Innovator in Gunleather
By Nick Pernokas
It was after the War. People in late 1940s New York City finally had some spending money for “fun.” One of the places they went for fun was Madison Square Garden. Looking back at the Garden now, partially hidden behind Manhattan store fronts causing it to blend in with the surrounding city, it may seem to pale in comparison to modern sports arenas. To a young boy holding his father’s hand as they got out of the cab, the sense of excitement was something he would remember vividly 70 years later. They headed inside, under the abbreviated marquee, to another world.
At the time, the Madison Square Garden Rodeo was the largest rodeo in the world. It was an entertainment package bar none. It gave people in the east, which might never get west of Philadelphia, a taste of the real West. For the nine-year-old boy, the night of roping and bronc riding, and real cowboys and Indians would fuel his dreams for years to come.
When the performance was over and the boy and his father were leaving, a vendor selling belts caught their eye. Young John Bianchi headed over to see his wares.
“I fell in love with one particular belt,” remembers John Bianchi. “To this day I can visualize it. It was a western cowboy belt.”
John’s dad plunked down the $1.50 for the two-inch, stamped, billeted belt with a tin buckle. The belt became a prized possession and a permanent part of John’s wardrobe.
A couple of years later, John’s Dad resigned from his position as a New York City policeman and moved the family to southern California. There, in Monrovia, California, John took a shortcut home from school every day. The alley that he went through was next to a discard pile in back of the Morris Glove Factory. The company produced heavy, industrial-grade gloves. In the six-foot-high pile were all sorts of various leather scraps. John would take the better pieces home to make dog collars, leashes and wallets.
“I was self-taught for the most part,” says John. “I’d make the things a kid would play with.”
John still had a passion for the West that he saw in the movies and he had a cap gun version of a Colt Peacemaker to emulate his heroes. John wanted to build a Buscadero holster like the one Roy Rogers wore. He made a leather holster for the pistol and cut a slot in the belt from the rodeo to put it through.
In the mid-fifties, John joined the Army. He became a ski trooper in Alaska. The winters were long and the patrols were brutal, with the soldiers being outfitted in World War II era clothing and equipment. John began going to the craft center in his downtime. He enjoyed doing leatherwork again and began building holsters. In 1957, John came off active duty and joined the Monrovia Police Department. John noticed that police holsters, especially concealed carry holsters, were behind the times.
“There was no innovation since the turn of the century until the mid-1950s in the police holsters,” says John. “There was a need for more creative, practical high-speed holsters for law enforcement, primarily off-duty (concealed) stuff.”
John began to make belt holsters in his spare time. He would bring one to work, sell it, and then build another one that night. The holsters continued to sell. In 1959, John put out a one sheet sales brochure, which he advertised in a small ad in Gun World magazine. He offered three basic holsters: No. 1 was a high performance western-style holster for a Colt single action, No. 2 was the revolutionary Speed Scabbard for a Colt Model 1911, and No.3 was what he had been making for police officers – a holster for the double-action .38 revolvers that were the common service weapon at the time. The No.3 quickly evolved into a Top Thumbreak holster, which allowed the holster to be unsnapped and the revolver drawn, at the same time. This was a major innovation in holster construction. The Combat Action Holsters were marketed under the John Bianchi Protector Brand label.
With the influx of requests coming in for brochures, John saw that he could not afford to send them out for free. Bucking everyone’s advice, John charged a dime for the next ones, and people bought them. From then on the Bianchi catalogues always paid for themselves. The catalogues showed a gun in each holster, which had never been done before. The customer could relate to how the holster would look in use.
After seven years, John’s business had grown so much that he was making more on leather goods than he was in law enforcement. He decided it was time to go into the holster business full time.
“It was an easy economic decision to make, but a tough career decision. I think I made the right decision.”
