Throughout an acting career that spanned more than 40 years, John Wayne wielded a lot of guns on the big screen. Known primarily for his “cowboy” and western roles, the Duke is commonly associated with the Winchester repeating rifles. However, it was nearly a decade into his career before he ever carried one in a movie. Likewise, Wayne could be seen with many military firearms over the course of his career and he was among the first big-screen actors to use an M16 variant in a movie and he was the first to use a MAC-10.
Wayne was an extra and played an unnamed American officer in the 1928 World War I silent film Four Sons, but he was never seen holding a firearm despite the film’s wartime setting. He continued to have bit parts, many of which were uncredited until he starred in the 1930 film The Big Trail. Largely overlooked today, the film still deemed to be “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” by the United States Library of Congress in 2006 and was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry.
It also marked the first time Wayne carried a firearm on screen; in this case an Enfield Pattern 1853, a percussion fired rifled musket that saw use in the Crimean War and later in the American Civil War. In the film, Wayne’s character—a young trapper and scout—also carried a Remington 1858 New Army. He never used either weapon again, however.
The Single Action Army
Of the firearms that John Wayne used the most in movies, nothing even comes close to the Colt 1873 Single Action Army Revolver, which appeared in some 25 films. While not the first to use the infamous revolver in a movie – that would be the unnamed “Bandit” in 1903’s The Great Train Robbery – Wayne was arguably the first household name to use the Single Action Army in a film, it was in 1931’s The Range Feud.
Over the nearly five decades following that film, the Duke carried Single Action Army Revolvers. He carried them in such films as The Trail Beyond (1934), Red River (1948), Rio Grande (1950), Hondo (1953), and The Sons of Katie Elder (1965).
He also carried the revolver as Deputy U.S. Marshal Reuben J. “Rooster” Cogburn in his Oscar-winning performance True Grit, as well as in the sequel Rooster Cogburn. It’s also fitting that his character carries a “Great Western Revolver”; it’s a specially engraved replica made especially for Wayne, in his final movie The Shootist (1976).
The Winchester Model 1892
The Winchester Model 1892 was first seen in the 1939 film Stagecoach. Winchester’s rifle—notably the large lever loop version—has become practically synonymous with Wayne. The lever-action repeating rifle, which the legendary John Browning designed to be a smaller and lighter version of the large-frame Model 1886, is almost always an anachronism, but because of Wayne, it was associated with Hollywood westerns for decades.
Wayne used the Winchester Model 1892 in a dozen films. The Saddle Ring Carbine version appeared about half of the time.
As with the Colt Single Action Army, Winchester’s rifle appeared in some of the Duke’s most remembered and beloved films. Those include Red River, The Searchers (1953), True Grit, and The Shootist.
Only in a few films did Wayne ever use the more period correct rifles. A good example is the Winchester Model 1866 “Yellow Boy,” which appears in the 1948 film Fort Apache. Meanwhile, he used a Springfield Model 1873 Cavalry Carbine in Red River. However, those are the exceptions, and while not historically accurate, Wayne just seems correct carrying the Model 1892.
Additionally, he used a Gatling Gun in his second to final Western, Rooster Cogburn (1975). Impressively, co-star Katharine Hepburn even fired it!
John Wayne With Military Guns
In addition to being known for playing U.S. Marshals and other lawmen—as well as gunfighters and cowboys—in countless westerns, Wayne’s character roster also included many war films. As noted, his first role was playing a U.S. military officer during the First World War. However, it was during the Second World War that he made the transition to portraying a modern soldier.
In 1944’s The Fighting Seabees, Wayne carried a Colt M1911A1 .45 pistol and Springfield M1903A3 rifle. Meanwhile, in 1949’s Sands of Iwo Jima, he first carried and actually fired an M1 Garand. Wayne carried the M1 Garand again, but never fired it in the 1962 World War II epic The Longest Day.
The Green Berets
By the end of the 1960s, John Wayne had the somewhat dubious distinction of appearing in The Green Berets. It was the only Vietnam War film to have the full support of the U.S. military.
The film essentially comes off as a western with the Viet Cong taking the role of the American Indians attacking a besieged frontier outpost. In the film, Wayne carries an XM16E1; it’s the Army variant of the original M16 (SP1).
What is notable about the rifle’s inclusion in the film is that these appear to be real XM16E1. It features the forward bolt assist and three-prong flash suppressor. While not the first time the AR-15/M-16 saw use in a movie, Wayne was certainly among the first “stars” to carry the gun.
Additionally, Wayne uses a Mattel M-16 Marauder toy in two different scenes in the film. The first comes after the enemy shoots down his helicopter. The second is during a special operations mission where Wayne’s character smashes the weapon of a fallen comrade. Why another soldier doesn’t carry the weapon is unclear, but Wayne smashes it against a tree in dramatic fashion!
The ‘Dirty Harry’ Situation
At the tail end of his career, and with the decline in westerns, Wayne attempted to make the transition to modern period films. He starred in two different “cop” films. Wayne also received an offer for the title role in Dirty Harry. However, he turned it down. Why? Not because of the violence – as some reports have suggested. Those reports likely confused Wayne with George C. Scott, who did reportedly turn down the role for such reasons.
It is also not true that Wayne lobbied for the role. Rather, it’s documented that Wayne passed on it because he was only offered the role after it had already been offered to Frank Sinatra, who was forced to turn down the role as he had previously broken his wrist and couldn’t handle Harry Callaghan’s signature .44 Magnum. Wayne turned it down because he took offense at being offered “Sinatra’s rejections.”
Robert Mitchum and Burt Lancaster both also subsequently passed on the role. But it was Wayne that saw the error of his ways after the film became a hit and allowed Eastwood, who also made his mark in westerns, to transition to other genres.
John Wayne With Modern Guns
As a result, Wayne went on to star in 1974’s McQ followed by Brannigan a year later. The films were a departure for Wayne and the characters are essentially interchangeable. However, it’s clear in both that he was out of his element and sadly was doing little more than trying to stay relevant when he should’ve stuck with what he did best. Even a third Rooster Cogburn film would have been welcome over either of these two.
The only thing especially memorable in the two detective films was the choice of firearms. In McQ Wayne used a Browning Hi-Power. However, he also used a MAC-10 submachine gun; this made Wayne the first “action star” to use the gun that later proved to be so popular with gang bangers and rappers. In Brannigan, Wayne apparently was also aiming to show that he could have played Harry Callahan when he carried a Colt Diamondback.
It’s perhaps best to forget about those films and focus instead on the Duke carrying that Single Action Army and Winchester Model 1892 while taking on the bad guys and riding off into the sunset at the end. That’s the John Wayne and his guns that we should always remember.
This article first appeared in Ballistic Magazine on Feb. 5, 2021.
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