A montage of guns, catalogs and events from John Bianchi’s life. At top, John’s childhood Winchester Model 62 takedown .22 pump rifle; below that, a Bianchi catalog from 1965 and an original order blank. To the left of the rifle stock is John’s Special Investigator’s badge and I.D. card; below, the signature gun belt, holster, and Colt Single Action worn by John in many of his ads and personal appearances; a rare early Safari Ltd. catalog from 1965-66 (John was co-founder); a custom holster John made for his own S&W Bodyguard revolver; at lower left an original 1963 Protector Brand Bianchi sales catalog; two photos of John on the Monrovia police department in 1963; a photo from his first Army assignment in Alaska in 1956; the original left hand Speed Scabbard that he made for his 1911 .45 Government Model in 1959, lost and found again in a pawn shop 30 years later. At far lower right, a photo of the first Bianchi manufacturing plant in 1967 along with John’s portrait; and far right, a 1968 Bianchi catalog and photo of John with his original Monrovia police department duty holster in a shadow box.
A newspaper clipping from the Monrovia News Post showing John with the two-car garage where he started Bianchi Leather in Monrovia. “I was still on the police force and making holsters part time. I must have made over a thousand holsters in that garage over the three years we lived in that house which I bought on the G.I. Bill for $12,000.
John sits in his home office today with the left-handed No. 2 Speed Scabbard basket weave holster that he made for himself around 1959. “Over the years it had been sold and I’d forgotten about it. One day about 12 years ago I’m looking though a pawn shop in Indio (a town near Palm Springs) and I almost choked. I saw this left-handed No. 2 holster and thought, ‘That can’t be mine.’ I picked it up, turned it over and it was marked with my old brand stamping from Monrovia. It was the very same holster I’d made on my first Landis No. 1 saddle stitching machine in 1959!”
From humble beginnings on his kitchen table, John grew his business until he was able to rent his first building in Monrovia. From there Bianchi Holster Company grew into Bianchi Gunleather, and finally Bianchi International, headquartered in a 50,000 square-foot manufacturing facility in Temecula, California. Bianchi sold the company in 1987 and stayed until he retired in 1992. Today, Bianchi International is part of BAE Systems, a global defense company which continues to produce the products pioneered by John Bianchi for nearly half a century.
John decided to write down everything he had learned about holsters in his career and in 1978 published his first book “Bluesteel & Gunleather.” It became the most used reference for gun leather in America and more than 80,000 copies have been sold. He followed it with a small guide to concealed carry for professionals based on his double world records for carrying the most concealed guns: 1983 with 27 guns and 1993 with 32!
Bianchi’s sepia toned western ads had been so successful, that the demand from the public was like Oliver Twist asking, “Please, sir, I want some more.” And John figured out how to serve up something very special. “We decided to take the idea to the next level and create promotional posters for the dealers. I called them ‘Histographs’ because they were done to look like historical photos from the Old West. We did the first one in 1973 and one every two years through 1981.” Today they are collectible western art.
Although John designed hundreds of holsters, the most famous is the UM84, which was created from a clean sheet of paper to become the U.S. military’s standard sidearm issue holster for all branches of service. The groundbreaking Bianchi design is still in use after 25 years.
The deluxe UM84, or M12 as it is designated by the military, is handcrafted in leather and only issued to General Officers. It is pictured with Maj. Gen. John Bianchi’s dress fatigues, helmet and officers version of the Beretta M9.
While serving on the U.S. Marshal’s Commission, John was present during the presentation in the Oval Office of a cased commemorative U.S. Marshal’s Winchester rifle and S&W revolver to President George H.W. Bush. Among those in the photo are Bianchi (far left), Winthrop Rockefeller (behind President Bush), Washington insider Herb Bryant, (fourth from left), Attorney General William French Smith (to the President’s left), and K. Michael Moore (holding book) who became director of the U.S. Marshal’s Service Office in 1989. Also shown are other members of the U.S. Marshal’s Bicentennial Commission and Secret Service agents in background.
The Frontier Museum, which opened in April 1982, encompassed 25,000 square feet under one roof on a two-acre site adjacent to the Bianchi International facility. The architectural design was done by a former Disney architect. The Museum consisted of the display floor, administrative offices, research library, gift shop, and storage and curatorial department. Unfortunately the much anticipated Interstate 15 which was to pass right by Bianchi’s facilities in Temecula fell behind schedule and wasn’t completed when the museum opened.
The size and scope of the Frontier Museum was unprecedented. Selling it was a great emotional loss for John, but to do otherwise might well have brought his company to its knees after operating the museum for four years in the red. Much of it was used to create the Autry Museum in Los Angeles. Bianchi sold his collection to Gene Autry in 1985 and gave the Autry Museum a $2.7 million contribution.
John’s relationship with film and TV star Hugh O’Brian goes back more than 20 years. In 2009, they teamed up with Colt’s to produce a Hugh O’Brian Wyatt Earp Limited Edition cased Buntline and Single Action pistol set with matching holsters copied from the rig worn by O’Brian on the television series. The guns and holster were unveiled by Bianchi and O’Brian at the 2010 Shot Show in Las Vegas, Nev. (Holster display photo by Dennis Adler)
The latest holster to come from Bianchi’s Frontier Gunleather is this 1911 western rig copied from designs worn by Texas Rangers c. 1915-1920. The new holster and gun belt will appear in the 2011 catalog.