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.
Watch a video interview with John Bianchi at the 2010 NRA Annual Meetings.
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.