• Red Nichols, Holstorian

Post 27: So you have a Bianchi No. 9 inverted shoulder holster?

Updated: Aug 10

I've told this tale on forums a few too many times, and in our book Holstory; so perhaps this will be the last :-).

The first of the inverted shoulder holsters in the familiar profile was by Berns-Martin and made its debut around 1939. It was a standout for several reasons, not least because it was . . . upside down. And there was no patent filed for it so we don't know who the inventor was. And we can't assume it was John Berns because despite the similar profile to his Speed holster for the belt, the spring in it was VERY different -- and right at that moment both E.E. Clark and R.H. Hoyt were introducing the first of the wireform springs in holsters. The image below is the one we know so well but the original instead was made with the harness and the holster not only of the same soft leather -- but the two of them all in the one piece. One was in Elmer Keith's estate auction some years ago; he'd kept it all those years.

It was E.E. Clark's own patent for a forward draw holster with a leaf spring inside it that has its patent number marked on the earliest of Berns-Martin's Speed holsters (also before 1940) and not ever again on its holsters but always on its advertising until the bitter end; 1968 when maker Jack Martin died. So it could have been from the mind of E.E. Clark who also had other gunleather patents as did R.H. Hoyt, Clark's erstwhile sales manager until 1935.

It's a bitch to make this holster because it is entirely hand sewn. Even the veritable Hoyt holster that has its wireform spring stuffed down between the layers of the holster pocket via its open lips at the mouth, is stitched on a machine (upside down).

The notion though, was mighty appealing in the time of James Bond and it appears that by 1960 it was Wally Wolfram, who was not only JB's mentor but also the maker of all Colt and even S&W gunleather, came up with an elasticized version. Same profile but rather than being folded at the rear, Wally's was folded at the forward wall as is conventional with pistol holsters and closed at the rear wall with a welted seam. There was a slit in that forward wall that extended half the way up a 2" small frame revolver, and that slit was held closed by a length (or two) of elastic. Now THIS was a holster that could be mass produced. No complex springs to buy in quantities that would keep their cost down, and no hand stitching at all. The Safariland below, with the then-new 2-1/2" Colt Diamondback in it:

JB introduced his own version. Indeed EVERY maker of the 1960s from Safariland onwards made a version of it. Except that . . .

Except that the guns don't stay in. Can't stay in. And by the time all the makers figured this out it was too late. It seemed the bar hadn't been set high enough for retention under the physics imposed on the inverted revolver and these pistols were simply slipping out of the holster under duress. As when jumping over a fence in pursuit of a suspect. Which happened. This one is a 4" and is not only marked 'Colt' on its backside but appears to have been moulded to a Diamondback. Let's hope not for a Python! Too heavy.

JB worked it out quick. He needed something better or his factory would be manufacturing liabilities instead of assets. So he came up with the notion, suggest by his work with the earliest Model 27s which were very different to the ones we know today, and created the 9R. Again, the profile of the Berns-Martin including a return to the rear fold; but this time with the wireform spring inserted from the muzzle of the holster -- no more hand sewing -- and a pair of cylinder recesses inside (not really from the 27; it was Hoyt who dreamed them up first).

This is about 1970 when I came aboard his firm and I built plenty prototypes of the holsters that had been dubbed 'the baby 27' in-house. But again we didn't set the bar high enough and it turned out there was a VERY good reason that the Berns-Martin had that odd (it seemed) welt and stitching next to the underlug.

And the reasons turned out to be: it kept the barrel from rotating inside the holster as the grip was tugged to release the trigger guard from the pocket for it. Didn't need it, did we? We had cylinder recesses, right? No; I mean yes, it was needed because both the barrel swung around inside the holster and allowed the guard to slip loose from its pocket AND the cylinder, in also swinging 'round, now no longer had the sharp-sided recoil shield presented to the internal cylinder recesses. The revolver came out as if they weren't even there.

The answer: we simply added the equivalent of Berns-Martin's little leather plug with hand sewing, by adding back a longer Chicago post screw with internal rubber grommet. Voila, even the inventory could be converted. Genius. Was it also genius not to issue a recall notice? The company did not ever do that for any of its products that contained unwelcome surprises.

Then out of nowhere, and for no good reason that I can think of, it was I who proposed the best-known, and best-performing of the No. 9 series, the 9R-1 and -2. And to this day I don't know the difference between the -1 and the -2! But I think it was a change in the way the spring was manufactured by a third party vendor. Did you know that springs can break? Sure can. The image above is from the era of the new company's owners -- notice the brown thread -- and lacks the suffix -1 or -2. They didn't know what the suffixes meant at all!

The 9R-2 we'll call it here, now had a pair of 'wings' that kept the hammer spur from snagging in the breast pocket when drawing across the chest as outlined by Berns-Martin originally. This meant we had to come up with a complex shape for the tip ends of the spring to clear the adjustable rear sight of the M19s with 2-1/2" barrel (unlike Safariland's elastic version that is best know for appearing in the film Bullitt, the Bianchi model was not ever made for 3" or 4" revolvers; too heavy). The 9R-2 also had reconfigured cylinder recesses and internal welts for same that now reinforced the mouth of the holster near them, and also had not just the one belt slot as did the Triple Draw by B-M, but one on the other side, too.

The belt slots were meant by B-M to also allow the holster, when worn on the belt, to be worn inverted as on the shoulder version; making a it a crossdraw. And we had a special problem that B-M didn't: JB had pioneered and then popularized the stocking dealer and that mean the had to keep LOTS of expensive inventory on hand to keep the orders flowing to these dealers. The dual slots made it a right hand, and a left hand holster; so all that remained was to fit the opposite harness (little trick; one can simply turn the harness over and it will look odd but will work left or right) before shipping the same holster from inventory. This final 9R-2 continued to be fitted with the screwpost and its internal grommet as was done on the original 9R.

A good place to mention, then, the 'snap test' for shoulder holsters. All shoulder holsters. We devised it to ensure that going forward any shoulder holster we created would never again plague us with 'dropouts'. Performing the snap test is a matter of duplicating the problem: which was inertia snapping the revolver free of its several internal retainers. It is suited to all shoulder holsters -- and a Berns-Martin Lightnin' or Triple Draw will fail the test every time.

The snap test, then. Unload the revolver, holster it so that you feel it is as solidly positioned as the holster will allow. Oh, yes, first pull a finger through the spring closure. It's worth performing the snap test, then, if the pressure on the finger is strong and the holster opening gives out a loud 'pop!' sound. If it doesn't do that, don't bother with the snap test; the holster is a 'fail' for retention and it HAS been a half century since it was made. Now that the revolver is holstered, grasp the harness at its center of the leather yoke, and, holding the pistol inverted over a mattress, sharply SNAP the harnessed/holstered revolver HARD at the bed below it. When the revolver has obviously stayed in the holster for THREE of those snaps (best-effort 'snaps', mind you; there's no one to fool but oneself) it has passed the test. On the other hand if in even the third snap your revolver is dangling from the holster, it's still a fail!

No elasticized No. 9 holster can pass this test save the Bianchi 208/209 that I also created for JB. And I've had more than one fellow forum member and gunleather customer buy them used on eBay and perform the full test successfully every time. Ditto with the 9R-1 and -2. Even after all these years.

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