• Red Nichols, Holstorian

Post 68: Unpublished story for American Handgunner -- Berns-Martin

Updated: Jun 27

Mention the name “Berns-Martin” in a discussion about gunleather and the first reaction you’ll get is “James Bond”. That Berns-Martin was Bond’s holster maker after ‘M’ insisted Major Boothroyd issue him a spring-loaded shoulder holster for his new Walther PPK in 7.65 is the stuff of legend.

The fictional Major Boothroyd, above at right, in the film version of 'Dr. No'. I wrote this story for AH but editor Roy Huntington never got 'round to publishing it.

Emphasis on the legend. Yes, it’s true that in Ian Fleming’s 1958 book, “Dr. No”, M’s Major Boothroyd instructs Bond to carry his Walther “in a Berns Martin Triple-draw holster. Best worn inside the trouser band to the left. But it’s all right below the shoulder. Stiff saddle leather. Holds the gun in with a spring. Should make for a quicker draw than that” as Boothroyd gestures towards Bond’s original chamois-pouched shoulder holster that is laying on M’s desk.

The source of Fleming's focus on gold, he wrote all his books on this gold-plated Royal that is surely also the source of the name of his first book, Casino Royale, with the name Royal staring him in the face every moment. Nevertheless that is not the official tale :-).

Pictured above with Connery and Fleming are the producers, resembling a casting call as NYC mobsters in 'Diamonds are Forever'. The men are looking at a map of England, the finger pointed at the Birmingham area. Moulding at ceiling of the room is British.

Yet real gunleather aficionados will recognize now, as they did then, that yes, the Triple draw was indeed a spring-loaded shoulder holster made of stiff saddle leather. But it was for the Smith & Wesson Centennial of 1952 that Bond was issued with on the next page of Dr. No; and it was not capable of housing the Walther because the Triple-draw depended on the revolver’s cylinder to hold it into the inverted design.

Fleming (1908-1964) penned a lengthy article for Sports Illustrated (above) in 1962 titled “The Guns of James Bond” and there, lamented his error. As had his readers: from a letter to Boothroyd, a real-life person who was advisor to Fleming -- “If Bond carries on using the PPK out of that Berns-Martin rig I shall have to break down and write a rude letter to Fleming. I realize that writers have a whole lot of license, but this is going too far!”.

The mix-up was simple enough. The real-life Geoffrey Boothroyd (1925-2001), upon reading the first of the Bond books titled Casino Royale (1953), in 1956 had written to Fleming recommending a switch from a .25 Beretta to the new Centennial revolver in .38 Special. And as a compact pistol Mr. Boothroyd certainly had a point in selecting the S&W. Yet Fleming’s orientation towards the little .25 was also most sensible, too, given that he himself was newly out of WWII and even American law enforcement was still not yet using the .38 Special nationwide then.

For his part, Ian Fleming simply mixed up his own research for Bond’s opposing force, SMERSH, that turned up only automatics and included the Walther; with Boothroyd’s research that was entirely about revolvers. And all could have been forgiven if the error had been cured for the film that appeared just 6 months later in October 1962: Dr. No in living color. Instead the scene from the book was reenacted in the film nearly word-for-word: M (who was really Fleming himself), Bond, Boothroyd, Walther, and Berns-Martin were all in the same room together. And ‘the problem with Berns-Martin’ has not been cured to this day: James Bond has worn a Berns-Martin shoulder holster with a Walther PPK in .32 caliber nestled inside it. Forever.

There are just as many legends about the real Berns-Martin company as there are about the Bond legacy relating to it. For example, when the brand was purchased by Bianchi Holsters in 1974 the Bianchi company’s 1975 catalog pronounced its own legacy extended to 1925 as the founding date of Berns-Martin. But both John Emmett Berns (1892-1974) and Julius (Jack) Henry Martin (1900-1968) were still in the Navy in 1925. And in 1930 -- John Berns was even posted to Alaska! And it was there that he met the famed Elmer Keith, big game hunter and the father of handgun hunting, the .357 Magnum, and the .44 Magnum.

The two men hunted in deep snow. They used Colt Single Actions with slip hammers. And they blacked their sights for the ideal sight picture against the white snow. And realized that if the revolver were carried high, it would stay clear of the snow drifts.

In 1930 Berns was stationed in Cordova Alaska at the Navy’s weather and radio station there (see image above) and Keith was hunting to its west. Between them they worked out a solution to the problem of drawing a long-barreled revolver in a way much like the competing holsters of Dick Hoyt – the Hoyt forward draw – and Frank Jewett – the Jewett clamshell: carry the revolver high and provide a spring-loaded opening through the forward edges of the holster for the long-barreled revolver to be drawn straight towards the target.

