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One Colt Became A Trademark

serial number 309795
While John Wayne used many Colts in his movies. One of his personal guns, Wayne gave the Colt to Gary Hess who worked for his gas and oil exploration company, DECO. The maker of the Duke's holster rig remains a mystery.

In 1911, the Morrison family moved to California's Antelope Valley. There, nine-year-old Marion got his first dog, an Airedale terrier named "Duke." Inseparable, Marion and Duke began spending time at the Glendale Fire Dept., where the firemen called Marion "Little Duke" in reference to his large canine companion. To young Marion's relief, the new name stuck.

He was billed as Duke Morrison - a name that stuck until Fox Studios head Winfield Sheehan and director Raoul Walsh concocted the name "John Wayne." However, Wayne's friends continued to call him Duke.

Of the nearly 200 times Wayne appeared on film, roughly half his roles were in Westerns in which he carried Colt Single Action Army (SAA) revolvers almost exclusively. One exception was Stagecoach in which he used a "large lever loop".44 WCF Model 1892 Winchester carbine.

Wayne grew up with guns, and two of his favorites were the Model 92 Winchester and the Colt SAA - both of which helped make him famous. Of course, he also helped to keep both of these guns famous, and he became quite proficient with both. Dobe Carey said that between scenes of the movie, Big Jake, he found a bored Wayne twirling his Colt to pass the time. Surprised at Wayne's proficiency in twirling the gun, Dobe said, "Duke, I never knew you could handle a Colt like that," to which Wayne replied, "That's the stupidest thing I've ever heard!"

In addition to the fake and real Colt SAA revolvers Wayne used in movies, he owned a number of them himself, and one Colt became more or less a trademark. Other Western stars had established themselves firmly in roles with standard costumes, names (sometimes their own), guns and gun belts, and even horses. Wayne never went this far, but he did standardize on an image with certain trademarks. The first was probably the "Double `D'" belt buckle, which Wayne had custom made for Red River. Another was Duke's cavalry style hat, which was seen as early as the movie, Hondo in 1953. Also seen in that movie was the type of gun and holster rig Duke would use in virtually all his subsequent Westerns. However, the type of Colt SAA by which John Wayne would come to be known was yet to come.

Exactly which Colt this was isn't known, as there were several of them supplied by the famous movie firearm prop company Stembridge of Hollywood, but the first movie it appeared in was The Searchers in 1956. Duke went on to use this style Colt in True Grit, The War Wagon, The Cowboys, Rooster Cogburn and all of the remaining Westerns he made except for his last picture The Shootist. Beginning with the The War Wagon, Wayne's gun (or guns) underwent one obvious change - the addition of a pair of ivory-like grips.

At least three of these Colt SAA revolvers are known. All have 4 ¾" barrels and ivory-style, two-piece grips. Although it is not certain, it is doubtful that any were of real ivory. Of the three Colts, two were owned by Stembridge and rented for use by Wayne. One was originally a .44-40 Frontier to which a .45 Colt cylinder was later fitted for use with blank cartridges. The caliber of the other Stembridge-owned Colt is not known, but is believed to be either .44-40 Win. or .45 Colt, and of particular interest, its left ivory-style grip has three finger grooves.

It is perhaps the only 4 ¾" Colt actually owned by John Wayne, as it is the only one known to be listed in his personal inventory. Because of its provenance, this Colt is arguably one of the most famous and important Colts in the world. It is a gun that helped catapult the Colt SAA to immortality by the most loved and respected cowboy actor of all time.

According to Al Frisch, one of the best authorities on Hollywood movie guns, Wayne gave this Colt and its "half-breed" rig to Gary Hess. Hess, an engineer, worked for Wayne in his gas and oil exploration company, DECO, and developed a breakthrough in finding natural gas. Wayne told Hess that he didn't know how he could repay him, and Hess said that he'd like to have this Colt, so Duke gave him the gun and the rig. In 2003, it was purchased from Butterfield's Auction by Dr. Robert W Azar, of Parkersburg, W V , in whose collection it remains.

While this gun has always been billed as a .45 Colt in the movies, it is actually a .44-40 Win. This caliber is the Colt designation for the .44 Winchester Center Fire (WCF) cartridge. The serial number, 309795, puts its manufacture in the year 1909, but here's the rest of the story. Colt Single Action revolver, serial no. 309795, was not originally a Single Action Army, but a Bisley, and it still retains part of its "Bisley Model" marking on the barrel's left side followed by what appears to be the vertical part of a number "4." The rest of those markings are not readable. On the outside of the cylinder, between chambers is hand-stamped "44," reportedly done by a movie studio. The loading gate bears the assembly number 2038.

