Airguns of the American West Part 10

Airguns of the American West Part 10

The Guns of John Wayne

For almost 50 years The Duke’s favorite handgun was a Colt Peacemaker

By Dennis Adler

The guns of John Wayne have always helped to define his characters but none so dramatically as the pair of engraved single actions he carried as former lawman and gunfighter John Bernard Books in “The Shootist.” In this memorable image, recreated from the movie, the author had stepped in to play Books and a pair of Limited Edition, hand engraved Umarex Colt “Duke” Peacemakers, to fill the role of Wayne’s ivory griped Single Actions.

The guns of John Wayne have always helped to define his characters but none so dramatically as the pair of engraved single actions he carried as former lawman and gunfighter John Bernard Books in “The Shootist.” In this memorable image recreated from the movie, the author has stepped in to play Books and a pair of Limited Edition, hand engraved Umarex Colt “Duke” Peacemakers, to fill the role of Wayne’s ivory griped Single Actions.

John Wayne’s film career spanned more than three generations, from 1930 when he starred in his first western, The Big Trail to 1976 when he made his last film, The Shootist. The Western cinematic legacy he left chronicles almost the entire history of this uniquely American film genre and its kinship to the Colt Single Action Army revolver.

There are 10 John Wayne commemorative models available with blued, weathered, or nickel plated finishes, including four hand engraved models in both .177 caliber BB and .177 caliber (4.5mm) pellet versions.

There are 10 John Wayne models available with blued, weathered, or nickel finishes, including four hand engraved models in both .177 caliber BB and .177 caliber (4.5mm) pellet versions. Pictured are the weathered Duke model, (top) with a Bianchi Frontier Gunleather “Duke” holster and two-tone cartridge belt, the Limited Edition Shootist model (center) with a Legends in Leather copy of the gun rig worn by John Wayne in the film, and a Limited Edition hand engraved nickel plated Duke Model.

Up until 1930, the tall, rugged looking man from Winterset, Iowa, had been working as an extra, but he had determination and a look that caught the attention of legendary film director Raoul Walsh in 1929. The next year he gave the young actor named Marion Morrison his first big break in the 1930 epic The Big Trail. Walsh also changed Morrison’s name to John Wayne. Although the film was not a box office smash, even though it was one of the first shot in 70mm wide-screen, Wayne became a “B” movie hit, spending the next nine years making westerns and building a reputation as a film star. Many of his early films were remakes of old Ken Maynard silent movies with Wayne always playing a character named John (John Drury, John Steele, John Mason, John Trent), and riding a magnificent white stallion named, of all things, Duke.

In the early years of western cinema, guns and gun rigs were glamorous, and the famous Bohlin Buscadero holsters appeared in numerous films. Wayne wore a fancy carved two-tone holster and cartridge belt made by Ed Bohlin in 23 westerns made for Republic Pictures and Lone Star Productions beginning with Riders of Destiny in 1933. In 1936 when he filmed Born to the West, Wayne switched to a handsome hand-tooled Heiser outfit with a silver Bohlin buckle and tip and #714 holster. The H.H. Heiser outfit was worn by Wayne from 1936 through the first film he produced, 1947’s Angel and the Badman.

From the moment director John Ford zoomed in on Wayne spin cocking his Winchester Model 1892 in Stagecoach, Wayne’s place in film history was established.

From the moment John Ford zoomed in on Wayne spin cocking his Winchester Model 1892 in 1939’s Stagecoach, Wayne’s place in film history was established.

In 1939 he made the transition from “B” movies to big screen star as the Ringo Kid in John Ford’s epic Stagecoach. From the moment Ford zoomed in on Wayne spin cocking his Winchester Model 1892, his place in film history was established. He repeated the stunt in dozens of westerns most notably in his Oscar winning role as crusty, one-eyed Marshall Rooster Cogburn in True Grit.

Red River proved that not only colud John Wayne act, but he coould play a character in need of redemption.

Red River proved that John Wayne could not only act, but he could play a character in need of redemption. 

A number of Wayne’s best films, for serious acting, were post-Civil War cavalry stories directed by John Ford who was famously quoted as saying “I never knew the big SOB could act!” after seeing Wayne’s performance in Red River, directed by Howard Hawks. The first of Ford’s post Civil War epics was Fort Apache released in 1948. Wayne played veteran frontiersman Captain Kirby York opposite Henry Fonda as Eastern-bred Colonel Owen Thursday.

One of his most challenging and best performances ever was in 1949’s She Wore A Yellow Ribbon, where Wayne played a much older character, Cavalry Captain Nathan Brittles.

One of John Wayne’s most challenging and best dramatic performances was in 1949’s She Wore A Yellow Ribbon, where he played a much older character, Cavalry Captain Nathan Brittles.