John partnered for a short time with a friend, Neil Perkins, and their company was called Safari, Ltd. Even with the best intentions, the partnership didn’t last and both men went their separate ways. Neil’s company became Safariland and John’s became Bianchi Holsters. John continued to create new designs, like the comfortable X15 shoulder holster that became a Bianchi trademark. A clip for inside the waistband holsters was also developed. By the late 1960s, Bianchi Holsters eliminated the mail order business and sold only to government agencies, wholesalers and retailers.
“Most of the designs, and all of the innovation in police leather goods in the 1960s through the 1990s came from our design center at Bianchi Holsters,” says John.
Bianchi also revolutionized the packaging of holsters, taking them from an oily cardboard box of the 1940s and putting them in an accessible plastic zip lock bag with a colorful label that displayed the make and model of the intended gun. Dealers were given revolving racks to display them on. The packaging made the shopping experience more enjoyable for the customer, and shop they did. Soon 48 holster racks were replaced with 65 holster racks.
In 1969, John did something on a whim that would cement the Bianchi image with the West. Coming back from a hunting trip with some beard growth, he stopped by the factory. One of his managers suggested that John not shave and that they take some pictures the next day. The pictures of John in his cowboy garb, with holsters and bandolier, became a promotional picture for an ad featuring a funny catch phrase. The dealers went wild with the concept and asked for copies. The ads became an annual event and were soon joined by a series of professionally shot “histographs,” which were group photos with period guns, equipment and locations out of the Old West.
By 1970, Bianchi Holsters employed around 65 people in Monrovia. They had outgrown their facilities and the area, so they moved to the sleepy ranch town of Temecula. They built a 30,000-square-foot facility there, and two years later with 350 employees, Bianchi expanded another 20,000 square feet.
John credits the rapid growth with the innovative techniques in production that Bianchi used.
“We were doing things that had never been done before.”
Bianchi streamlined the manufacturing process and at the same time, improved the product. The efficiency was created with special dies, jigs, machinery, fixtures and techniques. Bianchi was large enough that they could fabricate anything they wanted to try in-house. Accelerated training was developed. The company actually preferred to hire a local farm worker with no leather experience and train him from scratch, so that he would do things the correct way. Each employee was taught one or two simple jobs on a production line.
“If we lost an employee, we could replace him within a few hours.”
The labor force was goal and profit oriented with exceptionally high morale. The employee morale was boosted by making everyone part of the decision making process. Ideas were solicited from the workers on accelerating production, quality, safety and efficiency. A committee evaluated all suggestions and the suggestions were given a point value depending on their merits. Points could be saved up and cashed in for merchandise ranging from TV sets to appliances. Every month there was an employee recognition ceremony, where top employees were recognized for attendance, performance and ideas. They received a beautiful certificate and their picture was put in the paper. For many of them coming from a poor rural background, this was the first time that anybody had given them any recognition.
“It didn’t cost the company anything, but the payoffs were immeasurable.”
By now the Bianchi Company was the largest holster company in the world.
The Bianchi Model 66 ambidextrous holster was widely used in the military after it went into production in 1970. In 1978, John wrote a book titled, Blue Steel & Gunleather. This further established him as the premier expert on the modern holster. These factors were part of the reason that the Department of Defense came to his door for advice in 1981, when they were getting ready to replace the Colt 1911 A1 pistol as the official US military sidearm. Although they didn’t know what weapon would be chosen, they wanted to have a holster ready. The old official US holster was leather and had been designed in 1916. Its materials and design were not suitable for the modern battlefield. The three researchers that came to talk to John had read his book and thought he could offer suggestions. They were so impressed with his suggestions that he was later awarded an $180,000 contract to develop a prototype. Bianchi’s four-man team started immediately and was six months into the project when they received word that Congress had cut all developmental funds. John decided to proceed on his own with no guarantees. Thirty months into the holster project, the design payment check arrived. In 1984, Bianchi was also awarded the contract for the production of the first 30,000 UM84 holsters to fit the Beretta Model 92F pistol.