Elmer is more obviously in snow in the colorized version of his famous pic above.

It’s little-known, then, that a large part of the functional design of Berns-Martin’s Speed holster was directed towards keeping the blacking on the front sight of their hunting revolvers; including the split front that has a gap at its muzzle end. Hand-stitched into the muzzle of every Speed holster is a complex leather plug that would be like every other muzzle plug of the era except it had a ‘V’ of leather stapled to its inner surface and the revolver’s muzzle rested on that plug. Indeed the revolver was captured between that plug and the leather that encircled the trigger guard – and the front sight was protected inside that V. For the rear sight, Berns simply placed his spring that was a reversed shoulder-holster leaf spring, below the adjustable sights and the leather near the sight was turned out as ‘ears’ to protect the sight.

Elmer's revolver is fitted with a 'slip hammer' and a Fitzed guard for good measure.

True to his harness-maker heritage and training, Jack Martin made all of Berns-Martin’s gunleather by sewing it all together by hand. For the Speed holster a pair of latigo leather strips were sewn inside the holster body to receive the ‘U’ shaped spring through a split that would then be hand sewn into a closed cup to receive the trigger guard; then trimmed and polished. Latigo is a hard-wearing leather that is also heavily oiled; ideal for releasing the revolver. The loop for the belt was formed out of the mouth of the holster, folded back and sewn to the holster’s backside – Elmer’s originals had no belt loops at all and instead were sewn directly to the lined belt – and the holster completed by hand sewing the muzzle plug into position to support the revolver’s muzzle.

The Lightnin’/Triple Draw shoulder/belt combination holster, although it looks quite like the Speed holster in plan view, is constructed very differently. The piano-wire spring is a dainty wireform looking quite like a re-shaped coat hanger, and not a sturdy leaf spring as on the Speed holster. That wire spring is inserted into the lips of the mouth of the holster and then hand sewn into position. The significance of this is that the leading edges of the holster that were loose lips on the Speed holster, on the Lightnin’ are stiffly closed by that wire form spring. A very small welt is hand sewn inside the center of the holster next to the ejector rod. This little piece keeps the revolver’s cylinder in engagement with the spring wire that is running across the mouth of the holster; this method replaced the cylinder recesses first used in the Hoyt. The ultimate interpretation of the Berns-Martin Triple Draw was in the 1970s called the Bianchi 9R-2 and officially named the “Special Agent”.

Those new to forward draws can experience difficulty at first because they are so used to drawing straight upwards with a revolver. The Berns-Martin Speed holster, though, is nearly as natural: the grip is tilted forward and then the revolver is drawn upwards, but without needing to consciously clear the forward fold of the holster – because it is split right down to the front sight.

For the Lightnin’, the holster is worn just forward of the armpit, muzzle upwards, grip to the rear. Drawing it is simply a matter of grasping the handle and dragging the pistol sideways across the chest. Beware the breast pocket if one has a Chiefs Special instead of a Centennial or Bodyguard: sharp hammer spur! The earliest of the Lightnin’ holsters was not only made of the same soft leather as the harness, but the harness itself was built into it. The final version, which was the version that Fleming and Boothroyd were discussing, was made of harness leather and had a pair of slits on one side so that it could be worn on the belt. It even inverted for crossdraw! Plus a cotton webbing harness that was both adjustable and removable via a pair of buckles built into the holster at the muzzle and the trigger guard cup.

Keith wrote up the Berns-Martin Speed holster for American Rifleman, NRA’s in-house magazine, in its June 1932 issue. There he explained that John Berns, the holster’s inventor, and Jack Martin, the holster’s maker, were on the Navy’s rifle team together and the new brand name had been launched as Berns-Martin. Keith went to the trouble to point out that there would be no need for a patent.

But there was a patent, and every gunleather aficionado knows that. And that’s because before the Speed holster there first was E.E. Clark’s forward draw holster patent! Having been contacted by Clark after the article appeared, John Berns indeed filed for his own patent soon after the article appeared in 1932. But he did not register his trademark. Not yet. Not for another thirty years, in fact.

John Berns was back in his hometown of Bremerton Washington, but he was not a leatherworker. Jack Martin, though, was a harness maker in Calhoun City Mississippi. Both Jack and John were in the Navy even in 1935 and so it was not until the late 1930s that Jack was able to begin the manufacture of the famed Berns-Martin ‘Speed Holster”. Amongst the rarest of all these is one that bears the company name and only one patent number – Clark’s – and it was followed within a few years by versions that incorporated both patent numbers beginning 1935; and it is in this way we can begin to date the thousands of Berns-Martin Speed holsters. The rarest of them all would be Elmer Keith’s, which as the first of the Speed holsters have no markings at all – not even the Berns-Martin name.

