The Hells Angels originated on March 17, 1948, in Fontana, California, when several small motorcycle clubs agreed to merge. Otto Friedli, a World War II veteran, is credited with starting the club after breaking from the Pissed Off Bastards motorcycle club over a feud with a rival gang.
According to the Hells Angels' website, the club’s name was first suggested by an associate of the founders named Arvid Olsen, who had served in the "Hell's Angels" squadron of the Flying Tigers in China during World War II. It is at least clear that the name was inspired by the tradition from World Wars I and II whereby the Americans gave their squadrons fierce, death-defying titles; an example of this lies in one of the three P-40 squadrons of Flying Tigers fielded in Burma and China, which was dubbed "Hell's Angels". In 1930, the Howard Hughes film Hell's Angels showcased extraordinary and dangerous feats of aviation, and it is believed that the World War II groups who used that name based it on the film. According to the Hells Angels' website, they are aware that there is an apostrophe missing in "Hell's", but state that, "...it is you who miss it. We don't".
Some of the early history of the HAMC is not clear, and accounts differ. According to Ralph "Sonny" Barger, founder of the Oakland charter, early charters of the club were founded in San Francisco, Gardena, Fontana, Oakland and elsewhere, with the members usually being unaware that there were other clubs. One of the lesser-known clubs existed in North Chino/South Pomona, in the late 1960s.
Other sources claim that the Hells Angels in San Francisco were organized in 1953 by Rocky Graves, a Hells Angel member from San Bernardino ("Berdoo"), implying that the "Frisco" Hells Angels were very much aware of their forebears. The "Frisco" Hells Angels were reorganized in 1955 with thirteen charter members, Frank Sadilek serving as president, and using the smaller, original logo. The Oakland charter, at the time headed by Barger, used a larger version of the "Death's Head" patch nicknamed the "Barger Larger", which was first used in 1959. It later became the club standard. The first chapter to open outside California was established in Auckland, New Zealand, in 1961.
The Hells Angels are often depicted in semi-mythical romantic fashion like the 19th-century James–Younger Gang: free-spirited, iconic, bound by brotherhood and loyalty. At other times, such as in the 1966 Roger Corman film The Wild Angels, they are depicted as violent and nihilistic, little more than a violent criminal gang and a scourge on society.
The club became prominent within, and established its notoriety as part of the 1960s counterculture movement in San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury District, playing a part at many of the movement's seminal events. Members were directly connected to many of the counterculture's primary leaders, such as Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters, Allen Ginsberg, Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead, Timothy Leary, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Mick Farren, and Tom Wolfe. Writing a book about the club launched the career of "Gonzo" journalist Hunter S. Thompson.
In 1973, members from several branches of the organization protested at an Environmental Protection Agency hearing about a proposed transportation plan that included restrictions on motorcycle use and sales to get California to meet the new Clean Air Act standards.
The Hells Angels' official website attributes the official "death's head" insignia design to Frank Sadilek, past president of the San Francisco charter. The colors and shape of the early-style jacket emblem (prior to 1953) were copied from the insignias of the 85th Fighter Squadron and the 552nd Medium Bomber Squadron.
The Hells Angels utilize a system of patches similar to military medals. Although the specific meaning of each patch is not publicly known, the patches identify specific or significant actions or beliefs of each biker. The official colors of the Hells Angels are red lettering displayed on a white background—hence the club's nickname "The Red and White". These patches are worn on leather or denim jackets and vests.
Red and white are also used to display the number 81 on many patches, as in "Support 81, Route 81". The 8 and 1 stand for the respective positions in the alphabet of H and A. These are used by friends and supporters of the club in deference to club rules, which purport to restrict the wearing of Hells Angels imagery to club members. The diamond-shaped one-percenter patch is also used, displaying '1%' in red on a white background with a red merrowed border. The term one-percenter is said to be a response to the American Motorcyclist Association (AMA) comment on the Hollister incident, to the effect that 99% of motorcyclists were law-abiding citizens and the last 1% were outlaws. The AMA has no record of such a statement to the press, and calls this story apocryphal.
Most members wear a rectangular patch (again, white background with red letters and a red merrowed border) identifying their respective charter locations. Another similarly designed patch reads "Hells Angels". When applicable, members of the club wear a patch denoting their position or rank within the organization. The patch is rectangular and, similar to the patches described above, displays a white background with red letters and a red merrowed border. Some examples of the titles used are President, Vice President, Secretary, Treasurer, and Sergeant at Arms. This patch is usually worn above the 'club location' patch. Some members also wear a patch with the initials "AFFA", which stands for "Angels Forever; Forever Angels", referring to their lifelong membership in the biker club (i.e., "once a member, always a member").
The book Gangs, written by Tony Thompson (a crime correspondent for The Observer), states that Stephen Cunningham, a member of the Angels, sported a new patch after he recovered from attempting to set a bomb, consisting of two Nazi-style SS lightning bolts below the words 'Filthy Few'. Some law enforcement officials claim that the patch is only awarded to those who have committed or are prepared to commit murder on behalf of the club. According to a report from the R. v. Bonner and Lindsay case in 2005 (see related section below), another patch, similar to the 'Filthy Few' patch is the 'Dequiallo' patch. This patch "signifies that the wearer has fought law enforcement on arrest." There is no common convention as to where the patches are located on the members' jacket/vest.
Barger once wrote then-President Nixon a letter informing him of the Angels willingness to go and “finish” the Viet Nam war for America. He and fifty Hells Angels. There are some very telling Sonny Barger quotes. Here are a few of them:
“Treat me good, I’ll treat you better; treat me bad, I’ll treat you worse.”
“The greatest thing that I have learned is probably the simplest thing any of us can learn: I am who I am.”
“My most basic credo is: I never said freedom was cheap. And it ain’t. Never will be .It’s been the highest priced and most precious commodity in my life.”