The Younger Years

Bruce Willner Nelson was born on Jan 3. 1948 in Duluth Mn. to Clifford and Lois Nelson (both deceased). The family, including younger sister Nadine, moved to California in the early fifties during the big post war expansion. Nancy and Brian were born in California. Bruce and Brian were 11 years apart. Dad got work in the aerospace industry at Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, where he spent 35 years. Mom was a homemaker, until the kids were all in school, then began to work in the public schools. Bruce loved sports cars, music, photography and of course guns. He was a Boy Scout, an excellent student and an accomplished musician in the high school band, playing the trumpet.

By the time Bruce graduated high school, he had amassed a nice collection of guns, a dozen or so. These were laid out on shelves as some boys would have their toys. “When I was 12 years old”, Bruce said, “I had a little neighborhood business, watering lawns while people were on summer vacation. I would start at the first house and turn on the sprinklers. Then I would go to the next house, and the next. Then I’d go back to the start of my route, and go from house to house and turn the sprinklers off. There was a gun in the display case at Reed’s Hardware Store. It was a Ruger .357 Magnum, single-action revolver. After I got done watering lawns, I’d ride my bike over there and make sure it was still there and nobody else had bought it. The store owner would take it out of the case and let me handle it. I’d count my lawn-watering money, and figure out how much more I needed, and how many more lawns I needed to water. Finally, I saved enough; my dad came with me, and I bought that gun, I sure wish I still had it. Anyway, I wanted to go to the public range, but I didn’t want to put my new gun in my bike’s basket, and I was worried about grown-ups telling me I couldn’t carry my gun around. So, I asked the local chief of police what I should do." “Son,” he said, “get yourself a holster and go shooting. If anybody gives you any trouble, you tell them to talk to me”. “The great thing was, nobody ever did give me any trouble. There I was, 12 years old, riding my bike through the streets of Glendora, California, packing a .357 Magnum, and nobody looked twice. Can you imagine that happening today, with everybody talking about the terrible ‘problem’ of ‘kids and guns’?” Things were a lot looser back then.

It was Bruce’s Uncle Willard, a Deputy Sheriff, who first took him shooting. As was usual in those days, Bruce became an NRA member when he was seven years old. His father paid the dues, and enrolled Bruce in a NRA Hunter Safety class.

Bruce stitched his first leather goods together at home when he was 16. When he could drive, he went to work for John Bianchi who was located in Monrovia Ca. Both he and sister Nadine worked for John. John was making holsters in his garage and was just beginning to expand his business. It was John who taught him the basics of gun leather.

Bruce grew up in a family of shooters. This being the time when the Southwest Pistol League was getting going. The family spent many weekends going to matches around the southern California area. When Bruce was in high school, he met some girls who said, “You like shooting? Our dad does a lot of shooting. You should come by the house, sometime.” And so, at age 16, he attended Jeff Cooper’s first “Leatherslap” competitions in Big Bear, California, and shot along side the likes of Ray Chapman,  Eldon Carl and Thell Reed.

Law Enforcement

When he graduated High school, he studied political science at University of California at Riverside. Bruce worked for Bianchi for a couple of years and liked it, but he really had his heart set on being a cop himself. In, 1969, he became the fourth member of the Fillmore (California) Police Department, where his training was, as he recalled, pretty rudimentary. He sometimes wondered if the citizens of Fillmore ever realized that they were depending on a wide-eyed, wet-behind-the-ears, 21-year-old to protect them from criminals while they slept.

After a year or two at the Fillmore PD, Bruce got a job with the California Department of Justice, Bureau of Narcotics Enforcement working in Los Angeles, San Diego and finally in San Francisco. He investigated felony crimes of all kinds and spent many years in narcotic investigations with the CDOJ serving as a Detective and Undercover Agent. During this time, he supervised a team of Narcotic Agents and served as Bureau Commander of the Napa County, California, Special Investigation Bureau.

Bruce conducted firearms training for the Department of Justice Special Agents, both in the Academy and in Officer Survival Training. He organized and taught firearm instructor schools for area officer firearms instructors and formulated an Officer Survival Program that he presented to police and sheriff’s departments throughout California as part of the Department of Justice Advanced Training Center Program. Bruce served as guest speaker and consultant for many other firearms and police survival seminars and programs throughout the United States.

