CCW Printing: Etiquite When Concealing a Handgun

CCW Printing doesn't matter, except when it does.

All concealed carriers have experienced the struggle of learning to conceal well and become comfortable with carrying a gun in public. On internet message boards and social media gun groups, conscientious new concealed carriers often ask about best practices of concealed carry, including how to reduce “printing.” CCW Printing is when the shape or bulk of one’s handgun is visible through one’s clothing. In any discussion about concealment and printing, within the first 10 responses, someone will typically opine, “Printing doesn’t matter,” explaining “People just do not pay attention and aren’t going to notice someone’s handgun printing.” 

Is that really true, though? Certainly, it seems true that a lot of citizens don’t pay attention. It’s also true that a concealed handgun is typically not as obvious as a new concealed carrier believes. However, the full answer is more complicated and nuanced than that. As is the case so often, the answer is … it depends.

WHY ARE WE CONCEALING?

In any pursuit, setting priorities is aided by keeping the overarching goal in mind. In this case, determining how much CCW printing does or doesn’t matter will be informed largely by what the purpose of our concealing our handgun is in the first place. What are we trying to accomplish when we conceal? We’re concealing our handgun from the view of other people, but whom specifically? This is where it depends. Broadly speaking, we can categorize whom we’re trying to hide our handguns from into these categories: criminals, law enforcement, and the general public (including coworkers, friends, and family). 

CCW Printing Printing When Concealed Carry Concealed Carry Clothing
Not printing doesn’t mean you’re stuck with only a mere subcompact or snubby. Check out this setup: Boresight Solutions Duty Series G19 MOS, with Parker Mountain Machine JTTC Ultra Compensator, Trijicon RMR, and X300U in a Dark Star Gear Rigel on a PHLster Light Bear-ing Enigma, with spare magazine in a PHLster Ascent Pouch and Shiv- works Products Group’s El Niño Push Dagger.

CRIMINALS

Let’s remind ourselves why we carry: as a means of lethal force to stop anyone trying to cause our death or serious bodily injury. We carry to protect ourselves from criminals, which is the status assumed by anyone who tries to unjustifiably harm our loved ones or us. Do you suppose criminals are looking for or notice citizens printing? Surely, some criminals are intellectually, perceptually, and tactically deficient (in other words, “really dumb crooks”), but those aren’t the archetypical criminals with whom we should be primarily concerned. Most threatening are the human predators who are competent, high-level professionals in their field. Hubris and a casual, dismissive attitude do us no favors in preparing for this type. While that type of “Violent Criminal Actor” or VCA (a term from the late, great Dr. William Aprill) may or may not be common where we live, they are probably more common than most recognize. If we prepare for this worst-case scenario, we’ll likely be prepared for most others. 

It’s important to understand that VCAs may not be impressed by our gun, and, in fact, may be excited to discover us carrying a gun, because of the black-market street value it’ll bring them upon resale. Imagine a male VCA in his 20s, who has already been shot on two separate occasions since he was 14 years old, has a significant prison stint under his belt, and experiences guns pointed at him semi-routinely as part of his work in the armed robbery/drug trade. His reaction is unlikely to be, “Oh no! That citizen has a gun! I better get out of here!” He’s perhaps more likely to see us printing at the convenience store counter and think, “Hey! Free gun!”

CCW Printing Printing When Concealed Carry Concealed Carry Clothing
One of the two most common problems with AIWB carry, this problem is generally very noticeable, but fortunately easy to fix. Quality AIWB holsters either have extra material on or around the trigger guard, or otherwise use a claw of some type to rotate the grip into the body and eliminate this kind of printing.

Craig Douglas of Shivworks uses the term “unequal initiative” to describe a primary challenge of criminal assaults, and printing creates an unacceptable initiative deficit on the part the concealed carrier. The VCA knows you have something of tremendous impact/value, and you don’t know that he knows, or that he’s about to initiate an assault to take it. When facing lethal force, the single greatest tactical advantage we have as a concealed-carrying citizen is the element of surprise, meaning producing a gun and using it effectively when a VCA doesn’t expect us to do so. If the VCA knows we have a gun and can mitigate the threat it represents, the initiative deficit becomes that much more pronounced, and our risk is radically increased. 

