The term legend has become almost ubiquitous in our modern digital society. The term is attached to everything from social media influencers to pop stars. This is, fortunately, less true in the firearms world as we tend to be more grounded in history and tradition. There are many names that the serious members of the gun community hold in high regard, but the rare air of legend is reserved for ballistic royalty. When names are mentioned in this group, one man is always included—John Bianchi.
Meeting John Bianchi
I had the ultimate pleasure of visiting with John at his home in California. When I arrived, he greeted me warmly at the door and introduced me to his charming wife, Nikki. Over the next two days, he shared stories, showed me countless pieces of memorabilia, and answered any question I put his way.
John Bianchi is what I can best describe as old-school cool. He has a very polished and finished way about him. For this reason, he would be as at home at an embassy dinner as he would sitting next to you with a fishing pole. He and his wife are a welcome reminder of class and hospitality.
It dawned on me as I sat watching them talk that they reminded me of movie stars from an age gone by. As I walked through his home, I saw pictures of Bianchi with U.S. presidents, movie stars and some of the most well-known industry professionals in the world.
As he talked about the pictures, there was a sincere sense of humility. Other people may have let stardom get to their heads, but not John Bianchi.
The time to depart came, and I was graciously thanked for my visit. I quickly put pen to paper to tell John Bianchi’s story.
Since a humble beginning making holsters on his kitchen table in 1958, there have now been more than 40 million Bianchi holsters, gun belts, and accessories produced. Bianchi actually started his work on holsters at the ripe old age of 12. His first was a cowboy holster he made based on what he had seen in the movies.
He also began making dog collars, bags, and whatever else came to mind. Keep in mind that this is all without any training, instruction, or guidance. It was clear even at this young age that John was born to work in leather. While this timeline would certainly make for an intriguing story and ultimately justify Bianchi as a legend, there is much more to his story.
As a young man, he was fascinated by both military and cowboy history. It was this that led him to make a major life decision. In 1952, he walked into the Army recruiter’s office and announced he wanted to sign up.
The problem was, however, that John was only 15. He tried to convince the recruiter that he was 17, but he simply did not buy it. When he was unable to produce a birth certificate, the recruiter said, “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.”
He convinced his father to sign the documents and change his birth date to say he was 17 years old. Forty years later, John Bianchi would retire as a Major General. His service would include the National Guard, active Army duty, and ultimately commanding General of the California State Military Reserve.
Bianchi retired, but 9/11 happened, and he was recalled. He retired a second time in 2004.
A Well-Earned Title?
So, you ask if that is enough to earn the legend title? Well, yes, it is. However, John Bianchi is what is classically called an overachiever. While still serving as an Army reservist, in 1957, he decided to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a police officer.
His service with the Monrovia Police Department in California became yet another catalyst for his holster development. He saw that there was a need for serious carry options, and his fellow officers were his first real clients in this arena.
This real-life application drove him to explore an essentially untouched market of professional concealed-carry rigs. The development changed the industry as his “Combat Action” holsters became the gold standard.
This included the famous Number 2 Speed Scabbard for the 1911. It was Bianchi’s first commercially successful, high-production concealed carry holster and has been in production for more than 50 years.
This would all lead to opening a new shop, which led to moving to a bigger shop and more employees. This work-at-home business is now known worldwide as Bianchi International. Over the past 50 years, John Bianchi has been responsible for more than 200 patents, trademarks, and copyrights in the firearms industry.
Designs for Our Nation’s Finest
Bianchi’s ability to create gear for such a variety of applications caught the eye of the Department of Defense. They quietly contacted him and asked for the development of special briefcases that held secret communications and miniaturized tracking devices. He also worked on a specially designed men’s dress belt that contained a tracking device.
Then in late 1979, he was asked to come to a Special Forces training facility. This was during the Iranian hostage situation, and his client would be 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment-Delta. The Delta team was carrying a specially modified 1911, and Bianchi was tasked with designing the carry equipment for it.
His relationship with the military would last decades, and in 1981, he was tasked with developing a holster for the new military handgun—the M9 Beretta. After thousands of hours of work, Bianchi presented his design.
The rest is, as they say, history. In 1984, the UM84 holster was accepted for service by the U.S. military. If you have ever been in the military or even seen a military handgun holster, I guarantee that you have seen this holster.
There were more than 70,000 units initially produced and is without question the most successful military holster ever devised. To this day, Bianchi International still continues to offer civilian versions of this rig.
Old West & Beyond
Bianchi held a passion for competition shooting. With that, he founded the annual NRA/Bianchi Cup International Pistol Tournament. This quickly became, and still is, the most prestigious professional pistol competition in the world. The Bianchi Cup is the only major shooting tournament that has retained its original course of fire since its inception.
Bianchi also holds a passion for all things Western and cowboy-related. With his work in the industry, he had amassed the largest privately owned collection of memorabilia from the American West.
With a desire to share his collection, he opened the 25,000-square-foot Bianchi Frontier Museum. This incredible museum was home to some of the most dynamic displays and exhibits ever seen in this genre. What is more fascinating is that most of the museum was built by the gifted members of Bianchi’s own employees.
As time went on, it was decided that the museum would close. The exhibits and memorabilia would become the basis for the Gene Autry National Center Museum in Los Angeles.
Even with this collection moved into another museum, Bianchi still has an extensive collection of firearms and Western memorabilia. In the coming months, Bianchi will be auctioning off several unique pieces from his collection.
But Wait, There’s More
So once again, you ask…isn’t that enough? Well, it obviously is, and yet there is more. Over the decades, John Bianchi managed to accomplish a few more things. He wrote the famous book Blue Steel and Gun Leather. This definitive textbook on the history and use of gun leather was first published in 1978 and has more than 50,000 copies in print.
He served as a member of the Board of Directors of the U.S. Marshals Foundation and was instrumental in the design and placement of the bronze sculpture titled “Frontier Marshal” at the U.S. Marshals National Memorial.
The larger-than-life Old West marshal sculpture is a symbol of the dedication of marshals and their deputies during those two centuries and reminds us of the self-sacrifice and dangers so often associated with upholding the law.
Last but not least, John Bianchi was committed to education. Even with the seemingly over-the-top busy schedule, he earned a BA in Law Enforcement, a MA in Business Administration, and his Ph.D. in Business Administration/Marketing.
The world is full of people who make claims of greatness, and there are those that live greatness yet make no claims. This is John Bianchi. Over the past 60 years, he has quietly become a titan in the firearms industry.
Today, John Bianchi operates Frontier Gun Leather in Rancho Mirage, California. Here, he custom-makes original western-style holsters and gun belts for discriminating collectors. As you would expect, the work is impeccable, and his clientele is from all around the globe.
The work down at Frontier, in a unique way, embodies everything that John Bianchi has worked so hard for. Specifically, exceptional quality and attention to detail that only 60 years of experience can provide.
John Bianchi is truly a legend.
This article was originally published in the Guns of the Old West Summer 2022 issue. Subscription is available in print and digital editions at OutdoorGroupStore.com. Or call 1-800-284-5668, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.