It was one of Wayne’s better performances in what was a subordinate role to Fonda. One of his most challenging and best performances ever was in She Wore A Yellow Ribbon, where Wayne played Cavalry Captain Nathan Brittles, a character who was supposed to be older than Wayne actually was, challenging him to not only look older, but play someone who had been worn down by years of experience on the frontier and the loss of his wife. The guns in these Ford westerns, as with most, were secondary and occasionally wrong for the period of the film, a curious trait of John Ford’s post-Civil War films. Wayne and others were often armed with guns that wouldn’t have existed until the 1870s, 1880s, and, of course, there was Wayne’s famous Big Loop Winchester 1892 lever action.

The Duke’s signature Colts and gun rigs

With few exceptions The Duke carried faded blue Colt Single Action Army revolvers with wood grips throughout most of his films. Barrel lengths varied but most often 5-1/2 inch guns were used. This was the inspiration for the first John Wayne commemorative .177 caliber model, which features a weathered finish, simulated wood grips, and features John Wayne’s signature on the backstrap. A faded blued 5-1/2 inch Colt was the centerpiece of 1948’s Red River, in which Wayne played a much darker character than usual, cattleman Thomas Dunson. Opposite a youthful Montgomery Clift as Matt Garth, Dunson’s adopted son, the gun handling in Red River was exceptional.

Among the various John Wayne commemorative models, this version has the weathered finish like so many of the Colt Single Actions used in his films. The guns come with John Wayne “Duke” medallions inlaid into each grip panel. While those grips are actually plastic they look more like wood than a lot of wood grips! (Holster by John Bianchi Frontier Gunleather, Red River D belt buckle by Chisholm's Trail Leather)

Among the various John Wayne commemorative models, this version has the weathered finish like so many of the Colt Single Actions used in his films. The guns come with John Wayne “Duke” medallions inlaid into each grip panel. While those grips are actually plastic they look more like wood than a lot of wood grips! (Holster by John Bianchi Frontier Gunleather, Red River D belt buckle by Chisholm’s Trail Leather)

In some of John Wayne's early "B" Western, his character carried a nickle plated 5-/12 inch Colt. The hand engraved Umarex Colt is offered in Limited Eition BB and pellet models.

In some of John Wayne’s early “B” Westerns, his characters carried a nickel plated 5-1/2 inch Colt. The Limited Edition, hand engraved Umarex Colt Duke Model is also offered in nickel plated BB and pellet versions.

Wayne’s trademark two-tone suede cartridge belt and tan leather holster were first seen in 1953’s Hondo. He wore it again in one of his most dramatic acting roles ever as Ethan Edwards in The Searchers. In this classic western Wayne used one of his favorite tricks twirling his SAA upward out of the holster and cocking it at the top of the spin. The cut of the holster made it easy to do. According to John Bianchi, the original holster and gun belt were given to Wayne by his friend, famed Western stuntman and second unit director Yakima Canutt. The two-tone rigs (there were more than one) used a skirtless holster and tan suede money belt-style cartridge belt with contrasting brown bullet loops. The original version worn in Hondo was darker overall than the later two-tone rigs.

Wayne first wore the two-tone rough out suede gunbelt with contrasting bullet loops and plain brown holster in the 1953 film Hondo. This was one of the earliest films shot in 3D, making The Duke something of a pioneer in that genre as well! (Holster by John Bianchi)

Wayne first wore the two-tone rough out suede gunbelt in the 1953 film Hondo. This was one of the earliest films shot in 3D, making The Duke something of a pioneer in that genre as well! (Holster by John Bianchi)

Hondo was one of the first films to be released in 3D, literally making John Wayne larger than life on the silver screen. This was also the first use of the holster and cartridge belt that would become his signature gun rig.

Hondo was among the first films released in 3D, literally making John Wayne larger than life on the silver screen. This was also the first use of the holster and cartridge belt that would become his signature gun rig. Later versions would have a lighter colored rough out suede cartridge belt with dark bullet loops.

Wayne liked that particular style more than any other and wore it in almost every film after Hondo. The color tones changed over the years as did the shape of the holster but the two-tone rigs remained Wayne’s favorite. He wore them in Chism, Rio Lobo, The Train Robbers, True Grit, Rooster Cogburn, and in The Cowboys, among others.

The majority of Colt Peacemakers used by John Wayne had 5-1/2 inch barrels and weathered finishes.

The majority of Colt Peacemakers Wayne used had 5-1/2 inch barrels and weathered finishes. (Holster rig by John Bianchi’s Frontier Gunleather, Red River D buckle by Chisholm’s Trail Leather.)

In 1967’s The War Wagon The Duke switched from his usual 5-1/2 inch Colt Peacemaker to a 4-3/4 inch Colt with yellowed ivory grips, yet to become another Wayne trademark. He actually soaked the ivory in tea to age them. The Colt Peacemaker with worn finish and aged grips was the gun he used for most of his westerns until his last, The Shootist.

John Wayne's last film was not the first in which he used his own Colt revolvers, but it was the first time that they were engraved guns. The Limited Edition Umarex Colt Shootist model is hand engraved in the same pattern as the Duke's own guns from the film.