What is perhaps most surprising is that the frontstrap and backstrap of the gun are from a Colt Single Action Army revolver (or two). The trigger guard bears the serial number 260411, and is from a Colt SAA revolver made in 1904, but no serial number is visible on the butt of the backstrap. Just as unusual is that the Bisley frame was not fully blended in with the "ears" of the SAA backstrap, leaving a step between the frame and the top of the backstrap.

No matter what its condition, even a rusted "relic" or a "dug-up" Colt with a legible serial number can be researched at Colt's Historical Department and just might be traced to a historical person or event, and the price for this documentation should always add that amount to the price of the gun. Not only is it the gun's provenance, but it may create a journey of additional questions.

Colt's records indicate that serial no. 309795 left the factory as a Bisley Model not in .44-40 but in .45 Colt. Instead of originally being made with a 4 ¾" barrel, it came from Colt with a 5 1/2" barrel. Thus, we have a Colt Bisley in .45 Colt with a 5 ½" barrel that, sometime, somewhere, was converted to a .44-40 with a 4 ¾" barrel. Colt has no record of the gun coming back to the factory for these modifications. Colt's also reported that the finish was blue with no information on the grips. It was one gun of a shipment of one sent to a John E. Dougty on August 7, 1909. Unfortunately no address for John E. Doughty, or other information was recorded.

Just when this Colt was converted to Single Action Army configuration is not known, but there is evidence that it was so modified especially for Wayne. The trigger guard has not only been enlarged, but also rounded by expert cutting and welding. This trigger guard appears to have been cut from a Bisley and, according to the original Butterfield's Auction brochure, was done to accommodate Wayne's extra large finger and to allow him to twirl the gun more easily - and Duke often twirled his Colt at least once in most of his Westerns. One of the most interesting ways he twirled this Colt was to draw it from the holster, spin it forward for one turn and cock the hammer as he caught it pointing at the target. A very light and smooth action job contributed to making this look easy, but it wasn't the only trick to this trade.

Unknown but to a few, is that in the left ivory-style grip of this Colt are three finger grooves for the middle, ring and "little" fingers of Duke's right hand, as they wrapped around the revolver's grip frame. There are two sets of these grips with the gun, both apparently custom made for it and well fit. The extra set was reportedly made as a backup in case the other set was broken.

Although often billed as ivory or bone, both sets are synthetic. Frisch verified that all of these grips were made by Maurice D. Scarlac of a material he developed called Catalin. Wayne reportedly liked them so much that he took them home and personally "tea-stained" them to a yellow color such as the patina often seen on ivory and bone grips.

The question remains as to why anyone would go to the trouble of converting a Bisley when SAAs were in such abundance. Whether the Bisley trigger guard was cut from the original Bisley frontstrap is not known, but the guard shows discoloration where it was welded to the frame.

Whatever the case, this Colt was reportedly first used in the movie War Wagon. In True Grit, Duke apparently carried another Colt 4 ¾" SAA along with number 309795. The other Colt appears to have a blue finish with ivory-type grips of a lighter hue. It's always seen in the holster in most of the close-up shots. In some scenes an SAA with yellow grips is seen, especially the action scenes. Most obvious is in the scene before the duel where Duke exchanges insults with Robert Duval. Here, Duke has his Colt stuck in his left waistband with the left grip exposed. For just a couple of seconds, a close-up reveals three finger-grooves in the left grip.

Not that John Wayne didn't use other Colts of similar configuration in a number of his movies. One such gun is in the private collection of Al Frisch, and it also has ivory-style grips with three finger grooves in the left grip. However, that gun was acquired from Stembridge, from which hundreds of guns were rented for use in as many movies, and it is stamped with the letter "S." While it is documented to have been used by Wayne in a number if films, serial no. 309795 is recorded on his personal inventory, and it may be the Colt that did most of the shooting.

The Duke's converted Bisley appears to have been reblued a number of times and shows much wear along with its share of "dings" and nicks from the hard use it saw making movies and, perhaps, riding the range for years before that. Nevertheless, it remains an American treasure as certainly as does its most famous owner.

Dr. Azar reports that he fired six original 5-in-1 blanks in Duke's Colt last July 4, but he has never fired it with live ammunition. John Wayne may have never fired live ammunition in this or the other Colts he used in the movies either, but he made up for it by all the "bad guys" he took care of to save the day on the big screen while millions of his fans bit down hard on candy bars, as they helped tame the Old West vicariously with America's, and the world's favorite cowboy actor. Thanks for the ride.

Gary Paul Johnston. The Duke's Colt. American Rifleman. October 2007.

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