By: Peter Suciu
Last month, a Colt Single Action Army revolver sold for more than $6 million at an auction in Los Angeles. The record-setting price was due to the fact that the gun was reported to have been the one to kill the American Wild West outlaw William "Billy the Kid" Bonney (born Henry McCarty). Pre-sales estimates for the Colt revolver used by Sheriff Pat Garrett to kill the gunslinger were around $2 to 3 million. Bonhams Auction House had described the firearm as being "in very good condition" with "well worn grips."
Now another Colt Single Action Army is coming up for auction in October – and while it wasn't used against any actual outlaws, it was owned by someone almost as famous as Billy the Kid.
This particular revolver was owned by screen legend John Wayne, who starred in dozens of Hollywood Westerns. According to Rock Island Auctions, both the revolver and included holster rig were used by Wayne in the classic trio of Westerns including The Cowboys, True Grit, and Rooster Cogburn. The handgun and holster had been a gift by Wayne to Gary Hess, who was an engineer for the actor's firm, DECO.
John Wayne had used three identical Colt SAA revolvers in the film – and two of them were from the production from Stembridge, a Hollywood firearms prop house. Those were reported to be genuine Colt Single Action Army revolvers, and one of them was either chambered for .44-40 Winchester Center Fire or .45 Long Colt, while the second one was chambered for .45 Long Colt.
The third one was Wayne's own personal possession – serial number 309795. It was shipped from the company on August 7, 1909. It was the only SAA revolver in his collection that he used in films. It originally featured a 5.5 inch "Artillery" barrel, and was chambered in the .45 Long Colt, but was later rebuilt to resemble an average Colt Single Action Army with a "Civilian"/"Quickdraw" Model barrel and was converted to fire .44-40 WCF cartridges.
Rock Island Auctions also noted that "Other modifications included the mellow ivory-looking grips, replacement grip straps, and an oversized trigger guard customized for John Wayne's large hands. Additionally, the two-piece grips, a Catalin plastic material meant to appear like ivory on camera, had finger grooves molded from Wayne's hand to give the Duke a perfect finger hold."
The SAA is being offered with the belt rig, which contains .44 WCF cartridges as well as a single .45-70 Springfield trapdoor cartridge that was originally carried by the Duke in tribute to the American soldiers who took part in the Indian Wars. The revolver and belt rig were worn by Wayne in numerous films as well as publicity shoots, and have been displayed together at the John Wayne Theater in Knott's Berry Farm.
Big Screen Appearance
While Wayne is reported to have used this particular Colt revolver in multiple films, it was as noted, one of three that were used on screen in the 1969 film True Grit.For his performance as the aging Deputy U.S. Marshal "Rooster" Cogburn, a man described as having "true grit," he won the Academy Award for Best Actor. Wayne went on to appear in the sequel, Rooster Cogburn, and again used the same Colt SAA.
John Wayne's Colt Single Action Army Revolver is listed as Lot 2465 as part of Rock Island Arsenal's "Sporting & Collector Firearms Auction #1038" on October 7. The firearm is rated "OC" (Original Condition) with all original parts, more than 30 percent original finish, sharp lettering numerals and design on metal and wood, with minor marks.
The pre-auction estimated price is $20,000 to $40,000. A Winchester 1892 SRC used by Wayne in both True Grit and Rooster Cogburn was among the highlights of Brian Lebel's January 23, 2021 Old West Auction. The rifle sold for $88,600 to an American buyer. The Winchester carbine featured the actor's signature across the lever loop and came with a shortened barrel that allowed Wayne to exercise his theatrical move: a one-handed rifle flip reload on horseback.
Given the continued popularity of Hollywood Westerns, and the connection to the Duke, this particular SAA could surpass the pre-auction estimate. It might not reach the record levels of guns used by actual gun fighters of the Old West at auction, but interest could be extremely high on this one.
Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He regularly writes about military small arms, and is the author of several books on military headgear including A Gallery of Military Headdress, which is available on Amazon.com.