While he was with the California DOJ, Bruce was one of the early pioneers of the “Officer Survival” movement. In 1975, he created the course outline for the CDOJ Advanced Training Officer Survival Program, taught to 55 local law enforcement agencies. Since the advent of officer survival training, police officer injuries and deaths have declined dramatically. Bruce was an evangelist for officer survival; he personally instructed thousands of officers, and also taught instructors, to spread the gospel of tactical training. It is not an exaggeration to say that his efforts are continuing to be responsible for saving many officers’ lives, over years.

San Francisco is where he met his future wife. Sandra Froman, “Sandy”, was a young lawyer and law professor, who just happened to be interested in defensive pistol craft simply because she realized that defending herself was her own responsibility. In fact, she had enrolled for Gun site training even before she met Bruce. “I remember going to her house for the first time,” he said. “She had Guns and Soldier of Fortune and every other gun magazine you could think of. I couldn’t believe my luck.” Sandy remembers their first real date, after they had seen each other at a couple of group functions. “He opened the car door for me. I got in. I knew he was a cop; I knew he always carried his gun. He knew I was into guns, too. He got in, pointed to the car’s glove compartment, and said ‘Your gun is in there.’ ‘What do you mean?’ I said. ‘Well, I’ve got my gun on, but in case I need backup, yours is in there. ‘I thought, ‘Now, that’s cool!’” They were married soon after.  

IPSC and API/Gunsite

In the world of practical pistol competition, Bruce was a pioneer, having been a Southwest Pistol League Class A shooter and record holder starting in the mid 1960’s. He was part of the now legendary Bear Valley Gunslinger matches conducted by Jeff Cooper in Big Bear Lake, California. These matches served as the “research laboratory” for development of the Modern Technique of the Pistol. When Jeff Cooper launched the American Pistol Institute(Gunsite) in 1976, Bruce was as API’s first staff instructor.

Bruce was one of the 40 founding members of the International Practical Shooting Confederation, formed in Colombia, Missouri in 1976. He took second place in the I.P.S.C. Columbia Conference Match, which served as the World Match for that year. He was also the I.P.S.C. Southwest United States Champion in 1977. 

Combat Leather

During Bruce’s entire law enforcement career, he always had space to work on his holster business on the side, developing his craftsmanship and designs under the name Combat Leather Limited and stamped each piece CLL. In 1985, Bruce retired from the CDOJ, and he and Sandy moved to a house at the end of a long dirt road in the Catalina Mountains, outside Tucson, Arizona. Sandy became a partner in a big law firm and commuted to the city. He began building full time under the new name Bruce Nelson Combat Leather. There’s a period in the late seventies through the eighties that is referred to as the resurgence of American craftsmanship. This occurred in all fields, from furniture to bicycles to holsters. Bruce’s interests and passion concurred with this period and he had the ability and talent to be a leader in that world. Bruce made holsters, one at a time, by hand. There was no such thing as a Bruce Nelson “second.” If it wasn’t perfect, he cut it into pieces and threw it away. Demand always exceeded supply.

All of Bruce’s law enforcement and practical shooting background combined with the 25 years as an exacting holster designer and leather craftsman contributed to the success of his business, Bruce Nelson Combat Leather. His influence on holster design has been considerable. His #1 Professional and Summer Special designs have inspired generation of imitations. Bruce’s philosophy was to produce and offer to his clients only what improved upon the designs already on the market. He worked hard to assure meticulous quality in his very personal craft. 

When he joined the California Department of Justice, he became an undercover “narc” adopting a long-haired, scruffy look that enabled him to bust many a doper. He tried carrying his Colt .45 Commander concealed in a cheap, clip-on, inside-the-belt-holster, and quickly discovered the
limitations of that design. So, he set out to improve it, on his kitchen table, using the skills John Bianchi had taught him. 

First, he replaced the clip with a snap-on strap, so that when he drew his gun, the holster didn’t come with it. Then he reinforced the mouth of the holster with a strip of metal sandwiched inside another strip of leather, so that once a criminal was on the sidewalk and ready for handcuffing, he could re-holster one-handed and eyes-off. He used slightly heavier leather-still thin, but stiff rough side of the leather out, to “grab” the clothing and help keep the pistol properly positioned.

He sent a sample holster to Jeff Cooper, who responded with a cryptic note:” Summer Special looks good.” The name stuck. Bruce made a few Summer Specials for his fellow undercover cops, but didn’t have enough time to satisfy the demand. One of those cops made his way to the remote Idaho shop of Milt Sparks and said, “Can you make a holster like this?” Milt called Bruce and asked permission. “No problem. Go ahead,” said Bruce.