It was Fleming himself who said that Bond looked rather like Hoagy Carmichael, the singer/entertainer. And this colorized image is from 1953 at which time Carmichael was appearing in London.

The earliest Speed holsters, and the companion Range holster for the 1911 automatics (this is not the company’s later Raider holster), do bear the Berns-Martin mark but like the patent numbers the name is stamped into the leather in small, individual letters. These holsters are all pre-WWII. Then it appears that Jack Martin was occupied with wartime matters including for the British for whom the war had begun in ’39 and including sheaths for the Fairbairn-Sykes commando knife; and the company did not reopen until 1950. At that time Jack Martin, now working with Frank Criswell, advised Elmer Keith that the Speed holster, its unique belts, and the now-infamous Lightnin’ and Triple-Draw holsters were back in production in Calhoun City.

Below is Elmer Keith's "second set" with conventional belt loops (his first set are sewed directly to the belt and have no belt loops at all) below:

It can’t be a coincidence that the Clark patent that had been stamped into all Speed holsters’ backsides had expired in ’49 and so disappeared from the holsters themselves. And even Bern’s patent was about to expire in 1952. No more royalties for Jack to pay.

At that same time versions began to appear bearing another mark alongside Berns-Martin: that of Evaluators Ltd in Virginia. The Evaluators company was established 1950 by retired Brigadier General George Van Orden (1906-1967). His company specialized in government arms sales and Berns-Martin’s gunleather featured in that program. Evaluators’ name also appeared on Heiser’s famed 459 holster for the FBI, beginning that same year.

The Dr. No film appeared in 1962. And ironically, Bond’s shoulder holster in that film and in From Russia With Love that followed (actually Dr. No’s prequel in the book series and the one that set up the snagged Beretta that forced the switch to Berns-Martin) and Goldfinger, was a blue canvas shoulder holster that indeed featured a beige chamois pouch for the Walther. And its design and construction is based on Heiser’s leather shoulder holster.

Above, Boothroyd's 'Fitzed' S&W in .38 Short caliber revolver is littered with British proof marks.

But although ‘the problem with Berns-Martin’ continued to plague Ian Fleming – he was still complaining about receiving letters from ‘gun maniacs – and they are maniacs’ in his 1964 interview for Playboy – it was to be ‘no problem’ for the Berns-Martin company itself.

Ian Fleming, with his new-found riches from the Bond books and film deals in the works lived the life of Riley; but he was a heavy smoker and an alcoholic and that combined with extremely bad teeth and kidney stones contributed to his d. by his second heart attack in August 1964.

‘The problem’ was no problem for Jack Martin because the film attracted the attention of an investor, a granite magnate in Elberton Georgia named Frank Coggins (1927-2013). And that’s when the Elberton mark first appeared on Berns-Martin gunleather, and so we all assumed that to be the end of Jack's Calhoun City operation.

But, again, not really. Jack Martin continued to operate Berns-Martin in Calhoun City, alongside Mr. Criswell, and the two operations continued in parallel (Elberton was operated by husband and wife team Walter and Shirley McNeely) until Jack’s death in 1968. By which point both operations ceased and in 1971 the name was carried on by famed knife-maker Blackie Collins (d. 2011); with it being likely that Blackie, also in Georgia, had been getting his knife sheaths from Martin.

John Berns then died in ’74 and within a matter of months Blackie had sold on Berns-Martin to Bianchi Holsters of Temecula California. Likely not a coincidence. At that time JB said that there was nothing left of Berns-Martin but the name itself; and Bianchi’s own ground-up redesign of the Triple-Draw holster having the retention that the original had lacked, no holsters were ever produced by Bianchi Holsters stamped with the Berns-Martin name. And Bianchi International, itself having passed through several hands to date, simply forgot about ‘the problem with Berns-Martin’.

And the trademark itself to such an extent that the Berns-Martin mark is owned by yours truly today :-)

And 'Emma Peel' is included below just because I had such a crush on the beautiful Italian Contessa of the film that I later in life married my own Sicilian princess. Here is the actress in her own Bond film titled 'On Her Majesty's Secret Service' (there was no 'O.H.M.S.S.'; then, as now, it is simply 'O.H.M.S.' and I routinely receive correspondence in envelopes so-marked):


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