• Red Nichols, Holstorian

Player rolls a 9!

Updated: May 31

That title is me pretending to know anything about the game of craps, which was Don Hume's game of choice when I'd see him in Vegas. Anyway, my post is about the inverted shoulder holster that Bianchi first called its Number 9 'Secret Agent'.

First tip: don't ever buy one. They couldn't retain the revolver fifty years ago and they sure can't today because the elastic that retains the revolver is not strong enough! The original concept can be laid at the door of Wally Wolfram who was an established maker in 1960 and worked with JB at Monrovia PD by then, too. JB copied it and made it for the last half of the 1960s. Below is Wally's that was copied line-for-line by everyone not least because he himself made it for Colt's and S&W's own holster ranges:

It was followed at Bianchi by the inverted shoulder holster called the 9R; and here's where it gets mighty tricky for a collector and why I'm writing this at all. Because there are five 9R holsters and they are not only all different, but nevertheless are hard to tell apart yet can all be marked 9R! So tread carefully when buying a vintage 9R somewhere like eBay where these holsters command high prices regardless.

There's something missing here; read on to learn what's wrong above.

The first 9R was being created by JB in 1970 when I arrived there to work in the duty holster section that had been created for the hot new Model 27 security holster. Indeed the 9R's code name was 'baby 27' and it was just that: the model 27 had been shrunk to suit little revolvers. It drew on the Berns-Martin "Lightning" inverted holster that was the original, perfected in 1934 in by Jack Martin (real name Julius Henry Martin) and appeared officially in 1950. It was still being made in Elberton GA when Jack died in '68 but although he was retired the new owners appear to have given up at that moment. So if you wanted one you had to buy the Bianchi that appeared in '71-ish.

The final version of the Berns-Martin "Lightnin'" above; earlier versions were made of the soft leather of the harness but this final one didn't even have a leather harness.

OK; the Lightning had a little welt of leather hand sewn inside the pocket next to the revolver's ejector rod; and JB, not understanding why it was there, left it out. But it had a purpose: it prevented the revolver from rotating inside the holster and so forced the revolver to remain muzzle-up until it broke free from the cylinder retention. So what? It turned out that the wearer then jumping, such as the officer who vaulted a fence and landed on the other side to find his revolver had beaten him to the ground, creates a worst-case-scenario where the revolver shifts inside the holster and the cylinder then out of alignment with the recesses inside it; and releases itself under gravity and momentum.

I worked this out for him at the tender age of 21 and it was easier and better to replace that little leather welt and its hand sewing, with a post and screw that had a rubber grommet inside the holster that the post passed through. Instant solution and the holsters already made and sent into the field (see that 'what's wrong with this' image earlier) could be fixed up even in the field, with only hand tools.

No screw-and-post in the 9R at above right. JB is the model demonstrating it.

And to make sure that no shoulder holster of ours ever suffered another such failure, we created what we called the 'snap test': unloaded pistol holstered, the shoulder holster is held in the hand by the middle of the leather yolk; and with the assembly held over a mattress or similar, the harness is 'snapped' HARD with the holstered revolver at its lowest point. A 'pass' was three such snaps with the revolver allowed to move but not to come completely loose from the holster. Even a dangling pistol on the third 'snap' was a fail.

This second 9R, with the post added, was a comfortable 'pass' but it wasn't foolproof. Being ever in search of the better holster I created a different holster that today we know best as the 9R-1 or 9R-2. But the first of these were just marked '9R' so you need to know what they look like to tell one from the other.

This holster that I'll call the 9R-2 because it was the final, and ultimate, performance version in the Number 9 series, is the version with belt slots showing on both sides of the holster body -- so you can identify one from an auction image without seeing its markings -- and with a hammer spur shield that gives a banana shape to the mouth of the holster; the spring goes right up into the spur shield area and adds retention. When I created it I really didn't think JB would accept it, as being too unconventional in appearance.

What's not noticeable to the layman is more improvements. The little tabs at the muzzle and the trigger guard pocket are no longer inserted, but instead are built into the main holster body and folded into position to form welts. Strong! Consistent! And the cylinder recesses that always had another welt inside the layers to deepen them, have lots more thick leather to grab at the recoil shields of the revolver; so the total holster body was substantially more rigid.

This is the very first one made and is in my friend John Witty's collection; notice the prototype marking that makes any Bianchi holster, rare and valuable:

The hammer spur shield prevented a problem that began with the Berns-Martin (which by the way also won't pass the snap test; if you buy a vintage one please don't actually wear it!) which was for the hammer spur to catch in the shirt pocket during the draw. This is an easy way to lose control of the revolver and have it fly out of the hand towards an opponent. The shield also protected the clothing against simple abrasion. All of this is unnecessary for the 'hammerless' Smith & Wesson J frame Centennial and Bodyguard revolvers for which Boothroyd had recommended the Triple Draw to Fleming in 1953. And it was Bond who launched Berns-Martin to fame with the 1962 film 'Dr. No' when one was issued there to James by Boothroyd and 'M' (who was Fleming's alter ego). And that film was the impetus for Martin to put his company on the market just a month later and to sell it to a chap named Coggins who moved the operation to Elberton where his prosperous granite business already was located; hence the different markings of Calhoun City MS and Elberton GA.

An image from a 1954 Charlie Askins article, above.

Now, for reasons that I can't be completely sure of myself, we (I) made changes to the advanced 9R that I THINK were spring tempering 'fixes'; and so to tell us for Q/A purposes, the holster's number was changed to 9R-1 and finally to 9R-2. From the very first 9R until the 9R-2 we were struggling with events beyond our ken, and "Ken's" real name was 'hydrogen embrittlement': an apparently perfectly-made spring (made by an outside vendor of course) could become cracked inside a very small bend, not from the bending of the spring but after that by being attacked in the plating process used to keep the spring from rusting! So the early springs could snap like a two-day old turkey wishbone.

Above, the 9R-0, I call it; because there is no suffix to denote an engineering change.

The 9R-1 marking above (we got on the changes straightaway, the patent hasn't even issued yet) and the 9R-2 marking below.

Want the best of all these? Buy the 9R-1 and 9R-2 with confidence. The holster was on offer from Bianchi until the very end of the 20th century. Note, too, the increased, full clearance for the second finger's knuckle at the grip, which was substandard on the original 9R.

Don't buy this blatant copy (below) of the vastly inferior Bianchi 9R The Original Series; it's a copy of the worst of them which is what a consumer gets from a copy of an obsolete design -- the copyist doesn't know why it was obsoleted so even copies the design's weaknesses!

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