Bruce’s other major contribution to holster design was the rearbelt slot. Holsters had always been made with a” tunnel” belt-loop, using either a folder-over flap from the holster body itself or a sewn-on, separate piece. Added to this, Bruce’s invention, the rear slot, pulled the gun butt in tight to the body for better concealment. Other holster makers picked up the idea. Bruce’s “#1 Professional” holster inspired Milt Sparks’ #55BN (guess what the “BN” stands for), the Gordon Davis “Liberty,” the Bianchi “Askins Avenger,” and many others.

Bruce’s gear has been sent all over the world, England, Germany, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Austria, Botswana, Norway, Sweden, Hong Kong –even a woman in Argentina – Bruce’s client list goes on and on. “I get orders with some unusual addresses – in care of U.S. embassies in strange places,“ he said with a grin. Design work for special operations units and elite military teams is another Combat Leather specialty, with complete confidentially promised.

“There are more gun owners in foreign countries than in the United States,” he points out, “Even in England, where there are a lot of sports shooters. There’s a British holster builder who sells here in the U.S. In Switzerland, every male over age 18 must own a rifle because he’s in the Swiss army reserve. And the government comes around every year and inspects the rifle and makes sure that there’s ammunition for it in the house,” Nelson notes. “Yet Switzerland has the lowest crime rate in the world and almost non-existent homicide rate.”

Nelson’s years on the mean streets have given him a special insight into the gear a plainclothes law enforcement officer needs for survival. He’s been there. He said there were seven or eight incidents in which his ability to quickly draw his handgun may have saved his life. One involved fugitives driving a stolen car and armed with a double-barreled shotgun; the second, a fugitive who reached for his AK-47 when Nelson burst into a Chula Vista apartment to serve a warrant. In both incidents, the fugitive decided against using their weapons when Nelson beat them to the draw.

“Concealment is especially crucial in undercover narcotics work”, Nelson says, “since experienced dealers look for weapons”.

Bruce loved photography. He studied at workshops with Ansel Adams. Ansel even printed one of Bruce’s negatives. Bruce took all the pictures in his famous catalog, did the layout, everything. 

"A second can make all the difference, especially if you're late!"

Bruce Nelson


Both Bruce and Sandy became active in the NRA, she as a member of the Board of Directors, later as President, and he as a member of the Law Enforcement Assistance Committee. They were active in politics, too, volunteering to raise funds, pass out flyers, stuff envelopes, make phone calls, and write position papers on gun rights. More than one politician came to realize that the “gun lobby” was not the villainous gang portrayed by the talking heads on TV, but a bunch of decent, intelligent,hard-working people like Bruce and Sandy.

For a man trained in the art of combat and survival, Bruce was infinitely gentle, loving and understanding. He and Sandy would sit outside and watched the jackrabbits, lizards, javelinas, coyotes and birds on whose land Bruce and Sandy lived. They shot from the back porch at the Pepper Poppers that decorated hills behind their home. Once in a while, they would carry the Browning M2, .50 onto the porch, and invite a few friends over for an evening of Class III divertissement. They played with Dave, the French lop-eared rabbit, who had the run of the house.

In November 1994, Bruce and Sandy were hiking in the Grand Canyon, and Bruce felt tired and short of breath. They figured it was the altitude and the extreme cold. The breathing difficulty continued, off and on. A doctor prescribed a succession of asthma-type inhalers, which didn’t seem to help much. Bruce insisted on “working through it,” and continue his exercise routine. He was scheduled to take some pulmonary-function tests on the afternoon of February 15th 1995. That morning, he collapsed in his living room. He died in the ambulance, on the way to the hospital. Cause of death was a pulmonary embolism, a blood clot in his lungs. Bruce was not a religious man. No clerics were present at his memorial ceremony. (However, it probably set a record for the largest collection of .45s in Summer Specials.)

Sandy said they often told each other that they loved each other. She said, “A day never went by that we didn’t talk about how perfect our lives were: we lived in beautiful surroundings, we did work that we loved, and we had each other. Bruce will be remembered as a man of unwavering principles. He counted many friends but no enemies. His life was full of great adventures and many pleasures. A loving husband, son and brother, a superb craftsman, a loyal friend, a true defender of American rights and an outstanding gentleman in every way."

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