There are only a handful of brand names that are recognizable anywhere in the world, regardless of the language spoken; IBM, Coca-Cola, Rolls-Royce, Ferrari and Bianchi are among them. While it may seem extraordinary that a holster should share international familiarity with legendary names in computer technology, refreshments, luxury and sports cars, there have been more than 40 million Bianchi holsters, gun belts and accessories produced. Not bad for a man who started out handcrafting holsters for sale on his kitchen table in 1958.
John Bianchi’s success story is what the American Dream is all about, but success so often comes with a price, and as those who read Bianchi’s biography, “John Bianchi—An American Legend” will discover, his life has not been without adversity. His story is compelling, much like Bianchi himself when you sit and talk with him. His boundless enthusiasm for his lifelong careers, and we use the plural because he has had several of distinction, has made the Bianchi name legendary.
He actually made his first holster when he was 12. The family had moved from New York City to Monrovia, Calif., following his father’s retirement from the New York City Police Dept. in the late 1940s. “I began handcrafting leather bags, dog collars, whatever I could make,” laughed Bianchi. “I’d just cut it out, no instructions, no guidance. I was hand-stitching everything. I mean, I had no idea what a saddle stitcher even looked like. Based on what I had seen in the movies I made what I thought was a cowboy holster in 1949.” Of course, as Bianchi would learn years later, the Buscadero rigs worn in movies were a 20th century contrivance. Less than a decade later he would be spending his evenings carving out leather holsters on his kitchen table for fellow officers on the Monrovia Police Dept.
Bianchi was fascinated with both the Old West and military history, and when he finally decided there was very little chance of him becoming a cowboy— “I didn’t have a horse,” he quipped—he tried to enlist in the U.S. Army. He was only 15. “It was 1952, shortly before I joined the National Rifle Association, and I walked into the Army Recruiter’s office and said I wanted to sign up.” When the recruiter asked his age, Bianchi firmly avowed, “I’m 17, sir.” John looked down and chuckled at the memory. “He says, ‘You don’t look 17. Go get your birth certificate.’ So I went home, couldn’t find it and went back to the recruiter. He says, ‘You know kid, why don’t you go down to the National Guard, they don’t look as closely as we do at your age.’ So I went, picked up the enlistment forms and brought them home. After a while I talked my dad into signing the papers and I filled in my birth date as 1935 instead of 1937. It was probably the most rewarding part of my youth. I served in the National Guard for two years and when I turned 17 went on active duty in the Army for another three years.”
When Bianchi left the Army late in 1957 he decided to follow in his dad’s footsteps and go into law enforcement, but also stay in the Army as a reservist. That was the first pivotal decision he would make in his life. Forty years later John Bianchi would retire as a major general, but in 2001, following the attacks of September 11, he was called back to duty.
U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Dennis M. Keneally, who assumed command of the California Army National Guard after 9/11, remembers that the first call he made was to John Bianchi. “I asked him to come out of retirement and take command of the California State Military Reserve. I remember thinking, ‘I couldn’t blame him if he said no.’ He had already given more than most. However, not to my surprise, he never questioned my request, he simply responded. The next day he was in my headquarters in uniform and looking as if he had walked off a Hollywood studio set or off a recruiting poster. His presence alone was like a flashing marquee. In short, he had charisma and the intangible quality of a remarkable leader. Although lost in history, Maj. Gen. Bianchi contributed immeasurably to the success of our mobilization and deployment of troops to Afghanistan and Iraq.” In 2004, Maj. Gen. Bianchi retired a second time.
Along the road to 40 million holsters, gun belts and accessories bearing his name, Bianchi made quite a few detours, each of which contributed not only to his success but to the entire firearm culture in America. While he was a member of the Monrovia Police Dept. in the late 1950s and early ’60s, his first customers were fellow officers. “I’d make a holster at night, take it to work the next day and sell it. I was making traditional-style belt holsters for some of the detectives, and that’s when I realized there was a need for high-performance concealment carry holsters, which, for the most part, didn’t exist.” As a result of John’s ingenuity in holster design, he broke more ground in concealed-carry holster development by the late 1960s than anyone in the preceding 50 years. His early product line was marketed under the name “Combat Action Holsters ‘Protector Brand’ by John Bianchi.” It included the No. 2 Speed Scabbard for the Colt M1911. “This was the first commercially successful, high-production concealed carry holster for the Model 1911. It’s been in production for over 50 years,” Bianchi said proudly.
During the 1960s Bianchi expanded rapidly from a two-car garage behind his home into a small storefront in Monrovia. He had left the police department in 1965 confident that he could make it in the holster business. And that he did. Within a few years he moved into a new 4,000-square-foot manufacturing facility. He had stopped selling mail order and was now selling to wholesalers and retailers. “We were extending credit and buying supplies in quantity. Everything was tied up in receivables and inventory, and there was a constant quest for working capital because we needed an even bigger building to meet manufacturing demand,” Bianchi recalled. “That was scary, but the contractor that built the 4,000-square-foot building said he had another lot on Foothill Boulevard and offered to make a deal. He said, ‘I’ll take the equity you have in your present building and sell you the new lot, then you can get 100-percent financing to build a new manufacturing facility.’ The new property was large enough to accommodate a 10,000-square-foot building. Somehow we pulled it off. We built a great building, two stories up front with offices upstairs and production facilities in back. In the next two years we went from 35 employees to 65.”
By the early 1970s, Bianchi had become the person everybody came to when special products were needed, and that eventually included the U.S government. He was asked to do work for the Executive Protective Section of the State Department, which employs the agents who travel with foreign dignitaries, the secretary of defense, secretary of state, et cetera. Bianchi was contracted to make special briefcases that held secret communications and miniaturized tracking devices. “When events in the Middle East began to surface as an international terrorist threat, kidnapping of officials became a major concern of all intelligence agencies. At one point I was called upon to design and custom-make men’s trouser belts with concealed transmitting devices so they could be tracked. The belt was a new idea and worked well for several years.”
Another operation in which Bianchi was called to assist was during the Iranian occupation of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. In late 1979 he was sent to a Special Forces training facility located in a high-security military base. The mission called for the design and training in the use of special carry equipment to accommodate M1911A1 pistols that had been modified for the Delta Force. “I was asked to equip a special team for an undisclosed mission. Though I had my suspicions as to the objective, I never learned of the actual mission or where it was to take place until the ill-fated Iranian rescue mission was announced worldwide by radio and television on April 25, 1980. Not only had the rescue, led by U.S. Army Col. Charlie Beckwith, with whom I had consulted on training and equipping his Delta Force operatives, failed due to a massive dust storm hampering helicopter operations and logistical coordination in the desert, but several of his soldiers had been killed. I realized these were some of the men I had helped train and equip, and my heart just sank. Later, after the classified restrictions had been lifted I convinced Col. Beckwith to write the story of the mission in his own words rather than wait and have someone else, who wasn’t there, tell the story. The book, “Delta Force—The Army’s Elite Counterterrorist Unit,” came out in 1983.”