Around this same time, John, a lifetime NRA member, wanted to give back to the handgun industry that had supported him. He created a competition for hand gunners. In 1979, he organized the first Bianchi Cup Invitational Pistol Tournament in Missouri. In 1984, the event became the NRA Bianchi Cup. Bianchi products were never displayed there in order to make the event more attractive to other sponsors, and to avoid a conflict of interest.
John had always had a love of the Old West. He was an avid collector and produced a line of holsters that were based on his wealth of knowledge of what was actually used in the 19th century west. Many were purchased by film production companies of the 1960s.
“The old style holsters were an inspiration, but they were poorly designed. We made them the way they should have been made.”
John says that there are a lot of misconceptions about holsters of the Old West. An example of this is the absence of a “fast draw” in that time period; the fast draw was a movie fabrication. Likewise, tie downs on the bottoms of holsters and hammer thongs never existed. The true holsters were made of very thin leather to protect the gun, and to prevent it from falling out on horseback. The thin, pliable leather was also comfortable to wear all day in the heat and adverse conditions of the West. They were designed to completely envelope the revolver and as they broke in, they took on the shape of the gun. They were not very durable and the stitching was frequently weak. Between the 1860s and the 1880s, holsters cost between $0.75 to $2 apiece; cartridge belts cost from $3 to $5 –rarely were they made to match.
“We knew that the people that were buying them today, wanted to use them and they use them to a greater extent than they did in the Old West.”
By 1980, John’s personal Western memorabilia collection of 10,000 items had overflowed the Bianchi boardroom display. He decided to make it accessible to the general public. Temecula was growing and Interstate 15 was slated to be constructed in front of the Bianchi complex; the traffic was projected at 45,000 cars per day. John, and the Bianchi employees, built a 25,000-square-foot museum complete with a western town inside, in 18 months to coincide with the forecasted opening of the interstate. The Frontier Museum, containing the largest privately-owned Western memorabilia collection in the world, opened in 1982. The highway didn’t; I-15 fell years behind schedule. The museum attracted people from around the world that were interested in the West, but the volume was not enough to sustain it. One of the people who visited was Gene Autry; he considered himself a collector and wanted to open a museum in Los Angeles. After four years, Autry purchased the museum and moved the contents to Los Angeles, where it became the core of the Autry National Center of the American West. John also donated $2.7 million to the museum. Today, John’s name is in a list of credits on a bronze founders’ plaque by the entrance to the museum, as testimony to his magnificent contribution to the legacy of the American West.
In 1987-1988, John sold Bianchi International. He stayed on as a consultant, but within a few years he was burned out, and left for good.
“I coasted for a couple of years, but the phone never stopped ringing. Friends and dealers were telling me you’ve got to get back in the business.”
Within a couple of years, John went back to his roots in a couple of ways. He started back making one-at-a-time custom holsters in his garage. His long-time love of the Old West came into play and he specialized in 19th and early-20th century designs, as well as some of the gun rigs that were made for the film business. John Bianchi Frontier Gunleather was born. This time though, the customer could pick what he wanted in the catalogue and then it would be custom made by one holster maker. The Rancho Mirage shop is small, with less than a half dozen employees, but John still tries to keep the turnaround time to 21 days or less.
In 2007, John began a holster making seminar in conjunction with the Southwest Leather Trade Show. He wrote a how-to pamphlet as a teaching aid. In 2010, John collaborated with Dennis Adler on a beautiful coffee table biography that is a must for any serious gunleather aficionado.
Today, Weaver Leather offers a John Bianchi Holster Kit, which grew out of John’s holster making seminars. For an aspiring holster maker, this can cut down on the trial and error of getting a shop started.
At 80, John still works in the shop and also stays busy with social events.
“My life is pretty damn full. My wife, Nikki, keeps me jumping all the time.”
It’s a full life that might never have happened, if not for a cowboy belt in New York City.
Find out more about John Bianchi Frontier Gunleather, or John Bianchi, An American Legend, at www.frontiergunleather.com, or call (760)-895-4401.
P.O. Box 2038
Rancho Mirage, Ca. 92270