There are countless examples available on social media and the internet of open-carriers having their handguns stolen from them by opportunistic criminals, with several documented incidents in 2021. While it’s easy to blame the open-carrier’s “situational awareness,” be tremendously skeptical that any person can maintain constant awareness and vigilance of everyone within 6 feet of them at all times to the degree they are never in danger of a gun grab. 

The answer, of course, is that if we’re going to open carry, we should do so with a serious retention holster, or otherwise carry concealed. Here’s the rub: If we’re carrying concealed, but printing significantly, then regarding the populations representing the greatest possible danger (VCAs, peace officers), we’re de facto open carrying and must deal with the downsides of that method of carry. 

CCW Printing Printing When Concealed Carry Concealed Carry Clothing
Another of the most common problems with AIWB carry is when the sights or optic print noticeably at the front of the shirt. This typically results from either too short a holster, too loose a belt, or lack of a wedge. The way to correct this is to either use a longer holster (taking advantage of the “Keel Principle”), tighten the belt a bit, or use one of the many foam or silicone wedges to push the muzzle away from the body and in turn move the visible portion of the gun at the rear of the slide further into one’s abdomen

While there are more recent examples, one of the most illuminating and best-documented cases took place in Philadelphia a few years ago when a patron was at the cash register of a deli completing a purchase. The armed citizen had a permit to carry and was carrying a pistol inside the waistband at the 4 o’clock position under a very snug T-shirt, with substantial printing. A young man came up behind him in line, observed his printing pistol, casually reached down and grabbed it, and a wrestling match ensued where the pistol fell to the floor. The assailant gained control of the pistol, fired a missed shot at the “concealed” carrier, and managed to escape on foot with the citizen’s handgun. 

The easy refrain might be to say, “That’s why I carry appendix-inside-the-waistband,” but that would miss the point that printing increases the initiative deficit. If a VCA sees a citizen printing from AIWB, then perhaps they have the hand speed to reach under an armpit while you’re facing the deli counter, or perhaps they just start by sucker punching you/cracking your skull with a brick/shooting you in the head. Finding out you’re in a fight by someone obtaining a firing grip on your pistol in the holster, or worse by sustaining a blow to the head or getting shot, radically reduces our chance for success, so avoiding printing might help us avoid the attention of the boldest type of VCAs we could encounter. While some might say, “I don’t live in an area where such things happen,” they’re only right until it happens for the first time — to say nothing of traveling to other places or miscreants traveling to them.

LAW ENFORCEMENT

Through training, experience, and necessity, most LEOs know how to size people up and assess them as threats. Any competent veteran officer will tell us they routinely identify criminals who are carrying guns by spotting printing and other cues such as patting the gun or tugging at their shirt when they see the officer. One of the perceptual errors often made by “good guys with a gun” is forgetting that, to others, they’re just a “guy with a gun,” and that onlookers, including police, cannot inherently determine whether they’re a “good guy” or a “bad guy.” 

 

If you’re observed printing by a police officer, it’s entirely possible they’ll assume you’re lawfully carrying and leave you alone (presuming you’re in an environment where carry is lawful and within venue policy). However, they might decide to approach you and further determine who you are and what you’re doing with a gun for a number of reasons. 

This officer might be a calm, mature, and reasonable person who handles the interaction professionally and prudently. They also might be a less experienced officer having a bad day, stressed, and still getting past the trauma of nearly getting killed a few weeks ago. This might possibly lead to a tense and fraught interaction that becomes dangerous for you and the officer alike through a series of cascading events. 

How much better is it to avoid attracting the notice of officers that you’re carrying a gun to begin with, so we don’t have to roll the dice on how the interaction is going to go? It’s probably preferable to conceal well enough that you can inform officers you’re carrying on your terms and prescribed by law, rather than attract their attention with your visible handgun. 