The Shootist was not the first time John Wayne used his own Colt revolvers, but it was the first time they were engraved guns. The Limited Edition Umarex Colt Shootist model is hand engraved in the same pattern as those from the film.

Filmed 40 years ago for an August 1976 theatrical release, it would turn out to be his final movie. For Wayne’s character of legendary gunfighter John Barnard “JB” Books, he eschewed his traditional well worn Peacemaker in favor of his own personal pair of hand engraved and ivory stocked Single Actions. This was one film where Wayne believed the guns he carried were paramount to the character, Books was a professional gunfighter so the engraved revolvers seemed more appropriate, and he’d wanted to use them in a film for some time. The handsome ivory mounted six-shooters weren’t Colts; they were Great Westerns, engraved by Carl Kourts and presented to Wayne by the company when they were in their heyday, a period when Colt had stopped building the Single Action Army (with GW production beginning in 1954 and continuing until 1964. Colt introduced the 2nd Generation SAA in 1956). The guns appeared to be Colts in the film for one reason, they were fitted with Colt-style hammers; Great Westerns manufactured by American Arms had frame-mounted firing pins. This was verified by Luster Bayless, Wayne’s costumer. The inscription on the backstraps, which always remained out of focus were supposed to be J.B. Books, but were actually J. Wayne, thus the intentional soft focus whenever the backstraps were seen. The Shootist was a defining film for Wayne, who died three years later on June 11, 1979, shortly after celebrating his 72nd birthday.

The hand engraved and custom finished .177 caliber Shootist revolver is stamped with the Colt patent dates and the Rampant Colt emblem on the left. The side of the barrel is also etched with Duke Colt Single Action Revolver, and the Duke medallion grips are aged to match those from the guns used in The Shootist.

The hand engraved and custom finished .177 caliber Shootist revolver is stamped with the Colt emblem on the right side of the frame. The Duke medallion grips are aged to match those on the guns used in The Shootist.

The Shootist .177 caliber CO2 model is fully hand engraved and custom finished to match the Single Actions used by John Wayne in the film. The last, and best of the John Wayne commemorative Umarex Colt Single Action revolvers, The Shootist gun is a fitting tribute the man from Winterset, Iowa, who became a legendary film star, and the quintessential image of the American cowboy.

12-post-gallery-the-shootist

The Airgun Experience will return October 3rd with a test of the Umarex S&W M&P 40 – The new ultimate in semi-auto training guns.

A word about safety

Blowback action airguns provide the look, feel and operation of their cartridge-firing counterparts and this is one reason why they have become so popular. Airguns in general all look like guns, blowback action models more so, and it is important to remember that the vast majority of people can’t tell an airgun from a cartridge gun. Never brandish an airgun in public. Always, and I can never stress this enough, always treat an airgun as you would a cartridge gun. The same manual of operation and safety should always apply.

6 thoughts on “Airguns of the American West Part 10

  1. The Duke series is a nice start to limited and regular commemorative Peacemakers.I like the weathered and nickel versions , have pair of each. I would like to see more special features featured on special editions . Umarex seems lazy in regards to grip options and barrel lengths. I would like to see a Duke 4 3/4 barreled aged ivory weathered finish Peacemaker. Some other nice special editions would Pat Garret 7 1/2 inch weathered finish with real wood grips. Richard Boone Paladin , 7 1/2 bright blue with poly ivory and knights head grip. Michael Biehn ,Johnny Ringo ,4 3/4 nickel poly ivory grips There is a lot of potential .


    • Indeed there is, and a lot of it is already being explored. Lazy isn’t exactly a term I would use for Umarex, which has done a lot in a very short time. The firearms industry, including air pistols, is a slow moving machine, and Umarex has been making record time. New grips and other variations are in the works. Thanks for all your great suggestions.

      Dennis Adler



    • The devil is in the details. It’s the tooling, even for something as simple as a different set of grips, because of the alloy pieces that have to be attached. Stag grips, done properly (even like the old Franzite grips used on TV and movie guns, like Matt Dillon’s Colt in Gunsmoke), are different in size, width, depth, as well as contoured surfaces than the current white, faux wood and black grips, and everything involved with the airgun’s internals has to fit inside. All new molds, etc. are required. It’s actually much easier to make different grips for a real .45 Colt or Schofield than it is to make them for the airguns! All good things will come. And Umarex has a lot of folks in R&D.

      Dennis Adler


  2. Yup , i tried getting s Colt Grip maker interested , but when I sent him the photos of the grip internals , he passed . Then again he had different molds for Muliple Colt clones , Rugers and the Schofields as well as blackpowder revolvers and theRemington 1875. Umarex already had the mold , and the metal internal wrench parts, which are a major hurdle . Hopefully they will see that there is a demand for optional grips . One of the things that I always liked about single action grips is how you can customize their appearance with custom grips .


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