GENERAL PUBLIC

The perceptiveness of the typical person does seem less than impressive, but that’s far from a hard, universal truth. For example, it seems the “nobody notices” advocates are typically men, and I suspect their opinions are biased by no small amount of projection. They don’t pay attention to other people’s clothing, and perhaps they project that trait onto others. Anecdotal observations show that the typical lady pays more attention to other people’s clothes than does the typical man. (Disclaimer: Obviously there are many exceptions). 

 

Surveys show that a surprising number of women notice a man’s shoes and other wardrobe accoutrements immediately upon seeing him. Think those same ladies might notice an incongruous and out-of-place bulge in your beltline, gents? That might prove doubly true on the part of ladies who are printing. Might it matter and have substantial career and income ramifications if the person who notices is a coworker and your place of business has a strict “no firearms” policy? In a similar vein, how many of you have ever been outed by you or someone else’s toddler or young child visually or tactilely discovering your handgun and asking at full volume in public, “Is that your gun, dad/Uncle Buck/etc.?” This might not matter in a hardware store in a section of pro-gun America, but might get really awkward in an environment more hostile to the 2nd Amendment to include homes of family members.

“NO ONE EVER NOTICES MY GUN”

“No one has ever asked me about my gun printing which means no one has ever noticed” is a refrain we hear often. Just because no one approached us at the grocery store and asked, “Hey, what is that bulge there?” or “Is that a gun?” doesn’t mean that no one noticed. Imagine that a person does notice the gun-shaped object protruding from our waistline. Imagine that person is either very fearful of violent criminals and/or mass shooters, or is stridently anti-gun. Is it possible that, instead of confronting a concealed carrier who is printing, they might go straight to contacting the police about a “man with a gun,” either out of earnest fear of a potential maniac or maliciously trying to cause trouble for the “gun nut”? If all these scenarios are possible, then wouldn’t we like to prevent them, particularly if we can forestall them by putting just a little effort into better concealment?

CCW Printing Printing When Concealed Carry Concealed Carry Clothing
Beyond printing, another dead giveaway is when concealed carriers habitually pick and tug at the hem of their shirt or jacket to make sure their firearm is still concealed. This is typically most easily observed as concealed carriers get out of cars or stand up from a table or booth.

BALLISTIC COLOSTOMY BAGS

There is, of course, the ubiquitous internet solution of, “If asked, I will just tell them it is my colostomy bag,” or some other medical device that will make people uncomfortable and thus drop the subject. There are numerous problems with this approach. First, this requires the curious party to ask. VCAs won’t ask, lying to a cop about it is at least a bad idea and possibly illegal, and the general public may never even ask as mentioned above. 

Second, modern colostomy bags and most other medical devices don’t typically look anything like guns. Now, your coworker may not know that, but smartphone search engines do. And it’ll be just our luck to fall under the scrutiny of a type who will then continue investigating until their curiosity is satisfied. Another problem is that if we drop the “colostomy bag” routine on a coworker, neighbor, our kid’s schoolteacher, or anyone else we’ll see again, then that lie has to become true and be maintained in perpetuity or explained away to maintain our “cover”. It seems obvious the far simpler option is to avoid notice and scrutiny entirely.

WE HAVE THE TECHNOLOGY

The concealment market has never been better, and many holster makers and other companies are selling products that facilitate levels of concealment we might have considered witchcraft a few short years ago. We can achieve complete concealment or come very close with less effort than ever before. Why not conceal well enough that we alone determine who knows we have a gun, rather than putting it on display for all to see? It’s true that people are often oblivious, but not all people and not all the time, with a broad spectrum of consequences for getting “made”. Even if 99 times out of 100, printing doesn’t matter, that 100th time it might matter a great deal. If we can eliminate printing and rolling the dice with a touch more effort, then it certainly seems prudent to do so. So, does printing matter? It doesn’t. Except when it does, which could be often depending on our lifestyle and specific context.  

Recoil CCW Guide Cover

Pre-Order your copy of the RECOIL Guide to Concealed Carry at the Gun Digest Store.


About the Author

Chris Cypert is a retired Special Forces Soldier (Green Beret) who now serves as an instructor at Citizens Defense Research, and does contract work and consulting for the Department of Defense. 


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